Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
~ The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Zabuza shifted the sword on his back irritably, ignoring the trickle of water that ran down his open collar. Going to fucking rust, he thought sourly, glaring aimlessly at the ever present mist that gave the village its name. The mist touched everything with clammy fingers, working the damp into his skin and clothes until he felt like he'd never be warm or dry again. It's only saving grace was that it hid the sheer misery of his surroundings.
Water splashed beneath his sandals, tiny rivulets and puddles gathered in the uneven rocky ground. That too, was constant. Stone buildings loomed out of the mist, unnervingly close for having been invisible. Everything in Kiri was made of stone – wood warped in the water and was damaged by salt spray – and little thought was given to appearance, making them all ugly chunks of grey rock sitting on an ugly chunk of grey rock.
He strode past the ninja loitering casually outside – as if anyone would 'loiter casually' in Kiri without being summarily escorted to T&I – and into the administration building.
Goddam D-ranks. Waste of time that could be spent training. But missions were where the pay came from and if you didn't do missions, you didn't get paid. Minimal, shitty pay it might have been – and what didn't get spent on food or rent went into equipment upkeep, leaving you with a fat lot of nothing before too long – but it was money all the same. His swordsmaster, one of the legendary Seven Swordsman, clearly wasn't going to deign to taking low rank missions, and Zabuza wasn't cocky enough to think he'd survive one of the A-ranks that Shioni took. Until he was, D-ranks were his only real source of income.
"D-rank," he said curtly to the ninja at the desk, making sure his filed-to-a-point teeth were visible. Outright trouble making might get you the wrong sort of attention, but a little passive intimidation was practically the status quo.
The ninja didn't look very intimidated, because he probably dealt with worse people than a twelve year old swordsman apprentice, but Zabuza figured if he'd been stuck with a shitty assignment like Missions Desk then he wasn't much of a ninja at all.
"You're too late. The only ones that are left are team missions," the ninja answered sullenly.
Zabuza loomed over the desk, leaning forwards and leaving damp hand marks on the surface. "Give. Me. A. Mission." He said, emphasising each word.
The ninja leant backwards, sullen expression unchanging. "Two people. Minimum," he said. "Until you have another person, I can't give you anything."
Zabuza scowled. This wasn't going anywhere. He turned, surveying the room and the waiting people that he'd barged straight past to get to the desk. None of them had tried to stop him. Worthless.
"You," he barked, pointing at a figure near the back. She was maybe fifteen, which put her a few years older than him, and pretty enough. Windblown and salt spray soaked hair, sun beaten skin. No vest, so she was either a Genin, or didn't care for them, and not carrying anything more serious than kunai and shuriken. Then again, he probably would have known her already if she'd been a swordsman. It was hard to assess from a mere glance, but she didn't look like she'd be total dead weight, or that she was so dangerous he'd have to worry about a knife in the back. "Come here."
There was a split second as thoughts visibly crossed her face – who me? What? Why?- before she schooled it into neutrality and came forwards.
"Two people," Zabuza said, turning back to the desk. "Now hurry the hell up."
"Fine," the ninja at the desk said, resigned, before plucking two scrolls off the top of his pile and holding them out.
Zabuza crossed his arms and stared, even as the girl gingerly reached out and took them.
After a pause, realising he wasn't about to go away, the desk ninja elaborated. "Purchase and transportation of food. Twenty five crates of assorted fish from Tenka Mizugiwa of Port Arashi. Storage scrolls and payment included."
Zabuza snorted, spun on his heel and left, the girl tagging along behind him. "Waste of time," he muttered, as they strode past the watchdogs outside. He kept his voice low, though; it wasn't wise to be noticed criticizing the administration. "The hell does a mission like this need two people?"
"Insurance," the girl replied to his rhetorical question, though quietly enough he could have ignored her. "Less chance of mission funds being stolen or skimmed when you assign multiple people. For one, both of us would have to go along with it, and the pay-off for each of us would be less than if it were solo. Then we'd have to trust that the other wouldn't betray us, either for the extra share, or to Kiri for whatever prize they'd give us for turning on each other."
She fell silent as they approached the gates, and Zabuza counted three security patrols flickering past. The gate guard inspected their mission scroll, and their ID pass cards, and even did a quick spot check of their equipment pouches before letting them go. That wasn't exactly unexpected and Zabuza was just glad nothing had gone 'missing' this time during the check.
It was a long dull run to Port Arashi, across rough, rocky ground – the coastlines of Land of Water weren't soft, delicate sand but uneven boulders and rock sharp enough to cut your feet on – and even worse on days when the mist was heavy and made footing slick and dangerous. Kiri was in the most inhospitable corner of Mizu no Kuni possible – bleak and desolate on good days and hell on earth on the bad.
It would have been easier, by far, to have a boat sail to Kiri but no vessels were allowed in sight of the village, and even ninja leaving over water faced much tougher security than those heading over land. The counterbalance of those restrictions was, however, that no attack on Kiri by sea had ever succeeded.
It also meant that food had to be transported in, and since no civilians were allowed in Kiri – or could even get to it – food transport D-ranks were a staple of the village.
The port town, in some ways, wasn't much different from Hidden Mist. The same grey stone, the same grey sky, the same damp, the same squalor. All that changed was shinobi to civilian and smell of blood to smell of fish. Zabuza wrinkled his nose, and considered again investing in a mask to block most of the overpowering stench. Of course, masks in Kiri were asking for trouble, unless you were strong enough to make the 'random' identity checks not worth their time.
"Let's head to the harbour," he said.
Despite the crowded streets, people gave them wide berths, eyeing their headbands and the sword on his back uneasily. This was a town close enough to Kiri that the village symbol was recognisable, and the people had likely had dealings with shinobi before.
Someone jostled past them and Zabuza's hand shot out, grabbing the pickpockets hand before it even came close to his pouch. "Not a good idea," he snarled at the grimy kid, maybe four or five years old. It – gender indeterminate – stared back with uncomprehending eyes. Nothing he said would get through to it. He snarled again, shoving it backwards into the crowd, watching it vanish with street kid quickness.
Stupid, desperate kid. You should know better than to target a shinobi.
It had not been so long ago that Zabuza had been a child just like that one, and for him, the choice between becoming a shinobi and starving on the streets had been no choice at all.
He scowled darkly, causing the milling civilians to back off another pace or two, and strode forward, scattering the crowd.
The dock was easy to find, being the main feature of any port town, and also, by the stink of fish and stagnant sea. The supplier was a twitchy, nervous man – thought that might have been the result of trading with shinobi – who nevertheless had the gall to suggest that they might, possibly, pay more than the agreed upon price. Zabuza had cut him off with a flat 'no' and that had really been the end of it.
The girl had carefully unsealed the money from the scroll, handed it over, and the two of them had proceeded to seal the crates of fish into it in return. Sealing scrolls were incredibly handy, he recognised, it was just a pity they were so tightly regulated by the village that unless you knew how to make them, getting your hands on one was nigh on impossible. Even this one would have been documented and would be carefully scrutinized and locked away once they got back to the village.
"Can't believe he had the nerve," Zabuza grumbled as they left the port town. He didn't look forward to arriving in Kiri and trying to get these things through the security check, regardless of the fact that this was their mission.
The girl shrugged. "Kiri pays what Kiri wants to pay, and not a ryo more, regardless of what regular market price is," she said. "Though, it is a guaranteed, regular sale, so that should have made up for some of it."
He glanced at her sideways at the matter of fact summation. "What's your name anyway?" he asked.
She looked startled, just for a second. "Umi."
"Umi?" he repeated, waiting for the rest. 'Beach' wasn't exactly an inspired name for someone from Mizu no Kuni.
"Just Umi," she said.
No surname meant more than 'no family' – Zabuza had a surname and he'd been an orphan for years – it meant she could never remember having a family, and that no one else remembered or cared to remember it either.
They say that drowning is supposed to be a pleasant way to go.
That's a lie.
They say that when you die, you're supposed to see your life flash before your eyes and that there's a light at the end of a tunnel.
That's a lie too.
It wasn't pleasant. It was exhausting and terrifying, the desperate desire to breathe beating in my chest, the hopelessness of no longer being able to hold my head above the water. It was slow and I was perfectly, horribly aware of what was going on.
I died in the water, so there's perfect, terrible symmetry in the fact that I entered my new life on the oceans tide. Luckily for me, this time there were people around to pull me out.
Although… I would have saved myself a lot of pain if I had just drowned there. Sad, but ultimately true.
I guess that needs some explaining. See, some places might have old wives tales of finding babies in cabbage patches, but in Mizu no Kuni they're brought in on the oceans tide. It probably relates to another of Mizu's customs, in which unwanted children are left by the shore to drown and be swept out to sea.
So there I was, a baby, fished off Kujukuri beach and promptly bundled off to the nearest orphanage, which just happened to be right inside Kirigakure no Sato.
See what I mean? Drowning would have saved me a lot of trouble.
The Bloody Mist village was probably the last place on the list of places I wanted to be, once I'd worked out where I was. Hell, nowadays, it's still the last place I want to be. But I should probably tell this story in some kind of order, so:
Hidden Mist is a hive of scum and villainy. Land of Water itself isn't much better. The entire island is poor, poverty is rife. It's too small for proper farming, and anyway, between the hard rocky ground and the sea salt that made the soil next to infertile, not much would grow anyway. The only real source of food was importing and fishing, and you better believe that the Daimyo kept a tight control on both.
For shinobi, though, food was the least of our worries. The primary danger for us was each other. Tensions were deliberately fostered, shinobi kept in constant competition to promote aggressiveness and reduce conspiracies and rebellions.
See, I was born at a period just prior to the beginning of the Third Shinobi War. The Fourth Mizukage had just 'come into power' – though Yagura's personality had changed so rapidly after taking the hat that most people had trouble distinguishing him from the Third.
It was a time when the infamous Graduation Exam was still going strong. As a ward of the Kiri Orphanage, I was automatically enrolled. All of us were; we had no choice.
The orphanage in Hidden Mist is every bad thing you ever heard about an orphanage – every Oliver Twist tale or workhouse horror story rolled up and compressed into one building.
The place didn't even have rooms, it was just one huge hall, clear during the day, with rolled out blankets at night. It would have been cold if there had not been hundreds of children, each fighting for a small piece of floor. There wasn't enough of anything – clothes were thin and ragged, food was half portions at best and there weren't enough adults to prevent the older children stealing from the younger (had they cared, which was doubtful) let alone anything as prosaic as giving attention.
And despite that, it was still better than the Academy. You know the famous 'graduation exam'? It wasn't even remotely secret. The younger classes might not have understood, but you could read it in the tense shoulders of the older students, in the way their gaze would sweep calculatingly over their classmates. Who- who could I-
There were no friendships in the Kiri Academy. No one you could trust not to stab you in the back. The 'teachers', if they deserved the title, were those unfit for duty for whatever reason. Old or wounded, or just plain crazy. My first year there, the teacher took all the girls aside and told us that if we did special favours for him, he would ensure that we got a good match up during the exam.
Yeah, that was the kind of place it was.
The classes were neither easy nor safe. Punishment was whatever the teacher decided it was, from standing on the bottom of the river for a certain period of time, to lashings, to sensory deprivation genjutsu, to starvation. Kids died at Kiri Academy. And it was normal.
Worse yet… you didn't want to skip class. That was apparently a little too close to desertion. You do not leave Hidden Mist and expect to survive.
I spent my time there with my head down, desperately trying to balance doing enough work to get by and not enough to be noticed. You had to make mistakes – they liked punishing people – but you had to make the right mistakes, the ones that got you running or pushups, got you yelled at or mocked but not injured.
A deadly balance, where deviation either way meant death, and each step forward was one you wished you didn't take.
That's my nightmare, Marlon Brando once said, in a film that I once studied for something as banal as an English exam, crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.
It was a nightmare.
One that dragged on, day after day, and terror became numb drudgery, a constant wall of sameness for all that it was terrible. For some of us, one good day would have been all it would take to break us, because it would have woken us up. And then we would have had to go back to it.
Suicide was common too. With kunai and ninja wire, it wasn't even really that hard to accomplish. I once over heard the teachers rating each attempt for how creative it had been.
I thought about it, myself. Even now I'm not quite sure why I didn't. Not out of hope, or determination. Apathy, maybe. Maybe it just seemed like too much work.
Then we graduated.
What missions that weren't solo were usually done in pairs – the minimum expenditure of manpower that would still result in a standoff between parties, should one get a clever idea in their heads. Three was both better and worse, with any one being outnumbered by the others, but was usually regarded as a waste of an able body that could be better served on another mission.
Zabuza, having found a partner that didn't annoy the hell out of him and was unlikely to stab him at first opportunity, took shameless advantage of the fact. Umi was quiet and kept to herself, and while her running speed left a bit to be desired, it was worth it to be able to take frequent missions, and even the occasional C-rank.
C-ranks usually weren't much better than D-ranks, maybe slightly more important things like delivering information or orders to patrol units or outpost stations, but nothing that would take them out of Mizu no Kuni.
The further away from Kiri that you travelled, however, the greater the chance that you would be attacked, especially when you were two young, unaccompanied kids. The towns around the Hidden Village usually had enough dealings with ninja to know that relative youth didn't mean they were less dangerous at all – and those that thought otherwise were swiftly dealt to – but the outlying villages didn't see enough of them to come to that realisation.
Zabuza noticed the ambush long before it was actually sprung – from the first lookout that quickly abandoned his work in the fields, to the meagre cover they used to hide behind – and considered it amateurish enough to walk straight into.
"Just hand over your stuff, kids, and you don't have to get hurt," one of them said, inexpertly holding a hoe like a weapon. Three of them crowed around Zabuza, the last closing off the 'escape route' behind them.
Zabuza snorted and reached for his sword.
It was over quickly, the three of them no match for his skills, put down fast enough that when he turned, Umi was fighting her single opponent, awkwardly dodging an axe swing. He lashed out, sword biting deep and ending the fight.
Then Zabuza inspected the men that had attacked them. Their clothes were rough and well worn, the weapons were farm tools, not made for fighting. Likely just farmers then, local men who'd seen them travelling and thought to supplement their income, rather than a group dedicated to banditry. It was hardly uncommon.
He searched the bodies briefly, coming up with nothing worth taking. A handful of odds and ends, not even a single coin.
"Nothing important," he said. "Let's get on with it." But Umi didn't move, and when he turned to look at her, all the colour was leeched from her face, leaving her stark, bone white. "What? They get you or something?"
He couldn't see a wound, and she'd have to be a shitty ninja to get taken out by an old man with an axe, but it could happen.
"No," she rasped dryly, making an aborted motion with her hands. "No, I'm fine."
He shrugged. "Then let's go. Got a mission to finish."
But even as they left, she kept looking over her shoulder at the bodies.
It's horrible to say that things got better after that, but they did – for a given value of better. I moved out of the orphanage immediately – not even going back after graduation – to the Genin Barracks which were the barest, smallest step up. There were rooms, for one, and beds, even if they were bunk beds covering every wall.
(The top bunks were dangerous because someone could stab you through the mattress from below. The bottom bunks were dangerous because they were fully open to the room with no protection from anywhere. What a fantastic choice.)
And no, Kiri didn't believe in Genin Teams. If you were a genin, you were good enough to work. If not, you died.
They liked to keep things simple.
So I ran missions. C-ranks and D-ranks. Sometimes with a 'team' sometimes alone. I preferred alone, because you could never, quite, trust a team to watch your back. You couldn't even trust them not to stab it.
The thing about an island like Mizu no kuni is, is that you're unlikely to encounter foreign ninja. A Genin is supposed to be good enough to deal with local threats like wild animals and bandits.
I just… I would never be a fighter. I didn't have it in me. Not anymore. Maybe I never had, but the Academy had crushed more spirit out of me than it had ever inspired.
Graduation was the first and last time I ever killed anybody.
Training with Shioni was bloody and brutal and didn't often leave Zabuza with energy for anything else, let alone anything frivolous. There were days when his arms ached so much he couldn't lift them, days when his legs were so weak they wouldn't carry him. There were days when his only goal was 'survive'.
So the fact that he didn't see Umi – barely even thought about her – for months, didn't really surprise him, even if she was one of the half dozen or so people he could stand to work with. That was really all she was anyway; somebody who he could tolerate.
He was a little surprised to run into her in one of the bays just south of Kiri. It wasn't particularly hidden, but it was sheltered enough to make a decent camping spot. Easier than trying to get into Kiri after curfew anyway.
When he saw her, he could spot the reason for her absence almost immediately.
Zabuza had stayed in the barracks for a while and he knew that walking into that place wearing such an obvious sign of weakness was just asking for a knife in the back or worse.
He thought about leaving, just turning and walking away. She would probably die, from infection or betrayal, but that wasn't his problem.
"Hell of a cut," he said, striding across the hard gravel of the bay.
Her eyes – eye, one was caked and swollen shut – flickered to him, fear bright. There were ground herbs, healing paste, bandages and needles on a mat on the ground in front of her but her hands were shaking and there was only so much you could do to yourself. There was boiling water to clean the needles and moonshine for the wound, which was about as thorough as medical preparations ever were in Kiri. Still better than risking the blood pit they called the hospital.
He leant into her space and took her chin in his hand, tilting it back and forth to see, in the low light of the campfire. Her movements were stiff and awkward, and she shuddered constantly.
"Give me the knife," he ordered.
Her eyes were wild and he could hear her breathing - fast and panting.
Zabuza rolled his eyes. "You want this cleaned up or not? I haven't got all day." It looked pretty bad too, to his eye, yellowing pus forming at the edges of the cut. It wasn't new, either, so it had probably been open or just covered while she returned from a mission.
She relinquished the knife and he set to work, draining the worst of it, before wiping the rest away with clean cloth.
Then he picked up the needle and she swallowed roughly.
Later after he'd finished, half the alcohol had gone on her cut and the other half was inside her, she'd stared at the water and slurred. "This is where they found me," she said. "Brought in on the tide."
Zabuza knew the old wives tale. "Regular fairytale princess you are," he grunted, sorting through the herbs to make a paste for the wound. She had a good collection; comfrey, lavender, garlic, willow bark, all useful and easy to obtain.
She laughed, bitter and tight. "It all comes back to drowning." She shuddered and stared down the shore at where the waves were pounding on the rocks. "I've tried… it never takes me back."
"Stupid girl," he said gruffly. "There are easier ways to go about dying."
There wasn't so much a 'Mist Rebellion' as 'every meeting of two or more shinobi was probably treasonous in some way'. Finding a shinobi that was actually loyal to the village was a much harder bet than finding one that had done something illegal.
And that was with Internal Security watching everyone, always.
Then again, the IS didn't have to prove you'd done anything treasonous. I don't think they even had to prove they suspected you of maybe thinking about doing something treasonous. You just vanished.
That kind of scrutiny and unrestrained power didn't actually stop anyone from plotting. It probably was actually the thing that inspired it, like a spiral of death. The more people plotted, the higher the security, the more people plotted, the higher the security- on and on until something exploded.
When I worked the Missions Desk, I actually saw Mei Terumi a few times. She was pretty in a way that not many Mist Kunoichi managed to retain for long. She also had a bit of a reputation. Not as a fighter – everything was suspiciously quiet on that front – but as… well, someone who traded sexual favours for perks. 'Whore' was one of the nicer things I heard her called.
The thing is… that's derogatory, but it's also incredibly dismissive. It didn't take in to account that her 'men' had more power than just to get her better pay. They were scattered throughout the village, different ranks, different sectors, but all powerful. Where every meeting of shinobi was scrutinised, she slipped under the radar by being obvious.
I was pretty sure that this was the start of her own push for Mizukage.
"You can read?" Zabuza asked, almost incredulously.
Umi jerked, head snapping up as she startled. The angry red scar curving down the outside of her face had mostly healed, but it pulled the skin taunt, fixing half of her face in a permanent sneer. She'd never be mistaken for pretty again.
"Yes?" She answered hesitantly, looking down at the scroll in her hands.
Zabuza narrowed his eyes at her. "Did you learn that at the Academy?"
She barked a laugh that was both startled and bitter. "The only thing that the Academy teaches you is how to be afraid."
There were few people in Kiri that could read and write with any skill, all the better to control the flow of information. Ninja could do their jobs perfectly well without those abilities, as long as there was someone to point them in the right direction.
"Teach me," Zabuza demanded. He had little to trade, but Shioni had begun teaching him water jutsu, which were just as prized. His master would likely kill him for passing them on, but that only meant he could never find out.
Umi nodded slowly. "Alright," she acquiesced.
And if he called in a few favours when they were back in the village to get her transferred to an administrative position, then it was only so she didn't get the rest of her face sliced off before he was finished.
This was an attempt to write a SI from a POV of an outside character, but it didn't really work out, hence the italicised sections. It was really supposed to be more about Zabuza and Kirigakure, and what an economically depressed, security conscious, military dictatorship (one that thought 'kill each other' was a viable graduation exam, at that) might be like and a few ideas about ninja life I wanted to throw in here and there.
The whole thing was supposed to focus more on the political side of the rebellion, how it was formed and such, since Umi is a SI that's pretty bad at the fighting side of things, in contrast to almost every other one. But that's… really hard to write, so it never really got anywhere.
So, important question, are you guys interested in seeing unfinished ideas? Because RR was originally just going to be everything I wasn't going to finish, and then Meimu was such a hit that I rethought it. So either, you can wait for the rare times when I actually 'finish' a chapter – and/or cobble together enough scenes that I can call it finished – or just put out what I have. Meimu had a full character arc written, but Umi only has half a one, and most of the others don't even have that.