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a crown of shadows and scorched leaves

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“Thank you for your suggestion, Hokage-sama. Please, excuse us.”

The three farmers left her office escorted by a shinobi who accompanied their arrival earlier. The farmers came from a village within a half-day journey from Konoha, they arrived at her office before sunrise and appealed to see the Hokage in person. Lately, their village was often raided by groups of bandits. Because Konoha was nearby, they asked her for help. Hashirama tasked a team of shinobi to guard the village, teach the farmers make simple traps, and organize patrols.

Shortly after the doors were closed, she laid her head onto the table. Yesterday, she went home late after spending time building another five houses. Her stamina had not recovered yet, even her sleep was interrupted by the arrival of the farmers. Not only that, the prospect of Hinokuni Emperor’s visit with his entourage still plagued her mind, because their stay might require costly accommodations…

“...Sis, don’t sleep in your office.”

Hashirama jolted up, stuttering. There was dried saliva on the corner of her lips. She wiped her face using the end of her sleeve. Tobirama’s sullen face stared back at her, silently saying told you so.

“...I’m not sleeping.” Hashirama opened her eyes wide. Since when did he enter?

“Don’t lie.”

“If I’m asleep, how do I talk to you now?”

“Oh, come on, Sis.” Tobirama glanced at her back. Someone just snickered.

Hashirama leaned her body to her side to see the source of that laugh. A tall woman in dark clothes stood there with her back facing them. “Izuna!” she called. “Good morning!”

“Hokage-sama.” She nodded at her. Hashirama felt Izuna’s warm chakra swept towards her.

“Don’t forget that you still have a meeting with the clan leaders this evening,” Tobirama interrupted them. “Izuna-san will be there in the meeting.”

Hashirama’s attention was drawn back towards the woman. “Where is Madara?”

“Hunting.” Izuna shrugged. “He went this morning.”

She could not fight the disappointment that popped her spirit. Madara had not stayed for more than two days, and her best friend was gone again. She got up to walk into the meeting room wearily.

The meeting that day was about the zoning of clan residence. Hashirama did not understand why they couldn’t just live mixed with one another like Senju clan did. They've signed pacts and agreements; there shouldn't be any reason to distrust each other anymore, right?

“I apologize, Hokage-sama,” Nara Shikana interrupted her. “Our clan brought a herd of deers we've been raising for generations. Besides,” he gestured towards the leaders who sat on his sides. “The Akimichi and Yamanaka clans are always living next to us. We need an access to a special training field and a suitable habitat for Nara’s herd of deers.”

Hashirama observed the representative of Shimura clan frowned hearing about that. She remembered about two days ago Tobirama refused their request to acquire the vast plot in the village center. Their number wasn’t big, and there was no specific reason for them to gain a large spot in the commercial zone. Hashirama wanted to grant their request, but Tobirama disagreed.  

“If you agreed to all of their requests,” he said at that time, “they would keep leeching on our resources. You’ve sponsored their relocation here using our clan’s money, remember?”

Yamanaka Inoha leaned his body above the village map that was stretched on top of the meeting table. His index finger touched an area in green. “This area is still forested. We can open half of it.” Nobody protested nor argued.

Next one talking was Mori, representative of Hyuuga clan. Like the Senju, they weren’t only focused on mission contracts to support their clan members. Their huge number allowed them to gain income from other professions and jobs such as trading. Their network drew Hashirama’s interest to invite them.

The representative was quite old, and he spoke slowly with monotonous tone. Hashirama’s gaze turned empty, her head keep slipping from her palm. She would fall asleep had Tobirama did not nudge her silently.

Without him, she would not be able to survive until this point—

“...With such consideration, we request the land in the village center. What do you think, Hokage-sama?”

Hashirama startled, blinking her eyes multiple times to shake away drowsiness. The Hyuuga clan’s representative stared at her intensely, while the others were waiting for her response.

Right. She was leading a meeting. But she started to think about something in the past that had nothing to do with this. Her focus was terrible.

She took a deep breath before she marked the huge map on the table. “...Alright. I approve.”

Almost all areas had been allocated to each clan as a part of Konoha. Each clan's colored pawns had marked each zone on the map, including the Aburame and Sarutobi clans which weren’t present at the moment.

All except the Uchiha clan's.

Izuna hadn’t said a word since the start of the meeting, merely exchanging words with a young Uchiha man who was acting as her scribe. Her arms were crossed on her chest, just like Madara when he was mad about something.

“Izuna-san?” she called.

“Some of our clan members had established housings downstream, next to the large lake.” Izuna’s voice was softer than the other representatives. “Our clan elders think that place is suitable. There is an open space we can use for training, and a forest to utilize.”

“Hold on,” Shimura clan representative interrupted again. His voice was hoarse, and his blackened teeth was visible when he started talking. “Konoha forests won't be a shared property?”

“Of course there will be forests under village management,” Hashirama replied. “If there is any other clan who wants to manage their own forest privately like the Nara clan does, you are welcomed to do so.”

“But please inform me or Hokage-sama beforehand,” Tobirama quickly added.

“Wait, we weren’t informed about forest zoning before!” Shimura interrupted once again, he marked an area next to the lake by himself. The mark was too close to Uchiha clan’s zone.

“Hisao-san,” Akimichi Chokichi who was sitting next to the man warned him. His thin eyebrows dipped sharply.

Izuna’s finger tensed, interlocking on the table. “We’ve claimed that part of the forest, Shimura-san.” Her chakra spread across the table, uneasy.

On Hashirama’s side, Tobirama straightened up his posture. His shoulders tensed. He had calm expression on his face, but Hashirama knew what it hid.

Tsubaki who sat next to Izuna placed her hand on her shoulder. The Inuzuka clan leader had not spoken much, but her body posture signified her fighting stance. Her gaze was locked on a man across her seat.

Shimura Hisao leaned his body closer to the table again, marking the wooden pawns with his clan’s color. He claimed another spot again around the lake. “We need compensation for our mining business. The transport cost raised after we moved.”  

Tobirama noted for her last night that their mining business almost ran out because the number of iron ore they mined were declining. That was only one of many factors why they agreed to relocate to Konoha and became neighbors with their old enemy, Sarutobi clan. The area around the great lake itself was filled with kozo trees, which was useful for making paper, threads, and medicines. All she knew was this type of tree was a rarity in Hinokuni although it grew rather quickly. The price for kozo tree products was also expensive in the cities.   

“Hisao-san,” Izuna spoke, stiff and cold. “You’re moving too close to our zone.”

“Don’t tell me what I can do or can’t do,” he hissed sharply in response, “know your place, woman.”

Inuzuka Tsubaki almost jumped on the table if only Nara Shikana didn’t hold her arm. The woman hissed, baring her sharp fangs. All the other clan representatives stared at Shimura Hisao, their expressions were a mix of shock and anger. Silently Hashirama asked Tsubaki to sit down, which she quickly obeyed.

The man scoffed, and parted his grey hair aside. “You’re only here as your brother’s replacement,” he said bitterly, ignoring everyone else. “Know your place for once.”

“Shimura-san!” the two Senju scolded him in unison. Hashirama’s drowsiness disappeared in an instant, replaced with anger. She really did not expect someone who was a representative of a clan dared to speak ill, even in front of her who was the Hokage.

At times like this, her father would have kicked any council member who dared to insult others out of the meeting room. But their meeting was unfinished, and he was one of the important members. Not to mention the possibility that all Shimura clan would be offended.

Izuna was unmoved. Her head was facing straight forward, ignoring the siblings on the other side of the table. “Please move your pawns aside, Shimura-san,” she said, as calm as a stone. “I don’t wish for our two clans to bicker there.”

The atmosphere turned intense. The other clan representatives did not react, remained in their chairs. Hashirama wanted to intervene, but seeing zuna’s expression stopped her. Her eyes might be covered by a piece of cloth, but her body gesture didn’t show that she was disturbed. Meanwhile, the young man behind her stared at the Hokage asking for a help. Tobirama tried to catch her attention too; the leg of his chair was creaking under the table. Hashirama ignored both of them.

“There is still another forest in the other side of the lake,” Shimura replied sharply, his bony hand impatiently tapping the table.

“We have made plans to manage the lake and the forest around it,” said Izuna quickly. “If you want to enforce your claim, let’s settle this outside after the meeting.” She turned to the Hokage. “Is it alright with you?”  

Hisao cut in again, “what do you know about this? I wonder why—”

She couldn’t take it anymore. Her smile vanished. “Shimura-san,” Hashirama called him, “enough. I will request for Shimura clan to send another representative for the next meeting.”

“You haven’t been a Hokage for a week, yet you dare to intervene our clan’s internal affair?” Hisao’s voice rose, and the corner of his lips raised, belittling her.

Yamanaka Inoha let out a deep sigh at the left side of the Hokage, rubbing his temple. Hyuuga Mori coughed into his hands.

She nearly explode her chakra had she didn’t feel a stream of Tobirama’s cold chakra. She glanced at her brother once, silently thankful. “We’re not meeting here to question the credibility of our fellow Konoha shinobi,” Hashirama said to Hisao, “but you may leave if you wish.”

Hisao laughed, staring at each of the representatives. Only the Senju siblings and Izuna who did not turn their eyes away from him. His fists clenched on the table. The silence that followed finally broken by the sound of his chair roughly creaking and his quick steps towards the exit door.

“...Fuh,” Nara Shikana sighed, wiping his wide forehead.

Tsubaki turned her chair and commented, “they should have sent Keita. He’s a good boy.”

“He’s afraid of you.” Shikana nudged her softly with his elbow. Tsubaki giggled aloud.

Hashirama fixed her haori. Her gaze aimed at everyone present in the meeting room. “There’s something else I’d like to inform,” she said, “Hinokuni Emperor intends to visit this village.”

Inoha gaped in confusion. “Huh?”

“Why does he want to come here?” Chokichi asked, tapping his round chin. “He never seem to care about ninja before.”

“He didn't tell the reason specifically in his letter. Only a statement that he wants to see the Hokage and village council.” Hashirama leaned her back on her chair, rubbing her temple.

Across the room, Hyuuga Mori stared hard at her.


 

 

“Our clan might had become a part of Konoha, but personally I don’t like it.”

The Hyuuga representative sought her after the meeting, asking Hashirama to talk privately. He seemed uneasy, which raised her curiosity.

The glass she filled for him was almost overfilled because she was surprised. “Why, Hyuuga-san?” Hashirama asked while she handed the glass to him, keeping her voice as calm as possible.

The old man squeezed his bony hands. “Please consider this, Hokage-sama.” He took a sip from his drink. “It was the daimyo who hired us—the clans who live in this village, to fight their battles. Yes, we were paid handsomely… but in the end we are the ones who have to bear the loss of lives and other materials. The Emperor has never for once cared about us. We are just peasants to him.”

Hyuuga Mori wasn’t completely wrong. As a merchant, his clan was underestimated even by fellow shinobi. Although she thought the Emperor’s visit was a good news, many disagreed with her. Tobirama included. His main reason was house constructions didn’t go as quickly as it planned, even if Hashirama managed to build twenty houses in one night. Providing accommodations for the Emperor would require extra effort, which would consume most of resources from this currently unstable village.

“I was hoping that Konoha would someday become an independent village like the Uzushiogakure.” He stared at the window. “Hidden and safe from political intrigue of the noblemen.”

“Hyuuga-san, Konoha still stands in Hinokuni territory. Even Uzumaki clan paid high tax for the Emperor as an exchange for their independence.”

Mori’s eyebrows were raised. “Oh?”

Hashirama drank her own water. “You know about Uzushiogakure…?”

The old man nodded. “So it’s true that Senju clan is still their relatives. Why aren’t we allying with Uzushio village?”

The Hokage smiled bitterly. She chose her words carefully. “Uzumaki clan… ah, they are not very open to other clans.”

“That’s a pity.” Mori took a deep breath, staring far outside the window. The sky had turned darker. “If Senju-sama would be pleased, I have a suggestion for—”

“HOKAGE-SAMA!”

Hashirama jumped from her chair when the door slammed open. The dark-haired teenage boy who sat behind Izuna during the meeting returned. His bang was messy like it was just blown by a fuuton jutsu.

“What happened...?”

“Hokage-sama…” He was gasping for air. He squeezed his chest as he spoke, “please come with me at once!”  


 

 

Hashirama could see furious veins on Tobirama’s temple when he saw her. “You should stop them,” he urged.

They were on the side of an empty field, one of the empty housing locations which hadn’t been built by the Hokage. At the center Shimura Hisao and Uchiha Izuna stood facing each other, with swords in their hands. A young teenager stood near the tree lines, whom she recognized as Hisao’s relative. A glance was enough to tell what they were going to do.   

The Hokage still couldn’t believe Hisao would choose this way. How insolent. Her resentment turned into anger, but she still managed to hold herself. She gave that man a polite nod before she turned her head to his opponent.

“I can take care of this myself,” she said as Hashirama approached her.

“Can you—”

“Duh,” Izuna mocked in annoyance. “Do you think I forget how to fight?”

Reckless. She had seen her fighting on a battlefield, she did; but without sharingan Izuna had lost much of her abilities. She had trained her sensing ability, but her opponent wasn’t an amateur. Not once or twice Madara complained about his sister’s recklessness.

And speaking of Madara…

The young Uchiha who escorted her suggested, “shouldn’t we just wait for Madara-sama?”

“Shut up, Makoto,” she cut him off without turning her head. The young man, Makoto, backed off in fear behind Tobirama.

“Izuna, he’s right,” he sighed, clearly upset, running his fingers through his hair. “Shimura Hisao is still skilled in kenjutsu although he’s already retired.”

She sheathed back her sword quickly. “Do you think I don’t know that, Senju?” Izuna turned to face Tobirama, her arms crossed on her chest. “Hisao insulted me. I am the one who has to represent my clan in defending our land.”

“Yes, but—” Tobirama stopped himself, gritting his teeth. He exchanged stares with Hashirama, then turned his face away. He tightened up his haori as the wind blew.

“But what?” Izuna challenged him.

Hashirama touched the shorter woman’s shoulder gently. “Izuna-san, you don’t have to die for a plot of land. Let me talk some sense to him.”

Talk,” the Uchiha scoffed as she repeated her word. Lights coming from recently lit torches fell onto Izuna’s thin face. Her hands were marred by old scars made from practicing kenjutsu. “He considers me as a mere blind woman. You heard him at the meeting, Hashi-san.”    

Hashirama was unwavered, her heart argued against her words. She really believed that peaceful discussion could solve this problem. But, she also knew that Izuna was right.  

“Izuna…”

Someone cleared their throat loudly, distracting the four of them. Hashirama saw Hyuuga Mori sat on top of piles of wood; he had been following her from her office, and the Hokage couldn’t refuse him. Hisao approached from his place across the small field. He bowed in respect towards Hashirama.

“What if Hokage-sama observe our battle?” he suggested so with pretended niceness—all the bitterness she heard before had gone. “So the result will be official.”

Tobirama took a step forward, covering Izuna’s body from the man’s view. “This is not how we solve problems in Konoha, Shimura-san.”

“I asked for this.” Izuna moved to Hashirama’s left side. Her sword was unsheathed again. “The sooner we start, the better.”

Everyone’s attention was drawn towards Hashirama. She took turns looking at both Hisao and Izuna. They were reluctant to back off from their plan.

“Tobirama is right—killing each other won’t solve anything. But,” she stopped for a while, “I allow you to fight.”

“Good,” Izuna scoffed. Her opponent smiled.

“Do you know the rules?”

Hisao stretched his arms. “No ninjutsu. No genjutsu. No taijutsu. No kekkei genkai. Just kenjutsu.”

Izuna prepared her sword. “No problem.”

Both fighters took stances. The Hokage stepped away from them. She couldn’t be a referee although her position allowed her for that. She could never be fair.


 

 

“Sis,” her brother whispered in distraught. “Why?”

The darkness gave Izuna advantage. Hashirama almost couldn’t hear her steps on the field, only the swishing of her clothes and slashing of her sword that split the air. Her movement was still as flexible as usual, although she couldn't switch her grip in the middle of battle. She mostly went for her opponent’s arms. Hisao stepped forward consistently with tough slash of his sword. Quick and deadly in an instant. But, it caused him trouble to follow all of Hashirama’s rules.     

Tobirama’s question wasn’t louder than a whisper for her; all her concentration centered at the battle in front of her. “I believe in Izuna,” she answered quietly. “Just calm down.”

“You know she is a reckless person,” he said again, his eyes still fixed at the two fighters. So far Izuna managed to block all of Hisao’s attacks, dodge, then land her attacks although they missed.

“They are not trying to kill each other. I am here.” Hashirama hid her hands inside her sleeves. “You know her capabilities; you are the one who spent a lot of time practicing with her.”

Tobirama fell silent, the corner of his lips were down. He must be concerned about something.

Hashirama commented, “You’re not like the usual.”

He turned his head suddenly, frowning. “What do you mean…?”

“What’s going on?”

Hyuuga Mori, who acted as a referee, suddenly shouted and lifted his right hand. “One point for Uchiha!” The veins on his temple pulsed.

Hisao’s left arm was drenched in blood. Izuna didn’t have a chance to step back before the man hit her left leg. Even without doujutsu Hashirama could see blood splattered in the air.

“One point for Shimura,” Mori announced, softer. Izuna hissed aloud, but quickly got back to fight.

Hisao’s relative across the field watched them while biting his own thumb nail and gripping Hisao’s sword sheath firmly. Makoto whimpered in fear from behind Hashirama’s back. She put a hand on Tobirama’s shoulder.

She believed in Izuna, truly. But, seeing her starting to struggle in blocking Hisao’s attacks, she started to doubt her own decision. Izuna was the one who chose this way to settle the problem, but…

What would Madara say about this? She couldn’t stop the battle now—Izuna wouldn’t like it.

“One point for Shimura.”

Tobirama inhaled his breath sharply. Hashirama gripped his shoulder. Izuna’s left hand was wounded on the wrist. It didn’t seem to be deep, but enough to make her had a hard time holding her sword. She mostly dodged attacks rather than blocking them, even she was distraught by the wound on her leg. Three times Hisao tried to slash her, visibly impatient to land his final strike. But his attacks kept missing the target.

Izuna crouched to avoid an attack towards her right arm. She turned around on one foot, throwing her sword to her wounded hand, then scratched Hisao’s left elbow from behind. Her movement was so fast even her opponent didn’t realize he was wounded again until Izuna distanced herself away from him.

“That’s—”

“One point for Uchiha.”

They almost ran out of breath. Hisao’s face was red and twisted in anger. Izuna was the opposite, she smiled widely. Blood dripped onto her sword handle.

“Don’t celebrate anything yet,” Hisao hissed.

She tilted her head, indifferent.

Izuna’s second scratch wasn’t deep. Hashirama recognized that move; a move that didn’t made to land deadly slash. But rather just to land a mark on an opponent’s body.

Izuna was tired; her attacks mostly to make gaps and destroying Hisao’s focus. The man returned to his first tactic—slashing as strong and as quick as possible. His sword was no longer aimed at Izuna’s legs or arms. Slash by slash were evaded by her. Anger blinded him. When their swords collided once again, Hisao pushed it with all his strength, then stepped backward. Just like when he injured her left leg, Hisao immediately attacked her as fast as he could—but that time his sword struck her waist.

Izuna’s mouth opened voicelessly as she fell. Her sword fell clanging on the ground.  

Hyuuga Mori jumped forward, he pressed certain spots on Hisao’s dominant hand until he dropped his sword. “Violation,” he said coldly, his byakugan aimed at a young man on the side of the field.

Hashirama followed, her heart beat fast and unabated. Years of endless war stopped her from panicking from time to time, but her worry was rising. She managed to catch Izuna, intended to sit her on the ground. But she only reclined on her shoulder while Hashirama tried to heal her wounded waist.

“Dammit.” She gritted her teeth loudly. “Get away.” She ditched Hashirama’s wrist.

“Your injuries—”

“I’m fine,” she gasped, searching the ground for her sword. Her chakra was less solid, still trying to find its original form after she recovered from shock. Sweats drenched her blindfold.

“You have won, Izuna.” Hashirama bowed above her, focusing on closing her injuries.

“Shimura isn’t dead yet.”

“This isn’t a dead or alive duel. Let him be.”

Izuna groaned in ire. “What’s the difference…” She fell on her back, trying to rearrange her breath. “I killed his son some time ago. He has a death wish.”

Hashirama widened her eyes in shock. “Why didn’t you tell—”

“IZUNA!”

Dusts gathered around them when they saw Madara landed, bringing the smell of damp forest and blood along him. He observed his sister’s condition in a glance, then his eyes turned to the Hokage. His face flustered in anger.

“What is this?”

Her heart startled. The green glow on her palms dimmed as anxiety took a hold on her. Hashirama quickly added more chakra on her palms to speed up healing process. She didn’t know where her usual composure had gone—maybe it left because she knew Madara would react this way.

“It’s nothing, Brother,” Izuna answered for her. “Only trying to stop someone else from taking our lands.”

Madara didn’t turn his attention away from Hashirama. “You allowed this…?”

Hashirama lifted her face, firmly confirming, “yes.”

His attention was drawn to another side of the field. She gathered courage to glance. Only Tobirama and Mori talked in low voice to one another. The two Shimura men were nowhere to be found.

Izuna suddenly moved, standing up. Hashirama stopped her. The wound on her waist was almost closed entirely, but the one on her leg hadn’t been treated yet. “I’m not done.”

“Just minor injury.” Madara helped her stand. His sister shrugged, gesturing her not to stop them. The Hokage got up, patting dusts away from her knees.

“Madara,” she called, “her injuries…”

“Sis.” Tobirama walked closer, visibly ignoring Madara. He whispered in her ear, “Hyuuga Mori asked to talk.”

Their talk wasn’t done yet, since it was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Uchiha Makoto. The old man was waiting a bit far from them. Hashirama’s attention returned to the two Uchiha.

It felt like a long time since she last saw her best friend.

“You also have a meeting schedule with our clan council.”

Hashirama blinked. She didn’t remember she had that appointment. But lately she always relied on her brother to remember all the appointments and meetings in her schedules. She had a hard time managing all of it by herself. Had she had time to spare, she would have escorted them back home.

Her tongue felt heavy as she said gently, “I apologize for this, Uchiha-san. I wish we can talk another time. Good night.”

The siblings went in silence. Only Makoto responded to her.


 

 

Hyuuga Mori asked her to walk with him to the Hyuuga’s residence. Tobirama went to Senju residence to start opening the meeting without their leader. Hashirama let the old man to recline on her arm along the way, his words from their conversation returned into her mind.

The Emperor wouldn’t let a completely independent village in his territory. Hashirama knew this from her clan’s cousin that annually Uzushiogakure sent two chests full of valuable items, not including gifts, to the capital. Konoha had no enough money to pay that much tax, so they only had one choice.

She scratched her head. Her heart was full of worry because she had no time to discuss anything with Madara. She needed his insight and suggestion. Ah, she should apologize once more regarding Izuna…

“You are a capable shinobi, Senju-sama,”

The comment was said unexpectedly. Hashirama almost forgot to turn towards their destination. “Thank you, Hyuuga-san,” she replied politely. She kept away the thoughts about Madara, promising herself to find him tomorrow.

Konoha at night was very quiet. Not every house they passed had candles lit inside of them. Only a few torches and lanterns lit up as many as they needed, illuminating the roads around wooden houses. From the field, they only met one other pedestrian.

“Just take this as a casual question,” the old man said, the wrinkles on his face became visible as he gently laughed under the light of a lantern, “do you have a candidate?”

Hashirama was confused. “Eh? For what?”

“For a future husband, of course.”

Why did Mori suddenly ask about that? Many guesses appeared in her mind, but she spared no time to analyze them. “Oh…” she laughed softly, she covered her mouth with one free hand. “No, not yet,” she answered.

“Is that so? Then if you are interested…” He let his words hanging in the air.

It wasn’t the first time someone wanted her to form kinship with another clan.

It wasn’t the first time Hashirama wished she wasn’t born as the daughter of Senju clan leader.


 

 

She was eleven, and she was following Touka. Her cousin carried a kind of basket which was often used by their female relatives to gather forest herbs. Hashirama was curious why she went alone and wore male clothes. Even her hair was tied up on the back like a boy.

Touka was five years older than her, tall for a sixteen year-old teenager. Like most female Senju clan members, she attended a secret gathering to become formidable kunoichi—a gathering forbidden for Hashirama to attend. Touka was trusted to keep the village safe while the men went to war, even allowed to bring a naginata. But now Hashirama didn’t see any weapon with her, except a knife to harvest herbs. The girl suppressed her chakra as thin as possible, just like Tobirama taught her.

Her brothers were busy with the other Senju youths, practicing kenjutsu and taijutsu. They had been given a sparring kunai since they could sit upright. Meanwhile Hashirama had to peek at them secretly to satisfy her curiosity. Three days ago she was caught in the act, and in return she was given additional courses for punishment. Mostly they were calligraphy, ikebana, and embroidery. That didn’t mean she disliked it; she liked those lessons, but when her father made it as a punishment, she wanted to resist.   

So there she was, watching Touka’s back went deeper into the dim forest from behind a tree. All of Senju children were familiar with the forest and wilderness outside their village, but Hashirama was the only one who always had to tell her father before she went to the forest.

Ah, who cares if she got caught again. She’s already used to sleep in the shed.

She was snapped from her reverie by the sound of twigs cracking under her sandals. Such an amateur mistake!

“No need to sneak like that, right, Hashi?”

Hashirama froze in the footpath with one foot raised in the air above the broken twigs. Touka had faced her with hands on her waist. “Naughty girl,” she muttered.       

“I wanna come.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Touka gestured her to approach. “You can follow me as long as you’re not noisy.”

Hashirama’s grin widened. “What are you looking for in the forest?” she asked, then ran to match her steps with Touka’s. “Medical herbs? Cat’s whiskers? Aloe?”

“Nonsense. We have all of them in the village,” her cousin answered without turning her head.

“Then what?”

“Raven weed.”

Hashirama shook her head. “I never heard about it.”

Touka stopped for a while to stare at her, her eyebrows frowned. “How old are you?” Once Hashirama answered, she then added, “have you bleed?”

“I have,” she answered quickly, sprightly following Touka walking through shrubs. She lifted the bottom part of her clothes, then jumped over short bushes. “When I was slicing cucumbers, and when Itama accidentally stabbed me with his sparring kunai.”

“Oh,” Touka responded flatly. “You haven’t then. No use for me to explain.”

The little girl turned sullen while the older one squatted to sort lush bushes in front of her. Touka took out her knife, then cut some small plants with long heart-shaped leaves.

“Come on, tell me,” she begged, nudging Touka’s exposed forearm.

She glanced at her for a while, dark green bangs fell covering her eye. “Soon you will bleed, a sign that your body has matured. Which means, you can carry a baby in your belly.”

Hashirama spontaneously reached her own belly, looking down at her body. She often saw Senju women with large bellies in the village, but she was never told even once how could they got pregnant in the first place. The only thing she knew, that a man was always involved in the process.

“How to make babies, Touka?”

“You talk too much, Hashi,” she grunted. “You are a clan leader’s daughter, when you’re married, your husband will tell you how.”

She was suddenly reminded of Nobuo, and his annoyingly loud laughter when he bullied Kawarama two years ago. Nobuo would use that opportunity to bully her too. In her heart she renewed her vow not to marry that annoying Uzumaki brat. Besides, Uzumaki Ashina had other grandsons, not just him.

“Ugh, no. I want to know now.”

“Just go home,” Touka gestured her away with her hand.

Hashirama stood up with hands on her waist. “I don’t want to!”

“You ask too much.”

“If isn’t you, then who can I ask?”

“Auntie or grandma in the village, of course!”

“I did. Nobody wanted to tell me anything.” Hashirama’s lips pouted. “The other younger girls were already told. Why not me?”

“You are the clan leader’s daughter, Hashi.”

“What’s so special for being a clan leader’s daughter if I know nothing?”

Touka’s knife stopped cutting. Suddenly she stood up, going back towards the footpath. “Alright. So listen to me carefully. I will only explain once.”

Hashirama’s attention was divided among running, the rustlings of leaves that she stepped on, and the croaking birds in the forest. A bird flew above their heads, its wings were as wide as her shoulders, and decorated with blue-green feathers. Her eyes followed the bird until it landed on a branch.

“...If it happened, then a baby will grow inside a woman’s body.” Touka stopped once more, parting some bushes to find the weed. “Boiling water with this will stop it.”

Hashirama hurriedly squatting next to her. “Boiling the raven weed?” She touched the crude grass. “So this kills baby?”

“You can say so—” Touka’s shoulders stiffened. She put her index finger on her lips. The grip on her knife changed.

“What is it?” Hashirama whispered. Is there another clan member approaching? But, they didn’t go far into the forest, she still could see the roofs of Senju houses from here…

“Who’s… there?”

The voice was still a bit far. Just one man. His accent was different compared to other Senju men in the village. Those two girls were next to the foot of a climb, meanwhile the stranger was from above them. Hashirama didn’t dare to turn her head even for a second, meanwhile her cousin peeked at the stranger from behind the bushes.

The tip of her fingers turned cold while she tried to suppress her chakra even thinner. She didn’t know what would happen if they were found. Being killed was the best possibility. Kidnapped then sold was a common thing to happen.

Especially when she is a clan leader’s daughter.

Memory of dozens of coffins returned to her mind, each of them filled with women, including her mother. No, no, they wouldn’t end up that way—

“Just one man,” Touka whispered almost voicelessly. “If you don’t hear my voice for five seconds, run home as fast as you can, Hashi.”

“Tou—”

The green haired teenager disappeared from her side. She heard her greet the man, “Hello, Sir! Are you looking for an inn to stay for the night?” Touka’s voice pitch was lowered on purpose.

The man replied with low grunts, “any nearby village?”

Hashirama took a stance, she sharpened her hearing. Touka was still chit-chatting with the stranger, sometimes laughed with him. She couldn’t divide her focus between readying herself to run or keeping on eavesdropping. She heard a swish of clothes, then things went quiet.

She remembered her cousin’s request, Hashirama counted to five in her mind. Silence was still ongoing. She continued counting until ten. Still silent. What was going on?

Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. What was she doing?

She jumped out of the bush. “Touka!”

The stranger was sitting on a tree stump, meanwhile she saw her cousin kneeled and bowed in front of him. What was she doing? She was too busy looking at Touka that she almost didn’t hear the man shouted at her.

“Hey! Where did you—”

Hashirama froze in her place. Touka got up in a second, then hit the man’s neck with one precise fist punch. He toppled, groaned and cussed. His clothes had been lifted up to his waist, with pants down to his thighs. Before he got up or took his weapon, Touka made a seal, then cupped the man’s face onto the ground. He no longer moved although he was breathing. All of these happened without turning her body at all.

“Why don’t you run, Hashi?” She wiped her face, then spat a few times on the ground.

“I…” Her heart beat uncontrollably. “W-what did you do to him?” She grabbed her clothes firmly, staring at the unconscious man. He should be in his thirties, a symbol embroidered on his sleeve indicated him as a part of Hagoromo clan. Touka could be injured fighting against him.

Touka turned her back, but she roared, “Hashirama!”

Something heavy crashed down behind her back. Before she could turn her head, a muscular arm grabbed her neck and hindered her to breathe. Hashirama kicked the air and clawed on the hairy arm, but her attempt was in vain. In her attempt to escape, she couldn’t hear what the man said to Touka. Suddenly she was carried on his shoulder and taken away through the forest.

“Touka!” Hashirama screamed. “Toukaaaa!”

The Hagoromo clan symbol was also embroidered on the man’s back. Her stomach kept slamming against his shoulder while he jumped from branches to branches, causing her dizziness and nausea. Her left hand tried to reach for twigs, wounding her arm until it bled. Her eyes turned wet. She no longer recognized the trees they passed; how far had they went from her village? How could she run away from this situation?

Taijutsu? She could fight, but her opponent so far was just children in the village. She’d never been taught by adults—Hashirama only learned from the boys. Ninjutsu—tch, she didn’t even remember the twelve fingers seal. Her chakra control might be good, but without proper knowledge of seals, she couldn’t make anything.

Hashirama stared at both of her palms, holding her nausea. Her fingers entwined on top of the back of her hands. That was the only seal she remembered. She closed her eyes, feeling the damp wind brushing her face. The chakra in her stomach twitched. Her teeth gritted.

She had to do it. She could do it. She could.

Her chakra felt warm. Seething. Boiling. Free.

Hashirama heard a loud beating sound, then her body slipped from the Hagoromo shinobi’s grasp, who was groaning in pain and cussing. She opened her eyes towards a view of forest that moved away—she fell through leaves and twigs. Her back was the first to touch the ground covered in blankets of fallen dried leaves. She screamed in pain, echoing among the tree trunks. The pain spread all over her back.

Her kidnapper stood only a few meters ahead. His appearance looked like a huge ape. There was a bruise on his half bald head. Blood streamed down his temple.

“Senju bitch!”

Hashirama forced her body to stand, although her back was in pain. There should be something cracked. She staggered right away, her skirt stuck causing her to fall headfirst. Her nausea returned, and made worse by her uncontrollable heart beat. She had to run! Had to run!

The absence of rustling leaves stirred her curiosity. Hashirama encouraged herself to turn her head; exactly when her kidnapper snatched her neck. He pinned her to the ground, fingers pressing her airway. Her vision blurred.

She felt another presence, then her breathing returned to normal. Hashirama coughed, noticed a figure attacked the Hagoromo shinobi through her blurry sight. Their fight ended shortly, with blood gushed out from the foreign ninja’s neck.

Hashirama slowly stood straight, resting on a tree trunk. She didn’t want to look helpless. Her savior kneeled in front of her, observing her from top to bottom.

“Otou-sama…”

Senju Butsuma carried his daughter’s body. Hashirama bit her own lips, holding sobs from escaping her throat. She grabbed her father’s back tightly. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her fear and panic disappeared, brushed away by relief.

“You’re lucky you’re not wounded,” Butsuma said while they went back to the village. “The Uzumaki and our clan will suffer great loss if you’re dead.”

Hashirama’s grip on her father’s back loosened. Her mind was divided into wishing to go home or running away from her clan. Her left arm stretched out, like she was trying to reach her dreams.

Her arm was unmarred once more.