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This article, Tremors in Deep Waters, belongs to the Naruto: Kaimetsu timeline and follows its rules and expected standards.

After Chōjūrō reveals the dark secret of the three-tails sealed under Kirigakure, Wakasa Momochi returns home, where his brother is waiting for him. Following the Kage Summit, the Mizukage stages a funeral for Kagura to remove Kiri from suspicion and frame the rebel who attacked him. Meanwhile, Mētsuki Hōzuki struggles with her own guilt as Ryōhei proposes a plan to free her brother and Shizuma Hoshigaki. Later, Chōjūrō summons Wakasa, Ryōhei, and Aogetsu Hōzuki to his office in order to brief them for their next missions.

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Doubt / Jealousy

When Wakasa finally emerged on the surface, the sun had fully set. The streets of Kirigakure were filled with a dense mist that formed an umbrella of blue light from the skyscrapers rising above the bank of fog. Distant thunder murmured overhead, promising a chilling late summer's rain.

Wakasa didn’t feel the biting humidity at first, his mind occupied elsewhere. He had taken a shower and changed from his hunter-nin uniform into his more typical garb at the Anbu headquarters before leaving. He now felt the cold running through his still-damp hair. But even more chilling was what he had seen and done under the Mizukage's orders, which continued to cling to his shoulders despite leaving the shadows of the Well behind him.

Without the immediate pressures of conducting a mission, Wakasa's thoughts were free to coil around him, winding tight like a spring. He was tense and measured as he walked, his anger building with each step. To say that he was upset about Kagura was an understatement. He felt betrayed, yet blamed himself for having been made complicit in Chōjūrō's dark schemes. Most of all, no matter what angle he used to approach the situation or what resolution he tried to put forward, his helplessness returned to sting him in the face. He needed to get out of his own head, to clear his thoughts so he could consider all facets objectively.

He needed a cigarette.

After a brief search, he found a vending machine in a shallow alleyway, catching a reflection of his own ice-blue eyes in the glass as he bought a pack. He snapped his lighter brusquely, the spark casting dark shadows over his features for an instant. At last the nicotine hit, and he relaxed.

Wakasa leaned against the brick wall, alternating between taking drags on the cigarette and biting the side of his thumb, deep in thought. Why was it so hard to distance himself from his own emotions? He had never struggled with it in the past, at least not during his Anbu days. His younger brother's words echoed in his mind: He had allowed his personal attachments to cloud his judgment after all. But then, was that wrong? He was involved with the Jinchūriki now only because his duty to Kirigakure prohibited him from opposing Chōjūrō outright. Nonetheless, he was beginning to question the morality of his loyalty, wondering how many during the reign of the Fourth had acted under the same misplaced compunction. For a moment, he could picture his father's tense expression: the trenches of his face revealing the disappointment he felt whenever he had looked at him. It looks like I’m more similar to you than you thought, old man. He grinned, sadly.

Wakasa looked up at the black sky, exhaling a puff of smoke that curled in the air. So then, what now? For what seemed like hours, he was completely motionless as he allowed the embers of the cigarette to dwindle away. He watched the ash creep towards his fingers, imagining Ayume's expression when he got home. She hated it when he smoked, and he had almost given up the habit entirely because of her—three times, at least. He smiled to himself, then flicked the stub to the pavement and ground it out on the wet asphalt. His wife was no doubt wondering where he was, and he pulled out his phone to send her a quick text before heading home.

Then, with one last sigh, Wakasa squared his shoulders and set off. While he might have allowed his personal attachment to Kagura and Mētsuki to hinder him during the mission, he was determined to keep Kiri's dark affairs and his family life separate. He refused to subject his children to the same burdens that he had been placed on him as a child, and to do so would require the same methods as always: to pave a way for the new era, they had to first bury Kiri's bloody past, shoring up the dam each day with new lies and sleight-of-hands. Wasn't Chōjūrō merely doing the same? Under no circumstances would Wakasa allow his work to bleed into everything he and Ayume had built. That fact would never change.

So, it came as a shock to his core when he found Ryōhei waiting for him at the apartment.

Wakasa could tell that something was wrong the second he unlocked the front door to the flat. He noticed the alien pair of shoes in the entryway immediately, and when he looked up he caught Ayume's nervous expression. Their eyes locked for an instant, and she shook her head slightly before she continued cutting vegetables at the kitchen counter. The steady sound of the knife chopping into the wood grew sharp, and she glanced worriedly towards the front room.

Shinta was clearly upset, sitting on the floor with his math worksheets spread out across the coffee table. But he wasn’t concerned about his homework. Instead, he was giving his most intimidating glare at the stranger on the couch. His intended meaning was quite clear, as his arms were crossed protectively over his chest—a warning not to touch his sister. For her part, Meiko was oblivious to the tension in the room, chatting animatedly as she gestured to the pictures in her coloring book. More than anything else, that was what sent a cold needle of fear running through Wakasa's heart, as she was sitting on Ryōhei's lap.

Meiko looked up as Wakasa entered the room, and her face illuminated despite his dark expression as he stood at the doorway. "Papa!" She set the coloring book down and tumbled off the couch before running over to wrap her arms around his legs.

"Hi Meiko," he said as he picked her up, holding her close to his chest. His heart was still pounding, and he fixed a stern glare on Ryōhei, who simply gave a weak excuse for a shrug, his palms facing the ceiling.

"I had nowhere to go after the Mizukage dismissed us so, I decided to stop by here."

"Yeah? Well I don't remember giving you my address." Wakasa fired back.

"Touchan," Shinta exclaimed impetuously. "Who is this guy?" The five year old was still glaring fearlessly at Ryōhei, who gave him a grin. Shinta looked horrified at that, shuddering at his filed teeth. "Mama said we’re not supposed to talk to strangers." He muttered under his breath.

"Shinta, I already told you that this man is your uncle." Ayume explained patiently, but the strain in her voice was all Wakasa needed to read her unspoken question: And why is he here?

"That's right, I’ve been away for a long time. Your dad never told you about me, huh?"

"Nuh-uh. Who the hell are you?"

"Shinta!" When Ayume said his name, it was a reproach in and of itself. Shinta's eyes filled with a different kind of fear. "Come here," she told him. Like a soldier who had been summoned to his execution, Shinta stood solemnly and marched to the kitchen to receive his reprimand for the dirty word.

Ryōhei smiled. He leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him.

"You never told me I was an uncle," he said quietly.

"I didn’t think you would care." There was still ice in Wakasa’s tone. Maybe, truly, he didn’t want Ryōhei to care. Or at least that was the excuse he used to take the edge off his own guilt.

Whatever sadness had been in Ryōhei's face vanished, replaced by his characteristic slyness. "At the very least you could have given me a warmer welcome."

"Then you should have asked for an invitation. Common courtesy."

"But your wife was kind enough to ask me to stay for dinner," Ryōhei retorted, nodding towards Ayume. "Very generous of her. Especially considering she wasn’t under any obligation to show me that courtesy you were talking about."

Wakasa refused to rise to his brother's bait. "Why are you here,Ryōhei." It wasn't a question.

"Do I need a reason to catch up with my brother and his family?" he asked. "“I was thinking of paying a visit to pops next."

"How considerate of you," Wakasa scowled.

Meiko, who had been trying to get her father's attention up until then, began to squirm in his arms. "Papa what’s the matter?"

"Nothing sweetie," Wakasa told her. He set the toddler down. "Did you finish your coloring book?" She shook her head. "Go color some more until mom's finished cooking dinner."

"Uh-uh, I don't wanna color."

Wakasa sighed. At the same time, Shinta returned from the kitchen, stomping back to the coffee table with a sullen expression. He had forgotten about Ryōhei for the time being, flopping down to glare at his math assignment again.

"Careful," Ryōhei told him. "If you frown too hard it’ll leave a mark." Shinta looked up at him in alarm. "Right here." He pointed to the middle of his forehead, and Shinta rubbed at his skin furiously to erase the invisible 'angry marks.'

That was far enough, in Wakasa’s opinion. "Come on," he told Ryōhei. "Outside, now."

"What, am I one of your kids now?"

"You’re clearly here to talk, and we're not having whatever conversation it is you want here." Ryōhei practically shrugged to his feet, but he didn't disagree.

"Outside?" Meiko’s ears perked up, and Wakasa regretted having used the word. "Take me too! Meiko want to go outside!" Her tiny voice pleaded.

"Can I go?" Shinta asked, suddenly interested.

"No," Ayume intervened. "You're going to stay right there and finish your homework, young man." Shinta pouted, but he didn’t protest since he knew he had just barely escaped from punishment a moment before.

"Sorry pal," Ryōhei told him. "Looks like you gotta spend some time locked up here, huh?"

Wakasa sent his brother towards the front door with a single look. He then turned his attention to Meiko, who had somehow latched on to his leg again. "Time to let go now," he told her. She shook her head and hugged him tighter.

"Take Meiko," Ayume told him. Wakasa looked at her in alarm, but Ayume frowned. "I don’t want either of you two—I don’t want you two to be alone." She said. Wakasa nodded, but although he was unhappy with his wife's decision, he trusted her judgment. It was probably for the best to prevent whatever disagreement between them from getting out of hand. Wakasa suddenly remembered the trigger he still carried in his wrist—the control for Ryōhei's metal collar. That helped to put his mind at ease... a little.

"Thank you," he told her.

She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Curry rice for dinner," she said. Please be careful, she meant.

After helping Meiko into her favorite yellow shoes, Wakasa allowed her to lead him and Ryōhei to the playground outside the apartment complex. For a moment, the brothers didn't say anything to each other, content to allow the sound of the swing that Wakasa pushed back and forth under the solitary pool of light from the street lamp to be the only thing stretching between their silence. Meiko kicked her feet out, content just to spend time with Wakasa even in the absence of words.

"You're incredibly lucky," Ryōhei finally said. He was crouching on the park bench nearby as he watched the two of them.

For the first time, Wakasa looked at his brother, taking in his features; the new lines on his face. He was the same age now as Wakasa had been then. It was obvious that he had changed, the barely contained intensity that had been so characteristic of the Sniping-blade of the Hidden Mist having been calmed over ten years. It struck him how easily their positions could have been reversed: if it had been him instead of Ryōhei who had taken up arms against the Mizukage. They had both been capable of it at the time, and in a way each had followed their own sense of loyalty without wavering: Wakasa had carried out his duty to the village, while Ryōhei had remained true to his friends.

"So," Wakasa said. "What did the Mizukage promise you in exchange for volunteering yourself as a scapegoat?" He used the term as an ironic reference to one of Ryōhei's old hunter-nin handles, which didn’t escape Ryōhei's notice.

"Does that matter?"

Wakasa gave Meiko another push on the swing, who giggled as she soared into the air. "He can’t be trusted," Wakasa admitted, more to himself than to Ryōhei.

Ryōhei scoffed. "I stopped relying on trust a long time ago," he rubbed the wound in his hand, kneading his palm with his thumb. "I’m not like you."

Wakasa raised an eyebrow, smirking as Ryōhei showed a glimmer of his former self. But then he became serious. "I’m probably partly to blame for that," he sighed, but said nothing more. Neither of them had ever apologized to each other about what had happened, and Wakasa wasn't sure if it was because they both refused to or if words were no longer necessary, having come to an implicit understanding between them.

"After everything that happened..." Ryōhei began to probe, "you'd still follow the Mizukage?"

Wakasa didn't answer immediately. He wasn’t sure if Ryōhei was referring to the recent mission or the long-dead rebellion, but either way he had just phrased his inner doubts aloud. And he still didn't know the answer.

"I'm not like you either," he said to Ryōhei. "You and I both know it's not just the Mizukage who has skeletons in the closet. I wish it were otherwise, but peace is peace, and a lie is better than blood running in the streets. I can’t go back on the allegiance I’ve sworn to the Hidden Village. I'm loyal to Kirigakure, not Chōjūrō himself."

"Well you have balls for standing up to him, I'll give you that." Ryōhei admitted. "But it still sounds like the same excuses he uses."

Wakasa didn't respond, fully aware of the hypocrisy. "I have things to protect too, Ryōhei," he said at last, watching Meiko's cloth hat flop in the wind as he pushed her towards the sky.

"And you think I don't?" Ryōhei finally showed his resentment, the years of anger that had been stifled beneath a prisoner’s collar. "Or do you still see me as nothing more than a criminal?"

"It's not like I'm innocent either, Ryōhei. I shouldn't have left you alone these past years." He wished now that he had made more efforts to reach out to him, knowing it was much too late for such regrets.

Ryōhei clicked his tongue in annoyance. "I'm not angry that you left me to rot in a cell. In the end, I probably would’ve been forced to do the same." He clenched his fists so hard that a spot of blood appeared on his bandaged hand. "No—You know what really kills me? That you don’t realize that all I want is a sliver of the same happiness you’ve built for yourself here," he said, then added: "I guess I didn’t make the family cut."

Pain crossed Wakasa's face before he could look away. He allowed the swing to slow to a stop, ignoring Meiko's complaints. He didn't know what could be said to bridge the gap between them, how he could apologize for everything—and it wasn't as if it would free either of them from the chains of the past.

"Look," he sighed, "Even after everything that's happened, you're still my brother. I hope you realize that." He held Ryōhei's gaze evenly. "But I can't go back on my convictions and help you."

"I've already realized that," he said.

There was an awkward moment of silence between them. Meiko gave up on trying to get Wakasa's attention, and went to study a line of rocks in the grass instead. She started to sniff in the damp air, and Wakasa regretted taking her outside so late. "So then, what will you do now?" he asked, fearing that he already knew the answer.

Ryōhei noticed his suspicion and became guarded. "Don't think I’m obligated to tell you, and I doubt you'd want to become implicated in it anyway, commander." His threat was clear, and Wakasa’s eyes narrowed in realization.

"I don’t have to warn you not to make the same mistakes you did ten years ago," he said sternly.

The former swordsman glanced at Meiko, then stood with a sigh. "You don't have to worry about me, brother. And I won’t come around your place again either. I know when I’m not wanted."

That caught Wakasa by surprise. Maybe he didn't know Ryōhei as well as he had before. Either that or his brother had changed more than he had thought. Both concerned him.

"So long," Ryōhei said with a wave over his shoulder. Something stirred deep within him as he watched his brother walk away. He wanted to reach out and grab him by the shoulder and embrace him. But he knew he'd only end up with a knife in his back.

"Come on Meiko, time to go home... before it starts to rain."

He said it with an air of finality as Ryōhei's figure vanished into the mist.

After / Before the Storm

Three days later, Wakasa was summoned to the Mizukage’s office again, this time to accompany Chōjūrō for a virtual Kage Summit that had been called to order by Darui. Truth be told, Wakasa was surprised Chōjūrō hadn’t called him to his office sooner. Once more, a subtle doubt began to nag at the back of his mind, yet even though he didn’t agree with the surreptitious methods, Wakasa was already implicated in Chōjūrō’s scheme and had no choice but to comply.

When the Summit concluded, Chōjūrō shut down the holographic screen after running a debug and hacker identifier program. He then leaned back with a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose in consternation. “Well, what’s your verdict, commander?” he asked.

Wakasa released the disguise he had been using with a hand seal. He glanced in the direction of the Fifth, who was leaning against the wall with a disquieted expression, and then cleared his throat.

“Although I can’t say with absolute certainty,” he began, “It seems as though Harōgakure has tipped their hand. The Admiral made it obvious that they were the ones behind the attack on the three tails.”

Chōjūrō nodded, folding his fingers and lowering his chin behind his hands. “So then what would you recommend?”

Wakasa frowned as he considered their options. He didn’t like the sinister light in the Mizukage’s eyes: the way the glare of light on his glasses masked whatever he was really thinking.

“Before we do anything else, I suggest we search for concrete proof that Harōgakure was there.”

“Such as?”

Wakasa bit down on the side of his thumb as he thought. “Specifically, I’d say a chakra signature that links to the soul piece we extracted.”

“I concur,” Chōjūrō nodded.

“That said, and with all due respect sir,” Wakasa added, praying silently that Mei would back him up. “In order to bring this to the Shinobi Union’s attention, you’ll have to explain what happened to Karatachi.”

The atmosphere in the room turned frigid as Wakasa’s superior leveled his gaze in his direction.

“The only reason I decided to keep the Jinchūriki hidden from the other Five Nations is because we need that power to protect ourselves against threats such as Harōgakure.” The Mizukage stood, his voice barely able to restrain his rage. It would seem as though Wakasa had a knack for getting under Chōjūrō’s skin, but at the moment the thought wasn’t as amusing as it would have been otherwise. “In times such as these, we can’t rely on our allies, who are dealing with their own issues. It is imperative that we arm ourselves in case of a very likely attack from whatever this new threat is. So with all due respect, Wakasa-san, I need viable solutions.”

At last, Mei interrupted, stepping between the two to prevent them from going at each other’s throats—again. Hoh? So that was why Chōjūrō had waited so long to see him, even though it would have been more prudent to consult with his Jōnin Commander immediately after the mission's debriefing. For some reason, Chōjūrō was still sore at him, Wakasa finally realized. He smirked, about to say something he would no doubt regret later.

“Enough,” Mei said, cutting him off. “Wakasa-kun raises a good point: before anything else we need evidence of our attackers.” She turned her burning jade eyes on Chōjūrō. “And I hope you’re not planning to use that information to launch a preemptive attack. This is the new era. Even if they are a minor village, there’s no reason why this can’t be solved diplomatically.”

Wakasa admired the Fifth’s idealism, but deep down he knew it was only that: empty altruism. The situation had already escalated beyond their control, and he doubted a village who had the guts and firepower to attack a tailed beast had any intention of coming to peaceful terms with a Hidden Village. And that was why they needed the Shinobi Union. Why didn’t either of them seem to realize that?

“Very well,” Chōjūrō conceded. “Perhaps we can convince Harō to back down without revealing them to the Union. After all, the threat of force is more effective than force itself.” He nodded, and his cold indifference caused the hair on the back of Wakasa’s neck to stand on end. He realized that, looming before him was not the return of the Bloody Mist era but rather something else entirely. He was staring at a shadow, a twisted reflection of the overt violence of the Fourth’s reign. In place of blades and teeth was the cool efficiency of a no-less intimidating machine—one that could actually execute its orders without risk of caving into bloody feuds.

He began to think that, perhaps, Ryōhei had been right after all.

“To that end,” Chōjūrō continued, the cadence of his voice unbroken. “We’ll form a squad to investigate and obtain said evidence.”

Wakasa grimaced, realizing that would likely entail infiltrating the Land of Merchants itself. It wouldn’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination.

“What about the task force sir?” he asked, referring to what had been brought up during the Summit. “Who do you want on detail for that?”

“I’ll leave that as well as the formation of the squad up to you.” Chōjūrō told him. “We’ll need skilled operatives, and for the investigation, at least one member who can match chakra signatures.”

Wakasa nodded, immediately thinking of his brother. The problem was, could he be trusted?

“What about Mētsuki-kun?” he asked as an alternative.

“There’s already something I have in mind for her, please exclude her from your considerations.”

“Understood.” Worry seized Wakasa as he thought of his former student, who was still recovering at the Hōzuki Estate. What exactly was Chōjūrō planning?

“If you don’t mind my asking sir, but what do you have in mind for her?” He was careful to keep the edge of concern out of his voice, but his question was firm. He wasn’t the only one who could maintain a steely composure, and Chōjūrō would realize that this was one question he couldn’t evade.

“I’ve decided to make her my assistant in Kagura-kun’s stead,” he answered coolly. “Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“Yeah, it does.” Wakasa kept his guard up, but nearly breathed a sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t be forced to participate in any high risk assignments for the time being. He just hoped Chōjūrō’s influence wouldn’t rub off on her.

“About Karatachi-san,” Mei interjected. “How are you going to explain his absence?”

Her question rang like a sour note, and the three accomplices lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Finally, Chōjūrō responded.

“For all intents and purposes,” he said quietly. “Kagura-kun is dead to the world. Perhaps we should announce it officially.”

When he was met with silence, he looked at the two of them. “You don’t agree?”

Wakasa rubbed the back of his neck. “It's—I can understand why you’d want to keep suspicions at bay, but the problem is that we’ve already given the other Five Nations the idea that Kagura is still alive and well here in Kiri.”

Chōjūrō clasped his hands behind his back. “Then, let's say that, hypothetically, the damage done to Kagura's soul was irreparable when he was attacked by the soul possession technique. While he seemed fine during the Summit, the effects eventually took hold, and he suffered a rebound. This provides us another layer of defense should any of the other Kage become suspicious of Kagura’s death. In that scenario, we’ll simply divert their suspicions by presenting the evidence that pins the entire incident on Harō.”

Wakasa finally realized the feint for what it was: it was a way for Chōjūrō to avoid having to explain that they had a Jinchūriki. He wasn't sure if he was more disgusted by Chōjūrō's drastic measures or the fact that he wasn't surprised by his drastic measures.

“It’s extremely unsavory... And entirely dishonorable,” Mei voiced some of his thoughts for him.

Chōjūrō sighed, glancing out the window to the mist-covered roofs of the city outside. Everything was coated in heavy gray. It seemed to weigh down on the Mizukage’s shoulders.

“Nonetheless, we’ve already—” he corrected himself, “I’ve already stooped low when I used Kagura-kun as an unwitting host. Perhaps a false funeral would be dishonorable, as you put it but...” he looked at the Fifth. “At the very least it would allow me to make some small amends. Please allow me this one caprice.” There was regret in his tone, but by then Wakasa questioned whether it was genuine or not. He maintained a stony silence, utterly repulsed but what the Mizukage was continually asking them to do and deeply pained when he thought about what this would do to Mētsuki. She was also a victim, and he had treated her harshly after she had sealed the Jinchūriki on Chōjūrō’s orders. It was time that he made his own amends—genuine ones.

Mei folded her arms. “Very well,” she said softly. Behind her tense expression was an ocean of disappointment in what Chōjūrō had become. But, like Wakasa, she had already been pulled along too far by his strings to free herself from his web of deceit. Both the Fifth and the Jōnin Commander wondered if his delicately constructed maze would one day serve as his own undoing... and theirs. Was it loyalty that motivated Wakasa to abide by Chōjūrō’s increasingly detestable commands? Or was it simple self-preservation?

He wasn’t sure if there was a difference anymore.

Pretenses of Grief

A few days later, they held the funeral without a body.

While Kyohō Fuefuki’s death had been marked as a small aside in the Mizukage’s private records, no such note had been made for Kagura. Instead, a small ceremony to commemorate his service to Kirigakure was held in front of the Memorial Tower. A framed photo had been placed on the dark slate steps, surrounded by hastily plucked flowers whose white petals were already wilting in the biting cold humidity. Thunder rolled softly. It was drizzling rain.

Only a small crowd had gathered to honor the young swordsman’s death. The practice of holding funerals had only been recently implemented during Mei’s reign as the Fifth, and it would seem that Kiri still hadn’t grown accustomed to it. At least, those present didn’t seem to mourn his passing. The only one who had cried was Meiko, who had fussed briefly before Ayume had whisked her away; her face apologetic for the interruption. She had accompanied Wakasa despite having only met Kagura a few times briefly, and yet Ayume had expressed more pain at the loss of Wakasa’s colleague than Wakasa had himself.

“It all seems so sudden,” she had said, expressing the same concern that always plagued her when she thought of Wakasa not returning home. He wanted to apologize to her for making her revisit those fears, but he was bound by his code of silence to the Mizukage.

Wakasa clenched his jaw, biting back his anger.

At the end of the memorial service the crowd dissipated. Mei and Chōjūrō returned to headquarters, while Kagura’s few associates and former classmates went their separate ways after paying their respects. Kagura was an orphan, so at the very least he had no parents to grieve for his false death.

The only one who lingered at the foot of the tower was a slender figure, her pale hair lifted by the cool breeze. Wakasa couldn’t tell if she was staring at Kagura’s picture or the flat expanse of the gray sea that stretched across the horizon beyond. He sighed, and started to approach her, but Ayume caught him by the arm.

“Give her time,” she said. “She didn’t look at you at all during the entire funeral. I don’t know what happened between you two but I think it’d be best if you gave each other some space.”

Wakasa wasn’t surprised that she had detected the tension between him and his former student. Ayume was naturally empathetic, and even though she wasn’t aware of the full situation, he trusted her judgment. There would be a better time to approach Mētsuki. He nodded.

“I know you want to comfort her,” Ayume said.

“No you’re right,” he said, with one last glance at Mētsuki’s lonely figure. “Let’s go.”

Mētsuki’s hand raised to wipe away the tear that was rolling down her cheek. Though it wasn’t hers, but that of the rain droplets that spoke for her. Her gaze lowered to absentmindedly stare at the tips of her fingers stained with the sin of the horrific act. The guilt gnawed at her mind ever since.

Kagura’s funeral was a fabrication for it, she knew this, yet... “Why did it feel so surreal?

Her thoughts wandered to the core of her turmoil. It hadn’t started a few days ago—the grimace of the Hōzuki situation had been ongoing for years. Probably since the day her brother had gone missing, which led to her goodbyes to her loved ones. Kagura, he was present that day. Only for them to meet again for a mission of treachery after nearly seven years of separation. And the fainting presence of her former mentor reminded her that their bond was shattered likely as well.

But what exactly did she gain with this by? Had she not found interest in the sealing art, perhaps none of it would have happened. A very naïve belief that a different path would have been there for her, for them, if it had been anything else. All she had wanted was an escape from the torment of the elders and parents, and yet she became entangled in a power far above them. The strings the Sixth Mizukage pulled to make her abide by his will, it was worse than they had ever done. A battle between securing her brother's life and a new chance to obtain freedom made her do the worst. In the end, the only blame lied with her. Her interest in the sealing art that she mastered was the cause of it all.

No!” a whisper louder than any other blocked out the false insecurities, "we are not to be blamed."

That's right. Mētsuki's cold gaze returns to stare at the frame that held Kagura's picture. Because as much as she would want to scream, yell and perhaps vent out her frustrations through violence, the timid Hōzuki girl had yet to find herself capable of doing so. Instead, Mētsuki's nails dug deeply into the palm of her hand, enough to draw blood that washed away quickly with the rain. Perhaps this method wasn't the best way of presenting her anger, but for her it was a start to express her genuine emotions, even if it was subtle.

At that moment, a threatening presence seemed to materialize from the rain surrounding her. A sharp, familiar chakra signature seemed to press against the back of her neck like the tip of a knife.

“You seem worked up,” Ryōhei’s voice interrupted her introspective thoughts. He didn’t immediately become visible, relying on the drizzle to disperse his chakra signature in the rain and the soundlessness of the Silent Killing technique to keep his exact location a mystery. “You crying over a fake funeral?”

The stinging pain began to soothe away as her small injury healed from the absorption of rain droplets on her skin. She lifted her hand in curiosity at the same time as a voice cut through. But who knew how long Ryōhei had been present here, perhaps she hadn’t been alone the entirety of this joke. “I thought I should at least pretend,” Mētsuki’s voice was laced with sarcasm. An attempt to hide her negative feelings from a moment ago.

Ryōhei was a little disappointed that she didn’t seem surprised that he was there. “You know I risked my neck to come here,” he said. “My restraining orders state I can’t be anywhere near the Mizukage except for a direct summons.” His voice practically shrugged for him. “I’m surprised Wakasa’s tracker didn’t go off.”

There seemed to be a movement in the gray mist in the air around her: a shadow that moved through the faint rain. Was he circling her? Yet if Mētsuki spread her fingers apart, if she allowed her senses to connect with the droplets or water hovering around her, if she closed her eyes, she could sense exactly where he was.

“I know where you are,” she said, channeling her anger in her voice. It came as a sharp threat as a result. “Stop playing games, Ryōhei-san. We aren’t children.”

“Do you know,” Ryōhei asked, his voice lowering in response to her threat. “Why they called me the Sniping Blade of the Hidden Mist?”

A kunai hovered in midair above her throat. It hadn't been there a second before. Mētsuki could feel his breath on her neck as he grinned through jagged teeth. Her own breath hitched, yet she held her ground, holding her chin high.

"Are you planning to drive that knife into your own neck?"

Neither Ryōhei nor Mētsuki moved. A drop of rain slid down the single line in the center of the kunai's blade.

“Good thing you’re a Hōzuki, huh?” He said it with a barely constrained snarl. There was a sharp hum as rain water slid over the razor wire, and the kunai vanished.

Mētsuki breathed again. Just why did she challenge him knowingly that she was no match for him. Damned anger making her do irresponsible things, not even in the slightest control of her actions. At least the short demonstration proved that even with her enhanced sensing with the rain was disappointing against a Hunter-nin of Ryōhei’s calibre. And when her clan’s name dropped with such disdain, even Mētsuki found herself giggling in the current situation. “Not in the slightest, Ryōhei-san,” she answered him, “I’ve a dislike for my family.” As the wire went away, Mētsuki found herself quickly making a step or two away from Ryōhei, turning around to face him. “And you’ve made your point. Though, if I may, if it was such a risk to be here, why did you come?”

Ryōhei could sense the brief spike in her chakra—courtesy of her anger, and was put-off by the sudden tone of sarcasm. He was supposed to be the sarcastic one, damn it. The more he was forced to interact with Mētsuki, the more he was reminded of how much he disliked the Hōzuki. A shudder of disgust ran down his spine thinking about it, but he set those personal feelings aside for the time being. “I wanted to see who showed up for Karatachi’s funeral,” he explained. “Since I’ve been looped out of the Anbu’s correspondence, this is the only way I can gain information.”

He glanced up at the tower above them, and the shadow of countless memories passed across his expression. Ten years had passed since their rebellion had begun here. It seemed ironic that Kagura’s funeral had been held at the very site where Shizuma had conscripted him into their group of swordsmen. They hadn’t realized it at the time, but it would later serve as their downfall. Now, Kagura had met his own official demise. But instead of the grim satisfaction Shizuma and the others might have felt towards the one who had betrayed them, Ryōhei felt hollow. In the end, all they had fought for had been for nothing. The corruption continued, and now Kagura—who had blindly refused to see the dark underbelly of Chōjūrō’s regime—had been buried by it too. Shizuma was right, but Ryōhei found it tremendously hard to care. As always, he preferred to mind his own business, even though he knew that was slowly becoming impossible.

Ryōhei swore and spat to the side. “Course, they didn’t bother to send me a fucking invite.” He said, dragging his arm across his mouth. “Karatachi was an underclassman of mine in the academy. Shizuma even mentored him before we graduated. It’s not like we’re completely devoid of loyalty.” He narrowed his eyes, staring at Mētsuki. “But then, what would a Hōzuki such as yourself know about loyalty.”

Mētsuki’s determination that had been built thus far crumbled completely. His words repeated in her mind, overshadowing the voice that encouraged her to express herself mere moments ago. It made her clasp her arm with her right hand tightly, which caused her to just recede back to her former shell. She shifted herself to face the ocean, her gaze following the gulfs of the sea clashing against the side of the cliff, for she refused to give Ryōhei a glance. She didn’t want him to read the fright in her eyes, the gnawing guilt that had rendered her sleepless nights. In some way, his words may be unfair and cruel, but they are no lies—she is a traitor. Kagura’s demise was painted by her hands, and only by her. Even if she could deny, miserably whine that she never had the experience of the Academy like them, it made no difference to what she had done. Maybe, just maybe, if she had permission from those controlling elders, things would have been different. She would have had genuine friends, not the peers of her clan. Because as it stands, there’s a wall between everyone and herself—she is the feeble Hōzuki Princess in the eyes of many, nothing else.

“Nothing,” Mētsuki’s voice sounded more fragile than Ryōhei could remember, if he even noticed, because even she wasn’t sure if her words were true to her heart. “That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”

Ryōhei clicked his tongue, unamused. “Not really,” he said. He could tell that Kagura was eating her up, but they had more pressing matters to deal with, and he was beginning to grow impatient with her wallowing. “To be honest, I don’t really give a damn about whatever pity party you’re throwing for yourself here. We have a bigger problem now.” The cold ocean breeze pushed against them, turning the rain into icy needles that stung at their faces and hands. “How do you plan to approach the Hōzuki now that Karatachi is, as far as everyone else is concerned, dead and buried?”

“It’s not—,” Mētsuki stopped mid-sentence. Her voice may have found courage to raise in protest against his claim, but she knew there was no gaining in arguing with him. He was right, they do have more important matters at hand. “There’s proof I’ll need to truly get them on our side, in some way, but that’s only one step. But to convince them to believe me…,” she trailed off.

“That would be impressive,” Ryōhei responded, his voice taking on a cutting edge, “Considering that, right now, you don’t even have the confidence to look me in the eye.”

Even with that comment, Mētsuki didn’t turn to face him. “Maybe I just feel like watching the ocean,” she answered, another response laced with annoyance hiding under the sarcastic tone. “After all, a conversation doesn’t need eye contact.”

In reality, Ryōhei didn’t know why he had relied on her in the first place. He himself had said it earlier: that they could avoid “trust” altogether so long as they played their cards right. At first, he had been worried that Mētsuki would feel free of her obligation to help him now that Kagura was out of the picture. Fortunately, the portrait of insecurity standing in front of him didn’t seem capable of taking such a decisive measure. Still, it would probably be wise to treat her more carefully on the slim chance that she decided to turn her anger towards him.

“You know,” he said. “I’ve been thinking, and there might be another way: even if we don’t have Karatachi to work with anymore.” He switched the kunai to his other hand thoughtlessly. “Oniyuzu has an older sister in the Anbu. In fact, it just so happens that she’s its commander. Since the two of them are half-Hōzuki, you should get the elders to pressure her into signing release forms for Shizuma and your brother. At any rate, it’d be a hell of a lot easier than trying to convince the Sixth.”

She finally casted a glance at Ryōhei, however, still not meeting his eyes. “The elders are stubborn,” Mētsuki continued, “I know what they want, it’s not the most complex intention… But for them to believe in me is a different matter.”

“Then tell them what they want to hear,” he said. “They aren’t exactly attached to Chōjūrō, after all.” He flicked the kunai back into its holster. “And it will help when you have actual authority to stand on,” he said cryptically.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re going to find this hard to believe, but I overheard the Fifth mention something to the Mizukage as they were leaving the funeral. Asked him if he really wanted to make you his assistant.” He chuckled at the convenience. Maybe after ten years of ill fortune, his luck had finally started to turn.

Huh? She dumbfoundedly thought.

“Thing is, even if we get the commander to sign those documents, it will only work if we can keep the whole thing an autonomous Anbu deal. If Chōjūrō catches wind of this…” He drew a thumb across his throat. “But, as his assistant, you’ll have access to mission details, information about assignments… all that shit. That gives us the edge we need.”

Mētsuki’s gaze raised slightly to read Ryōhei’s expression, instead, she was met with the threatening gesture in case of failure that made her feel smothered. She shifted nervously on the balls of her feet, pondering just what he wanted from her exactly with this.

She didn’t seem to comprehend his meaning immediately, so he continued. “The guards rotate frequently at Hōzuki Prison. That’s because the Five Nations have some sort of agreement over who administers it. Turns out, just before I got out it was Kumo’s turn, which means that Kiri is next in the rotation.” He levelled his gaze at her. “If you can get one of us on guard duty, we can take the Anbu-approved releases to Hōzuki Prison ourselves. They’ll never pass through the Mizukage’s hands, so we’ll be the only ones who’ll know about it.”

“I see,” Mētsuki responded to confirm that she understood it. This time she didn’t avert her gaze from him, they had to be even on this. “Do you know when the next rotation will happen?” Perhaps a stupid question that she asked, but it would help to determine the amount of time she had to obtain the necessities to execute their plan.

Ryōhei glanced up at the dim clouds above them as he thought. The dull light glinted off his prisoner’s collar, reminding them of the stakes they were betting against should they fail and Chōjūrō discover their scheme. “I’d say we have three weeks left,” he said. “That doesn’t leave us much time so… you’d better start working on the elders as soon as possible.”

“I will,” Mētsuki said. Her gaze followed Ryōhei’s to observe the clouds momentarily, before she reminded herself of the time. She had been granted leave from the Hōzuki grounds to attend Kagura’s funeral, but the freedom she yearned had yet to come. Thus she began to take her leave with one last glance at his photo, pausing in her steps when she stood next to Ryōhei with her short stature. “Don’t be reckless, Ryōhei-san. I will contact you next time,” she softly said, as she continued forward as her gaze tore away from him to face what’s to come for them.

“Whatever you say,” Ryōhei called out behind her. “But I’m not the one who needs to be careful here.” Damn broad. He thought to himself. Since when was he taking orders from her?

But his words hung in the air, a heavy threat. After all, it wasn’t just Chōjūrō that Mētsuki had to worry about. Rather, her greatest fear swelled like storm clouds before her:

Facing her clan.

Hidden Convalescence

But Mētsuki and Ryōhei would find that their plans had been accelerated by external forces beyond their control. Namely, a sudden assignment given to them by the Mizukage. Before Mētsuki could convene with the elders of her clan, she received a summons to his office. This time, however, she had at least been expecting it.

Mētsuki maintained her usual expressionless face as Chōjūrō explained to her her new role as his assistant, as well as another, more discrete task that involved the Houzuki themselves. While he did ask if she wanted the position, it was clear that the request wasn’t optional. She would have accepted anyway: it was too important that she infiltrate the Mizukage’s inner circle to turn down his offer. Still, she knew that he had only made her his aide because he thought she could still be manipulated by her brother. Maybe she could, but the strings that attached her to Chōjūrō’s hand were beginning to snap, one by one. Now, it was only a matter of biding her time, waiting for the opportune moment. But that was something she had learned to do under the stifling norms of the Houzuki anyway: to remain silent unless spoken to, and to observe very closely from the forgotten corners all the inner workings of those who considered her to be irrelevant. Their underestimation of her would serve to be her greatest weapon.

As she was leaving the office, and still lost in thought, Mētsuki found that she had nearly collided with a familiar presence in the hall.

It was Wakasa.

“Good morning Sensei,” Mētsuki curtly bowed her head in respect to him. She wanted to move on, not exactly wanting to face Wakasa still. Because while she had missed his presence in her life dearly, once he returned in it, she was only allowed to keep dangerous secrets from him.

“Yo, Mētsuki-kun.” His cold eyes softened as he greeted her. “Hey, I know this is sudden but I’ve been meaning to ask: Are you… doing okay?” The concern in his voice was genuine, as he wondered how she had been handling the cover-up that had been Kagura’s fake funeral. But then, before she could respond, his gaze hardened as he seemed to realize the implications of her being there. He looked beyond her to the door of the Mizukage’s office and frowned, thinking back to the conversation he had had with Chōjūrō a few days ago. Ah, that was right: she was the new assistant now. “It’s a surprise to see you here,” he stated, his meaning unclear.

She lowered her gaze the moment Wakasa’s warmth dissipated. “I suppose I’m alright,” Mētsuki lied, but her small action would alert him about her discomfort. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell him about her genuine feelings about the situation. “Ah, yes,” she had a soft smile, “the Mizukage assigned me to be his aide.”

Wakasa nodded. “I see.”

There was a moment of silence between them, as they both seemed at a loss for words. Finally, Wakasa cleared his throat. “Look, Mētsuki-kun.” He sighed heavily. “I don’t know what the Mizukage is holding over your head, and I won’t ask about the specifics. I understand that these kinds of situations can be… difficult, and I wouldn’t want to compromise your position.” He shook his head, thinking briefly of Ryōhei before he stepped closer. He placed a steadying hand on her shoulder. “But please be careful. I know a lot has happened these last few days, and we’re all walking on eggshells here.” He gave her a forced smile, reminiscent of the days in which they had been nothing more than teacher and student. I don’t want us to be enemies, he wanted to say. “You can still talk to me, okay?”

“I—,” she started. But then she was reminded of Ryōhei’s words: “You can’t trust anyone, not even Wakasa.” Wakasa made it no easier for her with the pressure of his hand on her shoulder, which made her remember the better days. When she had her protective, yet fearsome older brother by her side to fend off the Hōzuki elders, her mentor’s daily visits and her time spent with Kagura. Though, as much as she wanted to spill it all out, she knew that everything would be jeopardised. Chōjūrō would hear of it. It would be the end for her and Ryōhei—and the Hōzuki clan. That’s why Mētsuki appreciated Wakasa’s gesture, and she took his hand in her own. “Thank you, Sensei. I will.” Her soft voice answered him genuinely, but with an unfinished sentence that continued in her mind:

But only when all of this is over.

Wakasa watched her walk away, torn that he couldn’t do more for his former student. Empathy had never been his strong suit, but this wasn’t a question of empathy: it was about protecting those who were close to him. He set his jaw firmly as he turned to enter the Mizukage’s office, his vision blurring with a surge of anger. It was Chōjūrō who had jeopardized Mētsuki’s safety, who had turned Kagura into a hollow shell, who kept Ryōhei on a leash while pretending to release him back into normal society... and Wakasa’s patience was growing thin. Still, despite all the signs that pointed to the dark undercurrent of corruption—tremors in deep water—he refused to act against the evil that was clearly before him. After all, if he didn’t blame Chōjūrō, there was only one person left to point a finger at. So, he clung to his stubborn loyalty. Not to Chōjūrō, he repeated to himself again and again—it was for the sake of Kiri itself.

Wakasa nearly wrenched the handle from the door as he stepped inside the Mizukage’s office.

“You wanted to see me sir?” His terse tone cut like a knife.

Chōjūrō was standing at his desk, hands clasped behind his back as he stared out at the city outside his window. “Thank you for your punctuality, as always,” he said without turning to acknowledge him. “Please wait for the others.”

Wakasa crossed his arms over his chest, thinking of how different the office seemed compared to when he had been summoned there for the three-tails assignment. Had it really only been a week ago? It felt like a year had passed since then. Lost in thought, he barely noticed when the door opened again and Ryōhei stepped inside.

Neither of them said a word to each other, but they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes as Ryōhei took his position at Wakasa’s side. It was an unintentional habit from their former days as hunter-nin, but now seemed like a mockery under their current circumstances. Wakasa bit down on the side of his thumb, this time in frustration. He felt a sting and the taste of blood, but ignored it.

Finally, they were joined by the final two shinobi who had been summoned by Chōjūrō: Misuno, the red-haired kunoichi and former director of the Genin teams who had accompanied Chōjūrō to the Chūnin exams ten years ago, and a tall, white-haired man: yet another member of the Hōzuki: Aogetsu.

Wakasa had been forced to recommend him after Chōjūrō had rejected his suggestion that Mētsuki join the team, and he was still suspicious as to the Mizukage’s real reasons for keeping Mētsuki in Kirigakure. For his part, Ryōhei muttered under his breath when he saw Aogetsu.

“Not another damn Hōzuki,” he snarled. “What is this? A cockroach infestation?” Wakasa shot him a look.

Aogetsu respectfully bowed to Chōjūrō as he entered the room. "Hello, Lord Mizukage. What is it we were called for?" Aogetsu looked around the Kage's office, taking in the openness of the room. Rather... open and empty for the office of the village leader. Aogetsu thought to himself, his face momentarily turning to a frown. He realized his position, however, and quickly refocused himself.

Then Aogetsu heard Ryōhei's comment. "What's the problem with my clan? At least call us guppies, if you must insult us," Aogetsu chided, in a voice filled partially with annoyance and the other half with humor. He knew Ryōhei was a former hunter-nin and a dangerous individual, so he should hold his tongue to some extent, but he did not fear the man. Furthermore, Aogetsu couldn't help himself, he didn't like the idea of feeling his clan or himself was being disrespected. This was especially in the office once held by a member of his very clan.

“I’ll call you whatever I damn please,” Ryōhei retaliated. Wakasa rolled his eyes. Just like old times, huh, he thought

“Enough.” The Mizukage’s sharp tone cut across the empty expanse of the room, and Ryōhei straightened to attention. Chōjūrō pinched the bridge of his nose in consternation. “Please try to maintain a level of civility here, we’re not genin.” He sighed. “I’m just glad the two of you won’t be on the same team.”

“Would you like me to give the mission briefing sir?” Wakasa asked.

Chōjūrō narrowed his eyes behind his thick glasses at the Jōnin Commander, as if he were carefully considering his offer. “That won’t be necessary,” he said at last. It was subtle, but in that moment there seemed to have been a falter of trust: a shift in the balance of power. Wakasa stiffened, but told himself that it was merely the Mizukage exercising the utmost caution in front of the others.

The Sixth opened up the holographic computer screen that hovered above his desk. He clicked through to the dossier on the mission’s assignment, showing the team the visuals as he explained. “You three will be assigned on a covert reconnaissance mission to the Land of Waves,” he said. “Some of you may be unaware, but Kagura Karatachi recently passed away. The circumstances of his death involved a top-secret operation to stop a group of unknown attackers from capturing the three-tails. While the mission was successful, Kagura-kun was soul-possessed by the leader of the insurgents. He managed to temporarily escape but...” Choujuurou paused, his expression grim. “Unfortunately, by the time we noticed that there had been other adverse effects it was too late.”

The Mizukage gave Wakasa a pointed look, who cleared his throat. “He just... slipped away. We couldn’t do anything.” He clenched his fists as he told the half-lie, reliving his helplessness as he had watched Kagura suffer.

“We have reason to believe that the attackers were from Harōgakure,” Chōjūrō continued evenly. “However, as opposed to risking open conflict by infiltrating the Land of Merchants directly, we’ve decided to opt for a more subtle approach.”

An image appeared on the screen, displaying the symbol of an eel drawn in red ink that circumscribed the character "た."

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the Taunagi crime syndicate,” he said. “Several years ago, Kiri intervened in a conflict within the Land of Waves, but despite our efforts the gang was able to seize control of the ports to establish their smuggling operation there. However, what’s relevant to this mission is that their leader is allegedly an information broker and—” he paused to glance at the assembled Kiri-nin, “A trade partner with Harou. Or at least,” he smirked, “Their ships come to port there.”

He clasped his hands behind his back. “Your task will be to contact the leader of the Taunagi, whoever he is, and utilize his connections to obtain chakra samples from as many Harō-nin as possible.” Chōjūrō gestured to his desk, where three hand-held devices equipped with triggers and a square stock had been placed. “These are chakra register devices that can detect signatures and correlate it to the one that has been pre-loaded onto the guns. They function similarly to an infrared sensor. Once you’ve encountered a match, they’ll send an alert. We obtained a chakra sample of the man who killed Kagura-kun, and the guns have been preset to his signature. Your task is simply to confirm his identity. Are there any questions on that point?”

There was no response from the team, so he nodded. “In order to avoid arousing Harō's suspicions, your cover will be that of hunter-nin assigned to track down and capture this man.” He flicked to another image on the screen, this time of a blue-haired individual covered in tattoos. Wakasa recognized him as a former Kiri genin. “Takanami Senka, a former shinobi of Kiri who’s become a missing-nin. According to our sources he’s currently operating as a member of the Taunagi in the Land of Waves.” Chōjūrō nodded, satisfied that all the necessary details had been addressed.

“Now, as for your assignment, Aogetsu-san,” he said as he turned to the Hōzuki. “You’re to join up with the tailed beast protection task force assembled by the Shinobi Union, set to rendezvous in Konohagakure. I’ve received some information that your team will include a member from Harō, so not only are you to aid the task force in locating the tailed beasts, but it is vital that you monitor the Harō-nin for any signs of treachery against the Shinobi Union.” He looked at Aogetsu, as if gauging the man’s intentions, before continuing: “I also understand that you wish to recover the sword Samehada, and for that you have my official approval. However, please do not allow your personal interests to interfere in your true mission.”

Aogetsu nodded as he was told this. Hearing of the passing of Kagura was hard to hear. He was well known for his prowess and love of the village. Some had even thought he could be the next Mizukage, should Chōjūrō retire or die. Some even hoped for it to happen, as even Aogetsu knew of rising factions with a distaste for the village's leader.

Regardless, Aogetsu looked forward to the idea of working with shinobi form the other nations of the Shinobi Union, as well as the prospect of combat. However, what caught his mind the most was the mention of Samehada. The sword was rumored to be in the Land of Fire, this could be Aogetsu's chance to reclaim it for Kirigakure. "I will keep my eyes open for the sword, but maintain the task I was ordered to do. If I may ask, do you known which of the beasts will be out first target?"

“That information has remained classified,” Chōjūrō answered. “But based on the meeting point for the task force and rumors of the tailed-beasts’ last known location, I would say it’s safe to venture that you’ll be searching for the two-tails.” Chōjūrō then addressed the Kiri-nin in the room as a whole. “Now, if there are no other issues—”

“Yeah hold on, Mizukage-sama. I got an issue.” Ryōhei cut in. Everyone stared at him, and he waited until the silence became uncomfortable before he continued. “I’m guessing that, should our Hōzuki operative here succeed in retrieving Samehada, that the blade will go to him?”

“In cases where the swordsmen are needed to respond, yes that is most likely.” Chōjūrō said, a tick of annoyance evident in his tone.

"So, how do we know he can handle it? In case you forgot, Samehada is a bitch, and tends to prefer the shark-type chakra of the Hoshigaki... and even then they say that not all of them could handle it.” he fixed a cynical glare in Aogetsu’s direction. “So why would this guy be an exception?.”

On the surface, Wakasa knew that his brother was asking a valid question about the Samehada’s chakra preferences. But beneath the immediately obvious was a strain of jealousy. As usual, Ryōhei was peeved that the sword would go to someone he disliked for no other apparent reason than his family lineage. Still, the Jōnin Commander was curious to see how the potential swordsmen would respond to the potential setback.

"Because," Aogetsu said as he shifted his shirt, "I'm not all Hōzuki." As he said this, light glistened on the man's flesh. However, it wasn't the skin. Instead, it was patches light blue, scale-like patterns on his body. "Not quite as sharky as the likes of the Hoshigaki, but Samehada responds well to chakra of a fish-like quality. Fuguki, Kisame, and the Eight-Tails jinchūriki all had that trait. It is starting to sound like that 'guppy' joke from earlier really applies," Aogetsu smirked, before having a pondering look on his face about the nature of the statement. "Well, not a guppy, but a fish nonetheless. Along with my having pretty decent reserves of chakra."

Aogetsu returned his attention to Chōjūrō. "The Two-Tails, interesting beast to meet. Regarding his statement, if I do come across Samehada and it doesn't accept me, I intend to try and bring it back home regardless. Kiri should not be without its precious weapons... especially since one has been lost." Aogetsu looked down. Word travels quickly, and the destruction of Kabutowari almost felt like a slap on the pride of Kiri. Far from his favorite of the blades, but still a symbol of pride for the village.

As Aogetsu rambled on, Ryōhei’s expression shifted to one of brief confusion before going entirely blank. “More like a jellyfish,” he grumbled. Nonetheless, he seemed placated by the Hōzuki’s answer.

“Very well,” the Mizukage spoke with an air of finality, drawing the meeting to a close. “Now if everyone’s questions have been sufficiently answered, and there are no other concerns,” he leveled his four-eyed stare in Ryōhei’s direction, “I have nothing further to add. You’ll all be sent a copy of the mission dossier to review on your own time. I expect that both of you will follow Wakasa’s orders on this assignment as if they were my own. As for you, Aogetsu-san, I trust that you won’t allow the Hidden Mist to be put to shame.”

For a moment, the Sixth’s shoulders, framed by the thick mist outside the office, seemed to sag with a sudden tiredness; perhaps the result of his own tangled webs. “You are dismissed,” he announced.

“Yes sir,” they responded in unison before the shinobi of the Hidden Mist dispersed.