A/N: This was a request for Mei/Madara, but it turned out strongly Mei-centric with various pairings, and so long I had to split it into two parts.
But other than that, pretty standard. Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be evil centenarian terrorist, girl takes over country...
Disclaimer: Shisui's involvement in Kiri isn't my brainchild. It's a forum theory that I heard about and was unable to track down again.
The men in the water are swimming towards the islands. Waves lapping at their skin are indistinguishable from the white wide net formed by the mist, moving over the archipelago like a vast creature turning in sleep. Some of the men pull themselves onto the rocks that jut from the island shores; some flounder before laying a hand on them at all. A few of their voices reach the mainland.
"Foolishness," says Mei's Academy instructor. "The fisherman think of it as a sort of rite of passage. You don't need to worry. You're a kunoichi."
The rite of passage to become a Kiri kunoichi, of course, is nothing so barbaric as a swim to the islands. Mei doesn't need to wash the blood of her classmates from her fingers because what she does leaves no blood. Her technique can fill a room like oxygen in less time than it takes a lesser kunoichi to draw a kunai. She doesn't spar. She doesn't sweat. She just kills. She's good at it, too.
"Well done," says her instructor, and doesn't look her in the eye.
The year after Mei passes Kirigakure's infamous graduation exam, she is formally presented to the Yondaime Mizukage. Her Academy teachers give her a blue kimono so expensive five shinobi are hired to escort the caravan from another village—probably Konoha, which has more fabrics and artisans than Kirigakure has ever had, even in its heyday under the Sandaime. They put white lilies in her hair and hibiscus juice on her lips, because she has no lipstick, and a rope of freshwater pearls that dangles all the way to her waist. The other two genin being presented—two boys, one from the class above her, one from the class below—wear plain silk yukata. She's sixteen, but she notices. When they notice her noticing, she smiles without teeth.
"You can try to convince them to let your family live," they say.
"You'll know when the time comes."
The Yondaime is a light-eyed man with a swathe of dirty blonde hair and a bearing that looks like failure already, before she knows anything else about him. She directs her eyes at a point just over his left knee and makes her perfect bow. Everyone in Kiri knows his mind doesn't work, but everyone in Kiri also knows that they are still bound to show respect, however unearned it may be.
"Show me," he says. He gestures to a potted flower on the table.
She places fingertips to the edges of her lips and draws in breath from every corner of the room. When her lungs are taut with oxygen, she closes her eyes and reaches for Kirigakure's own mist, pregnant with water and waiting for the heat—and then she presses down on the hard gland at the edge of her mouth and feels the veins inside her ignite with the addition of her own saliva. Bright fractals of pain trace tracks inside her chest and she blows out. Diamond dust flies. The air melts. The flower shrivels, dies, and burns.
"Very well," says the Yondaime expressionlessly. "What do you think?"
A man in dark clothing—the former Sandaime, she realizes, upon noticing his face. Mei bites her lip lightly. The acid has dissolved the hibiscus juice, and her mouth is newborn pink again.
"What a poetic ability," he says. "Thousands can die without a single touch, as in the best bloodlines. How old are you?"
"She will be an asset, Yagura-kun," he says. "Keep her here for another week or so."
"Shall I have the rest of her clan killed, Mizukage-sama?"
"Wait for my orders."
"Don't call me that, boy. You are Mizukage now. You should act like it."
"As you wish."
She feels sick when she is ushered to her room, but instead she brings her hands up to adjust the white lilies in her hair. A thin corrosive scent still lingers in the strands. As she touches the petals the flowers fall apart. She leaves a trail of white dust on her way down the hallway. Jeweled (borrowed) hairpins fall from the twists of hair stacked atop her head, and she lets the locks fall into disarray. Her useless hands are caught between tasks; she no longer remembers how to palm a kunai or toss a shuriken, but nor does she know how to stir meat in a pan, or coax her body into some semblance of refinement. She doesn't know what contact is for. She wishes someone would remind her—a kunoichi, perhaps, a friend or a sister or a mother, although at the whim of these men she may have neither of these by the time the week is out.
Mei thinks about the former Sandaime, the silent Yondaime, her clan, the hibiscus juice they smeared on her lips for the presentation ceremony—and then she thinks that there's something contact can be used for after all.
The next time she receives an opportunity to visit the office, she stretches one hand up and draws the wooden slats of the blinds down, shielding the room from view of the outside.
"You won't do anything, will you," she says to the glaze-eyed Yondaime. "Not unless Sandaime-sama tells you to."
He says nothing. She breathes, pulling her lungs taut for her technique—but no, not yet; his mind doesn't work, but she knows his body does.
She feels uncomfortable tingles of something snaking down her back like trickles of cold water, but she knows that whatever genjutsu is in place over his mind, he was still, in his own youth, the most feared shinobi in the Water Country, and the jinchuuriki of the Sanbi. She has no skill at disarming anyone—she's never needed to—but she thinks to herself that she can improvise; it's not difficult, and the blue kimono and hibiscus juice from her presentation ceremony have given her a pretty fair indication of the way things are supposed to go.
Carefully, she settles herself between the Yondaime's legs and rises to her knees to kiss him. It's her first kiss. She thinks about touching the gland at the corner of her mouth, but she can feel a silvery awareness snaking beneath his skin, pulsing and honing in razor-tight on her presence, so she does nothing of the kind. Instead she pushes her tongue between his lips as she has seen others do. Women in the poorer streets of Kiri. Fishermen in the harbor, after the night rolls in. The closing of his eyes is like a knife slicing skin from bone.
For the first time in her life, she understands the purpose of physically touching another person. There is so much power in her hands that she feels dazzled by her own beauty, as if she is standing outside her body and watching herself seduce the Yondaime. Her hand drifts to his chest. Her eyes remain open as her fingers probe lower, and lower, and then—
The Sandaime opens the door to the office.
He strides towards her in three quick steps, pulls her away from the Yondaime by her shoulders, and slams her against the wall, right next to the window with its slatted blinds.
"How clever of you," he says, holding her in place by a tight circle of arms around her waist. For the first time she notices that she has no idea how old the Sandaime is—his face is ageless, white rice-paper skin over features weathered into rock. A strange electric shock scythes through the bottom of her stomach.
"I would like to make a deal," she says.
"I'm sure you would," he replies, and then he bites her bottom lip, just as carelessly as he might toss a lock of his long dark hair over his shoulder. He closes his mouth and sucks gently and her lips open almost against her control. For a moment she feels a surge of panic, but her determination quashes the urge to flee. She lets herself cup his shoulders. This is contact as she has never felt it; as she has never dreamed it. He pulls back coolly, almost dryly, and when she keeps her hand fisted in his collar he raises an eyebrow at her.
She draws him back towards her with careful deliberation. It is impossible to miss the curve of his lips, but she is a kunoichi on a mission and ignores it. Directness is needed here; the Sandaime is the decision-maker in the situation she's found herself in, and she was taught to negotiate her way out of an unpleasant corner.
"Spare my clan," she says.
He replies, "Why?"
She kisses him again. His lips are like water over silk. On the desk on the other side of the room, the Yondaime's head bobs and then disappears as the Sandaime's black hair flies wide over her eyes. Her eyes close; she moves into him, slipping her body into the indentations of his own. She catches a feeling of immense age in the way he slides his hand across her jawline, careless, automatic, but despite this the body underneath hers is all hard muscle, the sensation of skin and sweat over a tense wiriness beyond the expression of either. She is stunned at how her own heartbeat quickens for this. Placing her hands on his chest, she opens her mouth into his, smooth hard teeth, cool thin lips. Tongue flickering out and darting like a silver fish in the water. Hands weaving into her hair, more intimate than anything she has ever felt. She sighs and reaches for the sash of her robe, but he lays his hand over her wrist, stopping her right there, and says:
"The next time you attempt to use your body like this, remember that not every man is as kind as I. Your clan was killed this morning. I'm afraid you are too late."
On the way home, she puts boneless feet one in front of the other until she is free in the grey Kirigakure morning. She makes her way home through clouds that have forgotten flight and gulls that have forgotten land, and when she reaches the door of her room she pulls it shut and strips all her clothes off and lies on her bed. She touches herself in a way that has nothing to do with the way she wanted him to touch her—just her own palm on her shoulder, or her own arms wrapped tightly around her midsection. Her own fingers stroking her hair. Her own hand wiping her tears. She scrubs off all the dregs of ecstasy; old lipstick might feel like this, she thinks. Her tongue tastes like humiliation. She pulls her grey felt blanket up to her chin and burrows her face in and forgets things.
When she wakes up, the gulls are crying in the twilight as they fly somewhere closer to home. She puts one foot in front of another. She eats unflavored noodles from a white cup.
She thinks—they told you to use your body, now use your mind.
She thinks—survive, survive.
And then, she licks grief from her lips, smooths on a smile like fine makeup, and begins to plan.
"It's fine to speculate," says her Academy instructor, "but I think you're old enough to consider realities. Have you been keeping up with your psychological assessme—"
"I'm not psychologically unsound," Mei cuts in. "I want to become the next Mizukage."
The man sighs and drags his hand across his forehead. He is a chuunin with an awkward gait and no words of comfort for his students after they massacre one another; she doesn't understand what qualifies him to say this to her.
"Mei-chan," he says, "do you believe that your desire to avenge your family is clouding your judgment?"
"I'm not psychologically unsound," she repeats, a little more insistently, and then realizes the way this comes across and silences herself. She draws forth her serene, noncommittal smile and wears it like an adornment. "And were I interested in revenge, it would be for more than my family."
"You're treating this—ambition of yours—as if it is normal, Mei-chan, I must confess I don't know what to think."
She stares at him. "And treating massacreas normal is acceptable?"
"That isn't the point."
"Perhaps not your point."
He looks up at her suddenly, awkwardly, as if remembering in one moment the skill with which she slaughtered her classmates. She can see the memory clearly in his limpid eyes, and she sits straighter. She knows she has an understanding of injustice that he can't hope to match.
"I was forced to kill my classmates and appear before the men who did it with flowers in my hair," she says, voice growing steely. "Because I'm beautiful, or because I'm a woman, I don't know. But they expected me to…" She can't say it.
"It was a…reasonable expectation," her teacher says timidly. "You did offer yourself to—to the Sandaime, from your account, hoping that he would spare your family from the purges…"
"He didn't, did he?" She grows angry. "Why is this the first thing people think of when they think of kunoichi? When these types of missions work, no one talks about it because of the code of silence, and when they don't, it's—it's what, exactly? Something every kunoichi has to deal with by herself?"
"That is not precisely true, but—"
"I don't want to hear it," she says suddenly, standing and upending the rickety chair. "How can I believe this drivel makes sense? Why is a kunoichi's body seen as an extension of her power, as if it's—some sort of jutsu, or a bloodline limit?"
"No one forced you to do anything, Mei-chan."
"No," she cries, "but with all that this place taught me from the moment I was born, you didn't expect me to behave any differently, did you?"
"Mei-chan," mutters the instructor. He is uncomfortable now, she can see it. His cheeks are stained with a high red color, like a seasick thing. "We don't talk about these things."
"That's precisely what I mean," she snaps, all in a rush. "You'll never talk about how this place made me kill my classmates, or how everyone here just accepts whatever's controlling the Yondaime, or how you sent me to the men who murdered my family looking like a doll for their entertainment, knowingI would initiate what I did—you'll never talk about it, and one day I won't talk about it either, because I'll forget that there's anything wrong with Kirigakure the way it is, just like you have."
He is silent.
"Don't you see?" she says quietly. "I don't intend to live in a village like this."
After she takes her leave, she walks aimlessly in the marketplace for a while, attempting to avoid the shinobi who recognize her by her red hair and the identifying Kiri hitai-ate she keeps bound about her waist. Some nod at her furtively. The movement is something of a congratulation and something of a sneering, childlike acknowledgment, as if they are accomplices in some petty crime. She realizes this isn't far from the truth. The shoulders of every shinobi she can see are burdened with the onus of guilt—a guilt that condenses fat droplets over the hitai-ate and claws lacquered fingertips through their hair, spins cottony invisible webs in the mist. Guilt for the Yondaime's incompetent silence, and for her classmates' corpses splayed in every direction, the neatness of murder incongruous against the way they fell like so many discarded playing cards. Guilt for the Sandaime's poisonous words in her ear and his poisonous mouth drawing her up a silver-stepped staircase to an ecstasy that, whenever she now finds it, will bring to mind the death of her clan.
Guilty, she thinks, and stares into their hooded faces. Guilty, guilty, you are all guilty. There are others like me, and if you will not give us the justice we deserve, I will snatch it from you.
She turns. A vendor is holding out a small basket of calamari, smiling. She shakes her head, indicating that she has no money.
"It's all right," he says. "You look like you haven't been eating."
"I'm quite well," she tries, but he shakes his head.
"You're hungry, so you deserve it more than they do," he says, indicating the passing shinobi with a nod of his head. "Take it." He drizzles lemon over the fried golden rings and waves the basket, shaking loose a few tendrils of savory, smoky scent. She coats her fingers in the oil and bites down. So much pride in the man's face, between the folds of skin. So much simplicity—the hungry deserve food. The wronged deserve justice.
She chews the calamari, and in the sharp, wet crunch, she understands: if she is to be Mizukage, it isn't Kiri's ninja who will carry her to the Tower.
She stays away from shinobi life and all it represents. She knows a bit about the concept of regrouping.
Instead, she learns:
The fishermen she seeks out are not romantic figures. They laugh at her when she falls overboard, and show her the way the sun dries ocean water on all her clothing, so that she has to beat sea salt from her garments with a wooden paddle before she can so much as wash them again. But still, they applaud her in gunpowder bursts when she pulls her first net from the ocean. The day's catch is slippery over her feet and most of the fish are too small and she drops half of them, flailing and shrieking as a slimy fin finds its way into the neck of her blouse—but they're hers, every stunted fish no one will buy at the market, and the fishermen don't even laugh when she retches over the handfuls of stinking guts. Soon she learns to slip her own fingers between the scales and pull out the thick wet ropes. Soon the men toss her into the air on their shoulders, despite her protests, and their wives cluck in disapproval and stifled laughter as they scrub the grit of acceptance from under her fingernails.
Like herself, there are some members of the bloodline clans who have been spared. There is a boy with metal rods for bones, who will not break no matter how many times they throw him to the whitewater rapids below Kiri's tallest cliffs. There is a girl who can slip off her skin like a veiny cloak. There is a woman who pulls embers from the sky like fireflies and holds them in her mouth. And one day, there is a child who sits with a paper flower and weeps, shooting his skeleton out like a great blossoming tree, and for his sake she almost goes back to the tower and tries again. But she waits. Success is sweeter than revenge, and her dreams are bigger than both.
She has been looking for acceptance from the wrong people.
One morning on the fifth summer since, she goes down to the harbor. She closes her eyes and listens to the shore bells pealing. Even behind her closed eyes, she can feel the red tattoo of the swiveling lighthouse beacon.
History, like the boats on the bank, just needs a little push.
She sits down on the edge of the pier and is careful to avoid the seagull guano the way the seasoned sailors do. She pulls off her blouse and ties the ends of her undershirt in a bow beneath her breasts. Her hair reaches her waist now; she flips it over her shoulder and braids it. When she stands again and shucks off her sandals, she catches the attention of a fisherman in a docked boat.
"Not a good idea to swim this early. You'll get in the way of the boats."
"I won't. I'm swimming out to the islands."
She turns fully to face him and is surprised to see that he isn't a fisherman at all, but a shinobi, sporting a headband and a pair of arm guards and no shirt. His skin is a strange shade of blue. In the grey of the sea and the cotton-wisp sky, he is the most vibrant thing in her vision.
"I'm going to swim all the way out to the islands," she says.
"Only someone who's spent their whole life on the water can do that. Women never do it, and anyway, you're a kunoichi."
"How do you know?"
He stands and hauls up the sorry sack of rocks he's using for an anchor. She watches the muscles move in his back—honest, earned muscle, and she allows herself, slowly, to let admiration steal over her vision like a thin film.
"You graduated a few years after I did."
"You know who I am?"
"I know who you are, Terumi Mei-san."
She eyes him politely for a few moments, because two years of hauling fish with men who earn their living have taught her to respect those who do not make a show of greatness.
"I need to swim around the islands," she says.
"You said it yourself. Women never do, and especially not kunoichi."
"And why does that bother you?" He drops the sack of rocks on the bottom of his boat and feathers his oars, lifting them out of the water.
"The fishermen are the ones who keep this country running. If I'm going to be Mizukage—" She stops, suddenly aware of what she has never allowed herself to voice to another after the incident with her Academy teacher.
For his part, he doesn't react to the statement at all. He knocks one oar against the pier to dislodge a stray piece of seaweed. "Save your breath, in that case," he says, and chips into the first curling wave. "Go on, start."
"What are you—"
"Don't you know? You can't do this without a spotter."
"I'm not stupid. I have a strategy."
"I don't doubt that," he says, and a little girlish flare of gratitude bursts like a firecracker inside her, much to her mortification. She keeps her features under control. It's easier to smile sweetly than to laugh the way she wants to or stay expressionless the way she should, so she settles on this. "But it's for the sake of appearances. Go on. I'll be right behind you."
She sucks the breath from the air, fills her eyelashes with the sight of the sun in its moorings, and ducks her head under. Her legs anchor against the pier and make the scissoring kick she needs. She is adrift.
Kirigakure ninja, unlike fishermen, learn to swim in the shallows. The tide pools are as clear as alcohol and about as soothing; false sense of security, droplets making prismatic mobiles over the skin. Soft sand beneath the mouths of a thousand baby fishes. The lull of the water's surface is always just enough to tug childish feet from the shore.
Nothing like the sea before her, which shakes from its depths like a great tilting planet. She gasps. The currents suck at her legs and draw her under again.
"Dive!" calls the blue man in the boat when she thrashes for air. "Dive, Mei-san!"
She shakes her head and pushes the water from her chest with one free hand. About a foot of space slides out of her way. She measures the distance to the island in radial lines, and her stomach sinks.
Nothing to do but do it, she tells herself. If you're going to be their Mizukage, you're going to understand what they do. Breathe deeper.
She fills her chest with air again and lunges forward.
The sea is made of layers, she thinks. The fishermen dive and swim beneath the surface, where the currents are strongest. But no one needs to do that. It gets you there faster, but I don't need to get there fast. I just need to get there.
So she shuts her eyes tightly, flips over onto her back, and begins to backstroke. Kisame actually laughs; she must look absurd, but once she finds the correct rhythm between taming the smaller currents and avoiding the large ones, it's bearable. She even begins to enjoy it, although the water in her clothing weighs her down and catches on the awkwardly-knotted garments. Pausing for a moment to tread water, she gropes for buttons and shucks her shirt off. It floats away and she sees a red checked flag on the waves for one moment before she flips herself and begins to swim in earnest for a few meters. Turning head from side to side, breathing, stroking white spray into the air and letting it battle with the mist for shards of sunlight. The rowboat a dark cork on the tide as her vision bobs up and down. Roaring water.
This. This is Kirigakure.
Shouts in the distance, from lingering boats:
"What's he doing?"
"Is that your boy in the water, Hoshino-san?"
"No—that—that's a woman!"
Mei grins and swallows a mouthful of water. She nearly gags at the strong salt, but after a moment she decides she likes it. She pushes armfuls of waves away. Strokes, moves. Soreness begins to seep into her muscles. She recognizes a breaking point and immediately flips over onto her back again.
She rolls to one side to keep her muscles from seizing; takes it slow. Below the surface, another world. Endless depth, fraught with filtered sunlight and strands of kelp coiling up from the bottom; schools of fish. Her limbs begin to hurt. She panics and breaks the surface again. Now there are people clustered on the islands, no more than black dots, but all turned in her direction. She swallows. From the moment they fixed her with their gazes, there was no question of failure.
She treads water and looks at the red rope of her braid trailing behind her in her wake, and she knows: she is doing it as much for the shouted that's a woman! on the opposite bank as she is for the name of Mizukage.
The island is within reach. Slower and slower with every stroke, as if someone outside her line of vision is pulling at her sight, unraveling distance and perspective as he goes. Lead bricks affixed to every joint. Tiredness like a drug. No more, and the meters to shore grow unsurpassable. She sinks for a moment. She pulls at her chakra reserves, but through the water's surface now she can distinguish the watching wide-eyed civilians, and with a steely crush of determination she clamps down and shoves the encouraging flicker of chakra out of sight; it has no place here when so many people have been able to do without it. Stroking, stroking, each arm pulled down into the ocean, heart wetly thumping, her own breath sandpapering, feet no longer working, but she moves. She moves. The sun slants and she is dizzy, but she will finish. She has planned this, and since the night at the Tower she has promised herself that whatever else happens, even if her body fails her, her mind will not. The island looms like a temple. Stroke, kick, flip over, breathe, dream, breathe, pull, pull, good kunoichi or good sailor, there is no difference, no difference at all—
—and then there is sand under her fingers, and Terumi Mei, to riotous cheers, is officially the first kunoichi to pass Kirigakure's oldest and truest initiation.
They put a blanket over her shoulders before they take her to the island bonfires. The women are unfriendly, but the girls want to know every detail. Fishermen laugh, never thought I'd see anyone make the swim like that! The teenage boys on the periphery of the throng make bets as to who will be the one to bring back her discarded shirt, and in a temperamental display of power she tosses them a few sugar-candy smiles and watches them all fall to stammering chest-thumping pieces. None succeed, but a few girls bring her a shapeless linen undershirt, which she wears with more pride than she wore the blue kimono at the Mizukage Tower.
The sand is shaded black and a riotous orange in the firelight. So many people slap her on the shoulders that she can barely feel her muscles anymore. They feed her raw clams and the first pick from the catch of the day, and roar with appreciative laughter when she picks the second-best fish, exactly as they taught her to. After she eats, she raises her fist high in the air for quiet, as the fishermen have always done, and says "Thank you" into the waiting silence. The answering cheers are like the sparks from the fires, circling higher and higher, borne by winds that signal change.
Everything is wonderful.
After about four hours of nibbling grilled fish and fielding inquisitive glances (and just as often, hands) from the more straightforward boys, she finds the blue-skinned man sitting in the sand next to one of the smaller fires, talking quietly with the men around him and whittling. Shards of light scythe from his knife; he seems to be good with a blade. He looks up at her and grins with several sharp teeth. She smiles back.
"You never told me your name," she says.
"It's Kisame," he replies. "Hoshigaki Kisame."
"Take a seat, Mei-san. We'd like to talk to you."
He gestures, and she looks more carefully at the men around him. All of them seem to be palming small streamlined knives, the miniatures used to choreograph kenjutsu fights. One of the men seems about her age. He has bandages wrapped thickly around the lower half of his face, and behind him, an enormous sword with holes cut in the metal leans against a tree. There are seven men in all. As if in one movement, like the play of shadows, they move aside and make a space for her within the circle.
"I think," says Kisame, "that we might be able to be of use to one another."
The Seven Swordsmen are a roughshod group. Most of them are men who, like her, slaughtered their classmates, passed their graduation examinations, and were presented at the Mizukage Tower before the Yondaime and Sandaime. The boy with bandages, Momochi Zabuza, is the youngest of them, having been shuttled straight into Kirigakure ANBU from some kind of incident which took place at his graduation exam. She asks if any women have ever passed the examination. They direct glances at one another, uncertain, and almost unanimously move on to the next subject of conversation.
"There have been," Kisame tells her later, as she leans against one of the surrounding trees and courteously accepts the blanket he hands her. "They went to the Mizukage Tower as well."
She thinks about the gaudy hibiscus juice and the lilies in her hair, and she thinks she understands what he means. "Then?"
"They entered the employ of the Tower as—well, as specialized kunoichi, I suppose you could say. Not everyone has the patience to strategize as you've been doing, and you know kunoichi don't receive much…encouragement…if they decide to act on their own."
Her fists tighten in her lap. Kisame notices and smiles at her, the same incongruous lopsided grin in a face unsuited for mirth. His eyes are beady and small. He catches her staring, and, embarassed, she averts her gaze.
"Don't worry about it," he says. "It was our bloodline limit. I was left alive. You know why they kill the bloodline clans?"
"A few of us are assets to the village. A lot of us can provoke civil war. The Sandaime's a smart man."
"He's a despot," she says, and knows the moment the word leaves her mouth that it isn't quite correct. The man in the Tower, with his gentle, venomous mouth, kisses tasting of an endless patience and a wait older than the earth—whatever he wants, it isn't her country.
"The thing is," he says, "sometimes you don't need a lot of people to provoke civil war. Sometimes you just need a catalyst to do it in fewer."
Firelight is harsh over the planes of his face; makes them more angular even as it mutes the color to something more ordinary. Mei suddenly has the sensation of standing at the threshhold of a vast and unforeseeable change. She can't see the shore, but she hears it, waves crashing against the rocks, the old world disintegrating in the onslaught of water. Kisame twists. The muscles in his shoulders glint in the warm snatches of light. The ringing in her ears escalates.
"Eight?" she tries. It's the obvious guess.
"No," he amends, and when he turns, he's looking at her with an intensity that silences things. "One."
She crosses the last milestone of adulthood with as much businesslike precision as she learns everything else. It's a messy, awkward thing full of halfway kisses and stop me if I go too fasts and rough, sandpapery muscle sliding against her skin. He leaves the lantern on because she wants him to, and she lets him keep his mouth closed because he thinks his teeth will hurt her. She doesn't think there's any point in letting him know that he does anyway, but he figures it out when he sees blood on the sheets.
"That wasn't fair of you, Mei-san," he says, and sharp teeth make crests over his bottom lip. She reaches for his shoulders and pulls him back down.
"Do it again, then," she says.
"I don't think that's quite how it works, Mei-san."
"Why? I haven't yet gotten my full return."
He laughs. She slides her hand around to the tough triangular muscles on his back, and as she feels him growing hard again she moves her hips up to meet his. She thinks she enjoys this easy give-and-take more than the actual act—which, after all, leaves her sore afterwards and slightly empty-feeling, as if accentuating spaces inside her that are left to be filled. She moves herself with him, knees hooked with his, but the dull, glittering ache that stretched her nerves to breaking that long-ago night in the Mizukage Tower is absent. When he is asleep, she puts her own hand between her legs and strokes, searching, but she can still feel him slick between her fingers, so she stops.
In the morning he kisses her on the temple as he pulls on his arm guards.
"Thank you," he says. "I'm not going to ask who you were thinking of."
"That's probably wise," she replies, to conceal her flush of embarassment. "I should thank you instead."
"It's not often the woman who says that."
"Should that affect my actions?"
"You'll be a good Mizukage, Mei-san."
"Thank you, senpai."
"See what I mean? You did it again."
The fishermen have fallen into the habit of treating her like a princess. Mornings on the island, they bring fish to the doorway of her hut first, and she is careful to refuse it every time. She goes down to the rocks with them, rolling up the legs of the trousers she now wears daily, and poles a skiff in the clear pools, hunting for clams. Some of the fishermen's sons ask to go with her. She takes their daughters instead.
"Good move, building a following," says one of the older Swordsmen, a man called Raiga. Most of them stay away from her, as Kisame cautions them to keep their association discreet. Every few days one of them shows up on the island to bring her news of the mainland and muttered plans for mobilization. The Swordsmen intend to use the base of popular support she has built and see her as Mizukage, and in return, she will initiate the reforms they desire. These involve the cessation of the graduation exam and the bloodline massacres, as well as some strategic modernization of Kiri's trade practices. The word coup tastes like a delicacy on Mei's tongue. It has the clean, monosyllabic bite of a scale crashing down on one side of the balance. She rolls it against the back of her teeth, smiles at its vibration in the open air.
"It's not a following," she says. "I depend on them; they don't depend on me."
"Remember that when you're Mizukage and we'll be in good shape," replies Raiga good-humoredly, as if indulging a child. "Anyway, my report—we have good news from inside the Tower."
"How did we manage a man inside?"
"Kisame and that kid Zabuza kidnapped the daimyo." He grins, feral features narrowing. "The imperial spies have been pretty useful."
"I see. Good news, you said?"
"By all accounts, the Yondaime's been recovering."
She startles. The pole slips from her fingers, and she catches it before it breaks the water. Below the gemlike surface of the tide pool, a host of small white fishes scatters.
"It's because the Sandaime's been leaving Kiri a lot more lately, and we think he's not able to keep his genjutsu that tightly woven when he's not there. Good fortune for us, I'd say."
"It's also a wild card," she says, and Raiga looks at her sharply. She immediately adopts the vapid smile she has perfected in the months since the argument with her Academy teacher. Getting the job done, she now believes, is more important than directly asserting herself. She is concerned with going from one end of the line to another; she doesn't particularly care how she accomplishes it. The smile and the persona of the airheaded young girl are no longer repulsive to her because within the guise they create she is able to operate more freely.
And indeed, Raiga relaxes slightly at the nonthreatening visage. Mei tastes disgust on her tongue, but she holds the smile steady. Mind clear, clear as the crystal tide pools, so that she can see what she needs; reach in and spear insights like clams in their gilded shells.
"What I mean is," she says, imbuing her voice with sweetness, "it is perhaps unwise of us to interpret this as good news. We have no guarantee that the Yondaime, even thinking independently, will be sympathetic to the cause."
"I suppose," says Raiga. "And Kisame's reluctant to engage the Sandaime directly. It's all bullshit, of course. We're the greatest kenjutsu masters in the world, I don't know what he's afraid of."
"Raiga-san." Mei is fed up with this discussion. "A shark doesn't pose a danger to anyone if you let it swim freely, but that doesn't mean you should stick your hand in its teeth in some misguided display of bravado. The Sandaime is a dangerous man. Kisame-senpai respects him too much to underestimate him."
Raiga snorts. "If you say so, Mei-san. You know him better than I do."
She feels a wash of cool anger at the look he gives her and shakes it off almost immediately, like so many droplets of water. Several of the Swordsmen continue to believe that her involvement in the coup is a result of the on-and-off liaison she keeps with Kisame, as if she is some kind of pretty ornament he carries in his pocket as he journeys from battle to battle. She does nothing to disabuse them of the notion. One end of the line to another. Methods and machinations, unimportant; what they will see of her in the end is much more important than what they see now.
"Anyway, we do need to get into the Tower at some point," says Raiga. "How do you propose to do that without combat, then? Do you have a strategy?"
He asks the question half-mockingly, but she clutches her pole tightly and says nothing.
The truth is that she doesn't stop thinking about the Sandaime.
It isn't that she can't, as a different girl might phrase it; enough has happened to her by this point that she knows how important it is to control the flow of her thoughts. After so long, she is able to flatten memories like the paper cards peasant children sell on the road out of the city and file them in her mind like so many shutters; voices, sounds, incidents, moments. She lets the Sandaime remain vibrant and rounded in her mind because she will need to know all she can if she and the Swordsmen are to take control of Kirigakure.
For almost two years now she has learned all she can of him, watched where he goes and how he conducts himself, and she has noticed things. For one, there are never guards around the Mizukage Tower, and yet, no infiltration attempt has ever been successful. For another, no one in Kiri revolts, despite the fact that the Sandaime (who is, after all, more important in this scenario than the half-comatose Yondaime) is out of the village more often than not. For the third, the Sandaime's treatment on the night she went to the Tower to beg for her family's life was decidedly unusual—and so she knows, with a surety that kindles in her very bones, that he is nothing like the men she is familiar with in her quotidian existence. She knows nothing about his abilities—but also, she is aware that there is no way for them to seize power in the conventional sense while he still exists. The only viable option is for her to officially ascend as Godaime, with the transfer of power publicly approved by both the Sandaime and Yondaime.
She thinks and thinks, her mind sharpened by her fishermen's work trading and bargaining and carefully exchanging chips of one life for another, but she reaches a dead end at every interval. She needs one last piece of information to tip the scale—the correct incentive to offer him—and she cannot decipher this without a clue as to the Sandaime's identity.
But before the week is out, the Sandaime has devised a solution to the problem of controlling the Yondaime, and the imperial spy inside the Tower informs them that the task of maintaining the complex mind-control jutsu has fallen to a subordinate while the Sandaime is out of the village. A boy from Konoha, who, by all accounts, looks exactly like the Sandaime himself, and possesses one of the strongest mindbending jutsus in the five countries.
Mei hears. Her sea-sense flares within her, the same jade-weathered intuition that tells her feet how to steady themselves over the deck of a bucking boat, and she knows the opportunity to seize her last piece has come.
The young Uchiha Shisui turns out to be far more perceptive than anyone predicted.
"The courtesan disguise is really getting old," he says, the second the door slides shut behind them. "The way you walk just screams kunoichi. And I've got good eyes, so I can tell you're a pretty competent one, too."
Mei is startled, but she thinks quickly. She reaches up casually, pries the flowered comb from her hair, and draws the seams of her robe up so that the fabric pulls tight against her neck and chest, covering her entirely. She flips the cascade of red hair over her shoulder and makes a taut, businesslike bow.
"Forgive me," she says, pitching her voice low. "Many in the Tower are not inclined to allow kunoichi to conference with foreigners. It was merely a precaution in case you subscribed to the same philosophy, Uchiha-san."
"Maybe people think like that here," he says. "Not in Konoha."
She smiles neutrally. It's too early in the game to take risks; he is the Sandaime's subordinate, and there is no way to be certain if he holds the same mentalities. For now, she thinks, she adopts the repulsive persona of the archetypal Kiri citizen, as seen by outsiders: enigmatic, provincially curious, and charmingly ignorant of the outside world, with no opinion at all on any of these things. Many in the Tower could refer to any sort of people: merchants, rebel elements, desk workers, the Yondaime—but it's impossible for the boy to tell what she means. In any case, each of those people are presently restrained by the Swordsmen, who have let her deal with Shisui and taken charge of strategically incapacitating every other person in the Tower while she assesses what to do next.
"How fascinating," she says.
"Right. So, what did you want to—er, conference, about? And am I allowed to ask your name, or alias, or whatever you're using for this little chat?"
"My name is Mei."
"Great. What can I do for you, Mei-san?"
She is good at reading people by now and notices his controlled reaction to her extraordinary beauty. His eyes do not stray from her face, and the fingers tracing whorls on the wooden table are kinetic, but self-possessed. He reminds her quite a bit of Kisame, but without the veneer of Kiri politeness that coats the older man's rough edges.
Mei shifts subtly so that she sits slightly taller than him. It isn't hard, she is twenty-two, and he is barely sixteen. The cushion underneath her adds a few inches to her height. Then comes the difficult part. She tilts her head, widens her eyes imperceptibly, and levels an absolutely peerless smile at Shisui's watching face.
"I hope you won't laugh," she says in a confiding tone. "But you see, there's so much to do in Kiri, and I'm afraid I've never been posted abroad. Please tell me about Konoha."
"Your Sandaime doesn't send you abroad?"
So he knows it's the Sandaime who is in complete control of Kiri. Understandable; he is his subordinate.
"Oh, he does," she lies, "but I've never been, and I'm far too shy to ask. Perhaps you could ask for me sometime—are you Sandaime-sama's son? You're certainly as handsome as he is."
He scoffs. "Son? Oh, please—if Madara ever spawned, the little trolls would have horns and breathe fire and engage in international warfare for the sheer entertainment value. Well…I guess we sort of do that anyway, but you know. He's a sort of distant relation of mine. But what do you want to know about Konoha?"
She asks him something vacuous about the autumn leaves, which she has heard are special although she has no idea why, and he treats her to a riotous description of faded flowers and trees dyed golden in the slanting sunlight, of shaded courtyards, and of the last summer plum juice sticky on his cousin's fingers. Half her mind is allured by the images. The other half whirls ahead of anything he is saying. She is lucky. He believes she wants to know of Konoha and meticulously avoids telling her anything of importance, but he has already given her a piece of information that is second nature to him, not knowing that it is something no Kiri citizen has ever heard.
Madara, she thinks. There we are.
There are no history books in Kiri, but there are children's stories and old men's tales and somewhere between these, she knows, the truth can be read, or in this case a history so bloody and twisted it's if the tale glistens forth from a handful of pulled entrails. The mist in the nighttime is thicker, cooler. In the fog, red lanterns beckon towards the painted houses. She stands at the edge of one of the piers, hood drawn up over her face, and listens as the drunken fisherman beside her spins out the tale of Uchiha Madara and his flight from Konoha. He died, of course. Of course. When he is finished, she buys him another bottle of rum from one of the waterside stands and watches him sway away across the rickety boards.
A man from another world, washed up against hers as surely as two tides collide on the frozen far shores. The inorexable encroachment of winter, the taste of cold metal between her lips; these are the things that he is, and these are the things she has set herself in motion against. Not a man, but a force. She looks at her hands, the skin stained red from wayward lantern-light, and she thinks of the foolish lit buoys bobbing out before the dark-crested waves. They shake in the current, illuminating nothing and swallowed before morning, but for a moment, they are lit, for no purpose save the existence of light. Fishermen with tallow candles held in rods strike fire to them when the storms begin in the hope that a single traveler may see them and find his way back to the mainland.
She sees now that the destruction of her country's students and families is far more sinister than anything she has ever believed possible. The mean little prejudices of average shinobi and Academy instructors are nothing against a cold fury like this—the fury of a man so worn to his bones by time and tide and the freezing bite of hatred that a single human life, in its tallow-candle brilliance, holds no more value than a few copper coins spilled over the boardwalk. She thinks of the alarming way he kissed her, and her knees grow weak enough that she is forced to clutch at the pier's guardrail for support. Although it has been years, her mind recoils from the memory. It seems to her now that she lay perilously close to the heart of a star, at just the point where had she moved one finger she would have been pulled into its depths and burnt like paper in the wake of a great fire. For the first time since she began her quest to destroy the Sandaime's regime, she feels a terrible trickle of fear.
Then she thinks of the great swim she made, and something prompts her to raise her fist straight up, in the same gesture she made to the fishermen. She knows that swearing revenge in this moment would be the act of a fool, for it would give him a power over her that he has never been able to claim. The moment she decides to fulfill her destiny for his sake, she will have betrayed that quality within herself that made this destiny possible in the first place, so she doesn't do this. Instead she directs her gaze out over the water to the bobbing tallow lights, and swears something she does not have the words to articulate.
The lights sway in the current like prayer candles. She thinks the words are perhaps not needed.
Uchiha Shisui has a gossamer brilliance to him like light caught under the surface of the tide pools; a silky, thin intelligence that slips between the cracks in arguments and wanly illuminates the chinks in chains of reasoning. He is frightfully bored following his master's orders to stay in the Tower, and gets in routine scuffles with the manservant provided to him, a loyal old Kiri shinobi called Ao. It only takes her ten days of lighthearted conversation to draw him into intellectual debate, and from there, into discussions of Konoha policy.
The mistake on the Sandaime's part was sending in a Konoha boy. She knows that a shinobi from any other village would have been on the defensive immediately, knowing that Kiri nin shouldn't be asking the sort of questions she asks, but she was able to tell from the moment Shisui spoke his proud No one in Konoha thinks like that that his world is insular enough for her peculiarities to pass unnoticed. She marvels at this. What sort of place must Konoha be, that its citizens need nothing of the world outside? And yet Kiri's populace has been strategically withheld from information since the Sandaime came to power. So she drinks in each careless reference to Sandaime-sama's school reform policies and my three-man team, you know, knowing that one day she can use these nuggets of successful policy to begin mending Kiri's own infrastructure. Shisui, however, knows almost nothing of the sequestered existence Kiri citizens lead, and nothing of how carefully the Sandaime watches the population. He thinks little of it when she cuts their discussions short at times to wander the Mizukage Tower—the only opportunity she will have to do so before the Sandaime returns. The Swordsmen communicate with her by means of the spy they pilfered from the daimyo, and through a combination of her aimless meandering and the spy's whispered instructions, she is able to find out where the Yondaime is kept.
Someone brings them a spread of delicacies. Thin-sliced tuna on a bed of freshwater pearls, a clear soup that smells like oysters, an entire lobster, smooth-shelled and shining over the ice it crawls in. The cook stands beside them respectfully, holding his alcohol-soaked rag and waiting for her command.
Shisui looks slightly green.
"Uh," he says. "I don't know if I can eat that when it's, you know, crawling around next to me. Could I maybe pass?"
Both Mei and the cook laugh. Mei waves her hand, and he bows himself out through the sliding door. She waits for the rice paper to stop crackling.
"Perhaps some wine instead," she says. "This is distilled from a tidal flower we cultivate on the islands. It's one of our most successful exports, but I've heard it's quite expensive in the outside villages." All lies, since she has no way of knowing anything that goes on in outside villages. "Would you like to try some?"
The boy is a sixteen-year-old away from home; he nods, and she tips the pale white liquid into a sake cup and shakes it from side to side. As is customary, she raises Shisui's cup to her lips. Then, as he watches, she touches the side of her mouth and takes a sip.
When he takes the cup from her and drinks, satisfied, she smiles as languidly as she knows how and says, "You should know that your wine has been poisoned."
She admires his training. He sets the cup down with infinite composure and says, "Prove it."
It was very easy to breathe softly into the cup, coating the inside with a sheen of poison mist. She leans over the lobster crawling in its bed of ice, touches a finger to the gland, and breathes out, allowing the familiar sparkling to ease from her lips. The lobster jerks spasmodically for a moment and dies in a painless contraction of nerves.
"It's my bloodline limit," she says. "I can control the acidity levels of this poison mist at will. Right now, there is barely any poison in your bloodstream, but if I raise the acidity, you will begin to feel discomfort."
Shisui raises an eyebrow. His eyes are bright red under long lashes, cool and assessing, emanating sharp-focus chakra as is the defining characteristic of dojutsu users. The tomoe in the sharingan whirl. "You're aware of my mindbending technique, Mei-san."
"Oh yes," she agrees, and crinkles her eyes at him in a cheery smile. "I've been watching you quite carefully. One usage a day, and you've already used today's on the Yondaime."
Shisui narrows his eyes. "What do you want?"
"We'll begin with information," she says. "What is the nature of your affiliation with Uchiha Madara?"
She knows two minutes into his story that she has made a valuable ally. Uchiha Shisui, apparently known in the outside world as a shunshin master, has come to Kirigakure not to accomplish something, but to find someone. When he spits out half-blood as only a member of an old clan can, all pure venom and spitfire resentment, she understands what drove him to the Water Country. Bastard child with a dead father, seeking a mother who must have sent him out of the country when the bloodline massacres began—it's obvious why he's here.
"I don't know for certain," he says, "but the shunshin I have isn't ordinary. I can phase into complete invisibility without using any chakra at all. It has to be a bloodline limit."
"And your father was an Uchiha?"
"Yeah. Hence the—you know." He gestures at his sharingan. "It's a weaker sharingan than most—you should see my cousin's—and techniques like my mindbend put a hell of a lot of strain on it, hence the once-a-day thing. But I've had to work my ass off to get where I am. Fun clan, ours. Half-bloods are genetic suicide for so-called pure bloodlines."
"I understand. It was the same in Kiri."
She panicks. Considering this latest information, she believes she can persuade Shisui to work for her without threatening him, but in all likelihood, his mother was probably killed in the bloodline massacres long, long ago. He is most likely correct, however, that the shunshin he practices originated in the Water Country. Speed techniques have survived well in Kiri because they allow their users to travel over water.
"Many of Kiri's older bloodlines have died out," she says cautiously, careful not to say why. She sees his sharingan spinning and knows he will be able to detect lies via fluctuations in her chakra. A change in subject is clearly in order. "How do I know your story is true?"
Shisui rolls his eyes and flickers out of visibility.
"I came to Kiri to find my mother," he says, when he phases back into sight. "When Madara offered me a chance, I took it. And trust me, controlling your Yondaime's for the best. If he were coherent, he'd try to start a civil war with Madara, and that'd really be fun for the whole family."
"I see. And Sandaime-sama spends most of his time in Konoha these days?"
He smirks at Sandaime-sama. "Obviously. That was where we met him, my cousin and I. Itachi was the one who figured out who he was."
"Wait—you believe the Yondaime would stand against Sandaime-sama?"
"I'm in his head half the day, okay?"
"…Are you sure about this?"
"You like making deals?" says Shisui. "If you'll find my mother, I'll let you ask him yourself."
The Yondaime has a slack expression and a line of recent-looking stitches across his cheek. He is sitting on his futon and staring determinedly at nothing at all. He doesn't look in their direction. Shisui kneels next to him and takes his hand.
"Hey, Yagura-san," he says, almost gently. "Someone's here to talk to you."
There is an imperceptible tightening of the air around them, the way the room feels when she breathes in its moisture for her poison mist. Shisui's eyes are narrow with concentration. There is no sense of chakra spiraling outwards; rather, the walls seem to contract; external color bleeds back into Shisui's sharingan pupils. Light gathers inside the Yondaime's eyes. Spirals tighter, tighter, until suddenly the violet orbs snap into perfect synchronicity, and for the first time, she is face to face with the leader of Kirigakure in full coherence.
The first thing he says is, "You're the little girl from the graduation exam."
The second thing is, "Have you come to save me?"
Mei makes the Yondaime promises. She him that the Sandaime is not in the building. She promises that she is not working for him. She promises that Shisui will not hurt him. She promises that she won't let anything bad happen to him, that she isn't afraid of the Sanbi and can't hear its terrible voice in her head; that she won't leave him in the Tower alone again, that she has been sent to save him.
"You don't understand," he whispers, tears streaming from his eyes. "I can't go anywhere. I can't move. He lets me breathe sometimes. I have to kill him. He's an evil, evil man. You can't leave me here. You can't let him take me again."
"I won't," Mei whispers back. She looks at Shisui in consternation.
"Constant genjutsu," he mutters. "It does things to a person. Poor bastard probably can't keep his own thoughts straight anymore. What are you looking like that for?"
The truth is that the sensation of the Yondaime's hand sweating in her own is making her sick, as if something sticky and wrong has lodged itself inside her chest and refuses to come loose. The Yondaime's condition, as it is known, is common knowledge in Kirigakure, familiar in a roundabout way to children and students in the way things not talked about become familiar—wearing themselves into walls and bones and forgotten slices of sight, as the eye averts itself from something it knows it cannot handle. She thinks that it has something to do with the guilt she saw crouching on every set of bowed shoulders in the marketplace, that long-ago day she decided that she would make her own way to the position of Mizukage. But she realizes that some part of her always believed that the Yondaime was powerful in his own right, and would someday destroy the Sandaime's hold on the country with the same skill with which he was rumored to have controlled the beast within him. She had never seen it take place. She was very young when he was appointed to office. But still, as did all Kiri citizens, she believed it, and now she is disgusted with herself that she allowed such a hope to remain alive.
Didn't you know? she tells herself, standing there and watching the shell of the Yondaime cringe. Tears prick at the corners of her eyes. From the beginning, there was never anyone who would save this village but you.
"I will help you, Yondaime-sama," she says. She hates herself, but she hates the thought of allowing Kiri to continue like this far more. "I will bear your burden for you."
"Oh," says the Yondaime. "Oh, will you, please?"
"I will," she says.
"I've been waiting for so long—"
"I know,Yondaime-sama, I know."
"Will you take care of everyone?"
"I will. I promise."
She realizes she is crying in earnest now, at the threshhold of everything. She smudges the tears away with one silk-sleeved hand.
"Shisui-kun," she says, and the Uchiha boy looks attentive. "You will find parchment and brushes in the third room on the right. I trust you can take dictation?"
She's had the exact words of the contract planned and memorized since she was sixteen years old in the hopes that someday she would receive the opportunity she has now. She draws a kunai from the inside of her robe, makes a cut at the heel of the Yondaime's hand, and squeezes out enough blood to coat an inkwell. Shisui makes a strangled noise in his throat.
"So it'll hold his chakra," she explains to him. "I can't afford to have the veracity of this contract doubted."
She talks. Shisui writes. The Yondaime's smile trembles like a leaf about to fall, and grows wider with every brush stroke. She notices that Shisui has beautiful handwriting. Wet stroke of brush, sticky hand in hers, and like this a country is remade. The years press invisible, thousand-feathered wings against her cheeks and her lips: Madara's kisses, the shock at her family's death, the venomous powder of the white lilies falling apart in her fingers. They had left a glittering residue that she hadn't been able to scrub from her hands for days, and a scent that lingered for longer still than that. Now the air smells like blood. She keeps talking, says the word Mizukage over and over, and no one laughs. No one says foolish dream or kunoichi or anything that might leave a bad taste in her mouth, so she says it again, and Shisui stops writing and looks at her questioningly. She shakes her head. Red hair over her eyes. More memories crowd along the edges of her tatami mat, watching like disapproving grandmothers, but they are joined by taller, stronger ones: the great swim, the first net of fish she had caught on her very own, the silent glances of acknowlegment she traded with the other bloodline children. Her seat among the Seven Swordsmen. Kisame's hand, firm in hers as they shook on the future. Her fist raised high against the harbor lights, a defiant intake of breath against the cold snap of Madara's name in the air.
"…hereby relinquish guardianship of Kirigakure in the Water Country, with best wishes for its bright future."
The Yondaime signs the parchment. Shisui spins the brush so its handle faces her. She takes it, swabs it against the last vestiges of red, and signs her name.
The line beside her signature reads Terumi Mei—Godaime Mizukage.
"Madara could either laugh or blow up your entire country," says Shisui. "It's hard to say—and hey, didn't you want this? Why are you crying?"
They stay up to greet the dawn, drinking straight from the flasks of flower wine and rolling the discarded pearls from their dinner backwards and forwards across the floorboards. Her flask contains only water, but she doesn't let Shisui know this. His lips are slightly ajar, and his grey eyes, without their sharingan red, are so young-looking that she can't resist reaching her hand out to close them, feeling his eyelashes against her palm. He lets her do it.
"What is Madara going to do to you?" she asks.
"It won't matter in about ten days," he says. He takes another swig of the wine.
"Find my mother for me," he says, and his voice is suddenly angry, the painless brittle anger that comes with urgency. "I don't have much time. Itachi is—" and then he is quiet again. He holds the flask with a white-knuckled determination. Mei can't stop looking at it. Shisui notices her attention and sets the wine down, a little harder than necessary.
"Hey, hey Mizukage-sama,"he says, "You're really…clever, okay? Smart. I like that. Can you tell me how…"
He lurches. She leans, robe slipping off one shoulder, and catches him. In the shaded lantern-light it isn't at all obvious, but she realizes he isn't as drunk as he is pretending to be.
"…tell me how to keep water from reflecting—"
"…Are you expecting to die, Shisui-kun?"
"Itachi needs me to," he says suddenly. "If he needs it, I—but I want…want—"
She knocks the wine over in her rush to keep him from falling forward. His beating body is firm against hers, and before her the spill of liquid spreads, a thin scent rising from it like the feel of laughing ghosts. A skein of silver-white, fine silk she has seen and never felt between her fingers, but she feels this. She sets her hand in it. The liquid grows golden with pointed, darting shadows.
She sleeps with Shisui precisely because he needs it and she does not. Under hers, his body is flush with the fruited scent of the tidal flower. She drops kisses onto his eyelids, murmurs reassurances into his mouth, and as she does this he brings his hands up over her waist and the mounds of her breasts, fingers nervously worshipful. He is young and awkward and terribly shy in many ways, even as the stray wisecrack slips from between his lips with his sighs, and she needs to move in her own right before he learns that there is a rhythm to it. Like dance. Like the easy ebb and flow of conversation, or the gentle push-and-pull with which he draws her hair down around him, burying his face in it.
"I feel enough like your mother as is," she murmurs. "It wouldn't be attractive of you to cry into my hair."
"Your hair is beautiful," he says drowsily, and draws the breath from her with a lazy, adoring kiss. "Like—like Itach—ahh, do that again—"
When his neck arches, mouth soundlessly moving to shape a name that isn't hers, she cups his head and its riotous curls and involuntarily thinks of someone else as well, and although a flicker of shameful pleasure comes, at this—the man who is a force, whom she hates herself for desiring and will now face in earnest—she is still unmoved at the very end. As if her body in its machinations has forgotten something this most basic act of nature—or, more likely, as if it has cast off its old skin and the pain of its forging, and emerged as something entirely impervious to pain and pleasure both.
She makes the announcement at noon the next day. She gives a single signal, and the Seven Swordsmen flank her in two straight lines. Before her, the host of people stretches all the way to the grey line of the harbor.
Fist up for silence, she says, "The days of the Bloody Mist are ended. I am your fifth Mizukage, and I will bring prosperity to this land."
A few jeers come from the shinobi in the crowd. Incredulous looks and whispers, like thrown fruit—but she stays patient, even though her palms are sweating. She has done her groundwork well, and the years have taught her that the ocean will always provide for a girl who lays a good net. She sees it now; the faces of fishermen and others, the daughters she shared grins with that night before the island bonfires; the vendor in the marketplace who gave her a piece of calamari and taught her what it meant to make a perfect trade. And slowly, like a storm gathering electricity and power in its coiling cloud-curling heart, the cheers come.
They ripple along the shoreline of the crowd at first. They come bounding like breakers across the center, wash across upturned faces and outstretched hands, and crash upon her finally with a mighty roar that nearly makes her lose her footing. The little knot of nervousness snaps cleanly in half and is lost. Almost tangible, the wall of sound makes her dizzy and soaks her to the skin with approval, and finally even the jeering shinobi are drowned out. The civilians respect her for what she has done and not what she is, and as she raises her arms in the air, she finds that she has been smiling for so long it's second nature by now—but in all the years she has been alive, there has never been something that has made her want to laugh, as she does now. So she locks eyes with as many members of her populace as she can, and she spreads her hands wide, and she laughs.
They want to live again, Uchiha Madara, she thinks. You have taken so much, but this is the single thing that you will never be able to take away.
She laughs, for these moments completely innocent of pain, and Kirigakure laughs with her.
"There've been some preemptive assassination attempts," says Kisame later that afternoon, grinning and wiping sweat from his forehead, "but nothing we couldn't take care of, and definitely not as many as you'd expect. You've got yourself quite a fanbase, Mei-san."
"It's obvious why," mutters Zabuza. Mei ignores this; he has never liked her, and he makes the reason almost offensively clear. She smiles ingratiatingly at him.
"I'm glad I caught you," she says. "Zabuza-kun, you were part of Kiri ANBU before you joined the Swordsmen, weren't you?"
"I want to know what your role was, exactly, under the Yondaime."
Kisame looks pointedly at him, and so Zabuza tells her. She deduces almost immediately, from what he says of "preempting criminals" and "profiling," that Madara has been using the ANBU as a sort of secret police.
"Thank you for telling me," she says, eyes almost shut with the force of smiling. Sometimes it hurts to smile so much, but it gets things done, and so she rarely minds it. "I'm pleased to say that you are all relieved of your duties."
"You're disbanding the ANBU?"
"You can't do that!"
He hands her the contract. She unrolls it and smooths it down on the desk in front of her.
"Check the chakra," she says. "By official decree, I'm Mizukage now."
"Mei-san, this is—"
"Godaime-sama, please. Just until I get used to the name." A ridiculous lightheaded feeling; it's all actually very entertaining. She relishes the stunned expression on Zabuza's face.
"…As you wish," he says finally, almost snarling. "Godaime-sama."
Uchiha Shisui leaves the next morning.
"As entertaining as it might be, I don't think I want to be around when Madara gets back," he says, and when she laughs, he continues, "It's funny, but you seem a lot…younger. Nothing gets the juices flowing like taking over a village, I imagine."
"You make me sound like a tyrant and a crone, Shisui-kun."
"I guess you'll prove me wrong on at least one of those counts, won't you?"
"I hope you'll be there to see it."
He catches the reference to their last conversation and furrows his eyebrows.
"Uh," he says finally. "I'm sorry about dumping all that morbid shit on you the other night. Always a fun way to celebrate an inaugaration. We make a tradition of it in Konoha, you know. When I was inducted into the police force, Itachi spent like five hours droning about his little broth—"
"I did manage to celebrate my inaugaration properly," she says lightly. Shisui turns the color of a plum. It's very beautiful. She likes him best like this, blushing a brilliant red and stammering for the words which usually fall so easily to his tongue.
"Yeah," he flails, "well—I. I mean. You're kind of. You know. And I've never—I mean, I have now, but I—I guess I—"
"—wanted to be with a woman at least once," she says. "Of course."
He opens his mouth, closes it again, and then holds forth with a shaky, absolutely enchanting smile. She doesn't see how she could have thought he bore any resemblance to Madara at all.
"One for the road, then," he says. "C'mere, Mizukage-sama. You're kind of awesome, you know? It's too bad I won't get to brag."
He kisses her then, with the endearing half-certainty of a young lover just finding the right motions. Two fingers on her chin, one hand curling seashell-precise around around her shoulder. It's an easy kiss, the sort of kiss that promises nothing and reassures nonetheless, a comradely kiss of the sort she's come to cherish like a mild-weathered day, and then he pulls back and smudges a bit of wetness away from her lip with an air of benevolent finality. He is about two inches taller than her, and she remembers as his fingers leave her skin that he will never grow any more than that.
As he shoulders his pack, he wrinkles his nose at her.
"Hey," he calls. "How did you know people wouldn't, you know, die when they kissed you? What with your whole… poison-mouth thing?"
It's not something she hasn't thought of before, so she chuckles and puts on her new hat to shade her eyes from the sun. "Well, if that were the case," she calls back, "the Terumi clan would have died out rather quickly, wouldn't it?"
They're both laughing when he leaves. She stays watching him for a long time, standing on the pier and holding the hat firm with one hand, eyes firm on his upright shape as he flickers forward. The jagged line of his bangs is hard to see after a while. He lets the force behind his shunshin out in small silvery increments, as if testing the air, and soon he begins to move in earnest. His body eases into the old bloodline technique the way it hadn't into the act of love; he skims crane-like over the smaller tide-pools, and then, as far as her eye can see, fades out of visibility altogether when he reaches the open sea. Like a pale star rising across grey water, or a solitary sailboat fading into the mist's embrace. She watches until she can no longer see the small wake left by his feet, and then she turns and walks back to the Tower.
"Judging from what Uchiha Shisui told me," Mei says before the assembled conference of Swordsmen and assorted bureaucrats, "we have about ten days, perhaps two or three more, before the Sandaime returns from Konoha. Within those ten days, I want every man, woman, and child in Kirigakure fully aware of the regime change. I want it known in the Academy. I want it known in the villages on the coastline."
"It shouldn't be a problem," says one of the bureaucrats, a worried-looking man with a wispy beard. "It's not as if this regime change will result in any critical lifestyle changes."
"You misunderstand me," says Mei coolly. "Did you think I intended to put up posters? I want reforms."
"We can't draft reform initiatives in ten days!"
"That's completely all right," she says. "I've been drafting them for six years. Who is here representing the Academy?"
A thin woman with an even thinner mouth raises her hand. Mei nods kindly and says, "Excellent. You and all of your colleagues are fired, and will be relocated to the Tower to work government jobs. From now on, two out of the five Academy classes will be taken directly by me. I will be screening teaching candidates for the other three positions."
"Godaime-sama, that is preposterous—it would look like you're initiating an ideological purge—"
"I'm sorry, but when all five Academy teachers advocate mass murder as a perfectly acceptable way of measuring student aptitude, I would say an ideological purge is needed. Wouldn't you?" There is a sharp bark of laughter from the Swordsmen's side of the table. "I'm quite guilty of viewpoint discrimination," she says to the assembly at large. "I believe that people who encourage ten-year-olds to murder their friends should be jailed. As it is, I'm allowing them to do my paperwork instead. Next—Kiri ANBU has been disbanded." She admits rather guiltily that the exclamations of horror at this are music to her ears. "We have no relations with other countries. There's no need for ANBU right now."
"What about assassination attempts?"
Mei finds this so hilariously stupid that she allows herself a suitably childish riposte. She lowers her eyes and looks up at the speaker through her lashes. "My friends," she says sweetly, "have the largest swords around. And in case you haven't noticed, I have a bit of an acid tongue myself."
All in all, she thinks the first cabinet session goes rather well.
The next twelve days are among the best in her life.
Her feet are blistered from walking so much, but she manages to visit most of the tiny villages along Kiri's borders, see that sympathetic shinobi are placed in positions of power, and initiate the construction of the first bridge connecting the mainland to the islands. Its bones are like matchsticks, as of yet, and bobbing lantern-lights caught in the timbers look like fireflies from her window, but the sight still brings laughter to her lips. The ferrymen who make a living taking passengers to and from the islands take positions aiding in the bridge's construction and maintenance, and she spends one full night in a tavern with them, arguing the economics of the bridge until the sun comes up and the last man's hand goes down. From then on, whenever they see her, they grin or wink or wave, and no matter who is with her, she winks back.
On the third day, far before anyone else in the Tower is awake, she takes a covered palanquin out into the streets. She holds the Yondaime's hand through the gauzy mosquito net and points to the Academy and the lines of the newborn bridge. When they return to the Tower, the Yondaime says, "Will he be angry?"
She smiles, and says, "Come now, Yondaime-sama. We're too busy building one bridge to cross another just yet."
On the fourth day, she goes to visit the dormitory where the survivors of the bloodline purges are being housed, and by spending five hours in interrogations with those who knew the shunshin users, manages to isolate the name of one Kaibara Suiren, who appears in a newspaper clipping as a young woman with riotously disheveled, choppy curls and a familiar lopsided smile. Apparently, the fastest girl in the Water Country at one point. She had been immortalized at just the moment she crossed the finish line of some arbitrary town race, hand up in the air and eyebrows raised, mouth open, no doubt, in some insufferably sarcastic remark. Mei looks at the clipping for a long time. Then she folds it into thirds, dictates a few lines, and commissions one of the rare messenger birds traveling south to the Fire Country.
On the sixth day, she catches Zabuza standing in the Yondaime's room with the decapitation sword at the ready, and becomes so angry that she fills an entire wing of the Tower with low-acidity poison mist. When Zabuza comes to, he is bound to an interrogation wall.
"Do not," she says, "touch the Yondaime again. Ever."
"It's dangerous to leave him alive," he snarls at her.
"Go on cutting people up, and let me handle the strategy," she replies. "You've proven incapable of doing both." It's the end of the discussion.
On the ninth day, someone makes the mistake of showing her a painting the bureaucrats have commissioned for the Tower. In it, she is swathed in light rose, gauzy veil covering her hair, soppily observing some assembled children with an expression she is fairly sure has never appeared on her face in her life. The calligraphy says Beloved Mother of Kirigakure.
"Well, we want people to take you seriously," explains the earnest-faced artist. "See that you're the right kind of woman. Not someone…well, you know. Fast."
That very day, she visits one of the tailors she has never had enough money to patronize, one of the shops in the red-letter district where men chew tobacco and spool out black-market Konoha fabrics. They let her in in an instant, recognizing her face, and one of the men asks, "What can we do for you, Godaime-sama?"
She pages through the designs and finds what she supposes is an evening kimono. It's hard to tell; no one in Kiri has much occasion to wear such a thing. No kunoichi, in any case, has much reason to wear it at all; shoulders slipping off, near-backless, sash so heavy with charms and adornments that it barely fulfills its function. Once she would have balked at such a frivolous, absurd garment, but now she sees it as merely another bit of strategy, merely another thread she will pull to create the Kiri she wants.
"I'd like you to make this for me, please," she says. "But I want a tunic, not a robe. Mesh leggings as well."
"Godaime-sama, that's not appropriate—" tries one of the councillors in her retinue.
"I think you mean that it's only appropriate for us to wear these things when we're told to do so," she corrects. "The only person who should be able to decide if and when I wear such things is myself, and I am exercising my right to do just that. If you're still concerned, I assure you there is more to do in Kiri than worry about my attire."
In the mirror at the Mizukage Tower, she undoes her hair and lets it fall free of its braid to make soft waves about her face. She teases the locks into some semblance of a style, twists up the distracting parts into a topknot, and brushes out the ends until the rest hangs past her waist. Over her eyelids she smooths clear gel that reflects the light. And then, she dips one finger into a thin metal tray and coats her lips with hibiscus juice. The girl in the mirror is young, ethereal, so exaggeratedly beautiful that Mei can't resist a serenely liquid smile at her own reflection.
"They're all scared of you," she tells the girl in the mirror. "They desire you, and that makes them scared."
The only thing to do about this, she knows, is give them reason to be afraid.
On the twelfth day, he returns.