Chapter 37 – Running Away

Author’s Note: Chapter notes to come soon!

Itachi pinched the bridge of his nose and stifled a sigh.

But Katsuro didn’t relent. He sat across the table looking straight past Itachi’s dango stick and into his black eyes. He wanted an answer.

It had been the only bright spot on the horizon for a week now. Clomping through the backwaters of Rain and the windy wastelands of the territories surrounding it, Katsuro thought of all the things he wanted to ask Itachi. When he finally met up with him at a dusty roadside dango stand, he wasted no time getting to the point.

But Itachi wasn’t as forthcoming as he’d hoped.

“Well then, what exactly did Pain mean?”

‘“He meant exactly what he’d said,” Itachi said blandly. “At 21 your chakra will fuse with the kyuubi’s. You will no longer need to house it in the cell, and you will have complete access to all its chakra. That’s what he meant by ‘ultimate weapon.’”

“Why 21?”

Itachi shrugged, looking uninterested. “Why not? I didn’t decide it, that’s just the way it works.”

“So there have been others—“

“Of course there have been other containers for the kyuubi before you,” Itachi said as if scolding a child. “You know this.”

Katsuro ground his teeth. It was true, he did know that there’d been others before him. But he never really thought about it . Someone else had held this terrifying power inside them…. What happened to them?

Katsuro’s eyes darted over the rough-hewn table, thinking. “Pain said if I joined Akatsuki I could learn how to better control it. But what else is there to learn? I’m doing fine on my own—”

Itachi nearly rolled his eyes. “Some things must be experienced, not explained—“

But the days of waiting and wondering and worrying had all caught up with Katsuro. 

“What’s worth me joining that group that I can’t figure out on my own…or that you can’t teach me,” Katsuro snapped, leaning over the table. “What does Pain know that you don’t!?”

Itachi slammed his hand down, making the dango sticks jump in the tray. Katsuro knew he’d finally struck a nerve.

“There is nothing that Pain knows that I don’t. You wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Itachi growled. “If it weren’t for me, you’d be rotting in a Konoha jail cell.”

Itachi’s flare of emotion passed as quickly as it came. He took a breath, his voice evened out and he resumed his calculated calm.

“Pain and I want the same for you, but we have…different ideas about your path. Which is to be expected. He is from Rain, I am from Konoha. Even within an organization like Akatsuki, we are bound to retain our differences. However,” Itachi added with a small smirk, speaking more to himself, “the Rain is doomed to fall.” 

His hand hovered over the tray then picked out another spear of dumplings.

Katsuro frowned, utterly confused. “What do you mean?” 

Itachi looked up, almost pitying. “Sometimes I forget you weren’t brought up in Konoha.” He swirled the dango in its sticky syrup.

“There is a reason why the Rain is no longer a country. Why they lost it all. And Konoha had a significant hand in that.” Katsuro thought Itachi sounded almost proud as he said it. “You are from Konoha, as am I. As is the kyuubi.”

Itachi flicked his eyes to Katsuro’s gut and took a bite out of the dango. Katsuro instantly clamped his hand over his stomach, feeling self-conscious. 

Itachi smirked as he chewed. “When I was a boy in academy, there was a saying we often used during spars, ‘The Rain is doomed to fall.’” His smile turned cruel. “It means that, like the Rain country in our history books, you’re going to loose. It’s inevitable.”

Itachi took another bite, locking eyes with Katsuro.

“Pain’s methods are born of the Rain. No matter what the outcome, they will always fall behind Konoha.” 

Katsuro pressed his lips together, immediately thinking of the old captain and how many years he had struggled to see his country rise from the black waters. Even Pain had spoken passionately about Rain’s resurgence, though reclaimed metal and stolen goods were the only thing keeping the place afloat now. But this is what the other countries really saw them as — a joke. The butt-end of a children’s rhyme.

The sense of purpose Katsuro felt the last few days inexplicably left him. He didn’t think it was possible to feel worse, but the thought of the Captain’s hopes, the hard-scrabble life of the Rain citizens, even the elaborate levels of protection, now made more sense. They had lost everything, just like Pain had said. 

Katsuro liked Konoha even less now. He didn’t care how powerful Itachi made it out to be.

“Pain and I are at odds over your path. I think he took a calculated risk in telling you anything about the bijuu. I would not have done it, simply to protect you. In case you were caught or interrogated, ignorance offers a great deal of protection. But,” Itachi shrugged. “I suppose it’s his way of persuading you.”

Katsuro sighed hopelessly. “I still see no reason to join Akatsuki.” 

Itachi dropped the empty spear on the tray and shrugged as if it was already decided. “There are things that, as a host, you must learn by experience. Like a jutsu. It can’t simply be taught. You must establish a bond, and Akatsuki is the correct step for you at this point in your development—“

My development? Or the demon’s,” Katsuro said, suddenly feeling like a pawn. 

Itachi looked at him coldly. “They are both the same. You and the demon are intertwined. Inseparable.” 

The words felt like a noose around Katsuro’s neck, tightening slowly…confirming something he didn’t want to accept. 

Itachi continued, reciting as if reading from a textbook. “At 21, the host and demon chakras fuse completely and the demon vacates its cell. The kyuubi’s chakra harmonizes with its jinchuriki and can be used at to its full potential without killing its host…if it is done properly, of course. The host must be conditioned, trained and—”

But catching the growing turmoil in Katsuro’s face, Itachi lightened his tone. “Well…just unnecessary details, really. But that’s when you become the ‘ultimate weapon.’ Incomprehensible power, all at your command.” Itachi picked up the last dango stick and tipped his head. “Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? When I found you back in Konoha, and all you could spout about was how you wanted to be a shinobi? Well, if you follow the path we’ve laid out for you, you could be the most powerful shinobi in the world.”

Katsuro didn’t respond. He picked sullenly at a splinter on the wooden table.

Was this really what he wanted? To be the most powerful shinobi in the world? He certainly didn’t feel powerful. Or special. 

Instead this just felt like one more in a long line of blows. Konoha didn’t want him. Sakura didn’t want him. And Itachi…well the answer was right in front of him, wasn’t it? His worth was only what was locked in his gut. The life that housed it was inconsequential. He was only a vessel. 

Being the most powerful shinobi in the world was just a consolation prize.

An all-too-familiar emptiness was slowly returning, chilling him to the core. He was unwanted in the world.

There were more things he wanted to ask, more facts that gnawed at him. And Itachi hadn’t answered all his questions, not really, when Itachi suddenly looked to the road. 

“Good. They’re here.”

Katsuro turned around. No one was there.

“I am meeting some Akatsuki members,” Itachi said. “You might want to stick around. If Pain has given you two weeks, they may help you decide.”

“Who is it,” Katsuro asked, squinting into the distance. Someone must have tripped Itachi’s traps at the edge of town.  

“Beauty and the Beast, as you call them.”

Katsuro grimaced and stood quickly, ignoring Itachi’s soft chuckle. Hidan and Kakuzu. Where most of the Akatsuki were intimidating, these two were…different.

“No thanks. I need to be going.”

Lips curving into a sphinx-like smile, Itachi merely shrugged. Katsuro strode hastily for the corner of the shack, a little surprised that Itachi didn’t try to stop him. 

It was only at the moment that he rounded the corner, freedom nearly in sight, that Katsuro realized Itachi must have known…. He nearly collided with—


Tall, lean and ridiculously handsome with his platinum hair and sharp grey eyes, Hidan grinned down at Katsuro from the middle of the path. He angled his triple-blade scythe in front of Katsuro, barring his escape. 

“Ah,” he drawled, “just who I was hoping to see.” Hidan sauntered toward Katsuro, pushing him back into the open until he was even with the tables of the dango stand.

As Hidan walked, his black Akatsuki robe fell open, exposing the defined ripples of his chest and the glinting medallion that hung perfectly in the middle. Katsuro couldn’t help but look directly at it, and Hidan knew it. 

Hidan smiled toothily, reminding Katsuro why he disliked him. Hidan always carried an air that his good looks alone got him into Akatsuki. But Katsuro knew it was only a mask. His real face was the one he assumed for his depraved ‘religion’ and its lust for blood.

Katsuro forced a polite smile, trying to buy some time, but his lip only curled in distaste. He bowed his head, deciding the open road behind him was the best option for escape.

“You would make such a lovely sacrifice,” Hidan cooed before calling over to Itachi, “Why don’t you let me have him, Itachi-san. I’d pay you well for him.” 

Hidan reached out to tousle Katsuro’s hair, but Katsuro jerked his head away. That was the last straw. Scowling, Katsuro turned on his heel to go, but instead he nearly ran his nose straight into the enormous black figure that had materialized behind him. 

A gravelly chuckle rippled through the air above his head.


Katsuro slowly tipped his face up. Kakuzu stood nearly a head taller than his partner. Where Hidan was trim and sculpted, Kakuzu was a huge and hulking. Where Hidan was beautiful, Kakuzu was hideous. 

The skin across the center of his face was swarthy and unevenly matched. His eyes were blood-shot where they should have been white, and the clouded green irises that floated in the middle reminded Katsuro of spots of mold on fruit. And that was only the parts he could see. The rest of Kakuzu’s face and head was covered by a cowl. A triangle of fabric hid his mouth and the enormous Akatsuki cloak concealed the rest of him. Katsuro couldn’t imagine what else he was hiding beneath it.

“He’s useless to you, dead man,” Kakuzu said, easing forward as he spoke and forcing Katsuro backwards.

“Aw now, don’t be like that,” Hidan said, a smile in his voice. “I could use someone like him. He’d be like…an accessory! He would do my bidding, fetch my food and drink….” Hidan nodded to Itachi who was pushing away the dango tray, unperturbed. “And when he stops being useful I can sacrifice him to Jashin. See it’s a win for everyone!”

Katsuro glanced over at Itachi, silently cursing him for not helping out. They were just toying with him. Katsuro had long ago been instructed to be polite any Akatsuki member, no matter what they did, but still…. Itachi didn’t need to hang him out to dry like this. What happened to all that ‘ultimate weapon’ talk? 

Out of the corner of his eye Katsuro caught Kakuzu’s arm raising toward him, as if to point. The sleeve fell back exposing the black stitches that held together the skin on his forearm like a badly sewn doll. But Katsuro’s eyes went painfully wide as the skin on Kakuzu’s arm came alive with squirming movement and black tendons erupt from the seam. They wound slowly out of his skin, writhing and glistening in the light, moving straight for Katsuro’s neck.

Katsuro scrambled back, bumping into Hidan once and bouncing off, but he was pinned. Itachi never even looked up.

“He might actually be worth some coin if his name was in the bingo book,” Kakuzu said. A black sinew snaked toward Katsuro’s hair. Katsuro tried to dodge it, but another grasped his collar. “There’s a couple of boys in there. But none like you.”

From behind, Hidan sunk his fingers into Katsuro’s hair, ruffling it once before twisting hard and jerking his head over to expose his neck. Katsuro tried to fight, but Hidan’s hand clamped down on his shoulder like a vice . 

Kakuzu closed the gap between them. The black threads closed in. Katsuro stilled his movement, his body reacting instinctively to the predatory threat. Kakuzu’s tendons slithered along the top of his cloak, licked at his neck and brushed his collarbone. 

Taking delight in the fear and disgust on Katsuro’s face, Kakuzu laughed meanly down at him. “You still have some secret lurking beneath the surface, don’t you boy.” 

Katsuro cranked his head around, sure that Itachi would intervene, but to his horror, Itachi was watching now with a smirk. 

A black tendon coiled around Katsuro’s neck and pressed hard against his jumping pulse.

Kakuzu smiled greedily. “It sits there,” he hissed down into his face, “right beneath the surface, waiting….”

Katsuro growled and tried to jerk away, but Hidan’s knuckles dug into his scalp. “Ah-ah-ah!” he sing-songed with an extra tug.

Cold tendrils slid beneath the top of his cloak. The skin at the base of his throat throbbed with his pounding heartbeat.

Heat was beginning to spiral in Katsuro’s gut, waking in response to his emotion.

“I can feel it there, fluttering….” 

Katsuro looked up at Kakuzu, a new fear brimming in his eyes with the realization that the kyuubi might have been discovered….

Itachi didn’t seem to care. He only sat chuckling at Katsuro’s struggle, not even attempting to intervene.

Katsuro’s cheeks burned in anger and an arc of demon chakra flared behind his navel, hot and wild. 

Laughing, Hidan ended his torment, released his fingers with a final tousle and walked around the pair.

But Kakuzu, who’s black threads were still pressing into Katsuro’s pulse points, felt the shift in chakra. He frowned at the sudden surge of power, the curious anomaly.… Katsuro could see the question forming in eyes…. How could that kind of power radiate from such a scrawny whelp….

“Kakuzu, you don’t want his heart. It’s too little for you,” Hidan said over his shoulder as he passed, sounding bored with the whole idea of him now. “He’s better off with Itachi.” 

Hidan flung himself onto the bench across from Itachi, letting his robe fall open again to its best advantage, and flicked two fingers for more dango trays.

Seeing this as his chance, Katsuro ripped himself away, leaving the tendons grasping in mid-air and a deep frown on Kakuzu’s face. 

“What’s wrong with him, Itachi,” Kakuzu barked out, the fabric over his mouth puffing out with the words. 

“Nothing,” Itachi said, voice firm, accepting no argument. “Come sit down. Have some dango. You don’t need his heart too.”

Katsuro willed his pounding heartbeat to slow. 

That was what Kakuzu was after. My heart. And Itachi knew it. Damn Itachi. Damn Akatsuki.

Katsuro pulled the cloak tight around his neck and glared at them. Kakuzu watched him suspiciously while the tendrils slowly coiled back up into his sleeve and disappeared.

“Come on, old man, come have some sweets,” Hidan called around a mouthful of dumplings.

Katsuro backed away, still watching them. Kakuzu slowly stalked to the table. 

“Aw, you won’t stay?” Hidan taunted Katsuro like a schoolyard bully, waving a spear in the air. “You don’t want a dango stick too?”

Katsuro ignored Hidan’s robust laughter and disappeared out of sight of the building. 

But long after the laughter had stopped ringing in his ears and the cold pressure closing in on his windpipe had ceased, Katsuro still couldn’t escape the feeling that he was trapped.

Kneeling beside the sluggish stream in the dim evening light, Katsuro rinsed his bowl in the little trough of pooled water they’d dug when they’d first set up camp. It had been an extra effort, but Katsuro had insisted. Now he was glad they’d dug it.  

When they first arrived to these barren woodlands deep in the Forest territory two weeks ago, the stream had been robust. Taichi took it as an auspicious sign, so they set up camp nearby. But it turned out the stream had just been flush with rain water. Now it trickled down in murky rivulets, puddling in some places and disappearing into wet muck in others.  

Not paying attention, Katsuro dipped the bowl in too deep and caught its lip in the cloudy silt. He sighed and rinsed it again.

Sitting back on his heels, Katsuro wiped the bowl dry on the inside of his shirt. His knees made deep depressions in soft leafy ground. He could hear Itachi’s voice in his head, telling him he should hide these obvious traces of his presence…but he couldn’t bring himself to care. These woods were as empty as he felt inside. 

Katsuro pitched forward to stand and caught his face looking back from the pooled water. He quickly swung his eyes away. Dirt and leaves crumbled from his knees as he stood, shattering the reflection.

He walked slowly back down the hill to their camp. Time was running out on him. Tomorrow they would meet up with Itachi. He had to provide an answer for Pain. Join Akatsuki or no. 

He sighed. His answer was still the same.

Nothing had happened that would make him change his mind. In fact, in the last 10 days, nothing had happened at all.

They stayed in place, as Itachi has commanded, hunkered down while rumored shinobi scouts worked over the woodlands to the north and the south. But they never saw a speck of evidence of anyone else in these rolling woods. The specter of nins had held them in place for nothing.

Katsuro’s team brought this point home at every opportunity. Two weeks of being stuck at a camp with nothing to do had pushed them to the brink. The three men had agreed with it at first, but when the threat never appeared, boredom became their biggest enemy, pitting them against each other. But they’d overcome it and united to work on Katsuro, hinting then begging then demanding. Well, demanding as much as they dared. 

They wanted a night off. Just one. The lights of the nearest town filled their nightly campfire ruminations. They saw its lights glowing on the horizon — so Taichi figured it must be a decent size. They heard snatches of tunes — so Joro decided there must be tea houses and gaming halls. And sometimes, if the wind was just right, they even smelled cooking food — Koro swore it was sizzling skewers of meat from a street cart but Joro bickered that he could tell the mouth-watering waft of fresh ramen anywhere.

Katsuro said nothing.

By their last evening they had given up browbeating Katsuro and had sunk into outright pouting. 

Katsuro wasn’t sure if they’d worn him down or if he was simply inclined to agree with their repeated insistence that there was no one else around for miles. Or maybe he was just was numbed to the normal alertness he had always prized as a shinobi skill because it felt like they were alone.

Or maybe it was just his own feelings lately. He shook his head knelt down at the base of a tree where their mess-kit sack was propped, set the bowl down and jerked the bag open.

It didn’t matter now. They were already gone. 

As soon as the sun had dropped behind the hills and it was dark enough to travel with a modicum of stealth he had told them to go. They decamped immediately, not wanting to give him a chance to change his mind.

Only Joro lagged behind. His small flashlight danced across the inside of his tent, and Katsuro thought to himself that he was probably still trying on clothes. 

Katsuro was just adjusting the stack of bowls already in the sack to make room for his when footsteps crinkled in the leaves behind him. Katsuro turned in mild surprise to see Joro stand there looking almost…embarrassed. If Katsuro stared up at Joro’s boyish face in the dim light, and he would’ve sworn Joro was even blushing.

“Uh, boss, could I have a word?”

Katsuro could fathom about what but nodded once anyway. “Uh…sure.” 

Joro cleared his throat, going from embarrassed to uncomfortable. A true blush burned onto his cheeks.

“Well…. You see…. There was this…. Er, I was wondering…. What I mean to say is—“

“Spit it out,” Katsuro said.

Joro opened and closed his mouth like a fish, but the right words never came to him. Giving up, he shoved his hand down in a pocket and slowly drew out a necklace. 

He unfurled it in front of Katsuro’s face, and it was all Katsuro could do not to fall backwards as if he’d been punched.

Sakura’s necklace swung in front of his eyes, like it had years ago at the market. He dropped the bowl on the top of the bag and reached up slowly to take take the necklace. It was just like this, so long ago at that market, when he was still with her….

But suddenly his open expression shuttered. He closed his fist before he touched the swinging stone. He was no longer with her. He turned back to the bag and wrenched up the bowl, refusing to look at the blasted necklace a moment longer.

“What do you want, Joro,” Katsuro ground out, guessing at his request but wanting to hear it spoken aloud.

Joro cleared his throat again. “Well, I found this, in that town we staked out. And I was wonderin’ if I could—“ He cleared his throat again. “Well, I was wonderin’ if it was yours. And if you didn’t want it, then maybe I could…um…have it…?” His voice rose a notch before thinning out completely.

Katsuro guessed right. And what did it matter, anyway? Sakura didn’t want him, so why should he want something that only brought up painful memories of her? He could hear Itachi’s voice, telling him that emotional attachments would get you killed.

Katsuro set his jaw. “Whatever. I don’t care,” he said ruthlessly, shoving his bowl down onto the others with a hard clank then cinching the bag so tight the ropes nearly snapped. “Keep it.”

“Great,” Joro said, hurling the necklace into the air and catching it with the same hand. “Thanks boss! This will get me a long way toward getting into their good graces at the tea house.” His smile curled impishly and his eyes twinkled. There was no trace of blush now. He waggled his eyebrows, adding, “If you know what I mean.” 

Katsuro blinked at the tree in front of him, not seeing it. Instead another scene unfolded before his eyes: He saw a tea house girl in her perfect kimono gasping at the necklace and holding it up to the light. He imagined her admiring it with her big brown eyes before Joro fastened it around her neck, clasping it beneath her upswept black hair. 

Something possessive snarled to life inside Katsuro — something deep and angry and strangely un-kyuubi-like — and blocked out everything else. 

It would never belong to another girl. That necklace was Sakura’s. And if she didn’t want it, then it belonged to him and him alone.

“On second thought,” Katsuro said firmly and held his hand out to the side, palm open. Joro stopped babbling about his conquests. He looked from Katsuro’s hand to the necklace and back again before he understood.

With a sigh that sounded almost like a whine Joro slowly stepped forward. Very reluctantly, he dropped the pendant into Katsuro’s outstretched hand. 

The moment Katsuro curled his fingers around the familiar stone, remembering the weight and feel of the pendant, he was instantly certain he’d done the right thing. He opened his hand in front of his chest, greedily keeping the first glimpse of it all to himself. The stone glittered in his hand, the shades of jade and the streaks of white still visible even in the dying firelight. He suddenly felt like a weight had been lifted off him, one that he didn’t know he’d been carrying.

But Katsuro wasn’t cruel. “Sorry,” he said curtly over his shoulder to Joro. “Maybe you can find something else for your girl—“

“Yeah, well, you know….” Joro said, kicking at the ground and sounding very much like child banking his disappointment. They both knew there was nothing out in these woods that would tempt a tea house girl. Joro hung around for a moment more, hoping Katsuro might take pity and change his mind, but eventually gave up and trudged down the path after Taichi and Koro.

Alone again, Katsuro pushed the sack against the base of a tree and leaned back on it.

He rubbed the rectangular jade stone between his thumb and forefinger once before holding it up in the fading light. Light from the embers shot through translucent leaf-greens, the deep shadowy emeralds and the clouded whites as it swung, and Katsuro remember how viciously angry he was when he tore it off in that bathroom. Now, in the soft darkness, he was surprised to discover it wasn’t nearly as painful to behold.

He felt torn over wanting to keep it. He knew he should hate it because of what Sakura had done…. But having it again, he admitted to himself what a mistake he’d made in throwing it away that day. He was so thankful it had come back to him.

He bounced the stone in his hand, enjoying the feel of it just as he’d done so many times in the past. 

It was more than just a token of her, though. Hell, she didn’t even know he had it. The old man had given it to him, knowing that he didn’t have ‘his girl’ anymore. So really, it wasn’t hers at all. It was his

He turned the stone over once in his hand and saw it with new eyes as the realization dawned on him that had never had something of his own. Something that actually belonged to him and him alone. 

The thought made him all the more glad he had a second chance to correct his rash mistake of throwing it away in anger.

He leaned back into the bag and propped his arms over his bent knees, letting the pendant dangle down between his loosely clasped hands. Only the lowest embers were left now. The dim light glinted off the polished edges of the swinging stone and cast long wavering shadows behind the trees. 

It would probably be several more hours before his team came back from town, but he didn’t mind sitting and waiting. It never once crossed his mind to accompany them.

He had no desire to gamble or drink sake or listen to some teahouse girl gush over him. His team were close to his age, maybe a few years older, but listening to them go on, he realized he didn’t want to do any of the things they did.

He had only ever wanted to be a ninja. All his childhood, that was the only thing he focused on. Then, when he left Konoha, he spent every waking moment into being the best shinobi he could be. He loved it. It was all he worked for. Learning new skills and seeing new sights. 

Then she came into his life, and everything changed. He lived his life just to see her. And when he had to leave her, he did everything to protect her. But now she was gone. And with her went everything he thought he was, and everything he thought he wanted. And he was left with nothing again.

It was a fitting punishment for falling in love with a girl from Konoha—

His heart seized in his throat. The pendant jerked to a stop in his hands. Did he love her? Was that what this was?

He let his head fall back against the tree with a hard thud. The pendant resumed its quiet swinging.

Well, if it was, then it was over. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough for her. He wasn’t enough. 

She didn’t want him. Just like the rest of Konoha.

He banged his head against the tree and cursed Konoha. He hated them too. All of them. An angry heat kicked up from his gut, warming in insides and making him feel better for a moment, like releasing pent-up steam. But it passed. The anger cooled, the chakra receded and the numbing emptiness seeped back in.

It was almost unbearable.

He hadn’t felt this alone since he was a child. And he hated it. Just as much as he hated still missing her, even though she didn’t want him.

He understood now why Itachi was the way he was, why the Rain soldiers were the way they were and even Pain…. It was the bond that still called out, even when the thing you were attached to is gone.

He just felt different. He dipped his head from side to side, as if stretching his neck muscles might somehow ease his unreachable discomfort. Something had changed within him. And he didn’t know what.

If he had to name it, he’d say he felt almost like some part of him had died. The part that used to care.

He had blamed it on Sakura, on Konoha, on everything that had happened, but he had begun to wonder if it wasn’t more than that. 

Itachi had planted the idea when he said he was nothing more than a shell housing the kyuubi. Just a vessel that could not be separated.

Katsuro bitterly refused it, but the idea loomed over him the last few weeks like the Akatsuki problem. 

Irrational fears crept in…. What if it was true? What if, as he grew older and fused with the demon as Itachi had said, he was loosing more and more of himself to the kyuubi?

Was this why he never wanted the things the other men invariably wanted? Because he was already loosing himself? 

He clutched the pendant tightly and frowned. He worked hard, relying on his own strength to keep the kyuubi behind his bars, using his chakra only as he needed. He had always told himself he controlled it. It didn’t control him. 

But what if he was wrong. And what if Itachi hadn’t told him everything….

Was he destined to loose himself and disappear through the bars, never to be seen again, just like in his boyhood dreams? Was he to be thrown away, yet again….

He didn’t want to accept it. But even now, it wasn’t hard to feel the tug in his gut, twisting and churning, waiting…waiting. What really happened at 21? Would he finally be dragged into the cell, through the heat and water, and be devoured by that menacing darkness behind the bars—

Footsteps crunched over the hill, startling Katsuro. He sat forward, blinking into the darkness, surprised to see Taichi cresting the hill in the direction of the town. Katsuro frowned. It was too early for them to be coming back.

He shifted his feet in the leaves but didn’t stand. He quickly shoved the necklace into his pocket. Joro would have told them, of course, but that didn’t mean he wanted his childish attachment to a necklace rubbed in. 

Taichi’s thin flashlight beam bouncing along the ground as he approached. His brow was in pinched in thought.

Katsuro tipped his head. “What’s up?” he said when Taichi stopped in front of him. The flashlight shined down on his shoes, but Katsuro was still in darkness.

“It was strange. The gambling house was closed.”

Katsuro shrugged. This was the height of his problems. That he hadn’t been fleeced out of all his money.

“Even though there I heard there was a big game tonight. But it they wouldn’t let me in. Same with Koro at the club.” He thumbed back over his shoulder at Koro who was trudging over the hill, looking forlorn that he hadn’t gotten his head bashed in during a round of bare-knuckled fighting.

Katsuro rolled his eyes and shoved the necklace in his pocket.

“We left Joro there, but…it was weird….”

Katsuro was about to stand, readying the speech in his head about staying focused on tomorrow’s journey, when Taichi’s words caught his attention. He stopped. Still squatting, he screwed up his face at Taichi. “What was weird?”

“The town. It was quiet. Everything was closed up. I don’t understand—“

Joro came running up over the hill, no flashlight. Moonlight streaked across his face and Katsuro could see panic there. Real panic. Joro sucked in a breath, then his voice exploded into the darkness.

“Run! Run! Run!! … It’s an AMBUSH!!!

Katsuro reached for Taichi’s flashlight to smother the light, but it was too late. A kunai whistled over Katsuro and landed with a sickening thud just above his head. Taichi teetered forward like a falling tree, and Katsuro scrambled backwards to avoid being pinned.

The flashlight fell into the leaves and pointed back at Taichi’s still face. He stared out at Katsuro, eyes wide and dead. The force of the fall pushed a last breath from his lungs with a wet gurgle. A kunai was buried to the hilt in the side of his throat. Blood spurted erratically from the front of his neck as his heart pumped its last beats.

Horror and fear seized Katsuro and froze him where he landed. In the wake of Joro’s cry, black shapes came dashing over the hillside. The two brothers tore off in opposite directions into the woods, crashing loudly and attracting attention in their panic. The black shapes split up and gave chase.

Katsuro snapped out of his panic. He reached for Taichi, trying to find his weapons pouch, not wanting to touch the blood-slicked kunai at his neck, but it was somewhere underneath his thick lifeless body. Suddenly more kunai thudded into Taichi’s prone body, the infiltrating nins thinking he was still alive. Katsuro realized it was only darkness that had kept him alive so far, and if he wanted to stay that way, he had to get out of there. He leapt over Taichi and bolted off toward the cover of the deeper woods, leaving any weapons behind.

Before he disappeared into the treeline, Katsuro stole a glance at crest of the hill just in time to see more shinobis coming up. The metal plate of a headband flashed in the moonlight and the insignia turned Katsuro’s blood to ice in his veins: Konoha. Shit.

Blood rushing in his ears, Katsuro bent to lunge into the canopy when a strangled cry shattered the woods behind him. It was Koro.

Katsuro hunched in the shadow of the tree and listened. Joro and Koro were still out there and needed help. They were his team, he didn’t want to leave them

Katsuro pounded his fist on the tree. But he knew exactly what Itachi wanted him to do. The idea had been drilled into his head for years now. These men were there to die for him. They were expendable. Their lives bought him time. Itachi wanted him to let them die.

Beyond Taichi’s body, the black shapes were relaying orders to each other and fanning out to flush anyone else out. It was only dumb luck that Katsuro had managed to escape this far unnoticed. And his luck was about to run out.

Katsuro swore softly to himself. There was nothing he could do to help them now. He had to go.

As he left, he heard one of the nins yell, “Dammit! Taichou wants ’em left alive for questioning—“

Staying low and soundless, Katsuro made a wide circle through the rolling woodlands back in the direction the ambush started, using the glow from the town to keep his bearings. If everything Itachi had told him about Konoha’s infiltration style was still in practice then the other two teams would have cleared out of the woods and moved into their camp by now.

He had covered quiet a bit of ground when he heard the unmistakeable sound of ragged breathing. Katsuro slowed to a creep. Easing around trees, Katsuro’s eyes relentlessly darted from ground to canopy expecting an ambush, but none came. There was only heavy breathing, getting louder. The assailant made no effort to hide his location. Katsuro soon narrowed in on a dense bush at the base of a tree. When it shivered once with movement he was sure someone was hiding in there.

Katsuro sidled closer, fists up. They would be his only weapons now. He didn’t want to access the kyuubi’s chakra for fear that someone from Konoha might detect it.

Katsuro eased his feet down into the leaves, but not carefully enough to prevent a twig from cracking loudly in the still night air. The ragged breathing ceased. The edge of a boot suddenly drew in under the bush. Katsuro stopped, waiting. A dark-haired head swiveled in side the bush and two eyes peered out of the dark spaces between the leaves.

Suddenly the topmost branches creaked back. “B-Boss?”

“Joro?” Katsuro croaked.

Katsuro was so relieved he could’ve hugged him and almost did when he saw the big tears running down Joro’s cheeks as he ducked into the hiding spot.

“I thought— I thought you all got hit,” Joro half sobbed, making room. “I thought I was alone.”

Katsuro’s heart wrenched. He knew exactly how that felt. In that moment, Katsuro decided he was going to do things differently than Itachi had always instructed him. He wouldn’t accept that the purpose of a team was just to die for the strongest one. If it was only Joro that was left now, then he’d do his best to protect him.

“No, you’re not alone, Joro. I’m with you. We’ll get through this.” Katsuro patted his arm roughly then looked him over. “Are you okay?”

Joro’s silks were torn beyond repair and he had nicks and dirt smudges all over his face from where he’d obviously run through thorn bushes. But he didn’t seem to have any serious injuries.

Joro shook his head miserably. Still half-crying, his words came in choppy breaths. “They followed us up from the town. They were waiting for us. I don’t know where Koro is. But Taichi—“ A sob broke his voice. “I think, Taichi got hit—“

Joro choked on a cry and big tears tracked his smooth cheeks.

Katsuro shook his shoulders. “Listen, we don’t know anything for certain. They may have made it,” he lied, pushing the image of Taichi’s big dead eyes staring up at him out of his mind. “We’ll find them later. Right now, we’ve got to get out of here—“

“I’ve got to go back for Koro,” Joro said pitifully, “I can’t just leave him—“

“We’ll double back and find him, but now we’ve got to move. We don’t have any weapons, and I can’t use—“ Katsuro stopped himself. “We just have to run. That’s all we can do now.”

Katsuro pushed out of the hiding spot and pulled hard on Joro’s arm to follow. Joro snuffled loudly and followed, shaking the bush as he crept out.

A sudden barrage of voices echoed over the top of the hill. “Over here! I heard something! Down this way!”

Katsuro and Joro burst out of the hiding spot at a full run down the hill. Katsuro stayed on his feet, while Joro, much less agile, careened after him.

They had the benefit of darkness and stayed ahead of their pursuers, and Katsuro was rattling through his options without weapons or light. The only thing left was hand-to-hand combat. But if this was Konoha, he couldn’t tap into the demon’s chakra. Itachi had always said that just tapping into the kyuubi’s power around any Leaf nin was like sending up a flare into the night. Shit.

Joro wheeled past him. “What do we do?”

Katsuro gulped. He couldn’t give himself away. “Just keep running!!”

The town was just beyond the hill. If they could make it up and over, then they could hide within the warren of rooftops and covered corridors. The nins were still far enough behind that it was their best hope. Katsuro flashed two fingers at the hillside and Joro nodded. They’d take the hill.

Soundlessly, Katsuro and Joro ran through the gully and raced up the slope. They were nearing the top and almost in the clear when Katsuro realized Joro wasn’t beside him. He didn’t have the stamina Katsuro did and had fallen just a few steps behind. He was panting loudly in the darkness.

Katsuro raced into the most dangerous part, a rocky outcrop just at the crest of the hill, but it was Joro he was worried about. Katsuro was wide open, there was no where to stop and hurry Joro on. He just had to hope he made it.

Clambering up the last hillside, Katsuro glanced over his shoulder to gauge Joro’s progress, but a burst of silver flashed from across the gully and suddenly the night sky exploded with shurikens. They rained down from the treetops, studding across the ground in long arcs.

Run,” Katsuro bellowed.

But it was already too late.

A spray of shuriken cut Joro down as he raced up the slope. It bit into his side, his back and the base of his skull and pitched him forward into the leafy hillside in a wild sprawl. He slid back down, body twitching.

Katsuro’s breath caught. He’d promised he’d protect him— But there wasn’t even time for the grief that threatened to swallow him. The nins were hard on his heels, ripping the air around him apart with senbon, stars and blades, everything in their arsenal. He pushed down his heartache and launched into the canopy where the weapons followed him like rain through the leaves.

The nins were worthy of every warning Itachi had ever laid down about Konoha shinobi. They didn’t give up. Even when they used up all their weapons and were flagging, they still pursued. Katsuro ran for his life, staying just a few steps ahead of them, until it was only his wellspring of energy that outlasted theirs. The distance grew greater between them, and eventually, he lost them.

Finally Katsuro came to a stumbling halt on the large limb of a tree. Heaving, lungs screaming for more air, he kept his breathing tight and while he watched and waited, but no more nins appeared in the trees behind him.

Sure he was alone, the grief he’d held back finally overcame him. Katsuro grabbed fistfuls of hair and sunk down on the branch. Tears burned his eyes and a single dry sob ripped itself from his throat.

He could’ve stopped them. He could’ve saved Joro. He could have saved all of them! If only he could have accessed his chakra.

He cursed Konoha anew for both burdening him with the demon and being the reason why he couldn’t use it to protect his team.

A cold drizzle hissed through the treetops, slowly dampening his head and hunched shoulders. The sleeves of his fatigues were soon wet and sticking to arms. He had nothing left. No tent. No mess-kit. No clothes. No team. And the cold was settling over him like a cloak, chilling him inside and out.

Katsuro suddenly remembered the necklace and patted his pocket, expecting it to have abandoned him too, but was surprised to feel the shape against his leg through the fabric.

He was relieved, but it didn’t make him feel better. Not the way it did earlier. When everyone was still alive….

But they were gone. And he had failed.

Grief-stricken, wet through and beginning to shiver, Katsuro looked up the trunk of the rain-black tree to find a large crook in the branches above him. The rest of the canopy was slowly disappearing into mist.

He didn’t dare stay on the ground, but he could at least hunker down in the tree and try to catch a little sleep. And from that position no on could sneak up on him.

He climbed up the limbs, muscles rebelling at the movement, and dropped down into the hollow. It was open on top but at least he wouldn’t fall. He sunk down inside, pulled his knees up to his chest and dropped his head to his knees. If he shed any tears then he didn’t know it; cold rain erased any that might have slid down. The only thing keeping him warm was the demon’s chakra in his gut with its churning, swirling heat.. Maybe he really was just a vessel after all.

He buried his head in his arms as the rain drilled down.