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The Legend of Three Leaves

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"Damn. I'm way too old for this shit," was in no way a particularly striking or notable statement to make upon waking up in a body too small for what you are—or at least, what you once were.

But it will, for damn sure, fill you with a nauseous surge of dread when the words come out as nothing more than a string of disconnected and unintelligible, whining babbles. So, you make more of those same sounds to protest it, hoping for a miracle. With a tiny, heavy little baby tongue that has no grasp on spoken language whatsoever.

This was Mitsuba's first problem. And—well, her name wasn't always Mitsuba, but it was now and will continue to be, and that's what matters. In fact, she'd be more than happy to leave the past behind, if not for the second problem.

That being the large, heavy body kneeling over hers. Dripping something hot and thick that stunk of sharp, bitter metal and by all means was probably more a corpse than a living body, at this point. No—not probably. Definitely, because of the blade skewering through their chest and sticking deep into the ground, cutting into the outside of her arm on the way.

Inch by inch, the slack corpse slipped down the blade and pressed heavier upon her new, small and defenseless form.

Death had come once, and it had come again, soon.

The whining babbles turned to choked, wheezing sobs. The small baby arms did nothing to shove the crushing weight away, and she'd always had nightmares of being smothered to death by those stupid trap ceilings in adventure movies. Maybe this was some twisted sort of hellscape she'd ended up in, where all of her worst fears came to life.

Maybe she should have converted to Christianity in her final breath.

Better yet, maybe she should now.

Whatever blips of light that had been flashing by beyond the corpse's clothing became complete darkness as the full weight sank upon her, restricting her lungs. Pushing them flat as her creaking ribcage strained to hold its shape.

Fuck. Fuck! The words no longer hit the air—didn't even leave her throat. The darkness—she wasn't even sure if it was because the body's clothing had curtained around her or if she was just on the verge of blacking out. She hoped—begged, prayed—consciousness would give out before her bones.

If she could have closed her eyes, she would have, resigned. She regretted every bug she'd ever stepped on and smashed with her fists.

This is how I go, crushed under the weight of my own sins.

But if she'd closed her eyes, she wouldn't have seen the light.

Just a flicker, a slash of white in the dark—not like the whirling starbursts dancing and popping in her vision.

Then, it exploded into a bright, blinding burst of white as the corpse's crushing and final weight vanished.

It could have been the stark and sudden, second pass into death—but, no. She knew it wasn't, because the blade sliced into her skin again as the body rose up and fell away, assuring her she still had a life that felt pain.

"Mitsuba! Mitsuba!"

The light flickered, strange. Like fire—lots of it. Burning white, yellow, orange—vermilion.

As oxygen filled her body, filled her up like a balloon that had gone too flat, too fast, she saw a face. Not a full face—but the image of a face, blurry, like from the other side of a frosted glass window.

Her arm—the one that felt pain, the one that made this nightmare real, unstuck itself from the muddy, bloody swamp she'd sunk into and reached up, high, toward that face. That person. Her savior.

They grabbed it. Not just it—her. Entirely, fully, pulling her close and leaving the scene of death far behind.

There's a saying that goes: out of the frying pan, into the fire, and, well, not to make it literal, but there was fire. Raging, burning all around them.

Surviving this ordeal brought Mitsuba to her third, and most distressing, problem.

 


 I. Sow

Chapter One


 

For days, Mitsuba slept.

Recovering, they said, but really, she just didn't want to wake up and face the hot mess she'd been thrust into.

All things considered, she'd gone from being smothered and shoved toward death's doorstep to being booted back into life and dubbed a miracle child. Not a baby, but a child.

Two years old—and almost dead on the battlefield. The fucking battlefield.

The body that had almost killed her belonged to a midwife who'd scooped her up and ran, trying in vain to get them both to safety as they fled their home in the midst of enemy invasion.

In this world, women and children weren't spared—never were, really. That wasn't what bothered her.

It was hearing the names Uchiha and Senju thrown around so casually that did.

Senju—she was a Senju. And her brothers were Itama, Kawarama, Tobirama, and Hashirama. Her father, Butsuma. And her mother, Kanae.

Kanae was the one who'd so kindly and generously divulged this information to her while she slept, like some kind of fucked up bedtime story.

And, in all honesty, it should have been a story. A manga, to be exact. Nowhere near her, and life, and death, and universe-hopping reincarnation, or whatever this was.

A sick joke, she wanted to believe. Any second, she'd wake up in a hospital bed with her dad at her bedside, holding a cheap, shiny get-well balloon and smiling in that shallow, barely-apologetic way of his, because it was his fault she was here in the first place.

No—no. It was no one's fault but her own. Live stupid, die stupid, as it were.

She couldn't sleep forever.

When she finally opened her eyes, she wasn't alone. There, curled up beside her, was a child with wild, two-toned hair, snoozing quietly. She hadn't even felt him—not even with his hands so close to her treated and wrapped but still-sore arm.

He breathed through his barely-parted lips, eyes twitching slightly behind closed lids, chasing after something in a dream.

At least someone could sleep well.

Mitsuba sat up and felt the pull of her sleeve as she tried to drag it out from under the boy, not kind enough to keep from disturbing him. She gave it a rough tug, in fact, and his eyes scrunched together before shooting open wide as he took in the sight before him, lips still parted, but more due to the fact that his mouth was hanging open. Maybe he was a perpetual mouth breather.

He didn't speak—not to her. He scrambled to his feet, almost stumbling before pushing off from the ground with his hands, and scurried away, out of sight, with a high-pitched yelp.

"Mom! Mom!"

Her eyes followed him as he left, and she took in the sight of the room in the daylight.

Before, she'd watched the ceiling in the dark, dead of night, unable to see the finer details. Now, she knew without a doubt she was a veritable Dorothy in the majestic and mystical Land of Oz.

At her side was a screen—paper, a little dirty from age, depicting a swooping oriental design she didn't care to look too deeply at, but thin enough to let the light through. Probably to keep it out of her eyes during rest.

Beneath her was a mess of blankets and a lumpy futon set down across the criss-crossing pattern of pale, greenish-tan tatami mats. They smelled—strongly—of musty, earthy straw. Like the room hadn't been properly aired out in ages and this place that they'd taken refuge in was long neglected.

And her body, once clad in tank tops and T-shirts and jackets and jeans, was now covered in a deep green yukata tied loosely at her waist, rumpled and not fully wrapping around her small, chubby legs thanks to tossing and turning in her sleep like a whirlwind. Soft, but strange. She'd never even liked wearing bathrobes, before.

The pitter-pattering of fast little feet returned almost as soon as the boy had left—and when he returned, careened around the corner of the open doorway, he all but flew straight into her.

She kept her balance as his arms wrapped tight around her body and his face smushed against her cheek, trapping her hair in between. He still didn't utter a word. No: oh, boy, am I glad to see you! or even a simple hey. He only nuzzled his cheek against hers with the widest smile she'd ever seen anyone send her way.

"Oh, Itama, give her some space, won't you?" a gentle, soothing voice chimed in from the hallway.

Itama—one of her brothers. Yet, so close in age.

Twin, a voice whispered in the back of her thoughts. Among other things. Like who he was. And when he'd die.

But—more importantly, she hadn't even heard Kanae's footsteps, and before she knew it, the woman had knelt at the edge of the futon and reached over to coax the boy out of the stifling hug and into her own lap. She bent down to press her red-painted lips to the crown of her son's head and her fair, almost translucent, eyelashes fluttered gently closed as he snuggled against her instead.

For the first time, Mitsuba paid close attention to her looks—and, really, it was hard to look anywhere else.

Kanae was albino. Blatantly so, with silvery-blonde hair taken straight from moonlight, snow-pale skin with some veins almost visible beneath but covered like a secret, and striking, slanted red-violet eyes that wavered between colors in shade and light.

A damn beauty, she was—the frail kind that looked like it would shatter if you tried to touch it—like a falling snowflake.

But she wasn't frail. Her hands and arms, when they slipped past the sleeves of her royal blue kimono, were peppered with tiny scars from where they'd been nicked by blades in battle before she'd settled to bear children.

Even so, there were lines and shadows under her kind eyes that spoke of onset illness.

On some level, Itama must have noticed it, too. He didn't press quite as close to her.

"And how are we feeling?" Kanae's voice floated through her thoughts like a melody as she returned the stare, the smile never falling from her red-painted lips.

Mitsuba parted her lips, then pressed them together again. Ran her child's tongue along the back of her tiny, baby teeth and sought the proper words. Japanese—what little she'd once known of it. What little more she'd picked up from listening to Kanae.

"Gotta pee."

 


 

In some way, almost being crushed to death had compressed her into something strange and alien—at least, that's how everyone seemed to treat her. Everyone but Kanae and Itama. And in some way, they were right.

That day, Senju Mitsuba had died. But revived anew, with another person in her place as a stand-in with a second chance.

It had certainly compressed a grown-ass woman into the body of a child. One who was ill-prepared for the gruesome nature of this war-torn world.

But, oh-so-fortunately, the clan leader's only daughter had her place in society and Mitsuba had already been cast into the shadows as a future tool for political marriage and a current homemaker who helped her mother tend to matters of the household while the boys were away.

All work, with little play.

Tiny, clumsy hands learned to whisk up a proper cup of matcha.

Tiny, chubby fingers re-learned how to mend torn seams and embroider delicate fabric.

Tiny, child's brain yearned to make use of the adult knowledge it remembered.

Otherwise, it would sit like a stagnant reservoir and sooner or later evaporate. She had to figure up a plan before then. Make use of the time, of the people, to—frankly—get the hell out.

She knew the drill. Could recall most of the story from start to end, and a bit past—but not too much, because sequels never quite lived up to the originals. But there was no use in whining about that when she'd been plopped right in the middle of one of the most harrowing times of shinobi history.

She didn't want any part of it.

Even if she had a sweet, gentle mother and a pretty adorable and devoted twin. There was Butsuma, too, and, well… He was the one who'd saved her, anyway.

(Why, why, why?)

The other three brothers, she didn't see much of. Ultimately, she had to leave while emotional connections were weak—better not to get too attached to a family that was doomed to die. Tobirama and Hashirama, not as soon as the others, but death came for everyone eventually.

Sometimes twice.

Even so, where would she go…? Arguably, she was the safest she could ever be, around someone like Hashirama. Anywhere else, she'd be vulnerable. Alone. A child of barely three, without an inkling of chakra yet.

But—no. There was still hope on that front, wasn't there? It was in her blood. Her heritage.

Mitsuba put aside the day's laundry (let it drop straight to the mud, where it would need even more scrubbing later on) and set her gaze on one of the few, skinny trees that grew within the compound's walls.

On the leaves that grew from its spindly branches.

Too high up for her to reach—so she dropped to her knees at the base of its trunk and sifted her fingers through the soft, patchy grass in search of a stray one that had fallen.

No luck.

"Mitsu, Mom said you could wash this for—what are you doing?"

One of her brothers—no, not just one of. She knew by the upbeat voice that it was Hashirama who asked the question. And he didn't leave it at that, too curious to just dump his laundry and up and leave like Kawarama or Tobirama would. In fact, she could almost visualize the way his head tilted slightly to the side as his lips parted, much like Itama's, when the shuffling sound of his sandals approached and he stopped at her side.

She looked up when his body blocked the sunlight and met his eyes, blinking owlishly. Without speaking, she rose to her feet and pointed at the branches hanging above them, eyes shifting away from him and following the leaves swaying in the wind.

When she looked to him again, fully expecting him to pick up on the request, she could only breathe a short sigh upon seeing his expression scrunched up in confusion.

Maybe she shouldn't put so much faith in a six-year-old.

His lips rose up in a wide grin. "Aw, come on, don't sigh like that! You sound like Tobirama." A light, carefree child's giggle escaped him before he set his hands on his hips, raising his head toward the treetop. "No, no, I think I get it. You want one of the flowers?"

She shook her head. Hadn't even realized there were blooms on the tree.

His shoulders drooped. "A…a bug? Did you see a butterfly?"

Again, she shook her head.

A frown settled on his face as he hummed, at a loss. "Oh, uh…a leaf, then?"

Third time's the charm. She let a tiny, fake smile pry at her lips and nodded in time with the grin that returned to his face full-force.

Then—he jumped at the tree trunk, feet aimed out as if to kick it down, but when his soles connected he walked against it as if it were an extension of the ground, fully breaking the rules of gravity. Climbed it, effortless, and flipped up to land on one of the overhanging branches that was, to both of them as children, too high for either to safely reach under normal circumstances.

Normal being the keyword.

Shinobi—this was what shinobi did. What they were. Rule breakers. Ninja wizards.

Not totally human.

When Hashirama reached the leaves, he didn't just pluck one. He grabbed an entire branch and gave it a firm shake to cast down a flurry of dozens, all falling like a green blizzard into Mitsuba's hands and around her feet. And he followed them down, touching the tree trunk only once to kick off before landing in a crouch beside her. All the while holding his dirty eggshell-colored scarf in his hands.

He handed it out to her as he straightened up, still smiling, oblivious to the twigs stuck in his dark, bowl-cut hair. "There! That's plenty, right? Now, uh, why I came here… I got knocked in the mud earlier and Mom said you could clean this for me. You will, right, Mitsu?"

She nodded. Took the garment from him and fully expected him to leave her be to finish her chores. But…he stayed. Completely threw a wrench in her plans to try testing out the leaf concentration exercise, the barest of basics, well away from watchful eyes.

He stayed, and he plopped right down on the ground in front of her with crossed legs and wide, curious eyes.

She returned the stare with a furrowed brow, taking a small step back toward the washbasin. Then, almost a beat too late, she huffed out another sigh and closed her eyes, nodding. "Thank you."

"Say, Mitsu, are you really out here to wash laundry?" By now, he'd set his elbows on his knees and leaned forward to rest his chin on his hands, frowning.

She knew he was training as a shinobi (she knew what he would be), but could he really be that perceptive? So young? She scanned his face for something shrewd, but all he gave away was a blank and goofy stare.

"There's nothing else."

"It's just, your sleeves are loose. Where's your tasuki? Did you forget it?"

"Tasuki?" she repeated dubiously, squinting. Balling the scarf between her hands and turning away to return to the wash basin and the laundry she'd abandoned. She dropped it atop the dirty pile and cast her gaze around the area, as if the answer would leap up and bop her in the face if she looked hard enough.

"Yeah, the thing to tie your sleeves back. Didn't Mom show you?"

Oh. Right. The string. Kanae used one to tie back her sleeves during daily chores, and did so often. Might have even mentioned it to Mitsuba before, but it'd slipped her mind. She did provide her with one, but…hell if she knew how to actually tie it herself. She'd planned on just doing her best to not get her sleeves wet.

Mitsuba fished the strip of white fabric out of the space in her obi where she'd tucked it away and held it up for him to see.

Hashirama smiled and beckoned her over. But just as soon as she'd taken a step toward him, Tobirama (or at least she thought it was Tobirama, because he and Kawarama were strikingly similar from a distance until you could get close enough to get a look at their strikingly different eyes) rounded the corner with an irate expression aimed right at their brother.

"There you are. Father's lesson is starting."

He didn't bother sparing her a glance. Didn't linger, either, and left again as soon as he delivered the message.

Definitely Tobirama.

"Ah! Right, right, I'm coming!" Hashirama hopped to his feet and threw Mitsuba a final smile before trailing after their irritable sibling, leaving her with a pile of leaves, a pile of laundry, and a tasuki she had no idea how to use.

But it was easy enough to figure out. And by the time she'd finished scrubbing the laundry clean and setting it to dry, the wind had only blown a few of the fallen leaves away.

She scooped one up by its stem. Held it up to the light and watched its thin surface illuminate with the shape of each vein and filament crossing it.

How hard can it be?

Pretty hard, it seemed. The first leaf dropped away immediately. So did the second. And third.

She did have chakra—every living thing did. But, much like the standard circulatory system, she couldn't feel it, and had no idea how to control it, like a strange and foreign beast.

Come on. Come on—go by your instincts.

The fourth fell. The fifth fell. The sixth—blown away by the wind.

Her foot stomped down on the ground, hard enough to sting, as frustration surged. As she smacked another leaf against her forehead and held it there, eyes clenched shut.

It was there. It was there. Had to be. Deep within, coiled up like a sleeping serpent. It had to be prodded into action. Coaxed to obey. Wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up.

The seventh leaf—

"Mitsuba!"

Her eyes snapped open. Turned slowly toward the engawa, toward the door her mother had thrown open and all but leapt past just to hurry to her side, to drop to her knees and throw her arms around her, holding her close and breathing hard. Pushing herself far too much.

Trying to stop her.

The seventh leaf had fallen. Dropped away, almost instantly. Almost.

 


 

Kanae was a chakra sensor. Never outright said it, but that was the only thing that made sense to Mitsuba. It was the only way she could so astutely have known her chakra flow had spiked suddenly and sharply, if only for an instant.

Kanae was also invariably ill. Had been so strong, for a while, but relapsed because… Because of her. She'd heard the wheezing, rattling breaths as her mother held her close, drew her away from the way of the world and dragged her back into the safety of the home.

Now, she was confined to her futon, sweating, coughing, weak. It was only right that Mitsuba took care of her in her ill days.

"Mitsuba…"

She'd been sleeping, but at some point she'd stirred and opened her eyes, blinking slowly at her.

"What's that you've got there? Reading practice?" She tried to raise her head to get a better look at the small, bound book clutched in her fingers but ultimately decided against it and let her head fall back against the block-like pillow.

Her hair, usually wound up high atop her head, hung loose, now, in thin, silvery threads fanning over her shoulders. Even her beloved red lipstick was nowhere to be seen. The lack of that bright color, even with her matching eyes, made her look washed out and diluted. Like…a ghost.

Mitsuba tore her eyes away and returned them to the page held between her thumb and forefinger, mid-turn. It wasn't reading practice—though she could have used it for that, since there was plenty of kanji mingled in among the hiragana notes.

It was a medical field guide for herbs. One of the midwives had brought it along and left it behind when they'd moved on to other families, or died. But, fortunately, she didn't need to read the more complicated names since the author had provided illustrations of the necessary plants in high detail, from the leaf shapes and vein patterns to the number of nodes present that put her niche herbalism knowledge to good use. And it was organized broadly, by symptom.

With lips pursed, she held the book up for Kanae to see.

A tired smile crossed her face. "Oh, my. Are you trying to find a remedy?" One of her hands stretched out beyond the blankets and her fingers ghosted against her small knee, too exhausted to lift it toward her hands and compromising. "What did you find?"

"Comfrey," Mitsuba said quietly, tapping a small finger against the broad-leafed, drooping flowers on the page. "It grows here, in the forest. It helps."

Her smile fell, dead on her pale, chapped lips. "You will not leave the compound's walls, Mitsuba."

"It helps," she repeated firmly, with her limited child's tongue. But her furrowed brow softened as a feeble cough interrupted her mother's stern stare. "…Please."

Kanae rested her head back and closed her eyes, breathing a strained sigh through her nose. "Such a stubborn child. But if you must, take one of your brothers with you. Tobirama?"

Mitsuba's brow furrowed once more as she squinted at her mother. The woman knew full well which sibling she got on best with, and he was for damn sure not the one. But her confusion cleared when the door to the hallway slid open and said brother looked in with that perpetual expression he managed to keep between bitter and impassive, much like their father.

Each of her brothers had come by to visit Kanae at various times during the past week between their training, and he and Itama had visited the most frequently. It didn't fit with his character, to be a momma's boy, but he probably felt the closest to her since he'd inherited her looks entirely. Even if he didn't speak much when he sat at her side.

"Yes, Mother?"

"Have you completed your training for the day?"

"Yes, Mother."

"Please take your sister out foraging."

His expression pinched in, just slightly, as his gaze flicked toward her, and then back to their mother. It didn't take a genius to figure out he'd rather be anywhere else. But no one refused Kanae's requests.

To his credit, he didn't even breathe a bratty sigh. He nodded, obedient, and returned to the hallway. "I'll wait by the front gate."

Don't keep me waiting, went unspoken.

Mitsuba cast a long-suffering stare at Kanae as she only smiled, small and knowing. Even a bit sly. "There's a basket in the storage, just over there. Don't forget to take your book with you. And…please, try to get along."

"…Yes, Mom."

Ordinarily, sending children outside the safety of the home during hostile times would be terrible, horrible parenting, but in a time where children were shunted into war as highly-trained, pint-sized killers, it was no different than sending them to a neighbor's house to play for the day.

A four-year-old shinobi was apparently adequate as a bodyguard, in said times. Or—maybe he was five. She wasn't really sure. When you didn't talk with a sibling, you didn't get to know much about them. No matter what kind of world you were in.

But, admittedly, the only hostile thing around for miles was Tobirama.

Away from their mother's sight, he openly pouted. Walked a lazy distance behind her as she scanned the brush for a familiar plant, with his hands set on his hips, or arms sometimes crossed tight. Glaring.

Jealous prick, she wanted to say, but lacked the proper words. And—to be fair, he was just a kid. Probably, before she'd come along to monopolize the woman's time, he'd been Kanae's favorite. How did she know? Because he never tried to hide the way his eyes just glittered when she patted him on the head despite trying to meticulously cultivate that cool and collected bullshit shinobi front. Because she provided that love and affection every child needed and craved, that their father never cared to give.

But, he was just a kid. The boredom of being broody and bitterly silent grated on him, and after a while, he spoke up.

"What are you looking for, anyway?"

"Medicine."

"Medicine?"

She turned to cast him a narrow-eyed, blank stare as she crouched beside a patch of wild grass. Really, if he was going to be belligerent, he should have just stayed behind. "For Mom."

The words hit him like a sucker-punch, by the way his mean expression buckled. But then it returned full-force, meaner than before, as he clicked his tongue and stormed ahead of her. Probably just to hide the tears shining at the edges of his eyes.

…Kanae's sickness couldn't be healed by simple herbal remedy alone—there was no panacea. Mitsuba knew that. They all did. But, at the very least, she could provide her some comfort in her final days.

And you, Tobirama? What are you doing to help your dear mother? Again, she lacked the vocabulary to ask the biting question. But it was petty, anyway. He was just a kid.

Instead, she sighed and sat back on her heels, taking her hands away from the rough, scratchy blades of grass pricking at her wrists. Let her arms rest on her knees as she regarded the messy tangle of green set against the dirt, wondering if this was a fool's errand.

No.

Not entirely.

Getting away from that house, getting some time to herself, even with Tobirama around, brought a peace she hadn't known in a long while. If she'd been forced to stay within that compound, that stifling home, she'd just go stir-crazy.

Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet and turned her head in the direction her brother had stomped away, only realizing he'd vanished from sight with the jolt of a skipped heartbeat.

Surely he didn't hate her so much that he'd just leave her.

She looked behind her, just to make sure he hadn't circled back around. Only the tree trunks and bushes greeted her in a green and brown smear. All blurring together—all the same. She didn't know her way back.

Where would she go?

Where could she go?

Her fingers clutched tight to the small, flat basket hanging in the crook of one of her arms, as her eyes flitted between the trees, trying to catch sight of pale gray or blue. There was still plenty of sunlight—it wasn't even close to evening, yet—but the solitude was getting to her, pressing in close, like that damned body that almost crushed her—

Leaves rustled.

The darkness blinking at the corners of her vision faded away as Tobirama glanced back at her with narrowed, red eyes—appeared right out of nowhere, with his hand pressed against one of the tree trunks a short distance away. Or maybe he'd been there all along.

She blinked, hard, as his drawling voice drifted toward her.

"Are you coming or not?"

She hurried after him.

The comfrey grew close to the ground. Mitsuba found it, quite accidentally, after tripping over her stupid, close, stifling kimono that caught on the undergrowth and sent her sprawling. But—she found it. Its sharp leaves, tapered like blades, and its tiny white flowers, drooping like bell-shaped dresses and gathered together like a gossiping group at a dance party, matched the book's description perfectly.

"What?" Tobirama grumbled out, caught halfway between holding out a helping hand and just leaving her to pick herself up as she totally and completely ignored his presence at her side.

And she did pick herself up. Shifted onto her knees and reached out to touch the flowers and leaves, before grabbing them by the stem and yanking them from the dirt, root and all.

Some of the dirt must have sprang from the ground and hit him, because he scowled and yanked it from her hold just as soon as she'd uprooted it. "This? This is the medicine you want to take to Mother? A flower?"

"An herb," she corrected evenly, biting back her own scowl. "For tea."

You know they're useful, you brat, why are you getting so worked up over it?

As she reached for it, he held it out of her reach. "You don't even know, do you?

Pressing her lips together so tight they almost went numb, she turned away and picked another plant, dropping it into her basket.

I do, stupid. The words danced on the tip of her tongue and she chewed them into pieces just to keep them from slipping. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But he wouldn't leave it at that, because he was jealous. Jealous, and frustrated, and cruel in a way only a child who lacked the proper means to express himself, lacked emotional care and development, lacked everything but how best to prepare himself for battle and bloodshed, could be.

The leaves crunched together as he clenched the plant tight in his fist, then threw it to the ground at his feet, just missing the basket. "Father says she won't make it through the season."

Maybe he expected her to cry. Maybe he wanted her to cry, too, because it was clear in his strained voice that he was getting choked up just thinking about their mother's fate. She didn't turn to confirm it. And maybe he even meant well, unwilling to sugar-coat what everyone else would, just to baby her. Because they didn't give him that courtesy.

For someone who would, in time, claim their rival clan posed a threat for their deep-rooted emotions, he certainly was ridiculously in touch with his.

Instead of answering, or even acknowledging him, she reached for the dropped plant and set it into the basket with the other. Two was plenty—there were more leaves than she needed, already.

Mitsuba rose to her feet calmly, cool, everything he tried to be and failed, and stared into his red and reddened, shining eyes with a frown. The words gnawing up her throat were petty, were cruel in their own way, but she couldn't bring herself to care.

"Spend more time with her, then. Idiot."

He didn't speak another word during the trip back.

But when they returned to Kanae, he didn't leave right away, either.

 


 

Kanae did last through the season. A miraculous bounce back, the visiting doctor had said.

(But not because of the comfrey, no, Mitsuba wasn't so self-important to think that changed anything.)

And as such, they entered into the summer a full and complete family, untouched by tragedy.

She was still ill.

Well enough, though, to sit on the open veranda and brush through Mitsuba's hair—pin-straight, long and growing—while she browsed through the old field journal she'd decided to keep close and studied, religiously.

Her hair—she'd never looked that closely at it, before, except when glancing at Kanae's mirror, but it was…strange. Like Itama's, but less so. Where he had two full and opposite colors clashing atop his head, hers was mostly dark with just a strip of unpigmented silver-blonde from scalp to tip at the left front of her head, mostly blending into her bangs. Like her body had been in the process of coloring her hair fully dark before snapping back, realizing she wasn't what she was supposed to be. Or, like an empty marker, there just hadn't been enough ink left to fully color either twin's hair and it ended up split between them, uneven.

Whatever the case, Kanae simply adored brushing her long hair. It was a quiet, peaceful time.

The perfect time to bring up a subject that had long been tabled.

"Mom…" She let the name fade off into the sounds of the droning shriek of the cicada in the trees and the summer breeze that shifted the leaves in a dry rustle. Kanae hummed a response, but kept running the stiff-bristled brush through her hair. "Why haven't I started training like my brothers?"

The brush halted.

"Mitsuba…"

Kanae set the brush down on the lacquered tray she'd brought along with them, already occupied by the slightly-tarnished mirror and a few finely-crafted hairpins.

Mitsuba kept her head forward, steeling herself. "Itama got to the day we turned three."

"Mitsuba, you… You will not be trained as a shinobi."

"Why?"

"Because you're—"

She cut her off, frowning deep. "A girl? I see Touka practice. She—"

"Because you are my daughter." Her uncharacteristic, strong reply commanded silence. Even the cicada's cries had lulled, as if they'd heard it, too, and cowered.

Mitsuba's hands clenched tight around the book's binding, and she kept her stare resolutely on the oscillating treetops she could see beyond the compound's walls. Even as Kanae's hands gently touched her shoulders before slipping around her and pulling her close, up to her chest, with her cheek resting against the crown of her head.

"Far too many of my sisters have been felled in battle. I could never let you face that same fate, Mitsuba. Never." As she spoke, her voice thinned—not from sickness, but from the tears she could feel wetting her scalp. "You are strong, and stubborn. Just like your father, who shares my sentiments. I can see you want more. But, please. Please… Can you not be happy supporting him and your brothers, here, with me? Please. You are the only child I can keep at my side."

"My chakra..."

She didn't finish the thought. Couldn't, because why had she even brought it up in the first place? She already knew the answer before she asked.

Even so, the clunky word she'd never fully pronounced or spoken aloud before still hung at the tip of her tongue, and she liked its taste. Wanted to say it again. Wanted to know it, and its power.

But couldn't. Because no one refused Kanae's requests.