12 Feb 2014 No Comments
“We got two coming up the road,” Joro said as he peered through the binoculars.
Katsuro sighed. He had been fairly comfortable, leaning back on the angled rooftop in the shade of an old chimney. He sat forward, propped his elbows on his knees and looked closely, trying to see what Joro saw.
Katsuro could tell by the tone of his voice that these were different from the farmers and townsfolk they’d seen plodding by for the last week. Even without the binoculars Katsuro could see what had alerted Joro. Their gait was smooth, their movements efficient as they walked in a perfect line, using a standard travel formation to disguise their numbers.
These were shinobi.
“And a third…. Ooo, it’s a girl too.” Joro refocused the lenses. “Mmm…she’s cute. Didn’t know they made kunoichis like her.”
Katsuro rolled his eyes at Joro’s ogling. He was always checking out girls. Being on duty never mattered.
Katsuro squinted at the two black-headed nins walking up the road, trying to make out identifying marks. Suddenly a swish of pink flashed at the back of the line. Katsuro’s breath caught in his throat. He looked hard but didn’t see the color again.
He swallowed thickly. “Gimme those binoculars.”
Joro grunted his dissatisfaction but slowly passed them over. Katsuro snatched them up. The first one had a Leaf headband.
“They’re Konoha,” Katsuro said in a strained whisper.
“Should we get out of here—
“No—” Katsuro said, too quickly, hope warring with common sense. “I mean…no, don’t move. As long as we’re still, the cloaking jutsu will cover us.” At least, he hoped the invisibility trick he’d picked up from Itachi would.
The first one was pale and slight, and Katsuro decided immediately that he could take him if they were discovered. The second, with a white shirt and katana, looked strangely familiar, even with his head bowed. until he saw the fan stitched on the shirt…Uchiha.
And then it all clicked. The Robot, the Uchiha, and—
The word was no more than a breath on his lips but it sung in his ears, electrifying him with nervous anticipation. He tightened his hold on the binoculars.
And suddenly, as if she’d heard him, Sakura appeared, stepping gracefully out of the back of the line and smiling up at her teammates. Thumbs hooked under the shoulder straps of a knapsack, she spoke and watched them, waiting for a response.
Katsuro tightened his focus, drinking her in.
She was…beautiful. Her face was longer, the angle of cheekbone and curve of jaw more pronounced. All of her curves were more pronounced. She had a womanly shape and a womanly walk. Even her hair had changed, growing long enough to brush her bare arms beyond her sleeves. It floated with her as she moved, making her look like she’d walked out of a dream, where people were happy and no one bled or fought or died.
The warm weight of the necklace shifted against Katsuro’s chest, and his focus sharpened on her spring green eyes, which were, right then, smiling in front of him, even as her teammates ignored her. He breathed in, as if seeing her again had awoken some part of his soul from a deep, colorless winter.
“She’s cute, right?” Joro interrupted, but thankfully he took the silence as agreement and didn’t keep up a commentary.
They were directly below Katsuro’s hiding spot when the one in front — the Robot — stepped quickly ahead and disappeared into a store. Katsuro felt a trill of excitement that now they would spread out a bit and he’d get a better view—
But suddenly, the Uchiha swung around and caught Sakura by the waist.
Katsuro shot to his feet, sure she was being attacked. He dropped the binoculars to his side
“Uh, hey Boss? I thought we weren’t supposed to move….”
Still under the protective cover of the invisibility jutsu, Katsuro stood in the sunlight. The shadow of the chimney angled over his feet. The binoculars swung from his hand, forgotten.
Heat exploded in his gut, raw and angry, as he watched the Uchiha’s arm snake around her, pulling her closer. The Uchiha was bigger than her, more man now than the last time he’d seen him at the river five years ago. He’d be about 18 now, and his lithe physique and quick movements spoke of power.
Sakura’s hands clutched at his sleeve, obviously pushing away the unwanted advance, and the hair stood up on the back of Katsuro’s neck. He rocked forward, ready to jump down and intervene, not caring about the consequences—
When suddenly Sakura leaned away from his grasp. And she was…she was smiling. She was smiling at him.
Katsuro’s world tilted on its axis. His feet somehow managed to stay planted on the roof, but the scene unfolded in front of him like a nightmare.
Sakura smiled up into the Uchiha’s face, welcoming him. Her hand smoothed his sleeve and she spoke in hushed tones that only he could hear. His dark shadow fell across her, consuming her, and his black hair blocked her from view for a moment. She pulled back, her hair swinging around her in a fan, then he released her, dragging his hand slowly around her hip as he let go. Like he’d done it before….
Their teammate returned and they immediately separated, but not before stealing one last moment, curling their fingers together in the hidden space between them where no one else would see….
But Katsuro saw it all.
He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. A strong gust of wind ruffled his hair and threatened to send him toppling off the slanted roof. He wished it were a jutsu, that Itachi was testing him, but he knew it wasn’t. Deep down, he knew it, just like he knew now that Sakura had forgotten him. Moved on and left him behind—
“Hey— Hey!” Joro whispered harshly and nodded at the binoculars swinging from his hand. Katsuro looked down at them, numb with shock. They swayed dangerously, and whether it was because of the breeze or his own unsteadiness he didn’t know. But the lenses were catching the light. He turned back slowly only to find Sakura staring right at him.
For an instant, his heart still knew hope…. Hope that she really saw him. Hope that it was all some horrible mistake.
But it scattered as the Uchiha turned. Katsuro froze. Breath coming in short puffs, Katsuro half-feared that he would activate his sharingan and see through Itachi’s invisibility jutsu. It was only a cheap trick of the light; their chakra signatures were still loud and clear.
However, another part of him hoped the Uchiha would see through the jutsu. Then he’d have no choice but to jump down and tear into him. The heat clawing at Katsuro’s insides echoed that feeling, feeding chakra to his fists and making the blood rush in his ears—
But Sakura touched the Uchiha’s arm in reassurance and pointed to the jagged metal flashing on the edge of the chimney. It was explanation enough. Satisfied, the Uchiha turned away.
In that moment, Katsuro knew he’d already lost. Inside the hot, swirling chakra receded, leaving him hollow.
Moving as a team, the three nodded their thanks and resumed their journey. At the edge of the town, Sakura looked back over her shoulder, just once, searching the rooftop as if just to be sure.
Katsuro stood still, waiting for her silent judgement. A stiff wind ruffled the hair on his forehead, buffeting him gently. He thought about breaking the jutsu and revealing himself…but why? Even though she was right in front of him, she was already gone.
Sakura raked her empty gaze over the chimney and its shadow. But she never saw him. Curling her hair behind her ear, she turned away, crested the hill with her team and disappeared.
Katsuro stared at desolate the road. Only a few leaves were left to swirl in their empty wake. And when the wind rose up it felt like it was blowing right through him.
Joro hopped up to stand at his elbow. “Geez they almost saw us, boss.” But only silence answered. “You alright? Boss…?”
Katsuro raised two fingers to release the jutsu. Their figures flickered back into existence beside the chimney.
Katsuro stared hard at the road until he had to blink away the grit from the wind. “Let’s go,” he said, not sounding like himself. “We’re leaving.”
“But I thought we had to—”
“I said let’s go,” he snapped. Eyes still focused on the curve of the road, Katsuro reached into his collar and jerked hard on the traitorous stone around his neck. He could still see the colors in his mind, but he shut it out and jerked again. This time, the cord snapped.
Blinking hard, he closed his fingers around the stone so he wouldn’t have to look at it and dropped it into his pocket.
Without a word to Joro, Katsuro turned and leapt over the spine of the roof.
Two floors below, Katsuro landed in a hard squat, not bothering to soften it with chakra. He flung open the door to the abandoned warehouse they’d been sleeping in, leaving Joro to pick his way down the rickety flights of stairs.
Katsuro swept through the darkened room, never waking Koro and Taichi, disappeared down a hall and closed himself in the small lavatory at the end.
Alone, he gripped the tiny sink, fighting the urge to rip it off the wall as rage and grief consumed him. He swayed on his feet and banged his forehead against the dingy mirror, asking himself how it could happen again. He swore…he swore he’d never feel this way again….
He tugged the necklace out of his pocket, running his thumb over the smooth edges he knew so well — by heart, his mind whispered — and held it up in front of his face. It still caught the light. But now it was a memento of pain. He crushed it in his fist.
How could she do this? Throw him away like he was nothing! First Konoha, and now her!
With a growl, he hurled the necklace at the wall. But no satisfying tinkle of shattering stone echoed back. It only thudded as it came to rest in some dark corner of the tiny room
Katsuro gripped the basin until his knuckles turned white, wishing he could scream and let out the rage that was boiling over inside and scalding him. But when he caught his reflection in the mirror, he stopped. The sight disgusted him. A boy looked back. Tousled brown hair, freckled cheeks. A boy.
Weren’t he and the Uchiha supposed to be evenly matched? Wasn’t Itachi’s only request of him to help take down his brother, saying that only Katsuro was right for the job?
But the Uchiha looked so much more powerful, while he had only fallen behind. Hell, he wasn’t even as tall as Joro, and he was pretty sure Joro was younger than he was.
Katsuro leaned on the sink and stared at the mirror. He knew the face that looked back was not his, even though he never thought about it. This was the only face that Sakura knew, and this was the face that had loved her. But it wasn’t his.
He ran his fingers through his hair and pushed at his cheek, trying to remember something different. But he couldn’t. After ten years, he couldn’t even remember what he really looked like.
This was who everyone saw, even himself. This boy who looked like he was stuck at 15.
A swirling anger arced up from his gut and erupted in a guttural growl. Red eye shine flashed in his eyes.
He hated that face in the mirror.
Rage arced up again and Katsuro gave into that molten anger and punched the mirror with everything he had. Glass shattered under his fist and a thousand slivers of himself exploded into the air around him. He punched it again and again. He didn’t care if he woke those other bastards up. He didn’t care if the whole damn town found out what he really was. He didn’t care…he didn’t care…she didn’t care….
Panting, he slowly pulled back his fist from the concave depression. Shattered glass clung to the old frame and blood dripped down the fractured wall.
Katsuro knocked the largest slivers of glass off his bleeding knuckles but left the rest. It didn’t matter.
The flash of anger spent, cold emptiness crept back in so that all Katsuro wanted to do was get out of there, away from this wretched town and back to his responsibilities with his group. He had obligations to fulfill, after all. His life was no more tied to her now than it was to Konoha.
With another growl he kicked open the bathroom door and stalked back up the hall. Tightening his fists, blood dripped down his knuckles and spattered a long trail behind him.
In the center of the room, Joro sat in close conference with Koro and Taichi. All three were watching the hallway and when Katsuro appeared they suddenly straightened up.
Katsuro gave them an unforgiving glare.
Taichi cleared his throat and was about to speak as if nothing happened, as if they weren’t just sitting there talking about him, when his eyes locked on the blood dripping from his hand.
“Did you guys get into trouble? Joro, you didn’t say anything—“
“Uh, no, we didn’t,” Joro began warily.
All three looked at Katsuro’s bloody fist then glanced warily back to the hallway, then at Katsuro again when no other hidden assailant came flying out behind him.
“Get up,” Katsuro snarled. “Our job here is done. We’re leaving.”
Koro and Taichi raised their eyebrows in surprise, and Joro cut them a look that said I told you so. But none of them argued.
Katsuro went to his pack and started shoving things in, ignoring the pain of fresh abrasions to his lacerated hand and the sizzling heat of the demon’s healing.
“I, uh…I gotta piss before we go,” Joro said, glancing at Katsuro and half-expecting him to say no. When he didn’t, Joro ran off to the latrine.
A few moments later he came back, shrugged to the others and quietly picked up his pack.
Katsuro could feel their eyes on him. He knew the mess Joro’d found in there, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the hell out of there.
Let them whisper about him all they wanted, as long as they kept moving. He wanted to get back to camp, back to his own life, and leave this awful place behind him. Katsuro slung on his pack and threw open the door.
Katsuro didn’t remember the journey back to camp or eating at the campfire or even speaking to the captain, telling him in monotone that the mission had been uneventful so they’d left early.
Somewhere along the return trip his fiery rage had given way to a chilling numbness. It lodged deep into him, like a shard of ice into his heart.
Lying in the tent, looking up at the dingy fabric, he replayed the moment he saw Sakura in the village — the image appeared in heartbreaking clarity in his mind, her beauty and her betrayal — but the rest of the day blurred together in a painful smear as dirty as the crusted blood on the back of his knuckles.
He spread his fingers in front of his face. They had healed soon after they left, but he hadn’t bothered cleaning them. What was the point….
He let his hand drop. Tears leaked into his hair. He couldn’t find the strength to wipe them away.
As if to hurt himself more, his mind drifted, wondering just how long it had taken the Uchiha to move into her affections. Molten jealousy lashed at him once over the obvious power of his longtime rival, then it faded away.
It was like he was on the outside again looking in, watching those children in Konoha celebrate inside the building while he was sentenced to the swing, forgotten.
Those children would have grown up by now, and the image in his mind slid from the orphanage to the stories Sakura used to tell. He saw the cast of characters in his mind, with Sakura at the very center. They had grown up into Konoha’s shinobis, inheriting all its power and protection in this world of death. They had everything. And now he had her.
The image shifted in his mind, and the Uchiha stepped forward out of shadow to stand next to Sakura, wrapping his arm around her, claiming her.
And Katsuro was alone. Again.
Katsuro moved his hand to his throat to touch the necklace and got halfway there before remembering he’d ripped it off in that damn bathroom. He slowly lowered his hand, wishing he didn’t feel the rush of emptiness sweeping in. That necklace was his, his one possession, but it was gone now. Just like her.
Itachi always said it was the bond that hurt. That emotional attachments could get you killed. He’d never realized it could destroy you from the inside out, too.
Katsuro turned on his side and buried his head in his folded arm, crushing his eyes to the tears. In the darkness they leaked out anyway.
Resting a palm on the wet bark, Katsuro stared through the mist at the path ahead of him. The dark trench that cut through the mountainside like a wound upon the land. Rain drizzled off the front of his hood onto his chest, flicking back water onto his cheeks. He did nothing to stop it.
Instead Katsuro stood, waited and listened. He still felt the disconcerting feeling of being watched, but this time, he didn’t care. If someone was coming for him, some guard or sentry, then let them come. A little fighting might actually make him feel better. Anything would be better than the coldness that had taken hold of his soul, making him feel like part of him had died….
But no one came. Of course. Katsuro snorted, thinking things never went his way, even when he hoped for the worst, pushed off the tree and started into the steep-walled pass. Water pooled in large silver puddles on the rain-black path, but Katsuro didn’t bother avoiding them. Inside his pocket, two scrolls clinked together with each sloshing step. He slid a wet hand in, grasping one to keep it quiet.
When Itachi had produced the dull grey scroll a few days before, Katsuro should have known there was never really a choice, but he was too numb to catch on. He simply took the scroll without question.
Across the tent Itachi hitched an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re not balking at that.”
Katsuro shrugged at the scroll in his hand, seeing it for the first time. Rain…. He stifled a sigh. Their last conversation about the Rain territory had not gone well. Itachi had delivered a scroll and an ultimatum: Pain wanted to meet him and discuss the Akatsuki. But now, it didn’t seem like a battle worth fighting.
However after several days of hunkering down in camp, keeping quiet while the countries around them scouted and skirmished, Katsuro was restless for a change of scenery. He needed to get away from his team — their eyes followed him now wherever he went — the rest of the surly, suspicious men, and even Itachi. He wanted to shake off the depression that had settled over him like a dark cloak, smothering him in every waking moment or torturing him in his dreams. He wanted to return to the person he was, not the pale shadow, left behind…forgotten….
Even delivering a scroll to the edge of the Rain country would be a relief at this point—
“Well, good then,” Itachi said, satisfied. “Deliver it immediately. You still have your scroll from Pain?” Katsuro nodded, but awareness was slowly dawning on him. “Good, show yours to the boatman, and he’ll take you across—”
Katsuro cleared his throat. Itachi stopped. Katsuro looked down, weighing the scroll in his hand. “I’ll take this,” he said slowly, “but I still haven’t changed my mind.” Katsuro’s voice was quiet but firm. “About Akatsuki.”
“You owe him a debt of gratitude,” Itachi said in cool warning.
“I understand,” Katsuro said, steeling himself. “But I do not—“
“You will deliver the scroll,” Itachi’s black eyes were unyielding, “and listen to anything he has to say to you.”
Katsuro knew it was pointless to argue with Itachi. It’d be easier just to deliver the scrolls and hear the guy out. At least it got him out of camp for a few days. And what did it matter — there was no way in hell he’d join that group. After dealing with Sasori and Kisame and Deidara, there was no way he’d opt in for more. Pain could say whatever he wanted. He wasn’t joining them.
“Hai, Itachi-sama,” Katsuro said flatly, even offering a shallow bow of concession. Itachi grunted as if he didn’t believe him, but he let it drop and returned to his work, effectively dismissing Katsuro.
Coming out of the shadow of the mountain pass, Katsuro stopped again. Everything was as he remembered on the path to Rain — the line of drizzle that started suddenly, the deep trench through the stones, even the mist-smothered forest on the other side — and yet so much had changed for him.
Katsuro tipped his head back to the the grey sky and let the rain trace patterns down his face, dripping into his cloak and soaking his collar.
He’d spent three days getting to this pass. Three days of dodging shinobi scouts and trekking new routes, but he still felt like he was walking in a haze.
A rivulet shifted and trailed down his throat, running a cold finger over his collarbone. He instinctively went to move his necklace away, but before his hand left his pocket he remembered it was gone. Like her.
He tipped his head back down, peered out at the clouded forest with tired eyes and released the scroll. Wiping the water from his face, Katsuro continued down the sodden mountainside, down the winding path, down with the endless run-off. He kept going, over the flooded fields and through the soggy marshland, moving steadily toward thick line of mist on the horizon where he knew he’d find the shores of Rain’s inland sea.
He was cold, tired and soaked through by the time his feet sank into the sandy beach. He walked on in the fog beside the lapping water, listening for the lonely jangle of a battered wind chime on the breeze. Hearing it, Katsuro followed the sound until finally the first pointed roof of a rickety old fishing shack materialized out of the mist.
The shanties were still huddled together just as he remembered, leaning on their stilts into the offshore wind. Tattered fishing nets creaked from bamboo poles and a limp curtain shifted at a window. Just like the last time, Katsuro thought he saw someone at the window. But again, no one ever appeared. In the murky gloom it seemed like a place lost in time, and he felt sorry all over again for the old Rain villagers who had to eek out their existence there, clinging to the edge of a forgotten land, all because of the cruelty of those supposed “great” nations.
A slapping noise echoed over the water, coming closer and closer with the soft crash of surf. Katsuro stared into the drizzling mist, not bothering to wipe the moisture from his face, when a flat-bottomed boat pushed forward out of the fog. At the back stood a single man guiding it with a long pole. It came straight in, landing just a few steps from Katsuro.
A Rain soldier, black hair and gaunt pale face, jumped out and splashed through the water to Katsuro. Katsuro was about to greet him when he remembered his last visit, when the soldier had admonished his small talk. Well, he thought, reaching past Pain’s smaller scroll for Itachi’s missive, no problem there. He had no desire to chat now. He just wanted to get the hell out of here.
Katsuro held out Itachi’s scroll in his outstretched hand, and hoped for some good luck for a change.
But the man saw right through him. “That’s not the right scroll,” he said, frowning at the offered scroll.
Katsuro sighed and produced the much thinner, official-looking one with Pain’s marker— the old Rain Country insignia complete with a line gouged through the middle — stamped on the end.
The stern soldier inspected the marks, nodded firmly, and sloshed back to the boat.
But Katsuro didn’t follow. He thought he might still be able to get out of it. “Hey, I’m…uh…only supposed to be delivering this one—“
The soldier glared back in true Rain fashion, as if he’d never been challenged by anyone before. “The Angel said if a kid came, he was supposed to be taken directly to the tower.” He nodded toward Katsuro’s hand. “You’ve got the Big Boss’s scroll. And you’re a kid.” He emphasized the last words, taking his time looking Katsuro up and down even as the water lapped at his calves. “Now…get in the damn boat.”
With a huff — Nothing ever went his way. — Katsuro pocketed both tubes, gathered up his cloak and waded out into the water. The soldier pointed to a single plank three-quarters of the way up the boat, so Katsuro swung himself in there and sat down, facing forward. The soldier resumed his station in the back and pushed away from the shore with the pole. The boat lurched into the water, slapping the waves till they were beyond the small breaking surf.
Katsuro looked back to see the land already disappearing into the fog, but the fishing shacks were still visible. Out of the corner of his eye, Katsuro saw the soldier make a swatting motion, a strange movement he remembered from his last visit, and when he turned fully he was surprised to see the little huts had no back walls. They were completely open to the elements on the back side. The farthest ones looked uninhabitable, with big gaps between the planks of rough-hewn wood. But the first shack, the one with the curtains, at least looked livable—
Just then a figure stepped into view inside the first hut. The soldier on the boat saluted, and the man in the three-sided hut returned in kind. Katsuro squinted into the thickening mist…. The man inside the shack was dressed in black, with a pouch at his hip and a weapon holster at his leg…. Katsuro couldn’t believe what he was seeing….
That was no fisherman. He was another soldier. That was no fishing village…. It was a military outpost!
Fog enveloped the shacks, and Katsuro turned forward into the blanketing grey, feeling foolish for ever believing there were poor old Rain families in there. After all, was the disguise really that good, or had he just deluded himself and seen what he wanted to see?
An image of Sakura laughing with the Uchiha floated in front of him. Katsuro shut his eyes against it, but the memory still taunted him. He leaned into the rocking of the boat, numbing himself to the pain, while the waves knocked against the hull in a steady percussion of gone…gone…gone….
Eventually, the soldier’s voice sounded out behind him, “Look sharp and you’ll see the village on the horizon.” Katsuro opened his eyes to find that grey shapes were indeed rising out of the fog. Spires pointed up like jagged knife ends from the water. Katsuro thought at first it might be a natural phenomenon, but as they drew closer lights flickered into view at the top of the spires. They were clearly too close and jumbled to be natural.
Katsuro gasped softly as he realized what he was seeing— A city. Not an idyllic water-borne village, rising up on the hills above blue waters, like he’d expected after hearing the drunken ramblings of the old Rain soldiers back in camp. This looked more like a modern smoke-belching factory, anchored somewhere beneath the black waters on some long-drowned land.
In front of him and stretching away into the drizzling mist on either side were the pointed tips of sheet-metal buildings, none more than a few stories high, with long antennae forming the tops of the spires. The buildings were a patchwork of salvaged metal and wood, connected by snaking air ducts. It was a shamble, made worse by the tangle of wires that strung between the tops of the buildings like cobwebs.
As they drew closer, lanterns painted with advertisements and an occasional sign glowed softly through the mist. They were the only signs of life in the fog-darkened city.
The soldier aimed the boat for one of the canals that threaded into the great mass of structures. There was no land, only sidewalks and avenues that ringed the waterways. They looked to be the only way to move around the village without a boat.
In the center, rising above the jagged hulk was a taller building. A tower. With a face.
Katsuro guessed this was where he’d find Pain, and he craned his neck for a better look just as the boat drifted up the canal. The tower disappeared from view.
Sliding between the rain-slicked buildings reminded Katsuro forcibly of traveling through the mountain pass at the outer edge of the territory. It was like gliding along the bottom of a dark trench. An occasional steam vent blasted them with warmth, but it only lasted a moment and they were left colder and wetter than before they passed. Around Katsuro the patchwork of metal walls sunk beneath the waters, and there were no other sounds except the dripping rain, the creaking of the boat with each push, and the slap of canal water as it pushed back.
Whatever had been beautiful here, whatever memories the old soldiers clung to, it had long since drowned. But maybe their memories were just lies they told themselves. Just like using a dilapidated fishing village to hide an industrial monstrosity in the middle of an ocean.
Red lantern light shattered the surface of the water, and Katsuro looked up to see the soldier guiding the boat to a set of steps against the canal wall. Beyond it, he could just make out an enormous metal hand between two buildings. A flock of pale birds swept over, flying straight toward it.
The soldier pushed the boat to the wall and tied it off. Katsuro stood to disembark, but the soldier didn’t move to leave.
“Take your scrolls and go through there to the tower,” he said, pointing at the gap between the buildings where the birds had disappeared. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Katsuro climbed the wet, rickety steps, glad to be on flat land again. He looked up and took in his surroundings as the boat pushed off again.
“I wouldn’t take a ‘scenic route’ if I were you,” the soldier called back. “She’ll know.” He pushed on the pole again and the boat disappeared around the corner.
Katsuro rolled his eyes, dropped his hands into the warmth of his cloak, and headed in the direction of the tower.
He followed the narrow sidewalks for a several block in the direction of the looming figure, until he came to a huge red arch beyond which stood the base of a once stately building. If Katsuro had never known where to find the leader of Rain, he still would have guessed it was this building.
The lower half must have been a relic from Rain’s glory days. Even with peeling paint and a cracking exterior, the structure of a castle with a proud tower rising from its base was clear. But half-way up the tower had been toppled. Cracks and holes still riddled the old facade but above it, belted on by metal and wire, was the torso and head of a god. It had not been a smooth transplant.
Made of the same patched metal as the rest of the buildings, the god snarled open-mouthed above its city. An arm extended in front of him, and he held out a pipe in one open hand. More ducts and wires pierced its face. Katsuro thought he saw someone move on the tip of its metal tongue, but a flock of pale birds shot by, blocking his view. They swooped over once and circled back, swirling around the massive head.
Katsuro grasped Itachi’s scroll in his pocket, ready to offer it to anyone who stopped him. He walked under the arch, trotted up the steps and knocked at the big circular door. He waited, but no one came. So he pushed open one half of the door. No one materialized to stop him. So he slowly entered the cold, dark building.
The first level was a huge open room supported by a forest of columns. Small windows perforated the tops of the walls where spears of blue light threaded down. White birds flew in and out of the open holes. But no one came forward to greet him or chastise him. The whole place was empty.
Footsteps echoing conspicuously, Katsuro warily walked to the center of the room, toward a boxy platform with wires rising up into the ceiling. The farther he walked the colder it became, until he was standing in front of the platform and practically shivering. His breath hung in front of him in clouds.
Katsuro stepped up on the riser, recognizing it as some sort of mechanical elevator, and threw the lever all the way over, to the only slot it would fit in, taking him to the top. Beneath his feet, massive wooden gears wound and cranked, slowly pushing him up and up and up, through the wide old castle, past more and more empty floors, to the narrowing metal body of the god, and straight up to the top. Finally the floor snapped into place with a loud thwock, and Katsuro cautiously stepped out into another cold, dark, cavernous room.
The only light in the room came from strangely shaped opening — rather like a squashed oval— along the farthest wall. A cold breeze blew from the direction of the light, and Katsuro decided it must be an outdoor opening. Its glare in the darkness blinded Katsuro, but not before he saw the flicker of a silhouette at the edge of the light. He walked slowly toward it, squinting. His hand drifted to his kunai, while he brought his other hand up to shield the light.
“Are you Itachi-sama’s apprentice,” a female voice spoke.
Katsuro was surprised, but he quickly found his voice. “Y-Yes I am. I have a delivery.” Katsuro blinked hard, adjusting his eyes. The woman was still shrouded in shadow.
“We’ve been expecting you,” she said and gestured toward the opening behind her but did not turn.
Katsuro followed her movement and got his bearings. He was in the head of the tower. At the woman’s back was the open mouth and beyond was the tongue, stretching out towards the endless skyline of rain-soaked buildings. Another person sat on the tip of the tongue, one knee propped up and a hand out to catch the rain. A flock of birds flew by, blocking Katsuro’s view. The rustling of a thousand wings drowned out the endless drum of rain for a moment.
Just when Katsuro thought it had passed and he would get a closer look at the figure, a bird split off and flew directly into the open mouth, towards them.
The woman, without ever seeing it, flipped her hand upright for it to land. It fluttered perfectly into her hand, but when she pulled it around to look at it, Katsuro was stunned to see it was paper. The flock circled by again, and Katsuro realized they were all paper. White paper birds. That’s what he’d seen the whole time. None of them were real.
The bird, an origami crane on impossibly thin legs, unfolded its wings, and the woman read something written across its back. She nodded once, then it refolded itself and took flight, rustling its paper wings as it rejoined the rest of the origami flock.
Katsuro watched go, in mute amazement. It must be a powerful jutsu, he didn’t feel it at all—
“You are Katsuro, am I correct?”
The woman stepped forward into the light and Katsuro recognized the blood-red Akatsuki cloud on the middle of her cloak, partially hidden behind her clasped hands.
Katsuro had never seen a woman Akatsuki member but he heard there was one. This must be The Angel the Rain soldiers talked about. She wasn’t what he’d imagined.
Small in spite of the large cloak, the woman had a darkness about her that kept her from being angelic. Her small hands might have retained some delicate beauty, if they weren’t tipped with coal-black fingernails. Her chin was nearly hidden behind the top of her wide-necked cloak and she peered down at him, her dark-rimmed eyes full of suspicion.
By the frown of her small mouth, she wasn’t impressed.
Katsuro thought she might have been pretty, with her heart-shaped face and her arresting amber eyes. But as if puncturing in notion of softness, there a single black piercing studded the pale skin beneath her lower lip. She was no one to be trifled with.
She tipped her head, and wisps of purple-black hair shifted around her face. Perched atop her head, pinned to a loosely draped bun, was an origami rose. It might have once been as white as the paper birds, but it was now the color of sodden sidewalks, muddy canals and weathered metal. The colors of the Rain country had soaked it through.
Katsuro refocused, only realizing how long he had been studying her by the angry crinkle between her eyebrows.
He produced the larger of the two scrolls. “A delivery from Itachi Uchiha.”
“You have a second one,” Her voice was flat. It was not a question. A cloud of breath hung in the air.
Katsuro looked at her for a moment, feeling caught in Itachi’s web all over again. He didn’t want to be here, yet here he was anyway, engaging in a meeting that would surely lead to an invitation he didn’t want….
Katsuro knew enough of the Akatsuki to know they were dangerous. She was no different, angel or not. He’d have to tread carefully if he wanted to get out of this unharmed. He dipped his hand in his pocket, pulled out the second scroll, held both out in his open palm and waited, expressionless.
The Angel nodded, stepped back and looked expectantly at the opening behind her. Without a sound, the figure from the tip of the tongue flash-stepped into the opening. One hand on the top of the open mouth, he stepped inside, eyes only on Katsuro.
It was Pain.
He strode forward — Pain, the only man Itachi viewed as an equal — eerie eyes boring into Katsuro, until he stopped right in front of him.
The temperature felt like it suddenly dropped several degrees. Or maybe it was fear. Katsuro no longer knew how he felt. All he knew was that he was bone-cold now. And if it was fear driving goosebumps to his arms and setting his teeth on edge, he knew it was best not to show it on his face.
Katsuro squared his shoulders and exhaled softly. His breath fogged the air for a moment. But Pain did not move. No breath, no rise of shoulders, no movement. He just stood in front of him, like a wall.
Katsuro endured the inspection, staring straight ahead at the collar of the Akatsuki cloak, but he stole a few glances at this man who changed the fate of Rain and controlled the most fearsome men each country had ever produced.
Piercings accentuated the strong lines of his nose, protruded like fangs beneath his mouth, and spiked out from the edges of his ears. Deep red hair, the color of dried blood, hung over his old Rain headband. It matched the seal on the end of his scroll, even down to the long gouge running through the three perpendicular lines.
Katsuro looked at his eyes only long enough to see a faint ringed pattern around the solid black irises. Katsuro knew enough from being around Itachi that doujutsu users wielded vicious jutsus. He dropped his eyes to back to the collar before he got caught in one.
“You are Itachi’s jinchuriki?”
Taken aback — jinchuriki was a word they never used — Katsuro glanced up suddenly. But he instantly dropped his gaze from the subtle blue rings in Pain’s eyes to his piercings.
Then there was silence. Katsuro noticed that where the Angel wore her cloak as a shield, Pain seemed to wear it proudly. His neck rose above the collar, tight and strong, and the black fabric could not mask the sharp lines of his shoulders. Though he wasn’t much taller than Itachi, Pain exuded power in a way that Itachi kept hidden. Katsuro supposed if Pain was to keep each Akatsuki member in line, he’d have to show he was powerful enough to dominate them.
Pain scooped up the scrolls, his fingers like ice as they dragged across his hand. Pain’s black fingernails matched the woman’s and he wore a ring on his thumb. Another quick glance showed the woman with hers on her middle finger. Not married. But almost. Probably partners then—
“Observant,” the Angel said smoothly, watching Katsuro over the rim of her collar.
Katsuro tried not to react to being caught, but another puff of breath jittered out anyway, giving him away.
“Yes,” Pain said, his voice with the slow, gravelly tone of one who is used to being listened to. “As to be expected being under Itachi’s watch.” He dropped Itachi’s open scroll back into Katsuro’s hand. “But perhaps being a host does encourage that behavior. After all, he’s stayed alive this long.”
Pain turned to walk back to the woman, and Katsuro snuck a look at the scroll. His face burned when he saw just three words, bold in Itachi’s confident hand, scratched across the empty white parchment. “Delivered, as promised.”
Katsuro wanted to crush the scroll in his hand, but the woman stepped forward, waved her hand over his palm and the two scrolls disappeared in a cloud. She then returned to her station just inside the opening where she split her attention between watching Pain slowly pace the length of the room and keeping track of the occasional passing flock of origami birds.
Pain’s voice echoed from somewhere behind Katsuro. “I’m sure Itachi has told you of my offer.” Katsuro nodded, looking straight ahead. “And have you considered it?”
Katsuro cleared his throat. “I have. But—“
“But I don’t think it would be a good fit.”
Pain said nothing. He folded his hands behind him and walked slowly back to stand in front of Katsuro.
“You,” he said softly, “you with the power of the kyuubi corked inside you, waiting to be unleashed…. You do not think it’s a good fit….”
Katsuro flattened his lips together. He knew well enough that Pain didn’t expect a response.
“How old are you, boy?”
Boy. Perhaps he meant it as a dig, but Katsuro didn’t care anymore. He knew it was true. He knew what he looked like. “I am 17. Thereabouts.”
Pain dropped his gaze to Katsuro’s middle. “Seventeen years. But it won’t mature until your 21….” Katsuro’s eyes widened at this scrap of information. Pain didn’t seem to notice. He looked Katsuro over disdainfully. “That means four more years of waiting. As a vessel you are still weak and need to be protected. Itachi cannot be all things at all times, and he knows this. But within our, organization, you would have the strength of each member keeping you safe until….”
Katsuro stood like a stone while Pain spoke, but when he didn’t continue, Katsuro took notice. A spark of interest took hold.
“Until what,” Katsuro said, wishing he didn’t hear the urgency in his voice.
Pain looked at him sharply. “So, Itachi has not told you? Hmmm….”
The hairs stood up on the back of Katsuro’s neck. “Told me what—“
Pain continued walking. “So what do you think of the rebuilt Rain village?”
Katsuro stared at Pain’s retreating back, knowing now he wouldn’t get an answer. He sighed, slipping back into diffidence. “Uh, well…I didn’t have much time to see it.”
“You have helped rebuild it, although you may not have realized it at the time. The shipments you helped to coordinate and protect have brought needed goods and materials to our village. You have helped it rise from the depths.”
Katsuro looked uncomfortable at the thought. Pain disappeared behind him again.
“The Village Hidden in the Rain is a place to belong,” Pain continued. “A place for those who have been pushed under by the other great villages. Akatsuki serves the village as an extension of it.”
Katsuro distanced himself from the compliment. “I don’t know how much I’ve helped. I don’t really like hidden villages. From what I’ve seen it’s a system that’s built only to keep others down.”
Pain came back around again. When he stopped, he nodded slowly, acknowledging Katsuro’s words. “But in time you’ll see that Rain is different. It has gathered its strength toward a common goal. He pounded his fist lightly into his palm. “Never again will we be trampled under the soles of their feet. Never again will we witness the death of our comrades. Never again will we have our dreams stolen from us. Our village, our nation, will rise from the ashes and break the cycle. It will be a new era, and it will be led by the Rain.”
Katsuro bowed respectfully at Pain’s speech, thinking perhaps it was meant to be rousing to a Rain soldier. It wasn’t working on him.
Katsuro stood and Pain leveled a hard look at him.
“And Akatsuki serves as its elite guard, bringing those dreams to fruition.”
Pain was clearly waiting for a response, but Katsuro was still unmoved. Katsuro cleared his throat again. “While I support the ambition and Rain’s soldiers, I do not think it is my cause to champion.”
“Ah,” Pain said, folding his hands behind him, “because you are a child of Konoha?”
“Uh, no,” Katusro said, surprised and a little insulted. “Not exactly.”
“Akatsuki accepts its members from all nations, all villages. To be asked to join is a privilege, a mark of your power in this world—“
“I understand,” Katsuro said, seeing a way out. “But as I already know many of them, I do not think they would accept me so easily.” He flashed his palm at his obvious youthfulness.
“It is not their choice to decide,” Pain said with a growl of authority that was probably often used to keep the rest of the Akatsuki in line.
Katsuro was silent for a moment, but something Pain said bothered him. And it needed to be cleared up. “I have no loyalty to Konoha,” Katsuro said firmly. “I may have been born in there, but I am no child of that village. I have gotten to where I am on my own—“
“You have done nothing on your own,” Pain said, face darkening. “Itachi has carried you. And he has only gotten so far because I have carried him.”
As if Katsuro couldn’t tell by the tone of his voice that there was some source of friction there, then the unclasping of the Angel’s hands and the shift in her attention completely to Pain confirmed it. Katsuro wisely stayed silent.
Just then, the cadence of the rain shifted. The Angel took notice and walked toward the opening. Her movement drew Pain’s attention as well. She opened a palm into the downpour and watched it bounce off for a moment before closing her eyes. The splashing of the water turned into a white mist around her hands. Then she closed her hand and turned back to face them.
“Someone has entered the northern pass,” she said evenly. “I’ll dispatch a guard.” She summoned an origami bird and whispered to it before releasing it again into the rain.
Pain nodded once then swiveled his gaze back to Katsuro. And just like the passing of a storm cloud, Pain’s face had smoothed, returning to the previous aloof calm of someone who is in control of everything.
“Our village has many levels of protection, not the least of which is our rain,” he said cooly. “It is a curtain through which everyone must pass, so each drop is a sentinel. Konan knew when you stepped foot inside our land. You see, here you are never alone.”
Konan’s extended her hand again into the drizzle. “And the package has arrived at the shoreline.”
Pain looked askance at her, considering answering, but then changed his mind. He turned back to Katsuro.
“Itachi has instructed you well in the ways of Konoha,” he said. “But I wonder, how much he has told you of the kyuubi? Of the power locked inside you, and of how much the other hidden nations would like to harness it?”
Pain’s eyes bore into Katsuro, and Katsuro didn’t look away. Itachi didn’t said much without being pressed, and he never said anything about the kyuubi. What could Pain possibly know that Itachi didn’t?
Pain narrowed his eyes as if confirming something. “As I suspected, you have learned the shinobi arts, but I see there is still much you have to learn about the kyuubi.”
Katsuro schooled his open expression, but it was too late. They both knew that Pain held information, knowledge that Katsuro keenly wanted.
And Pain keenly wanted something in return.
“Joining Akatsuki can ensure you power and protection in this new world to come. And knowledge. Itachi has brought you this far, training you in Konoha’s ways, but in order to harness the power of the kyuubi you must learn how to control it—“
Pain moved to turn away but Katsuro spoke up quickly.
“What did you mean when you said it still hadn’t matured? What happens when I turn 21?”
Pain turned back. Something like a triumphant smile played about his pale lips. He stared long and hard at Katsuro before coming to some decision.
“At 21,” he said firmly, “the kyuubi’s chakra will fuse with your own. Only then you will truly become the ultimate weapon. Not just a mere vessel.”
Konan arched a delicate eyebrow at the admission. But she said nothing. Another rain-soaked bird darted in through the opening.
Pain looked smug. Like that was all the information Katsuro would get from him. “Only in Akatsuki can you learn the truth about who you are and what you contain. Only in Akatsuki can your true power be unlocked.”
Katsuro blinked. He didn’t know what to think. Or who to trust. This was information Itachi had never once shared. And Pain was offering it to him, and more, if he just joined Akatsuki.
He knew this was a dangerous position to be in. But the truth was, he knew next to nothing about the demon. Could he afford to just walk away? However, everything in him fought the idea of joining Akatsuki….
Katsuro drew a resolute breath. He already knew his answer. And nothing he’d seen here would sway that. There was no way he’d join Akatsuki. There had to be another way to find out what Pain knew—
Konan stepped forward, paper bird open in her hand. “The delivery has arrived” she said at Pain’s shoulder. “You will need to attend to it immediately.”
“Thank you Konan,” he said without turning. “Boy, you hold a power in you that needs to be protected. Concealed until the time is right and it can be used to its maximum potential.” He ran a hand over the blood-red cloud at his chest. “Once inside, the cloak of the Akatsuki is impenetrable. Just like the Rain.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Pain-sama,” Katsuro said, bowing to him before shifting his feet and bowing again. “Konan-sama.”
It was not the answer he wanted, but Pain was not put off. “Think about what I’ve said. Akatsuki offers you protection, the Rain offers you a place to belong,” Pain said, watching him from hooded eyes. “You are still young. You have not experienced the loss that brings understanding. So you could not fully understand the value of what is offered…. You do not know what it feels like to loose everything you hold dear.”
Katsuro rose and looked straight into his eyes, mentally contradicting him. Yes, I do. I’ve got nothing left to loose. That’s why I’m not interested….
Katsuro bowed again. “Thank you, but I—“
“I expect an answer from you in two weeks time.” Pain said as if Katsuro hadn’t spoken.
“A boat waits for you at the canal,” Konan said.
Then with a shift of air and a flicker of light, he and Konan flash-stepped and were gone.
Katsuro straightened and looked around the empty room. He rubbed the back of his neck and shivered at the cold. A flock of birds flew by, and Katsuro thought they seemed more sinister than before. Especially when he noticed one sitting on the edge of the mouth, moving its paper head in his direction. He remembered what the soldier said about not taking the scenic route. “She’ll know.”
Yeah, now he got it.
Katsuro strode back to the elevator platform and threw the lever, anxious to leave, although not really looking forward to getting back. The lonely, empty feeling was already seeping back in. But at least he had something to look forward to now — asking Itachi exactly what he knew about the demon.
Out in front of the building, he immediately identified his return route, but a Rain citizen in a ankle-length rain slicker hurrying toward an alley tugged at Katsuro’s attention. A weathered sign pointed down the alley, advertising dim sum. The sound of voices and closing doors echoed back. Morbidly curious to see how the rest of the Rain citizens lived, Katsuro followed the man, in spite of the boatman’s warning.
Down the alley, more Rain men were coming and going. A few were huddled in conversation, but most just nodded as they sidestepped each other in the narrow lane. They shot suspicious looks at Katsuro before quickly disappearing into food stalls carved out of the decrepit old buildings.
The dim sum place was the most popular and Katsuro could make out several bent heads beyond the steamed up windows. A diner glanced up from his bowl to glare out at him and a flock of birds flew high over the alleyway. Katsuro pulled his hood deeper and kept walking.
It was nothing like he expected, and he regretted being foolish enough to believe everything he’d heard. But he decided he wouldn’t mention it to the captain. He respected the man too much to tell him the truth—
“Hey there!! All-you-can-drink special going on right now!!” Katsuro jumped at the booming voice. “Come on in to Club Frog!! You look like you could use a drink!!”
Katsuro glanced sideways from the cover of his hood. A strange old house had been converted to a bar, its front side completely open to the street. Inside was an old man with bushy white hair, a huge bulbous nose with a wart on the side, and a mustache wiping down glasses behind the bar. The doors were open and a sign outside read “Club Frog! Grand Opening!” but the place was empty.
He leaned forward, tugging at the ends of his mustache, and eyed Katsuro closely. “Come on, you’d love a drink, wouldn’t ya? First one’s on the house!”
Katsuro chuckled, “No thanks, old man. Don’t drink.”
“Well that’s alright, come on in anyway,” he thundered before dipping his head behind the counter. “We’ve got something to accommodate everyone! I’m sure I can find some instant ramen around here somewhere….” The old man’s voice was muffled as he disappeared deeper in search of food.
Katsuro’s stomach growled at the thought, but just then a bird settled on a nearby wire, flicking its paper head between the new bar and Katsuro.
Katsuro shrugged himself deeper into the cloak.
“No thanks, old man.” Katsuro kept walking.
“Oi! Hey! Well how about you just come in out of the rain for a minute! Take a load off! I’ll find something—“
The bartender’s deep voice faded away. Out the corner of his eye, Katsuro could see the bird watching the bartender closely as if deciding whether to investigate. But suddenly it took to its paper wing and flew closer to Katsuro, choosing to follow him instead.
He sighed, cold and wet and tired, sunk his hands deeper into his empty pockets and followed the patch-worked walkways back around to the canal. When turned the corner, a flock of birds swooped over. His sentinel bird joined them and they flew back toward the giant head, obviously to report on him. But Katsuro didn’t care.
Katsuro saw the rickety steps, the flat grey boat and the disgruntled Rain soldier who operated it, who was just then giving Katsuro a glare for approaching from the wrong direction. Katsuro didn’t care about that either.
He went down the steps and dropped into the boat without an explanation. The soldier huffed, but he obeyed his orders and rowed Katsuro back to shore.
Konan entered a small room, once used by monks for meditation. Now, a black body bag stretched across what was at one time an offering table.
She waved her hand and tiny flames jumped to life in the wall sconces that ringed the room. Walking around the table, breath coming in little puffs, Konan clasped her hands in front of her to keep them from shivering, and waited.
Pain swept in, nodding at the large bag. He dropped a much smaller sack — the one Katsuro delivered on his last visit — at the head of the table.
“The latest package,” Konan said, and unzipped the bag halfway. The dead face of a red-haired man stared back. His eyes were brown and clouded, and his long hair spilled in limp red columns into the dark depths of the bag.
Pain unzipped he bag fully and inspected the body, turning over hands and legs, pushing back clothes and pressing his thumb into the flesh.
Konan watched from the edge of the room. “Pain,” she began, her voice soft and familiar now that they were alone. “Is it wise to offer so much information to the boy. Might he not be able to use it against us one day?”
Pain did not stop his inspection. “No Itachi has trained the host well, even if he has established a dangerous bond to him.”
He returned to the top of the table, dipped his hand into the bag and scooped out a small shard of black metal. He held it out in his palm and formed a seal over it. The metal instantly reformed itself into a thin spike. It glinted cruelly in his hand.
Pain grasped the man’s chin and tipped his head back and forth. “But Itachi’s teachings will work in our favor. The boy will turn to us for knowledge. He will seek us out, now that he has been given a reason to.”
Without warning, Pain drove the spike sideways through the man’s nose, filling the air with the sound of crunching bone and cartilage. Konan was unable to stop herself from cringing. The spike punctured the other side with a wet pop.
“And because of those skills,” Pain continued, grabbing and forming more spikes without stopping, “he will be extremely useful to Akatsuki until the time is right….” More metal piercings formed with a small clink in his palm. “And under our hands we can mold him into the ultimate weapon, the ultimate vessel…..”
Ready, he drove the spikes through the man’s cheeks and chin without ceremony. Konan blinked involuntarily at each one. But she relaxed when he moved on to the body, hands and feet. Somehow, the body was easier to witness than the face. She refolded her hands.
“But you don’t think he’ll have trouble with the men,” she asked. “I understand they are very hard on him. I don’t think that will soon go away if you force him on them—“
“I have a special role in mind for the boy. It will suit his training.” Pain said. And then he stopped, collapsed his hands into a justu, and spoke a few words over the body.
The red-haired man sat up from the table, moving stiffly, but otherwise looking very much alive. Except for his eyes. The clouds of death receded, the dark color drained away replaced by subtle blue rings, identical to Pain’s eyes.
The man did not speak, nor did Pain expect it to. Instead he rose and walked out the door in halting steps. He stopped just outside and looked down the hallway, face cold and emotionless, waiting.
Pain watched its progress before addressing Konan again, without turning to her
“He is a vessel, awaiting instruction. He is a weapon, awaiting a steady hand to aim him. Do not forget our mission—“
“I will never forget—“ Konan snapped, eyes flashing. An angry breath hung in front of her poised lips.
“You are too cold, Konan,” he said, voice flat and without sympathy. “I can tell by your hands.” She looked down suddenly. The tips were colorless and quivering slightly. Frowning, she curled her fingers into her palms, hiding them. “Go warm yourself.”
Then Pain swept from the room. The corpse followed, control of his gait improving with each step.
Konan blinked at the empty doorway. She rubbed her hands together in a vain attempt to warm them. But they were never warm now. Without turning, she waved a hand and snuffed out the flames. Then she left too.