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all this scarcity promotes

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“Sweet Prometheus, come home

They took away our fire

And all that scarcity promotes

Is desperate men and tyrants”

— Dessa, “The Beekeeper,” Castor, The Twin

He stamps the snow off his boots on the wrapping porch when he gets to his grandfather’s house in the center of the compound, shakes the snow off his coat and his hair as best he can before clanking his way indoors.

There’s a way to be a silent shinobi in heavy armor, but it’s not when he’s about to step into a gathering of other shinobi, since all his cousins and older brothers have been called in for this meeting.

There’s something important the old man has to say to call them all together like this, since someone had told him about it on his way in through the gate, though he’s not sure what.

He bows once to the old man after he squeezes his way through the crowd and then scoots himself off to the side to listen to the proceedings.

Somehow, none of his female cousins have shown themselves. He assumes it’s work related, then.

But it’s not.

“I regret to inform you all,” the Old Man creaks, “that Sudare’s little girl needs a home.”

What’s wrong with the one she’s got? he thinks, before he remembers that his third brother’s been dead for a few weeks now and winter’s coming on.

Normally, though, the kid’ll have gotten picked up by one of his aunties or someone by now.

From what he remembers of that niece, she had to be older than five, old enough to start helping out around the house, and with the way everything this past year has been going, nearly every house would need all the extra hands it can get, even if it means another mouth to feed.

Not that kids eat all that much.

An uneasy murmur runs through the crowd as everyone either looks at each other or down at their feet.

“I am looking for someone who would be willing to raise her.” The Old Man starts turning his gaze on all of them, his mouth pursed grimly.

Funny you say that, old man.

He’s blood kin to all of them, but then again, his grandfather’s old, no longer battle ready and probably hasn’t the energy to run after a kid.

Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren fill his halls.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spies his oldest brother looking away at his shoes.

There ducking behind a cousin, is his second brother.

He is the youngest of seven sons, and while adoption is typically a woman thing, this sort of cowardice is still stupid.


“What,” he drawls, pushing himself off of the wall. “We all mute in here?”

A dead, ringing silence follows as all eyes turn towards him.

“What,” he says again, suddenly angry that not a single man in this room has any lick of spine, “are you all looking at me for?”


“Oh damn it,” he says, suddenly filled with brimming, brimming anger and no impulse control left. “If there ain’t any other men in this room somehow, I’ll take her.”

He’s the youngest of seven sons, twenty-three and without a wife or dependents of his own.

He also has no idea how to raise a child, much less a girl child, and he’s beginning to feel as though everyone was just waiting for him to tie this noose himself.

But he’s said it already, so he just shoves his hands in his coat pockets and stomps out of the room to wherever they’re keeping Sudare’s kid.

She’s a scrawny little thing, dressed in someone’s patched cast offs, which are far too big for her, sharp around the chin and cheekbones, mostly out of a lack of food to eat than anything else he guesses.

He finds her near the kitchen, scrubbing someone’s washing while bent over a tub and washboard, with lye soap and boiled water, fingers red and raw.

“Get your things,” he mutters, still with his hands in his coat pockets. “You’re leaving with me.”

She looks at him for a long moment, flat gray eyes more sullen than appreciative, and he feels like he’s being judged by a microscopic child who can’t be taller than his thigh.

But that is stupid, and he scowls at it until she gets up and moves to a different room altogether filled with sleeping mats and spread out bedrolls, pulling out two other sets of clothing, some small trinket or other and a bedroll before tying it all up with the bedroll and turning back to him.

Well, that’s set then. “How old are you, kid?”

One of his aunts had shown him where she was, with a few curious glances and the mention that Sudare had named her ‘Touka’.

Peach flower, his Aunt had said.

Surprisingly pretty name for a sullen little thing, but his is a surprisingly religious name for an ungodly man, so…

An odd set they’ll be.

She holds up seven fingers. With how small her hands are and the fact that she’s still holding her pack, it’s a tall ask, but she manages.

“Alright then. You’re seven.” It’s a bit hard holding conversation with someone who doesn’t answer back, but he’s managing.

They’ll manage.

He picks her up, holding her vaguely against his hip like he’s seen some of the other people do when they’re carrying children.

“Ain’t heavier than a wet cat,” he mutters. “Just what has everyone been feeding you anyway?”

What with the way that other people had avoided adopting her even though she’d clearly been working and not throwing some sort of tantrum, he’d expected some ill fated omen of death or something.

But no, just a kid.

A couple cousins glance at him too hard as he stomps down the outside walk with Touka and her things.

“What’re you looking at?” He snarls at them, somehow, more angry than he’d been when he’d been in the room with all those family members looking at their shoes.

They scramble off.

Good riddance.

He clanks and creaks his way through the compound and towards the two roomed shack he’d moved out to when he had the chance.

It isn’t much, but it’ll do. It’ll have to, since in the six or so years since he started living there, he still hasn’t gotten around to patching up the loose tiles in one corner of the roof or fixing the table like he’d planned.

Packed dirt floor. Front room with a table, two chairs and a stove.

Back room for sleeping in.

He’s even got a bed.

He doesn’t live here much, given that he’s often on the road, but it’s a house. It’s got a roof.

He sets her down, shooing her off to the back room to lay out her bedroll before he shoves wood under the stove, strikes a match and measures out enough rice and water to start dinner.

Should’ve stayed for dinner up at the big house. Might’ve made the rice last longer.

He stirs, water turning cloudy. Vegetables? There probably isn’t anything else edible in his house except the jar of fermented napa cabbage he’d traded Masugumi a day or two’s labor in her garden for back in the fall right after the first hard frost.

Where had he put the jar of napa cabbage?

He does not locate it on the table and resumes his search through the dusty corners of the small room and the only cupboard in the house.

If someone’s made off with it while he was gone he would skin them alive—

No, he’d left it in the other room, stuffed under the corner of his raised bed as a precaution.

He stomps over there to fetch it.

The child — Touka — jolts when he appears in the doorway, having been crouched in a corner looking at his sword rack with avid interest, but all she does is watch silently as he bends over and searches for the jar of fermented cabbage.

He isn’t much of a talker, but it seems like she’s even less of one.

From the other room comes the smell of something burning.

“Fucking shit,” he mutters before attempting to rescue the rice.

Dinner is the fermented cabbage and the half burnt rice porridge he’d been attempting to rescue with limited success.

She hauls herself onto the chair, tiny wrists peeking out from beyond the almost comically wide sleeves which either she or someone had rolled up.

“I’m Butsuma.” He tries not to mutter, but it still comes out somewhat half hearted anyway. “I’m your seventh uncle. Your father, Sudare, was my third brother.”

A cautious nod.

“And my sixth auntie tells me you’re Touka.”

Another firmer nod this time.

It’s like trying to hold conversation with a mud wall. At least he’s sure she’s getting it by the nods and the contemplative look in her gray eyes.

“Do you talk?” he asks, trying not to watch her too intensely. No one likes to be stared at.

A shake of the head this time.

Alright then. Doesn’t talk. Not that big of a deal.

Can you talk?” That’s a different question altogether.

She hesitates for a moment, hands clutching her bowl of sad rice porridge, before hesitantly, she nods.

It didn’t look like she was too sure of herself on that one though.

Ah, dammit. He thinks. Now I know why no one wanted to adopt you.

“Well,” he says, “Ain’t no skin off my nose if you talk or not. Eat your dinner.”

She glances at her bowl dubiously and picks at the fermented cabbage for a bit before lifting the whole thing and seemingly tipping it into her mouth wholesale.

Good enough.

He prods at the rice for a bit before eating it.

Tastes about as good as he’d expect, which is not at all.

After dinner, he shoos her off to bed.

The winter daylight had fled them a while ago, and he only has so much oil for the lamp.

It’s sometimes easier to sell his allotment of oil from the clan to buy mission equipment or meat or food from someplace in town, since he doesn’t live much at home and he doesn’t need the light for much of anything.

…He’s going to have to rethink that priority again now that there’s someone living in the house nearly full time, isn’t he.

She wraps herself up in her bedroll which had been laid out on the floor, and he stares at the scene from the doorway for a long moment, trying to comprehend the situation before striding over to his bed and pulling off another one of the blankets to give to her. “Take this one too.”

It’d been a nice cotton one stuffed with goose down he’d bought off a travelling trader last year when the weather started turning.

She stares at it for a little bit, but doesn’t seem to respond.

He drops it on her with a snort and blows out the light to get ready for bed.

In the dark and with his armor stripped off, the cold seems more present. He pulls his coat back on and rolls himself into bed with the other blanket.

He lies awake in the dark, listening to the sound of his own breathing and her sniffles getting fainter. She’d started crying about half an hour after he’d blown out the lamp and rolled into bed, probably figuring that he would be asleep already.

But he isn’t.

Despite everything, and despite spending the last week or so out of the compound and on the road, he also misses Sudare-nii with a sharp and biting ache.

Back when they were kids, Sudare-nii had been the most likely to give him the time of day even though he’d been the baby kid brother with not much to offer.

They’d grown apart in age and differing specializations — Sudare-nii had ended up an assassin and met his end there at less than thirty-five years old, and he’d gone on his merry way as a bodyguard and frontline combatant — but somehow, hearing about how no one else had bothered with Sudare’s kid, however weird she might be, had clipped some corner of his heart he didn’t realize could still bleed.

She sniffs in her bedroll, turned away from him, shoulders shuddering.

Odd kid.

Didn’t want him to know that she’s sad.

He falls asleep soon after, thinking about the details of the next mission he’d been contracted for, how long he’d be gone, whether or not he can afford to bring a kid along on it, the small amount of money he had socked away in a sealing scroll, whatever distant memory he has of his mother, rather than anything to do with the events of the day—

The working, brimming fury that no one else had bothered, no one else had cared—

When he wakes the next morning, there’s a small scrawny lump tucked against the small of his back, bedroll and blankets migrated in the night.

He doesn’t take it personally.

He unclips the hunting knife from his belt when he has to leave the next morning and passes it over the kitchen table.

“Anyone try to grab you, and you stab him in the gut, you hear?”

She tugs at his sleeve and makes the gesture for question.

“Do you know how to stab a bastard?” It’s not that hard, you just grab the handle and jab, preferably the gut because she’d probably be tall enough to reach, but she nods and makes the gesture for question again.

“Do you want to know who would try to come grab you?”

Headshake, question, point at him.

He points at himself.

She nods.

“Me.” He thinks about it. “You want to know where I’m going?”

Very enthusiastic nodding.

He’d tucked his money sealed away in a sheet of paper under his armor. “Shopping, in town.” He pulls on his other boot.

She continues pulling at his sleeve. Gesture at herself, gesture at him.

“You want to come?”

More nodding.

He’d meant if she wanted to come with, not permission to come with but—

Fuck it, he’s not being outsmarted by a seven year old who can’t even talk. She can come.

The trip into town isn’t difficult, though it’s slower since she clearly only goes at a child’s pace, and he hasn’t gone soft enough to just pick her up and cart her there and back.

The marketplace in winter is an empty-ish place, the dominion of daikon and other root vegetables. Steamed buns and meat belong to teahouses and restaurants for the rich in bigger cities than this, where no one has much to sell.

It’s past slaughtering season too, so no chance of picking up any meat.

Not that he really trusts any meat he’s cooked unless he’s charred it to well done.

He picks out daikon and other root vegetables, haggles over more heads of cabbage. Maybe someone will sell him a chicken.

Or a bag of flour because he can at least turn flour into steamed buns reliably, even if he can’t do much else with it.

Or he could go hunting.

At least Sudare’s kid doesn’t look like she’s too upset by the purchases, peering at them from around him with more curiosity than distaste.

A tug.

He’s going to have to either get used to the tugging in an attempt to get his attention, or he’s going to have to come up with some other way.

He’s too lazy to come up with another way at the moment, so tugging it is. “What?” he asks, while shoving his purchases into the storage seal.


Oh, yes, right. He looks.

She is pointing at another stall across the way… ah. The spices.

He shakes his head. “No money.” It’s not like they really need spices, though they’re nice to have.

Pickled peppers would be nice to have right now too, since the spiciness generally hides whatever unfortunate accident his cookery has gone through this time, but also no money for that either.

Rice at least is a monthly allotment from the clan based on the number of people in his household rather than something he needs to go out and buy, or whatever funds he has right now won’t cover that either.

She makes a walking sign.

He’d forgotten that Sudare was a thief too.

He makes a face at her, careful not to say anything since they’re still right next to the vendor before he turns and tugs her along behind him by the hand. She digs in her heels, but that doesn’t really matter in the greater consideration of things.

Halfway out of town he finally does explain it.

“No taking things from people.”

She frowns.

Buddha save him from his third brother’s thief child.

“We still gotta live here. That’s the closest town, you understand?” He picks her up by the back of her collar and shakes her. “Don’t even think about it.”

She pouts, arms crossed, but he continues tugging her back towards the house, and it’s not like she’s going to run off so maybe he’s winning.

He picks up something he typically wouldn’t for the next mission.

Assassination’s fast (or at least it’s supposed to be) and pays well (or it does typically) though it also comes with, well, a higher risk of getting dead.

And he’s not typically an assassin.

It’s not stupid if he gets money out of it.

He ignores the small voice that Sudare had used that reasoning too, and look where that got him.

Dead before age thirty-five is not where he is aiming to end up, but he still needs to fix the house and deal with the no food except sad vegetables and rice problem, and possibly money for seeds so that they can have a garden in the spring.

Every able bodied clan member put in a certain number of hours in the rice paddies every year from planting to harvest time, and it all gets distributed month by month afterwards from the central granary, but vegetables and seasonings and, more importantly, meat are for people who have large enough families to take care of that sort of thing.

He, being a lone bachelor previously, could acquire meat from either hunting or fishing or buying it off of a butcher in a larger town or in a restaurant dish when he is passing through since he didn’t have anyone to help upkeep a pig or any chickens.

He could go inquire with Masugumi about it, he supposes, what with spring coming on in a month or so and all.

And also no longer being a singular unit meant that there’s at least someone to watch out for a chicken or two while he’s out.

In any case, he slouches his way into a teahouse to meet with the client’s representative.

Better figure out where he’s going to have to get into and who he’s going to have to kill.

The cut on his arm hurts like a real bitch.

Granted, he’s lucky that he made it out with only a cut on his arm, and several bruises darkening on his shoulder and around his neck, since the person who did this to him ended up dead like the target he was hired to drop, but he’s still allowed to bitch about it.

An Uchiha had found its way into his relatively simple mission and fucked up his exit.

Something he’s going to have to report to the Old Man after this. Uchiha getting more militant and cutting into our territory.

Looks like there’s a bitch of a situation ahead when spring comes.

He doesn’t look forward to it, and he looks forward to the idea of explaining this to the kid even less.

This might take himself out of commission for a bit, but it’s better than forking over either the money or the labor needed to go take himself to a medic for bruises and a cut.

He winces, staring at himself in the mirror after he drops the henge.


It all sucks.

The kid gets all cut up about his injuries when he gets home and drops into bed after shedding his armor.

She’s not chatty — people who don’t talk rarely are, but he’s got a cousin or two somewhere in the family tree who manage to be chatty even without words, so he wouldn’t say it’s entirely out of the question — but she’s not silent either.

Sometimes she engages in tuneless, horrid humming completely unrecognizable as any song known to man.

Or at least to him.

Not that he knows a lot of songs.

Her mouth wobbles at the sight of him, before setting into a frown, hands gesturing at her own neck and then for a question.

“Mission.” He doesn’t know what he expected because despite the month or so they’ve spent living in the same house — and now he’s got money to work out what to do with fixing the house — he doesn’t really think she likes him all that much.

The worry is new though.

She frowns, focus shifting to his bandaged arm next.

“Mission,” he grunts and attempts to roll over, but that would be on his current bad arm.

Which means he’s stuck, being lectured by a child barely taller than his hip.

“What is this?” he asks no one in particular. “An intervention?”

A firm nod.


“Can’t I just lie here in peace?”

A very confident headshake.

Double fuck.

He shuts his eyes. “I can’t see you.” He announces, mostly to the child. “Therefore I have no idea what you’re saying.”

A huff. She starts tugging at him far more insistently than before, huffing all the while as though she’s engaged in something of great effort.

He turns towards her, if only because that is the pathway of least resistance.

She hmphs at him as if that was what she wanted him to do all along and trots away into the kitchen.

Belatedly, he cracks an eye open. “How the fuck do you know what an intervention is?”

Are seven year olds supposed to know what that word means? He has no idea.

She’s no longer in the room.

“Where are you going?”

No response.

He crawls back out of bed. “Don’t tell me you started the stove fire; you’ll burn the whole house down.”

The look she casts him from where she’s blowing on the kindling is unimpressed.

She makes a shooing motion at him like she expects him to go back to bed.

He stumbles towards the kitchen table instead. “Look, you got me up anyway.”

She considers this and shrugs.

She still seems to know more about the state of the kitchen than he does, moving easily through the space despite being no more than four feet tall. She hauls one of the cabbages to the basin that doubled as the sink, scrubbing at it and picking off the bad leaf bits, before plunking it down on the table and hacking at it with the hunting knife he’d given her some time ago.

He watches her do it, more or less resigned to the fate of whatever cooking she’s about to come up with this time.

It can’t be worse than his, surely.

Water is boiled, the cabbage is boiled, salt is produced from somewhere after she climbs onto a chair and riffles through his cabinets — he hopes it’s not stolen from someplace because salt is expensive and he doesn’t remember buying any, but don’t ask questions if you don’t want answers — and cabbage is salted and rice is boiled and the whole thing is edible.

Even if he still wishes they had pork. Or chicken.

Or eggs.

This family might be Buddhist, but he has no desire to be a monk or emulate one.

She hmms while setting dinner out, eyes on his face though she’s stopped frowning at least.

The food is edible. It’s more than edible — it’s halfway decent.

He mutters a curse under his breath. “I guess you’re cooking then, kid.” He’d been soundly schooled after all.

She looks up at him, shocked, but all he does is laugh. “What, you really want to eat my cooking all the time?”

She makes a face.

He continues laughing.

Ainoko blows into the compound one clear winter morning when it’s neither snowing nor threatening to snow. The sun’s a weak thing, no help in heating at all.

He’s attempting to figure out what to do with one wall of the house to seal it off further from the chill, and by his own regard he’s doing fairly well on that front when she arrives.

“Butsu-chan!” Ainoko waves at him, her voice carrying over the general sounds of life coming from the rest of the compound.

He glances down at his second oldest sister, who, at age thirty or so, shows no sign of wanting to settle down, start a family, or stop running from her debtors.

He knows for a fact that the Old Man has a headache and a half with the hounding of half a dozen merchants and bank accountants trying to find her, but they’re shinobi, and trying to pin Ainoko down is like trying to hold smoke.

Then again, he’s just glad he doesn’t have to deal with it.

“I’m busy!” He calls back, balanced precariously on a ladder in an attempt to reach the upper wall.

“Butsu-chan! I brought you food!”

He is not supposed to be swayed by this, but he’s spent a week or so eating various iterations of winter melon soup and rice, and he’s gotten tired of being a vegetarian.

Anything Ainoko’s brought has got to be wildly unhealthy just because she’s trying to bribe him.

He swings himself off the ladder. “What do you want?”

Everything near Ainoko that catches her fancy and isn’t hammered down is likely going to take a trip. But also generally, even if she’s friendly and outgoing, his big sister rarely does things for free.

She’s brought him something; that means she wants something.

“So mean of you.” She pouts and ruffles his hair. “I’m here to visit, not here to ask you for things.” She nudges him with her shoulder. “Heard you adopted Sudare-nii’s kid?”

He shrugs and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Not like it took much. Should’ve seen how Iromoya and Ryoutei couldn’t meet anyone’s eye.”

“Oh Butsu…You know they’ve got families. Another mouth to feed ain’t easy in these times.” Ainoko strides through his front door and looks round the kitchen. “You have no idea how to raise a kid.”

While he had thought of this before, he does not appreciate Ainoko attempting to tell him this.

“What was I supposed to do?” he snaps, shoving his borrowed hammer on the table. “Leave it alone? Much good that does.”

Was he supposed to stand around with his hands in his pockets like one of those cowards? He’s not a coward or one to back down in a fight. Let his older brothers be cowards, unable to provide for another mouth to feed. Let them shuffle their feet and look down, unable to offer a hand or take responsibility.

Ainoko sighs. “C’mon, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”

He knows she didn’t, but it sticks with him all through dinner anyway, food like sawdust in his mouth.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” he says this, mostly to ward off the bad feeling he has about the Old Man’s frown while looking around his house, but then again, the hysterical screaming girl in his grip, the bowl on the table, and the pair of shears in his hands really don’t do what he was thinking justice.

“Butsuma-kun,” his grandfather says, before sighing loudly in frustration. “What do you think you’re doing that’s causing all this dreadful noise?”

“I,” he sniffs and draws himself up to his full height while still holding onto Touka’s shoulder as she squirms and flails, “am trying to address the problem that Third Auntie brought up to me, since she claims that my ward is unkempt and grubby.”

“With a sharp object and clear disapproval?”

He feels himself withering under the disapproving confusion.

He doesn’t like it.

“Well, tell that to Third Auntie and her opinions then,” he grouses, throwing the shears onto the table with a sigh. “I wasn’t going to bother, but she kept getting my case on childcare and not doing my best for the child and what a failure I was.”

Touka squirms free, but she might as well at this point. It’s not like he can do anything about it, and though she’s a fast little thing when she wants to be, if need be, he can catch her again when the Old Man leaves.

She’s just seven, not like it’s hard to catch her again.

The Old Man stares at him for another, very, very long time. “Touka-chan?”

Touka shakes her head at him, locks flopping and falling in her face. He doesn’t see much of an issue with it, but the Old Man frowns at her.

“You do have to get a haircut.”

She puffs up impressively, frowning, her arms crossed over her chest. “HMPH.”

“It doesn’t have to be the haircut Butsuma-kun wants to give you.” Ah, so the Old Man is undercutting his parental skills now.

Touka peers at his grandfather cautiously.

He snorts.

“How about a nice ribbon?” Touka’s still watching the Old Man cautiously, as if considering it. “It’ll look cute?”

Ah, that completely undercuts it. She shakes her head no emphatically, frowning even harder than before.

She doesn’t want to be cute.

He tries not to laugh, but fails.

He plans to leave her his hunting knife when he has to leave again, but watching her with the kitchen knife cutting up cabbage makes him feel as though he ought to ask.

“Do you know how to fight?”

He doesn’t know if Sudare ever taught her, given that Sudare wasn’t the greatest fighter, but then, being an assassin was more about sneaking, hitting hard and then running away.

Catch an assassin when they’re not in control of the situation, and, well.

Sudare’s no longer with them.

She’d not arrived with any of his third brother’s weapons and didn’t react to him chasing her around the house like someone who knew any taijutsu at all.

She looks at him, face set in a scowl, though that seems like her default state, and shakes her head once, briefly.

He flaps his hand at her. “Well, get over here then. I’ll teach you how to use this knife.”

His hunting knife is a single bladed affair, about four inches long and drop pointed. Not fancy, but then, hunting knives didn’t need to be. It’s not exactly meant to be used for fighting, given that it’s better off skinning game, but he doubts anyone who’s after a child would know or care.

She scrambles over, an interested light in her eyes.

He pulls it from the sheath. “This is a knife meant for skinning game.” He glances round the kitchen. “But you’ll probably have more success stabbing a man with it than a meat cleaver.”

She’s small; the meat cleaver probably won’t do as much damage as it’s supposed to.

She nods.

“Anyway, I’ll see what I can do about getting you actual weapons.” He’ll need all of his own weapons for this next trip out.

New weaponry will cost him a pretty ryo, but it’s not like he can do much about that.

“Now,” he continues, “you’re small, so you should probably run away screaming first if there’s someone trying to grab you, but in case you can’t run away, you can always scream and stab the person in the gut; that’ll shut them up.”

She nods, slightly more cautious now.

He ruffles her hair, newly cut with bangs that no longer got in her face. “Failing that, this is a skinning knife so it’s good at cutting. Go for behind the knees; that’ll also probably shut them up.”

She nods again.

“But really,” he gets up to go, “the easiest thing to do is run away screaming.”

He’s sitting in a restaurant sipping a warmed cup of tea while waiting for his meat bao and fish ball soup after a long and irritating mission guarding a particularly talkative merchant when someone else pushes their way in through the winter snow.

He considers throwing his teacup at the Uchiha who appears to be coming his way through the crowd of people outside also trying to avoid the winter snowfall, but that would be a waste of tea and of the cup.

It might also start a brawl and get him thrown out of the restaurant before he gets the food he’s paid for.

He resolves to put on a darker glower, though this doesn’t stop Uchiha Tajima from dropping into the seat across from him with a huff, a cold gust of air, and an answering glower.

“Cat stole your ears, Butsu-chan?”

As far as he’s aware, the Uchiha could definitely stand to get lost. And stay lost. Preferably far far away from him so they aren’t on the same page about being lost.

“Fuck off,” he mutters under his breath because he sees the waiter coming back with his bao. “This is my table, I paid for it, and you can wait in line like all the other people out there who want to come in.”

It stinks of sweat and too many human bodies in the restaurant and smells of horse manure and musty hay outside in the half hearted attempt at a barn for the traveler’s animals, but it’s the last stop out of town and the first stop in on the west side, and makes a mean soup and good bao, so of course with the ongoing storm it’s packed full.

Which means he’s paying good money to not split a table with an asinine civilian.

Which he frightened off by glaring really hard.

Unfortunately, no Uchiha worth their spit will be scared off by glaring very hard.

“Your pork bao, shinobi-san.” The waiter’s smile falters because he looks displeased, but he huffily pulls the plate of eight closer to him and starts figuring out which ones look like they’d stand up to being sealed the best — he’s got a kid at home, and while he’s worked it out for Azumaya to at least come in to check on the kid everyday, wouldn’t be fair if he’s out eating restaurant food and the kid’s got nothing but pickled greens, and the fish ball soup won’t travel in anything except his stomach, so.

He shoves about four of them into the sleeve pocket seal as the Uchiha watches, fascinated.

He thinks about it some more and shoves another two into the other sleeve pocket seal.

“Didn’t take you to be a pack rat, Butsu-chan.” The Uchiha’s voice has a bit of a singsong to it. “Saving your bao for the road when you’re hungry?”

“It’s good,” he mutters at the waiter while casting a withering glare at Tajima. “Tell the kitchen to get me my soup, and I’ll eat it and be on my way.”

The waiter nods, and slowly turns to the Uchiha. “Your order, Shinobi-san? So I can get it to the kitchen along with your friend’s?”

Both of them bristle at that idea, but Tajima spits out some order and coins exchange hands so that the man can be on his way back to the kitchen.

He ignores it, because it sounds disgusting and unappetizing.

All he wants is his soup.

Meanwhile, he shoves a bao into his mouth.

“Ah, that’s normal of you.” Tajima taps his fingers on the table, and Butsuma secretly wonders if it would be too obvious if he reached for his sword and chopped the whole hand off.

Then again, Uchiha hand in his fish ball soup? Disgusting.

“What’s normal?” He grouses between two bites of bao.

“Being an ill mannered pig.”

“You wanna say that again?” he asks, quietly, because he still can’t get kicked out of the restaurant before finishing his soup and his bao. “Because that sounds like fighting words from you, twig.”

As far as he’s aware, the Uchiha has more to lose here, having received no food, so if they start a brawl the Uchiha’s losing, even if he walks away with a broken rib.

“Best you can do?” the Uchiha asks airily, as someone brings him several meat skewers on a plate. “No wonder you have no game with the ladies, only a fool would look well upon you.”

He growls. “Is it your business to make business about who other people fuck, Uchiha? Or do you just like looking at it with those whirly eyes of yours because you can’t score anyone yourself?”

Even though he’d already decided that the Uchiha’s food must be disgusting — by virtue of it being something an Uchiha would like — he still ends up glowering at the food regardless.

His stomach growls.

He considers if a small child really needs six bao.

He also considers ordering more bao, but that would put him on the back foot in the battle to get out the door faster.

“How crass,” Tajima drawls as he pulls some of the meat off the skewer. “You’re so unbearably rude. I can’t believe I’m still talking to you.”

“Don’t get uppity with me. You’re no better than the rest of us slumming it out here.” The Uchiha are local landowners that live on the other side of the river, well away from the nearest town.

But because the two are clans with shinobi operating in closer quarters with each other than other clans typically do, and do not have a truce or an alliance pact, they come into conflict more regularly.

Technically, there is no official ongoing conflict and there is no reason for people to hire Senju and Uchiha in opposition to each other to stir up more conflict, but that is technicality.

In reality, well, Sudare’s dead, he murdered an Uchiha a couple months back, and there’s always some talk of vengeance for such and such and so and so around the communal buildings, even if they keep it out of earshot of the Old Man, and it’s mostly bitter mutterings.

“Look, Butsu-chan, having a crowd of flower girls chase you from the capital’s flower district isn’t exactly a sign of having game.” Tajima talks and chews at the same time, proving himself to be boorish and bad mannered.

“I’d like to see you do one better then.” He hasn’t ever met any brothel girls in the capital and doesn’t have the money to pay them for even half a night, but he doubts that Tajima knows or cares.

“I,” the Uchiha says with a great flourish of his meat skewer, “am married, and welcomed the birth of my very first son just this past month.”

“Was she blind?” He surprises even himself with his drollness. “Or were you the only man left alive?”

A vein bulges in the Uchiha’s temple.

He takes that as his cue to skip out before the rest of the Uchiha’s food gets here.

“These are for you.” He pulls the bao from his sleeve pouch seals and shoves them onto a plate before shoving the whole plate over to Touka.

In the end, he’d felt too guilty to even think about eating any of the six he’d stuffed in there again.

So there they were, six sort of cooled off meat bao.

She looks at him for a long moment, and tries to pick one off the top with her grubby little hands.

He squawks in protest and pulls her to the sink to wash them before pulling her back to the table. “Don’t eat with dirty hands, you hear me?” He shakes her slightly. “I ain’t paying to take you to a medic if you get cholera or dysentery or some other funky illness because you don’t know how to wash your own hands.”

She makes an aggrieved sound, but this time, he lets her pick up a bao.

She holds the rest of the plate up at him.

“I ate.” He did eat, but he still halfway regrets only buying eight instead of sixteen or more, even though that would’ve really eaten into their budget for the rest of the month.

It’s not like he can take back to back missions anymore, what with having to be home at least half the month to make sure that Azumaya doesn’t report him to the Old Man for child abandonment.

Isn’t like he’s going to abandon Sudare’s kid anyway.

Wouldn’t dare dream of it or his third brother’s going to be haunting his dreams with those big soulful eyes of his.

Touka shoves the plate up as close to his face as she can reach, scowling mulishly at him with her cheeks stuffed full of bao.

Why is he arguing with her again?

He wants to eat more bao. He desperately craves bao. He’d dreamed of bao doing a dance in front of him last night while rolled up in an old bedroll on the cold hard ground while the chatterbox of a merchant slept in an inn and nearly froze his fingers off.

He snatches one off the plate and takes a bite. “You happy now?”

Surprisingly, she nods at him, seemingly very grim.

They’re on the same page in that regard then.

Food is serious, not to be messed with business.

“Good.” He picks up another after inhaling the first. “You get three. I get the other three.”

She frowns at that, but something about the set of her mouth seems to be amused as if she’s having a private laugh at him.

He squishes her cheeks together. “Brat,” he says, but he’s pretty sure both of them know that there’s no heat to it.

No heat at all.

How odd it is that it’s been less than two months and yet this strange silent child has him fond.

And how odd it is that he still feels a weird, hollow ache in his chest at the thought that Sudare is gone.

He’d liked Sudare a sight more than any of his other brothers, and the loss mocks him from its place at the grave and the grayness.

He leaves it alone. Mockery doesn’t mean much from the voiceless dead.

He runs into Uchiha Tajima at the blacksmith’s, picking up the sword he had commissioned for Touka.

It’s child sized, no longer than her forearm, which raises a few eyebrows, and though he shoves it sheathed into his sleeve seal as quickly as possible — the Uchiha sees.

Damn the man.

“Butsu-chan, didn’t know you had a son?” The Uchiha throws an arm around him, their armor clanking.

He hates this man.

“Don’t got one.” He doesn’t have a son. He’s not even exactly sure where the Uchiha got the idea from, and he isn’t keen to find out. Who knows what Uchiha think. It’s all nonsensical, including the woman who agreed to marry this irritating twig of a man and stuck around for at least long enough to have a kid with him.

“Surely you don’t need a sword that small?”

There’s some sort of innuendo here, but his scowl doesn’t change too much, slightly deeper than it was before. “No, it’s clearly you who needs a sword that small.”

The Uchiha has the gall to laugh. “So prickly, pig.”

He throws off the Uchiha’s arm and flicks it away with the back of his hand, his knuckles slamming against an armguard. “Go fuck yourself.”

His hand swells as he walks home, hands crammed into his pockets.

In any case, the whole day is ruined, but at least Touka brightens intensely at the sight of a weapon.

Which doesn’t negate his feelings about having to run into the Uchiha again, but does brighten some small part of him that really does think that the cost of the sword was worth it.

The thing about Touka is that she’s small and therefore not exactly used to the style of combat that he prefers.

Which isn’t exactly sophisticated given that Ainoko once told him all he did was whale on people.

He rarely blocked or dodged and given that he preferred blunt force trauma, the Old Man once tried to give him a hammer instead of a sword.

He’d taken that for the insult that it was.

As it is, Touka is very small and probably couldn’t blunt force trauma a chicken much less want to.

Which means he’s going to have to come up with some other sort of fighting style to teach her.

It might involve strategy, which would involve having a brain.

They’d have to work on it.

Sudare had been an assassin, which means he made the landscape work to his favor, harmless until the killing blow. And while he didn’t want Touka to become an assassin…

(It pays to have more combat skills than the single blow.)

The thing about people is that if they have their guard down sufficiently, one strike well placed is almost always lethal.

He’s just never been very good at fitting him down into spaces that could be considered harmless.

And he’d been born angry and with fists, which did not contribute to becoming more harmless looking.

“Well,” he says, standing there, arms crossed while thinking about it. “Do you have any good ideas about what you want to do with this weapon?”

A jabbing motion.

He shakes his head. “You’ve got to have more than that.”

He’s survived this long primarily because he’s gotten very good at punching people, and also very good at running away.

She tilts her head, looking at him in a way that means he’s lost her again.

“Stabbing people is good,” he mutters. “But you’ve got to understand that that’s only good when you don’t stab people for a living.”

Who knows if she’d want to be a shinobi? She’d be safer not doing that line of work, and there’s probably plenty she could learn without ever having to pick up a weapon.

But he cares about the ways of the blade even if he doesn’t practice it in any way except bastardy.

And he would like it if she also knew about it.

“Do you even want to learn how to fight?” If she didn’t, he’s pretty sure he could attempt to have Masugumi teach her something. Probably for some sort of fee or other. She might also want his help moving the pigs.

Masu was good at that sort of thing.



Both things. More things than that.

Touka nods firmly, bouncing up and down, more excited than he’s seen her ever before.

Ah well, maybe the thrill will wear off after she’s eaten dirt a few times.

“Okay you do want to learn how to fight.” He thinks about it more. “But you’re too small to just whack people.”

Chakra and jutsu would be the great equalizer here.

People with more chakra tended to focus on ninjutsu.

People with less…


He’ll find her a teacher for that sometime when he figures out who would be best to ask since he doesn’t know any.

Someone in the clan of a thousand skills would know genjutsu, even though mastery of that, in theory, belongs to the Uchiha across the river.

Someone would know genjutsu and wouldn’t make the price of teaching it to her cost an arm and a leg off of him.

But that is a problem for a later date.

For now though, he can teach her to hit people.

And dispel genjutsu.

Uchiha are close and nasty like that.

He goes to see Masugumi after he sends Touka off to do whatever it is that small girls do when they’re not training to defend themselves.

She’s no shinobi, which means he makes sure to clatter when climbing onto her porch. It’s irritating, but she’s told him before that she’s surprised when she can’t hear him coming, so.

He knocks on the front door, shifting slightly. “Masu? Are you in there?”

They’ve known each other for a long time, some twenty years if not more, having been born in the same month all those years ago, and their mothers had been friends before the perilous falling out regarding some crockery and festival planning which means they had fallen out of contact until she’d been apprenticed to one of the aunties up at the Big House to learn woodworking at about age nine, and he’d been living up in the Big House by then, so they’d ended up seeing each other again quite regularly.

And it’s not as if anyone else up there was worth talking to.

“I’m in the kitchen, Butsu!”

He’d told her not to call him that, but unfortunately, old habits must die hard. Either that, or it amuses her that he’s annoyed by it.

“Come in!”

Has her hands busy then, or she’d answer the door.

He finds her in the kitchen, busy, though not cooking. Instead, she is rooting what looks like peach tree cuttings with her sleeves rolled up, mud splashes up to her elbows, tiny flickers of chakra running down their lengths, as she presses them into the batch tray with quick flicks of her wrist.

At some point, she’d absently stuck a peach twig in her hair to twist it up into a loose bun as well.

It is attempting to break bud and produce blossoms. In her hair.

For as long as he lives, he’s never going to be able to get used to seeing that happen.

“And how have you and Touka-chan been?” She turns to look up at him, eyes wide like the river.

He shuffles his feet, his hands shoved into his pockets. “Fine, probably.” He’s still trying to figure out where his money is going that he can’t ever quite seem to find enough.

It’s not like he doesn’t earn enough to feed two people, it’s just that it never quite seems to fit.

“She’s not with you?” Masu looks around, as if trying to see if Touka will just appear, from behind him.

But he’s pretty sure that she’s gone to play in one of the fish ponds and hasn’t followed him up to Masugumi’s.

Not entirely of his own conscious thought, he’d thought to not introduce them yet.

For whatever reason, people tended to end up wordless near Masu, and he’s not sure how he feels about the whole thing. Even though Touka doesn’t talk so she’s already wordless by default.

“No, she’s gone off to play in the closest fish pond.”

She might end up coming back covered in slime, muddy, and dripping, but she has too much sense to drown, so it’s probably fine, unless someone complains about her disturbing the fish. He could probably glare that away though.

“Well, it’s nice to know that someone’s caring for you.” Masu smiles, briefly brushing her lips against his cheek. “You haven’t had to come see me for weeks now even though you’ve been in the district.”

“That obvious?” He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets. He should be angrier about this, because Masu has always been everything that he is not, the most ideal of his generation to have grown up in the Old Man’s house, but she carries herself so effortlessly, without a hint of judgement towards others that it would be rather hard.

He’s infuriated that she makes anger hard.

“I haven’t had to give you anything since the napa cabbage.” She shrugs, turning easily back to the peach tree cuttings. “Won’t you sit? I’ve missed you.”

He flushes.

That’s exactly like Masu too, her heart worn on her sleeve for the whole world to see and hear.

He sits.

She talks absently about the spring planting and the orchards and the garden, flowers slowly unfurling in her hair. At some point, she puts the kettle on for tea.

The afternoon slips by him.

He gets back from a mission with the district in some sort of state.

At least, he passes the third relative staring at him with unfettered apprehension, and figures something’s up.

“Butsuma-kun?” One of his uncles, on the younger side, probably just a decade older than his oldest brother.

He eyes the man warily. “What.”

It’s not a question.

As far as he’s aware, he hasn’t done anything, but if someone else had done something, that’s hardly his problem.

“I know you’ve taken in Sudare-kun’s girl recently…” if by recently, one means the past six months or so because it’s starting to come on to summer now, and Touka’s turned eight already. And he’s turned twenty-four. “There’s been an incident.”

There’s been an incident.

His hand finds his sword hilt. “Someone hurt her?”

Whoever they are, when he finds the nasty little bugger, he’s going to let his fists do the talking.

“No.” His uncle shifts, uneasily.

“Well what’s the matter then?” If it’s about Touka, it’ll explain why everyone’s been staring at him recently.

If it’s not about Touka, then he has no idea what they’re on about. He hasn’t done anything, so make it someone else’s problem.

“Well,” there’s a pregnant pause. He tries to swat the silence away with a well placed rude gesture and it seems to have worked. “She’s gone and beat up Nokidoi-kun. They had to pull the two apart, but we couldn’t get a word out of her as to why, and she had to be restrained—”

“You did what?” Everyone knew that Iromoya’s punk kid was disgraceful anyway.

He stomps off.

“Butsuma-kun, what are you doing?

“Fixing this,” he shouts back without turning around, making a straight path towards his eldest brother’s house as relatives scattered out of his way. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

Stomping is supposedly bad for the joints, especially when wearing full armor, but as he makes his way down the street, he finds that the catharsis of stomping now outweighed the potential joint problems later.

“Iromoya!” He roars, throwing open the door of his eldest brother’s house and watches as small children, dogs and a stray cat scatter away from him like feathers in the wind. “What have you done to my Touka.” He modulates his volume only slightly upon actually seeing his older brother, some twenty years older than himself this coming autumn.

Iromoya stares at him for a moment like he’s grown a second head. “What have I done?”

He is supposed to feel some kind of way about this, but all he feels is annoyance breaking into rage.

“You locked up my kid.” He muscles his way into the room, though he knows it’s not worth it to overdo it.

Bust a man up too hard in his own house and he grows resentment and all that.

That and, here on Senju land, everyone has (nominal) sovereignty inside their own house.

If it really came down to it, trying to knock out his eldest brother’s front teeth for locking up a child inside the man’s own house wouldn’t go well for him in the aftermath, when they both get dragged in front of the Old Man and have to give their testimonies on how the conflict even started.

“She tried to kill—”

“What’d your kid do then?” He moves forward, cracks his neck, hands behind his head.

He’s not reaching for a weapon, but doesn’t mean it doesn’t make his sword hilt clear. Not all threats needed to be in words, though it sure feels better to say them than to imply them.

“What do you mean what did Nokidoi—”

“Get him here.” He’s unconvinced that his brother’s punk kid didn’t do something that caused all this nonsense. The only barrier to Touka putting the whole thing right is that Touka doesn’t talk.

He hasn’t the faintest clue as to why considering he doesn’t know if she used to talk and stopped after Sudare died or if she’d just never talked in the first place, but it’s not like she doesn’t know what’s going on, so he’d let it be.

In this case though, one has to talk to explain why one is beating up one’s cousin.

He assumes she has a good reason though. It’s not as though she randomly goes around beating up other people or he would’ve heard something by now.

Nokidoi is fetched.

Even though other people said that Touka gave him two black eyes, Butsuma personally only sees a few faded bruises so it’s probably an exaggeration.

He wishes Touka had reapplied the black eyes though, his oldest brother’s spawn is obnoxious.

He glares at the boy, who might be ten by now. His oldest brother has three daughters older than the single boy in that particular branch of the family tree from what he recalls. There might even be even more younger children, but he doesn’t generally get invited to things like births by personal choice, so he doesn’t know.

“Tell me,” he says, leaning in very close so he can observe his nephew’s face for lies. “Why’d she beat you up?”

The boy eyes him shiftily.

He knew there was a rat in here somewhere.

“Well?” he asks again, keeping it conversational.

No response. Well then, there you have it. He looks back at Iromoya, who looks like he’d rather not be here. “Where’d you put my kid?” he asks, still conversational, though his anger is just barely kept in check.

Ah, in one of the back rooms even further inside the house. How nice. He goes to look.

There’s a crowd gathered round for some reason, and he shoves a few people out of the way before they let him through to the door, which he bangs on, until one of his cousins stumbles forward with a key.

Oh goody, he doesn’t have to bang the door down.

He gets it open and everyone else also pushes inside with him.

"That girl is a bad omen,” one of his cousins hisses, and he feels fury rise to his face. Unfortunately, fury also looks a lot like he’s turning into a boiled lobster.

"She's mine, so watch your mouth."

Surrounded by all of these people, Touka’s mouth, which had been frowning grimly when he first stepped in, though she’d raced over to him and buried her face in his side, starts to wobble.

She’s only eight. Shouldn’t have to be like this, not that “shouldn’t have to” really matters in life.

“She’s a Senju, isn’t she?” he snaps. “Not only did the lot of you keep a child locked up, you kept your own family locked up. How fucked up is that?”

“We don’t know that!” cries one of his aunts. “Sudare brought her home one day, saying she was his, but you know how Sudare was. He’d say anything about anyone if he felt like it. She’s certainly never talked about where she came from.”

And an uneasy murmur rises.

So that’s what all this is about.

So that’s it. More than the fact that she’s a little bit strange and doesn’t talk and could fill the silence with more silence than most people could fill silence with words, they mutter and withhold because they don’t think she’s Senju. So what if she was born outside the district?

So what?

“I don’t give a fuck if her mother was a daimyo’s daughter or a two bit whore in some city Sudare fucked once.” Is it any of their business?

Sudare had said she was his, that’s it, that’s all.

The Old Man had said she was Sudare’s little girl, and anyone with eyes could tell she looked enough like his third brother, the two had the same big eyes and same bone structure though hers is still hidden a bit under being a child, she’s scrawny enough that it pokes through.

He could really learn to hate this family.

He hisses at them, all angry, pent up rage. “You’re all a lot of fools.”

He picks Touka up and stomps back out to the front room, passing Iromoya as he goes. “The next time you lock up any child, I’m going to beat in your face.”

He must’ve looked like he meant it enough, because Iromoya doesn’t protest it, not even weakly.

He stomps out and back to his shack of a house.

“Don’t suppose you’d tell me about why you reshaped your cousin’s face a bit?” he asks, that night after the lights had been blown out. She’d taken to crawling into bed with him, and he’d thought that was odd until he remembered that Sudare had spent most of his time out of the compound in goodness knows where doing the Buddha knows what — murder mostly, his mind helpfully supplies — and Sudare had taken his kid with him.

She’s probably used to just one bed. It’s not like Sudare traveled with a lot anyway.

His third brother had expired in the Senju Medic Hall after managing to drag both himself and Touka home.

He hadn’t known that before, and he wishes he didn’t know it now.

She huffs, though not at him, fussy.

He settles for knowing that she will probably never be able to tell him about it.

The Old Man calls him in the next morning for a talking to, which he bears with ill grace and his eldest brother demands an apology, which he makes with ill temper and no sincerity, but since they do not have the power to compel him any more than that, they accept it with ill faith.

The next time he heads out, he takes Touka with him, since the relatives are already unwelcoming of her enough as it is. Might as well wait for things to cool.

Chapter Text

“Or the terror of one person

Aching in one place




Unspoken to


Watering a plant

People are not good to each other.”

— Charles Bukowski, “The Crunch”

He and Touka are out on a mission in Water Country, whatever little mainland bit there is of Water Country. The whole place is covered in cliffs, rock faces, and thick pine forests and rain.

They’d been hunting for the rest of a gang of bandits who had been looting merchant caravans in the west of Water, which a petty lord of some such place had ordered exterminated, when they run across the scene of a fight.

“Get behind me.” He shoos Touka behind him.

Bandits are one thing.

Shinobi are another.

She is far too small to be dealing with shinobi, and based on the blood and bodies, there’d been quite a few moving through here.

There’d been quite a few that died here.

They should probably leave this place because it’s giving him bad vibes, but they still need money to eat, and he is reasonably certain that he still needs to confirm that all the bandits are dead before the lord will be willing to reward him with their bounties.

Hence, he cautiously moves forward noting the blood on the pine needles, already slightly congealed.

Not long, then.

No more than ten minutes.

And the bodies were fresh.

Several someones had come this way very recently, burn marks on the trees and…

Lava? Here?

Up ahead, the clash of blades—

Where the fuck are the rest of the bandits.

They come into a clearing, pine needles scattered, blood everywhere, Touka still behind him, her sword out too, though that would only buy her a very little bit of time should things come down to a fight.

Someone down on one knee, someone making hand seals—

Where the fuck are my bandits.

Wait, he recognizes the person on one knee. That’s Uchiha Tajima.


Can you really look at the dying with your hands in your sleeves?

He stabs the Terumi through the neck while the man is distracted. “Where the fuck are my bandits.” It is not a question.

Uchiha Tajima blinks at him, a hand over some sort of wound in his side, but doesn’t stand.

Man still has a hard grip on his sword though.

Butsuma pulls his sword out of the Terumi’s neck. “Did the water dilute your brain?” He glances around as the man drops, quick to confirm there are no other living people in this clearing. “I asked where the fuck are my bandits. They came this way.”

Still no response.

The Uchiha does seem to have a bit of a glassy look around the eyes.

Touka tugs on his sleeve. “Hrmph!” she says, which means she disapproves of the situation but—

Well, it’s not like they can help it, can they.

Uchiha still hasn’t gotten up.

He stares some more. That leg definitely shouldn’t be bent in that angle.

He approaches warily, careful to not look the Uchiha in the eye. “Don’t look him in the eyes,” he mutters at Touka, who still follows him, clinging like a bur while looking around at the scene. “Uchiha have sharingan.” As a general rule, it’s unpleasant to look an Uchiha in the eyes. “Or at least this one does.” He distangles her hand from the back of his shirt. “Go stand over there, we don’t want him to try anything.”

The Uchiha could be setting up a trap where he bursts into motion and tries to kill them both, and he would like Touka at least somewhat out of range just in case.

Touka scowls but lets go.

“Keep a look out for anyone else coming this way.” Didn’t need more Terumi sneaking up on them while he works out what to do with the Uchiha whose breathing sounds remarkably loud in the silence absent of birdsong.

Touka nods and braces herself properly in stance, bouncing slightly on her feet as she observes the pine forest.

“You’re still bleeding.” He’s just making conversation, but it makes Uchiha flinch.

“Just get it over with.”

Get what over with? But he doesn’t let his confusion show on his face. “I have bandages, if you’re willing to tell me if you know where the bandits went and if so, where.”

The Uchiha blinks at him. “Bandits?”

Butsuma gives it up as a bad job; clearly, the Uchiha has never seen a bandit in his life.

And also clearly seems to be having a bad time of it, all told.

Touka bounds towards him, signing something.

Approaching forces. Multiple.

He glances once at the other side of the clearing where something is happening.

He glances back at the Uchiha.

He hopes he doesn’t regret this immediately, but there’s really no help for it.

He shoos Touka on ahead, picks up the Uchiha, and flees the scene of the crime.

Pine trees are very flammable.

Uchiha is also stupendously and terribly injured, but even if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be of much help.

Katon jutsu are not recommended in pine forests for a reason, generally good ones, because forest fires make the local nobles and the daimyo angry.

Which, now that he thinks about it, might be why Uchiha ended up in such a state anyway.

Terumi, whilst also being lava release users, tended to… be from Water Country’s pine forests and presumably know all sorts of ways to not set it on fire.

In any case, since both he and Touka are stuck with the Uchiha now for the foreseeable future, he’s going to have to do something about it.

Especially since they seem to have outrun the Terumi attackers at the current moment. He needs to make sure that the Uchiha doesn’t try any funny business.

“You look in the other direction.” He glares at Touka who glares right back. “Cover your ears too. He might scream.”

“What,” Uchiha comments rather faintly, “are you even on about, Butsu-chan?”

He glares squintly at the Uchiha. “You, shut up.”

Man didn’t even know where the bandits were and now they’re all being chased by Terumi. Probably. They seem to have given up for the night but it’s probably mostly a matter of time until they show up again.

Terumi are upsetting and determined like that.

He hopes he never has to meet another one after the disaster this mission has turned into.

“But Butsu-chan…”

He tunes the Uchiha out as he glares at Touka some more. “Do you want to look at and hear this going on?”

Touka considers it and scowls, nose scrunched up.

“Don’t you scrunch your nose at me,” he mutters, before realizing that he’s starting to sound like his mother.

Who is very dead, and someone he does not strive to emulate in the matter of childrearing. He makes another face at Touka.

She turns around and puts her hands over her ears. Good enough.

He approaches the Uchiha again, this time more warily because it appears as though the man’s got his bearings back enough to mock him.

The Uchiha stares at him, mostly resigned.

Well, that might make the whole thing easier.

He pulls out one of his shorter knives, one with a heavy hilt, careful to pull his chakra suppression stamp to the front of the seal, bandages and splints at the ready in his other hand.

“So you really are going to get to it.” The Uchiha sighs, closing his eyes. “Well, get on with it then, Butsu-chan. It’s as good a day as any to die.”

He snorts. “Stop being so dramatic, twig. I’m not going to kill you.”


“I’m just going to make sure you’re not going to kill me.

It only takes a single hit for each hand, and he splints and wraps the whole thing as quickly as possible. “Don’t move,” he mutters as he attempts to figure out what’s wrong with the Uchiha’s leg and how to best deal with it. “You’re only going to make everything worse.”

The Uchiha laughs miserably, breathless, either from pain or something else, he doesn’t know.

In any case he splints the leg as best as he is able and moves on to prodding at and bandaging the weird burnt stab wound on the Uchiha’s side, using a very small water jutsu to at least clear some of the pine needles and fabric scraps out of it. No need to be an idiot and have a medic later grow that into your flesh when it heals like some unfortunate people have had happen to them. “What even caused this?”

The Uchiha winces, breath short. “Lava sword.”

He blinks and resists the urge to glare off into the undergrowth in the pine forest. “Terumi bastards,” he mutters, “of course they have lava swords.”

He hopes the ones coming to attack them later don’t have lava swords.

He doesn’t want Touka to get ideas.

He makes short work of stamping the Uchiha’s forehead with the chakra suppressant seal, which makes the Uchiha protest, but those protests are ignored because Uchiha doesn’t get to make any rules.

They head out again.

They make camp cramped into a cave, the weather miserable and wet.

Then again, it is Water Country. Even in the west, the weather is poor and miserable. At least he didn’t have to take a boat.

How does anyone live in this miserable place?

Then again, some people have to, because Water Country is populated.

He rather suspects the only reason it is is because the people here haven’t figured out that there are better places in the world to live yet.

Uchiha, because he can’t recognize a good thing when he sees it, has been complaining the entire time.

“Yes, it is fucking wet.” And there’s no wood dry enough to make a fire without an ungodly amount of smoke. “Can you not try to insult me into making a fire and getting us all killed with smoke inhalation?”

Uchiha says a very rude word.

Touka glares at him.

"I should've killed you when I had the chance.” The bandages might be wasted on the Uchiha, and he might’ve wanted to toss the man off a nearby cliff as they made their way here, but—

There’s nothing right about tossing a half dead defenseless man over the side of a cliff. He may not have too many standards, but that is one he’s keeping. Throwing half dead defenseless men off cliffs is unacceptable unless you’ve been hired to kill them and it’s absolutely essential.

He might find the Uchiha irritating, but it’s not essential to survival to throw him off a cliff.

“Well, kill me, then,” Tajima hisses. “You and your freaky child.”

Touka makes an angry shrieking noise.

He grabs the back of her shirt. “He’s half dead already. If you punch him, he might end up all dead.”

The Uchiha looks both discombobulated and extremely concerned.

Which is smart of him, really, because Touka can punch quite hard when she wants to.

He hates dried rations, but they all have to eat something, and because he’d pissed off the Terumi earlier by running off with their Uchiha, here they are with seal packaged steamed buns that have become slightly hard.

He passes Touka a cup of water. “Try dipping them. They generally tend to loosen up.”

She scrunches her nose at him, though she does start gnawing on the thing.

Doesn’t look happy about it though.

He lumbers back over to the Uchiha. “I guess you must’ve also lost your rations?”

He doesn’t exactly have much money in the first place, so feeding the Uchiha as well…

Misfortunately, he thinks he might not be eating anything until they find the nearest town or someone willing to give them food.

Preferably not almost rock hard steamed buns.

The Uchiha hisses at him. He drops to a seat next to the man. “You’re going to have to open your mouth if you want food.”

As far as he’s aware, this one is less rock hard than the other one. It’ll probably melt to something vaguely squishy in this cup of water if he leaves it in for long enough, and then the Uchiha can drink it.

They’ll find new food later.

Preferably something with meat in it. He’s feeling hungry already.

The Uchiha breaks eventually, after the steamed bun has become a soggy mess inside the cup.

It’s the man’s own fault.

Touka falls asleep with her head pillowed on his thigh, and he stares across the cave where he’d put the Uchiha.

His hands are broken, his left leg is broken, there’s an unfortunate sort of combination stab and lava wound on his side that Butsuma had done his best to bandage while the Uchiha complained and insulted him all the while. And then he’d stamped a chakra suppressant seal onto Tajima’s forehead so it’s probably fine.

It’s unlikely Uchiha Tajima is going anywhere, given that list of injuries, but he still stares anyway.

Tajima stares back, chakraless.

“Who’s that?” Tajima asks, vaguely gesturing in his direction with his chin.

Butsuma does suppose that his hands are broken, so it has to be chin gestures and words being spoken now.

Uchiha wants to know about Touka.

“Not your business.” Touka is eight, which means she won’t be targeted by Uchiha who have some semblance of honor and likely wouldn’t go for the child.


All Uchiha are different, so it depends.

Touka continues to be asleep with her head on his thigh, wrapped in her bedroll, perfectly content, or at least, more or less, not very impressed or frightened with the Uchiha still sitting on the other side of the bedroll.

He’d stamped the blanket he’d given the Uchiha with as many iterations of the heat trapping seal as Masu said was safe to give it, which is about six or so, and dropped it on the man before retreating back across the cave, what little distance there was across the cave, and sitting back down again, leaning against the opposite wall.

The Uchiha had looked distinctly uncomfortable the entire time, but with injuries like his, Butsuma supposes that ‘uncomfortable’ is a reasonable state of being.

“What do you want?” the Uchiha rasps.

And he was just about to nod off too. “What do you mean what do I want?”

“Leverage against my clan? You won’t get it; my father would rather let me die than give up clan secrets.” The Uchiha looks slightly deranged.

He makes a face. “Go to sleep.”

This doesn’t help matters very much because it leaves Uchiha spluttering painfully, but such things as they are, well, not much he can do about it.

He doesn’t get very much sleep, spine all set on edge.

Early the next morning, before dawn, as they pass a small farming village hugging the cliff face and the ravine, he consults with Touka on the procurement of a cart and rain gear.

This, after all, was one of his third brother’s better skills.

He does not typically condone stealing, but he would like to stop carrying the Uchiha around quite so close to his person, and he would like a raincoat.

And a hat.

The miserable wetness is getting to him.

The Uchiha protests. “You can’t send a child in there to steal things from the villagers.”

He would shake the man, but he’s not sure he’s sunken to quite that level of irritation yet. “Watch me,” he mutters, still wondering if it is allowable to shake badly injured clan enemies.

It might kill the Uchiha. He has no idea how hardy Uchiha are, and he doesn’t think that killing the Uchiha after saving them is generally an advisable course of events.

It would also defeat the whole exercise and make the Terumi mad at him for no good reason.

Touka squints at the Uchiha for a moment, careful not to meet his eyes before hmph-ing quietly to herself and slipping off into the fog.

She returns with a squeaky wooden cart, a stack of bamboo hats and several raincoats.

He knew she was capable of it.

“See?” he asks the Uchiha, who makes a face at him.

“Hmph!” Touka crosses her arms over her chest and nods, mostly to herself.

He dumps the Uchiha into the cart, and Touka arranges the raincoat over the Uchiha in a way that keeps out most of the rain.

It’ll have to do.

It’s not like they have better plans.

By the fourth day or so after staggering through wretchedly wet and miserably cold environs, without much of a chance to wash or change — the Uchiha had lost his supplies, and they were not the same shirt size, and he doesn’t want to give the Uchiha his shirt anyway— despite best efforts, Uchiha Tajima starts developing a fever.

And possibly an infection, though Butsuma’s good enough at burning away infections that it doesn’t stick around.

The fever’s in the brain area though, and he’s never been very good at that.

At least he had managed to stash the man’s sword in a sleeve seal.

Those things were important.

“Just let me die already.”

That’s the third time in the past ten minutes.

He’s really starting to believe that Uchiha Tajima is the whiniest person he’s ever known, and some of his nephews at home whine quite a lot.

“You’re one to talk,” he mutters, huffing as he pushes the cart forward. “You’re not the one pushing yourself through the mud, are you?”

Touka’s sitting in there too, with a straw rain cloak and a wide conical bamboo hat. She’d stuck one on Tajima too and thrown a straw rain cloak over him for good measure, carving at a block of wood with one of her small knives.

They rustle and squelch forward.

This close to Fire Country’s northern border, the Terumi seem to have given up and retreated.

Good riddance. He’d been looking forward to the day when they would realize that trying to get the Uchiha from him was a losing fight.

Senju Butsuma generally doesn’t pick fights he doesn’t intend to win.

“Just let me die already.” Tajima’s teeth chatter in his head, his eyes glassy.

Touka casts him an unimpressed look.

"You really wanna die like this?" Didn’t the man have a wife he kept talking about? A son he kept being proud of despite the child being barely old enough to crawl? “Stuck just outside of Fire in a cart in the mud with me hauling your carcass?” He also glances down at the Uchiha, unimpressed. “Didn’t take you for a quitter, Twig.”

“You bastard pig.” Tajima looks as though he’d bitten an unripe persimmon. “You say that agai—”

Touka smacks him.

The Uchiha falls depressingly silent and morose once more.

When they make camp for the night, Touka shows him the little block of wood she’d been carving.

She’d picked up the carving from him. He did it in the evenings when they lived in the district, with Touka curled up beside him like a large cat, though every one had turned out looking at least a little like Masu’s face, and he had had to destroy the evidence in the fire pit.

“What’s it supposed to be?” She hasn’t gotten far enough for it to really look like anything yet.

She flaps her arms at him.


A nod.

Bird it is, then, though the only thing really noticeable about it is the beak so far.

“Going to be a horrible bird?” Typically, people carved mandarin ducks or swallows or cranes or something, but he doubts that his brother’s horrible thief child is interested in ducks.

She considers this.

More gestures.

“A very long neck?”

When did he get used to this sort of talking? He doesn’t even like talking.

A firm nod.

“A swan?”

No, apparently not since she seems very insistent on that point.

“A goose?”

More nods.

Well then.

Goose it is.

When he next looks up, the Uchiha is staring at him, but he makes a face and the Uchiha averts his eyes.

"You're carting me to Senju land?" It’s the eleventh day of hauling this cart with his kid and the Uchiha sitting in it (for some definition of sitting anyway, it looks like Touka’s fallen asleep, sprawled out somewhere in the vicinity of Tajima’s feet, and Tajima winces every time they bounce) and it seems as though their unwelcome hostage has finally recognized a familiar landmark.

"Well, where the fuck else would I cart ya?" He grunts and shoves the cart extra hard over a pothole.

Tajima winces.

He does not take any grim delight in seeing that happen, no, absolutely not.

“I don’t know,” Tajima mutters angrily, though that’s all he can do, being unable to escape or avert this predicament. “Maybe back to the Uchiha for ransom?”

“I don’t fancy being dead before I get across the river.” He does not want to imagine what the Uchiha will do to him upon seeing him pushing a half dead member of their clan across the river towards them, and he doesn’t fancy dying before age thirty-five and setting Touka adrift in the clan once more, so no.

He’s taking this bastard home, even if he has no idea what else to do with him.

What else is he supposed to be doing with the Uchiha?

It’s not like he’s going to leave the man half dead somewhere after pushing him for so long so that he’ll end up all dead.

He would rub his hands over his face, but they’re stuck pushing the cart as of now. And he’s muddy.

Ah, bitch. He’ll burn that bridge when he gets to it. Home first so he can sleep in a bed and have food that isn’t sealed up field rations again.

He forgets that his house has only one bed and that Tajima did not come with a bedroll.

He crosses the edge of the district at the point closest to his house under the cover of the half dusk, thanking his lucky stars that he lives pretty close to the outside edge, just beyond the rice paddies, and hears the frogs singing out in the water, a cacophony of noise that masks his footsteps and the creaks and squeaks of the badly greased wheel.

He relaxes a bit, now that he’s home. Now that he’s here, he is very, very sure that there will be no Terumi popping out of the trees or ground to start another match over Tajima’s life.

Now that he’s here, at home, there’s some safety to be had.

There’s a reason people cling to clans after all, despite extended family never agreeing on similar terms, being too similar and too different to see eye to eye.

There’s a reason he clings to clan and blood family even though he still thinks Nokidoi ought to be punched again and that Iromoya is a right coward.

There is safety and shared history to a clan, and despite the anger they might feel towards each other at any given point in time, no one would let clan hang out to dry in front of strangers.

Not even Iromoya would do that, though his oldest brother doesn’t have that much else going for him, he has that at least.

“Where are you taking me?” Tajima at least has the decency to be quiet about asking the question, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t irritating anyway.

“My house,” he mutters, glaring in the direction of one of the bobbing lanterns to the left of them. He’s not sure which one of his relatives that is, but he’s pretty sure whoever it is will want a look inside this cart since he didn’t leave with a cart, and it’s too late at night to deal with this shit.

They bump over a rock and that rattles the Uchiha enough that a sound escapes. That, definitely, does not sound like a frog.

“Do you want us to get discovered?” he glances over at the lantern again. It’s coming slightly closer. “Because if you want to die, that would be the easiest way to do it.”

“Is that you, Butsuma?” Oh, one of his chatty uncles. Could this not happen right now?

Tajima does not seem to want to die, because he grits his teeth for a moment, leaning weakly against the side of the cart.

Touka had to keep him from toppling over earlier, so he should probably see a medic soon.

He grunts. “Yeah,” he shouts back. “Water was a bitch. I’m going home to sleep.”

Somehow that does deter his uncle from trying to come see him. Probably sounded snappy, or maybe it was because the last time he got in this late and someone had tried to talk to him, he had said some quite rude things, or maybe it was because he threatened to beat Iromoya’s face in, in his own house the last time he was home.

He checks the Uchiha, who, despite being quippy all the way home, looks like he’s about to perish.

Great. He’ll have to go find Auntie Irori soon, and it’s going to be past dark. He tries to draft that conversation in his head.

Auntie, I need you to come look at someone who is half dead in my house. No, not Touka, of course not. Oh, just an Uchiha I picked up in Water Country. Please, Auntie, I’ll owe you ever so many days of work in your house.

He banishes the conversation draft. He can worry about it later, preferably when he’s not trying to evade relatives on his way to his house.

The building peeks out from beyond the paddy. He feels himself relax slightly.

Touka clambers out of the cart to open the door.

“Didn’t take you for a homeless bum,” Tajima comments, voice rather faint. “Are you sure that hovel is structurally sound?”

His mouth twitches. “Shut up.” It would be more insulting if Tajima did not look like he was about to expire immediately. He pushes the whole thing over the doorway and kicks the door closed with a quick snap.

With the door closed, he finally, finally relaxes.

Touka lights the lamp and brings it with them as he rolls the cart as far as it will go before shoving the Uchiha onto the singular bed. “Try not to die.” He starts undoing the ties of his armor, and sheds the metal plates in a disorganized fashion. “I’m going to go fetch a medic.”

The Uchiha makes a weak protest, but that’s more likely because he is a fool and not because he doesn’t require medical attention.

As he suspects, Auntie Irori is very displeased at him for coming to fetch him for an Uchiha in the late evening when she’d just gotten back from the healer’s hall.

But then, it’s not like she can really argue with him about “can you really stand with your hands in your sleeves doing nothing while someone dies in my bed?”

Even if she twists his ears until he yelps.

Even if that person is an Uchiha.

Medics have values like that.

“You listen to me, young man,” she flutters here and there, shoving items into her storage bag to pay a house visit. “You do this again, and I’ll cut out nonessential bits of you the next time you end up on my table, do you hear me?”

He rubs his ear. “I couldn’t not do anything.” Why is it that Auntie Irori always seemed to know how to threaten him? “Isn’t that what everything in the temples say? We must be good and kind to our fellow man, and to treat all living things with respect?”

Auntie Irori casts him a glance so withering he almost frowns or flinches, but that would only start more ear twisting, so he musters all his willpower and does neither of those. “Young man,” she says, one hand on her hip, “you might have been named after an altar, but I don’t think your profession has any room to talk about respecting human life or being good and kind to your fellow man.” She turns, huffily and starts out of the house as he follows behind. “Probably had some nefarious reason for bringing home an Uchiha.”

He follows along behind slightly out of arm’s reach of his Auntie so his poor ears don’t come off, still vaguely upset that she is questioning his morality.

He might not be extremely moral, but he does have some.

Halfway there, Auntie Irori turns to him. “Are you sure he won’t try to kill us if we approach him?”

“He can’t kill a fly right now.” He looks away. “His hands are broken, and I stamped a chakra suppressant on his forehead.”

The Uchiha had looked dreadfully funny with the stamp on his forehead. He’d tried not to laugh, but Touka didn’t.

For a moment, this seems to reassure Auntie Irori, but then her eyes narrow. “And how, pray tell, did his hands get broken, since I’m assuming he didn’t do that himself?”

He really doesn’t want to answer that. But hiding from the truth is coward’s talk, and he’s never been a coward.

“I broke them.”

Auntie Irori opens her mouth to say something to him, but seems to think better of it, mouth snapping shut as she continues stomping in the direction of his house. “You just wait, young man,” she mutters, breath hissing slightly as she continues at a rapid pace. “You just wait. You’ll be wishing your hands were broken by the time I’m through with you.”

It feels, a bit vaguely, like someone walking on his grave.

He tries not to take it too personally.

Touka is cooking when he gets back, rice porridge and salted vegetables, crouched before the bottom of the stove, feeding the fire and routinely stirring the rice to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn.

She’s surprisingly energetic. But then, maybe she didn’t care much if they got discovered by any of her great-uncles. She had never seemed particularly phased by them before, and she doesn’t seem to be in need of their opinion now.

Would that everyone were so cheerfully cavalier about other people’s thoughts of them.

Auntie Irori glances around. “Where’s the Uchiha?”

Touka points at the same time he says, “the other room.”

His fourth auntie looks between the two of them for a moment, still clutching her bag with a hard, hard grip, before turning and practically glides into the room he uses as a bedroom to go look at the Uchiha.

Tajima, to his credit, merely lies there, staring at the ceiling while Auntie Irori pries open the bandages at his side to look at the weird stab-burn wound and then undoes the splints on his leg to straighten it, which does produce a noise that Auntie Irori ignores.

“At least you’re not infected.” Her hands glow green as she starts diagnosing the details of the problem, “Butsu-kun is very good at making sure things are not infected. It has to do with all the grumpiness.”

“Butsu-kun?” Tajima asks weakly, while still staring at the ceiling.

He hopes that he hasn’t broken the Uchiha.

It would be extremely terrible if he dragged him so far and broken him by accident.

“Yes,” Auntie Irori says absently, still prodding at the Uchiha’s leg, fussing far more gently than she’d ever done with him. “Butsu-kun is the littlest of his siblings and also a fair bit rough around the edges. If he’s treated you badly on your trip here, he likely didn’t mean it.”

Tajima looks doubtful.

He should be doubtful.

Auntie Irori’s only fussing, which doesn’t mean her words are accurate by any means.

“Your hands will have to wait until tomorrow.” Painkillers are prescribed and dutifully taken even as Tajima continues staring blankly ahead of him, slightly dazed. “There’s lots of little fiddly bits in hands, and I don’t want to try putting them back together when it’s late and dark.”

“Put them back together?”

It might be accurate to say that the Uchiha did break in transit, what with staring blankly and mumbling about things being put back together and all.

He’s uncertain how he feels about it exactly, but disappointment might sum it up.

“Of course, dear. They’ll be good as new.” Auntie Irori pats Tajima a few more times before rising to go, pausing when she draws even with him near the door. “And remember, young man, do this again and we’ll see who cries on my table in the healer’s hall.” She turns back to Tajima, smiling lightly, though Tajima seems to recognize that danger lurks underneath that smile as well. “I’ll be back tomorrow to look at your hands.”

And with that she vanishes out the door and into the night.

He slouches over to the kitchen to check on dinner.

“So whose kid is she?” Tajima sits on the edge of his bed as he sits in a chair he’s pulled from the kitchen watching as the Uchiha flexes his formerly broken leg.

There’d been painkillers for the hands, but Auntie Irori had taken care of the weird stab-burn wound as well, so it’s highly unlikely that the Uchiha will suddenly perish. That still doesn’t mean terribly much because now he has to figure out what to do with the Uchiha sitting in his house.

Touka, meanwhile, because she is only eight, has fallen asleep again, rolled up in her bedroll, sitting leaning against the wall opposite of the bed.

“Mine.” It’s been several months now, so that’s the state of things.

Tajima raises a brow at him. “A bit young of you to have a kid, isn’t it?”

But Sudare’s memory is not something that any Uchiha can touch, considering just who he’d been killed by.

He tries not to take it personally and fails. “Definitely mine.”

Tajima does not look convinced, but since Butsuma doesn’t offer any new information, it’s not like he can do anything about his unconvinced feelings.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely certainly positive.” No part of his third brother’s memory is going to live in this Uchiha’s skull, thank you. Not a single sliver.

Their rest is decidedly uneasy thereafter.

The next morning, long before even Auntie Irori arrives, he is summoned to go up to the big house by a cousin, a child of one of his chatty uncles, who looks both perturbed and confused by the Uchiha still stuffed in his bed.

No, he doesn’t like the current state of affairs either, his neck has a crick in it.

“Grandfather says he wants to see you about the Uchiha hostage.” Chikagai stares at Tajima some more, noting very carefully that the hands are still bandaged and that the forehead stamp is definitely the chakra suppression seal.

His mouth flattens to a very thin line.

“I knew it,” Tajima mutters.

He scowls. The Uchiha is definitely not a hostage. “Eat your damned painkillers.” He shoves them near the Uchiha’s face, painkiller case rattling ominously.

Auntie Irori would blame him if the Uchiha doesn’t get that done by the time she comes back around because the Uchiha doesn’t have working hands, and therefore if something were to be amiss about it, it would be his fault.

Tajima looks at him vaguely mutinously, but he scowls harder and the ominous rattling of the painkiller case gets...more ominous.

Tajima opens his mouth, possibly to protest, but he slaps the hand with the pills over the Uchiha’s mouth.

One thing over and done with.

“Fine, I’ll go see the Old Man.” He stomps towards the front room, where the kitchen is, nominally. “Are you happy now?”

Chikagai follows him, still nervously glancing back at Tajima as if expecting the man to leap out of bed with a hidden weapon and slaughter them. “Cousin…” he whispers confidentially, as if Tajima could not, in fact, hear them from the other room. “Why do you have an Uchiha hostage?”

“I don’t have one.” He slaps some water over his face in an attempt to freshen up. It must be close to four in the morning, and not much later because the sky, while slightly lightened, is mostly still playing games with the eye.

Chikagai sighs, frustrated. “Cousin, what was that Uchiha in your bed then?”

“Not a hostage.” He doesn’t want to hear about an Uchiha in his bed ever again. It gives him perilously disgusted feelings.

Somehow, he’s going to have to deep clean the bedding after Tajima leaves. Possibly by steaming it. Or boiling it.

He shows his cousin the door.

Might as well go and get this talk with the Old Man over with then.

“You found him injured by the side of the road?” They are walking back now, he and his grandfather, the Old Man leaning on his arm.

Doesn’t have to do it, but this way, he can’t run away so easily, so that’s why it’s happening.

“Well, thirty feet off the road.” Thirty feet is still “side of the road”, however, and he will be sticking to that definition if this gets dragged up in front of more people. “Wasn’t like I injured him originally. It was those bastard Terumi.”

Water Country bastards, living in their miserable wet hell.

“And you put him in your bed?”

All around them, the clan is starting to wake up, relatives heading out to nearby fields or their places of work, several already leaving for new missions.

There’s a bit of a buzz this morning, but nothing terribly unusual.

“Wasn’t like I had another bed to put him in.” Will no one give him a rest about where the Uchiha is currently? Not even the Old Man who’d always doted on him, even before he ran away from his father’s house?

“Butsuma-kun…” They are at the door now, and he hears a sigh coming on. “What do you plan to be doing with this young man you’ve captured?”

Captured. Wasn’t like he captured anyone at all.

“Give him back to the people he calls relatives.” What else would they be doing to the Uchiha? Threaten him? Hold him for ransom? Take out his eyeballs? Kill him?

After him putting in all that effort to make sure that Tajima stayed alive all the way home? Not a chance.

He’s put far too much effort into making sure the Uchiha made it back in mostly one piece. He’s not going to put in all that time and then do exactly what the Terumi wanted to do to him.

“Instead of asking what he plans to be doing to this poor young man,” Auntie Irori’s voice sails out of his bedroom, and the Old Man heads in that direction instead of listening to him anymore, “you could be asking him why he broke his hands on the homecoming trip.”

His grandfather looks at him.

He wilts. “What else was I supposed to do?” he asks, more a question for himself rather than anything else.

No one answers his question, least of all him.

It’s just his luck that the Old Man decides to stay.

Tajima, for his part, does not look extremely comfortable with the realization that the Old Man is, in fact, the head of the Senju Clan, properly. “My apologies,” he mutters faintly while Butsuma tries to understand that Uchiha could, in fact, apologize. “We weren’t aware of your continued survival.”

The Old Man laughs, sinking into the lone chair by Tajima’s bedside. “Oh, I’ve been retired for many years. I’m surprised your clan didn’t forget about me altogether.”

“I don’t think Senju Idobata could be forgotten.” This comment is even fainter than the previous.

Butsuma wonders what exactly it was that his grandfather had done to the Uchiha to make them remember him thirty-seven years after he retired.

Unfortunately, that information does not seem to be forthcoming.

Seated by Tajima’s bedside, his grandfather proceeds to happily tell stories about the past that everyone has heard too many times and are already extremely tired of.

“Isn’t medical advancement wonderful?” the Old Man asks, far too cheerily. “Back when I was your age, people who got their hands broken suffered immensely. I had a friend who had to get his hand amputated after it got infected on the way home.”

Tajima looks ill.

“I’m glad though,” the Old Man takes a turn towards the nostalgic, looking off into the distance where only he could see, “that things have changed enough from when I was your age. Back in those days we could only know dead Uchiha. But it appears that we are capable of knowing living Uchiha now. What an improvement.”

This does not make Tajima look any better. Uchiha still looks ill.

Butsuma takes great pleasure in seeing it happen.

For once, the Old Man and all of his idiosyncrasies are being inflicted upon some other unfortunate soul.

“I’d rather not know any,” he mutters.

“Hmmm, what was that?” His grandfather asks, still looking off into the distance.

“I said,” he makes this extra clear and distinct, “I would rather not know any Uchiha.”

Period. Alive or dead.

“Rather late for that now, isn’t it?” Auntie Irori’s voice echoes tartly from where she is laying out the instruments she’ll need for fixing the Uchiha’s hands.

As it turns out, he may have been overly enthusiastic when assuring that Tajima could not possibly attack them during the night.

He does not regret this at all except for the unfortunate realization that he would have to spend more time paying Auntie Irori back for her efforts in fixing the Uchiha.

And his ears.

His ears are very unsafe because she might remember that all this work is his problem.

But she goes over Tajima’s hands, bone by bone, repairing torn ligaments and wiping away bruised muscles and whatever other little hurts had been accumulated during the journey, fussing all the while. “Poor young man,” she says with a lightness that belies her concentration, “this must’ve hurt during transport.”

“It was alright.” The Uchiha still sounds rather broken and faint.

“You whined all the way back about how I should just kill you already.” Tajima does not get to say that it was fine just because he is currently attempting to put on a brave face before a medic.

The look Auntie Irori gives him tells him he should leave immediately.

Touka got to stay though.

Since he’s been kicked out of his own house by the medic, and he has no intention of crossing his fourth auntie, he heads out, still unamused and without funds.

He could always go visit Masu again, but while she might not mind, he would.

He goes to the tailor instead.

They’d gotten back to the district much later than he had first supposed they would when he picked up this mission, and as such he…

Hadn’t had the time to get new clothing tailored for the Flower Festival.

Normally, he didn’t go and scheduled to be out of the district when the whole thing is going on, the Flower Festival in the spring is meant for and led by women, but—

He’s pretty sure that Touka’s never gone either given the amount of traveling that Sudare did, but Touka is a little girl and most little girls seem to like pretty clothing and hair accessories and eating fried foods and being told that they will go on to achieve great success in life.

“Ah, Butsu-kun!” The head tailor, Ashiba, is a tall, thin man of sixty with fading red hair, who’d become the head tailor in clan long before he was born, and seemed likely to retain that position long after he is dead as well. “You haven’t been by in years.”

He tries not to scuff his toe on the floor but Ashiba has always made it rather easy to feel quite small. “Well,” he mutters and tries not to sound cross about it. “I didn’t really need anything made since I stopped growing.”

There’s some changshan he’s had to throw away because they’d acquired too many holes by virtue of being worn under his armor, but he’d learned after the last mission and just repeatedly wore the ones with holes until they gave out on him.

He still has some fairly infrequently worn clothing.

“You’re here for festival clothing then, I take it?” Ashiba waves away an assistant who had come to ask him a question.

“Clothing for the child.” Who, he is sure, would like to stuff herself with fried foods and would delight in seeing the fire breathers at their work. Whatever he would be wearing to the whole thing is much less important he assumes given that he has very little interest in anything to do with the festival except for the free fried foods.

There’s a calculating look in Ashiba’s eye. “No, no, you can’t go to the festival in your old clothes, you’ll need new ones as well.”

“I’m not paying for new clothes for me.” The urge to scuff his toe on the floor strengthens. “I lost money while out on this mission.”

Can’t exactly afford a whole new wardrobe, which is what Ashiba does every time he catches him — he should’ve remembered, but even if he did, Touka still needed new clothing since she came with one robe too big for her and two changes of cast offs — honestly, where were Sudare’s things? His third brother had doted on his little girl — and he’d ended up adopting some old clothes from Auntie Irori’s youngest daughter for her instead.

Festival worthy they were not.

And it’s not like he would’ve sent Touka here to get clothing by herself.

Ashiba nods, slow, as if thinking. “It’s about the Uchiha, isn’t it?” Most of the older generations remember Uchiha in a much different light, from time periods where their feud with the clan of fire breathing menaces across the river had run hotter than fire.

They had more reasons to hold onto their grudges than most.

“Didn’t know you’d know about the Uchiha.” He hadn’t exactly thought about the problems his own reputation might encounter by stuffing Tajima in his house, but it’s not like he could’ve done anything else from the moment he decided to drag the man back instead of leaving him by the side of the road to perish.

And it’s not as though he has much reputation to lose.

Ashiba whips about him with a measuring tape, still humming with thought. “Whole clan’s heard about the Uchiha by now, Butsu-kun.” The man’s voice is measured, quiet, without much inflection, but Ashiba had been happy to see him.

Ah fuck it. Iromoya’s going to hold it over his head for forever now that he’s heard, and if Iromoya’s going to do it, so will their fifth brother because Mikiri does whatever Iromoya thinks is good with no brain of his own.

“Bet there’s people who wanted me to leave him by the side of the road.” He holds out his arms when Ashiba makes him.

“That’s because being a shinobi too long rots your sense of ethics.”


The tailor had never been a shinobi.

Touka bouncing excitedly when she sees the red and gold child sized cheongsam thrown over his arm when he returns makes suffering through the uncomfortable prodding by Ashiba, the frosty silence of others in the shop, and the headache of Iromoya’s glee at throwing the news of him housing an Uchiha at the next family gathering less intense than it might have been.

Her delight over the blue and silver one with tiny butterflies and phoenixes is quieter, but possibly more delightful.

He glues Tajima’s sword into its scabbard with stag horn glue.

The Uchiha watches him from the other side of the room, deeply unimpressed. “Do you know how much that costs?”

The man can be as unimpressed as he likes. The only way he’s leaving here is if he lets Butsuma glue the sword into the scabbard so that the only way he can injure people with is by beating them with it like it’s some sort of demented club.

He shrugs. “Not my problem, is it?”

The Festival starts in the mid afternoon, after all the official prayers.

He’s pretty sure that Touka isn’t interested in prayers, so they’ll be there for the flowers blooming and the candle dances and the lantern lighting and the free food booths when the Festival of Flowers actually begins.

Hopefully, Tajima will be smart enough to try escaping out the door while everyone else is focused on the Festival because at any other time, someone might try getting vengeance on the chakra bound Uchiha once he’s out of the protection of the housing structure.

As it is, it’s only his own reputation of being willing to punch anyone and the clan by-laws which give him the right to do so when it’s his own house that’s keeping some of the angrier relatives at bay.

“In any case,” he crosses one leg over the other, wondering if he really should wear his new brown changshan to the festival. It’s so new it doesn’t even have sleeve seals attached yet, which makes the thought of wearing it rather odd. “I will be leaving with Touka to go to the Flower Festival later. If we catch you trying to escape while everyone is preoccupied with celebrating, we will have to find some other way to restrain you. If you attack anyone while you are attempting an escape, I’ll beat your face in with my fists.” Hopefully, the Uchiha gets what he’s trying to say. “Do you understand?”

Tajima, for his part, looks rather unwell. “I thought you said it wasn’t advised for me to leave”

“Oh, it isn’t.” It’s really not, but Butsuma would rather like him to be gone as soon as possible. Sharing a space with an Uchiha who has two working legs and two working hands, even with bound chakra, does not seem like his idea of a fun time. “Uncle Monma would take a bite of you if he didn’t also know that would cause me to beat in his chest.”

That does not make Tajima look any better, but he isn’t exactly interested in this idea.

He will wear the newer changshan after all. No need to look like a homeless beggar when everyone else there won’t.

“What,” Tajima asks, “are you doing?”

“Changing.” He throws his older black changshan over the back of one of the chairs. “You ever seen someone go to a festival looking like a homeless bum?”

“While I’m here?”

Modesty, how quaint. He throws the new changshan on over a plain white shirt. “Stop looking, then.”

The Uchiha makes a strangled noise.

He buttons the last of the clasps directly under his chin and straightens his sleeves. “I’ll be back.” After the festival.

And if I see you still here, I’ll have to give you up as a bad job.

Uncle Monma can bite you then.

He goes out to the kitchen to help Touka with her hair.

Two pigtail braids later, they leave.

Thankfully, the Uchiha and the glued sword have vanished by the time he and Touka get back in the later evening.

Chapter Text

“I’m not used to being loved. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, More Than Just A House

“I have never,” he mutters, still bitter while drinking apple cider in Masu’s kitchen, “imagined that the Old Man would turn on me like this.”

He has been subject to all sorts of hideous trials by the Old Man since moving into his house age seven — things like learning to wash laundry, trying every vegetable under the sun at least once, meditating in the small temple on Senju grounds with a group of monks, and other, hideous, terrible things that the Old Man had claimed was for his own good and character enrichment — but this?

This is only because the Old Man has finally decided to unleash hell because he’d brought an Uchiha home, and now he would have to pay for it.

With time and with money, because getting married will mean he’ll need a better house and all the proper things that go in houses.

And because the Old Man wants to saddle him with more dependents for some reason. Being married is an expensive business.

“Surely it couldn’t be so bad?” She stands there over the sink, slowly rinsing out the handful of plums she’d gotten off of a couple twigs she’d planted in a glass vase, before offering him one on her airy way to a seat across from him.

He blinks balefully at her, head laid against the cool cherry wood of her kitchen table. “You’re not the one going on marriage dates because your grandfather is a horrible old man who wants to punish you for dragging home grievously injured Uchiha lying by the side of the road.”

Well, it’s not like the Uchiha was actually by the side of the road since he was at least a good thirty feet off of it, but it’s the principle of the matter.

“Is that what it is?” she asks, tapping a finger against her chin.

She doesn’t sound very sympathetic to his current plight.

He grouses and takes an angry bite of his plum instead as recompense for not being able to be angrier at her about it. “You know that’s exactly what it is.”

“Is it?” She smooths her hands over his shoulders, tracing the embroidery of his new changshan, dark brown patterned with tiny green leaves, her voice taking on a softer tone. “Is it really, Butsu?”

“The last one giggled at me.” This would be less of a problem if that particular one didn’t also imply that she had higher standards for him than he had standards for living. “And also seems to believe that I have money.”

He does not, in fact, have money.

He has even less money than he had prior to picking up the Uchiha and carting him home because he had not been paid the promised six hundred to a thousand ryo for getting rid of as many bandits as possible by the petty nobleman who’d hired him to exterminate them.

He has, in fact, been a source of free labor.

Realizing this makes him even more unhappy, and he angrily takes another bite of his plum, juice running down his wrist before he forcibly lifts his elbow to prevent it from ruining his new clothes.

He should’ve thought to charge Tajima for the unfortunate business of making sure he didn’t die and providing free labor to Auntie Irori in the healer’s hall for several days to make up for all the trouble of putting Tajima back together.

The services rendered really deserved a proper billing.

Not that he would be able to persuade his grandfather or anyone else to send the Uchiha clan a bill.

“You’re not poor.” Her hands remain on his shoulders, steady and comforting in their presence though he wishes he could see her face, he doesn’t turn to look at her.

“Yes, I am.” He takes a final bite of his plum and neatly drops the pit in a bowl meant for disposing plum pits and chews furiously while wishing he didn’t have to admit that he is, in fact, without much money lying around.

He may have a money management problem.

But since the acquisition of bao is paramount, and since he’d lost the six hundred to a thousand ryo while dragging Tajima back and doesn’t believe he should try visiting Water Country again to demand payment — damned Terumi bastards who might still be looking for him — he resigns himself to freeloading meals from other people until he can finally escape the Old Man’s clutches and take missions again.

“You’re rich in every way that matters.” She brushes a strand of hair out of his face.

He does actually look at her for this, partially wondering what she sees that he doesn’t. “I have no money.” He grimaces. “And getting married will make me even more without money.”

“Are you actually not going to get married?” She sits on the table, looking out at her kitchen, unusually thoughtful, eyelashes pale like frost against her eyes.

“I don’t think I’m the type.” He taps his fingers on the table, and doesn’t exactly look at her. “After all, do you know anyone who wants to marry me?”

“I do.”

That does make him look at her for a moment. “Masu,” he says, while feeling slightly bludgeoned about the head, “is that person insane?”

She grows silent for the space of about three or four seconds, where he feels a vague sense of impending doom, though he has no idea what has caused this particular problem, and it feels as though the birds stop singing, the sun stops shining, and the entire world outside grows silent and quiet as though waiting for a particularly vengeful bolt of lightning.

The moment passes.

The sun returns to shining, the birds return to singing, and the noises from outside carry on as though they’ve never stopped.

He convinces himself that he must’ve imagined it somehow.

But Masu doesn’t return to being… the same.

There’s something quite sad about her, and he—

“I’ll bring you something?” He’s never liked living with himself after making her sad. Even though he has no idea why she happens to be sad this time. “From the capital when I go?”

He’ll be swinging by there eventually, and even though everything from there is unfortunately more than five times more expensive than any goods from other places, he feels like he’s disappointed her enough somehow.

Masu sniffs as though trying not to cry, which makes him even more uncomfortable. “No, it’s alright, Butsu. I don’t need anything.”

He feels as though this is not entirely true, but cannot quite come up with a reason as to why this is so.

He continues on his way, still uneasy, but unable to do anything about it.

He’d promised himself to get something from the capital for Masu, but telling the old man driving vegetables into a smaller town close to the city that that’s where they’re going produces a look of worry.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, young man.”

“Why not?” As far as he’s aware, the capital is mostly too loud and too fast and contains too many people to be comfortable for him to live in. He didn’t exactly see the prestige of the whole thing, but other people do.

Other people do, and he had promised himself to get Masu an expensive and costly present so she’ll know that whatever he’d said last time that upset her so, he didn’t mean it and is trying to do his best to put it behind them.

The vegetable seller looks at him again, looks at Touka, and sighs. “You’re a shinobi, aren’t you? Hired out that way for a job?”

He shrugs. “Yeah, I have a job lined up that way.”

Some fool with a house that needed to get burned to the ground or something like that.

“Nothing good comes out of jobs going that way.” The vegetable seller shrugs, still pushing his cart slowly. “Recently, there’s more dead coming out of there than usual.”

The man refuses to say anymore.

The lack of knowledge is not particularly useful.

The capital city doesn’t look any different than usual. Then again, he isn’t actually here enough to figure out what is particularly normal.

“Don’t go running off to look at pretty things without me.” He keeps a firm grip on Touka’s hand.

She’s been studying genjutsu with one of their more distant relatives, and to that end, has gotten much better at running off to do something without him knowing.

Not here though, in the capital among people who could be anything.

The facade of this city hides dragons and tigers, serpents and rats.

Shinobi are not the most dangerous people in the world, though they like to think so, and with what the old man had said to him while he was coming in, he is unwilling to risk it even if technically, the two of them travelling together dressed like this would be more noticeable than a small child wandering this market alone.

Shinobi are not known to look much like civilians unless they put in the effort.

She frowns at him, pigtails swishing.

“I mean it,” he says and wonders when he started sounding like some sort of tired parent trying to make sure that his child didn’t run off and get themselves killed.

He wonders how much of this is because Sudare is no longer here to do anything about it and how much of it is himself.

But there’s no good answer for that.

“You heard what the oyaji said when we were coming in.” He pauses by a stand selling hot noodles by the side of the hard road.

But no, if they wanted to meet the client and find Masu a present before going to destroy some unfortunate fool’s house, then he’ll need to not get distracted by the expensive noodles.

His stomach cries.

They do not end up getting any noodles.

The client wants their representative to meet them at a teahouse, which he supposes is a fancy rich man’s way of saying that he doesn’t want his own name or face involved in the act of even hiring a shinobi much less burning a rival’s house down.

Fat lot of cowards nobles were.

They’ll use a representative’s face and name to hire the shinobi, and then the shinobi’s hands to burn down the house.

The man who wanted this to happen could be several hundred li away sipping wine and composing poetry with friends.

They bought their dirty deeds and the people to do them with money.

But then, he knew that already.

As the Old Man once told him, shinobi made a living off of the corruption of rich men, and since he chose this life for himself, he doesn’t have the room to complain that nobles were cowards who couldn’t even be bothered to kill their sworn enemies themselves.

If they did, he would have no job and no bao, so he supposes he will just have to accept it.

He ducks into the teahouse, looking for an older man wearing a farmer’s hat and carrying a hoe.

Sometimes, clients didn’t exactly describe who he would be meeting or how he should greet them, causing potentially awkward situations.

But these are the client’s problems.

“The sun’ll set in the east, then?” He makes sure that Touka’s hand is still in his own when he pauses by the table. Older man wearing a farmer’s hat with a hoe tucked under the table. Grey shirt, cloth buttons, brown pants. Dressed like a day laborer and not like a rich man’s representative. Should be the man then.

Normally, he doesn’t take her to meet clients. They don’t always look well on children, much less little girl children being carted around by the shinobi who was supposed to do their dirty work.

Makes the shinobi too human, not demonic enough.

He doubts a little boy would be that much of an improvement, unless the child looks particularly sullen and unwilling to be there.

Then they could be a junior demon.

“Surely, the sun sets in the west?” Correct answer.

He plonks himself into a seat on the other side of the table. “Where’s the house, then?”

The client’s representative glances at Touka, who scrunches her nose though he’s told her before to not do that.

Finally, without asking a question, the man on the other side of the table calls for the waiter. “A cup of wine for this little brother here.”

“I don’t drink.” His clan isn’t exactly enamored with the other trappings of monastic lifestyles — bright colors and eating meat is still very acceptable among the Senju, and there are certainly plenty of inheritance problems to go around, but—

They do not drink wine.

There’s a pause.

He turns to the waiter. “I’ll take a jasmine tea.”

The waiter looks between the two men at the table as though trying to decide which request to honor.

The realization that he is the shinobi puts paid to any idea of serving him the wrong items.

“Anything for the little miss?”

Touka squints at the man, frowning as she tugs at his sleeve.

“Did you want anything?”

Yes, she does, and since he’s ordered something, it’s only fair that she gets something.

“And an order of bao.” He knows what she wants. The child inhales bao like air; of course she wants bao.

It’ll cost him more for the same amount of food at relatively similar quality — how do people live here? Unless of course, they all ate like birds.

He turns back to the man on the other side of the table. “How much destruction are we talking?”

The job listing had mentioned destroying a house, but he’s going to have to charge more if they intend for him to take hostages or kill someone.

“My client will be satisfied with the house being destroyed.” A single sheet of heavy paper is placed on the table. “They will, of course, not protest should there be any casualties.”

He glances down at the details of the request, recognizes that the house in question is actually a little ways outside of the capital to the west and makes a mental note to pick up Masu’s gift before they have to leave.

After they destroy this nobleman’s house, they can stop by to get bao from some other restaurant.

He glances at Touka, who is doing her best impression of a chipmunk.

Make that bao for him. He didn’t get any for himself this time around.

“I’ll be taking this job.” He picks up the paper and tucks it away into a sleeve seal. “As I’ve notified your client, I’ll be taking my payment upfront in paper bills.”

He’d also take gold or silver, but the things would be heavier to carry, even sealed away.

And harder to spend.

There is a small bit of protest at being paid upfront but he sits there, staring, until he is paid.

No repeats of last time.

He’s still feeling bitter about the Uchiha causing him to lose out on payments for the bandits, going all the way to Water Country, being chased by Terumi, and making sure the man stayed alive.

The client’s representative leaves before him, but he sits there with Touka in a chair now that the other man is gone with his ears opened to the wind, listening to the idle talk in the teahouse.

Teahouses, by nature, are social places with only the illusion of privacy, especially when there are shinobi present.

But there’s an illusion of privacy present, and that loosens men’s tongues.

He holds his cup of tea, breathing in the scent of jasmine, nicer than what they’d get out in the countryside. “You hungry?” he asks Touka.

She shakes her head.

He glances at the group of men — likely low ranking ministers, talking. They didn’t know what sort of information they were providing him given their lowered voices and furtive looks around trying to make sure that no one else could hear them talking among themselves.

Unfortunately for them, he is looking down at his teacup and listening to every word.

His Majesty the emperor himself is ill. The sitting ruler of Fire Country is an old man, having ruled effectively for many, many years. However, since the deposition of the former crown prince and his subsequent execution two years back, there has not been a clear line of succession established.

The former crown prince had held that title since two months of age, and had died on the executioner’s chopping block at the age of thirty-six.

As it stands, any number of princes could inherit.

However, with His Majesty on the brink of death without having named an heir, the brothers had already turned on each other.

The feuding imperial family members had hired shinobi for assassination, protection, and other bloody deeds within the capital itself.

No wonder there’d been more deaths than normal.

Personally, he wonders why there has to be a crown prince at all.

His clan didn’t have a clan heir, but clan by-laws made it clear who would inherit the earth when one clan head passed the title upon death.

The one who inherits the earth has to have the strength to hold it.

He stops by one of the nurseries that stock young plants for the clan on his way out of the capital, even though Touka, who is not interested in the plants, keeps pulling at his sleeves to leave.

Masu had always wanted a persimmon tree.

She had apples and peaches and cherries and plums and even a small selection of grapes, but no persimmons.

And since she did not often travel, she wouldn’t be coming up to the nursery to look at their selection for herself.

“What are you looking for, sir?” One of the shop assistants approaches him as he glares at the foliage, unclear where he would even begin looking for a persimmon.

Or what the price tag on the persimmon would be.

“Persimmon,” he admits, “preferably something that will root well in a clay loam soil.” Masu would be capable of making any plant grow almost anywhere by asking it sweetly, but he’d rather her not put in the effort for her own garden after all the woodworking she already did on commission for the clan.

“Most will, in the Senju climate.” The shop assistant shows him to a row of plants all potted out in porcelain pots. “We have all sorts of varieties and cultivars here, sir, ones that produce more fruit, ones that look more ornamental, ones bred for sweeter taste or acidity…”

The man rattles off another fifteen or so items on the list.

He feels dizzy. A persimmon is a persimmon, so what?

“What’s your most popular one?” He has no idea what Masu might want, though he doubts that she’d care for ornamental fruit.

Crabapple had never been a large portion of her orchard for that reason.

He also just didn’t like the taste.

The assistant blinks. “Fuyu, most definitely, sir.”

“What do people like it for?” As far as he’s concerned, Masu probably cared more about the taste.

“It’s a non-astringent type of late ripening persimmon which people are very fond of for the flavor.”

“And what’s that?” It would be easier and probably cheaper to buy a sword.

“They’re very sweet, sir.” It would appear that the assistant has learned that he does not, in fact, bear much resemblance to the relatives who often come here to purchase plants.

Touka tugs at his sleeves again.

He sighs.

It’s not like he knows much about persimmons or any other kind of plant anyway.

He selects two of the biggest cuttings — cuttings are the cheapest option, and he doesn’t doubt that Masu could root them in rock if she really wanted to after summoning them back from the dead — pays out the truly exorbitant sum it costs him, and exits, entrusting them to Touka’s pack.

They are out on the street again, when he hears the sound of a fight breaking out.

Men and a few women are dragged out onto the street by law enforcement, the unmistakable sweet cloying scent of—

Opium poppy.

Once heavily exported into the southwest of Fire by Earth through trade routes coming from Wind, poppies are now grown everywhere across huge swathes of south and central Fire, lucrative, in a way that growing rice and tea no longer are.

But the Old Man, who had lived through war and lived through famine far worse than what is happening now, had forbidden the growth of poppy on Senju land, though that has not stopped the surrounding farmers from profiting off of it for paying their taxes.

No one near the Senju district smoked it out in the open, but what people do in their own houses is a different matter.

What people do in their own houses is a different matter, and he remembers the thick scent from his own childhood, the cloud of sweetness and the long thin bamboo pipe.

Remembers the swish of it as well though—

Well, it doesn’t matter now. The man is dead and buried beneath the clay loam and has been for years now.

The poppy is a scourge that turns a dragon frail.

He shoves Touka behind him.

Law enforcement has always made him jittery.

He sees the reason why someone would want this house destroyed as soon as he lays on it while peering through the shrubbery, Touka at his back to make sure no one sneaks up on them from behind.

The fool who lives in this house has a full glass front.

Not just a sunroom.

Not just large windows.

A full side of the new styled house is made of alternating panels of frosted and clear glass, held in metal frames.

It is the ugliest and most expensive looking house that he has ever seen.

He prods at Touka until she looks at it. She makes a gagging noise of disgust.

He agrees.

He observes the house from his vantage point in the bushes for some time, thinking about what to do.

If it had been a normal house, he would’ve waited until nightfall and then set it on fire with a few well placed cans of oil and a match.

But he’s pretty sure that whatever fire he’s capable of making, it won’t be enough to melt or destroy the hideous glass front of this house as much as he’s been contracted to do.

Or as much as he wants the whole thing to get destroyed. Maybe an Uchiha could manage it.

But he’s been hired instead of an Uchiha, so they don’t get the satisfaction of this sort of destruction.

“Find me some rocks.” He’ll need to go take a look around the back of the house. “Big ones. I’m going to look at the other side.”

There’s not much security he can see in the front, but the sun hasn’t gone down yet, and it’s a hot day to be outside.

Depending on the layout of the back, he can work something out to burn down the wood and collapse the stone bits as well.

Touka looks at him and makes a throwing motion.

He sighs. “Wait for me to get back, but yes, if you want, you can throw a rock at the glass too.”

He and Touka are on their way home from the job, sitting in a teahouse while resting from the problems caused by smashing in a full house front of glass.

No, the rich man who lived in that house had not appreciated the damage. But he was slow and civilian so it didn’t matter much that he had been upset over the damage.

Most of the problems caused had been being chased and also because the security had managed to flay his right arm open in a way that actually looked quite sickening. Bones have color, but he is not interested in looking at his arm bones, thank you very much.

But Touka’s fine, and she’d huffily wrapped his arm after they weren’t in danger of being caught and prosecuted.

(Shinobi didn’t do well being legally prosecuted. They all committed too many crimes.)

“Say,” he puts the teacup down with his other one. Touka hadn’t let go of the injured one yet. “How old were you when Sudare picked you up anyway?”

Sudare, as far as he knows, had never mentioned who his daughter’s mother was, or even if she was living or dead.

And he sure doesn’t remember when his third brother had picked up a daughter or what size that daughter was when he picked her up.

Touka shrugs.

Fair. Not like she would’ve known what age she was.

“Is your mother alive?”

The thought had gnawed away at him at odd hours of the night, after Touka had gone to sleep.

He wasn’t ever going to give the girl back but…


Sudare had never mentioned what sort of relationship he had with Touka’s mother either.

Maybe she’d want to know what happened to him.

Or maybe she’s dead or gone or doesn’t care.

It’s not like people generally give away their children to be raised by assassins anyway and it’s even less likely that he wants someone who would do that anywhere near Touka to begin with.

Touka frowns and plops onto the bench beside him, still staring suspiciously at his arm bleeding through the bandages. She shakes her head.

“Dead then?” he asks, because that headshake could mean that she doesn’t know.

There’s a pause before she nods, at first hesitantly, and then a little more sure of herself.

No ties to this world but him then, and he, well, he stares at his arm.

Not like I expect to live a great span of years either.

“Mine too,” he mutters. “Mine’s also dead.”

His mother had died the year he turned seven, and he’d returned to the empty house after her funeral and packed up all his earthly belongings to move to the big house that very night.

The house he grew up in wasn’t big enough for both the small and petty man he called father and the small and petty boy he was himself without his mother as a buffer.

But at least he had a mother, even if he doesn’t strive to emulate the way she gave and gave and gave and received nothing in return.

She gave what they would take from her.

He’d evolved to give nothing and take what he can get in return.

Touka pats his shoulder, the one attached to the uninjured arm, before trying to tug him from his seat.

“We’re still waiting on the bao.” He’s tired now that they’re away from the people chasing them and there’s a promise of food waiting. “You like those, don’t you?”

“Hmph!” she crosses her arms and glances at his arm again.

“Give it a rest. I’m not going to die.” Not this time at any rate.

But all shinobi die, be it early or late, and as for him, well.

It’s not as if he’s been blessed with much sense.

Would it be so bad? Masu’s face comes to mind, the rosebud pink of her lips, the sprout of green leaves she kept in her hair. You are rich in every way that matters.

But he has never been wealthy in any way that matters.

His arm aches.

His arm is still bandaged when he tromps his way through the district back up to Masu’s house.

He knocks on the door with the other one, since that one knows how to move. “Masu?”

He’d fucked up somehow the last time he was here, because she wasn’t happy, no matter what she wanted to say about it.

But he still had no idea what it was that he did to make her upset.

The door pops open. “Butsu?”

“Will you marry me?”

He’s thought about it, and he can trust no one else with Touka’s wellbeing. It has to be Masu then.

If she’ll have him.

A very big if.

She stares at him, for a very long and arduous moment as he tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach and the black spots hovering at the edges of his vision.

Of course, she’d say no.

Normal sane people who look at him know what the answer to that question is.

“Butsu.” She holds him by the uninjured arm while casting glances at the other one. “Why don’t you come in and lie down?” She pulls him inside, and he halfheartedly stumbles in.

Lie down.

He didn’t need to lie down.

She forces him to at least sit in a chair.

“I’ll get someone to find a medic!” she chirps, looking neither particularly thrilled or pleased by this turn of events.

Then again he doesn’t expect her to be. He protests, but it doesn’t do very much.

She steps outside briefly, has one of the small children running around outside run off to the healer’s hall to fetch someone, and comes back inside.

He drips blood on her kitchen floor.

“I assume that’s a no?”

She examines him worriedly. “You said you weren’t getting married.”

“I changed my mind.” The chair is unsteady because he wobbles in it which is clearly the chair’s fault, and not his. Masu holds him by the shoulders, where he is not injured — the flaying had only gone to the middle of the bicep for his right arm and it is all on the outside anyway and bandaged, though the bandage has gotten quite red since.

“We can talk about this later.” Her smile wobbles.

“You don’t have to say yes.” His vision wobbles as well, most likely still due to the chair. “Just—”


“Touka,” he whispers. “Would you take her if something…”

If something were to happen.

If I die, don’t let them set her back adrift.

She’s a weird little kid, you know that.

None of them would like it.

“Oh Butsu.” Masu straightens up to welcome the medic in, though the look in her eyes says that their conversation isn’t over yet.

The child Masu had sent out has fetched Kaori, one of his second cousins on the maternal side. Still a Senju, still older than him, and more than a little annoyed with the beating his arm has taken.

Touka struggles her way in, squishing past the medic’s apprentice and freezing for a moment while looking at Masu.

She’s never met Masu before.

He’d never really introduced them, and since Touka preferred to play in the pond when they weren’t training or away from the district, he hadn’t exactly bothered to.

He grimaces as Kaori pokes at his bone. “Touka, this is Masugumi. She’s—” He pauses for a moment, searching for the word. “A friend.”

My best friend.

Touka frowns, considering it before nodding once, though she still burrows her way fairly close to his uninjured side.

Kaori lectures him about the arm, making grand, sweeping hand gestures that he does not pay any attention to, and for a moment, he can pretend, perhaps, that his trip to the capital bore some fruit.


Oh yes, the persimmons.

He waits until Kaori is gone, his arm mostly recovered to its natural, not flayed state before prodding Touka into getting her pack.

Masu is sitting across from him. “Kaori-san said that you could’ve died of blood loss if she didn’t get here in time. Butsu, you have to take care of yourself. This isn’t optional, you know?”

“I got you a present,” he mutters in lieu of actually having to respond to her worrying about him. “For fucking up so badly last time that I made you sad.”

“I said you didn’t have to.”

But he did have to. “I wanted to.”

He prods Touka into opening her pack as well though she frowns at him while she does it.

“I got you persimmons.” There they are, still wrapped in their paper packet. “The plants I mean. Stem cuttings.”

The delight on her face does not hide her worry. “Butsu, why?

“I fucked something up.” He’s not too proud to admit it. Not if it’s here.

Not if it’s Masu.

“Will you tell me what it is?”

She sighs. “We were talking about marriage last time too. Do you remember what you said?”

What did he say last time?

It’s been weeks now. He doesn’t remember.

“No, I don’t.”

She takes his hand. “Do you remember when I said that I’d want to marry you?”


He combs his memory, she had not.

Had not said that at all.

“I figured you didn’t hear it like that.” She laughs, one part relieved, one part self deprecating. “And yet here we are again.”

“You want to marry me?” What exactly had she said last time? He’d been complaining about the Old Man and the endless string of marriage dates.

Had said something.

I do.

Something so simple.

“I do.” She looks at him, a touch of rue, a touch of amusement. “Though I have no doubt my mother would think it very foolish of me.”

“You cross with me?”

Touka had been frowning mightily when they finally returned to the house. And she hadn’t been her usual self while at Masu’s either.

“Hmph!” She’s still not looking at him.

“You are cross with me.”

He isn’t entirely sure how he feels about this.

Touka, though often quiet, is not known for being...cross.

Not the way he’s always cross anyway. He’s nearly always cross with someone or something.

“This isn’t trying to get you a new mother, you know.” It really isn’t. He doesn’t ask Masu to be her mother and he doesn’t ask Touka to listen to Masu.

Touka does not look convinced.

“I mean it, you don’t have to listen to what Masu tells you, and I won’t make you if you won’t. You didn’t pick her to take care of you.” He runs a hand through his hair, and tries not to think too hard. But not thinking too hard is what landed him here with a kid and an impending marriage and — well. At some point, he’s going to have to think. “This is just insurance. In case I die. You won’t get put back up for readoption anyway.”

You won’t belong to nowhere and no one.

Touka shakes her head emphatically. “HMPH!”

“Look,” he reaches for her, a hand finding the back of her head and pulling her close so that they are eye to eye,“I don’t intend to die, but you know as well as I do. Shinobi aren’t exactly known to grow old with any sort of grace.”

Iromoya’s at that point in life right now, mid forties with all the misfortunes it brings, never good enough to hold on for another ten or twenty years like some, and without other skills.

Ever since he was a child, ever since he chose to follow the path of the one skill out of a thousand that he was at least a little bit good at, he’s known that he’d die with a sword in hand.

Whether early or late, dead is dead.

He holds her by the shoulders though she scowls. “You’re old enough for me to level with you.”

She’s nearly nine now, and she’s borne enough tragedy in her short life to not need any more. But the man who picked her up is a shinobi.

Those bear more tragedy than most.

“Sometimes in life,” he mutters, still not sure when he started sounding like the Old Man, whose advice he always hated, “we have to accept that our reality is shit.”

She glances at his still injured arm, frowning.

No, again? Three small gestures, but enough to devine her meaning all the same.

“I’ll try not to do it again.”

She leans forward and graces his cheek with a kiss, scrunching her nose at the stubble. “Hm!”

Weird kid.

Didn’t he just tell her everything was shit?

A very long time ago, though it has been less than twenty years, his mother died, and as her youngest child, according to the clan by-laws, he should’ve inherited her earthly possessions since he was the one with the least when it comes to material goods to get through this life.

But he’d packed up his own belongings, what few he could call his own, and left that very night, disowning himself from his father, forfeiting his right to claim his inheritance from his mother.

He spit upon the house of his birth and was entitled to nothing from it.

Iromoya lives in that very house right now. Her savings and other possessions had been split between his other siblings, all older and more established.

Ainoko had tried to give her portion to him, but their father had put an end to that idea.

And even if the bastard didn’t, he would’ve refused. On principle, he had lost his rights. He didn’t want anyone’s pity present.

What he does not possess, is a house capable of being married in. The one he has right now doesn’t count.

“You could move into my house?”

He is helping Masu weed her garden. Lambsquarters are remarkably easy to destroy and it gives him something to do with his hands and an excuse to not look at her directly except at times when he has to.

“The pigs would be hard to move.” She has several. They’re several hundred pounds each and ornery. It could be done, but none of them would enjoy it, not even the pigs.

Her orchard would be even harder to move, though not impossible given that a woodworker of Masu’s skill could make trees grown in stone bear fruit.

But he hasn’t lived in anyone’s house since he was eighteen and had packed up all his belongings once again and moved to his own place.

Once in someone else’s house, he’d be beholden to their rules.

Whoever owns the deed to the house makes the rules.

Whoever else who lived there followed them.

“I don’t want to make you move to mine.”

It was fine enough for when he lived there alone, and he had to fix some of it when Touka moved in, but—

Masu has always been used to living well. He does not think she will like it there, in his shack of a place.

And yet, he doesn’t think he can quite…

Trust, is it.

Everyone who has had the power to make rules for him has wanted something he wasn’t capable of achieving.

But he trusts Masu more than most.

And yet does not know if that trust is enough.

“You’re right that I wouldn’t like it very much there.” She sees through him in the best of times, and now is no exception. “And this house is very nice.” She puts her hand on his wrist to make him stop weeding.

He looks up.

“But the niceness of the house isn’t why you don’t want to leave yours, is it?”

He’s lived in nicer places than the house he’s called his own for six years now, and he’s enjoyed their comforts as well.

But he had chafed under the gaze of others, all the spaces he does not seem to be able to fill, all the expectations he does not seem to rise to.

“I was just thinking.” He turns his head away. “What if I end up like Uncle Monma?”

His Uncle Monma is a bitter and petty man, father of his cousin Azumaya, not that Azumaya has much respect for him.

Long ago, Aunt Keiko had divorced him, packed up the children from their marriage, and moved off to a different house in another part of the district.

What made the matter more humiliating for his least favorite uncle is that Aunt Keiko was not a Senju by birth, and yet held all of their rights and privileges and more respect besides.

“You mean, you’re afraid that one day you will do something I find intolerable and I’ll turn you out of my house?” Masu blinks at him, as though not quite understanding of how such a thing could come to pass.

“No.” He rips up another handful of lambsquarters and wonders why it is that he has to talk. But he must, so he will. “I’m afraid that one day, I will end up bitter and poisonous because every human relationship I’ve ever tried having ended in failure that ends up looking extremely humiliating.”

He’s already most of the way there, what with having never buried the hatchet with his father before the man had the termity to die of an infection on what was supposed to be a regular mission.

What with having never quite forgiven Iromoya for their mother’s funeral or the house.

What with everything, all apologies to Sudare made in the dark after he too was dead.

“No one can promise relationship certainty in life, Butsu. Those who do are lying.” Masu lays a hand on his shoulder. “But we’ve known each other for such a long time now, and you’ve not struck me as intolerable.”

At eighteen, he had vowed to himself when he moved out of the big house to never live in someone else’s house again.

But the turning years make mockery of himself.

“I’ll move in, if you’d have me.”

He will not set Touka adrift in a clan of people who do not particularly even like her if he dies.

It does not matter much to him if other children are, for they must find their own way in the world, but a year and a half ago he’d taken in his third brother’s kid so her affairs and her future are his concern.

Always his concern.

“If you will be content here, the house will always have space for you.”

He will be almost relieved to move away from the shack even if it had belonged solely to him.

They are married at noon on a hot summer day at the big house, more of Masu’s family members present than his own, although the Old Man is there as his representative, head of his branch of the family and the person who really has organized the whole affair.

The red and gold invitations with their requisite round double fortune cakes, the decorations, the pre wedding photographs, the expensive tea and tea ceremony, the clothing — he now has a red and gold wedding changshan to go with the other new ones he’d been forced to get before the Flower Festival — all the old friends of his grandfather and various business representatives in attendance, which, as the groom he had to be introduced to…

The Old Man had found the fortune teller to decide on an auspicious day as well, and nearly all of the traditional engagement presents.

He’d paid for perhaps a tenth of it, which was enough to still make him fear for the lack of bao in his near future.

He half suspects the reason why the Old Man is so insistent on making this the largest wedding the clan has seen in the past five years or so is because Masu’s branch of the family didn’t like their branch of the family, and even more specifically didn’t like him.

This is a long story involving a dumpling recipe, soy sauce, his father being a small and petty man, the mistaken belief that he is some sort of vagrant, and a general lack of will to enjoy the company of shinobi in the first place.

He understands that this is true when he catches one of Masu’s maternal aunties whispering at her just before the ceremony.

“ — poor enough that he’ll be living in your house? And with that sort of job he’s got, your household will be depending on your woodworking for years yet.”

He pauses there, not turning the corner, just listening.

“Well,” Masu says, voice with a sharp edge of steel that he has very very rarely heard her use, “Auntie Kumadashi is of course very wise in her life choices, but since I am only a little bit of roofing frame I will beg my wise Auntie’s infinite patience for having chosen such an unsuitable husband.”

He tries not to take it personally.

He fails.

Masu’s aunt isn’t done. “And with that child he’s already got, following him into that sort of profession...never going to be properly married, never amount to anything—”

He rounds the corner. “As if a child’s only value is to bring glory to their elders.”

Because that is what people mean when they say a child never amounted to anything. They didn’t add glory to their older family members, not someone they could brag about having raised.

He’s heard it often, for he’s never amounted to anything.

“Well I never.” Kumadashi stares at him, open mouthed. “To come see the bride before the ceremony?”

“And if I didn’t come, you’d do your best to make sure there wouldn’t be a ceremony.” Over her aunt’s shoulder, Masu smiles at him, strained. They’d been at this for a while then, which is why Masu had brought out steel.

“Without etiquette or any respect for your elders!”

He smiles, teeth showing. It does not make him look friendly. “I don’t know why you’re surprised. I’m famous for not respecting my elders.”

That does finally drive Masu’s aunt away in a huff, with threats of telling the Old Man all about his conduct.

Good riddance. He doubts the old man will care.

“After we are married,” Masu says suddenly, still quite steely. “I do not believe we will be inviting Auntie Kumadashi over unless she can manage to practice what she preaches.”

He sighs, resting his hands on Masu’s shoulders. “I doubt she will believe she needs an invitation to come tell you all about my failings.”

“I like them,” she says, carefully putting on her earrings while looking in the mirror. Rubies to match her eyes. Jade to match the leaves in her hair. “And I love you.”

Said so simply.

Said so simply, how could he doubt or think otherwise?


He is sitting in a tea house further east than is strictly typical of Senju territory, this time waiting for several clients to send word of jobs that need completing by way of messenger bird — this teahouse catered specially to shinobi and those who wanted to get into contact with them and the Old Man had sent him to pick up the letters.


The first interjection hadn’t really bothered him much because anyone who’s searching for a ‘Mister’ is not looking for him.

No one who is searching for a ‘Sir’ isn’t looking for him either, but—

Someone has bumped into his table.

“Didn’t your old man teach you any manners?” He catches the teacup about to fall off the table by the side, steady enough that not a drop of tea spills. “Or does your old man have to teach you now?”

“Sir! Sir!” the voice continues excitably. “Don’t you remember me?”

He glances up.

As a matter of fact, he does remember this unfortunate rude monkey child.

This particular boy, aged roughly fourteen or thereabouts, is that one Sarutobi child who he had thrown into a bush some months ago because he’d been running in his general direction while screaming loudly and waving a large stick.

He hadn’t bothered to stay around to figure out the boy’s name.

“No, can’t say I do.”

“Sir, you threw me into a bush exactly seventy-four days ago!”

He blinks slowly, trying to figure out why the child would announce this to a whole teahouse of guests and when he could possibly get him to shut up so that the Old Man doesn’t figure out that he’s been throwing children into bushes.

“No, I didn’t.” He takes a sip of his tea. “That was some other person.”

The small Sarutobi considers this before shaking his head. “No, it was definitely you, sir.”

He sighs. “Are you here for a rematch with the bush?”

“Can you teach me how to throw people into bushes?” The small Sarutobi looks far too excited by the idea of sending people sailing into bushes.

Where is this child’s minder? Normal clans don’t send children out on missions by themselves.

Furthermore, where is the man who’s supposed to be giving him the letters he came here to pick up?

“No, I will not teach you to throw people into bushes.” Ah, there's the reason he’s in this teahouse at all instead of going home.

“Your order, sir.”

He stuffs the letters into his sleeve seal. “Thank you.” He nods once to the waiter, who moves away, and then turns back to the Sarutobi boy. “Where’s your minder?”

The boy observes him, head tilted. “Minder?”

“The person you came here with.”

The small Sarutobi wilts impressively. “Daisuke told me to stay in the teahouse.” The boy makes the most put upon face. “Said he didn’t want me to cramp his style. Say, sir, what does that even mean anyway?”

He frowns. “Your brother told you to stay out of the way while he’s going out to chat up girls?”

Something about this does not sit well with him.

The small Sarutobi puffs up, suddenly indignant. “Is that what it means?” the boy cries, suddenly very offended. “I didn’t know he was going to do that. I thought he was out doing something cool!”

Precisely because — and this is where he feels irritation for Sudare — his third brother had always done this to him, and now just over a decade later, he was stuck raising the man’s child while the man himself is very dead.

He knocks back the rest of his tea and rises to his feet. “Let’s go have a talk with your brother, shall we?”

Sarutobi Daisuke better start praying to any god who would hear him because that young man will be thoroughly skinned when he gets his hands on him.

“It is the end for me.” He is hiding in their kitchen, his hands over his head, still trying to process what is happening.

He’d been thanked.

By a matron no less.


Like he is some sort of man to be thanked by matrons for doing nice things.

All he’d wanted to do was send the child back to wherever he came from and whoever was supposed to be watching him.



He had found Sasuke’s older brother chatting up a pretty village girl and in a fit of temper, had dragged them both back to Sarutobi land by the ear.

Auntie Irori would be thrilled. She loves dragging people — especially him — by the ear.

And then he’d been thanked by their mother, and he had promptly fled.

“Is it really?” Masu asks, frowning with concentration as she gently coaxes the cherry sapling on her table to bend.

“I shall never be able to show my face out in public again.” He declares, laying his head against the table. “I was seen doing something nice and responsible, my reputation of being a wicked and evil shinobi is in tatters, completely ruined, never to be seen again.” He pauses to think about it for a moment. “I will have to become a dissolute pantry rat.”

“Hmmm?” Masu, still bending the rapidly growing weeping cherry, doesn’t look up.

“Yes,” he sighs, blowing a lock of hair out of his face. “You can feed me bao through the door and I shall fight off all the other pantry rats to assert my dominance over the horde of vermin.”

She laughs at this, a light thing spun pretty like a spider’s web in the morning dew. “Most valiant defender of the grain store.” After a time, she asks, “but what will you do about Touka?”

“She can live there with me.” His plan for how to avoid detection by matrons wishing to offer their thanks is not extremely well thought out.

He’s pretty sure that if he and Touka were to live in the pantry for any length of time, they would end up very grumpy with each other.

“Where?” Masu asks, tapping her chin with a finger.

“The pantry.” He reconsiders it. How will they sleep in the pantry?

Being out on a job is one thing, because he’s been out and slept in plenty of weird places with very little comfort, but being at home is another thing.

Being at home means at least being comfortable.

“But I’ll be lonely if you both go live in the pantry.” Masu makes a face at him that looks like a pout.

“I suppose,” he readjusts his plan, “I will just have to soldier on despite the ruined tatters of my reputation.”

“That’s it.” Masu turns back to her weeping cherry. “You don’t really want to go hide in the pantry, Butsu, there’s nothing you like to eat in there.”

He doesn’t know why she has to be so reasonable, but there it is.

There it is.

Being a coward hiding in the pantry is not on his to do list for this life.

He brings Touka with him on the next mission, because she is a thief child and he is in need of someone who is good at thieving.

Some angry businessman wants an expensive gift back from a former friend that he had had a falling out with and is willing to pay a shinobi to do it while said friend is out of town.

Or at least, that is the man’s cover story and since he’s willing to pay money for it, Butsuma isn’t about to bother checking if it’s true or not.

He’d scouted the situation surrounding the house before swinging back for Touka.

“This is the box you have to find and fetch.” He gives her the drawing of the box that the client’s representative had given him. “Doesn’t matter what’s in it, we’re not supposed to know or care. It’s the box that’s important.”

The box is expensive as well, mother of pearl inlay and zitan wood, which he would be more impressed by if he were not a Senju married to a clan woodworker.

But since zitan is rare in the wild and expensive to carve by normal means, the box itself is ornate and expensive.

She studies the sketch of the box, noting the auspicious symbols and the paired butterflies. “Hm!”

She’s grown happier recently, having seemingly settled into her skin.

“I’ll be there.” He wouldn’t send her there alone. “And after that, there’s another toy I’ve found for you to play with.”

He’d picked up a handheld electric lantern the last time he was in a city, and since he didn’t have any need for it, he figured that she could have it as a toy.

(He will not admit it is because he has no idea how to turn it on.)

She looks up at him then, dark eyes huge against the backdrop of her face. “Hm?”


For the moment, they have a house to break into and a box to steal.


He’d been obliged to come to the monthly assembly up at the Big House because he’d been in the district and the Old Man had sent him word that his presence was wanted.

At present, he rather regrets the whole process. Nothing good comes of having to deal with his uncles and other, older men than him talking about their grievances and making fools of themselves in front of an audience.

“No one’s seen an Uchiha now, for months!” Uncle Monma is his least favorite uncle. A man with too much of a need for pointing out rules and even more of a need for using his own age and generational standing as a bludgeon to get younger family members to fall in line.

Being who he is, he’s been getting bludgeoned by the man for years now, since he could never manage to be proper.

“Didn’t take you to be someone who cared about where Uchiha go, Uncle,” he mutters. If he’s going to have to be here, might as well get his kicks in muttering fouly at someone who isn’t allowed to start a fight with him.

Knowing Uncle Monma, he’s too much of a coward to press the issue anyway.

It is odd though, if no one’s seen an Uchiha for months.

Typically, you can count on at least one person to have seen an Uchiha, been victimized by an Uchiha, or victimized an Uchiha roughly every month or so.

The time he’d spent carting Tajima around notwithstanding, since someone else had been victimized by an Uchiha during that time period as well.

“Knowing your history,” his uncle puffs up impressively, “you’re in cahoots with them and playing us all for a laugh.”

“Oh, give it a rest, Monma.” One of his maternal uncles, who had, for the most part, never approved of his father and therefore didn’t approve of their whole branch of the family either. “What are you arguing with a little boy for?”

He resents being called a little boy. He’s nearly twenty-five, married, and had been living on his own for seven years.

He spots Iromoya watching the scene with avid interest from across the room and makes sure to scowl at his oldest brother, who like the coward he is, averts his eyes.

“Little?” Uncle Monma turns to the maternal uncle who’d criticised him. “He’s twenty-five. Is he not allowed to be criticised for his actions?”

“Boys.” The Old Man looks heavenward, though inside all one can see is the ceiling instead of the Milky Way. “Do we have to do this every time?”

That settles the gathered crowd, though not by very much.

“I have called you all here today for a very simple reason.” The Old Man looks out at them all gathered here. “And that reason has to do with changes that I wish to implement in the district which we will have to allocate budgeting for both now and in the future.”

Somehow, he does not foresee this going very well.

“I would like for us to have electrical lines in the district, and to that end, I believe there will need to be a concerted effort to divert a significant portion of the clan funds to this project in the next two years to see it happen.”

“Why do we need electricity?” Oh, Iromoya. He’s annoyed already. “We’re not city dwellers, and it comes with such a heavy price tag. Surely the money could be better spent elsewhere?”

This gets a few nods. Spending the clan’s money has always been a sore point.

The clan head gets the final say on where to spend it, but if the Old Man doesn’t budget well there’d be hell to pay in talk and complaints.

“Do you like paying money for your lamp oil?”

The clan does not mine and therefore gets kerosene and other coal related supplies from merchants who travel north and transport such things.

He only knows this because of having to live with the Old Man for so long in his childhood.

His punishment for making mistakes as a child, if he wasn’t sent to go meditate with the monks and eat horrible vegetables, would be to copy and calculate accounts. It’s been years since he had to deal with any of that, but he still remembers some of it, and remembers even more clearly the price tag attached to having and regularly using an oil lamp.

“If we do this we have to pay for running the electric lines and the lamp oil.”

Sometimes, he wonders if Iromoya is really stupid, or if he just pretends to be because he can’t be bothered to use his brain.

“Yes, and then we won’t have to ever pay for the lamp oil again.” He turns so he doesn’t have to look at his oldest brother anymore, the rest of the men in the room staring at the two of them, some in open shock. “Do you not know what an investment is or do you just want us all to pay for oil lamps that start fires all the time?”

He doesn’t even like electric lighting. He finds it unnatural. It’s sometimes too bright, and it would cost a fortune to install it in every room of every house like they’re nobles.

But his desire to smash Iromoya’s face in is too great.

And the temptation to prove that Iromoya is stupid in front of an audience is too great to resist.

If electricity will serve as an appropriate bludgeoning tool to make his oldest brother pay for it, well, he’d sing its praises.

Chapter Text

“You are shaking fists &

trembling teeth. I know: You

did not mean to be cruel.

That does not mean you were


— Venetta Octavia, “THE BURNING,” Oculus

He returns home from paying Nagare the genjutsu specialist one afternoon in early summer, walking home in the sunset along the main road, the back of his black changshan sticking to his skin.

He does not like the old genjutsu specialist and likes even less that Touka has taken a liking to the old man, but no one can deny that Nagare is the best the clan has to offer and that he was the one who suggested that Touka learn genjutsu in the first place.

It was his own mouth that suggested it, and now he pays the price for it, both in coin and in pride.

She bounces along beside him, swinging their hands back and forth.

Clearly then, whatever he has sacrificed for this, both coin and pride, has been worth the price.

She has gotten new outfits recently, simple enough ones that do not indicate any particular sensibility for pretty or aesthetic, but she’d been quite happy with those either way.

Masu had taken to doing her hair in the morning, so now she no longer struggles with his horrid braiding skills either.

They make their way up the garden walk together, and Touka peels away from him to clatter off to some other place.

“Be back for dinner, you hear?” he calls after her while standing on the porch.

She waves a hand at him to show that she’s heard before vanishing off to someplace beyond the pigpen.

“You spoil her.”

He glances over at Masu, who looks back at him levelly, without judgement or dramatics.

It is only fact to her.

“I do not.” He provides what he can provide, in the hopes that one day, she will not need him to provide anything to survive in this world.

But for now, she is a child (though his mind tries to argue, a much older child than he was when everything started to go wrong).

“What would you call it, then?” Masu asks. “It’s not as if I don’t love her, but you’re the one who spoils her.”

“I,” he says, with great emphasis, as if that would help him, “do not spoil anyone, thank you.”

Somehow, he still feels like he’s losing.

The Old Man sends him out in town to the teahouse to pick up more jobs. With the lawlessness that’s erupted since the old emperor died, there are possibly more jobs than there are people to do them.

He goes without armor because the Old Man had told him to stop scowling and look friendly.

And also because it’s a short trip, unlikely to take long.

In hindsight, this was a mistake.

He orders a pot of jasmine tea — no food because he expects to be home soon — and settles in to wait for the waiter to bring him the job listings and information with his bill.

There’s an opera going on at the small stage in the front, wealthier patrons sitting up on the balcony; he recognizes the words and peers at the front, trying to divine if it actually is that performance.

Asking if there is a man under heaven who is a hero.

A Warlord Bids Farewell to His Concubine.

An audacious performance in their troubled times.

He sips his tea.

“Your bill, sir.” The papers are laid out on the table, and he glances down at them briefly before picking them up to slip into his sleeve.

Outside, the sounds of a fight break over the sounds of the opera.

“We’re sorry. Spare him, he’s just a boy, he doesn’t understand.”

He half recognizes the voice.

He rises.

Outside, a man, dressed in the two-pieced outfit of Earth Country, grinding the heel of his shoe on a young man’s hand. “Are all Fire Country bastards so rude?”

Beyond, bowing—

Sarutobi Sasuke. “I’m sorry, sir.”

On stage, the actor asks once more—

Asking if there is a man under heaven who is a hero.

They haven’t fallen to such depths as to watch a stranger bully a neighbor.

And he’s never been very good at keeping his hands in his sleeves.

‘You!” He steps out of the teahouse out into the street. “You got something you need to say to your old man?”

The Earth Country stranger turns to him with a scowl, clearly not thrilled with the way he said your old man. “Who are you?”

Which, well, it was rude. He doesn’t expect the man to be thrilled.

In the dusty road, Sarutobi Daisuke hastily draws back his hand, bruised and bleeding. So he does give a shit about his brother, who knew?

“Already told you.” He strides forward until they are almost nose to nose. “I’m your old man.” To the Sarutobi brothers now behind him, he signs a quick ‘get out.’ “You got anything to say, you can say it to me.”

“I’ve got nothing to say to bastards.”

He staggers backwards, front suddenly hot.

There’s a rip in his changshan, and when he pulls his hand away, it’s scarlet.

“You bastard,” he snaps, but it’s a weak, airless thing.

Blood gushes down his front, wet and hot.

He lurches.

“Pathetic. This whole place is pathetic.”

The stranger’s half turned away as if to go back to harassing the Sarutobi — they’re only children really — When you come to death’s door, harness life itself.

He has no chakra, it having fled the moment he was stabbed, but he has the rage he was born with and blood on his hands —

“I said,” he grabs the man’s arm, “I’m your old man, you bastard,” and pushes.

A golden lotus blooms and shatters.

The stranger is thrown further down the street, landing with a heavy thump.

The man does not rise again.

He struggles to his feet amidst the sudden lurching feeling in his gut — the damned Earth Country bastard had pulled the knife out of him before dying — and flees.

Law enforcement will be after him soon enough for having killed a foreign guest, even though he doesn’t expect to be living very long, with or without law enforcement catching up to him.

Which would be simple enough. He’s absolutely dripping blood on all the leaves and branches and literally anything below the gut that he’s passing in a vain desperate attempt to figure out what to do and how to not have this connected in some way back to the rest of the clan.


If they catch him, they will know that it is not some other clan — he wears the Senju mon, and even beyond that, there is no way that anyone would ever believe he’s an Uchiha.


He recognizes that stupid voice.

He’s a bit surprised to be seeing Tajima out this way, having not seen him for at least two years since the one time he’d beat off a Hyuuga who’d been about to slap the man.

Knowing how thin and frail Tajima is and how Hyuuga can slap people hard enough to stop their hearts, well. He figures he did the man a favor.

“Fancy seeing you here.” He grits his teeth because he doesn’t doubt that this will be the day he dies.

He wasn’t capable of beating the Uchiha in a straight fight three years ago when he dragged the man home from Water Country, and he’s incapable of it now.

Especially now, slowly bleeding out underneath his ripped changshan after having been knifed in the gut. 

Infections are hard to burn out of gut wounds, and his vision doesn’t exactly suggest that he’s in any shape to care about it. Things going all blurry when he knows they’re not supposed to be doesn’t imply anything good.

The Uchiha approaches, warily, hand on his sword hilt. “Butsu-chan, you don’t look like you’re about to survive.”

Oh, how the fucking tables have tabled. He would laugh, but it might be more of a wheeze, and he’s unlikely to give Uchiha Tajima of all people the satisfaction.

“How extremely observant of you,” he mutters. “Congratulations, you’ve won a million ryo.”

“Will you finally lay off the letters asking me to pay you money if we’re even?” There’s a vague amount of pity in the Uchiha’s eyes and he considers trying to claw it off, but the quickening of his heartbeat makes blood gush faster, slippery and hot.

“Fuck, of course I’d stop if I’m dead. You ever heard of a ghost demanding bill payment?”

“Are you going to let me help you, or do I absolutely have to deliver your corpse to a little girl?” Tajima circles him, still wary.

He thinks of Touka, half a year off of turning twelve.

He thinks of Masu, still expecting him, of the child they are expecting.

He thinks of the Old Man, in ailing health.

Sudare’s death nearly five years ago had hurt the Old Man more than it previously appeared.

But then, that’s the way of things, isn’t it? Burying a child.

Burying a grandchild.

There’s no one who’s willing to do that.

He hauls himself to his feet.

With great alarm, the Uchiha leans back, eyes red, like pinwheels in the wind.

“You feel no pain.”

He hisses, chakra flaring in an attempt to throw off the genjutsu. Pain is how he knows he’s still alive.

And genjutsu — he hates that more than most.

It snaps.

He nearly pitches forward, suddenly shocked and dizzy.

Tajima catches his shoulder. “Please, just—” the rest of the words are muffled.

He slips and fades away completely.

He is vaguely aware of moving, the sound of grass and branches, air and pain.

But his eyelids are too heavy to lift, and he does not know where the Uchiha is attempting to drag him now.

It doesn’t matter.

He lingers between this world and hell, images of a yellow bridge made of dirt rising above a dried up river haunting the back of his eyelids.

His father stands on the wrapping porch of his childhood home, pipe in hand, eyes blank.

His mother. My littlest.



Blinding white.


He wakes to Touka crying hoarsely on his chest.

She’d stopped crying at night about a month or so after she’d come to live with him.

And hadn’t cried over much of anything else since.

He isn’t an emotionally rich man, for anger could never be rich in anything except destruction, and most of what he has is anger, what little tenderness he’d gathered for offering others only scraps.

It wasn’t that he was never offered it as a child or a young man, just that he never knew what to do with unconditional love and never trusted that it didn’t come with a contract.

He raises a hand and brushes her hair out of her face. “Don’t leave it messy,” he mutters, throat too dry to manage too much else. If it keeps getting in your eyes, you’ll end up with a squint.

Weird kid.

“Thought you died.” She gulps, still sniffly.

He blinks. “You talk?”

He’d always figured that it wasn’t that she can’t, but rather that she wouldn’t and didn’t want to. And he’d always hated being made to do things he didn’t want to do.

She shakes her head. “Mmm.”

“Come here.”

He raises an arm, though that takes effort, and she scrambles towards him, suddenly bawling.

He isn’t quite sure how to feel about that.

He’d thought fondly of her, in moments when he wasn’t thinking too hard, but her sudden deluge of emotions — had she cried like this when Sudare died?

It’d been what robbed her of her voice, those years ago, the death of a father who had by all accounts, doted on her.

And he has done as he has done, never quite his best or his entire potential, but, well, it seems like it’s earned her tears anyhow.

“It’s not worth it, is it?” he asks, though she draws back, offended, but does not smack him, before resuming her previous position of trying to adhere to him.

He pats her awkwardly.

“Chichi,” she begins, still crying, and his breath catches in his throat.

Her father is not here, but she knows that.

If so, then that means…

“What did you call me?”

She sniffs her face buried in the covers. “Chichi!” After another moment, she repeats it, less sure of herself.

There are many things he could say to this. I’m your uncle, comes to mind.

Your father wouldn’t like that, he’s a jealous man, is another.

But instead, he says, “did you leave your lessons with Nagare early?”

“HMPH!” She raises her face just enough so that he can see that she is sulking.

“I expect you to make up that time later.” His mouth twitches. “I don’t pay him to do nothing.”

“Hrmm.” She makes a face at him before settling again against his side.

Maybe that is enough.

Maybe it isn’t. He has no way of knowing how the balance tips when all is done and ordered in the King of Hell’s book of lives.

“Thank you for bringing him back.” Masu, speaking to…


“We’re all ever so grateful. You must understand.”

Who else would it be? The Uchiha is the only one who could’ve brought him back.

“It — well, I owed him a debt. It was easy enough to pay it.”

And indeed, here they are, the door of his room having opened and closed.

“You could stay for dinner?” Masu swings the tail of her braid to the front — ah, she had been in the fields then, for her to be wearing her hair like so — and fiddles with it.

“That’s an Uchiha, Masu.” There’s a reason he never mentioned Masu to the Uchiha the last time the man was in the district.

No self respecting shinobi worth their salt mentioned anyone civilian to people from other clans.

He will not call her wife, or best friend while the Uchiha is here, even though it surely must be obvious.

Why else would a pregnant woman be so worried about him? What else could she be if not his wife?

And yet there is nothing he can do and nothing he can say about it that truly masks the feeling of ice in his chest to match the sore ache of chakra healing in his gut.

Tajima snorts, affronted. “First thing you could say about me? Not even a thank you?”

“Did I ever hear a thank you out of you?” He’d carted the man across two countries away from pursuing enemies, and he had never gotten a thank you or a single ryo of recompense.

Though, he supposes, all things being equal, a life is a life and it appears that the debt between them has been cleared — more or less.

Touka stirs just long enough to cast Tajima a look.

The man reflexively flinches. “I should get going.”

The Uchiha moves backwards towards the door as Masu moves closer to the bedside chair, distance between them separating though that doesn’t mean much in the way of things.

The Uchiha knows now, the face of the most vulnerable person in his household and where that household stands in the district.

If that doesn’t bother him, he doesn’t exactly know what would.

“Don’t let my uncle bite you, Twig.”

It’s still more dangerous outside of the house than inside it, and by the affronted noise Tajima makes, he knows it.

“Quit being a shinobi?” Masu asks him, after Touka is asleep and Tajima has long fled for the hills. “We don’t need that income. We can live on what I earn. It’ll be enough.”

And it might be enough to live on, but he still has his pride.

Barely pushing twenty-seven.

He’s not old enough to sit at home doing nothing, not even —

Not even his father had done that, and the man had been more in love with his pipe and his idea of being respected than—

Oh, but what does it matter?

“And what will you have me do at home?”

He is drawn and tired, more tired than he’s ever been in his life.

It was just a stabbing, but he’d nearly bled out completely between where he was and the way home.

Auntie Irori had opened her mouth to give him a piece of her mind, but one look at his face and she’d—

Almost cried.

He still isn’t entirely sure what to name what he’d felt at that.

What can he feel about that?

“You can train Touka more.” Masu sighs. “You can help in the garden. I don’t need you to do anything, Butsu. I just—”

“You don’t want me to die.”

The problem is that all men die, one way or another, one day or another. Early or late depends on fate and fate alone.

“I don’t want you to treat your own life like it’s worthless.” She sets her hand over his on the covers, and he struggles briefly to put into words what exactly it is that he means.

He does not want to die. He merely accepts that one day he will, and that day might be sooner than most people commonly expect for themselves.

But he wants to live and to grow old, because there are people he does not wish to part from.

All he manages though, is “it’s not.”

“I never noticed before, but husband, I would like for you to be able to meet our son. I would like for you to still be here when Touka grows up, no matter what she chooses to do with that adulthood.” She sighs, worry creased into the lines around her mouth and eyes. “Let this be enough, Butsu. Come home to us?”

“I was never good at anything else.”

No, he never was.

Clan of a thousand skills, and he’d never been good at anything except using his fists, pissing people off, and killing.

He does not wish to live on the merits of his wife, for people have always claimed he was marrying up and unworthy of her time — and being married for two years has not changed that in the slightest.

“You’ve never considered yourself good at anything else. But you are. You could be good at something else if you’d spare the time for it.” But she relents, because in the short term, Masu is relenting. “At least for a few months, Butsu? Your grandfather might need you to help with managing the workmen for the electric lines when they are set to arrive?”

And he gives ground as well, what little he can give when argued with so gently. “Alright. At least for these few months.”

She smiles, and he argues with himself that that is enough.

Not long after, he wakes to find his grandfather at his bedside.

The Old Man shouldn’t be here — his health is bad, and his bones are frail, and coming all the way down here from the big house? No, he shouldn’t have, and Butsuma isn’t quite sure why no one stopped and dissuaded him.

“Who did this to you?” The Old Man searches his face, suddenly old, reaching for his hand. “Butsuma, who did this to you?

But he knows that the Old Man doesn’t actually want to hear it.

His grandfather’s hand shakes with age, skin like paper, dried out and soft, no calluses left.

What sort of retribution can a man of ninety-one in ill health promise?

He shakes his head. “It’s not important.”

He needs no retribution, and he fears none for himself.

But to have brought such grief to those who care for him…

He falters.

“You were nearly killed.” There’d been so many tears in recent days, but the Old Man has plenty of grandsons, great-grandsons even.

Why sound so distraught over him?

“I was stupid.”

He does not want a retribution that they cannot afford, and they cannot afford this, which means he has to tell the Old Man, just in case anyone else is stupid enough for the local law enforcement to catch and try for his crime.

There are many of them, living here in the district, enough that there is a certain amount of pull from bearing the name of Senju, but that does not mean they are above the law.

Shinobi skirt the law and hope to live outside of it, but to stand accused of murder and have that claim be proven… well, shinobi are men who die like anyone else when it comes down to it.

“There was an Earth Country man.” He wishes his voice didn’t go soft and small. He had not felt shame over his failings when he was a boy, and he shouldn’t start new habits now at twenty-seven, but the nature of this failing is not a boy skipping his lessons to go climb trees and dig up orchids for a girl.

The nature of this failing is that he is a man who cannot keep his hands in his sleeves.

“Stepping on a boy’s hand.” He presses his lips together, unclear of what exactly to say. He’d never told the Old Man about the matron or the talking to village girls, and he definitely didn’t tell the Old Man about throwing Sasuke into a bush. “We had an altercation. I killed him.”

Well, that’s plain enough what happened.

Bastard had pulled a knife on him.

And he’d killed the man.

He knows the law will say that he is wrong, a murder deserving of death, and he might be a murderer, and he might deserve death, but he feels no shame for this incident.

He cannot keep his hands in his sleeves.

He cannot keep his words to himself.


“I’m right, aren’t I?” he asks, more resigned than anything. “No one can do anything about it.”

It’s a brittle thing to say out loud, but both of them in this room know it to be true. Justice will not have its scales balanced here, not by the law, and not by the clan.

“You’re home now,” the Old Man says, nodding, almost to himself. “We’ll make sure nothing happens to you, now that you are.”

And for a moment, he is a child again, hiding from people he has angered behind his grandfather’s name.

He goes to the temple, not because he truly believes in the teachings of the Buddha, but because in that one moment, between the knife burying itself into him and his palm actually hitting the man—

When you come to death’s door, harness life itself.

When he was younger, he had never understood it. How could anyone harness life itself at death’s door?

And what is life itself if not chakra?


Whatever force that had guided him, it had not been chakra.

The building is not empty when he arrives, doors already open for the day though it is so early that dew clings to the bottom edge of his changshan, soaking his boots.

Incense curls through the air, smoke blue in the weak light of morning, and softly, a junior disciple taps at a wooden fish.

“You’re up early.” He doesn’t mean to say so, for he also assumes that monks barely sleep, but the head monk of this temple is his grandfather’s younger brother, and they are nearly of an age, though one would not assume so by looking.

One would not assume so by hearing them converse either, for all who inhabit the temple — though very few are formerly Senju — have left home completely, their former names erased from the records.

To enter the temple proper is to cut oneself off from the outside world, all former ties and boundaries meaningless.

Senju Idobata has no younger brother by the name of Senju Ikake.

He knows this only because he has spent far too much time copying out old records for him to not pick up anything along the way.

Yukimasa glances at him. “I’ve been waiting for you to arrive.”

Which is absolutely impossible, because the last time he was here was when he was ten and he has never given any indication of wishing to return.

But this is the sort of oddity that monks say on the regular, when they say anything at all.

“You’re lying.” He hadn’t told anyone he was coming up here either, though he is primarily still tender and moving awkwardly.

He doesn’t know where to go next, but.

Life itself.

Death’s door.

“You have questions,” Yukimasa turns back to the wooden fish, seemingly done with mapping whatever has happened to him in the past seventeen years. “Ask.”

“Years ago now,” does Yukimasa even remember? “You told me that when at death’s door, I ought to harness life itself.”

“That is a memory and not a question, Butsuma.”

Save him from the petty semantics monks engage in.

“It crushed the man’s chest, if that’s what you’re asking.” He stands there awkwardly, the junior disciple still tapping the wooden fish, Yukimasa’s thick eyebrows drawing together. “Is life itself supposed to kill people?”

Yukimasa glances at him, once, sharply. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“Aren’t we supposed to cherish and respect life?”

Why would life kill?

“You used the divine push?”

He remembers the heat of his own blood coming away on his hand, the frost covered shock, poisoned, the sudden caving, the—

“There was nothing divine about it.”

It had been a push, one last act, blood on his hands, but there was nothing divine about it.

“If that was what you told me about,” all those years ago, sitting on the steps of the temple, a slice of watermelon in hand, “then it was a technique that came from this temple. Why would it kill?”

He has killed before.

He will kill again.

But this had not been what he expected.

Yukimasa shakes his head. “You do not understand. And you will not understand even if I tell you.”

“Why?” He has always hated that part of being here in the temple. It always conspires to make him smaller, whether by age or by knowledge, claiming that he is too blind to see all that can be seen.

But staring at a point in the beams is all just wood.

"You could harness life itself, but you cannot properly live it. Tell me, Butsuma, twenty-seven years on this earth, and what is it that you fight for?"

He stumbles backwards.

“You are so covered with dust; it is the life you’ve chosen, but must you choose to be blind, deaf and dumb to that which loves you too?”

Yukimasa starts to walk away.

“Go home to your wife and children, Butsuma, and be thankful that you could return home.”

He stumbles out of the temple.

No answers live here. Only questions.

He returns home to Masu, in the house that he said he would live in, but has not often done so in the past year or more that they were married. “I’ll stay.”

Her relief shames him more than anything Yukimasa might ever say.

His oldest son is born on a clear day in late October, and he is still nominally resting and recovering from his stabbing earlier in the year.

But more truthfully, he is hiding from the law on clan property until the ‘murder’ of an Earth Country foreigner grows cold.

The new emperor bears little resemblance to his father, who had ever been measured in diplomatic relationships with their western neighbors. Instead, the rumors spilling from the capital only grow, claiming any number of wild things, but—

Most grievous among them, the claim that their new His Majesty seeks the secret of immortality through Earth Country knowledge and does not care how many lives he sacrifices on that pyre.

So here he is, hiding, because law enforcement would have his head for the murder of a man who bullied and killed thoughtlessly on someone else’s soil.

It is easier to think about children and names than this.

“You were always the better at naming.”

And Masu always was. Whenever there’d been puppies or kittens up at the big house when they were children, she was the one who looked and gave them names.

As for himself, well.

Touka came with a name more delicate and pretty than he’d expected out of Sudare, who among other things, really lacked an imagination, and off theme enough that he suspects that her mother named her.

He hasn’t had to name anything.

“We don’t have to decide yet,” Masu leans against his shoulder, midwives already packed up and gone after ascertaining that all was well. “It’ll be recorded a month from now.”

“Knowing you, you’ve got an idea already.”

Knowing her, she’s decided on something and is just waiting for a particular time to tell him.

“Well,” Masu says, looking as though she is thinking though he knows she is not. “I was thinking, Hashirama.”

“Hashirama? What’s wrong with just Hashira?”

He’d always hated the -ma in his own name. Too pretentious and too much taken from his own father for him to like the idea of it.

He still doesn’t know why his mother has cursed him with that second character — not like he can ask since she’s dead and has been so for now twenty years — and he’s entirely unsure why Masu would… continue the trend.

“I like Hashirama,” she says serenely. “He’ll be named after his father.”

“He can be named after his old man without a pretentious god realm name.” He sounds more grumpy about this than he really means.

He had been named after the Buddhist realm by his mother, a prayer for divinity and grace, aspirations for something higher that he had never achieved.

Who is he to saddle a boy with such aspirations once more?

“They have pillars in temples. You could leave it as just Hashira.”

“We live in troubled times.” Masu sighs. “And he will grow to be a boy in them, a man if he is unlucky. Shouldn’t we wish to give him a little grace?”

A good enough reason, if never the one that people will assume for why Hashirama is Hashirama.

Because it is he who must submit the name to the family book, because the wider clan has rarely looked well upon him.

They will assume that his son’s name is a measure of his own hubris, and they will be wrong.

So be it.

“If that is what you want, I will let them know.”


It’d never been a fight really. What Masu wants from him, she gets.

Touka had been entrusted with the baby, who she had prodded repeatedly on the cheek for reasons unclear to him before picking up her brother and promptly wandering out of the room.

He follows at a sedate pace as she slips on her outdoor shoes as though they were socks, depressing the heel in a way that means Masu will surely scold her later — handmade shoes are less common these days, though Masu still makes them, a labor of love more intensive than anything else she’d do in the fields or the orchards.

Touka, holding the baby very securely against herself on this crisp autumn morning, trots through the district, nodding at the various people who say hello to her, all the way up to the big house.

She brings Hashirama inside to see the Old Man after she has deemed Hashirama sufficiently cooed over by various aunties, though he has no idea what that metric is.


He lingers by the doorway, watching as Hashirama is presented to the Old Man, who, despite recent ill health, beams. “He is a cute one, isn’t he?”


Whatever amount of talking she’d done at his bedside while crying and then falling asleep while he was recovering had probably been a fluke, because in her natural happy state, his Touka doesn’t need spoken words.

Sudare’s Touka might’ve had them, maybe, years ago now.

She’s nearly twelve now, and for the first time, he considers that every year, Sudare’s time in her life matters less, ever shrinking.

“And now you’ve got another great-grandson,” he mutters, still leaning against the doorway. “Hopefully, this one doesn’t turn out like Nokidoi.”

Touka reacts to the name, suddenly cross, but the Old Man just laughs.

“It would be hard. That boy is his father’s only son.”

And Iromoya had always wanted a son.

He shrugs and comes to sit down. “It’s ‘cause his father’s Iromoya. Fat lot of good that does a child.”

Which is right, but not to be said anyway.

On a cold winter morning when he is twenty-seven, his grandfather dies.

He’ll never see the electric lines put up in the district. The civilian workmen are supposed to come after the snow thaws.

Somehow, this is what he comes back to instead of anything else about the Old Man’s life.

Ninety-two years old the week before he died.

He’d had a long life. Isn’t that enough? He’s seen how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

Isn’t it enough?

But he cannot tell if it is enough.

And in the frost still shock of the passing of a man they all thought, foolishly, who would live forever, someone has to make a move.

It comes before the Old Man is even buried.

Someone has to take over the burial costs of the deceased, and so often it falls on the oldest son.

But let it never be said that his oldest brother wasn’t a greedy miser.

“We should wait until everyone is here.” Chikagai glances nervously between Iromoya and himself. “Not everyone is here yet.”

“You’re not in the line of succession, are you?” Iromoya asks. Though the question is supposedly directed at Chikagai, his oldest brother is staring at… him specifically. “You don’t have a dog in this fight, so stay out of it.”

Touka’s hand curls around his, Masu just behind his shoulder holding Hashirama.

“Bold of you to assume that this is a fight.”

The Old Man is dead, and according to the clan by-laws, what comes next is…

Inheritance goes to the oldest child who has children of their own.

Their father is gone, but their branch of the family remains and will be asked before all others in the clan on the matter of inheriting the big house and the title that comes with it.

Of their branch and their generation, Sudare, their third brother is dead as is their sixth brother Suidou, Ainoko, their only sister is without children of her own, as is their fourth brother, Kamachi, and Mikiri, their fifth brother, is unsuited to the task and knows it.

Which leaves three.



And their second brother, Ryoutei.

Whether Ryoutei, who farmed one of the outlying fields and sold flowers, really wanted to lead a shinobi clan is… questionably dubious at best and honestly outside the realm of possibility at worst.

Which means really.

Between Iromoya and himself.

He knows that he scares Iromoya.

But his oldest brother doesn’t scare him.

It’s all just bluster, signifying nothing.

“The laws within our clan are clear,” Masu’s gentle voice rises from behind him, sweet and clear. “All must be present for the reading of the will and the passing on of titles, else no one shall inherit the earth.”

Everyone needs to be there when people pass on taking up titles as well. A clan this size doesn’t run itself, and more likely than not, there will be people who pass.

But standing here, less than two arm’s length away from his oldest brother, he feels a special form of rage.

No one’s even brought his grandfather a coffin yet, though he knows that Masu has one kept away that she’d been morbidly working on in fits and starts every once in a while for half a year now, and that it would never be shameful to send his grandfather away in such a state.

But no one has brought his grandfather a coffin yet.

And already, Iromoya is showing his true colors.

But he stands there, more or less silent, jaw clenched so that the words do not escape.

It would be satisfying to hear Iromoya’s ribs crack, but not here, not over the deathbed, not with the whole clan watching.

He was a small and petty boy, and he’s grown into a small and petty man, but—

For once in his life, he must do the right thing, even if he cannot manage to do it with any grace.

They’d moved out to the front hall now, chosen sides of the room though the chair at the head of the hall looms.

“I don’t know why you’re so bothered,” Iromoya says, arms crossed. “Legally, by all rights, this should go to me.”

He steps closer to Iromoya, so now they are nose to nose and eye to eye, his oldest brother just ever so slightly shorter than him, stooped for there are twenty years between them and that is a thing that weighs. “You could steal from me when I was a child. I’m not a child any longer, house thief.

“This does not belong to you, Butsuma.” Iromoya protests, but this fight’s ending has already been predetermined. “Not everything is about you.”

“We have laws for this.” He had been by his grandfather’s side when he died. Masu had been in the next room with Hashirama, and Touka had been by his side, newly just turned twelve. “You hold nothing yet.”

He had been living up here at the big house in all but name for the last three weeks after his grandfather had slipped on a patch of ice and broken his hip. There are aunties, and there are other children living up here, because his grandfather did not live alone, but there is a difference between family and family.

And all of his other brothers, all older, more caught up in their own lives, had failed to really arrive, visiting perhaps, as Ryoutei had, but vanishing, like mist, neither solid nor whole.

Eventually, Masu, sensing that something was wrong, had gathered the children and come to live up here as well.

He had not come back for an inheritance or any form of praise or commendation, just the frail acknowledgement that his grandfather had raised him when he left home for the first time at seven and had always been the mountain at his back while the man yet lived.

And despite all things, he has not managed to become an ungrateful rat bastard, no matter how unfilial he had been to his father.

There are more people arriving now, filling the front hall of the big house, older members of other branches of the family sitting, with their respective representatives filling out the spaces behind their chairs.

Three thousand and more who bear the name of Senju, with as many branches as a great tree, every soul a leaf.

But of those sitting, they number a hundred and seven, missing the last of their number, the clan head who would complete the divine number.

Iromoya turns towards the audience now gathering, glancing once at the clan head’s empty chair, before greeting some of the gathered crowd.

Ryoutei comes in, absent both wife and children, as though fresh from the fields, mud frozen to his boots.

Sudare is gone. Ainoko is already in the back, next to Kamachi; both are without children, so without a way to press a claim.

Suidou, also dead.

Mikiri comes to stand by Iromoya, as the room continues to buzz with a heavy, pressing energy.

Beyond various uncles...he spots Auntie Irori in the crowd. The doors are closed now, no one else expected to enter.

“I apologize for everyone needing to gather here today.” Iromoya is speaking now, pleasantly, though everyone knows the situation is not pleasant. “I have no intention of—”

The door creaks open to reveal one singular man.


“Before we begin,” the monk says, with a face that betrays neither grief nor joy, “I believe those sitting here ought to read Senju Idobata’s last thoughts?”

He was not aware that his grandfather had left any written thoughts with the temple, but for it to arrive now instead of after the clan head has been decided…

It pertains to the inheritance then, for Yukimasa has chosen his entrance for great effect.

But he is unafraid. Whatever last judgement the man has left behind in this realm, it can be no worse than any tongue lashing he has left in life.

“Well?” He looks about the gathered clan. “Why don’t we read it?”

The letter is produced, sealed with the wax his grandfather preferred in life, as red as fresh blood, scented with lilac and passed to Odaikou, oldest of the currently sitting.

Once upon a time, that would’ve been his grandfather.

Odaikou shows the sealed letter to everyone else. “Unopened, but sealed with his chakra.”

And the gathered crowd can all see that it is true.

At the edges of his vision, he sees Iromoya grimace, for he also knows why this letter comes now instead of to the new clan head, but the laws of propriety run deep and wide, like a river none can bridge completely.

If Iromoya knows what’s good for him, this last directive will be read and obeyed.

The letter is opened.

Odaikou scans it, face troubled. “Unprecedented,” he says, still troubled.

That is not a good sign, because very few things in a clan as old and as quarrelsome as theirs are truly without precedent.

In this case, he suspects it’s just not what anyone really wants to hear.

“Well?” Nokita asks, leaning over. “What does Idobata have to say to us?”

Odaikou sighs. “Not to much of us, I’m afraid. Just the one of us.” The old carpenter raises his eyes, white brows drawn together. “Iromoya-kun, your grandfather has something to say to you.

“To me?” Iromoya doesn’t point at himself, but all eyes are on him now, far more intently than before.

They all know where this is going.

Touka leans against his arm, a soft hrmm escaping her.

“Senju Idobata, in the third year of the Xuantong era, on the fourth day of the second month,” Odaikou raises his eyes directly to Iromoya’s face, which has gone white from the formality of the wording.

Everyone knows how this will end.

“Formally evicts Senju Iromoya and all descendants therein from his line of inheritance.”

Even from beyond the grave—

The Old Man—

There’s something caught in his eye.

Amidst the furious discussion of what is and is not precedented, Odaikou continues, “That which inherits the earth in our troubled times must have the strength to hold it, and the compassion to be not only sword but shield.

“And in the breath of the new era, let us remember that we who hold to an old heritage must, too, change with the times.”

A rebuke, written plain, of his oldest brother’s tendencies and coward nature.

Iromoya stands there, for another moment more, all eyes on him, before stepping back, head bowed — a beaten dog, for their grandfather could shame in death as effectively as he could shame in life. Perhaps more, for this one being so final.

“If that is Ojiisan’s wish, then I hear and obey it.”

The whispers subside.

And so the title passes.

The eyes turn to Ryoutei now, leaning against one wall, mud on his boots. He nods once, acknowledging the attention. “As I too hear and obey our grandfather’s wishes. He spoke both of a sword and a shield, and I who hold but a scythe belong to neither. Our clan,” Ryoutei says, voice raised slightly louder now, “though of a thousand skills, in our troubled times is best led by a shinobi.”

There are nods here, among those seated and among those standing, recognizing the truth spoken plain.

“I cede my claim.”

And so the title passes.

All eyes on Mikiri now, by Iromoya’s side.

His fifth brother stands there, wavering, for a moment. “Well,” he says, “I know a lost fight when I see one. If our grandfather didn’t consider Iromoya fit for the task, I do not believe he’d find me fitting. I cede it.”

And suddenly, all eyes turn to him.

He has a claim, youngest though he might be.

And shinobi he is, as he was born and as he will die.

If his grandfather did not consider Iromoya fitting…

And yet, if not him, who else?

“Well, Butsuma-kun?” Odaikou asks. “What say you?”

“I do not cede it.” Small and petty as he is, he will not hand this to Uncle Monma, who will step forward should he cede it.

Let other people call him petty and selfish and proud, too full of self grandeur.

They never intended for him to make anything of himself anyway.

One step.


He makes his way to the chair.

“Does anyone have any objections?” Nokita asks, and though there are murmurs, no one raises their voice in objection.

He sits.

Chikagai appears at his right hand. “Right then,” he says, “I’ve got all of our grandfather’s other last comments and the account books. He’s been setting everything in order for someone else to look at for months now.”

The moment where things are decided passes. He runs a hand over his face. “Right,” he mutters. Clan head means paperwork and all the account keeping as well for who gets allocated what according to some very strict rules.

And of course, there are still the electric workers coming in to put in lines when the ground thaws.

“Get me those.” He sighs, hand still over his face, listening to the sounds of people rising, vague congratulations to his household accepted mostly by Masu with her ever present grace. “I should start looking at those now.”

Thankfully, he’s been punished enough to at least be able to calculate sums.

Chikagai attempts to pat him soothingly on the back. It doesn’t help.

The one who inherits the earth has to have the strength and the guile to hold it.

And since it has come to him, he must be the one to hold it.

Their patch of earth, not large in the scope of things, but it bears their name.

And in this he can cede no quarter, no matter what other people believe.

For that, he must first put his house in order.

He has inherited the big house along with the clan title, which means that all of their property — most of it Masu’s; he doesn’t tend to keep much property — has to be moved to the house.

He must go through the roster of who had been living up there — various older widowed aunties and small orphans mostly — and figure out if he intends to keep letting them live there.

Though he doesn’t know why not.

It’s not as if their circumstances have changed just because the clan head has.

Presumably though, he will still have to meet them and reassure them that he isn’t about to throw them out.

Which means he’d actually have to talk.

The conversation itself is not particularly of note, though it is emotional, which he does not appreciate, but he does learn that there are four widowed aunties of varying degrees of relation and roughly nine children between the ages of five and fifteen who are still here up at the big house. There are also an unidentifiable number of rotating children here to learn various skills and eat their meals up at the big house without actually living in it overnight.

Maybe Masu would want one of them to help her in the orchards.

Or maybe two of them.

Small woodworkers being apprenticed to woodworkers living up at the big house is a time honored tradition.

It is much easier to shelve this whole concept — being responsible for more than just his own branch of the family but the fallen twigs of others as well — and go out to look at workmen laying electric lines after digging up a number of their streets.

Touka tags along with him, peering at various ditches and gullies that have appeared all about their streets with much interest.

“They’re laying electric lines,” he mutters by way of explanation when she tugs on his sleeve and points, clearly confused. “For lights and…” he’d read about this, but he still doesn’t entirely know what the various craftspeople want hooked up to the electric lines or how the electricity actually works. “Well,” he says, “things.”

Touka gives him a look he will not be deciphering.

They continue walking along.

“They cut through the roots of one of my willow trees.” Uncle Monma… might actually have what could be accurately described as a complaint this time. “And I demand that your wife come over and fix it immediately.”

Never mind, Uncle Monma didn’t make accurate complaints ever.

News comes to his desk the year Hashirama turns two.

The capital has fallen.

The clan gathers after the news, shouting back and forth. No one remembers a time before the great empire, though there has been enough writing in the histories that states that the clan had existed in that unsettled tumultuous time before the empire.

But it had not been as comfortable as they are now, in this moment while this change has not yet come to them.

“We didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Uncle Monma, his arm around Azumaya.

Cousin must’ve forgiven her father enough for this. It’s been long enough, he supposes, and it wasn’t like Uncle Monma was completely unforgivable.

He sits there, his elbows on his knees.

“You think anyone historically did anything to deserve this sorta shit?” The Senju clan is large, and here in their little corner of the world, with enough power and influence that they forget sometimes, that they do not hold the reins to their own destinies on things like this. “We’re just commoners, sitting here, waiting for nobles to deal their hands and wager our lives.”

The mandate to rule has been lost.

After only four years of the Xuantong era, the new emperor was found dead in his bed, a cup of spilled wine on the floor, concubine he’d started the night with nowhere to be seen. He had died childless.

And his various brothers, suppressed only temporarily during the four short years of his reign, had restarted the nine lords’ war.

While the imperial clan was locked in its deadly struggle over the vacant throne, Earth Country soldiers had swept in from the north, border cities sending desperate, unheeded pleas for help.

And now, he suspects, with the lack of news after the capital city’s fall, that most of the imperial clan has been either captured or killed.

But people had lost their taste for the empire and the imperial clan years ago.

His grandfather, for a very long time, had held deeply treasonous views over the opium trade, and tax collectors using the poppy as revenue, but only quietly, on their own land, among family which would not sell him out to the law.

Their government had bled them dry every year, reaping fields of bones.

He shakes the thoughts away. “We’ve got worse to deal with now.”

Larger politics is not their arena, being not much the sort of people who would meddle in hundreds of thousands if not millions or over a billion lives. Whoever is on the throne doesn’t exactly matter to their day to day living.

But nobody on the throne would.

Emperors come and go. Elder statesmen and noble lords rise and fall.

Who it is that heads the government is less of a concern than that there is a government.

Now that the capital has fallen…

“Starting foremost with the foreigners.” There’s still an open investigation in the nearest town’s legal department looking for him. With an utter lack of centralized government, it’s only going to get worse. “Don’t antagonize them.” He doesn’t know when he became such a coward, because when he was a boy he could threaten whoever he wanted without a second thought, but troubled times make troubled men, and his grandfather is no longer living to talk them all out of trouble. “If they control the capital, then who knows where their army is headed next.”

He does not need to mention that as numerous as they are, they are not all shinobi and therefore would struggle to deal with an army that wants to kill them.

The mood is…somber after that.

There’s been a map pinned to his office wall ever since the capital fell with more pins in it detailing which routes have been cut off or run dry or held hostage by either petty warlords or the old empire’s noblemen or, worst of all, foreigners.

New jobs have slowed to a trickle, most requests no longer getting through to them. There’s work out there to be had — dangerous, difficult work, unlike the sort of sabotage and trickery that they normally engaged in — but not much news of it gets through unless it’s local.

Which brings back to question the issue of the Uchiha across the river.

Shinobi, on the whole, do not like local jobs if they intend to stay where they are living.

His clan has owned land on this side of the Naka River since prior to the start of the currently fallen dynasty and are in no hurry to pack up and move elsewhere.

Not that there’s much of a place to move to.

Smaller clans might pack up and go, travel light and keep going until they hit greener pastures, but not three thousand or more people all at once.

To go, they would go in fits and starts, packing up and splitting up forever.

And while he—

While he can find little love for some who bear the name, to bear the name is to bear common burdens and fitful glories, similar pain, the same inconstant history.

To bear the name is to bear something deeper than love.

The idea of vanishing like dust motes in the wind to separate ends doesn’t bear thinking about.

“We’re going to run out of food.” Ryoutei is sitting there, in what once was their grandfather’s study, but now his study, talking about something he already knows. “The roads to the east have fouled and are covered with Water Country invaders, and there’s no telling when they’ll be clear enough for merchants to get through again.”

Contrary to popular belief, they do not grow enough of a great many food staples to feed everyone year to year.

Not if they keep paying their taxes mostly in rice now that the value of the ryo has cratered and they do not and never will grow poppy if he holds any power at all within the clan.

Not… if they keep paying their taxes.

“I know. We’ll have to start going without.” Rice would still be available, enough of it to stretch through until the next harvest time.

Meat and flour…

Less easy to replace.

“We could also stop paying our taxes.”

He glances up at Ryoutei sharply, trying to figure out if his well behaved, never put a foot wrong second brother had actually said that.

“You want us to stop paying our taxes.”

Ryoutei shrugs. “Who are we paying them to at this point? The local governor?”

Who does shit with all the money he’s given. The state of their province is a mess.

“The local governor is a puppet played by Warlord Sakai.” The messenger birds had brought that piece of information to light. “I hear he’s done something to the Shimura children the last time they didn’t pay their taxes.”

He has no particular love for plenty of people in this clan, but his civilian relatives are unlikely to take any order from him to not leave the district particularly well, even if that would be for their own good.

And a district this big cannot be so easily watched at all times.

A child might wander away.

Ryoutei goes silent, thinking that piece of information over. “Aren’t the Shimura only a hundred people at best? What were they doing, antagonizing Warlord Sakai?”

“I don’t know. The birds say their children weren’t returned even after their taxes were paid. A warning to the rest of us,” he shrugs, uselessly, “or at least, to the Nohara and the Kato to pay their taxes.”

What happened to those clans wasn't his concern, but he had sent a message to the Sarutobi to the east.

“So that’s why you’ve been following the law.” Ryoutei continues thinking. “You don’t think they could do something like that to our children, do you?”

His second brother has children, all older than Touka who has just celebrated her fifteenth birthday. He does not have to worry about toddlers being stolen in the middle of the night or in broad daylight.

“I am not inclined to try and find out.”

Tobirama has just learned to roll over. He knows this because Tobirama is now able to escape his cradle and the room with enough rolls, and they’d all been very concerned to find him nearly falling off the wrapping porch.

Hashirama has, after three years on this earth, discovered the word ‘why’ recently and has been abusing it.

“This would all be better if there were no warlord.” Ryoutei rubs the bridge of his nose. “Aren’t you a shinobi? You could probably get rid of the warlord if you wanted to badly enough.”

A corner of his mouth tilts downwards. “How kind of you to suggest that I do the dirty work.”

“My mind is willing,” Ryoutei says drolly and without a hint of deception. “And yet my abilities fall far short.”

“I’ll keep your suggestion in mind.”

It would help if they stopped feeding Warlord Sakai’s men.

And it’s been a long time since he’s burned down a house.

He’s just finished dowsing Warlord Sakai’s storage shed with soybean oil — on his way out of the district he’d run into Uncle Monma, who upon seeing him had very rudely asked him where he was going, to which he had equally rudely informed his uncle that if he so happened to perish while setting Warlord Sakai’s house on fire, his uncle could become the next clan head.

Somehow, Uncle Monma did not seem as excited about the possibility of him perishing as he might’ve assumed.

He’d been persuaded to bring gasoline and more matches than he strictly needs as well courtesy of his uncle, just in case ‘the soybean oil doesn’t finish the job’.

Which. Point. It might not if the wood isn’t dry enough, though he doesn’t know anyone rich who doesn’t build their house out of well seasoned wood painted over with lacquer which is easy to set fire to anyway even without the help of oil.

After flicking a match on the now well and truly flammable storage shed — which had nothing of more import in it than a metal wheelbarrow too large to fit inside any of his storage seals — he moves on to the building that must be the root cellar.

He is unclear why exactly that there are guards for the root cellar as well as such a difficult lock, but this doesn’t pose as much of a problem as it could’ve.

The root cellar door falls.

There are children camped on the root vegetables.

He peers into the gloom of the cellar rather carefully, ascertaining that none of the children appeared to have any weapons besides bags of rice and daikon, or perhaps a crate of sweet potato none of them seem equipped to lift.

One of them whimpers when he moves. “Quiet.” He says, for having a lack of a better word to say.

The various children fall petrifyingly silent.

He had intended to burn down the root cellar too, but the various — there must be at least twenty of them if not more — no longer missing Shimura children rather prevents that from happening.

He continues shoving bags of rice into the storage seal, checking to make sure none of the bags had holes in them and were all tied properly at the top.

Briefly, he considers attempting to shove the entire crate of sweet potatoes into the storage seal as well, but the opening of this particular one is only so big.

One of the children passes him a sweet potato.

He accepts it before remembering that sweet potatoes bruise easily and their skins also come off.

“I can’t accept this,” he says, trying to give it back.

The child blinks at him tearily.

“You’re not allowed to cry, got it?”

If, perchance, some other guards ended up coming over to check on the state of things instead of trying to save the storage shed, they will all be very fucked.

No crying allowed.

The child hiccups and falls very silent.

He still has to go set fire to the house properly.

He pulls the can of gasoline out of his sleeve pocket. “Stay here, don’t make any noises, don’t run away, I’ll be back.”

He receives some number of nods.

Good enough.

There is an Uchiha lurking on the roof.

Which would be more alarming if it wasn’t just Tajima.

“Get off the roof, Twig.” He glances over at the guards still aimlessly trying to save the storage shed and wonders what exactly was so valuable in there besides the wheelbarrow.

“You know you did set fire to Warlord Sakai’s electric tools, right?” Had the Uchiha been watching him this whole time?

“Was that why there was so fucking much rubber string in there?”

Rubber is expensive enough, but rubber string is more or less the most useless thing he’s ever thought of.

“Wires, Butsu-chan.” Tajima sighs. “Those were wires, they cost lots of money, and you just set fire to something full of electric equipment.”

The storage shed explodes.

He pretends this is what he intended all along, complete with the accompanying screams and fearful wailing. “Will you get off the roof, Twig? I’m trying to burn the house down too.”

Tajima glances at the can of gasoline in his hand. “I would never be able to guess.”

“That’s because you’re stupid.”

The Uchiha’s mouth opens and closes silently several times before clicking shut.

“What are you doing here anyway?” The last he heard, the Uchiha had sent the tax collector meant to collect their share of the “taxes” back to Warlord Sakai spouting gibberish about demons, ghosts, and hauntings.

The man had gone insane, which, good riddance.

He severely doubts any Uchiha children are on the property, which begs the question of why Tajima is here, lurking on the Warlord’s roof.

“Lurking,” Tajima snaps, “and I can keep lurking until dawn if need be.”

“Oh, here to kill the Warlord.” He waves the man on. “Well, don’t let me stop you.”

It would get the Uchiha off the roof anyway.

“While you’re planning to burn me alive?” Tajima shakes his head. “Oh, Butsu-chan, you shouldn’t have.”

“Well, don’t let me stop you,” he mutters, flicking a lit match onto the line of gasoline and leaping off of the roof.

“I said,” Tajima’s smile is very forced, “Oh, Butsu-chan, you really shouldn’t have.”

He shrugs. “I’m busy, have fun trying to find the Warlord in the fire if you really must kill him.”

There’s still the twenty or so children in the root cellar with the box of sweet potatoes, hopefully staying put and not doing anything stupid.

He thinks about this again.

It’s going to be a very long trip back to the Shimura.

Chapter Text

“Do you know what torture by hope is? After despair, calm sets in, but hope can drive you mad.”

— Anna Akhmatova, “The Akhmatova Journals”

His grandfather’s radio is broken.

“You just have to turn the dials a little more. The broadcast isn’t at the same frequency anymore.” Chikagai is in his study fiddling with it, turning little knobs back and forth slowly, trying to get it to do what it’s supposed to be doing. “Did you note down what the new frequency was? They should’ve said somewhere in the middle. It’s a number most of the time?”

He flaps a hand at his cousin, an ugly headache brewing. “How should I know?”

While the birds could inform them of some of what goes on in greater Fire Country, their reach these days is limited. Old associates vanishing into the unknown, informants caught and disappeared by the new regime, and with the supply lines cut, the birds and their information have become spotty and erratic.

The birds are still best employed locally, mostly for figuring out which jumped up noble has decided he wants to be a warlord and for devising a strategy to get rid of them, but that doesn’t tell him about anything happening in any major cities.

Hence, the radio.

Which Chikagai has still not gotten to work.

It had come to his attention, mostly by accident one day, that the Akimichi have been communicating with each other through radio waves, and that had been an interesting and reliable enough source of information on what is going on in the various large cities that the Akimichi clan had split off into when it came time for the former imperial guard to disband that he’d kept listening to them talk.

Except when he couldn’t.

Because the radio is clearly broken and too expensive to get fixed by normal means.

Chikagai sighs, still fiddling with the knobs. “Are you sure they were going to talk again at this time?”

“I do remember that at least.”

Tobirama had learned to crawl recently, which means that his third child has been getting into and out of everything under the sun.

He’d forced one of the other children at the big house to watch him so that Tobirama doesn’t stick a finger in an electric socket and electrocute himself past saving.

Then again, maybe one of Auntie Irori’s younger apprentices could deal with saving his second son from his own curious mind. He hears that Itokiri is doing quite well as a medic, though of course, Iromoya had been furious to find one of his girls working in the healer’s hall.

He’d listened to his oldest brother shout for some time before telling the man to get out.

He waves Chikagai away from the radio. “It’s broken. You might as well go find some people to come in and fix it.

His cousin stares at him briefly without understanding until he sighs. “Seal masters. Fetch me some to make this thing work again.”

“Oh!” Chikagai nods before hurrying off. “I’ll go invite them right away.” Somehow, this seems to have made his cousin quite happy, because Chikagai vanishes with a bounce in his step that Butsuma has rarely seen otherwise.

The man has enough nervous energy to make mountains out of anthills.

He turns back to the radio. “Either you work,” and he can continue listening in on whatever the Akimichi are saying and keep gleaning news that way, “or there’s going to be people dying to get our information. I suggest you choose wisely.”

It might be extremely stupid should he ever get caught talking to an object.

For all that the radio is useful when it works, it’s still an object. Isn’t like it’s going to start hearing what he’s saying and actually make choices.

A dog would have a better time of it, provided that he actually cared about getting a pet in these troubled times.

Hashirama’s been staring pleadingly at various small animals recently. Maybe Masu could be persuaded to give him a piglet.

Chikagai fetches one of his second cousins who had apprenticed to a sealing master leads several others who might be cousins once removed to come fetch the radio from him.

Apparently, none of the true masters of sealing had time to waste on his radio, given that there were still innumerable other projects he had commissioned — new storage seals, sleeve pockets, heat trapping, a series of new buildings needed to be put up on the west side of the district after a recent fire broke out, and it is springtime, which means there is rice and other vegetables to be planted.

In any case, he’ll make do with Houjou and his pack of fellow apprentices. It’s not like they can break the radio even more than it’s already broken.

The gaggle of young men and women crowd around the radio, and with reverence that it does not deserve, lift and carry it from the room as though it were more important than a human person.

Houjou bows to him multiple times.

“We’ll be sure to take good care of it, sir.”

He flaps an impatient hand at the young man. “If it comes back more broken than it already is, I’ll sentence you to field labor and have done with it.” It’s not as though the radio could work less than it does now, and he’s more preoccupied with the idea of Hashirama demanding something cuter and more breakable than a piglet.

Maybe they could dress the piglet up to make it cuter.

Houjou and the other people he’d brought seem to take this quite seriously and bow several times before they leave, though Chikagai doesn’t.

“Scaring children again, Cousin?”

He makes a face. “Only because they’re easily scared.” His children haven’t ever found him frightening, which means either they’re all made of stronger stuff, or Houjou and the others are defective.

Touka has been out on a mission for the past week or so, the first she’s run alone. Oddly, he’d been looking up at the slightest sound recently, as if expecting her return, even though he knows it’s not time yet.

And though Masu had persuaded him that such is fine — all children, like fledgling birds, have to leave the nest sometime, Butsu. And she is more than capable. Would you keep her cooped up until she no longer trusts herself?

And it is true enough that his grandfather had never done that to him. Whatever walls he’d knocked his head against, Grandfather had rarely ever even made mention of advice given a thousand times that he had failed to heed, much less tried to keep him away from walls in the first place.

May he never grow so controlling as to forget that children are people, not placards meant to bring him glory.

And may the years not serve to make a fool of him for what he’d said to Senju Kumadashi before he married.

His children will be people, not his glorious legacy.

“Piglets are vicious, Butsu.” Masu lifts her gaze when he comes in. He sets his shoes by the door before closing it after him.

“I know. Hashira can handle it or not as he so chooses.”

She frowns at this over a pair of handmade shoes. The vanity is cleared and oddly empty.

Masu oils her hair at night with lavender and castor oil, and for some time now, he’d helped her with combing it all out carefully before she does the rest of her routine, including washing with fermented rice water in the morning and combing it all out again, but —

“Not oiling your hair today?” If he remembers correctly, which he might not, it would be the day for it.

She turns towards him, explaining, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about it, I don’t think it would help it much.”

“You’ve been doing it for this long.” He will not admit to being disappointed at this abrupt lack of routine. “Why change now?”

She sits down beside him, leaning against his shoulder. “Oh,” she says, feigning a sort of nonchalance he knows she does not possess. “I thought it might be time to stop caring about it. Maybe I’ll dye it brown.”

“You’re lying.” He might not know why she’s lying, but he does know her well enough for this.

Masu kept her hair long despite the stigma, despite all the teasing that had petered out when they’d stopped being children.

"I am," she agrees, maddeningly. "But surely you must know by now?"

"What am I supposed to be knowing?" Sometimes he does know, just misses that it is what they are speaking of between all those unwritten lines. Sometimes he has no idea.

"They say it's unlucky. And Tobira-kun, well."

She doesn't say more, but does she really need to? He's not a smart man — bullheaded, yes, smart, no — by any measure, but he can read insults paid to what is his well enough.

His second son has Masu's white hair.

“They can say it to my face, or they can choke on it.”

“I just thought,” Masu continues on as if she hasn’t heard him. She has to have heard him. All of this is a front. “That maybe, the teasing wouldn’t be so bad for Tobira-kun if—”

“And what have we ever gotten by hiding?”

You cannot hide anything forever, and for something as obvious as this? It is other people’s fault that they stop to stare and point and make all sorts of whispers.

What would they get from hiding?

Something in Masu’s face freezes, her fingers light on his jaw. “You’re right,” she admits. “He’s just so little, I wish… I wish we did not live in times like these, Butsu, with all these wolves at the door.”

I wish I could protect him.

He hears that at least, in between what she doesn’t say.

“But we do live in times like these.” He sighs, for how often is it that he wishes it weren’t so? Troubled times make troubled, desperate men, and while he has not yet been pushed to the cliff’s edge, it is only a matter of time. “No amount of wishing will ever bridge this river.”

He oils her hair.

They talk of other things.

“But the piglet you want for Hashirama-kun, Butsu. Don’t you think he’s too small for something like that?”

He shrugs. “It’ll be useful for him.” And if he stops caring for it, pigs are edible.

And that is that.

Houjou and his pack of younger sealing fellows return, still carting the radio as though it were a baby or a priceless artifact. “We’ve fixed it, sir.” Houjou bows sharply, hands clasped before him. “We hope that it has met all of your specifications.”

He’d dictated what he wanted out of the radio to Chikagai, who’d sent it off to Houjou and the others. And though he is skeptical that it will work as directed, even covered with an overlapping layer of seals, he makes them put it on the side table anyway. It didn’t come back any more broken, and it probably at least picks up something besides infinite static noises since they’d declared it fixed and gave it back to him. Good enough.

“And who do I have to thank for my working radio?” The children who’d finished this project and then come back to tell him this quail. “I said thank,” he says, voice dryer than summer dust, “not punish by sending you to the rice paddies for two weeks longer than your regular rotation.”

Houjou bows again. “It’s Sairei, sir. She worked on it mostly.”

“Well, which one of you is Sairei?” There are several young women here. Some are taller than others.

One of the teenagers steps forward and bows. “Me, sir.”

She has unevenly cut brown hair and plain clothes. Likely no more than fifteen. Considering that she wasn’t sent up here, she likely wasn’t a homeless orphan, but with that sort of hollow skinniness it’s hard to say that it’s really any better.

One of the children that ought to have been sent up here instead of staying home.

But then, no one in the clan likes to depend on his largesse, even if he theoretically has enough to spare.

“Well,” he says, because the silence has lingered somewhat uncomfortably. “My thanks then, Sairei.”

She bows to him again, deeper this time. “Thank you, sir.”

Another round of bows later, the children all file out of the room.

“Cousin,” he opens another missive from one of the birds. Something fucked up is going on in Wind as well, though he doesn’t know what it is yet, the birds having not picked up on what exactly is happening what with the sudden sprouting of locusts in the region. “Will you find me Sairei’s parents?”

Chikagai blinks. “Nothing about the locusts, Cousin?”

“They’re not our locusts and they’re not coming this way. Worry about it after you find me Sairei’s parents.” He pauses, thinking about it. “And her siblings, Aunts, Uncles, whatever. Whoever her guardian is.”

There’s other children in the clan who probably look similar. Three thousand is too many to personally know each one.

But he’s seen this one. And he cannot choose to unsee, so might as well.

“Yes, of course.” Chikagai turns to leave. “Cousin?”

“Yes, what is it?” The go stone in his hand pauses over the location of the locusts.

“Nothing important.” Chikagai goes.

He has definitely lost track of whichever frequency the Akimichi are using now. They cycled through a few every month or so quite regularly and then switched to a completely different set the next month, which is when he started to have problems with it.

He’d added a clause about just latching onto the Akimichi broadcast and keeping it there without having to memorize frequencies as well.

The radio flickers to life, somehow more clear than he remembers it being. Clearly no longer broken, then.

He’s reluctantly impressed.

Chikagai slips back into the room. He glances upwards, expectantly.

“Senju Sairei, the daughter of Senju Ramou who works in the outlying orchards. Her father, Madori, was a shinobi, killed this past spring. Fourteen years old, born on Qixi. Two younger brothers, ages seven and three.”

That would explain it, then, both the resources to learn sealing and the lack of food. Three children are not meant to live on an orchard worker’s salary.

And she’s the oldest, then, at only fourteen.

He does not remember Madori, but then, he doesn’t have to.

“Is there something you want me to do with this, Cousin?” Chikagai asks, coming back to grind ink and finish up noting the totals he’d tallied on the abacus before trying the radio.

“Do as you see fit.” He turns the radio off and rises. “Tell Masu I’m taking Tobirama for a walk so he doesn’t run Natsume ragged.”

And so he can get his mind off of Touka, half a day late.

Chikagai is the one who takes Senju Ranmou aside one day to tell her that her daughter had performed a great service to the clan and in return, deserves an award.

It had nothing to do with him.

“Tou!” Tobirama thumps towards him, seemingly having lost his shoes and his socks, likely by pulling them off and dropping them somewhere. “Tou! Tou! Up!”

As far as he’s aware, Tobirama is capable of identifying all family members, general directions and colors, expressing his feelings, rolling over, crawling, and making Natsume lose her mind with worry over the possibility of him discovering that things that go up must also come back down.

The running is new though. As is the potential for crankiness. Hashirama had never really been a cranky child. If something upset him, it tended to make him morose.

Masu had told him about both items, one causing more delight than the other.

“Yes,” he remarks rather drolly while raising an eyebrow at Natsume, who seems to be hiding a laugh. As far as he’s aware, there’s nothing to laugh about. “Tou is here to show you the outside. Do you want to go outside?”

Masu likes baby talking their children — the only one she had not done it to was Touka, but Touka was also ten by the time Masu ended up near her for long periods and wouldn’t’ve tolerated baby talk either way.

He, however, does not talk to babies like they’ve lost their senses.

“Out!” Tobirama agrees.

One day soon, his third child will graduate to full sentences and complex thought.

“He’ll need to come back for a nap in another hour or so, Uncle.” Natsume rises and nods to him in acknowledgement. “Don’t keep him out for too long or he’ll become cranky.”

“No!” Tobirama wriggles. “No!” Sounds like Tobirama’s already cranky.

“Not now.” He picks up the toddler. “Later, after going out.”

This successfully distracts his son from the dreaded naptime. “Out!”

“Out,” he nods to himself, balancing Tobirama on one hip before turning to go. “To go look at trees. Do you like trees?”

If Natsume laughs, that’s her own problem and he had nothing to do with it.

Touka tramps through the door later that afternoon, halfway covered with muck, hair sticking up every which way “Hrrggg.”

She does slap a very stained and somewhat torn sheet of paper onto the table though.

Not payment, because payment these days is few and far between and hardly worth the paper it’s printed on when it comes in bills, but an explanation and possibly information as well.

He looks it over.

“New invaders?” An old informant had perished it would seem, but the man had left his last missive hidden in a place where the people who killed him couldn’t unlock — seals are still good for something it would seem, and the Senju hegemony of them on the mainland still counted for at least a little.

“Mmm. Seems so.” Touka pulls the hair stick from her ratty looking updo, letting it cascade down her back now that she’s no longer in front of strangers.

They do not have many rules of etiquette to hold to, and he doesn’t see her care about much else, but she does care about this.

“But no news of where they are coming from.” He sets the sheet down.

But he can guess. There aren’t that many options. It’s not like countries with standing armies grow on trees.

Touka nods tiredly from where she has pillowed her head on her arm on his desk. “Mph.”

“You did well.”

She looks up at him, blinking.

He doesn’t normally offer praise, but when he does, it is deserved, at the very least.

“You did,” he says, not the least because he’s relieved she made it back safely, no worse for wear than a few muddy patches.

“Hmmm,” she agrees, seemingly well content with that, sprawled over his desk like a cat.

“Also,” he says, because Masu has selected a piglet of good breeding and hopefully pleasant temperament to give to Hashirama, “would you mind giving clothing to Hashirama’s new pig?”

She jolts upwards, clearly meaning to protest this, but Chikagai cuts it off at the quick.

“He means older clothing you’ve grown out of. The piglet is only a month old and meant to be Hashirama’s pet.”

Thankfully, Chikagai knows the right words. He’s never been able to manage them, not even for something as simple as dressing a pig.

Masu brings the selected piglet up to the big house one day early in the morning to meet Hashirama, and he and Touka are in charge of wrangling both the boys onto the porch. Recently, Tobirama has become increasingly squirmy and had mastered the art of crawling and attempting to climb things.

The oldest of Iromoya’s girls had caught Tobirama trying to pull a dresser drawer out on top of him.

Natsume still isn’t recovered from the scare.

He wrestles with the still squirming Tobirama while Touka makes sure that Hashirama has washed his hands and together the four of them make their way to the wrapping porch.

Hashirama’s eyes grow wide at the sight. “Pig!” He exclaims, seemingly delighted by the piglet dressed up in one of Touka’s old cast offs refashioned for a month old pig.

Which still might be too rich, considering that it’s an animal, not a little girl. But well, he had wanted the pig to be cute enough that Hashirama didn’t have second thoughts, so there one has it.

A pig, dressed in what used to be his little girl’s clothes.

“For you to take care of.” Masu says. She’d gone around to all their neighbors, asking after the temperaments of their pigs and what size they got to be, having determined that her own were not producing litters this year and also too big and bad tempered to be kept as a child’s pet.

Hashirama bounces up and down in place, seemingly entirely enthused by the idea. “For me?” he asks, still bouncing. “For me?”

“For you,” Butsuma says, and thinks very little of it because eventually his son will get bored and the pig will become bao.

Hashirama gleefully hugs him around the leg, “Thank you, Chichi!” before moving on towards the pig.

He is...confused.

One, about why Hashirama would think that a piglet is cute even if they’d tried really hard to make the piglet cute with clothes and all, and two, why this merited thanks for him. He wasn’t the one who donated the clothing or found the pig.

Still, being thanked is not...bad.

The piglet squeals at being picked up. Hashirama’s mouth wobbles.

“Pigs don’t like being picked up, Hashira.” Masu is there, quick to reassure, quick to inform and sooth. “You’ll have to let her get used to you.”

Hashirama wilts at this, though he is more careful, babbling quietly to Touka as she herds both child and pig indoors.

Well, that went better than he thought it would.

“And I’m telling you,” Iromoya probably, just down the hall from his study door because he hears his older brother’s voice rise in volume as they come closer.

At least one other person is with him, if not two, their voices low, indistinct murmurs.

“That we have not grown poppy on this land ever and we will never do so.


He turns off the radio.

If he isn’t mistaken…

That would be Nohara Kane, the nominal leader of the Nohara, who’d petitioned him for aid just this past winter.

And next to him, probably one of the man’s nephews since Nohara Kane only has daughters.

And then, Iromoya, red faced and angry. “Tell them, Butsuma.” Iromoya is spitting mad, shaking with unceasing fury.

“We don’t grow poppy here.” On this one thing, he and Iromoya are in agreement.

There will be no opium poppy grown on Senju land so long as he still lives and breathes.

He knows the wrath and scourge of that red devil flower with its cloying scent.

“So I’ve been told,” Nohara Kane straightens, “however, Senju-san, you must be unaware that—”

“Nohara, you must be mistaken.” Chikagai cuts across the man’s statement. “What my cousin means, is that you can either not grow poppy and continue to live here, or you can get out and grow it elsewhere.”

The man splutters, turning to him.

“If you would rather have money than your daughters give a shit about their father,” he tries not to think of his own father — the long stem of an opium pipe, loose words, loose lips, “then go ahead and find land elsewhere to grow it. But if, perhaps, you want your miserable neck to stay attached to your wretched shoulders…”

His glance flickers towards the sword on the rack just left of him.


Chikagai shows the Nohara, who had gone pale, out, still smiling.

“Do you need anything?” he asks Iromoya, who remains.

“You were there.” Iromoya shrugs, helplessly. “You saw it, better than any of us, what the devil flower did to him.”

Barely remembers a time before it, really.

He’s the small and petty son of a small and petty man.

A man laid out in bed with a pipe, burning up his sorrows til they turned to so much smoke.

And then breathing them all back in again.

“Yeah, I remember it.” What of it? he wants to ask Iromoya. What of it? Couldn’t make me respect him then, won’t make me respect him now with that memory.

“Shouldn’t’ve left you there.” A weird admission to make, years late. “Was old enough not to’ve.”

Odd to think that Iromoya still thought about it.

They all have their crutches — Ainoko her cards, Iromoya his cowardice, him his anger, their father his pipe — broken up and trying to survive.

They all live on their knees somehow, wishing they could look up and see a clear sky.

And he really wishes he knew what to say to this.

He shrugs. “I lived.”

Ain’t that enough?

Ain’t that enough, really?

The Sarutobi arrive by snowfall, led by Daisuke, and perhaps one or two of Daisuke’s uncles, seeking aid since the invading forces from the east have pushed into the edges of their property.

“We’re too small to sustain a drawn out fight with them,” Daisuke admits. There’s a shadow in the young man’s eyes, possibly from the loss of his father, who’d last been clan head just a few months prior. “So my uncle Jisen counselled asking for your aid, sir.”

Butsuma had received news of the man’s passing by messenger bird, and felt a vague sense of...brittleness lodge somewhere in his breastbone. So many old acquaintances have been lost recently.

Sarutobi Daisen had been to his wedding.

Would their times ensure that not a single one of his grandfather’s old friends survived?

“Your entire clan?” Chikagai asks, looking about the room. One of the older Sarutobi men nods. “We can’t leave anyone behind.”

“Then that’s not a task for me to decide.” He sighs. The one who inherits the earth has to have the strength to hold it, but the earth itself has a say.

He may be the clan head, but their clans by-laws make clear the rules and regulations regarding treaties, allies, and debts. A treaty — or changing one — required the hundred and eight to sit and discuss.

“When your clan first signed a treaty with mine, it came with a hundred and nine stamps.”

Sarutobi Jisen nods. Clearly, he knows the rules. “We brought it with us.”

“The hundred and eight will sit once more to discuss the new terms.” The arguing that’s going to occur is going to drive him mad.

A hundred and eight who sit, which means a hundred and seven elderly men sitting in his front hall with a number of attendants each, arguing about a truly incalculable number of potential problems and because he is the clan head he’s not allowed to protest by not going.

Even if the Sarutobi knew the rules, they’re hardly prepared for what’s about to occur. He’s not sure he’s ready for it either, but such is the way of things.

The Sarutobi had come here, where they had allies to turn to, and with the long remembrance of how his grandfather had sheltered them through several storms in the past — the emperor’s taxes, accusations of crime against a noblewoman — they hope that the Senju can shelter them again.

Sarutobi Jisen nods again, as though steadying himself. “Yes, sir, we suspected as much.”

He is about to say more — something along the lines of ‘oh it’ll be worse than you suspected’ — but there’s a commotion in his hallway, and a very excited voice asking.

“Oh! Is it true? Is it—” Sarutobi Sasuke appears in his doorway, much to the despair of his uncle. “Sir!”

The boy’s across the room in the space of a blink.

“I’m so glad you’re alright, sir.” Sasuke — no longer a small Sarutobi — clings to him, ugly crying. “I thought you’d died for sure.”

“Well,” he says uncomfortably, still far too aware of Sasuke clinging in front of Daisuke, some other Sarutobi, and Chikagai — he’s really going to hear it from Chikagai later. “As you can see, I am clearly not dead.”

“I suppose,” Sasuke admits, though the boy still seemed to loathe the idea of letting him go.

“What if he’s a solid ghost?” Chikagai asks, with far too much of a wry edge of amusement. “Or a tree spirit? You can never know with Senju.”

Sasuke yelps and lets go of him. “Sorry, sir!”

“Baiting children, are we now?” he asks, both amused and yet...still about to develop a headache even so. The other Sarutobi in the room don’t seem entirely at ease either, all pale as birch bark.

Sarutobi are a superstitious lot.

Though that may have to do with old legends about Senju and trees...and monkeys live in trees. Must be it.

“I can assure you,” he says to a roomful of terrified Sarutobi men, “I am most definitely not a ghost. Or a tree spirit.”

Behind him, Chikagai chuckles. “That’s what he tells everyone.”

He swings around to glare at the man for having such presumption. “Chikagai,” he growls, before throwing himself into a seat. “Forgive him,” he rolls his eyes at the gathered Sarutobi, still clearly terrified. “If we release him into the wild, he’ll start trying to convince people he’s some sort of undead ghoul despite never even being close to death in his life.”

Sarutobi Jisen laughs once, nervously. Good enough.

One clear morning soon after the Sarutobi are settled in small groups scattered throughout the district, Iromoya’s Nokidoi comes to see him.

The boy had grown in these past few years since that one day quite long ago when he thought to give the child two black eyes for getting into a street brawl with Touka.

Grown taller, if perhaps not necessarily wiser, now seventeen just this past summer.

He supposes that Iromoya is proud, though that would imply that Iromoya has anything to be proud of, or that Nokidoi in any way outshone his three older sisters, all of whom had grown up to be respectable upstanding members of the clan.

“Uncle Butsuma,” he bows slightly, hands clasped respectfully. “Your nephew would like a few minutes of your time, if he is able to have them.”

Boy’s not wearing a sword. How curious.

“Your Uncle Butsuma,” he drawls, raising his eyes from the newest missive from Tajima — who still refuses to repay him for damages incurred some eight years back and is instead insulting him with bad insults, “would like you to get to the point and stop wasting his time with needless pleasantries.”

Nokidoi nods at least partially to steady himself. “Yes, as I was saying, I’d hoped that Uncle Butsuma would put in a good word for me with Elder Kazari.”

“Kazari of the carpenter’s guild?” Aren’t you supposed to be a shinobi?

“Yes, Uncle.” Nokidoi looks at his shoes.

“What for?” As far as he’s aware, Iromoya knows Kazari far better so if his brother’s son wanted a new cabinet or some other sort of furniture he’s far better off asking his own father who, on a regular day, denied him nothing.

“So I can find work...sir.” The ‘sir’ is added as an afterthought.

“Has Kazari been hiring shinobi recently?” And what would the carpenter’s guild be hiring shinobi for anyway? The number of people sent out to protect goods being shipped out were hired en masse by multiple craft guilds.

“No, sir.” Nokidoi sounds puzzled.

“Well, spit it out.” He flaps a hand at the boy. “I haven’t got all day. What am I talking to Kazari for then?”

“I want to hang up my sword and become a carpenter, Uncle.” Ah, even more floor staring. Some things never do seem to change, do they.

“And what does your father think of this?” He can guess, of course, given that Iromoya had always spoiled his only son and hoped that the boy would end up being a shinobi like men in their family have been for generations.

But he could be wrong. Iromoya could’ve grown while he wasn’t looking, however unlikely that may be.

“We had a fight.” Nokidoi scuffs his shoe on a spot in the floor.

Hadn’t been pretty, then. But growing up rarely is.

“Well he’s like that.” He turns back to whatever fool thing Tajima’s sent him on the back of his itemized bill this time.

Ah, yes, a bad sketch of a rude gesture. How childish.

He almost wants to make Chikagai write the Uchiha another letter praising him for his youth and vigor. Maybe it’ll send Tajima apoplectic.

But Nokidoi is still standing there, head down and...sniffling.

“Are you crying?”

He wasn’t aware that Iromoya’s fool child — and wasn’t it true that only the youngest was a fool child? — was sensitive.

Nokidoi sniffs, shoulders shaking. “He’s never going to forgive me.”

Butsuma almost tells him “who gives a shit?” but suspects that’s not what his nephew is looking for. “I doubt it.” His voice is slightly…


The boy needn’t worry. “Your father’s been over the moon ever since your birth. I doubt he’d not forgive you even if you decided you wanted to become a dancing bear or a traveling jester.” Or a gambler or a card shark or a wastrel.

Iromoya’s good at excusing things for people he loves; Butsuma’s just never been one of them, and catches all his disappointments.

Not this boy though. Nokidoi will always be the apple of his father’s eye.

“But what if he—”

“Are you living your own life or are you living my brother’s?” He rubs his temples and shoos the boy away. “I’ll talk to Kazari. You go talk to your father again, and if he doesn’t forgive you tell him I’m coming to beat him in his own house.”

“Thank you, Uncle Butsuma.” Nokidoi bows again, and then again, and then again for the third time before turning around and hurrying out.

He sits there briefly, his head in his hands, and wonders.

If he had had a father, less small and petty than his own…

But this is a wound that’s already scarred over.

Twenty-five years since that day he ran away, autumn rain sweeping through the trees in sheets, the sky weeping for a mother who loved but could never protect him.

Twenty-five years since the last time his father raised a hand to him, next to his mother’s casket and he had had enough.

An old wound.

He shouldn’t pick at the scabs.

On an autumn day after Hashirama just turned six, he sits in his study, Kawarama on his lap. His fourth child has been teething, which means for the most part, that Kawarama wants attention. His third son is less cranky than Tobirama had been at the same age, but not as easy a child to take care of as Hashirama, who, for the most part, had always been sweet and smiley right up until he discovered the words ‘why’ and ‘unfair’.

As the case may be at the moment, there is no one else in the house to give the child much more attention, so here he is, with his letters on his desk in front of him, and Kawarama drooling in his lap.

Natsume, who’d run after Hashirama and Tobirama, has married, with her own children on the way. Touka had gone out to investigate a disturbance on their north border — something about frost stricken trees — and had taken Sarutobi Sasuke and a few others with her.

Masu is with the medics.

They will have another child yet, though she’s been feeling more under the weather this time, more easily tired, given to craving things they no longer have access to, and slightly morose.

He’d persuaded her to go visit the medics under the pretext of worry, but more because if he didn’t and something were to happen, he would never be able to forgive himself.

Fish bao was his favorite food once upon a time.

When they were teenagers she’d often teased him for having fish lips and fish breath.

And also she hated fish. The fact that she craves fish bao with vengeance is enough to make him fearful.

Which leads him to right now, Kawarama on his lap, teething and more than slightly cranky.

And the radio, where the Akimichi are discussing their next move, including poorly disguised attempts to hide their location.

He knows that they’re up by the Inuzuka mountains, hiding out at the base because no way in hell the Inuzuka would let them up to the peak.

“We should take the Nagoya crossing. If we can retake that crossing, we’ll be able to push south and link up with allies to the west.”

He has no idea which allies those might be, but that’s unimportant for the time being.

His glance flickers to the map, where the birds and informants had reported that the Yuki clan had entirely frozen that patch of the river entirely.

He throws another Go stone at the map, marking where the Akimichi are.

Kawarama giggles, tugging at his sleeve.

Nagoya is the closest crossing, yes. But if the Akimichi survive trying to take it with the river under the Yuki’s control, it might be an act of god.

Why now? You’ve held to a cautious course for five years now, but your first move outwards is stupid and going to cost you.

He squints at the radio. “How do I talk to those fools over there?”

A crackle.

Silence on the other side.

Then, very hesitantly. “Who was that?”

Ah, he’s been patched through somehow. Sairei’s work is impeccable; he’ll have to tell Chikagai to send her family more meat if they could get their hands on extra meat.

“Nobody important,” he snaps. “Now you fools listen to me very clearly.”

Dead silence.

“If you try to take the Nagoya crossing, you will all perish and turn into horrible ghosts.”

More silence before—

“Our communications are haunted,” says one tremulous voice. “We’re being haunted by a ghost insulting us.”

“Oh for Buddha’s sake.” He barely has the patience to deal with the few Sarutobi who still seem to think he’s a ghost. He’s not going to deal with a group of Akimichi who he’s never met also thinking he’s a ghost. “I’m not a ghost, just screw your head on properly and consider maybe taking the Kanako crossing slightly more to the north. I hear no one’s commandeered that one because it’s small and inconveniently mountainous.”

Why does he even bother trying to help these fools anyway?

The Akimichi have never been his allies, and he’s never met a single one who’s looked well upon him.

But since he’s here, he might as well.

Might as well, because he can’t stand with his hands in his sleeves, knowing that they all go to their deaths.

The broadcast distorts, people speaking over each other in a horrible cacophony. Who knows if they’ll take his advice or not.

He turns off the radio and listens to Kawarama babble.

“Butsu-kun?” Masu’s hands on his shoulders. He hadn’t even heard her come in.

“What did the medics say?” He reaches up for her hand and doesn’t tell her about his inadvisable decision to talk to the Akimichi through the radio.

“That I’ve been working too hard recently.” There is a touch of laughter in her voice, lighter than she has been in weeks. Something about him settles at hearing this. “You were right, Butsu, how does it feel?”

“Quite good, actually.” He raises an eyebrow. “What did the medics suggest?”

There’d been something he’d wanted to bring up, but he supposes that this most recent thing has only brought it into sharper focus.

Masu sighs, pressing her face in the crook of his neck. Her braid tickles his back. “That I stop working for the next half year or so.”

“That’s what I said, wasn’t it?”

Kawarama smacks his face.

He blinks. “Not to you. You don’t work,” he tells the child, quite seriously. “Unless work means smacking your father in the face.”

“I haven’t stopped working since I turned fifteen.” Masu is quiet for a moment, leaving it be. “Well, it’ll be different, I suppose.” She laughs, though there’s a touch of rue to it. “You should’ve seen the way Itokiri took me to task. That girl has grown so much these last two years.”

That does tug at a corner of his mouth. “She’s what, twenty-one now?”

“Mmm.” Masu leans forward to take Kawarama from him, but he puts a hand on her wrist and shakes his head.

“Something I wanted to talk to you about.”


And yet now that he’s here…

“Five is enough, I think.”

Even if Touka had been Sudare’s daughter once upon a time, she is still his eldest.

Five children.

Already far more than what he thought he would have that day he left home at eighteen to find his own house, his grandfather trailing after him, both placid and amused.

“I’ll think about it.” Masu kisses his cheek. “But I suspect I will agree eventually.”

Wasn’t so hard, was it?

Wasn’t so hard to say, was it?

She hadn’t even looked sad.

While the Earth Country army seems more or less inclined to not bother with the countryside and stay in large cities, pillaging whatever they can find, the newer invaders from Water Country are less likely to do so. The riches in cities are already plundered and gutted.

Water Country turns to the countryside, to the spaces between large towns and cities, searching for further valuables. And if they could not find anything of particular value, food and grain and pillaging would do.

They’d yet to turn their gaze too far to the south, the middle of Fire Country being good enough for plundering thus far, but Butsuma severely doubts that it will last.

Which is why, when Chikagai passes him a clearly shinobi missive in the spring of the fifth year since the capital fell, he accepts it with vague befuddlement.

“It’s from the Aburame.” Chikagai tells him. “I looked at it. They claim to want to send an associate down here from the upper highlands to meet with you.”

“You looked at it already?” He considers the Aburame, and what little he knew of the clan. Unlike the Akimichi or the Yamanaka and the Nara, who once served in court for long periods, the Aburame do not have extensive ties with the former ruling dynasty. But there had been a young concubine of the old emperor who’d had ties with them. She’d been one of the clan head’s daughters, not touched by their unusual gifts, which made her suitable to send to court.

Tenuous loyalty at best, but given how the Aburame had all but disappeared from anywhere except their jealously guarded upper highland territory…

“Well, I didn’t want you looking at any of the useless correspondence. Everything is categorized and organized, but your time is limited enough as it is.” Chikagai shrugs. “Nothing’s thrown away, so you can look through it all later if you wish.”

He snorts, “I think not. You do it better than I.”

He’d wondered, briefly, before, why Chikagai bothered with him and the thankless, bitter work it is picking up after him and sorting all the nonsensical forms of correspondence they got all the time.

But that’s his cousin’s own prerogative. If that’s what Chikagai wants to do with his life, it’s not like he’s going to say no to someone doing all the things he didn’t care for.

“About the highland clan though,” Chikagai mutters, staring at the map on the study wall, “I’m not entirely certain it’s wise.”

“They don’t want me to go anywhere,” he mutters, “and killing me won’t disable the clan.” No, it’ll just gut Masu and the children, and it might make Sudare cross with him in the afterlife — didn’t even make it to my age before kicking the bucket, little brother — but the title and the house would pass to Cousin Azumaya should Uncle Monma, now over seventy-five, cede it, and the earth would be inherited once more, this time, by a genjutsu specialist.

Nothing much would change.

That is the way of Senju inheritance. Their particular laws and customs write it plain. So long as there’s a single adult in the clan in charge of the children, the position of head would belong to them.

Other clans might have small boys inherit should a single man die, but until whatever foes pursuing them cut through every single adult in this clan, a small boy would never inherit it.

I don’t want you to die.”

He blinks. Chikagai looks rather perturbed by it all.

“Cousin,” he starts, and then stops, because Chikagai looks positively mulish, which is unusual for a man so nervous — though, hadn’t Chikagai been better about that recently? “Chikagai,” he starts again and continues on this time, “I do not intend to die, and I do not wish to either.”

“Good.” Chikagai still looks disgruntled. “If you die, I will reach into the underworld and drag you out to kill you again for leaving me with all this work.”

That startles a laugh from him, even if it sounds a bit like a madman or a corpse.

“Tell the Aburame I will see them, but only on my terms.” He doesn’t think they’d be stupid to try anything, but their times do not lend themselves to intelligent men. “They come here to speak to me, or not at all.”

“Just you?” Chikagai looks up briefly from grinding ink, slowly wetting his brush as he considers the paper laid out in front of him. “Not the hundred and eight?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “I don’t foresee them offering anything the whole clan would want.”

Whatever it is the Aburame are selling, it’s unlikely that they’ll get one buyer, much less a hundred and eight.

The group of Aburame who come down to visit him is...sizable.

Well, sizable for a smaller clan. Were it the same number of Senju it would not be sizable in the slightest.

Some twenty in all, in a range of ages from what must be teenagers through their thirties. At their head is a young man of about twenty-five who throws his hood back and steps forward to salute him briefly before taking a seat.

“Aburame Shisen.” The young man nods to him. “You must be Senju Butsuma.”

So this is the Aburame heir, whom he has never once met, given that the Aburame are reclusive in the best of times, and in the past seven years, unlikely to leave for any sort of reason.

Some men are made to cut an imposing figure.

Aburame Shisen, sitting too forward in his chair — too eager by half — is not one of them.

One of the younger travelers, no more than eighteen at best, drifts to stand behind the young man’s chair.

“I am,” he shrugs. “What of it?” He is not made of unlimited time — the harvest will be coming soon, and there’d been reports of a locust swarm headed in their direction.

The harvest will need to be completely reaped before the locusts eat everything.

“My father has something he wishes to say—”

“And he sent you to say it, yes, get on with it.” The Aburame are already giving him a headache and they haven’t even started talking yet. Not really anyway.

Shisen freezes, as if trying to figure something out.

He wishes the man would just — talk already.

They continue. “Senju-san,” Shisen says, as if weighing his options. “Have you ever thought about restoring the empire?”

He’s only ever thought about the empire in the past ten or so years to curse it for being weak and paltry, for the mandate being lost, for leaving them all adrift.

He doubts this is what the Aburame are driving at though or else they could’ve just sent a strongly worded letter.

“Can’t say I have.”

Aburame Shisen leans forward, “and if I were to tell you that some spark of the great empire remains?”

There’s probably some number of imperial descendants remaining. The imperial clan had boasted some twenty-nine thousand members the year Earth Country invaders smashed into the decadent and decaying capital, but really, it doesn’t matter to him.

“What?” he almost laughs, bitter as it is. “Some son of a sixth rank prince escaped the carnage?”

“No,” Shisen shakes his head, amusement in the curve of his lips. “No, something much much more valuable than that.”

The teenage boy by his chair steps forward, throws back his hood and removes his eyeglasses to reveal amber eyes. “Tachibana Hikayoshi, Senju-san.”

The tenth son of the old emperor.

Son of the Aburame consort in court.

Well, that explained both the Aburame’s disappearance from worldly affairs for eight years and their choice to return now, for the boy would be about sixteen now.

“Such trust you have in me,” he mutters.

At the same time Chikagai very sarcastically smiles and says, “We’re honored. We truly are, Aburame-san.”

This...does not appear to be the reaction that Aburame Shisen or the teenage boy who he had brought along expected them to have.

“Think about it, Senju-san.” It’s Shisen speaking again. “Under his banner, we can retake the great—”

“What empire? There is no more great empire. It fell eight years ago.” He feels his vision spark. His hands clench.

Six years since the capital was taken.

Six years since hell arrived.

Three thousand who share the name of Senju, and most of them children and craftsmen.

You think a green boy can inherit the earth? You think a child can hold it?

The earth of this country is broad and deep, a sapling cannot hope to anchor it down before we are washed away in the coming flood.

And if there is to be a country at all, someone's hands will have to hold it. Someone's sword will have to win it. And someone must anchor it down for there to be earth to inherit at all.

“There is still hope—” Shisen says, “We could retake the lost provinces, the lost cities, the people would rally—”

“The people will not.” The Aburame must’ve been too reclusive in the recent decades. This is a young man who does not understand.

The empire fell because of the Nine Lords’ War, it’s true, but it fell because of people no longer caring.

It fell because of the lost mandate, and it will never come back.

That time has passed.

“I see that you are not willing to listen to reason.” Shisen seems offended, but then, Butsuma supposes he’s been offensive.

“I will not listen to you reason, no.” He is half a step from asking Chikagai to see their guest out because he will not go further than the door himself.

“What will you do, then?” Shisen asks him, speaking on behalf of his father. “Surrender to the Water Country troops coming this way?”

“Do you know what they did to the Kurama when they surrendered?” Across from him, the man shakes his head. No, he’d been burying his head in the sand. He did not hear of this, and he did not know. “They were all slaughtered.”

Water Country, it appears, takes no prisoners and values the kekkei genkai of Fire Country very little.

The mokuton will not go the way of the Kurama’s hell viewing genjutsu.

The front hall goes very quiet.

The Kurama, while not a large clan, had not been as small as either the Sarutobi or the Nohara. If any of them remain, it would be by accident.

Surrendering to a final, deadly reaping.

“I have three thousand kinsmen who share my name, Aburame. I will not surrender.” Very slowly, he unclenches his fists. “Do not insult me further. Get out.

Chikagai steps out from behind him. “Well, you heard my cousin!” His cousin has a bit of a sharpness to his smile which he’s only ever seen when Chikagai really wants to scare off small children. “Time for you to leave, I think.”

Shisen is shown out.

Slowly, he rests his head in his hands, thinking.

He might’ve talked tough for the Aburame, but he has very little place to retreat to. His clan can no more pack up and leave than they could years ago when the empire first fell.

There is no backing ground to turn to.

He stands at the edge of a very long fall.

“Butsuma?” Ah, Chikagai, back again. “You look…”

“Troubled,” he mutters. “I look troubled.”

But then, troubled times make troubled men. If not the last dynasty, what then?

Touka and Sasuke make it to the edge of the district and have to be carried the rest of the way by Nokidoi, who flutters here and there, rearranging things.

He hears that Nokidoi had been the first one to answer Sasuke’s cries for help, and had been the one who carried Touka into the healer’s hall.

Fortunes reverse.

He lets go of that long held grudge against a spoiled boy of ten.

Fortunes reverse.

Once, years ago, it’d been Touka weeping over him lying in a bed. She’d called him father for the first time that day as well.

But this is not the first time he calls her daughter.

He stands there, in the doorway, hands clenched.

“We ran afoul of the Hoshigaki.” Sasuke’s there, talking quietly explaining, even though he doesn’t need to explain. “They had sharks. I had to bash one over the head, sir.”

“You’re injured.” And indeed, Sasuke’s sword arm is bandaged, as is his side.

He hadn’t had a good time of it making it back.

“You did enough,” he steps into the room, trying not to think too much of Touka watching him. “No need to flay yourself on the rack of guilt.”

Sasuke swallows, once, hard. “Thank you, sir.” The Sarutobi leaves, likely to report what had happened to his older brother and reassure Daisuke that he still has all his appendages attached.

He sits down on the edge of Touka’s bed. “Well?” he asks, though he knows the answer. “No words from you today?”

She shakes her head, tugging once, briefly at his sleeve.

He laughs, though it sounds more injured than if he’d screamed. “Shouldn’t’ve sent you.”

Shouldn’t’ve sent anyone to investigate the river crossing.

Birds had told him it was taken.

“Hm!” she frowns at him, pouting.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says, though she turns her face aside. Ah, angry at him for doubting her. “I knew it was taken, but not by what.”

Said already, she signs.

You don’t have to be sorry.

He shakes his head, suddenly wordless, something impossibly large filling his throat.

It’s still there, hours later, after she falls asleep, still so small and pale compared to the sheets despite being almost as tall as him and seventeen.

“Fool,” he manages, though so quietly that it doesn’t wake her.

Once, it would’ve been loud enough to shake the rafters. He grows smaller and quieter with age.

Fool.” He tries again, but it’s still no louder than a whisper. “Who made you self sacrificing?”

The ghost of the man he used to be doesn’t have an answer for that either, only a vague bitterness, salt on his cheek.

The Senju of southern Fire have lived on the east side of the Naka River for well over seven centuries, and though their specific origins have been lost to time, they have thrived here, on this patch of land through the changing of dynasties at least once before.

He takes heart from that, if nothing else.

They’d done this once before, a much smaller and frailer clan back then.

They could survive another hundred years of war — even if he will not live to see the end of that if it must be a hundred years before the country is brought under one man’s rule again.

They’d done this before, some distant ancestor sitting in his chair, hands pressed together, head bowed, hoping for a clear sky.

Had he also been a desperate man?

They are cut off from river trade in the north now. Not even the Inuzuka would brave coming down the Nakano for any reason given the stranglehold Earth Country has on the most crucial river crossings.

Cut off in the east as well, given the countryside crawling with Water Country soldiers. Help is unlikely to arrive from Uzushio given that Water Country has geography and numbers on their side.

There’s not too much further south of here besides the marsh and Wave Country, the goods of which he does not trust, being too close to Water for there not to be possible sabotage.

As for the west, well, the Uchiha are the nearest neighbors, and beyond that…

Well, there’s an occupying force of Earth Country soldiers between the Uchiha and Wind Country.

And like a slowly closing steel trap, the outside world presses in.

Above him, the bare electric bulb flickers.

Touka pushes the door aside and comes in to sit with him, limping. “Chichi?” she asks, leaning her head against his knee. “Auntie Masu says dinner’s grown cold.”

Rice and vegetables.

There’s not much else left.

He wasn’t aware that she had recovered enough to be out of bed.

He sighs, smoothing down a few errant wisps of her hair. “Everyone’s eaten?”

He heard Hashirama and Tobirama arguing on their way to bed earlier, as he sat here, hands clasped, looking at the map on the wall, heard Pig’s footsteps trotting after them, but couldn’t find the will to get up and bid his boys good night.


They sit in silence for a while. There’s a yawning pit in him, a hunger, but not for physical goods.

Surely, there has to be something better than this. Something better than this. For the children at least, if not for him.

Something better than this, but where does he turn for something better than this?

“Do you blame me?” he asks. “For not saying yes to the Aburame.”

She shakes her head. “Not you to bow to other men.”

His own damnable pride.

Was that all it was?

“Should’ve maybe.”

Her leg is still bandaged, ankle to knee, and she should’ve stayed in bed, not walked all the way out to his study.

She shakes her head again, more emphatically. “No.”

“No?” he asks, “the Akimichi and the Nara said yes.”

He hasn’t heard anything about what the Yamanaka are planning, but he doesn’t think they’ll break with the other two clans.

Which would make four clans supporting the frail teenage boy he’d seen.

And even though he does not think that Tachibana Hikayoshi has the strength to inherit the earth, at least the Akimichi have food, which they could possibly spare allies.

Touka frowns. “No.”

He sighs, an angry thing, hand still on her hair. “I’ve doomed us.”

“Didn’t sell us.” She prods at his knee repeatedly. She’s cross then, likely with him being so gloomy and then rises to tug him to his feet. “Food,” she says, still frowning.

And he is hungry enough.

Their troubles will keep for the morning.

He lets his daughter tug him to the kitchen, where leftover vegetables and rice awaits.

Chapter Text

“The surgeon and farmer meet

And each greets the other with a bow

They're kindred instruments, you know

The scalpel and the plow

And in the shadow of the mountain

We work when work abounds

And we wear out all our prayers when the work runs out”

— Dessa, “The Beekeeper,” Castor, The Twin

The combined forces of four clans is enough to sweep back into the capital, banishing the Earth Country invaders, though the old palace and surrounding noble estates had been looted clean of antiques and valuables — but Butsuma didn’t much care about that.

The Aburame-InoShikaCho alliance had retaken the capital and nominally put Tachibana Hikayoshi on the throne as the emperor — though an emperor of barely eighteen isn’t exactly the most awe inspiring sight — but if they could manage to retain the capital and expand outward is a different matter altogether.

To retain the capital and retake the country, they would have to contend with now three invading armies for Lightning Country had also ventured downwards for a share of the wealth, and pacify the commons, who had not been pleased to hear that the Daisei dynasty had been “restored.”

The birds had told him that the Inuzuka were already staging a revolt.

And grain lines into the city had already been partially destroyed or cut.

He is not...surprised, at this point, that nearly a decade into invasion and warfare, that the Inuzuka and others had no patience for attempts at a restoration; he’s just surprised that the original retaking of the capital city had been successful.

“And,” Kazari says, angrily and mostly to Chikagai, “there’s been reports that the furniture was broken! Broken! Not stolen! As if they could steal other valuables and break my life’s work like so much garbage!”

Kazari had spent his life making furniture — elaborate chests of drawers, intricately carved cabinets, chairs of luxury wood, delicate tables, noble women’s makeup boxes, mirror frames, lacquer screens, and wall panels — for upper class clientele.

And he had grown rather wealthy upon that trade, bolstered by the Senju reputation for working with rare and intricate woodcraft. When Butsuma was a child, he’d used to boast that the only aristocrat that did not house at least one piece of his craft was the emperor himself.

Most had wound up in the capital, for very few could afford zitan and huanghuali, or even jichimu or hongmu.

And with the rough way that things had gone inside the capital city down to the very last noble estate…

No, they could never have expected foreigners to treasure the valuable woods and their even more valuable workmanship.

“And yet those items brought so much joy to their owners, once upon a time.” Chikagai, doing his best.

Kazari’s face falls. “Lady Oyama’s daughters loved those music boxes.”

Lady Oyama had been a common patron of various smaller pieces, more decorative than functional, and had commissioned a set of western-type music boxes for her two younger daughters, one on each girl’s tenth birthday.

The talk had been all the rage in the district when the commission had first come in, for no one had ever seen a western music box.

Kazari had made them, however, pristine and beautiful, and they, after being wound, could each play five tunes, mostly classical, traditional works.

He supposes, after everything, it is not the music boxes that Kazari regretted.

No, never the music boxes or cabinets, not tables or chairs, or smashed wall paneling, but the people and families he’d made them for.

What Kazari regrets and grieves is that Lady Oyama, her four sons, and two daughters, are, now that the capital has been retaken and the survivors tallied, confirmed to be dead.

He does not feel much regret for the death of the emperor or for his princely brothers, who’d quarreled over power and lost the empire, the dynasty, and the throne, but he does feel a twinge of regret for the — not innocents, for no one who lives is ever truly innocent — but the bystanders.

No matter how powerful, how noble, how wealthy or blessed or fortunate, they all live on the wind’s edge, on the rise and fall of what heaven and earth declares.

The wind turns, and the world breaks, and they live in troubled times.

“How’s Nokidoi?” he asks, after a brief spell of quiet. “I heard from Iromoya that he’s been apprenticed with you?”

And the conversation turns, if not to happiness, at least to a fonder form of annoyance.

This year, his yearly rotation in the fields comes at harvest time instead of planting, and since Hashirama is already eight years old this autumn, he takes his oldest son with him into the fields for the harvest. Pig follows along behind them, far bigger than Masu ever wished for her to be, but just as well.

Hashirama’s shown no signs of losing interest in his beloved pet, so such as it is, Pig remains.

“Tou?” Hashirama slips a hand in his as they make their way out the door.

By the time he was Hashirama’s age, he’d already been up at the big house for a year, loud and angry, arguing with his grandfather over every little thing.

“What is it?”

Hashirama had always been an easy, pleasant child. If this son took after anyone, it would be Masu, sweet and never asking for much.

“Tobira laughs at me.”

“Does he?”

They weren’t assigned to the rice fields this year.

He hears that Ryou needs help harvesting the pumpkins, back no longer quite in working order after wrenching it earlier in the year.

He could’ve told his second brother this would happen. The man is near fifty and shouldn’t be lifting pottery orders willy nilly even with chakra.

After all, Ryou had never trained to be a shinobi.

“He does,” Hashirama sulks, kicking rocks in their path and ruining his shoes. “I fell down the other day, and he asked me why I wasn’t crying yet.”

He resists the urge to laugh.

He also resists the urge to tell Hashirama to smack the laughing away because the last time he’d thought about this too hard he’d realized that he’d be encouraging his children to attempt killing each other.

Because, after all, if Tobirama came to complain about how Hashirama was smacking him, he’d tell Tobirama to fight back.

And so on.

“And did you cry?” He does not understand Hashirama’s aversion to pain or his reactions to it, but he’s still curious about this time.

Hashirama frowns, cutting a pumpkin off the vine with a knife. “Wasn’t going to, but then he asked and, and—”

“So you cried.” He doesn’t mean this as much judgement, but Hashirama’s face falls anyway.

“I didn’t mean to!”

He ruffles the boy’s hair. “I know.”

“Don’t mean to be a crybaby.” Hashirama rubs at his eyes with his sleeves. “But why would he ask if he wasn’t laughing at me?”

“He wasn’t laughing at you.” Tobirama’s “why” stage had extended beyond the age most children’s do, even if that is very inconvenient. “He just wants to know why.”

Hashirama sniffs, face all scrunched up. “But I don’t know why.”

“Then tell him that.” He wonders how Tobirama would feel about that.

Possibly “But what do you mean you don’t know why?”

Pig has taken their distraction as permission to root around in the pumpkin patch, overturning vines and examining pumpkins with hungry interest.

“You know better than that.” He tells the sow, meeting the animal’s eye when it looks at him. “Stop it, the uncooked pumpkins are for cooking later.”

And no doubt, Pig will get some amount of cooked pumpkin.

Masu’s heart is too soft, and despite being huge, Pig could act surprisingly young and starved if need be.

Pig raises its snout at him and huffs.

But at least it doesn’t try to take any bites out of the pumpkin.

The Akimichi, spooked by his words to them, have taken to being more stupid than normal. Which is to say, more superstitious and likely to blame bad things happening on “the radio ghost” rather than say, switch to using a non radio format of communication.

He doesn’t know how they ended up being so convinced that their security was invincible and that his presence was the work of a ghost of some sort, likely malevolent, that they had to appease. His radio had been able to connect to every one of their dispatches just fine and would sometimes do it on its own without him turning any knobs or dials.

And yet, despite having no proof of there being a ghost, or even that the ghost had gone away — except asking several times if the ghost was still there at every meeting for a year or two, they continued to spout secret information that could get them all killed if someone who really wanted to kill them got ahold of it.

He could applaud them for their stupidity, really.

But he doesn’t. Because it suits his purposes. If they were smarter, he wouldn’t know that the Hyuuga had not fallen in with the revivalist faction, or that they were in fact, in open opposition, cutting supply lines, and slowly encroaching on the territory that the revivalists had reclaimed.

“They’ve grown too fond of their lawlessness.” Chikagai sighs. The radio has been going on for some time now, but it becomes ever more clear that the Hyuuga, drunk on the power of being local warlords, may have — at least in part — fallen in with the Water Country invaders.

And in doing so, selling out their countrymen.

“Hyuuga Heishin wants to be an emperor.” He’s never met the man, but the birds have and each of his informants in that area tell a similar tale. “Of course he would never be satisfied while Tachibana Hikayoshi is still among the living.”

With the boy dead or without significant backing, the Hyuuga eradicate the last vestige of old imperial power, and could stride forward to claim the mandate. And from there, they would pay tribute to Water Country year to year as Fire Country is bled dry.

The clans of Fire Country are like a board of wet sand, none willing to truly resist the invaders.

We might hate each other more than we hate the foreigners.

The divisions and prejudices between Fire Country’s shinobi clans run deep, hatred and grudge going back hundreds of years.

And until the clans come together, Fire Country will never again be liberated — too rich in resources, too lacking in spine to ever stand upright.

“Someone ought to hold him to it.” Chikagai’s frown carves its way deep into his face. “Selling out his countrymen for the sake of personal power.”

He snorts, the corners of his mouth pulling upwards. “Who’s going to challenge him, Cousin? We’re all just trying to survive.”

The years roll by, each one heavier and grayer than the last.

News of the Daisei dynasty’s second fall reaches him not months later, Water Country forces occupying the city.

Aburame Shisen’s body decorates the top of the city walls for two months.

Tachibana Hikayoshi’s corpse is never found.

And for the briefest, barest of moments, he breathes out, feeling that perhaps they’d dodged a blow — and feels shame for that as well, just the briefest flicker.

But he holds to his own, selfish obligations — to not sell out the Senju, to not sell out the Sarutobi or the Nohara, to do what he can in his own land.

The movement of nations, of countries, of the vastness of those pursuits — who ought to rule and how they ought to rule — are not the concerns of the Senju.

He tries to tell himself that to forget the teenage boy who had come down from the highlands to ask him for aid, even though he knows that Tachibana Hikayoshi never would’ve been able to hold the earth even if his uncles could win it for him.

It doesn’t help.

Word arrives from the Uzumaki by bird, sealed three times and edged with deep crimson. He fears the worst upon seeing it, because not even Chikagai could open it.

But the first thing he fears is that Uzushio has fallen to the Water Country invasion as well.

The Terumi had always been greedy for more land.

Their own didn’t support the livestock or agriculture they wanted. So now they turn their gaze south.

He unlocks the letter, pushing and pulling at the puzzle seal until he breaks it, almost by brute force, and scans the page briefly before sitting down with a heavy thud.


Wordlessly, he offers the single sheet edged in red to Chikagai. It contains a few words and an image, a small map outlined in red with the river labeled and the surrounding area outlined in red.

Flooding. There’s flooding coming. The worst the Naka River Basin has seen in near five hundred years.

“But this is—”

“The country’s been lost.” He holds his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair. “And now the earth doesn’t want us either.”

All that they have comes from this patch of yellow earth, the dust, the rust, and the seven hundred years they’d lived here, farming these fields, tending to orchards, building their houses, burying their dead.

All the laughter and sorrow, prayer and worship, sin and suffering, celebration and mourning, all the life they’ve lived and the deaths they’ve suffered, bound within their patch of earth.

The one who inherits the earth must have the strength to hold it, but how to hold it when the very earth itself rebels?

“The amount of water they’re predicting…” Chikagai trails off, lips suddenly tight. “We could lose everything.”

Which is, of course, why their Uzumaki cousins had sent this to them by bird, edged in red so he wouldn’t neglect to read it.

“We can’t afford to lose everything.”

They owe too much to the land, too much to be able to run.

“I—” Chikagai trails off.

“ can go.” He runs his fingers through his hair one more time. “I’ll think of something.”

Wordlessly, Chikagai goes.

He remembers his grandfather sitting here, in a similar chair, now, many years ago, when he was just a small boy, frowning at the accounts, brightening when a letter arrived.

His grandfather had cultivated friends and acquaintances the way other men cultivated land or hobbies or vices, and no matter what the internal contents of his letters were, be they wedding invitations, funeral notices, pleas for help, or unexpected windfalls, he’d been happy to see them arrive.

For over seventy years, the man had stewarded the clan, seen the fortunes of the world rise and fall, a once prosperous dynasty slide slowly towards ruin.

For over seventy years, the Senju had prospered here, under the hand of the longest caretaker they've ever had.

If it comes to ruin on his the Yellow Springs on the road to hell, should he ask for mercy or forgiveness?

And would he deserve either?

“Tou-san?” Tobirama is there, with a large bowl of fish soup, a basket of what must be rice and vegetable dishes on his arm. “Fish?”

He sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. The map had gone all blurry.

He puts down another black go stone at the southern boundary of the flooding, and then a white one further out.

Their evacuation has to be much further than the flooding will supposedly rise to.

Tobirama, behind him at the table, huffs at him. “Tou-san! Fish!

He waves an absent hand at the child. “Take it back to the kitchen and eat it.”

A small silence, and he almost forgets about it, but very quietly, Tobirama says, “I’ll save some for you?”

He continues thinking, moving the go stones around on his map. Maybe they ought to evacuate east… “It’ll grow cold, just eat it.”

Tobirama shuffles over towards him and tugs on his sleeve. “Tou-san?”

“What is it?” No, the Terumi are east. He won’t send their children and civilians towards the invaders.

No use in leaving if they’ll all die horribly that way.

“Nothing.” Tobirama pouts, brows furrowed and grumpily heads away.

“Take your soup with you.”

Tobirama likes fish soup. No need to let it go to waste on the table.

“HMPH!” Tobirama stomps back to the table and picks up the bowl of soup before very carefully going away again.

He blinks, watching as Tobirama attempts not to stomp his way down the hall, so as to not upset the soup.

What a foolish child. He didn’t like sharing his fish dishes normally even if it’s a weekly affair, and yet somehow, was still upset at the idea of not sharing.

He turns back to his map.

He pauses there, at his desk, looking at the old records, previous years of floods, while not as devastating as in years past, still heavy.

How many deaths have come from the placid looking Nakano? It’d been a pleasant thing all his life, but more superstitious kinsmen have always lit candles, offered up food, had a monk come out and pray when the spring thaw unfroze the surface, little offerings for the goddess of the river.

And how many deaths will the river demand this time, now that it has been hungry for so long?

The clan knows now, the news having spread, Chikagai personally visiting every household to tell them to pack.

Not a household in the district will remain above the floodwater, so everything they did not want to get swept away must be packed.

After the packing, there will be several rounds of channel digging, mostly done by those with the earth affinity, because the expected water level will break the levees, which, for many years now, have not been replaced and have fallen into disrepair.

There are people out there right now, fixing what can be fixed, building them higher as time allows, but it will not be enough, hence the drainage channels, hence the small mountain of storage scrolls being prepared to uptake some of the water as it arrives.

But he pauses, thinking.

None of their neighbors know that the flood is coming.

Not all of them have the resources to pack.

How many deaths will the river demand this time? How many can he prevent?

“You asked to see me, sir?” Sasuke appears, grimy and tired. He’d been out with the levee crew until Butsuma had sent word to go get the boy — not a boy anymore, a man now, twenty-four and still short.

“Yes.” He picks up the note that he’d drafted. “Tie this to the Uchiha pigeon, I presume Tajima will not be a fool about this.”

He can only hope that Tajima will not be a fool.

Not about this.

The man has a clan to look after.

But what Tajima does…and if the Uchiha’s pride will accept this warning, or if the Uchiha even believe him when he says what’s coming — Uchiha are suspicious bastards, they may not believe him — well, that is up to the Uchiha now.

Never let it be said he did not offer warning.

“Sir?” Sasuke looks at him. “For the Uchiha?”

“I would rather they not all drown.” Some in the district would think differently.

Some would, but he does not.

Sasuke ducks his head, suddenly understanding. He is not a bad young man, not really. “Right away, sir.”

He throws on his winter coat and follows Sasuke out. There are levees to patch.

He orders the very young and the very old out of the district to the northeast, and a good number of people to guard them. But he cannot put that thread down either.

If they are hurt by this—

If there is anyone injured or killed because of this—

If some opportunistic enemy takes this as the time to attack a bulk of the clan — while they are displaced and vulnerable…

It will be on his head. He’ll pay for it, every broken bone, every drop of blood.

Itama, shrieking, clings to his leg, wailing something completely incomprehensible. It must’ve been sealing everything in the house including the furniture and the frantic digging outside that’d told the younger children something is very wrong.

“Tou-san, do you really have to stay?” Tobirama, trying to pry Itama’s hands off of the lower half of his changshan. “Can’t you come with us?”

“No.” There is much at play here but—

He has been clan head for near ten years now. He cannot leave anyone behind, cannot stand aside with his hands in his sleeves.

So it was when he was eleven years old, punching the boys who came by to tease Masu for her white hair. Born in mourning, father’s warning. Born in white, mother’s plight. Ill omen, ill omen.

So it was when he was twenty-three, in a roomful of cowards who would not offer Touka a door to return home to. What? We all mute in here?

So it was when he was twenty-seven, the clan head’s position offered to him. I do not cede it.

So it is now, when he is thirty-seven.

He could never learn to turn aside.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” Tobirama manages to pry Itama off of his changshan, his youngest child having cried himself out.

“Yes.” He looks down at the two of them, Hashirama having led Kawarama and much of their belongings neatly sealed away onto the porch already. Masu had checked everything just the once, trusting everything to Touka and Hashirama’s planning, more occupied with seals to save the orchard trees from the floodwater — he wishes he could tell her that it will likely be futile.

“Why do you have to stay?” Tobirama is young yet, which is why he asks.

Children are not selfish by nature so much as they do not understand what effect their actions have on others.

“But if I leave, don’t I leave it to some other man?”

To hold this position is to be the first thing set against the flood.

Azumaya would know what to do if he dies.

His hair is plastered to his ears in the pouring rain, water and mud all the way up to his waist.

The roar of the river fills his ears, the Naka angry and unrecognizable.

Nokidoi had not returned though he was scheduled to after sounding the alarm horn, even though everyone else — beside Touka and Sasuke, both stationed further out — has, and if Nokidoi does not return because something’s happened to him — not all the trees had been cut down if only because their roots would hold the soil from being washed away completely, and their trunks and branches could divert the water, he could’ve had a large branch snap his leg — then Iromoya would never forgive him.

Iromoya would never forgive him if Nokidoi was injured.

“Stupid boy,” he mutters to himself, the words lost in the roar of the Naka. “Why didn’t you come back like I told you to?”

The horn had been sounded well ahead of the first rush of water breaching the levees.

And yet, no Nokidoi.

Probably still trying to patch a hole or something.

The rain coming down in sheets makes it hard to see, and he nearly loses his footing in a particularly heavy swell, but he continues on regardless. He’s not wearing armor, because he doesn’t fancy drowning, but the chill of the meltwater and the chill of the rain means he will be having a very bad day after this.

“Nokidoi!” he roars in the vague direction his nephew had been stationed. “Where the hell are you, you little punk?”

Through the rain, a figure, head bowed over something in the raging water.

He splashes in that direction. The only fool willing to be here, much less standing up, would be Nokidoi.

“Nokidoi!” he shouts, though the wind seems to cast his voice away. “Are you daft? Stop looking at the water!”


Long hair in a low tail.

Was his nephew’s hair always so long?

Streaks of white in that hair.

It’s not right, not right.

He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder — cold, why so cold — Iromoya?

His oldest brother’s sightless eyes stare back at him, hands wrapped around his sword hilt.

Anija.” And for someone who has always been so loud, his hollow chest rattles with a coffin silence, throat closing in. “Anija.”

And from the sky, the roar of the Naka.

Sheets, sheets of torrential rain.

And in his hollow silence, the golden mockery of memory.

He is four years old, or thereabouts, because he still has the jade horse pendant his grandfather had given him at his birth, which had certainly been lost after he left his childhood home at age seven.

The air is filled with sweet scented smoke, and the heat made his hair stick to his neck as he scooted outside onto the wrapping porch, careful to avoid his father — the man had been in a mood earlier and it has not gotten better since — Iromoya is sitting there, much younger, right arm bandaged and in a sling though he is frowning intently at a block of wood.

“Ani,” he says, wondering if staying outside where it is hotter would be better than the opium smoke indoors. “Are you here for Haha-ue?”

“No, forget about it,” Iromoya waves a hand at him, gesturing for him to come sit down.

The cicadas hum in the distance, where the low hanging treeline offers shade.

Iromoya ruffles his hair when he sits down. “Where’d you get the rip in your sleeve, little pepper?”

He scrunches his nose, still turning the pendant over and over in his hands. “Don’t wanna.”

“Alright, alright you don’t wanna.”

They sit there in silence for another little while, Iromoya staring pensively at his wood block as though trying to divine a form from it. “Say, little pepper, what’s it like at home these days?”

He scuffs the toe of his boot in the dirt. “Bad.”

Another silence, soft like the rush of river water. “Ani, what happened to your arm?”

But Iromoya doesn’t answer that, eyes still far, far away. “I guess all men live on their knees, because on our knees is how we pray. I’ll never be able to stand up. My knees are all I have.”

He doesn’t understand, but then, he wasn’t old enough to have to. “Dumb Ani. You’ve got feet right there.” He kicks Iromoya in the shins.

“Watch it!”

The memory fades.

The wind wails.

The water wails.

He freezes there, next to Iromoya’s corpse, water rushing all around them.

He didn’t die on his knees, he thinks, and in a brief half moment of something he just stands there, as the water rushes all around him, an odd, rushing silence all around him. Of course he’d protest me stationing Nokidoi out here, is his next thought. Followed by, why didn’t he come to yell at me like he always does?

Another swell comes and knocks him off his feet. Branches like claws scratching at his shoulder and arm.

His head falls below the surface of the water, rushing, pushing him further down, as he struggles to regain his footing.

He scrabbles for something to catch ahold of, lungs burning. Air.



He hauls himself upwards, head breaking the surface of the water, gasping. He’d been pushed significantly further down, and the branches had gouged deep gashes in his right side and arm, but he flings them aside into the water.

He coughs up water, still fighting against the current, rain plastering his hair over his eyes. He shakes briefly, though that aggravates his side.

He fights his way back to Iromoya, and claws the sword out of Iromoya’s hands before throwing it away as well and grabbing the man by the arm and forcing the both of them across the watery landscape by force of will.

“Don’t fucking dare,” he mutters, though it’s no use. “Don’t you fucking dare die on me, you coward.”

But even as he says it, he knows it’s no use.

Iromoya is gone.

“He must’ve been hit by debris thrown by the water,” Itokiri tells him, voice quavering, eyes shiny with tears after her hands had stopped glowing green. “There’s a lot of internal damage.” She swallows a sob and turns to him instead. “Butsu-ji, can I look at your arm now?”

He doesn’t really register undoing the front part of his collar and peeling off his right sleeve. He doesn’t register his niece clearing the debris out of his gashes and sanitizing them the best she can before stitching, first the joint of his shoulder and then his upper arm back together.

“Why didn’t he tell me?”

Iromoya had certainly never been shy about telling him what a fool he was before. He’d come to yell about Itokiri, and then about Nokidoi, and then about accepting the Sarutobi, what Touka had done, Pig eating one of his garden plants and pooping on his doorstep in what must be protest though that idea is daft, the list goes on and on and on.

Why not tell him that stationing Nokidoi there was a fool’s move?

Why did he have to go and, and—

Fucking die.

The story’s clear enough as it is. Iromoya had heard where Nokidoi was stationed and decided on his own to take his son’s place. He’d sounded the alarm when the water was coming and then got hit with a rock or a tree trunk or something and had fought his way back into a standing position, driving his sword into the ground to stabilize himself.

And then he’d died there, upright, hands going cold around a sword hilt.

Butsuma coughs.

“He didn’t want to worry you.” Itokiri turns away from him, face partially hidden by her red bangs and hastily put-together bun.

“Bullshit.” Iromoya had never cared about whether or not he was worried.

At times, it felt like Iromoya wasn’t aware that he worried at all.

The scars of their relationship run deep, both sinned against and sinning. He does not know if he would’ve been happier never knowing Iromoya at all.

The rancor of too many years of bitterness has poisoned the well.

He does not know if they would’ve both been better off if they’d never known each other, for he had brought Iromoya no joy.

This he knows.

Nokidoi arrives, rainwater sliding off of the canvas coat he wears, and with a groan, falls to the floor. He had to have heard what happened, but perhaps only seeing is believing.

Butsuma rises, “He did it for you,” which is easy to see and easy to say, but not easy to know. There were some things Iromoya loved, more than face, more than honor, and more than appearances, “do not spit on that sacrifice.”

But that love was never offered to him.

And likewise, he had never offered love to his oldest brother either.

He goes to find the people he has not yet seen.

It is still raining when he goes out, but he does not care. The rainwater carves its way down his face, following the path of his scowl.

He will pay for this later, but at the moment, anything to get out of the stifling tent where Itokiri crouched over the injured and cast glances at the corpse of her father.

Anything to get away from Iromoya’s long awaited son that his brother had died to protect.

Anything to keep running.

The older he gets, the smaller and less willing to gamble he becomes.

Ceding the space his younger self would have bled and died to attain.

Touka runs out from under the canvas tent she’d been sheltering under and throws her arms around him before trying to bundle him back towards something dry.

He shrugs off her hands. “No use,” he mutters. “Your uncle’s dead, by the way.”

“First Uncle?” she asks, voice rusty from disuse, but not surprised.

“Ah.” He agrees. “A fool down to the very end.”

He shrugs his canvas coat off, though little good that does him. He’d been in the expanded river, almost all the way up to the broken levees. And then he’d gone out into the pouring rain again.

None of his clothing is dry anymore.

“More upset than if he were truly a fool, Chichi.”

He has nothing to say to that, and so merely grunts. She passes him clean clothing from her sleeve pockets, silent, but not for long. “Chichi…”

The word quiet, like a sigh.

“What do you want me to say?” he asks. She’s not a child anymore.

Twenty is old enough to have her own opinions.

Where had the little girl no heavier than a wet cat gone?

Where had the years gone? He could not say that thirteen years ago was happier for they’d had plenty of happy times in those thirteen years, much happier than the month they first met, and he remembers the uncomfortable house, the thin rice gruel and fermented cabbage with no small amount of distaste.

Remembers the sharp grief of Sudare’s absence.

He could not say that thirteen years ago was happier, but time comes, and steals into everything.

Nostalgia can make even rice gruel and fermented cabbage a feast fit for a king, if only in memory.

She’s quiet for another bit, standing there as the rain pounds the canvas outside. “Didn’t say you liked him.” She half sighs and leans against his shoulder — the uninjured one — how did she know? “But sometimes, family isn’t about liking.”

No, family rarely is, though he’d been lucky that his children still like him.

He snorts.

He’s supposed to say something here, something, ask a proper question, but he doesn’t, letting it lapse back into silence, the only sound the rain.

The process of reclaiming the district from the floodwaters and clearing the debris needs to happen as quickly as possible.

Most of the district is still under water despite the levees and the hastily dug channels directing water towards the river basin further south and Lake Kozui to the east, though the work of those two projects had allowed about half of their houses and granaries and other buildings to remain above the water.

Their Uzumaki cousins hadn’t even predicted that it would go so well given that most of the earth is still frozen.

They’d turned up just as many solid chunks of ice while digging the drainage channels as they did yellow earth, and there was barely any clay that could be extracted from the still frozen banks of the river.

This flood had been so devastating because of the storm pushing inland, reversing the course of the normally placid Nakano.

That combined with the spring thaw up in the mountains and the heavy winds had led to flooding not seen in this part of the world in over five hundred years.

Nothing had been planted yet. But if news of this storm had come even a week or so later, there might’ve been some who would’ve started their vegetable gardens, if not the rice paddies.

The upper layer of the ground had turned to mud because of the influx of water, but he’s pretty sure that less than a foot down, the ground is still frozen solid. The water will not clear easily back into the river, clogged as it is by branches and smashed houses.

He could hope that the invaders and the Uchiha are just as inconvenienced by the flooding, but given that he still has no news on that quarter, he would rather that they all end up back inside the district, which is more defensible than a collection of canvas tents and temporary wood and seal structures, sooner rather than later.

“Do we have a final tally of how many dead yet?”

Though he has not heard the final count, Iromoya is not the only casualty, just the closest to home.

“Nokita, one of the monks, the Nohara and the Sarutobi have reported casualties as well.” Chikagai sighs, a gray ring of fatigue around his mouth. “And of course, we don’t know how many more as of yet unreported, and how many of the neighbors in the region made it out.”

No mention of the Uchiha, which is just as well.

He’d warned them. What they did with it was up to them.

“Seventh Brother, a moment of your time?”

Very, very few people in the world call him ‘Seventh Brother’ and even fewer of those were women.

“First Sister-in-Law,” Uzumaki Seiun is one of the rare Uzumaki in the district, having moved to Fire Country after marrying Iromoya some thirty-four years ago. To this day, he still has no idea how Iromoya had convinced her of it. Most Senju who marry Uzumaki move to Uzushio. “Of course I have a moment.”

He’d never liked Seiun very much — the woman was twenty-three years his senior and her association with Iromoya as his wife was never something he could ignore — but family binds in a way that goodwill doesn’t.

He’s no longer a child at a too formal wedding.

Her bow is unexpected. “I thank you,” Seiun tells him, eyes downcast towards the mud, “for returning my husband’s body. We understand his death is on his hands and not your own.”

As if words could absolve—

Yes, that had been the other thing that had always chafed about Seiun, wasn’t it?

In her eyes, words absolved.

But words are breath, words are wind, and words cannot erase or absolve.

“I deserve no thanks.” He offers her a hand up though he feels as though his skin is an ill fitting suit the entire time he does so. A little grace perhaps, for his sister-in-law has been recently widowed. If only he could find just a little, a platitude, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or something otherwise trite. “And no matter whose hands it’s on, it won’t change anything now.”

But when has he ever had even a shred of grace?

He turns away.

“Remind everyone to keep the children where they are,” he claps Chikagai on the shoulder as he passes on his way down to observe the district, “there’s likely to be more bodies in there.”

From people upstream of them, even if it won’t be anyone they recognize.

Even so, not a sight for children or a discovery for them to make.

“And if you don’t rest, I’m going to send Touka to sit on you until you fall asleep.” He throws the last sentence over his shoulder like a barb or a stone.

“Speak for yourself!” Chikagai sputters after him. “Cousin, you get—”

He rounds the corner, the rest of his cousin’s words lost to the wind.

On the first day of the next month, when the Nakano had returned to its regular placid quiet, the rice paddies are irrigated and planted once more, and the damaged buildings more or less roughly restored, Junko comes up to the Big House to report that there is an Uchiha on the rebuilt bridge over the river.

An Uchiha, headed their way even.

Just the one though, which is why Junko finds it so odd.

“What’s he look like?”

Itama tugs insistently on his sleeve. He is drawing some sort of waterfowl with webbed feet but without the long neck.

Butsuma suspects it is a duck.

This is an apology too, of sorts, for Itama had been inconsolable upon learning that he’d been out in the water and that someone had died.

He’ll apologize to Tobirama and Hashirama and Masu later, each in different ways, in increments he can afford.

But for now, Itama’s duck which he pronounces “quite well done” and the Uchiha.

Junko clears her throat. “Rather tall, older than you, sir, with an undercut—”

“Thinner than a stick and horribly whiny?”

Well, at least he knows that Tajima didn’t perish like a fool during the flooding.

“Definitely very thin, sir.”

He supposes that Junko wouldn’t know if Tajima is whiny or not, much less “horribly.” She’s only eighteen, which is younger than Touka when it really came down to it.

“I know who he is.” He rises, bouncing Itama up and down several times into the air, which causes Itama to shriek with laughter. Little risk taker, he thinks, mostly fondly. “Tell Tajima to wait outside the district unless he wants someone to come and stab him several times. He’s not a guest.”

Junko pales. “Uchiha Tajima, sir?”

“What?” He asks, setting Itama down with whispered instructions to go find Niou. “He’s a horrible whiny bastard who’d probably die if you breathed on him too hard.”

More hypocritical an Uchiha I never did see.

Junko is silent for a considerable amount of time. “Sir?”

“Well, get on with it.” Niou — one of Azumaya’s older boys, had taken to coming up to the Big House to help corral most of the orphans into some semblance of order at mealtimes — is someone that Itama ought to know well and have no objections to, but—

“No!” Itama says, still giggling. “Don’t wanna!”

He frowns. “I am going to see someone who ought to know better.”

‘Tama considers this for a moment. “Hug?”

Ah, ransom then, for him having to leave early.

“You’re lucky you’re cute.” He squishes Itama’s cheeks together. “Hug it is.”

“Hug! Hug!” And unlike Kawarama who might’ve wriggled and declared that ‘normal hugs go on forever and ever Tou-san!’ Itama does let go in due time and runs off to find Niou.

He considers his sword rack for a moment, before, with the barest of sighs, picking up his sword.

Might as well figure out what Tajima wants.

He spots Tajima as soon as he crosses the edge of the district, leaning, with pretend nonchalance on the bridge, though the man casts a few too many glances over at the water, still burbling and pleasant.

There’s something funny about an Uchiha of all people being afraid of the water, but his throat sticks together, unable to muster any laughter.

“How long are you going to keep lurking this time?” he asks, mostly because it makes Tajima annoyed. “Until dawn?”

“Trust you to be so fussy, Butsu-chan.” Tajima leans against the rails of the bridge, attempting nonchalance. “Did old age make you soft?”

Age has made him small, not soft. He snorts. “What, like your decrepit bones haven’t seen better days?”

If he’s old, Tajima’s older. And the Uchiha should never forget it.

“I will have you know,” Tajima drawls, leaning his hands on the rails too to ignore their tremors, “I’d still get more than you, every single day.”

He looks the Uchiha up and down, and almost laughs, just the single short bark. “More of what? Starvation diets?”

“I can’t believe it.” Tajima shakes his head. “I can’t believe I’m here to thank a man denser than a mud brick wall.”

“Oh, gratitude, is it,” he mutters. “Where was your gratitude years ago, huh?”

Funny. Tajima had never thanked him for the thing that cost him more. Two weeks of carting the man’s sorry ass through two countries while the man tried his last nerve, and it’s the flood notice the Uchiha comes to thank him for.

“You’re the pettiest man I’ve ever met.” Tajima looks at him, as though trying to dissect something. “Your grandfather wouldn’t’ve done it. No other Senju would’ve done it. Why did you send that letter?”

How trite. Tajima thinks he’s special.

“If you think no other Senju would’ve done it, you don’t know Senju.” He leans against the opposite rail of the bridge, sword hilt visible on his right side. “Your clan has children, doesn’t it? Those inspire compassion or so I’m told.”

There are others who would’ve sent a warning.

Not every family member of his is a rat bastard, though he doubts that—

Oh, but what does it matter?

It’s over now.

Whatever grudge he had with Iromoya, whatever problems. His oldest brother is buried in the dirt they came from and will return to, having spent a lifetime living in a house on that yellow earth.

The one who inherits the earth…

Don’t they all inherit the earth by dying on it and being buried in it?

“Your grandfather wouldn’t’ve done it,” Tajima says again, seemingly spinning round and round on this. “And you didn’t have to send me home twelve years ago.” Round and round and round. Did the Uchiha really not understand it? Not even after a dozen years? “You could’ve left me out there to rot. You didn’t owe me anything.”

What was it that Yukimasa had told him, years ago?

You are so covered in dust. It is the life you’ve chosen.

What was it that his mother had told him about his name?

Butsu-ma. The Buddhist Realm. You were named because your haha-ue hopes you attain something more than this earth and this life. My child, do you understand me?

He had not then.

“To live upright in this world, one must have no debts with heaven or earth.” He has chosen a secular life, the life of a shinobi and all that it entails. But that does not mean that he is no better than a beast.

“You wouldn’t’ve had a debt against heaven if you left an enemy on the other side of a long recognized feud to die. You wouldn’t even have had to kill me yourself, you could’ve just pretended to not see.”

Four things in this world, that separates man from beast — recognizing the passage of time, being conscious of one’s own reflection, feeling shame for one’s actions, and the ability to offer compassion to those different than oneself.

Four flaws that his mother had taught him from the cradle were flaws — to covet what another has, to brag about one’s accomplishments, to shirk one’s work when there is work to be done, and to hold no compassion for that which suffers.

“Is a crime not a crime if no one sees or judges?”

Is a debt not a debt if it is never called by the debitor?

Tajima gapes at him, as though struck. “That was what it was? All this time, that was what it was?”

“What did you think it was?” He’d never been able to keep his hands in his sleeves.

“Leverage.” Tajima continues looking at him as though the world had been tilted, just enough that the Uchiha felt…

Something or other.

“To keep me under your thumb. To heckle me with bills and petty nonsense and never let me know another moment’s peace for as long as I live.”

He snorts. “You do a good enough job of that yourself as you are.”

“My clan used to think I was off my head.” Tajima moves to his other side. The right side, which he doesn’t use to wield a sword if he can help it. “But recently, they’ve started thinking that maybe I wasn’t touched by madness all these years.”

Uchiha, with their superstition and their red swirly eyes.

“What did you want?” He shifts, keeping Tajima’s hands in his line of sight. “If all you wanted was to peel me like an onion, I’ve got better things to do.”

Masu said she wanted to make fried spicy tofu for dinner.

“A treaty.”

That makes him look at Tajima’s eyes — beginner’s mistake, which he is oddly not punished for.

“A treaty,” he says flatly. Oh, the hundred and eight would love to dig their teeth into this.

When it looks like Tajima will not take back his possibly impossibly optimistic attempts at a peace treaty between the Senju and the Uchiha — for what, two weeks of bumping around in a cart and a letter detailing a flood? — he continues, “I don’t control treaties.”

“You’re the clan head,” what a shortsighted view of the world, “if you don’t control treaty proceedings, who does?

“The clan does.” He turns to go. “I’ll have Chikagai write you an invitation or something with dates. Come to the main hall or don’t come at all.”

It has been a very long time since the clan has had to negotiate a new treaty.

He foresees headaches in his future.

Chikagai sighs and starts laying out the brushes and the higher end ink, when he finally tells his cousin about what Tajima had said at the bridge. “I figured the Uchiha wouldn’t understand it.”

“You’re telling me you knew and you didn’t think to put that in a letter somewhere?” He flicks a crumpled paper ball at him. “You’ve written what? Near three thousand letters to the Uchiha over the years?”

Chikagai stands there, grinding ink with a placidly serene expression. “Why would I? It was so much funnier to watch as the man drew crude gestures on the back of his bills and try to mail you his debts wen by wen.”

“You’re horrible,” he mutters.

“You love me for it.” Chikagai sets the ink stick down and goes to select suitable paper for a treaty negotiation invitation.

“No, I don’t.” His map had been returned to the new walls. A pause. A beat. “How did you know why I bothered to cart his sorry ass home?”

As far as he’s aware, Chikagai has never really asked beyond the cursory question about the Uchiha in his bed and the vague surprise at there being an Uchiha in the district at all. But after Tajima had vanished, he’d never bothered to ask again, not even as the bill invoices he’d written climbed into the thousands.

“Let me tell you a story.” Chikagai selects a sheet of paper, holding it up to the light to confirm the fiber quality, its heavy smoothness, and even color. “Once, some twenty years ago, when I was sixteen, I was asked to lead the mission to guard the Amatoya trade route. Do you remember?”

“You never went on it, of course I remember.”

The Amatoya trade route ran through the western badlands all the way to the Land of Wind, four stretches of equally inhospitable wastelands all around three very small oases. It went in the direction of the Uchiha as well.

But the Amatoya spice trade was a lucrative business, back before the empire fell. Someone would have to run it when it ran.

He would know. He spent two months spitting out sand there and two months getting his skin sanded off of him on the way back that year, surrounded by very frustrated and angry cousins.

He had vowed then, still eighteen years old, that he would never again run that mission no matter how disappointed his grandfather would be with him, and indeed, he didn’t.

“Do you remember, you’d just moved out and raised your first house. And I was about to go away in two days, but I came down to your house to sit on your floor?”

He vaguely remembers this. “You didn’t want to go.”

He’d never figured out why, for Amatoya was hard, yes, but Chikagai doesn’t shirk hard things. Years now, his cousin had managed the monthly distribution of rice, pacified arguments and written letters.

Chikagai didn’t shirk, he’d just stood there, frozen.

“I couldn’t go. I didn't have the stomach or the spine to go.” Chikagai is writing now, clear, brushstrokes, left hand holding his right sleeve. “And it was all over the district by sundown. You offered me kindness then.”

“I did?” He doesn’t remember offering kindness really. Just anger.

Of the boys who’d come out of the Big House in their generation, Chikagai had been the most accomplished of the lot. What right did their relatives — none of them shinobi at that — have to run their mouths?

Chikagai snorts. “You offer kindness like it’s some sort of crime, a dirty secret to be kept in the dark.”

“I’m not kind.” He is not always kind.

“Yes, you’ve offended every buddha between here and the Yellow Springs.” Chikagai watches him as the letter dries. “But you’ve always had compassion for the suffering, don’t try to deny it, Cousin. You carry people when they cannot carry themselves.”

What an oddly kind commendation of how he has lived his life.

He finds that it discomfits him.

Tajima brings seven shinobi with him. A variety of men and women, some more easily recognizable as the Uchiha clan’s specialists in several areas.

Butsuma could’ve told him not to bother.

The hundred and eight have their way of picking bones clean that have nothing to do with battlefield prowess.

A set of more nitpicky persnickety old men has never been found before in all the annals of history.

“Well,” he looks at them, as Chikagai organizes some more chairs to be brought in. “Might as well introduce yourselves. We don’t like to talk to strangers here.”

That and it would make the hundred and eight argue at him much less later, since after proper introductions they’d be at least acquaintances, and you’re allowed to insult acquaintances with different words than strangers.

He would know, he’s been insulted plenty of times by this set of old men for even deciding to entertain the Uchiha already.

The woman to Tajima’s left with the magatama earrings of pale jade is Kagiya. The young man to his right with the facial scar is Ontake.

The older man standing behind Tajima is his uncle, Kurokuju. The man flanking him is Kurokuju’s son and therefore his cousin, Ikuguhi.

The woman with the blue hair cords is Toyoku, and beside her, the woman with the red hair cords is Norikura — sisters.

The last man is of indeterminate age, though he introduces himself as Nayago and says nothing more.

“So good of you to bring so many friends.” Tajima does not seem comfortable here. None of the Uchiha are, but some of them hide it better than others.

Chikagai had also dug up various records of treaties Uchiha had made in the past with various branches of the clan, some more recent than others, though none in the past two hundred years.

Uchiha as a whole, do not seem to be very good at understanding treaties.

“They’re not friends.

He can already sense the irritation from the hundred and eight. He’d rather had to persuade some of them to even show up, given how poor the records were of Uchiha honoring treaties. Implying that they were his friends that he’d brought to somehow cow the Uchiha into submission, as if he had the right to use the hundred and eight as a personal weapon, is going to get them nowhere fast.

Behind him, Touka hmphs.

“The Senju clan has a hundred and eight branches,” this is Kazari now, right behind him stands Nokidoi. “Butsuma tells us you want a treaty, Uchiha. We are the ones you treat with, for this clan goes nowhere on the word of a single man.”

Something seems to be clicking.

Kagiya leans forward to speak to Tajima. “They’ve signed treaties with a single man before, Tajima-sama.”

Or maybe nothing has clicked.

“No, we haven’t.” Odaikou rumbles. “You’ve treated with branches of the clan. Any branch of the clan may do as it pleases with treaties and business contracts, should it want them. But since two hundred years ago, we have ceased to even treat with your kind on the level of branch.

“The Uchiha are oathbreakers,” Nekase calls from the back of the hall. But with chakra, his voice carries regardless. “Having broken every treaty they’d ever signed.”

“And you’re saying you didn’t?” Tajima casts a glance at Ikuguhi, who shuts up.

“A treaty made by a branch of the clan does not bind the whole clan.” Chikagai comes around, having drafted a preliminary number of demands the various branches had agreed on. “As has been said before, we are not nobles, content to follow the word of a single man.”

“What,” Tajima asks, very quietly, because he seems to have gotten it, if none of his kin has “does your clan call ‘a branch?’”

This he knows very well. “A man, his wife, and any descendants he may have therein.”

When his grandfather had lived, his branch of the family had encompassed all of his grandfather’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren in turn.

When his grandfather had lived, their branch of the family had numbered in the hundreds.

When his grandfather died, his branch of the family had been cut to only him — for his father was no longer living — Masu, and his children. His brothers and uncles had also, when his grandfather died, found themselves heads of much smaller branches of the clan.

“The branches split every time the old head dies.”

In this way, no branch of the family may hold power for long. At the most, one lifetime, no more.

In this way, the tree grows and changes, ever shifting, ever mutable, branches are born and branches die, branches split and branches merge.

This...does not appear to be the answer the Uchiha had expected.

It is, however, what they are getting.

“I would be happy to recite any relevant sections of the legal code should you need it.” Chikagai smiles, though it looks more like a knife than anything else, razor thin with a sharp gleam. “And if you stay the night, I would be happy to provide you with a copy of our most up to date clan by-laws.”

This does not appear to make the Uchiha very happy either, but Tajima glares hard enough to keep the rest of his kinsmen in place.

A pity really.

Now they’re really going to have to listen to every branch of this family air their grievances about Uchiha in the past century or so or older if anyone is deeply into grudge keeping, which wouldn’t be a rarity.

He feels the beginning twinges of a headache start to gather in his temples.

Tajima and the others end up staying the night. Not much had been accomplished except that Tajima has to borrow the Uchiha pigeon to inform his wife and other family members that he is not being forcefully detained or otherwise threatened.

Just that the proceedings were proceeding and to, for the love of all things to not come and create a problem.

Currently, the Uchiha are perched there, on the wrapping porch after dinner as Niou airs out rooms for all eight of them, trying to figure out what they ought to do next.

He exits the house to get away from Pig, who, very recently, seems to have developed the ability to speak.

Unfortunately, Pig follows him, muttering under its breath about eating the rude guests.

“Hashirama would be very disappointed in you.”

Which is true.

Hashirama would be heartbroken to learn that they had to make Pig into sausages because Pig ate an Uchiha who shouldn’t’ve been eaten and restarted a four hundred year old feud.

“Hashirama has no power over me.” A big fat lie. Hashirama’s wobbly lip could manipulate Pig just like how Pig’s manipulative pleading face could make Masu give it more food.

“Keep telling yourself that.” He rolls out his shoulders. “Maybe one day, it’ll come true.” He turns to the Uchiha. “It’s dinnertime.”

Masu had been very insistent upon that point.

“Tell them that the inside of the house is safe.” Really, at this point, it’s only the not-Tajima Uchiha who look antsy and ready to jump out of their skins at any given moment.

“No one will come inside the house to try and kill you unless they want to kill me first.”

Somehow, this does not seem to settle the Uchiha any more.

The peace talks take fourteen days of arguing, and by the end, he’s pretty sure that the hundred and eight have had their fill of arguing and hearing their own voices.

But the Uchiha leave with a piece of paper stamped with a hundred and nine stamps, and the clan’s longest feud comes to an end.

“Do you think that it will hold?” Masu asks, the night after the Uchiha leave, disappearing back across the river like late summer mist. “This treaty. The Uchiha have never properly honored their treaties before.”

“I don’t know.” The years had been kind to the two of them, in ways that it had not been kind for either of their parents — his, lost to the cruel and petty man that was his father, hers, lost the year after her father died when she turned ten.

But the years they’d been married had been kind to them.

“Only time can tell that.”

She comes to sit beside him, leaning against his shoulder. “The clan needs time too,” she says, folding their hands together. “To unlearn and learn again.”

They sit without words on the wrapping porch for another moment, listening to the summer hum of the cicadas.

“Touka’s seeing someone,” he says and wishes he feels less irate about it. “Won’t tell me who.”

There’d been a brief crush on Sasuke once upon a time, but he’s almost certain it’s in the past now.

This is a new someone, who she refuses to let him know about, mostly because he’d told her that Sasuke was a fool — which is true.

Masu laughs, the sound bright and warm. “I’m sure we’ll meet him in due time, Butsu.”

“Probably another stuffing headed fool,” he mutters, wishing he was less irate, but failing. “She has horrible taste in men.”

“I don’t know,” Masu counters, something slightly wicked in the shape of her smile. “I liked Sasuke.”

He glances at her, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You, Senju Masugumi, also have horrible taste in men.”

She does laugh again at that, shaking with unspoken glee. “How horrible,” she agrees. “The most horrible.”

And time has been kind to them.

He hopes it always will be.

“The stranglehold on the river trade is crippling us.”

The common thread of the letters between Tajima and himself is the Hoshigaki occupation of the Muromachi and the Sanzu crossings to the north.

The clan cannot grow or make everything it needs.

And he doubts the Uchiha across the river can either, given the note of fatigue in Tajima’s letters.

“How many men do they have, by your estimation?”

Four hundred, perhaps.

It’d been more people than he was willing to field for one mission.

To overwhelm the Hoshigaki with numbers, they would have to leave a significant portion of the clan undefended.

But if they could join hands with the Uchiha…

“If you told me when I was a child that I would consider working with a Senju…”

“Oh, don’t get ahead of yourself.”

No, tell his younger self that, and he would’ve laughed whichever drunkard that was out of the restaurant.

“You know it’s only a matter of time before…”

“They come further south.”

The Hoshigaki are only eighty kilometers north of the north border of the district.

Even now, some of the clan’s most valuable trade is cut off, leaving craftsmen out of work.

“How many men do you think you can field?”

And that’s the question, isn’t it?

But even with their similar convictions, it takes a year.

A year of lessened hostilities, a year of honoring a treaty, another year of trading letters, going back and forth, retreading the same, tired ground as salt and coal and rubber grew scarce before they can come to an agreement of some kind on what to do with the Hoshigaki in the river crossing.

It takes a year, but the time comes, inevitable as the course of the river.

He rolls out the map of Fire Country, Touka and Sasuke at his side. “The Uchiha have promised a hundred and fifty men.”

And they will field an equal number.

Once the Hoshigaki stranglehold on the Sanzu crossing is broken…

There are only two hundred or so men at the Muromachi crossing.

“Will we be meeting them before we head out?” Sasuke frowns, tugging at one of his ears. “If we confirm, and head at the Hoshigaki from both directions…”

Caught between two forces, they will either be forced to flee or be slaughtered.

“Hm.” Touka traces the paths they will be following up north to the Hoshigaki.

“Sasuke will stay behind.” He holds up his hand to forestall the protest. “I trust you with the protection of the clan.”

“Sir!” No, he doesn’t expect Sasuke to be happy. “We can’t lose you.”

He twists Sasuke’s ear. “I haven’t had my fill of living yet.”

“Ow!” Sasuke wails, momentary sorrows forgotten. “Sir!”

And momentary terrors fade.

Through the mass of water and bodies — Tajima, with his longer, single bladed sword, eyes red. He bashes the shark charging him over the head with the hilt of his sword with enough force to stun, and somehow, now he and Tajima are back to back.

“Fancy seeing you here, Butsu-chan.”

This melee will be over soon.

Then they can tend to the injured and bury the dead.

“Go to hell.”

And maybe, when this is all over, there will be fewer troubles in their troubled times.

Touka comes to find him when it’s done, a gash over her right eye that bleeds freely, but nothing that the medics can’t fix. “They’re gone. Took more and less than I thought.”

Reaching out to the Uchiha took more.

But only one battlefield… where something might be won and all might be lost.

That took less than he’d expected.

They’ll make their way home in due time, where Masu will fuss over them, where Chikagai is waiting, where Sasuke will no doubt sob great big tears of relief, and various relatives will pick over this choice with a fine tooth comb.

In due time, but not yet.

Nothing’s over. Nothing’s ended yet.

But there’s a start.

There’s a start, he thinks, looking at the clean water running downstream, back to where Itama and Kawarama might be playing.

There’s a start.

“Ah,” he answers her, “We might make something of this world yet.”