Chapter Thirteen: Progression
The second half of the noble's promise came through. Agar from the coasts was delivered with the next caravan, and messages came from men who would've thrown away her letters just a few months ago. Finally, Yui could access resources for the penicillin strain she so carefully grew.
(The correspondence she had with the machinist was skeptical, but every person outside her village was skeptical. The repetition was tiresome but necessary to make any advances.)
Eiji helped her pick out several trays of the best-growing penicillin to ship to the machinist and several correspondents, including Dr. Makoto. Yui wrote detailed instructions for the care of the strains, though she had a feeling that a few would end up dead regardless. Fungiculture wasn't the most common of hobbies. At least she didn't need to worry about it dying on the way: with the help of Kon Inuzuka, the penicillin would reach the capital in dramatically less time than with a caravan.
Yui stood by the orange tree at the entrance of her village, Eiji a step behind her. In the heat of midsummer, the trees were thinning their first crop of fruit; tiny oranges littered either side of the path. Kon's ninja dog nudged one with his nose and sneezed. The kunoichi scratched her dog's neck, tossed back a lazy wave, and started down the path, narrowly dodging a cart of oxen before breaking into a sprint.
They watched the ninja disappear into the distance, and Yui exhaled, feeling lighter.
"I always thought it was a punishment, you know," said Eiji finally. "Making us grow the stupid mold in the shed."
She turned to him, surprised.
He smiled. "You explained why and everything, but it always felt like an excuse to get us out of the way. We spent so much time cleaning and boiling and everything." Eiji hesitated for a second. "Sen called it the Shit Shed, you know?"
Yui let out a soft laugh. "Just Sen?"
"Well, fine, I did too. But you know… it almost doesn't feel real to send the mold away, having it… I don't know, do something useful for once."
"After so long," she murmured to herself. Louder, she admitted, "I… I actually didn't expect to get so far." The cities were industrialized, yes, and theoretically had the technology to make it work. But that she would be able to use it? It had only been a distant dream.
"Should I—" He stopped and shook his head. "Let's just go inside."
"What is it?" Conversation between them finally started to flow, and she didn't want the words unsaid to weigh them down again.
"How did you know about the fungus? How do you know any of this?"
Surprise kept her from speaking for a moment too long, and Eiji's expression shuttered. "Never mind. I shouldn't ask."
"No," she said quickly. "I'll tell you. Just… not here. And you might not like the answer."
He nodded, the curiosity returning. They walked back in silence as Yui wrestled with the words. The summer heat shimmered on the new cobblestones, a mirage that drifted away as they approached. They followed the paved path to the clinic, and she closed the clinic door behind them.
Yui settled down in the chair. She'd run out of time to stall. Eiji sat opposite her, expectant. She closed her eyes. The truth was something she had never said out loud, something she didn't understand herself. Even now, it caught in her throat, dredged from the depths of her memory. Yui took a deep breath, mentally ran through the herbs in her garden, and made herself speak.
"I don't know why I know. I got… I have memories. Dreams. Little… looks of what could be, from another life. I always got them, even as a kid. Though I don't remember much anymore."
Eiji didn't know what to say to that at first. "Memories from… a past life? Or are you a seer?"
"I don't know. Neither. Both."
Silence grew between them again. He looked down at his hands, his forehead wrinkled in thought, and Yui did nothing but study his reaction.
"I'm… going to put on some tea." Eiji stood up. It was a habit that he'd picked up from her, and she watched him fondly, even as her heart fluttered like a bird in her throat. He poured her a cup, the gesture instinctive. She took a sip. It was the special blend she'd brought back from the nobles just for him: Eiji took it out only for special occasions, which she supposed this was.
He poured himself a cup and inhaled the steam. Eiji swirled the golden liquid around before also taking a sip.
"You're still Yui-sensei," he said. "I mean, you've—you've always had these memories. Just because I know about them doesn't mean that anything's changed."
She nodded, gripping the cup tightly. The wingbeats of her heart began to slow. She hadn't realized how worried she'd been about his reaction to the impossible truth.
He took another sip, savoring it. "You really don't know why? No explanation?"
"Everything has an explanation. You're supposed to have the explanations," he said, smiling. "I think I got a little used to that. Though it's a little funny… you got blessed with knowledge, but you don't know how you got it."
The roles were switched: Eiji was watching her now. He kept smiling, determined—her nervousness had to be apparent.
When she didn't say anything, he continued to fill the silence, less confidently. "I'm, uh, glad that you got this knowledge. It's helped so many people. And it's… okay that you don't have an explanation now. I meant what I said, Sensei. You're still you."
"Thank you," she said finally. She took in a deep breath, sipped her tea, and smiled back. "I do wish I knew why. But some things… just are."
"Yeah. Some things just are." Eiji set his cup aside to give her a quick, tight hug. Yui returned it, careful not to jostle the tea still in her hand.
He cleared his throat, suddenly bashful. "Well. I guess I should get back to work. Thank you for telling me, Yui-sensei."
She gave his shoulder a squeeze in lieu of saying anything. Yui hadn't thought of her half-held secret as a burden, but she felt lighter all the same.
Seasons passed on the wind. Yui reseeded her garden and watched as her plants and her village grew. Her niece toddled among the herbs as Yui answered letters in the thawing spring sunshine. Her sister sat next to her, a hand on her pregnant belly. Umei provided a stream of light chatter without expecting much of a response, which suited Yui just fine.
"I do hope it's a boy this time. I think my dear husband wants…"
Yui nodded, too engrossed in the report from Amano Isamu to even make an interested sound. Amano was an industrialist who'd only answered her letters due to Lord Fukuyama's introduction, but he'd grown passionate about the work. After connecting Amano with Dr. Makoto and the growing science society, the group had found themselves a wealthy sponsor.
—foresee much progress with industrial fermentation methods. Initial small scale results from the chakra-stressed strains are promising enough to seek further investment; I shall send a sample of the increasingly purified—
"What about you?"
Yui underlined a sentence, stopped, and looked up after realizing that her sister actually wanted a proper response.
"You say that work keeps you from marriage, but… d'you never want kids?" Umei didn't say it in the disappointed tone that their mother used. It was simply curious—and honest. Though society politely pretended that marriage was required for children, it didn't take a ceremony to make them happen.
Yui coarsened her accent to match, amused. "You sayin' I should try for one now?"
Umei snorted. "Well, you won't get trouble finding a man for it." Her tone grew more serious. "If you look for a husband though, I think you could get someone who won't make you stop. Plenty of merchants. Maybe even a ninja or two. Hell, any village boy would jump at the chance. But if you still think it ain't worth the risk, you could get yourself a kid."
Umei made a suggestive gesture, and Yui laughed.
"I'm a bit serious, though," said Umei, still grinning. "You're rich enough to take care of one without a husband."
Yui was surprised that her sister hadn't been diverted from the subject. She set down her ink pen—Lightning-made, from the merchant who'd first published her book—and looked away. Her niece was babbling to herself as she tugged grass with her chubby fists.
"Love'd be nice." Yui sighed. Her few would-be wooers had been firmly rebuffed, and most people didn't try anymore. Sometimes, she regretted it, but it was undeniably for the best. "I know it's not in my cards, though. I can't take the risk, and I don't think I can spend so much time away from my work. As for children, well..." She rested her hand on her chin and looked at her niece. "It's not fair to be second to anything, and…"
Umei waited as Yui struggled to find the words. This world was cruel to its children. Would it be cruel for her to bring a child into it, all while knowing that there was so much her child couldn't do, so much that her child would suffer through?
But a deeper reason was entirely selfish.
"I think losing a child would break me," she said softly. And life here was so, so fragile. "Maybe if there was someone I loved enough…"
Umei grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "Oh, Yui, I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
Yui shook her head. "No, it's fine. I chose this, and I'm happy." As she said it, she knew it was true. Yui wouldn't trade the life she'd built. She squeezed her sister's hand back, and smiled. "'sides, it's easier to be an aunt. All the fun, no—"
"Oh, you hag!" Her sister pushed her playfully, and Yui laughed.
Sweaty, singed, and dragging a child between them, Emi and Shikari burst into her clinic while smelling of smoke. Emi was dressed like a priestess, Shikari like a samurai, and the kid—barely a teen and dressed like a noble—was clutching onto Shikari like a lifeline.
Yui raised an eyebrow but said nothing, Eiji rolled his eyes, and Tama looked like she desperately wanted to ask. Her newest apprentice opened her mouth, but Eiji's cleared throat made her close it with a pout.
"That was fun!" said Emi, breathing heavily as Yui guided her to a chair. The kunoichi pushed back her long white sleeves so that Yui could better treat the thin, shallow cuts along her arms. "Could've been less dramatic, but there's a certain charm to drama. An arresting quality to the spectacle, and so on."
"We're just lucky we didn't get arrested," Shikari grumbled. He made a dismissive gesture with his free hand and winced—his fingers were swollen. Eiji heaved a sigh and picked up a roll of bandages.
"Luck? More like my skill." Emi glanced at Eiji as he brushed past her to treat Shikari. "But anyway, Shika, we're being rude to our hosts! How is my dearest healer boy doing?"
Eiji scoffed as he looked up from Shikari's broken hand—the one not holding the kid. "Better than you at the moment."
"That's not very hard, but I appreciate the sentiment." The kunoichi turned to Tama and her smile grew. "And my new favorite healer girl. My hair's in my face, darling. Could you brush it out of my eyes for me?"
Tama squeaked and raised the book to cover her face.
Yui smiled to herself, not pausing in cleaning the shallow cuts with a wet cloth.
"Don't worry, Yui-san," murmured Emi. "You're my favorite healer woman."
Yui raised an eyebrow and shook her head with amusement before looking over Emi's deeper injuries. "I'm going to use a chakra technique. Is that alright?"
Emi tilted her head, and Shikari looked over, intrigued by her statement. Even the silent, tired child perked up at the word 'chakra,' though he shifted even closer to the ninja.
"Go ahead," said Emi.
Yui touched Emi's arms. She activated the diagnostic technique, sending a light pulse of chakra from one hand to the other and back. She froze for a second at the feedback, temporarily dizzy with the flood of information. Yui knew the location of every bruise, every cut, from the sluggish internal bleeding to the puncture wound in her back. And the chipped ribs, and the…
"That felt… odd," said Emi, genuine shock breaking through her practiced mask. "What did you do?"
"I-It's a diagnostic technique," she stammered out. "I... used chakra to, ah, look for internal injuries."
She had used it on people without chakra sense and animals, and none of them had noticed. Eiji had felt something different, but the technique hadn't been so detailed. The amount of useful information she'd received had slowly grown with practice, but this was an unexpected jump in clarity. She'd seen a vivid map in her mind of Emi's body, almost as good as a proper mRI, but more focused. Was that what Doctor Makoto meant by learning to interpret the signals? Or was it different on a ninja?
These thoughts buzzing through her head, Yui disinfected the rest of the open wounds and healed the shallow cuts with a pulse of chakra healing. Yui wasn't good enough to accelerate something as delicate as the internal injuries, so they would have to heal naturally. She emphasized that to Emi, using the knowledge from the chakra scan to give her the full list.
"How fascinating. Undoubtedly, it is as you say." Emi bowed her head, an overly regal gesture that was undercut by her ragged robes.
Yui sighed and glanced at Shikari—Eiji had finished with him, and the young boy was more shaken than injured. The ninja met her gaze with a wry smile. Neither of them planned on listening to her entreaty for rest.
"Do you need a change of clothes?" she said finally. Yui had started keeping simple robes for her patients to use, especially for those who needed extended stays (and ninja who burst in with half their yukata missing). They weren't the most beautiful, but they were comfortable.
Shikari shook his head. "Thank you, but we'll pick up something from Chiyuku's tailor before we go." He murmured something to the boy, who finally let go and let Eiji clean his face.
Yui wrapped the rest of Emi's injuries and offered tea.
"No, thank you. Seeing that you're doing well is enough," said Emi. She tilted her head down so that her curtain of hair hid her soft smile from everyone but Yui.
She blinked, a little startled. "Thank you?" She remembered to smile back.
"It is genuinely nice to see that." Emi stood up from the stool, raising her arms as if to stretch—before she saw Yui's sharp look and settled back down with a pout. "We missed you during the last time we visited Chiyuku. Though your student manages well."
Eiji scoffed. "Thanks."
Yui hid a smile. Eiji had truly grown into his own; his casual, grumpy handling of shinobi was proof enough.
"Yes, we're doing well," she said. "The town has grown in more ways than one. We have more visitors than ever, the support of our local nobility, and the harvest has been good too. I don't think Chiyuku has ever done better."
"You should still be careful despite that," said Shikari suddenly. "Change is in the air."
Yui turned to him. "What?"
"Be careful," he repeated. "Change is in the air."
"Why are you so cryptic, Shika?" The kunoichi laughed. "Come, now, be a little more forthcoming to our dear healer."
He gave Emi an annoyed look but relented. "The political currents are shifting. The Uchiha and Senju seem to be serious about their attempts for peace, and I hear that they're in talks again. Not just with each other, but with the man who will likely be daimyo for all of Fire Country."
Yui frowned a little. "That's good news," she said quietly.
"It is, for anyone who wants peace and stability." He kept his gaze steady on Yui. "But not everyone wants that. Your village is a symbol for what could be. Just… have your people be careful." Shikari shifted to his feet—Eiji was done with the boy, who proceeded to cling back onto Shikari like a limpet.
Out of the corner of her eye, Yui saw Eiji frown. She could feel herself tense too as past memories brought whispers of fear.
"Thank you," she said. "We will be."
Yui shuffled around the sheathes of paper on the table and sighed. "My wrist will fall off before I respond to all these letters."
"Maybe you should get an assistant to help with that," said Eiji, looking up from his own mail.
She laughed. "Someone just to look over my papers?"
"I'm serious, you know. Lords have secretaries and assistants to do all that for them."
"I'm not a lord."
"No, but you might become a scribe at this rate. You've been complaining that it's eating into your time to actually treat patients. And we're already stretched too thin."
She rotated her wrist, cracking the fingers on her writing hand and shaking it out. "You might be right."
"You know I am." Eiji pointed his pen at her. "We still need to hire someone to help, especially since the hospital's gonna be built soon. We can't have a hospital with just two healers and an apprentice. Speaking of which, what did you think of the three people who came in last week?"
She thought back to the interviews: Yui had written down notes about them, but she still remembered enough about each. "I liked the lady. I think her name was Ichiyo? Her training was informal, like ours, but she's steady, practical and willing to learn. The younger doctor that Makoto recommended seems decent. Very… eager."
Eiji snorted at that. The young doctor had been so anxious to impress that he almost knocked the tea set off the table during one of his answers.
"And the third one—"
Yui gave him a wry smile. "No, he doesn't seem like a good choice at all."
During the informal interview, he had asked too many questions about profit, and he'd pushed for information about chakra healing with an insistence that bordered on rudeness.
"I did like the other two, though," said Eiji, slumping into his chair.
"Good. Now I'll have to sit and figure out how to run this," she sighed. "Housing, salaries…" Yui couldn't rely on the informal apprenticeship system she'd used for Eiji, Sen, and Tama. She'd write to Lady Fukuyama, Dr. Makoto, perhaps a few merchant friends to see what they recommended. Sometimes she missed the simplicity of the early days.
Speaking of the lady and the doctor, she'd received letters from each. She opened the lady's first: it came with a thin book titled Petals of the Heart. Yui set it aside and scanned the letters, her eyebrows raising slightly at the news. Lady Fukuyama was soon to be Lady Hosokawa: she'd secured an engagement with the man who many expected to become daimyo.
Yui made a note to send her congratulations, and then she opened the other letter from the estate: Kono's. She read it slowly, smiling with a small measure of relief when heard that Kono had delivered a healthy daughter with no complications. When she read the name, Yui couldn't help but make a startled sound.
"What?" said Eiji.
"Kono, ah… had a daughter."
"Yeah, I know she was expecting. Is she alright? Is the daughter alright?" He frowned, concerned.
"She's fine. The baby's fine. It's just... Kono named the daughter Yuki."
His expression relaxed into one of amusement. "The same kanji as yours?"
Yui nodded slowly. Ever since learning the other alphabet from the old scribe, Yui had used it increasingly for correspondence, but for several years, she'd used it mostly to sign her name.
She used the kanji for 'gentleness' and 'robe', and Kono's daughter had the kanji for 'gentleness' and 'hope.'
For you have given me both, said the letter, and I wish for my daughter to give and receive enough gentle hope to brighten the world.
"This isn't even your first baby namesake," said Eiji, snorting. There were a few in the village, and a few outside of it. "Why're you so shocked?"
"I didn't think…" She stared at the letter. "But she's my friend, not—not a patient. I didn't save her life."
"That's not the only reason we keep you around. She wanted to honor a friend. Is that so hard to believe?"
She was quiet for a moment. "I… didn't expect that."
"For someone who knows so much, you're really dense, Sensei." Eiji rolled his eyes, still smiling. He set down his letters, stood up, and started to tend to the fire. "You forgot to eat your lunch, you know. I'll heat it up for you."
"When did you get so pushy?" Yui said, too fondly to pretend exasperation.
"I got it from you, so don't complain!"
"Alright, alright. I won't." She smiled, the heat from the fire second to the warmth in her heart.
Even in their growing town, they did have slow days. Yui flipped through the pages of her book while Eiji pushed around his rice with chopsticks and Tama practiced her stitches sprawled out on a corner.
"Is the book fun?" mumbled Tama, kicking her feet.
"Well, it's a novel, not a medical book," Yui said. "Lady Fukuyama sent it." It was an interesting experience reading something for pleasure. (Again—the lingering memories whispered that she had done this before.)
Tama huffed. "I know that. But is it fun?"
Yui's fingers lingered on the page. "It's interesting," she said slowly. "Lady Fukuyama said it was a classic that people quote a lot. And it does have parts that are very meaningful." She'd reached the quote about lotus flowers a few pages back.
"Yui-sensei, is it fun?"
Eiji laughed quietly, and Yui smiled at the exasperation in her voice.
"Not really," she admitted. "There's a lot of names and running around doing things that don't make sense."
"So like real nobles then," muttered Eiji.
Yui coughed, trying to hide her grin, while Tama shot him an affronted look. "Eiji-sensei, you—"
The door slammed open, and Madara walked in, covered in blood. Tama scrambled backwards, dropping her needle, and Yui and Eiji immediately put their book and bowl away respectively.
"Are you hurt—"
"Not particularly." Madara didn't let her finish the question. He looked at her with spinning red eyes—and a tendril of confused fear crept up her spine. Immediately, his eyes turned black.
"Blood's not yours?" said Eiji quietly.
Yui stood up as Eiji went to fetch a towel and water. "Tama, would you check on Noriko-san for me?"
She nodded, eyes wide and face pale. Madara slunk away from the door, pausing in the center of the room to establish his presence like a bloodied cat—just a coincidence that he'd walked away from the entrance to let Tama leave.
Once the door closed, he spoke. "This is why I have trouble believing in peace."
She stilled, and her eyes darted to the signed scroll tucked away on a shelf. Eiji inhaled sharply, whispering a prayer, and began to ladle steaming water into a bowl. The fear had long been dormant, but it had never disappeared. Yui forced herself to move. She pushed aside the taste of charred wood and ashes, grabbed a towel, and approached Madara as Eiji did. The Uchiha took the hot water and cloth from them without another word, his fingers pressing crusted brown marks on the stone bowl. The Uchiha gave her a hard look when she took another step forward. Yui returned the look and moved closer anyway.
"What happened?" she said, her voice steady.
"I have a slight bruise on my arm. That's the only injury."
Yui frowned at him, but her first obligation was to treat her patients. Interrogating their cryptic statements could come later.
"May I use a chakra technique?"
Madara nodded. Yui sent a pulse of chakra—the 'bruise' was more of a sprained elbow, and she told him so. (She'd have to be careful not to rely on it so much; already, Yui's instinct was to go for the chakra technique.)
"I'll wrap it for you," said Yui.
She waited until he was finished cleaning the blood and removing his armor. Then, she began to wrap his elbow with a bandage: enough to offer support without restricting his movement too much. Eiji took the bowl and washcloth away to be cleaned. Both the water and the fabric were a dark, dark brown.
"What happened?" she repeated finally.
Yui could feel him tense under her hands.
"As I said—"
"Madara, you burst into my clinic and announced that you doubted the possibility of peace. What happened?" She worried at her lip. "The agreement about Chiyuku, did—"
"No. It's intact between the Uchiha and Senju." There was a particular focus to how he said those words, a bitter twist as he said the clan names.
"Then what was it?"
He stared her down, his eyes coal-black and wide. Yui met his gaze without hesitation. Her fingers rested on the crook of his elbow, her bandaging completed, and her expression stayed calm. She didn't entirely feel that way—it was difficult to, when a friend came to her covered in blood—but her heart rate was steadying now that she knew the agreement wasn't broken.
"Madara," she said softly.
He let out a full-body exhale, and tension unspooled like a dropped skein. He uncoiled his muscles, stepping away from her and dropping down into the chair. For a moment, his posture was weary rather than languid: as if he could no longer bear the weight of his own body. Then, he rearranged himself to recline on the chair, a hand tucked under his chin in a deliberate display of contemplation.
Madara's eyes settled back on her. When he spoke, there was the briefest flicker of red. "Someone tried to start a war."
Yui stepped back. "What?"
He folded his arms and continued to speak. "A gaggle of idiots hired a clan—a rather distant clan from another country, since I'm sure they were the only ones who would agree—to destroy Chiyuku. And to do so while wearing Senju colors."
She didn't know what to say. The implications were immediately obvious to her: destroy Chiyuku, blame it on the Senju, and start a war on the ashes of her home.
"I took care of them. I knew they weren't Senju. The situation was handled."
She closed her eyes. "Thank you." If Madara hadn't been there, or if he'd fallen for the trick, or if he'd failed… Chiyuku had been a whisper away from destruction, oblivious and unknowing.
Madara didn't say anything. Neither did Yui. It was Eiji, standing there with bloodied cloth and water, who broke the silence.
"Then why do you doubt peace?"
Madara raised an eyebrow. "The thwarted destruction of your town isn't proof enough?"
"No," said Yui, finding her voice. "We have lived with that over our heads since this village's creation."
He sighed. "I didn't mean it like that. You're a civilian, you're both civilians, and idealistic ones at that. The practicalities of the matter are…"
Yui tilted her head, and Eiji deliberately set aside the bowl and cloth to cross his arms and stare. Uncertainty didn't enter Madara's demeanor—perhaps that wasn't even possible—but their combined expressions were enough to give him pause.
"Shinobi," Eiji muttered under his breath.
Yui stood up. "I'm going to make some tea," she said, gentle enough that both Eiji and Madara gave her surprised looks.
The prepared tea was old and over-steeped, so she set a fresh pot of Madara's favorite oolong over the fire. While that boiled, she went to her rack of remedies and took out the vial of nightshade she'd kept behind it. Yui only touched it to replace it. She'd never had to use the vial, but it lingered there as a reminder. Yui tucked it into her belt and brought the brewed tea to the table. She poured three cups, set the kettle down, and placed the vial on the table.
Madara eyed it but said nothing. Eiji knew what it was: he sipped his tea, silent for a different reason.
"Do you remember the first time you came to my clinic?"
His eyes flickered to the scar on her cheek, faded but still present. "Yes."
The vial gleamed a dark purple: free of dust, despite how rarely she touched it. Yui stared at it as she spoke.
"After the bandits left, I kept this bottle of nightshade behind my medicine jars. Just in case. I've never had to use it, and I hope I don't ever use it. Because once I do, any trust I've built as a healer will come crashing down." She raised her eyes to Madara's. "I would never use it on a patient. Never. But it's my own apparent harmlessness that keeps me safe. Apparent harmlessness, Madara. Don't imply that my idealism is based on the ignorance of consequences."
He held her gaze. "I didn't mean any disrespect. You've helped my clan immensely. You've… helped me immensely."
"I know you didn't." She raised up her tea cup, her hands as steady as they were when she performed surgeries.
Madara broke eye contact first. After a moment, he picked up the vial. He turned it over in his hand, the liquid quivering as he tilted it one way and then the next.
"There are better poisons. Ones that are undetectable, faster-acting, and even painless. Nightshade is a poor choice. Any ninja worth their blade could detect it on their tongue."
She continued to drink her tea. The blend was delicate, fresh, with notes of honey and no aftertaste. It was a gentle tea, requiring care in the brewing, but Yui had made it enough times that she no longer thought about the process.
"I'll see what I can do." Madara set the vial down. "It shouldn't be difficult for me to find a better poison for you."
"That's not why I brought this up."
"I know." Deliberately, he picked up his tea cup and raised it to his lips. He took a sip. "I trust you."
She smiled. "I trust you too."
Madara closed his eyes, visibly enjoying the flavor of the tea, and let out a slow exhale. "And I... apologize for the implication, intentional or otherwise."
He looked to Eiji. "The apology is also for you."
Her apprentice was momentarily surprised at being addressed. After a moment, he sighed. "Yes, yes. I accept your apology too."
"Thank you." Madara took another sip, and then he set his cup down to stare into the amber tea, as if divining the future from the leaves inside. (Perhaps he could. She could never know the extent of his powers.) "It's because we're at the precipice," he said finally. "My faith in peace is as fragile as the peace we're trying to achieve. Every unforeseen difficulty feels like the blow that could shatter it entirely."
"I understand," she said, her voice gentle. "It's so close, and that makes it scarier."
"Yes. Well, no. A part of me still expects that it will never happen, but that's not all of it." Madara frowned. "Hashirama and I are ushering in peace slowly. We knew that we had to build a strong foundation, like how you did with Chiyuku, or else it would be like a bandage on a missing limb. It should work. It will work. But I can't control everything, as those ninja reminded me. And even if peace happens, it could always break. It's not a situation that we can handle and expect to stay fixed."
"Peace is not the absence of conflict. It's an active process," Yui agreed. "You'll have to keep working at it."
"Forever. It's a burden that I can never set down."
"Is it worth it?"
"Of course it is. But sometimes…" his voice dropped to a whisper, "I wish I wasn't the one who had to do it."
"I know." The mantle of the revolutionary was one that had been thrust upon both of them, though in different ways. "It's harder to look at the world and decide to change it. The status quo is always easier."
"And yet, it's a road that we forever turned away from," he murmured. "Such is our fate."
"Such is our choice," she gently corrected.
"So it is." He finished his cup. "Thank you for the tea, as always."
"Anytime, my friend. And thank you for saving my home."
"We were the ones that endangered it first." Madara stood up. "Hashirama and I will post a few ninja as guards, if that's agreeable with you and your council. Now that we're no longer actively warring, we have a few to spare."
Just the offer brought her peace of mind, and she smiled at him. "I'll gather them, if you're willing to wait."
He nodded, his mask of impassivity back in place.
Yui glanced at Eiji, who quickly said, "I'll manage the clinic. You take care of that."
After cleaning up, she walked outside, and Madara followed behind her.
The now-official town council was gathered, and they listened intently to Madara's recited report. He was different in this setting: formality with an aura of that commanded respect, every inch the professional. He described the events that occured in clinical, terse detail. Fifteen ninja had approached. He had killed all but one and disposed of the bodies. From the survivor, Madara learned that Lord Motonari had hired them to avoid the rising prices that came from the Uchiha-Senju truce. Furthermore, Lord Motonari wanted to weaken the position of the Fukuyamas, since Chiyuku was part of their land.
As proof, Madara brought out the bloodstained headbands and also offered to show them the bodies and lone survivor. Chiyuku wouldn't be able to hold him, but they could interrogate the ninja with Madara's help before the prisoner was sent to the lord's justice. After a round of queasy discussion, the council tasked the head of the guard with confirming the deaths and questioning the surviving ninja.
"Politics," scoffed Riku, who represented the interests of local shops. She crossed her arms. "We'll need to get used to this. Chiyuku's big enough for that." Despite the bravado, she was pale.
"You're right." Kenzou, a settled trader, wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead.
Elder Saburo tapped his cane and cleared his throat. Well into his eighties, his mind was still sharp, even as his body began to break down. His granddaughter, Eiji's sister, sat next to him. She handled most of the duties, though he insisted on being present for the meetings.
"Our homes have been destroyed before." His voice was gravely but clear. "We rebuilt then. We would have rebuilt again." He pinned each of them with his rheumy eyes. Last was Madara, and for him, Saburo reserved a nod of respect. "But we did not have to, and for that we thank you, shinobi."
All those years ago, when Yui had first met a shinobi, Old Saburo had said that word as a curse. Fear and hostility had permeated the air of her village as everyone beheld the violent intruders in their midst. This time, only gratitude filled the air as the council echoed the old man's sentiments.
Madara's eyes widened, almost imperceptibly—she only caught it because she was watching him. He met her gaze before nodding back to the elder.
"It was my honor to defend this town," he said, even. "It is not unlikely that they will try again. If you are agreeable, then the Uchiha and Senju will send guards to defend Chiyuku again."
Murmurs spread in the room before Kenzou spoke up. "That would be very agreeable. We can discuss terms, if you wish?"
"Wait, first, are you able to speak for the Senju as well?" said Riku.
A small moment of hesitation. "I am. Of course, I will take the terms we agree upon to the Senju, but I foresee no disagreement."
The low murmur resumed among the council. "Very well. If everyone agrees."
Everyone, including Yui, agreed. Terms were discussed, all of which were shockingly favorable to Chiyuku. At least, judging by the reaction of the caravan merchant on the council, the only one who had real experience with the prices that ninja guards usually offered. The granddaughter drafted two copies of the agreement, and stamped it with a brand new wax seal. Imprinted in the red wax were three orange branches, each with a fruit and blossom: Chiyuku's town symbol recently made official by Lord Fukuyama.
Madara glanced at the seal, his lips twitching upwards, and rolled up his copy. "I will return with it signed and sealed by both our clans."
"Excellent," said Kenzou.
He gave a short nod, almost a bow, and left the room. Once the door closed, there was a deep exhale through the room. A moment of silence passed, and then two, and the council erupted into discussion as they considered the ninja's story once again. By the end of the day, all of Chiyuku would know what had almost come to pass.
The screech of a hawk above made Yui pause and look up. She watched its path to the newly constructed aviary, another one of the lord's promises. Apparently, most cities used specially bred birds—ones that had chakra—to manage their post. They were faster over long distances than caravans and even ninja, though the trade-off was that they could only deliver letters and the smallest of packages. This was all information that the newly-arrived bird-keeper had told Yui in a matter-of-fact tone. The woman had worked for a lesser noble until she decided to have a change of pace. Yui didn't question her further on that: the keeper's demeanor had become more nervous when talking about herself.
Yui glanced down at the letters in her hand. More and more came each day, it seemed. Another from Dr. Makoto, and one from the industrialist as well. She shuffled through the letters, half an eye on the street. It was newly paved with stone, made with the help of a man who'd used a chakra technique to finish it quickly. (Yui had asked questions to him, but he'd been stubbornly silent.)
"Yui!" called out a voice, bright and cheerful as always.
She turned around and gave Hashirama a warm, soft smile. "It's been a while," Yui greeted as he hurried towards her. Behind him was his younger brother, Kawarama, who quickly schooled his grumpy expression into something friendly.
"Yes, it has. And Chiyuku's changed so much! The hospital's almost done, and I see you have a working aviary. We'll have to exchange hawks."
She nodded. She wasn't entirely sure how the process worked: the hawks were also smarter than carrier pigeons, and they could go to more than one destination. Yui made a mental note to ask the birdkeeper next time.
Yui gestured for Hashirama to follow her as she walked. "What brings you back? A social visit?"
"That, and also to drop off the guard from the Senju." He clasped Kawarama on the shoulder, who scowled.
"Oh? Your brother?"
"Of course! Who better to guard Chiyuku?"
She nodded. "I'm sure Eiji will be happy to hear that. You two get along well." Yui tried not to smile when Kawarama turned red, opened his mouth to say something, and closed it again. Hashirama didn't bother to hide his grin, ruffling his brother's hair.
The town bustled as they continued at a leisurely pace across town. "You seem more relaxed," Hashirama remarked when she paused to look at an apple.
"And it's surprising not to see you in the clinic," Kawarama added.
"The reason for both is the same. We recently hired two new doctors. I had to retrain them a little, but for the most part, they're capable of handling many of the tasks I would do."
Neither new student had offered resistance when it came to her more unusual practices: both had read her primer, and they would've painted themselves green and walked around on their hands for the opportunity to learn chakra techniques anyway. Even with two additional people, there was still plenty of work. Frankly, they could use another doctor.
"I'm glad to hear that." Hashirama grinned. "You like to overwork yourself, you know?"
She smiled back, raising an eyebrow. "Like you're one to talk."
"Not you too!" Hashirama clutched at his chest, his expression contorted in mock pain. At her answering laugh, he dropped the act, looking rather pleased with himself.
Yui looked back to the fruit and the patient stall owner. She turned the apple over in her hand again, selected two more, and paid before continuing on. She offered one to Hashirama, who accepted with enthusiasm. Kawarama, however, did not.
"Have the Uchiha sent their representative yet?"
Yui put the apple back in her basket before answering. "Yes. Uchiha Natsuko is her name. She came yesterday." She gestured to a building with a jauntily painted orange blossom. "I think you'll both be in there, actually. Riku, who owns two inns, said that she would house the guards."
Kawarama glanced at the apple in her basket, looking rather confused. "Oh. That's... thoughtful."
Yui shrugged. "It's the least we can do. Would you like to join me for lunch after you settle in?" She gave Kawarama a meaningful look. "I already invited Natsuko to come."
"We'd love to!" Hashirama wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulder and beamed. "Don't worry," he says quietly. "I'll make sure nothing happens."
Her smile had a hint of warning. "I know you will."
There were already more people than she usually dealt with during lunch. Though the young doctor from the city was still on rounds, the new healer Ichiyo, Eiji, Tama, and three ninja were all gathered around her table. Eiji insisted on being the one to serve them, though he glared at Kawarama as he ladled soup in his bowl. Uchiha Natsuko sat at the very end, her eyes focused on the wall. Every time the Senju spoke, her eyes would flicker to them. Hashirama was uncharacteristically quiet, offering the kunoichi nothing more than a smile. Though Kawarama initially glared at Natsuko, he quickly got caught up in bickering with Eiji.
That, more than anything, seemed to set the lone Uchiha at ease. Natsuko spoke quietly with Ichiyo, who had never met a ninja prior to working for Yui. The Uchiha started telling a story about an infiltration that went wrong in the best and worst ways possible.
"... and so we had to pretend to be a juggling act, and our new 'boss' was expecting an all-female group. Everyone had to dress up in women's kimonos to appease him, including the men. My mission partners were ninja pretending to be jugglers pretending to be women. At least I didn't have an additional layer of deception to worry about."
Everyone laughed. Tama, who took a sip of water at exactly the wrong time, coughed as the water went down the wrong pipe. Eiji rolled his eyes and patted her on the back, and the Uchiha watched the interaction with a faint smile.
"Madara told me that story!" said Hashirama brightly. "Not quite like that, though. He left out some key details."
The smile froze on Natsuko's face as Hashirama addressed her directly for the first time, and she snapped into the focused kind of stillness that came from teetering on the precipice of choice. Her shoulders set. Then, cautiously, as if still preparing herself for battle, she answered. "It sounds like him. Madara-sama tends to leave out the embarrassing parts."
Yui let out a breath. (The history between the Uchiha and Senju wasn't enough to set her home alight. Not this time.) Eiji looked to Yui first and then relaxed, unintentionally a mirror of Kawarama, who stared at his older brother before moving a hand away from his sheathed blade. Ichiyo seemed uncertain of why the tension had risen and faded, but she took a bite of soup and didn't comment on it.
Tama, oblivious to it all, cleared her throat and inhaled loudly. "Gods, kunoichi-san! A little warning next time! You almost killed me!"
Eiji rolled his eyes. "Tama-chan, we'd know if she was trying to kill you." Then, he winced, realizing how that comment sounded.
Natsuko gave him a placid smile. "Would you know?"
A moment of silence, and then Hashirama let out a loud, shoulder-shaking laugh. Yui sighed as Eiji tried to apologize, and both Tama and Kawarama immediately jumped on the opportunity to tease Eiji more. Natsuko chuckled and took a bite of soup, looking at ease for the first time. Yui exchanged a look with Hashirama, who winked at her before immediately launching into an anecdote about a mission that enthralled everyone, including the Uchiha.
The lunch proceeded without further tension, and not a single knife was drawn. Yui considered that a stunning victory.
Yui spread out the letters on the table, humming tunelessly to herself.
Eiji looked up from the boiling pot. "You seem enthusiastic about the mail. Is it Amano again?"
"Yes!" She smiled. "He said that he was on the verge of a breakthrough in his last letter."
He dropped the dirty bandages into the water. "Didn't he say that three times before?"
"Well, yes, but maybe this is the one."
Eiji sighed. "Maybe. What's this one say? Don't be disappointed if it isn't."
She gave him a look. Though she was still excited, Yui had long learned to temper her hope. She slipped her knife under the seal and opened the letter, reading it quickly. She reached the end of the letter. She read it again.
We have achieved a pure synthesis.
She read the sentence again. Then a third time.
"What does it say?" Eiji asked, sounding cautious.
"He did it," she said, stunned.
"Did it? Wait, did he purify the compound?"
Yui nodded. "He says that..." She continued to nod, mute, bobbing like a cork in water as the words stuck in her throat.
"He says he'll ship the first samples in a month!" Yui started to laugh, incredulous, disbelieving. Her hands shook, and she set the letter down to focus on breathing. Her heart fluttered, and she laughed again, covering her face. "Oh. Oh, gods. God. We did it. We did it. I... can't believe it." She wasn't sure she could fully believe it until she held the vial in her hand, but reading the words on the page was enough to shake her composure.
"A month?" Eiji stared at her. "The refined product? In a month? To us?"
"Yes! He's partnered with a hospital in his city, and they're going to try using it for treatment. And he'll supply us, and..." She kept her face covered.
"We're going to have the medicine you worked for?" It sounded like he couldn't believe the words coming out of his mouth.
She nodded again. "Eiji. We did it. After all these years, we... we might be able to... we did it."
Tears burned her eyes and slipped between her fingers. If only her brother was here to see it. She could almost hear his laughter, his voice shouting, 'Congrats, Sis!'
Yui smiled through her tears, and her student hugged her. She quickly wiped her eyes before returning the hug. She only came to his shoulder now: he'd grown so much.
"We did it," said Eiji, his voice thick. "You did it, sensei. The Shit Shed finally made something useful."
She laughed again, breathy and choked by exhilaration. "We did it."
Quietly, with years and years of research, with dozens of people across the continent, she had made real what was once a distant fantasy. Yui had never asked to spearhead a revolution. But that was what this world needed. And that was what she would continue to do.
AN: It's been a year and a half, and what a time it's been. We've lived through a pandemic of our own. There's been upheaval everywhere. And personally, it's been a difficult time of loss and bittersweet success. Thank you for your patience and support. As cliche as it is to say, it remains true: I could not have written this without you.
I split this chapter in two because it was running long. To no one's surprise, I continue to underestimate the actual length of my outline. Next will be Chapter 14, and finally, the epilogue.
Special thanks to FisheBake, Igornerd, iaso, Masqvia, and GwendolynStacy for their beta-reading.
And again, thank you all for sticking with me.