Chapter 39

"Hey, Uta, look what I got!"

Utakata bit back a sigh as he heard Sute's cheerful voice behind him as he sat on his usual favored park bench. He wanted to ignore her and focus on his book, which had just reached the climax, but he knew that would be a mistake. After knowing Sute for so long he'd learned that particular cheerful tone rarely led to good things for him, especially if he didn't react.

So with great reluctance he tore his gaze away from the book and twisted his head to look back at her, bracing himself for another mamushi (for the fourth time now), some weird-looking plant or whatever else she might thrust in his face.

What he did not expect was to find a small glass jar of some murky green liquid. "...Sute, what's that?" he asked after a moment, instantly on guard.

"Paint!" she chirped happily, and he blinked. That was... surprisingly mundane, actually. She had a bright smile as she pulled the jar closer to herself, chattering all the while. "I ended up finding a book on painting while wandering around the bookstore, and it reminded me of making watercolor paint as a kid. So I decided to try it with some plants because I was bored."

Honestly, this was one of the safer outcomes of Sute being bored. Sute wasn't prone to being overly destructive or anything, but when she got bored, she usually ended up making some... interesting stuff.

Utakata firmly pushed aside the memories of the disturbingly detailed homemade anatomy models and focused on the jar. "How do you even make paint?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"It's actually pretty simple, you just need to grind up plants to make powder and then add water and animal glue. I need to grind up plants anyway to make poisons so got that down. The trickier part is figuring out the colors and finding the right amount of water to use to get the right consistency." She held up the jar with a wry smirk as she added, "This one was my fourteenth attempt."

His eyebrows raised at that. "How did you have enough free time to try fourteen times?" He knew her schedule was more hectic than ever at the hospital, and on top of that he'd suspected for a while she had some other work going on she couldn't discuss with him. When someone went from always being in the village, to suddenly asking you to watch their greenhouse for weeks at a time... well, it didn't take a genius to make some connections.

Even outside her official duties, that didn't even touch on all the time she spent on fuinjutsu practice, training, independent medical research, producing poisons and maintaining the greenhouse. Basically, Sute's wide variety of skills left her with far more to work on than most shinobi and kunoichi. Sometimes he considered it a good thing she turned out to be so horrible at kenjutsu, or he'd probably never see her.

"I have no idea," she replied blithely. "I didn't plan to spend so long on it, but it turned out to be weirdly fun and engrossing?" She shrugged. "Anyways, since I made the paint, I figured I should probably use it. So want to come hang out with me and try it out today?" Utakata hummed, turning back to his book and folding the corner of the page to mark his place.

"Sure, why not." He wanted to finish reading the chapter, but he felt he should do his best to encourage more mundane, harmless interests from Sute, if only for his own sanity. He would inevitably be dragged into her antics anyway, so better to have one that didn't pose a risk of bodily harm.

That was how they spent the next hour seated in a park each holding a mortar and pestle while surrounded by jars. They had decided to work there so they could use wild plants and flowers for practice in grinding the plants. While her greenhouse had plants with much more vivid colors, Sute had said they should wait until they had more experience since those were in more limited supply.

Sute made it look so simple, her motions smooth and practiced as she easily crushed up a flower. Utakata had never actually ground up plants before though, and finding the right amount of force and speed with the pestle proved trickier than he'd expected. He had to abandon a few attempts and start over before he finally got the hang of it. The pair worked in silence for the most part, only breaking it when Sute would correct his motions or give some tips.

He had to admit, he could see what Sute meant by the process being surprisingly engrossing. Once he got the hang of it, something about the motions felt calm and relaxing, making it fairly easy to fall into an almost meditative state. There was a certain rhythm to it, a peaceful atmosphere washing over them.

Time flew by without him noticing, and eventually they returned to her house so she could actually make the paint. Utakata just watched while she mixed the ingredients together, finding it fascinating to watch the colors form. The final colors weren't always what he expected from the plants, but it didn't matter. Once they had a few different shades prepared, the duo set out to another park to try their hand at painting various landscapes.

That had been when they learned something very important: painting was very different from doodling with pencils, or even calligraphy. Though they used the same brushes, these paints proved to be more fluid and suited for broader strokes than the finer details they could make with ink. It also made the paper much wetter than ink, which, combined with the natural humidity from the mist, added to the difficulty.

Still, after a while Utakata proved to be the better painter, much to his amusement. "You use brushes more than I do, shouldn't you be better?" he commented as he lightly swiped the brush over the paper to create a small hill between the trees. With the mist that always blanketed Kiri hiding most of the scenery he had to take some creative liberties, so he'd decided to just decorate the background with random details. He felt pretty pleased with his experiments so far.

Sute's painting, on the other hand... It wasn't bad, per se, but it had a lot more flaws than he'd expected. She'd attempted to draw some of the trees, but the trunks widely varied in width, and the branches looked like they jutted out at random. The foliage looked like circles in some spots and smudges in others. The bottom of the paper meanwhile looked positively damp after she'd coated it in a layer of green to make the ground.

The green-haired girl just sighed as she stared at her work, carefully lifting it off the stone slab she used as a table. "I am not used to using watercolor," she muttered as she wiped the stone with her sleeve to dry it a bit, before spreading out a clean sheet of paper. "We already established that these paints are way different to the ink I use for fuinjutsu. And besides, I never really drew that much to start with, so I don't have much of a base."

"Didn't you say you used to make these paints as a kid?" he mused as he turned back to his own work. "Didn't you use it to paint back then?"

"I did, but kids aren't exactly master artists, and I lost interest in it pretty fast. And even if I was any good, that was a lifetime ago." He rolled his eyes at the hyperbole but didn't comment on it, focusing on his own strokes as they fell back into a comfortable and focused silence.

Painting was indeed trickier than he'd expected, but he found it just as relaxing as making the paints. Evidently Sute agreed since she didn't complain, even if she struggled and had to scrap a few more papers. Over the course of the next hour he could see her improve though, slowly getting the hang of small details whenever he glanced over. Utakata himself finished his current project and started another painting, taking his time.

And then the first drop of water hit the paper.

Utakata froze when a damp circle suddenly blossomed on a spto so far untouched by his brush, small at first but quickly growing in size. Another drop of water landed a second later on top of a hill, the still-wet paint seeming to absorb the water even more strongly. He tilted his head back to look at the sky, murky and gray as always, but a bit darker than usual. From the corner of his eye he could see Sute had also stilled to look at the sky.

"Well, crap," she said, and as if on cue more drops began to fall.

In retrospect, they should have realized that it might rain, but it always tended to be cloudy in Kiri. The typically misty conditions gave the air a perpetual dampness, so it could be easy to mistake the signs of an incoming storm for just normal weather. Still, the fact remained that they were currently outside in a park, far away from any shelter, with paintings made from a water-based paint.

The pair scrambled to their feet before the ground could start to become muddy, but they already knew the paintings would be a lost cause. Even as they got up the colors had already started to run, steadily seeping towards the increasing number of wet spots on the paper and merging together.

For a few moments they just stood in silence, watching as their work was all but washed away by the rain. The rain grew heavier with each second and soon the papers were thoroughly soaked, each stroke of color smearing and blending together into a murky, featureless smudge. In a way, watching the colors mix like that was beautiful and mesmerizing on its own, almost enough to get over the fact that it ruined their work.


"Well, this sucks," he said lamely.

"Yep," Sute agreed, perfectly flat. The pair heaved tired sighs and moved to start cleaning up, but then Sute suddenly jolted. "Shit, the paint!" Utakata startled, eyes going wide with horror as his head snapped towards the open jars of their homemade paint. Sure enough the rain had already poured inside the open lids, not enough to make the paint overflow, but the colors already visibly diluted from the sudden infusion of water.

They raced over to cover them, but the damage had already been done. When he lifted one he could feel the liquid inside swish with the motion, the little consistency it had now gone and making it closer to just colored water than paint. His stomach sank as he watched it slosh around, feeling surprisingly disappointed to see hours of his work be ruined so quickly. The paintings had been an easy loss to accept—most of them weren't that good anyway—but the paints had taken more effort to produce.

Neither of them spoke as they took in the devastation, the only sound the heavy rainfall around them. "...At least these were all just practice and not that good?" Sute finally said, and Utakata found himself snorting. Just like that, he felt some of his initial disappointment fade.

"Never expected you to try to look on the bright side," he teased. She shrugged as she set down the jars to resume collecting the rest of their painting supplies.

"Eh, this was all practice stuff anyway, it's no major loss. I mostly just wanted to see if painting would be a fun hobby, and it actually is."

She smiled faintly even as she gingerly lifted one of the soaked papers, and Utakata found himself staring at her for a moment. It wasn't one of her usual manic-looking and mischievous grins, or her sly, cunning smirks. No, this was a real smile, soft and undeniably pleased.

Even after knowing Sute for so long, he rarely saw her smile as genuinely as she did in that moment. He felt his own mouth twitch upwards as he went to collect his own ruined paintings, deciding to just stack the papers together. They were too wet to be salvaged anyway, so smearing the paint further wouldn't make a difference. He rolled them up and put them on a stone before moving to grab the paintbrushes, but paused as he glanced at his hands.

Blotches of color now stained his fingers and palm where the skin had brushed the ruined paintings, the rain making it run down his wrist but not washing it away. He stood for a moment with his hands raised, silently watching the colors streak further along his arms before disappearing under the hem of his sleeves.

Then, almost unconsciously, his gaze slowly turned towards Sute.

When asked later, Utakata would have no reasonable explanation for why he did what he did next. All he knew was that when he looked over at Sute with her back to him as she gathered her own brushes, he felt a sudden spark of mischief. He abandoned his cleanup efforts and quietly crept towards her, the heavy rain masking the sound of his footsteps.

As a result, she failed to notice his approach until he sprung forward and slapped his palms against her forearms. She jolted and yelped at the contact and quickly leaped away, dropping the brushes as she whirled to face him. "Utakata, what the heck!?" she demanded irritably.

Rather than respond he simply smirked and waved a hand, wiggling his fingers. She froze as she saw the traces of paint still staining his skin, and he could see the realization dawn on her. Slowly she looked at her own hands to see the paint from her paintings, and then her eyes noticeably trailed down her to her forearms which now had faint spots of color from where he'd touched them. He'd grabbed her right by the ends of her sleeves, the murky greenish-gray-brown hues staining the fabric along with her skin.

The dumbfounded look she gave him made Utakata nearly burst into laughter, but he managed to dial it down to a snicker. Normally Sute was the one doing crazy and impulsive stuff, not him. He felt oddly empowered to be the one to throw her off her game for once, and didn't hide his delight as his smirk grew.

It vanished though when she abruptly lunged at him, flinging her palms at his chest. He yelped as he jumped back but he failed to dodge in time, her paint-riddled hands smearing and staining his shirt. His face twisted in a scowl as he watched the paint soak into the already-damp fabric and start to spread, recognizing it would probably take a bit of time to wash out.

His eyes narrowed as he raised his head to meet Sute's triumphant smirk. She looked undeniably smug at her handiwork, vivid green eyes sparkling deviously. 'What are you going to do now?' her eyes seemed to ask.

Utakata answered the unspoken challenge by throwing himself at her with palms extended, Sute skirting away from him with a shriek.

What followed was probably the most ridiculous "fight" of his entire life, the pair slapping each other and trying to smear the running paint as much as possible. Their roughhousing led to more than a few falls, further staining themselves as they rolled around and wrestled on the now-muddy ground. At some point they even uncapped the ruined paints to use as more ammunition, only adding to the mess.

When they finally sprung to their feet and stopped, their skin and clothes were thoroughly stained with paint and mud. Murky-looking shades of blue, green, brown and red streaked down their faces in the still-falling rain, giving the illusion of oddly colorful tears. Grass and plant residue added to the mess, their hair tangled and sticky with a few leaves clinging to them.

For a second they stood in silence, panting heavily as they stared each other down. Then, Utakata felt his mouth twitch upwards and Sute mimicked the motion, and they exploded with boisterous laughter.

"Oh sweet kami, we look ridiculous!" Sute gasped between laughs, nearly doubling over. "Uta, you've got leaves all over your hair!"

"You've got an entire stick in yours!" Utakata retorted with an almost manic grin, and the kunoichi matched it as she reached up to pluck it loose. He straight-up howled when she yanked it and the stick actually snapped, making her squawk in dismay as half of it remained caught in her tangles.

In the end he had to help free it before they moved on to finish their cleanup, still laughing and snickering as their hands stained the supplies. Most of it would probably be a lost cause, but they didn't care. It didn't take long to finish and they turned to face each other, still grinning like idiots at how ridiculous they looked.

"You can keep your stuff, I've got plenty where that came from," Sute said.

"You just don't want this stuff because it's dirty," he teased, and she just laughed.

"Okay, this is going to sound stupid, but I really want to hug you," she said, and he snorted.

"That'll just make it worse," he pointed out with a wry smirk, knowing full well how she'd react to that declaration.

As expected her grin grew sharper and she lunged, tackling him hard enough to knock him off his feet as she threw her arms around him. Mud splashed everywhere as they fell, her arms digging into his back almost painfully beneath their combined weight, but Utakata didn't care. He just laughed as he wrapped his arms around her to further spread the mess, Sute shrieking with laughter as he made a point to deliberately smear some mud on her back.

Soon enough they untangled themselves and got up a final time. Just as predicted, they looked even worse than before, a feat he hadn't thought possible, but the mood felt pretty good. They managed to gather their supplies and head out without any more wrestling, still snickering and chatting until they reached the road.

"This is where we part ways," Sute said with a melodramatic sigh. "It is such a shame to say goodbye, but alas, all good things come to an end."

"At least it was fun," he said.

"Yes it was!" she agreed with a bright smile. "Bye, Utakata! Thanks for the fun memory."

"I'll see you later," he replied with a nod, and she gave a jaunty wave before the pair split off in opposite directions to head home.

This really had to be one of the single most ridiculous things he'd done in his entire life—who'd ever heard of a paint fight?—but he had no regrets. He felt lighter than he had in years, even as his clothes felt heavy from all the water and mud. Crazy and weird as his best friend might be, moments like this made it all worth putting up with her antics. He wished times like this would never end.

(He had no idea that would be the last time he'd see Sute for several years.)

It only took a few minutes for the momentary high from the ridiculous play fight with Utakata to fade, leaving Sute all too aware of how uncomfortable and dirty she felt. Every step she took had her clothes squelching and sloshing, her sandals audibly squeaking as the overly-damp leather crinkled. Her clothes felt cold as they clung to her skin, able to feel the mud through her shirt, and her hair felt heavy and lopsided thanks to all the tangles.

The few people she passed shot her odd looks and gave her a wide berth, and Sute couldn't blame them. She knew she looked ridiculous if Utakata's state was anything to go by. Cleaning all of this off would take a long time, probably hours of scrubbing her skin. The thought of battling the disaster that was her hair made her grimace. It had a stick caught in it, who knew what else would be there?

She hadn't even made it halfway to her house when a familiar voice called out to her. "Sute?" She winced and turned around, feeling her embarrassment reach new levels.

"Hi, Mei," she greeted with a half-hearted smile as Terumii Mei regarded her with wide green eyes. The older kunoichi looked as beautiful and dignified as ever, wearing a simple knee-length dark blue yukata and her long auburn hair silky and clean. Even her umbrella had an elegant air to it, only adding to Sute's low mood.

Mei just stared at her for a moment, clearly taken off-guard by Sute's haggard and colorful appearance. "Were you... trying to make a paint bomb?" she finally asked, and Sute snorted and rolled her eyes.

"Nope, just regular paint. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get home and spend the next six hours scrubbing this all off." She started to turn to walk away, eager to end the embarrassing encounter when Mei spoke again.

"Why don't you come to my house instead? I only live a block away from here." The offer had Sute pausing, turning back to face her with arched eyebrows.

"Really?" she asked flatly. Not because she didn't think the offer was a trick, but more because she didn't expect someone to invite an obviously dirty person into their house. Just walking down the rainy street left some (very colorful) tracks.

The older kunoichi's lips curved into a coy-looking smile. "Of course. It can't be comfortable walking around like that. And besides," she added, a faint hint of amusement seeping into her voice, "I think you'll need help with your hair."

The last comment dashed any qualms Sute had. She openly winced at the mention of her hair, keenly aware of how heavy it felt right now with all the unknown debris in it. Sute felt her shoulders slump in resignation as she dipped her torso into a polite half-bow, feeling her hair tumble and shift at the motion. "Thank you very much for your kindness, Mei-san. I will be forever in your debt."

Mei just laughed quietly as she turned to lead Sute to her house, the younger girl trudging behind in miserable, squelching silence.

Fortunately Mei had been right about her house being close, so she only had to endure a few minutes of walking before they arrived. She lived in a small, traditional-style house enclosed by a tall fence. She led Sute around the back of the building, where she used a water jutsu to hose off the worst of the mud and debris before having her step onto the porch.

"Wait here, I'll prepare the bath," Mei told her, and entered one of the sliding doors. Sute sighed as she peeled off her shoes and began picking at her hair, trying to remove some of the debris that might still be caught in it. By the time Mei opened the door again to call her inside she'd plucked four leaves and a second, much smaller twig from the mess.

The room was rather standard as far as Japanese bathrooms went, with a large bathtub in the back, and shelves holding fluffy-looking towels and various toiletries. It had a separate area for rinsing off partially blocked by a wooden screen, with a shower head on the wall and a stool beside a drain in the floor.

Sute arched her eyebrows as she noticed not one, but two full-length mirrors near the door, one hung on the wall and the other freestanding with wheels. "Two?" she asked curiously. Beautiful as Mei was, she had never struck Sute as the vain type.

"When you live alone, it's good to be able to check your body from all angles," Mei responded simply, and Sute nodded in understanding. Tending to injuries on your own could be tricky if they were on your back, and even Mei wouldn't want to visit the hospital for small cuts or bruises. Hospital visits were reserved for more serious injuries. The older woman retreated to the door and called over her shoulder, "You can start rinsing off, I'll go get a yukata for you to wear afterwards."

"Thank you so much," Sute said gratefully, and heard the door close as she began peeling off her shirt. She tossed it to the ground with a wet plop, her pants and undergarments soon joining it in a soggy pile. Without her clothes she could see just how dirty she'd gotten from her play-fight with Utakata, her skin streaked with mud and paint that had seeped through the fabric or gotten under her clothes.

She headed over to the stool and sat down, pulling the shower head off its hook and flicking it on. Warm water sprayed out and she eagerly turned it all over her body, feeling the mud and other debris rinse away. Unfortunately, the paint didn't wash away as easily as she'd hoped though. Some of it washed off but her skin still remained largely tinted in various different earthy hues, particularly around her hands.

Sute sighed as she placed the shower head back on the wall, and grabbed a small brush Mei had left to begin scrubbing at the more stubborn stains. Halfway through scrubbing one particularly dark splotch on her ankle she heard the door open again, though she couldn't see it through the screen. "I'm back," Mei called. "Need any help?"

"Honestly, yes," Sute admitted. "I haven't even gotten started on my hair." She really dreaded working on that.

"You focus on scrubbing, and I'll handle your hair." She could hear Mei's footsteps circle the screen even as she spoke, and a quick glance over her shoulder showed the woman had changed into a lighter yukata that looked closer to a bathrobe. She also had a basket full of haircare supplies, making it quite clear she fully intended to do so regardless of Sute's opinion.

Good thing she didn't mind. She was honestly relieved to not have to worry about it herself. "Sounds good to me," Sute agreed, relief audible in her voice, and returned her focus to scrubbing away the stains.

She felt Mei approach and kneel behind her, setting the basket down and rifling through its contents. Sute mentally braced herself as Mei gingerly lifted the end of her hair, her own hands briefly pausing as she awaited the inevitable pain from trying to wrestle with the tangles. However, several seconds passed without it, or Mei doing... anything, really. She just sat in silence, still holding Sute's hair but not moving.

Sute frowned, only the grip Mei had on her hair keeping her from turning around. "Mei, is something wrong?" she asked, and there was a several second delay before the woman finally answered.

"...Sute," she said, her voice quiet and tinged with a certain seriousness that had her nerves standing on edge, "Have you ever seen your back?"

"My back—"

At that moment Sute froze, realization crashing over her like a bucket of ice water. Her back. Mei was looking at her bare back. Ameyuri's final warning to never let anyone see her bare back rang through her head, echoing ominously.

In an instant she was on her feet, stool toppled over and her hair painfully ripping out of Mei's grip as she spun around to launch at the woman. Despite being a jounin and more skilled than Sute, the sudden attack still caught her off guard. Sute successfully tackled her to the floor, her hands wrapped around the older kunoichi's throat as startled green eyes stared up at her.

Mei recovered from her shock quickly though, and with a twist of her legs their positions were reversed in one motion. Sute yelped as the woman managed to not only flip her off but also shove her onto her stomach, straddling her back and pinning her wrists behind her back. Immediately she began struggling but it was pointless, the other kunoichi's strong grip and weight making it impossible to break free.

"Let go of me!" she snarled as she continued to strain. In response Mei's grip tightened on her wrists.

"Calm down, I'm not going to tell anyone!" she snapped. The words had Sute's struggles pausing, and when it became apparent she'd stopped for the moment the older woman took the opportunity to continue, her voice cool but sharp. "I know how cruel and dangerous Kiri can be if it doesn't like your heritage. I have no reason to tell anyone about this, I'm not going to go out of my way to make you go through that too."

Her words and authoritative tone had a calming effect on Sute, feeling her reflexive panic fade away as logic settled in. As Mei said, she didn't have a reason to tell anyone about it; she'd suffered the stigma of kekkei genkai her whole life and knew how difficult it could be, even if one was considered an asset. If Sute could trust anyone to hide whatever was on her back, it would be Mei.

The tension seeped from her body and she let her head fall onto the tiled floor with a sigh. The tiles felt hard against her cheek, grounding her further. "Fine," she muttered. "Can you get off me now?" Mei acquiesced silently, releasing her grip on Sute's wrists and stepping back.

"Come on, let's get back to cleaning you up," she said, smoothing her rumpled and now-damp yukata. Sute sat up and returned to the stool in sullen silence, feeling rather grumpy with herself as she grabbed the brush to resume scrubbing. Mei reclaimed her spot behind her, and this time when she lifted Sute's hair she didn't pause and got to work plucking out more debris.

For a while they just worked in silence, each focusing on their task, and in that time Sute's mood cooled down further. "Sorry," she mumbled eventually, and winced when Mei tugged on a particularly bad knot.

"It's fine," the older woman replied smoothly. "I can see why you reacted so strongly. I wouldn't want anyone knowing about that either." The remark had Sute's mouth thinning as she scrubbed at her arm with even more ferocity. After a few more winces from Mei fighting knots and removing leaves she reached around Sute to grab the shower head, using it to spray down her hair.

When she flicked it off and rummaged through the basket for something else, Sute took the opportunity to glance over her shoulder. "What is on my back, anyway?" The question had Mei looking at her with obvious surprise, pausing her search.

"You... don't know?" she asked slowly, and Sute shook her head.

"No, I don't. Ameyuri told me when I was a kid to never let anyone see my back, but not why. At that point I had bigger things to worry about, so I didn't try looking at it back then." With Ameyuri's death, and her impending graduation and the subsequent dispatch orders to the warfront that came with it, she thought it would be best not to give herself something else to worry about.

"What about afterwards?" Mei asked, grabbing a bottle of soap. She poured it into her hand and Sute turned forward as the older kunoichi began lathering up her hair, which honestly felt luxurious. It took some self control to continue scrubbing and not just melt under the touch. "It's been, what, seven years since Ameyuri died? That's a long time to not check."

"Honestly, it feels like such a minor thing that I tend to forget about it most of the time," Sute sighed. "I know it sounds like an excuse, but I only seem to remember it when people try to invite me to bathe together at an onsen, or else when I'm conveniently far away from any sort of mirror. Then by the time I get back home, I usually have other stuff on my mind."

The remark got an amused huff from Mei. "When you put it like that, I can see how you could forget. I don't think you could get a clear view of it just by turning your head, either."

"Seriously, what is it?" Sute asked, her curiosity only piqued further because Mei was right. Over the years Sute had glanced over her shoulder enough times that she'd have noticed something large. Whatever decorated her back, it must be small and near the center of her shoulder blades in a blind spot.

Rather than respond Mei grabbed the shower head again and rinsed the soap out of her hair, the water also washing away some of the paint Sute had been scrubbing. Once Mei switched it off she hung up the shower head and walked towards the screen. "Why don't I show you instead?" she called over her shoulder, and Sute perked up as she rose to follow her to the other part of the room.

Mei waited between the two mirrors, one hand resting loosely on the mobile one while she gestured to the one on the wall. Sute stepped in front of it silently, feeling a thrum of anticipation as she stared at her reflection. "Ready?" Mei asked.

"Do it." The woman nodded and pushed the other mirror behind her, the pair reflecting each other. For the first time in this life, Sute got a clear look at her back, and she found her mind going briefly blank at what she saw.

A spiral.

An inky black spiral encased in a circle, not even half the size of her palm, rested squarely between her shoulder blades.

"That's it?" The words slipped out thoughtlessly as Sute stared at the mark, almost dumbfounded. "Just... a spiral?"

Seven years of wondering, seven years of endless paranoia about her back, seven years of anticipation, and it was all for... this?

A tiny spiral?

Scribble-like markings circled it like a halo, obvious traces of a seal of some sort, but even then it just felt underwhelming. It didn't feel like it merited such a strong warning from Ameyuri, or even Mei's initial stunned reaction. If Sute had to pick a word to describe it all, she'd have to say it felt... anticlimactic.

Mei stepped behind her as Sute stared at the reflection with an increasingly sour frown as disappointment took over. "Sute, do you know what that spiral represents?" she asked, and Sute's frown deepened, eyebrows furrowing.

"I'm... not sure." It looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't place it off the top of her head.

"It's the symbol of Uzushio."

The words had Sute freezing, zeroing in on the spiral with renewed focus. Uzushio. The village her clan supposedly hailed from, the village of fuinjutsu masters so powerful that it had been seen as a threat and eliminated. A village whose symbol had been incorporated into some sort of unknown seal on her back. For a moment she just stared at a mark, the implications sinking in. And then—

She laughed.

The next morning summons arrived for another ANBU mission, departure scheduled immediately. Sute packed her things within half an hour and went to the gates to meet her new team, the group setting out in silence. She passed through the gates without a glance back as Kiri vanished from view behind them.

It would be years before she would return.

At long last, the secret of Sute's back is revealed! A seal with the Uzushio spiral. Neat? I've been planning for Mei to be the one to see it for a long time, so I'm glad I was able to work it in there. And also, a final bit of fluff with Utakata.

Guys, I am so sorry I took so long. I really, REALLY did not plan to take this long. I wanted to build up a buffer, get the next couple chapters done up until a certain event before posting. I instead kept struggling with how to execute that specific scene, and also got sucked even deeper into the MHA fandom so... yeah.

That said, I don't plan to abandon this story. I really love Sute and the world-building so much, and I plan to see this through to the end. I have the draft up to Chapter 42, and I'm going back to continue editing/writing after this update.

I won't make any promises on the next update. I'll try to get it out in two weeks from now. But we're finally at the part you've all been waiting for: Sute's defection.