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This article, Secrets of the Hidden Mist, belongs to the Naruto: Kaimetsu timeline and follows its rules and expected standards.

After the mission to capture the three-tails results in the creation of a Jinchūriki, the Kiri task force returns to Kirigakure. There, they encounter the Mizukage, who had manipulated each of the kiri-nin on the mission in order to seal the three-tails within Kagura Karatachi. It is revealed that Chōjūrō is hiding even more secrets from the Shinobi Union, to the dismay of the Fifth and Jōnin Commander.

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Escape from the Brink

The small team of special-operatives headed west across the vast ocean, their speedboat cutting a wide V in the dark water behind them. Having escaped from their adversary at last, they had thrown caution to the wind, instead focusing on speed in order to reach Kirigakure as quickly as possible. They were about an hour away from shore, but time was running out.

Wakasa Momochi Wakasa kneeled in the hull of the boat next to the prone forms of his two subordinates: Mētsuki Hōzuki and Kagura Karatachi. His brother, Ryōhei, who had pulled them both out of the water, rested against the side of the boat. His arms were stretched out easily, but Wakasa could tell that exhaustion was pulling at his chakra reserves. Mētsuki too, seemed to have used up the majority of her strength in order to complete the seal. She didn’t seem to be injured, but she had yet to regain consciousness. Thinking about it all caused bright hot anger to burn behind Wakasa’s eyes as he concentrated on the task at hand: stopping the blood that pooled beneath the center of Kagura’s abdomen.

Ichirōta, who was at the helm to steer the boat, cast nervous glances behind his shoulder. It seemed a part of him still felt a sense of camaraderie for Kagura, whom had once been an unwilling part of Shizuma’s rebellion ten years ago. Either that or he just felt sorry for him.

Wakasa hadn’t said a word after Ryōhei had told him what had happened: how Mētsuki had sealed the three-tails within Kagura to create a Jinchūriki and how he had been forced to cut out the soul of their opponent in order to keep that Jinchūriki in Kiri’s possession. Instead, his hands shook with silent rage as he opened yet another IV pack to swap out the one attached to Kagura’s arm. He had to be careful: too much fluid would only worsen the bleeding, which he could only hope to stem by applying pressure at critical points and bandaging Kagura’s entire torso to keep his internal organs stable. But there was a greater problem at hand: Kagura had been poisoned by the Hiramekarei’s chakra blade as well. If they didn’t do something, and soon, the poison would completely disrupt Kagura’s chakra pathways, thereby killing him. Already Kagura’s body was going into shock. His skin was deathly cold, blue at the fingertips, and his breathing was shallow and labored. Finally, Wakasa turned his frustration on Ryōhei.

“Are you going to help me here?” he snapped. Ryōhei shrugged, but moved off the side of the boat. “I need you to set him up with oxygen.”

Ryōhei did as he was told. He looked at Wakasa, trying to read his brother’s expression. “What are you going to do about the poison?” he asked. “You’re not expecting to keep him alive until we reach Kiri, are you?”

For a moment, they held eye contact, both aware of the grim reality of their situation.

“Do you think…” Wakasa began, “That a soul-extraction method would work.”

Ryōhei frowned. “We could try, but it might be too late for that. The thing is, whatever Fūinjutsu the Hōzuki used on him, it’s a bitch.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t sense his soul, really. His chakra is there but Karatachi himself?” He shook his head. “It’s like he’s been sealed away somewhere.”

There was a spark of hope within Wakasa’s chest. “Then, if that’s the case, maybe you didn’t cut him with the Hiramekarei at all. The real him, I mean.”

“Yes. I wouldn’t have taken that risk otherwise. If Karatachi’s soul had been there as well as the enemy’s, well, I don’t have to state the obvious.”

“Still,” Wakasa said, his voice now a low growl as his anger boiled over. “Was it really necessary to injure him like this?”

Ryōhei met his brother’s glare evenly. “I thought our priority was the retrieval of the tailed-beast,” he said. “Death is always an inherent risk. If one of us dies, we die.” He stared at the flat horizon of the sea in front of them. “Maybe you’ve forgotten that.”

Wakasa clenched his fist. He wanted to smack Ryōhei across the face, but knew that what he said was true. They were Anbu, after all. In the grand scheme of things, the success of the mission took utmost priority. But deep down, Wakasa realized he had changed... No. Rather, he refused to treat the lives of his subordinates as sacrificial pieces to be manipulated across a board. Never again.

He slapped Ryōhei across the face anyway. And then the lecture came.

“You idiot!” he shouted. “If he dies now, we’ll not only lose a life, we’ll lose the three-tails as well. Tell me, Ryō, did that thought occur to you when you caved into your bloodlust?”

Now it was Ryōhei’s turn to glare. Wakasa continued. “Maybe you’ve forgotten why you were put in prison ten years ago, huh? Do you ever think before swinging your blade at someone?”

“I did it—” Ryōhei snarled. “To protect Kiri.” And to protect you, was the unspoken line between them. It was clear that ten years of mud was being dredged up to the surface, exacerbated by the heightened tension of the situation.

“Listen,” Ichirōta interrupted. “I hate to break up the family reunion but if it’s chakra poison you’re worried about, can’t Miss Mētsuki do something about that?” Wakasa and Ryōhei both stared at him, at first uncomprehending. “At the very least, she could probably tell you more about whatever seal she used.” Ichirōta had simply listened to their conversation, and made the comment based on what Ryōhei had said.

“She’s unconscious.” Ryōhei stated flatly. Wakasa reached out and grabbed him by the wrist.

“What the—” He started to protest, but Wakasa took the handle of Hiramekarei, shifted the blade into the form of a kunai, and stabbed Ryōhei through the back of the hand, pinning him to Mētsuki. The chakra-absorbing blade flowed between them, drawing out even more of Ryōhei’s substantial reserves to grant to Mētsuki. He stared at Wakasa wordlessly without flinching.

“That’s for trying to kill one of my men,” Wakasa said, every word pointed. “Don’t cross me again, Ryōhei.”

In the meantime...

Mētsuki’s connection had severed with the ocean completely the moment Ryōhei had pulled her inside the boat. She was in luck that, just in time, her severed arm had regenerated completely, but not without a constant reminder in her mind. The arm, while healed, still tingled with a burning sensation, worsening the protest of her aching and exhausted body. She knew that as compensation to sooth her pain, the dehydration of her hiden started to kick in.

Her chapped lips parted slightly, painfully, as it was like they had been sewed together. And any attempt to move, any limb of hers, it refused to budge. Not even her eyelids managed to crack open. Maybe she deserved it, the sin she had committed...

Mētsuki tried to feel the presence of her teammates around her, but her chakra reserves were depleted, cutting her off completely from being able to sense. It felt strange, weird, hell, even scary to be alone.

Suddenly a surge of energy flows through her system, one that feels very familiar to her, having absorbed the same chakra signature moments ago underwater. Still she couldn’t make out who it belonged to. Because at the time, Mētsuki was barely conscious after having finished sealing the three-tails in Kagura, and the chakra source fed her reserves subconsciously to restore her arm. But one thing was certain: it wasn’t him. Kagura’s chakra felt the complete opposite of this. This one? It instilled fear to her very core simply from leeching the sharp-cutting and cold chakra, but she needed it.

Her absorption of chakra reduced tremendously, yet still continued to feed her reserves. It had been enough to restore her third eye, making it clear who shared their chakra with her: it was Ryōhei.

“W-water...,” Mētsuki’s strained voice would enter his mind, reestablishing the connection specifically with him.

“She wants water,” Ryōhei said. “I think she’s regaining consciousness.”

Wakasa, who was still focused on Kagura, looked up in alarm before quickly responding. He brought Mētsuki a canteen and, tilting her head, poured the water into her mouth.

“Let me do that,” Ryōhei offered so that Wakasa could maintain pressure on Kagura’s wound. He nodded in thanks.

“Hey, Hōzuki,” Ryōhei called out. “Can you hear me?”

More of Mētsuki’s strength returned when the cool water hit her throat. She was finally able to narrowly open her eyes, meeting the sight of Ryōhei. But eager to hydrate herself more, the Hōzuki raised her hand to tilt the canteen more, while a slight nod went his way.

“Listen you can’t lie here all day,” Ryōhei snapped. “Karatachi is dying.”

When his name dropped, Mētsuki snapped her eyes open when she felt the life draining quickly from Kagura, as they wandered to his unconscious form. As if adrenaline had kicked in, an instinct to protect him, Mētsuki pushed away from Ryōhei to reach his side. But by doing so, the Hōzuki sliced her hand completely open from the kunai, which had her still “pinned” to Wakasa’s younger brother.

In no way was Mētsuki a professional in medical ninjutsu.

But with her sensing she could filter out everything, Kagura’s and Isobu’s chakra, that left her to discover the foreign chakra particles of Hiramekarei’s poisonous chakra. She had noticed something else, but right now it was of no importance. A slight push to the hand of her sensei to make him move for her, while also drawing water from the ocean. It would hover in a sphere above the wound for a moment, that is before her hands submerged and the bubble attached to Kagura’s wound.

“Kagura,” Mētsuki whispered to herself silently. The odd feeling returned in her heart, one that she didn’t fully understand, as she stared slightly at his face.

And with her chakra absorption, the Hōzuki princess focused on the chakra poison, which slowly drew into the water sphere. The clear water would start to turn dark blue, Hiramekarei’s chakra, and red, the blood from the wound. Because at the same time, the poisoned blood had to be removed from the wound to stop the bleeding properly.

“Did you extract all of it?” Wakasa asked. “The poison?”

“No.” Mētsuki retorts, barely focusing on him. The sphere turns more black with each passing second.

“Empty flask,” Mētsuki demands from Ryōhei from the one she had just drunk empty. He handed it to her, watching as the process took place in front of him.

“Have you done this before?” he asked, doubtful of her skills but impressed nonetheless.

“No,” she said honestly, a glance to his direction, and said something that will likely come to a surprise to him. “This is the first time I left Kirigakure.”

Ryōhei wasn’t exactly surprised, but he failed to see why that mattered at the moment, and his expression dulled. “Ah.” He lost interest at that point, shrugging aside Kagura’s fate as though it didn’t concern him in the slightest. He pulled Hiramekarei from his hand and bandaged his own wound as he watched her work.

“Mētsuki-kun,” Wakasa interjected, speaking evenly after having recovered his composure. “Once you’ve siphoned all the poison from the wound, I want you to stop the bleeding with your hydrification technique, if you can.” He held the canteen for her so she had both hands free to work.

At that moment, the Hōzuki spoke again, “Please hold it close to the sphere.” It would allow her to siphon Hiramekarei’s chakra and the poisoned blood from it. She then stopped the bleeding with the salty water, temporarily ‘sealing’ the wound.

At last, although Kagura would still need immediate medical attention once they returned to Kiri, his vitals had stabilized. Wakasa allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. He wanted to congratulate Mētsuki, but was overcome by a sudden tiredness when he considered all the implications of what had just occurred. He sat back against the side of the boat, his hands covered in blood. For a moment, he said nothing, his jaw was set firmly as he stared at the horizon with narrowed eyes.

“Did—” he found it hard to put what he was thinking into words: Words that didn’t accuse the Mizukage of treason, at least. “Were you acting under the Sixth’s orders?” His voice had an edge of steel to it, one that Mētsuki had rarely if ever heard before.

His words started to sink deep in her mind, reminding her of the horrible act. How could she face her mentor in the eye? She couldn’t tell him that the Sixth Mizukage had ordered her to do this. That it wasn’t just Kagura that had been a candidate to become a jinchūriki? That she didn’t want to be saved by the unconscious now-Jinchūriki? It would have saved at least three of them, the fourth had died in battle, but Kiri would have lost the Three-tails, and her... She would risk more than just her own life.

A tremble in her voice as she clutched the hem of her shirt, “I’m sorry..."

Wakasa didn’t respond, refusing to even look at his former pupil. Instead he bit down on the side of his thumb as he became lost in thought. He wanted to question her about the Fuinjutsu, about the strange state of Kagura’s soul, about the seal on the back of each of their necks, about whatever it was that Choujuurou had told them before they had left the hidden village. But with one of their team members having just barely been pulled back from the brink of death, he wasn’t in the mood. All the hints had been laid out to him from the start. As the Jōnin Commander of Kirigakure, his observational prowess wasn’t so easily brushed aside. Yet, despite all the indications that had told him not to trust Metsuki, he had ignored his suspicions, his better–or worse—instincts. What did he threaten you with? He wondered.

Ryōhei tried not to look at his brother, but it was clear that he was concerned about him. There was something he wanted to tell him, but he trusted Mētsuki even less than Wakasa and so kept silent.

As the dark shapes of Kiri’s main island rose from the distant haze, Wakasa wrestled with his sworn duty, repulsed at what he—and everyone else on the mission—had been unwittingly forced to do. They had lost a man, nearly lost Kagura, and it had all been in a bid to create a Jinchūriki without the knowledge of the Shinobi Union, using whoever they had fought off as cover to capture the three-tails. He had had his questions about the mission beforehand, but now he wondered what else the Mizukage was hiding from them. Mainly, Wakasa’s storm of swelling rage spiralled inward, directed at himself for not having noticed sooner. Maybe it was just as Ryōhei had said, albeit without words. Had he allowed his compassion to mar his judgment? As much as he wanted to be free of his past, he was a shinobi of the Village Hidden in the Mist, after all.

Maybe it was time he started acting like one.

Shadow of the Mizukage

A heavy fog masked Kirigakure from sight as they approached the harbor. From a distance, they could see the jagged outline of the village’s skyscrapers piercing the cloud like black needles. A fog light swept over the bay, but the beam barely penetrated the thickening mist of early dusk.

Under normal circumstances, their arrival would have triggered the alert system as soon as they passed the various electronic sensors that formed an invisible barricade around the island. However, the communication tower remained silent. Chōjūrō must have made a bypass in the system to allow them to return undetected. According to official records, they had never left Kiri that day.

As if to confirm that suspicion, the Mizukage himself contacted them over their transmitter. He guided them away from the main docks to a hidden cove that serviced a launch site for the Anbu’s water craft. Ichirōta cut their speed, and they made landfall at last.

Chōjūrō was waiting for them, accompanied by a pair of hunter-nin.

“We need immediate medical attention,” Wakasa said as he leapt out onto shore. Ryōhei lifted Kagura over the side of the boat, and Wakasa lowered him gently to the ground. “It’s an emergency!”

However, Chōjūrō remained as impassive as the masks of the hunter-nin who stood at his side. He ignored Kagura for the time being.

“I trust your mission was successful, then?” He then turned to Mētsuki. “Were you able to create the Jinchūriki, Hime-sama?”

Mētsuki averted her gaze away from Kagura as the two brothers had lifted him from the speedboat. Not even then, when the Mizukage called for her attention, did she raise them to meet his gaze. All she could do was clutch the rim of the boat as a form of support. Because what else did she have left? After this incident... she was sure that her mentor distrusted her. Perhaps it had been the tone of his voice. “Yes, Mizukage-sama,” her voice sounded strained, barely audible, as she answered him.

Chōjūrō nodded, pleased to hear the affirmative. “Please take Kagura-kun to the Anbu medical bay,” he told the two hunter-nin. “Make sure you aren’t seen by anyone outside of the corps.” The masked shinobi responded immediately and wordlessly. They started to lift Kagura up, but Wakasa stopped them.

“He’s got a stab wound through his lower abdomen,” he told them. “We managed to temporarily stop the bleeding but it’ll reopen if you move him like that.”

The hunter-nin glanced between Wakasa and the Mizukage, who shook his head. “Please do as Wakasa-san says.” He stepped over to Kagura’s side, pushing up his glasses as an idea occurred to him.

“Hime-sama,” he said. “Please transfer the seal to me.”

Her eyes lift up to Chōjūrō at his request. For the past hours her own chakra reserves had completely been exhausted. Had it not been for absorbing the chakra from Kagura, the tailed-beast sealing ritual would have never succeeded. And Kagura would have died from the poison without her reserves being replenished by Ryōhei. Now? The Hōzuki princess had barely any left, and she could feel the strain on her body extremely. But the Mizukage’s request could not be denied. His will was her command.

Mētsuki weakly managed to get up from her position, sliding off the side from the boat. She mustered all her remaining strength to walk up to Chōjūrō, and casted a glance at his hand. “May I, Mizukage-sama?” He offered her his hand so that she could place the seal on top of the major concentration of tenketsu located on the back of the hand.

One hand raised to her chest, while the other touched the hand of Chōjūrō; both using her point- and middle finger to concentrate chakra. The Mizukage would feel a burning sensation on the back of the hand, as her chakra marked him with , the character for “mind." She wasn’t certain how the initial connection to Kagura would feel like for the man, to control such power. “Th—,” Mētsuki was about to tell him that she had finished the link between them. However,her consciousness was slipping the moment she had done so. A consequence of overexerting herself even further than her body could handle.

Chōjūrō noticed immediately and intervened. Extending his palm to the side, he summoned Hiramekarei to his hand. The blades seemed to move of their own accord, levitating in the air above the kiri-nin before the two halves assumed their normal shape. He fed the sword a bit of his chakra, then placed his hand on Mētsuki’s forehead to transfer some of its energy to her. He didn’t do it out of kindness—he was simply being cautious, covering all his bases to ensure that the sealing ritual was completed properly. Yet despite his efforts, Mētsuki passed out. Chōjūrō ignored her, turning his attention to the Jinchūriki. Had the transfer been completed successfully? He flexed his hand, concentrating as he imbued the seal with chakra.

Gradually, the Mizukage adjusted to the use of the Fūinjutsu. The mark they had placed on Kagura was, in reality, a carefully combined seal that would control the Jinchūriki via an unbreakable genjutsu. At that point, Kagura was nothing more than a vessel for the immense chakra of the tailed-beast contained within him. His mind was somewhere far away, hopefully safe from interference.

As Chōjūrō assumed control of the Jinchūriki, he felt the same presence that Mētsuki had detected earlier: like a strange weight at the back of his mind, or a shadow in the corner of his vision. Something would have to be done about that at once, but first he had to stabilize the Jinchūriki. Kagura should have already begun to heal due to the excess chakra of the tailed-beast inside him, but if he couldn’t access that chakra fully then it was of no use. Chōjūrō now allowed a bit of the three-tails chakra to be released, enough to where Kagura’s body could begin the supernatural healing process. As he did so, the chakra seal glowed briefly on the back of his hand. He nodded, satisfied.

“His wound should heal even on its own now,” the Mizukage announced. He stood to his full height and waved for the hunter-nin to carry Kagura away, who followed his orders without further question.

Chōjūrō turned, and realized that Wakasa was standing across from him. An immeasurable distance engulfed them, and the only thing bridging the gap was the tension that hummed in the air—like a line about to snap.

Ryōhei and Ichirōta, who had since climbed out of the boat, froze when they detected the coming confrontation. They traded a knowing glance between them, but remained silent in Chōjūrō’s presence. Ryōhei unconsciously raised a hand to the prisoner’s collar at his neck—a death sentence if they didn’t play their cards right and win over the Mizukage’s favor. He simply hoped his heart-for-brains brother would take that into consideration as well. Careful, he warned him silently.

“Mizukage-san,” Wakasa said, addressing Chōjūrō formally despite his cutting tone. “With all due respect... what the hell was that?”

Chōjūrō didn’t respond, so Wakasa took the risk and continued.

“I can understand,” he said as he tried his best to swallow his anger. “That you couldn’t tell us everything because of how sensitive this operation was. But—” But what? ‘That’s no excuse for sacrificing the lives of your subordinates?’ Wakasa had also questioned why they hadn't tried to discover who was behind the attack, or why they hadn't alerted any of the other members of the Shinobi Union. Hiding a Jinchūriki from the feudal lords—Chōjūrō’s detractors—was one thing, but all this secrecy suggested that the Mizukage had other motives as well.

Wakasa didn’t like those implications, and the fact that he could no longer predict what Chōjūrō was thinking... he admitted that he was afraid. Afraid that the farce had already gone too far, and that the man in charge of the village he had sworn to give his life to protect was slowly but surely leading them towards a veiled, blood-soaked path.

He shut his eyes as images of the past flashed across his mind. “I fail to see why creating a Jinchūriki was necessary,” he stated at last. “And even if you didn’t think there was any other way, why didn't you tell me? If I had known what our true objective was from the beginning, then maybe we wouldn’t have lost Kyohō Fuefuki and the Kabutowari. Or maybe Kagura-kun wouldn’t have had a blade run through his stomach.” His last sentence was an accusation: each word sharply punctuated. But he didn’t raise his voice.

“I knew you would want an explanation,” Chōjūrō told him. “But now isn’t the time. I have urgent matters to attend to.” He turned to leave, but Wakasa’s expression darkened as understanding finally dawned on him.

“So,” he said, “The real reason was that you didn’t trust me?”

His fingers twitched and, almost imperceptibly, he reached for the handle of his ninjatō. Chōjūrō noticed the subtle threat, but so did Ryōhei. He gripped Nuibari’s hilt, preparing to spring into action and intercept if his brother foolishly tried to attack the Mizukage.

“Is it because you were planning to use my brother as a substitute for the Jinchūriki?” he asked. After years of serving directly under Chōjūrō, he knew how he operated. The Mizukage was tremendously meticulous, and would plan out several contingency plans in advance in case anything went wrong. Wakasa had witnessed the transfer ritual for Mētsuki’s seal, and had seen the strange markings at the back of Kagura’s neck. They had all received similar markings before setting off from Kiri, and now he understood why—it hadn’t merely been for a Genjutsu Communication link. Rather, they had all been potential candidates for the sacrifice.

It all clicked into place. The secrecy, the way Mētsuki had been acting ever since the summons to the Mizukage's office... He and Kagura had been the only ones kept in the dark.

“Honestly? I’m surprised.” Wakasa said with an unpleasant tone of sarcasm. “It’s not like you, Chōjūrō. If you didn’t trust me, then why didn't you just use him as leverage against me instead?” Wakasa continued. “But I guess that would’ve been too low, even for you.” He snarled, revealing the jagged teeth of his dark lineage. “It makes me wonder what you used to blackmail Mētsuki-kun with.”

Chōjūrō turned, and his eyes were wide: a warning. “Are you questioning my authority, Wakasa-san?”

“No, I’m questioning your ideals.”

The Hiramekarei blurred towards Wakasa’s neck.

There was a clash of steel as Chōjūrō’s attack was intercepted—but not by Wakasa’s blade. The Hiramekarei hummed as the vibrating edge of chakra pushed against a lattice-work of razor wire, which had emerged almost instantaneously between him and Wakasa. Ryōhei, who had appeared between them, kept the wires of Nuibari pulled taught as he braced the sword against the ground. With his other arm he had blocked the equally vicious strike of his brother. Wakasa’s ninjatō had been stopped by the armor covering his forearm, cutting deep enough to where dark blood dripped from Ryōhei’s clenched fist.

The three of them didn't say a word, but it was clear that much had already been spoken.

At last, the two swordsmen became aware of themselves, and quickly stood down. Chōjūrō slung the Hiramekarei over his back, signalling an end to the confrontation. “Perhaps I’ve made an error,” he admitted. “I should have trusted you with the information regarding the Jinchūriki, but I was afraid your sentiments for Kagura-kun would have clouded your judgment.”

Ichirōta, who had stood by during the entire clash, chortled at the word “sentiments.” But as he was a consummate logophile, they ignored him.

“Yet you didn’t hesitate to involve my former student,” Wakasa pointed out. “You put her at risk too. If I—”

“Oi, allow me to interrupt your little diatribe here,” Ichirōta cut in, refusing to be brushed aside. “I’m not sure if you’ve grasped the reality of the situation here, but your lil’ bro and I decided to participate on this perilous escapade of our own volition.” He smirked, but when he met with blank stares he was forced to simplify. “Meaning we volunteered for this, despite knowing the risks. And you wanna know why?” He jerked a thumb at the collar around his neck.

Wakasa looked towards his brother, but Ryōhei refused to make eye contact, turning away with a glare. He was suddenly reminded of the blood on the edge of his sword, and deep guilt drowned out whatever anger he had felt as he realized what position his younger brother had been forced into. At that point, he couldn’t even blame Chōjūrō for the way he had manipulated them all. Ten years, and not once had Wakasa made an effort to free his younger brother. Instead, Ryōhei had had to do it on his own.

He clenched his fists, his fingernails digging into his palms as he swore at his own helplessness.

“Wakasa-san,” the Mizukage said at last. “There are still things I need to explain to you, please come with me.”

“Understood,” There was steel in his voice again, but it was the hardened tone of duty. Chōjūrō stared at Wakasa for a moment, who met his gaze without flinching. But then the Mizukage turned away, apparently satisfied. Wakasa recovered his composure, falling into stony silence as he followed him dutifully. Whatever conflict between them had been temporarily set aside.

“One last thing," Chōjūrō paused to address the two left behind."Can you two take Hōzuki-sama to the medical bay?” He looked back at Ryōhei. “You should probably see about your wounds as well.” Ryōhei nodded, easily lifting Mētsuki from the ground. He held her limp form in both arms, shuddering with disgust.

Ryouhei watched the retreating figures of the Kage and his brother, dumbfounded by Wakasa’s blind loyalty to such a flawed system. He wondered who the real prisoner had been all along.

An Uneasy Bargain

Somewhere in the mess of muddiness in her thoughts, Mētsuki dreamt of a memory from nearly a decade ago. Her very missed big brother had returned from an undercover mission, at least, that's what he had told her. She had asked him if that was the smartest of choices—he was only a few years older than her. Apparently a preparation to succeed father as the apple of the Hōzuki elders’ eye. Mētsuki just couldn't get a grasp on the situation back then. But one thing was clear to her: her brother was genuinely a better person than she could ever be. And he had proven his undying loyalty to her in what had led to his apparent death.

All this time, the thought of what Shōgetsu went through at the hands of the Mizukage made her stomach churn. What other secrets could he have spilled to Chōjūrō? But what if the Mizukage had lied to her? What if her brother had died from the afflictions caused by the man that held him hostage?

Sobering up from the throes of darkness that kept pulling her back to sleep—a consequence from exceeding the limits of her exhaustion. Mētsuki’s muddled features returned as her strength grew stronger. Enough for her to be able to peel her eyes open. She blinked. Her resting chamber wasn’t of hospital white. But her sensing soothed her imminent panic, the familiar presence of her mentor nearby assured that.

“Wakasa-sensei?” Mētsuki called out to him, softly. Her head shifted to his direction, and her tired gaze found him. But then her former teacher’s features came into focus, and she realized the face was too narrow and sharp. To her shock, it was Ryōhei. “Oh,” She sounded a bit disappointed. “I’m sorry... Momochi-san.”

Ryōhei had been looking at her as though he was staring straight through her. His eyes were distant, lost in thought. He seemed startled that she had regained consciousness, and finally met her gaze.

“Sorry for what?” He frowned, but then waved his hand and looked away as if it didn’t matter anyway. “Glad you’re awake,” he said roughly. “I have some questions for you.”

If it hadn’t been for the nuisance of pain to turn around, Mētsuki would have done so in a heartbeat. “It’s nothing,” she replied instead. But even then her eyes didn’t falter from him, an unreadable expression settled in them. “I can’t escape from that, can I?”

Although Ryōhei remained expressionless, he seemed amused at that. He leaned back, pulling a kunai out of nowhere to twirl around his finger absentmindedly. “I can’t believe you pulled the wool over my brother’s eyes,” he said towards the ceiling. “You and him must have been pretty close. Still, you have my thanks for not turning me or Oniyuzu into crab meat. You probably don’t know this, but the Mizukage himself told us we might be used as backups.”

Now, however, she averted her gaze from him. Mētsuki pushed the pillows in such a way that she could lean against them and sit straight-up. She could feel the shame rising in her heart and mind, evident as her steel grasp of the duvet turned her knuckles more pale. “I didn’t mean to,” Mētsuki began, releasing an elaborated sigh before she continued, more silent, “want... to.”

And when Ryōhei dropped the mutual knowledge between them about the prisoners being sacrificial hosts for the three-tails, she wasn’t too sure how to comment. Her voice was evenly, not silent as when she hesitated to speak about betraying her mentor’s trust. “I rather not speak of this matter.”

“No one does.” Ryōhei snapped the kunai so that the blade rested flat against his forearm, which was wrapped in bandages from the exchange he had had earlier. “You know,” he said. “My brother attacked the Mizukage,” he chuckled, “So much for that “cold-blooded” title of his.” His eyes narrowed. “Did you know about Wakasa and I being ex-hunter-nin?” he asked.

Mētsuki was silent for a moment. A part of her didn’t trust the words from Ryōhei, and yet, what would he gain with this lie? “The Wakasa-sensei I know wouldn’t be as reckless as that.” Her words coated with honesty. And she continued, a simple summarised answer, “No, I know nothing of that.” Sure she had heard about Wakasa’s title, but Mētsuki never thought about asking where it came from. “I was only informed that the Jōnin Commander had been hired to mentor me for Kenjutsu by the Hōzuki elders.” There was a weak laugh after, attached to a fond memory from when she first met Wakasa.

“He was mad about the whole thing,” Ryōhei continued. He had seemingly ignored her comments about her past, but inwardly the gears began to turn as Ryōhei latched onto the narrow opportunity that had presented itself. Unlike Chōjūrō, he wasn't any kind of cunning strategist, and while he hated to admit it, he wasn’t as observant as Wakasa either. But he was an opportunist, always on the lookout for a loophole or in that would benefit the primary person of importance in his life: himself.

“Seems he’s gotten pretty soft during the time I was in prison,” Ryōhei continued as he began to set out his wager. “But he did say something that interested me—something about you, Hōzuki.”

She flinched. Why would Wakasa-sensei bring himself in trouble? The clockwork in her mind tried to make sense of his foolishness, but Mētsuki couldn’t. After all...she knew better than to oppose those that were superior than herself, especially, since the moment of her brother’s disappearance. But her wandering thoughts were interrupted by the mention of interest about her. “W-what could that be?” She whispered to him lowly, her gaze once more settling on Ryōhei’s figure.

“Well…” Ryōhei began. But then he seemed to reconsider, as if it were all taking too much trouble. “He asked what the Mizukage was holding over your head. Which got me thinking that maybe you and I share a common interest here.”

“That’s impossible,” Mētsuki countered, a strength reverberating in her voice suddenly. Her crimson gaze dropped a tone or two darker, as if something else possessed her. Because before the young woman had shown her vulnerability, her own shame to have betrayed her mentor. As true as that is, in the end, Mētsuki is a high-ranking member within the noble Hōzuki clan. And as such, she had to uphold her status.

“Lord Mizukage requested our aid,” her words were calmly spoken word for word, as if it was a transcript imprinted in her mind. “And he requested my assistance to be exact. For reasons you should be aware of by now.”

In response to Mētsukis attempt to threaten him, Ryōhei laughed. It was a harsh sound, and he shook his head again. “Damn you really are naive,” he said. “Did they keep you locked up there your entire life, the Hōzuki?”

“Of course not,” she told him a half-truth. It seemed though that the Hōzuki was getting used to the younger Momochi’s mannerisms, shrugging his laugh away. “I—I tried to spend most of my time developing fūinjutsu, is all.”

“You’ve accomplished that at least,” he stated bluntly. It wasn’t a compliment, merely an acknowledgement of the obvious. “But you missed my point.” Ryōhei threw himself onto his feet with a single motion. He examined the tip of the kunai, his eyes shifting slightly as though he were bored. “What I’m wondering is, why would a noble willingly participate on a mission to capture the three tails? I know why the Mizukage wanted you there, but the question is why would you agree to it.” He glanced at her surreptitiously. “I thought the Hōzuki were at odds with Kirigakure.”

His little trick with the kunai didn’t go unnoticed in her vision, but as quick as she looked, as quick her gaze faltered towards the other side of the room. Just for a moment there was silence from her. Her mind formulated different answers, all, which were not her own. An answer that could satisfy Ryōhei and not dig a deeper grave for herself. But it seemed the lock that prevented her from portraying her emotions began to falter. “There’s no reason I should discuss my situation with a stranger. Nothing you would understand,” she answered about her family.

But the way she had phrased it was odd, and a red sign for someone with some kind of perception. Was it a slip-up on her end? An unintentional answer to another personal problem. But also exposing a clan’s secret to an outsider. “And I simply followed the request, although…” Mētsuki remembered that specific moment when Kagura had reached out for her, and she trailed off.

Ryōhei no longer had the patience to deal with her hesitation. He stepped towards her, placing both hands on the side of the cot to lean in toward her. Now uncomfortably close, he stared her down.

“Listen very carefully.” His voice sounded like he was biting back a snarl. “No one is your ally. You can’t trust your family; you can’t even trust Wakasa. That’s the way it’s always been in the Hidden Mist, even if the Mizukage pretends otherwise. But the fact is, he used you. I know because he used me too, and that means he’s holding you on some kind of leash.” Ryōhei pointed to the collar that gleamed at his neck. “Like this one. And if you want to know my guess, himesama,” the corner of his mouth curled into a smirk as he mocked her by using the name Chōjūrō referred to her by. “It must be someone important to you, right?”

The sudden closeness between Ryōhei and her took her by surprise, and the Hōzuki tried to create space between them by digging herself deeper into the cot. She didn’t dare to raise her hand, let alone push him away. Not that she would be able to; Ryōhei could easily overpower her anytime he wanted. And not to forget, the younger Momochi was very unpredictable.

She knew that! Ryōhei had no need to tell her more than what she was familiar with already. Hell, it took Wakasa ages to gain a sliver of her trust, and she had never been sure if it had been the same for him. Mētsuki hoped it was there once. Because the only person she trusted her heart and soul with was her brother.

But when Ryōhei pointed at the collar, a physical object, Mētsuki believed she could remove it from him if she wanted to. In her mind the question rolled through: who would remove her invisible chains that made her life insufferable? She shakes her head mindlessly, No way would it be Ryōhei. He is no different than everyone else. And for the realisation hitting her once again, the young woman couldn’t help but laugh, one from a painful misery and sadness. Her hand raised up to her face, hiding her strange amusement and her slightly sharp teeth—a nobility of her clan—which was often not seen by the people.

“You’re right,” Mētsuki wiped the tears that rolled down her cheek, answering him, “I only had one ally in this world. My big brother.”

Ryōei became serious. He straightened up, fortunately allowing her room to breathe. “Your brother, huh.” He scoffed at the irony before lapsing into silence.

“Do you know where he is?” he finally asked. He was testing a theory, but suspected he already knew the answer.

She shook her head, “The elders believe him to be dead.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know.” Mētsuki paused, should she tell him? What the Mizukage had shared with her, that is. Yet, she continued, “I saw him for the last time six years ago. The chances are slim.”

“His name was Shōgetsu.”

“I might know where he is,” Ryōhei said.

"Where?" She asked immediately.

Although it was barely perceptible, Ryōhei’s expression soured. “Not so fast, Hōzuki,” he said. “Like I said earlier, you and I are in the same situation. So it’d be better if we helped each other out, wouldn’t you say?”

"And how could I be of any more help?" She began, not forgetting that Ryōhei called her naïve.

“First let me make myself very clear,” he answered. “It’s not like you and I are allies. I don’t trust you, and probably never will. Probably better to call it ‘associates with benefits.’” He spun the kunai again, trading it across his fingertips as he continued. “The fact is, there is someone very important to me who I need to protect. And I’m guessing it’s the same for you. So if I tell you what I know about your brother, I need you to do something for me in exchange.”

Mētsuki took a minute to take in the words that were said by him. The most unfortunate of all, is that the Hōzuki wasn't sure how to answer. Yes, she agreed on one thing—Mētsuki wouldn't trust Ryōhei either, ever. "I doubt I can help you in the way you think I can," she said truthfully, "I'm not my brother. I'm sorry," Mētsuki started, a fear to betray the Mizukage still. Even after he nearly convinced her otherwise. There was still a chance for him. Because the main difference isn't that Mētsuki protects her brother, it's the opposite.

“I’m not asking you to be your brother,” Ryōhei said. “Frankly I don’t give a fuck about him. But you’re a Hōzuki, and that means your clan has connections to the feudal lords. What I want from them is freedom for the man I’m trying to get out: Shizuma Hoshigaki. There’s no chance for him to make probation like I did, but if the lords pressure the Mizukage, they might be able to lobby for his release. And—“ His eyes narrowed. “The release of your brother as well.”

“I don’t believe you,” Mētsuki shot back, but her heart had started to pound in her chest at the prospect he was offering. “How do I know you’re not bluffing?”

“A few days ago, a new prisoner arrived on the island. I didn’t get a very good look at him, but I caught a glance when they dragged him past my cell. This guy had your same features: Thin, pale, white hair and red eyes. It looked like they’d been torturing him. I’m sure that’s him.”

Mētsuki had constantly asked her brother why he took the appearance of a young male. Why not something that emanated the danger that he can be. Shōgetsu would always give her a wide smile reserved for her alone, stating: "Deceit is a form of power play, my cute sister." Deceit. She thought she was capable of that, yet she was slipping up easily when it came to Ryōhei. Was it the turmoil of emotion that confused her tremendously?

"Despite what you think," she began. "I hold no influences, political or otherwise. I'm just a tool for the Hōzuki elders." There it was—the confession about how she felt that she was treated by the clan.

“Then create your own power. Remember, we have something the clans want: confirmation that the Mizukage has violated the terms of the Shinobi Union. That’s our weapon and—right now—our only chance of convincing the feudal lords.” At last he returned the kunai to its sheathe, but for some reason the fact that the blade was no longer visible made it more threatening than before. “So what do you say Hōzuki, do we have a deal?”

Mētsuki still hesitated. The uncertainties were too many.

"You forget that the Fūinjutsu belongs to me," Mētsuki scrutinised the danger that came with that knowledge. "I'm not blind in that," she paused, trying to find the words to support the danger of her claim. Her scare to be used again after this for the power she can create. The power she created. "I want to free Ka—Kagura too," Mētsuki began. "And that neither of us will be involved in whatever you've planned after."

Quite ironic coming from her. She, who had the ability to make a man a puppet to be controlled. How could she not see the threat she could pose herself? The ability to sever the soul from the body—no one knew exactly about that now. And whether she can or not, Mētsuki didn't have a fierce willpower, one so threatening, that immobilised the people around her. Not like her brother.

Mētsuki’s crimson orbs settled on him.

“I understand if you don’t want to get involved,” he said. But it’s too late, for you and me both. “But brute strength—whatever power you have—won’t work on these people.” Ryōhei paused, reflecting on his own goal in all of this. He knew what Shizuma was planning should he be released but, secretly, Ryōhei simply wanted to spend a long life with his partner. One that didn’t involve politics or lies.

“As for me,” he said pensively. “The only plan I have after all this falls out is to leave this shithole of a place behind me. That’s the only way to truly be free of Kiri’s shadow.” He turned to leave, but then lingered at the doorway. “One last thing,” he tilted his head to look at her, his eyes glinting dangerously in the dim light of the hallway. “If you try to double cross me, I’ll inform the Mizukage about how you let the secret about his Jinchūriki slip,” he said. “And I expect you to make the same threat against me too. That way, we don’t have to worry about trusting each other. We’ll beat these bastards at their own game.” He waved over his shoulder. “See you around, Hōzuki.”

Mētsuki didn’t respond to Ryōhei, instead, inclined her head to greet him off. Her pensive thoughts consumed her once more, now alone, in the white hospice room. What will she do?

Into the Well

The Anbu headquarters of Kirigakure were located far beneath the main office building of the Mizukage, connected by a sprawling network of underground tunnels. Some of these branched out to the harbor, where they met at a confluence of natural caves. If anyone tried to enter the base from the many cliffside entrances along the desolate eastern coast of Kiri, they would have soon lost themselves in the labyrinth before drowning at high tide. And even if someone managed to get through, they would have run straight into the teeth of Kiri’s most formidable defenses.

The base’s normal entry point was in the center of Kiri, accessible only to Anbu and the Mizukage himself. But because of the secretive nature of the tailed-beast mission, Chōjūrō had decided to use one of the hidden tunnels to transport the Jinchūriki. He and Wakasa now made their way through the darkness of the natural caves, taking the same path as the two hunter-nin who had whisked Kagura away earlier.

The shadows of the two men flickered across the damp, stony ground as Wakasa held out a ball of light generated from his chakra. He kept pace alongside Chōjūrō, a subtle indication that he was still loyal to Kiri, even if he no longer fully trusted the Mizukage. Silence insulated them: The only sound was the echo of their footsteps and the muted whisper of distant waves.

Since he had once been a hunter-nin himself, Wakasa knew exactly where they were headed even without asking Chōjūrō, and he wasn’t surprised when they stopped in front of a large, reinforced steel door. Chōjūrō placed his palm on a keypad to the side, which registered his chakra with a beep before the external door slid open. He then entered a passcode, and the second doorway opened. They stepped into the void beyond, and the doors closed to seal them off from the outside world. The steel-lined, square tunnel, which was an abrupt contrast to the naturally carved caverns they had left behind them, led inward: down towards a cylindrical structure cut deep below sea level: the Kiri Strict Containment Facility.

Located at the lowest level of the Anbu’s underground complex, the containment center was infamously referred to as the “Well” for somewhat obvious reasons. Only hunter-nin were allowed to enter, as it was where Kiri guarded its most intimate secrets—And sometimes interrogated them. Now, Wakasa guessed, it was where Chōjūrō was keeping his new human weapon.

“I know that you’re probably questioning my decisions.” Chōjūrō said, at last breaking the icy silence now that they were within the security of the base’s tunnel.

Wakasa cast a sideways glance in the Mizukage’s direction to gauge whether or not he was testing him.

“What gave you that idea?” he asked, slipping into a moment of characteristic sarcasm. But then Chōjūrō stared at him, his eyes wide and flat behind the thick lenses of his goggles. Wakasa cleared his throat.

“From a tactical perspective,” he began again. “I can understand what your motives were in creating a Jinchūriki. But I can’t agree with it on moral grounds—it’s... wrong, sir, to go against the sanctions of the Shinobi Union.” And to betray the trust of your own men like this, he wanted to add.

“I’m not here to argue ethics with you, Wakasa-san. I know that our current situation isn’t ideal. But please try to understand the position I’m in.” They reached an elevator at the end of the hall, which was activated by yet another chakra register. Once they had begun their descent, Chōjūrō continued. “It’s not just the feudal clans who are after my head; it’s the clans too, now anyway. And I don’t have to remind you of the recent surge of extremist groups in Kiri.”

Wakasa remained silent, but knew exactly who the Mizukage was referring to: the small groups of nationalists calling for the return of the Bloody Mist era that had recently started to protest against Kiri’s tourism industry. How they thought senseless violence could solve Kiri’s economic and political problems was beyond him.

Chōjūrō sighed. “You know that I’ve always strived to maintain the peace, both within Kiri and with other Hidden Villages. But it would seem that I can never truly free the Hidden Mist from the ravages of war. Please don’t misunderstand me: I will always act with Kiri’s best interests in mind... Even if that involves some sacrifice.” He paused before adding: “If you are unwilling to accept losses, then you’ll never gain an edge against your adversaries.”

Wakasa crossed his arms over his chest, unconvinced. He wondered what else Chōjūrō had justified with that same phrase. “No offense sir, but isn’t the best way to keep peace in Kiri maintaining a good standing with our allies?”

Chōjūrō adjusted his glasses. “I doubt they would understand. With tensions in the Land of Waves exacerbating our position, I fear that whoever was behind the strike against the three-tails could take advantage of our vulnerability and attack us as well. Trust can only get you so far. After a certain point, it’s better to make your own preparations.”

Privately, Wakasa thought that Chōjūrō was underestimating the strength of the other four Great Shinobi Countries. Either that or he was overestimating Kiri’s abilities to stand against the monumental threat he had faced during the battle for the three-tails. But Wakasa kept those thoughts to himself, since there was another question burning at the back of his mind.

“Is that why you didn’t trust me with this information beforehand?” he finally asked. “Because I ‘wouldn’t understand?’” It wasn’t that Wakasa’s pride had been wounded, although maybe it had been a little bruised. Rather, it simply didn’t make sense that Chōjūrō would hide the true purpose of such an important mission from its leader and Jōnin Commander.

The swiftly escalating hostility that sparked between them was cut short as the elevator slowed its descent, and Chōjūrō gave a hasty explanation to satisfy Wakasa’s question. “I knew that you would oppose the mission if you were aware of it’s true purpose, and I thought that your brother’s involvement could have... caused your loyalties to waver.” Chōjūrō shook his head, but Wakasa could sense that he was being sincere. “I realize that was a mistake now. I’m sorry.”

Wakasa sighed. “My conviction won’t falter,” he said. “Even if I don’t agree with your methods, I’ve sworn to protect Kirigakure. That’s where my loyalty lies.” Not, he omitted to say, with his renegade younger brother.

The doors of the elevator slid open, and Wakasa spotted a figure waiting for them at the end of the hall. “And anyway I’m not the one you have to convince,” he said. Now, it was Chōjūrō’s turn to sigh.

“She already knows.”

“Would have been surprised to see her here if she didn’t.”

The Fifth greeted them with a cold stare. “Chōjūrō,” she said, her voice cutting across the substantial distance between them. “I hope you’ve seriously considered the implications of what you’ve done here.”

Wakasa glanced at the Mizukage, half expecting him to blush or make some polite apology to his former superior. Instead he remained silent. Hoh? Wakasa set his own grievances with the Mizukage aside for the time being: Mei could lecture him better than anyone else. This should be interesting, he thought.

“Controlling a tailed beast requires skill, knowledge and time,” she said, echoing the words she had once spoken at the Kage Summit years ago. “But whatever you’ve done there—” she pointed at the door behind her. “Is an abomination of the same magnitude as the horrific actions of Obito Uchiha himself.”

Chōjūrō frowned at that. “Please don’t compare me to the likes of that man, Fifth Mizukage-sama. I assure you that I—”

In less than two forceful steps Mei had reached them. She slapped Chōjūrō across the face with the back of her hand.

“Coward! Do you think that this is the way to uphold what we’ve built here in Kirigakure?” Wakasa nodded emphatically as she cross-examined him, but stopped when she fixed a burning green eye in his direction.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said, raising his hands to show his innocence.

“Interrupt... ” she hesitated when she saw his wedding ring, then processed the word internally. She must have strung the word together with something related to marriage, because her eyes smoldered. “I’ll kill you.” She muttered.

“Hold on there, ma’am...”

“You can lecture me as much as you want later,” Chōjūrō cut them off, rubbing his now reddened cheek. “But right now I need both of you to help me with an urgent matter. Please... for Kagura-kun’s sake.”

Chōjūrō’s casual use of his former assistant’s name stung, and Wakasa grimaced. Don’t talk about him like nothing’s happened, he told the Mizukage silently, reminded of his own guilt in the whole thing.

Mei had noticed Wakasa’s reaction. She closed her eyes, allowing her rage to dissipate... for now, at least. “Very well,” she said. “It seems as though I’m not the only one who’s against your decision here.”

Chōjūrō didn’t respond, moving past her to the door. It led to one of the various containment cells in the Well, but this one had a Fūinjutsu barrier inscribed over it to create a secondary chakra barrier. The contrast between the smooth, military-grade steel and the almost primitive scrawling was jarring.

Chōjūrō formed a few hand symbols to temporarily release the chakra seal, and the door opened to reveal a black void. The light from the hall cut like a knife into the darkness, receding into nowhere. Wakasa wasn’t a sensor-nin, but even then he could feel the heavy presence of a massive chakra signature pressing against his skin, settling at the center of his chest like a knot. Wakasa and Mei followed behind Chōjūrō as he descended the stairs that led down from the doorway to the floor of the containment cell. But when the door shut they weren’t left in total darkness as there was of a reddish glow coming from the center of the room. As Wakasa’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he finally recognized Kagura’s form, who was stretched out on his back in the middle of a seal traced out of crimson chakra. He had been stripped of his shirt, likely from the hurried attempts to bandage his abdominal wound. Those efforts seemed incongruent, however, with the metal rods that had been run through his arms and legs to pin him to the seal.

Wakasa felt a pull in the center of his chest, like he would have if it were Ryōhei instead of Kagura who was lying there. He looked at Chōjūrō, then Mei, who remained completely composed. They had seen far worse in the past. But then, so had he. He wondered if his own expression showed the same passivity.

“Hey now,” he said. “That can’t be comfortable. Did you really need to pin him to the floor like that?”

As if to answer his question, Kagura arched his back and screamed. It was a bloodcurdling, inhuman scream, and as he writhed he tore his own flesh against the metal rods. At last the struggle subsided into heavy breathing, his skin glistening with blood and sweat.


“When Mētsuki Hōzuki transferred the genjutsu control seal over to me, I felt a strange presence within Kagura-kun.” Chōjūrō explained. “I had him brought here to try and cut off the chakra signature from the outside, but it seemed that was ineffective; so we’ll be forced to take more drastic measures.”

Wakasa bit the side of his thumb as he thought. “When my brother pulled Karatachi out of the water, he told me that he saw what appeared to be our adversary’s soul take possession of Kagura’s body,” he said. “... Which is why he stabbed him with the Hiramekarei, I guess.” He swore under his breath.

Mei’s eyes widened. “He did what now?” she asked. “And wasn’t your brother in prison?”

Wakasa shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“I’ll explain everything to you later,” Chōjūrō told Mei, “But right now what’s most important is extracting whatever foreign presence is inside of Kagura-kun.”

As if he had heard his name, Kagura began to moan.

“He’s not really there, is he?” Wakasa asked.

Chōjūrō nodded. “I released some of the three-tail’s chakra earlier so that he could heal himself from his wounds. It would seem that, since it can’t break past our seals, the tailed-beast is now fighting to expel the most obvious threat.”

And Kagura is caught in the middle of it all, Wakasa thought, sympathizing with the victim of the human sacrifice.

“So that’s why you brought us here?” Mei asked. “To extricate the foreign presence from the Jinchūriki?”

“Exactly,” the Mizukage said. But Wakasa was puzzled as to why Chōjūrō had brought him along. He had noticed the hunter-nin from earlier kneeling at the perimeter of the circle, who had been joined by two others to stabilize the chakra within the seal, he assumed. But Fūinjutsu was completely beyond him.

“How exactly do you want me to help, sir.”

Chōjūrō explained the process to them, and they assumed their positions for the ritual. Because of his average level of reserves, Wakasa had developed an extremely precise control of his chakra over the years that bordered on the precision of a medical-nin. As such, he was tasked with regulating the chakra that the hunter-nin fed into the circle. Meanwhile, Mei had the sensitivity to detect various possessing techniques. Her job was to locate and isolate the parasitic soul from within the mass of chakra. It wouldn’t be easy, and the Fifth’s mouth was set in a grim line as she approached the challenge with determination. Chōjūrō held the vessel to contain the soul once they had extracted it: 魂, the word for “soul,” was transcribed on the tag that would seal the small black jar.

They waited until another bout of Kagura’s spasms had subsided, then the Mizukage gave the signal. The seal activated with a spark of energy, and a red haze rose around them like mist before spiraling around the Jinchūriki—a nexus of power. Wakasa kept his hands pressed against the seal, gritting his teeth as he uttered a silent prayer for the well-being of Kagura’s soul. Then, the ritual began...

Kagura was drifting. At first, he couldn’t remember his own name, or where he was. But gradually, pieces of his identity floated back into his mind until, one by one, he had fit the puzzle together. He thought for a moment that he was still in the ocean. Perhaps, having drowned, he was now slipping towards death’s horizon. But the vast realm of dark blue around him was even in color—like the blue of chakra, not the gradating depths of the ocean.

The only feature in the empty realm was an immense wall of glass to his far right that stretched in every direction. Behind it, there was a dark silhouette, but Kagura couldn’t distinguish any details from where he was.

Where am I anyway? He asked himself.

Don’t you know? Someone replied.

Kagura’s eyes widened. He jerked his head around, his body responding to the motion seconds later: far too late to respond if whoever had spoken to him had attacked him.

But there was no one there.

Kagura skin crawled, but tried to ignore his misgivings as he ignored the non-presence. Instead, he faced the wall of glass once more. As if the dimension had sensed his will, he moved it or was moved by it to stand in front of the barrier, where he could more clearly distinguish the dark mass looming in the distance. He placed his palm on the glass, receiving an almost electric shock to his senses. But it wasn’t painful. Instead, it was cool and pulsating: like a heartbeat. He wondered if it was his own, or that of the creature’s drifting in the void.

Isobu, Kagura called out the creature’s name, although he didn’t know how he had known that. But his voice ricocheted off of the wall. He can’t hear me, Kagura realized with a pang of intense loneliness. Tears sprang to his eyes, drifting away from him in the weightless atmosphere.

Somehow, despite the layer of glass that separated them, Isobu noticed him. His massive claws churned slowly before the three-tails appeared on the other side of the wall. He completely dwarfed Kagura in size, who appeared as a mere fleck in the reflection of the tail beast’s pupil. Isobu gauged him narrowly, focusing on every detail of his new Jinchūriki. For a moment, there was a light of recognition in his gaze. Then Isobu opened his jaws, howling in what Kagura assumed was deep sorrow from having been sealed within a human. But the roar of pain was completely soundless, visible only as ripples from the vibrations across the surface of the translucent wall.

I’m sorry, Kagura told him, despite knowing that the rage Isobu felt wasn’t directed at him, but rather at all the humans who had harmed it in the past and had returned to hurt him once more. Kagura could empathize.

Sorry for what? The voice asked again. There it was again: the subtle fear, as though a knife were pressing against the back of his neck. Kagura could no longer ignore it. He turned, feeling the glass wall and Isobu vanish into unseen distance behind him, becoming lost in the emptiness. He wondered if he would be able to find him again.

At last, he faced the person who had spoken.

The ghost, who was standing in a murky cloud of shadows, resembled him. Every feature from its hair to the mark on its face was the same. The only difference was that instead of soft rose, bright crimson glowed in his eyes.

Go away, Kagura told it. The ghost gave him a wide, blood-drunken grin.

Aren’t you happy to see me? it asked. It’s been so long since you shut me out, I was starting to think that you didn’t care. Its expression shifted to form a mockery of concern. Didn’t you miss me?

Why are you here? Kagura’s own voice sounded hollow in his head. The ghost’s, by comparison, was clear enough to drown out all other sound.

Didn’t you hear the good news? You and I are a Jinchuuriki now.

You’re not a part of me. Kagura tried to correct it, but the ghost only continued to smile.

That old lie won’t work on me anymore, it said. You should stop using it.

Kagura couldn’t deny that: the ghost had always been a part of him.

What do you want from me? He asked, trying to ignore his growing fear.

The ghost laughed again. “Allow me show you,” he said. “Kagura Karatachi.”

The shadows crawled through the empty space, wrapping around Kagura's ankles. They continued to creep up his legs—or perhaps he was sinking into them; he couldn’t tell. Soon, the black cloud had completely swallowed him.

The darkness shifted around him to form the familiar shape of an arena. In the background, the shadowy banner of Kiri’s shinobi academy became visible on one of the walls of the training hall. He found he was standing on a solid surface, and dark liquid trickled slowly between his feet. He looked down, and once again, discovered that his hands were dripping with blood.

The ghost had taken his place, standing in the middle of the training floor with the Hiramekarei raised over one of his shoulders. His eyes shone with glee as he beamed at Kagura. Surrounding him were the bodies of Kagura’s former classmates, all children now, he realized.

“See?” The ghost asked him. “Isn’t this better?”

I don’t want to see this. Kagura told him. Please go away.

“Haven’t you realized?” The ghost whispered into his ear, now standing behind his shoulder. “You need me here. Otherwise—” The ghost stepped away from him, folding the vision of the past into shadow as he began to slip away. “You’ll drown in your own loneliness.”

Kagura’s eyes widened. No, don’t leave me, he begged as the ghost began to disappear.

And then, he reached out his hand.