Chapter 38 – Losing Everything

Sometime before dawn the rain stopped. Katsuro thought he might even be able to sleep, though he was soaked through and water pooled around him. But he was sorely mistaken. 

Every time he manage to nod off, flashes of what he’d lived through came violently back. Koro’s strangled scream through the woods. Joro’s fear-rimmed eyes and then Taichi’s lifeless ones, staring back at Katsuro while a dagger jutted from his throat.

Each time Katsuro jerked awake with his heart pounding in his ears, until he could no longer take it.

He stood, wiped the cold sweat from his face and got his bearings. It was a relief to see the dark sky finally giving way to steel-grey mist.

Katsuro plucked the wet fabric away from his skin in hopes the light breeze would dry it quicker, then he listened. Bird song carried faintly through the air. No one had disturbed the forest following him. He was still safe.

But what next? There was no camp to return to—

An image of his teammates lying dead in the leaves flashed in his mind. Regret ached in him like a wound. There was no going back. It was too dangerous. No, he had to go on. Find Itachi or one of the camps.

He suddenly remembered his meeting with Pain. Of course Itachi would expect him to keep the meeting, in spite of the slaughter of his team.

But there was no way that was happening. He didn’t even know where he was.

Katsuro brushed the wet leaves off his pants and slipped down through the mist to the ground. He slowly picked his way back through the forest, moving in what he hoped was east in the diffuse light, back toward the territories he was more familiar with and hopefully their last main camp. It was slated to go into hiding as well, in another uninhabited area in the lands west of the Wind and Earth countries, but he was hoping that by sheer luck he might be able to catch up with them.

When the mist burned off he ran, stopping only to check his bearings. He didn’t know which spurred him on faster, staying away from would-be assailants or keeping his mind off his team, but after hours of running he was surprised to find himself within range of their last main camp sooner than he expected.

It was early evening but it was still light enough to see. Katsuro approached the gully he knew the camp to be in. He moved cautiously from tree to tree. Maybe it was instinct or maybe it was the demon’s animalistic sense bleeding through, but something told him they’d already gone. He’d missed them—

Katsuro stopped mid-step. Beyond the last tree at the edge of the gully, the ground was littered with broken branches. Gashes marred the trees. Overlapping footprints were squashed into the moist earth, and half-buried in the mud beside one track was a strange tapering leather strap that had been torn off on one end….

Katsuro froze. Another ambush.

For a few long seconds the only sound was the rush of blood in his ears. Everything else was deathly silent. He was certain, without even approaching, there was no one was there. None living, anyway.

He eased back on his foot and slowly backed away, taking great care not to make a sound. If there was anyone left there, then they’d probably received the same treatment as his team.

He veered off from the path he’d taken to get there, changing his course to another remembered campsite. When he was clear he broke into a run. The pounding of his feet blew up leaves in his wake, revealing, for the barest of moments, a fresh set of tracks next to his. Then the leaves drifted back down, resettling themselves over both prints. Katsuro ran on in the dying light, never stopping and never looking back.

It was pitch black when he finally stopped. He could no longer see the forest floor. Katsuro scrambled up a tree, but the branches were too thin and small to sleep on. He dropped back to the trunk of the tree and tucked up his knees, but between flashbacks and paranoia that normal woodland noises might be nins, sleep proved to be elusive.

He continued the next day, trekking through areas he hadn’t been in for years. He traversed flowing rivers and crept through wide forests. All of them hid places they’d stopped before. And all of them were empty.

Having always traveled from destination to destination, he never realized how hard it would be to find the rest of his group if they were in hiding. He felt like a leaf blowing in the wind, drifting from one abandoned site to the next.

Even though he had barely rested, he wasn’t tired. He didn’t notice it until he realized he wasn’t hungry either, even though his last meal was hours before the ambush. He should have been ravenous. But he wasn’t.

Instead, it seemed like there was a deep internal fire keeping him moving. It was blocking out his need for sleep, staving off his hunger and giving him energy when he should have had none. He was weary but not exhausted, and his stomach wasn’t growling at him constantly to find food.

He tried to ignore it, but the longer he went without a dip in his stamina, the more certain he was the energy source wasn’t coming from him.

Itachi’s words haunted him. He was only a vessel. 

Then the demon was just sharing its strength to keep its vessel alive.

Katsuro swore softly. He didn’t want to need the kyuubi’s power. But he knew it was the only thing keeping him going. From what he knew of the demon, it didn’t seem like he’d lend it for free, and the more Katsuro thought about it, the more suspicious he became that there must be a cost.

Without realizing where he was, Katsuro crested a hill and came to a complete standstill. All around him were ancient woodlands. But ahead of him lay a sight he hadn’t seen in years.

He laid a hand on a tree to steady himself and breathed deeply.

Spears of light sliced down through the enormous trees, and the old trade road unfurled like a golden ribbon in front of him. It rippled over the forest floor then banked suddenly and disappeared through the pillars of trees.

It had been years since he’d been here, but he remembered it all clearly. Even though he wished he could forget….

He had been here, with Sakura. Not at this exact spot, but close by.

So much had changed. She had changed, as had he—

The hand on the tree crumpled into a fist.

No, he hadn’t changed. Not really. He was stuck in a disguise, just a container in the eyes of those above him—

A twig snapped somewhere in the woods behind him. Fire stirred behind his navel. He blinked, remembering he was at the edge of a heavily traveled trade road.

Someone was coming.

He dashed across the road and up to the rocky outcrop as if he’d done it a hundred times. The kyuubi’s fiery chakra fed his weary muscles and amplified his adrenaline. He deftly slid in behind the rocks, crouched down and waited.

It wasn’t the same area his group had hid in during that ill-fated ambush years before. But it was close enough. The ground cover was moderately tamped down showing they weren’t the only ones to use those hidden spots over the intervening years.

Voices echoed up from the road. “At least you got some new blades. All I got was a sliced up arm. Not worth it for a stupid recon mission—“

Katsuro’s eyes went wide. Could these be his attackers? Were they from Konoha? He stilled his breathing to listen.

Another deeper voice picked up. They were right below him. “Yeah but sensei didn’t say we couldn’t keep what we found, did he? An’ those punks ain’t gonna use ‘em no more—“

There was laughter all around at that comment. The voices were slowly moving away.

“Worthless trash. I thought we’d finally caught some village nins this time. I was hoping they were from Leaf or Sand, one of the big nations at least. Hell, I’d even pulled out my Bingo Book—“

Katsuro flattened himself against the edge of rocks and eased his head over to see their backs as they walked away. The front two were gloating over the loot. The last one had a book open and was studying the pages, not paying attention to the others. At the waist of one swung a Fang country headband.

Katsuro sunk back against the boulder, thinking. There was not a hidden village in this land, but plenty of warring clans. They were territorial in the best of times, usually squabbling amongst themselves, but now they were making sport of hunting foreign nins.

What Itachi said was true…the unrest between the nations was growing.

He propped his head against the boulder, waiting, giving them enough time to move down the road.

It was a cold comfort to know that Konoha probably wasn’t tracking the kyuubi when they’d ambushed his camp. But they’d still killed his teammates.

‘Worthless trash.’ That’s all any village or clan shinobis thought of anyone else. Civilian deaths held no meaning at all to them. His teammates had simply been caught in the crossfire between the nations. Joro, Koro and Taichi’s faces flashed through his mind again. Katsuro grit his teeth against the memory and shoved off the rocks.

Staying low, he crept down off the promontory and continued on, moving in the opposite direction from the nins and towards another remembered campsite.

They hadn’t used it since those days either. But it was by far the most secure of all their locations. And he was quickly running out of options.

He ran on through the afternoon and into the evening, only stopping when he thought he saw a flicker in the trees. It was just the shiver of a breeze through treetops, now black against the last blue light of the sky, but Katsuro still jumped. And so did the demon’s chakra.

He reasoned that not enough sleep, not enough food and too much of the kyuubi’s chakra had left him with the twitchy, nervous feeling that someone was following him.

It was deep under the cover of night when he closed in on the old campsite. Sakura had been here too. He had brought her here, to the site hidden in an rerouted riverbed. Truthfully, he didn’t expect to find anyone here either, but he had nothing left to loose.

Climbing through the gnarled roots of enormous trees, he approached the top of the ink-black hill and prepared himself for more disappointment. In front of him would be a sluggish stream, glinting with reflected light in the darkness, lined by a strip of pale sand. Undisturbed and empty.

He crested the hill. Below him in the blue darkness was the valley and the stream and the sand, just as he remembered…. But huddled beside the water was a cluster of small tents.

Katsuro’s heart leapt to his throat.

The edges of the pale canvas tents, now pearl blue in the dim light, ruffled softly in time with the gurgling water. They were all dark. But in the center of the concentric circles of tents was a familiar large campaign tent. One single yellow light flickered beckoningly against the canvas.

Katsuro bit his bottom lip. He’d found them.

He slipped down the long slope, picking his way over the old roots, to the edge of the sand. From there he approached cautiously, in case he was wrong and they had already left and someone else had moved in.

He had no weapon but stealth. He moved slowly, easing his feet into the sand between the tents, keeping his hands loose and open and ready for any kind of sudden ambush. But none came. He watched for shadows on the walls of the big tent but saw none.

A half-burned log sat in the fire pit, but it had long ago gone dark. Katsuro watched the still canvas door of the big tent, thinking.

Lots of tents, no lights, no movement, no fire…. Might be a trap….

But after a few more long moments when nothing happened, Katsuro decided to risk it. He slid his arm over the flap and pushed on the opening. Through the crack he could see the interior. It was definitely one of theirs. But where was everyone—

A soft chuckle reverberated from inside the tent.

Katsuro didn’t have many bonds, but he knew the sound of the old captain’s laugh anywhere.

Pushing the curtain back, Katsuro stepped inside the empty tent to see the captain, sitting on the bare floor, a broad smile pushing up the wrinkles of his face. A single candle was burning on the ground in front of him. The flame danced as he laughed again.

Relief flooded Katsuro.

The captain rose swiftly. He had a thigh holster with a kunai, and double swords strapped to his back. He was ready for battle and looked younger and more powerful than Katsuro had ever seen him.

With a single stride he met Katsuro halfway, grasped his forearm and shook vigorously, the way the old Rain soldiers did. “I knew you’d made it,” he said warmly. “You’re made of stronger stuff than anyone I know.”

Katsuro smiled weakly back, but suddenly felt ashamed. He was dirty from head to toe, with torn clothes and no weapons, and he was alone. He’d failed. His mission, his team, everything—

His eyes fell to the flickering candle.

“I lost them, taichou,” he said quietly. “My team…. I tried to— But I couldn’t—“ His throat closed on the words.

The captain nodded solemnly, without pity or blame. “I figured you had. It is a terrible burden, and one you will have to bear again. But you are a survivor. That’s why I came back. To wait for you.”

Katsuro looked up, light shining in his eyes. He had never thought there was someone waiting for him, other than Itachi who was only waiting to tell him what he did wrong.

Katsuro blinked. “Th-Thanks.” The captain nodded. “The ambush— It came out of nowhere. I mean, I’d been watching but I never saw anything. We thought it was safe. I even let my men go into town—” Katsuro’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe one of them let something slip—“

Katsuro dropped his head. He’d finally confessed what had been eating at him: that he was to blame. He had let them go out the last night, and he had been the cause of their deaths.

But the captain shook his head firmly.

“No, those nins had been tracking us for a long time. Longer than we realized. I thought breaking the camp up would deter them, but they only tightened their noose.”

“I saw— I think it was—“

“Konoha,” the captain finished. “That’s who ambushed you. But there have been others on the attack too. All the nations are on edge now. Our trick worked too well,” he said with a humorless laugh. “But I knew you’d survive. The rest of our group has gone on ahead. And I stayed behind to wait for you. I hoped you’d be smart enough to get here.”

The captain was right. It was over. He’d survived.

Katsuro breathed deeply. As if in response the fire in his core began to slowly bank. Muscles unwound. Even his stomach began to faintly rumble.

But he still didn’t feel right about his team. The Rain soldiers seemed to have a hard-won loyalty that Itachi didn’t have, and he wondered for the first time what the captain would have advised. Should he have left his team behind, as Itachi had always instructed, let them take the fall so he could escape? Or should he have stayed and fought with them, so at least some might have gotten away?

It was not something he would ever ask Itachi. Itachi would laugh and dismiss him, saying the men were beneath Katsuro, so answering it was beneath him. But the captain viewed things differently.

“I was wondering,” Katsuro began, but hesitated. The captain tipped his head for him to continue. “In the Rain country, if you were ever caught with your team, would you—“

But the captain suddenly raised his hand for silence. Katsuro listened hard, holding his breath. There was the slightest crush of leaves, a sound invisible to any civilian.

But Katsuro and the captain registered the sounds as a war drum. Someone was stalking them, sneaking up on the campsite.

“Good,” the captain breathed. “They fell for it.” Katsuro glanced at him, not understanding, and was startled to see the captain’s old face had suddenly transformed. There was a wicked glitter in his eyes. His hands opened and closed as if warming up his grip, readying for a fight. It was only then that Katsuro noticed his blades catching the yellow light. They’d been freshly sharpened and polished.

The captain motioned for Katsuro to pull up the tent fabric and slip out the back. But Katsuro, finally catching on, waved him away.

The captain had risked everything by waiting for him. He wasn’t going to leave him—

But the older man wasn’t having it. He grabbed Katsuro’s shoulder and pushed him toward the back of the tent.

“It’s just thugs,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I’ve been following them, and you, for a while now. So I came on ahead and waited for you here. It was a gamble but I was right.” He gathered up the edge of the fabric. “Go on. There’s a corridor between the tents that will take you out to the water. Follow it. You’ll only be exposed for a moment, before your safe in the treeline. Our group is due east, at the edge of the Stone territory. A day’s travel and you’ll find ‘em—“

“No! I’m not leaving you—“ Katsuro said desperately.

“It’s just a bunch of bandits! Rogues! Nothing I can’t handle. Go on!”

Katsuro moved to protest but the captain was firm. “You’ve fought enough now. You’re worn out and have no weapons—“

The captain stopped suddenly and pulled out a dagger from behind the kunai in his thigh holster. It was a traditional Rain dagger, smaller than a kunai, with a fat grip and curved blade.

“No! You’ll need it,” Katsuro whispered, refusing it. But the captain pushed it into his hands.

“Nah, I’ve got the Sun and the Moon,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder to the double blades at his back. “They’ve seen me through worse than this.”

Katsuro didn’t believe him. He thought again of his team and shook his head but the captain grabbed his collar and shoved him hard toward the opening. “Follow your orders, soldier!”

Katsuro lifted the edge of the fabric and ducked down, then looked pleadingly back over his shoulder at the captain. The old man’s jaw was set. He unsheathed the two swords with a long metallic ting. They gleamed menacingly in the light.

The captain obviously had a plan, and Katsuro trusted him with his life, but he still didn’t want to leave him—

A twig snapped close by. There was no more time to argue.

“Go. Don’t look back.” The captain’s voice was firm but his eyes were earnest. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Katsuro nodded once, obeying out of respect even though he didn’t want to, and ducked out of the tent.

The path was exactly where the captain said it would be, almost as if the camp had been arranged with a secret escape route. He crept low, moving quickly through the overlapping tent edges until the path opened up next to the stream. He paused, watching and listening. Soft sounds of movement were behind him, but the way ahead was clear. He ducked and ran, feet sinking into the soft sand for the five or so strides he was exposed.

Then he was back in the safety of the trees, just like the captain said. He followed orders, running up the black slope toward the ridge line, away from the stream. There were no sounds up there. He was in the clear.

He didn’t look back, just like the captain ordered. Katsuro had no doubt he would be coming right behind, just as he said he would. Time was of the essence, they didn’t want to expose themselves and be discovered—

Out of the corner of Katsuro’s eye golden light splashed across the tree beside him. Katsuro looked at the trees, thinking for a moment he’d seen something off in the distance, until the whole woods around him exploded in yellow daylight.

He whipped around to see the main tent engulfed in flames, and the rest of the small tents bursting into smaller bonfires, one after another. The walls of the big tent burned to the ground, forming a single ring of flames around the captain. He stood in the middle, a black silhouette, brazenly swinging his swords into the air, inviting a challenge like a one-man army.

Why isn’t he running!

Katsuro saw a few shapes creeping through the darkness behind the captain and cursed himself.

He should have stayed…. He should have—

Katsuro tore back down the root-covered slope, watching the dark figures slink closer and closer. The captain was whirling his swords over his head, eyes fixed upwards. He didn’t see the men creeping up behind him.

Katsuro ran down the slope, eyes on the advancing men, deciding which ones to take out first, when he came out of the treeline. The whole of the campsite opened up and his eyes slipped upward—

Katsuro’s heart went to his throat. His mouth went dry, and the heat that had kept him alive reignited in his gut.

Dropping from the trees above the captain were ninjas, at least a dozen of them. They oozed out of the canopy like black spiders. Legs akimbo and feet tucked up to control their silent descent, the black-clad men slid down all around in him.

The captain sliced his blades threateningly through the air but was unable to dispatch any of them. They stayed just out of reach of his weapons.

The nins hit the forest floor in a protective crouch and rose slowly, pulling their black ropes up with them, to encircled the captain in a uniform attack formation.

Swords whistling and catching the light like they were on fire, the captain swung and moved in the middle of the burning ground, drawing them in.

Katsuro felt sick. His seal ached terribly. A low rumbling sound echoed somewhere in the distance.

These aren’t thugs, these are nins— The captain had laid a trap! He’d never meant to leave!

One man jumped him from behind, and the rest lurched forward, engulfing the captain in a sea of black.

Katsuro forced his legs to move. A cry of desperation tore from his throat, but it was cut short when black-clad nin dropped in front of him, hitting the leafy floor with in a squat. A coil of rope landed beside him like a snake. He stood slowly, drawing up the rope with him. As he approached Katsuro he cracked it in giant figure eights in front of him. A silver blade at the end of it licked the ground.

Katsuro closed his open mouth, grabbed for the Rain dagger in his waistband, sunk into his stance. The handle was more round than he was used to and felt heavy in his hand. He watched and waited.

The only one who used whips were ninjas from the Fang country. They were deadly and nearly indefensible. Thankfully, Katsuro had gone up against a whip-user before, when a thug with a whip had once passed through their camp. Katsuro knew how to disable him. He’d have to take a hit if he wanted to end it quickly and get back to captain.

Only the face was visible on the man in front of him. And his grin was wicked. He rotated the figure-eights outward and came at Katsuro with the whip moving in a “x” shape. Katsuro hopped backward with each angled snap to keep from being sliced by the bladed tip. As he jumped he got a glimpse beyond the nin and was relieved to see the captain’s gleaming swords still working through the melee.

The ninja took advantage of his distraction and came at him from another angle. The blade bit into Katsuro, but didn’t catch him. But the next hit would…and Katsuro was counting on it.

Katsuro readied for the blow, threw the dagger to his other hand and didn’t hop back. The whip came down over his free arm and wrapped around several times before the metal end sunk into his forearm, tearing his sleeve and opening a long slice across his skin. It glistened red.

His seal ached sharply again and another deep boom rumbled through the woods around him.

Katsuro ignored the pain and the sound and grasped hard on the leather thong, pulling it in to claim it, but the ninja had other plans. He came at Katsuro in a fury, swinging the weighted handle of the whip like a blackjack, tethering Katsuro to deliver the blow, and leaving Katsuro to realize he’d made a terrible mistake. A thug with a whip was not the same as a highly trained ninja.

The nin whizzed the handle down to break his other arm, and Katsuro was only just able to block it with his dagger.

“Die, scum,” he said in a thick Fang accent as he pushed down on the dagger, forcing Katsuro down. He jerked the whip, pulling Katsuro’s arm to the ground, and pinned his wrist with his knee. “You won’t cross our lands without paying in blood—“

He spun the weighted handle again, this time aiming for Katsuro’s head with a blow that was sure to crack his skull like a clay pot, when Katsuro heard it again—

Another thunderous boom rattled through him as if it had come from the depths of the earth. But Katsuro knew with sickening certainty that it didn’t. It came from inside. His seal ached again, but just then the demon’s power surged through him, breathing new life into his limbs. Katsuro ignored the pain and the sound, just glad to finally have a way to turn the tables on the fight.

Moving in a blur, Katsuro caught the handle before it connected with his head. But instead of it breaking every bone in his fingers, the handle snapped like firewood in his fist.

The sudden display of power stunned the nin. Katsuro didn’t waste a moment. He yanked his arm free and drove his fist up into the man’s chin, pitching him backwards onto the ground, unconscious. Katsuro rose and stepped over the nin, letting the leather whip slither off his arm and fall onto the man’s chest, now as limp and useless as its master.

Katsuro ran on to the burning campsite, chakra sizzling at his wounds yet healing them at a slower rate than in the past, when the cold fear gripped him that he was too late. But as he got closer he saw the captain was still holding his own. His clothes were torn, his face was bloodied and he was breath came in ragged heaves between sword strokes, but the enemy nins were still unable to take him down.

Standing among the dead bodies of their compatriots to fight him, the ninjas worked in unison, a perfect harmony of muscles and whips, spinning in turns so none tangled together. It would have been impressive to watch if they weren’t fighting for their lives.

Katsuro was pleased to note their finely tuned skills were still no no match for the captain’s Sun and Moon blades. He spun, blocking with one sword while attacking with the other so often that the clash of metal rang out like never ending bells. The blades were a menacing spiral of silver around him, and the whips could not find a way in.

Keeping his head low, Katsuro ran toward the largest flank of nins, exploiting his element of surprise. The captain surely couldn’t last much longer, but between the two of them, they could take the group. Eyes on his objective, Katsuro flipped the blade in his hand and readied his attack—

A whip snapped around his blade arm, digging deep into the muscle and forcing him to drop the dagger. The sting of pain was accompanied by another pulse of pain at his seal and another loud boom somewhere deep inside, but Katsuro ignored it.

Tapping the demon’s chakra again, he yanked his arm hard and jerked the entire whip away from his surprised attacker. But there were more behind him, all cracking their whips in a deadly wave of movement.

Katsuro lunged at the closest man but another whip snapped around his free arm, and Katsuro admitted to himself that he’d underestimated these men. They were ninjas that had spent their lifetime perfecting their defenses.

This was why he set a trap. The captain knew what he was up against….

Katsuro regrouped and laced his hand around the whip to jerk it free like he had done with the first one when a pain exploded across his back. He turned his head to catch a big man retracting a jointed metal whip embedded with viciously sharp teeth. It clacked ominously and Katsuro was sure that this weapon had bitten chunks out of his back. He could feel blood weeping through the mangled fabric of his shirt.

Before he could react another nin hit him in the face with a long-range whip, slicing his cheek open, while bladed-end buried itself in the soft muscle at his shoulder. The nin jerked it back hard, tearing the soft muscle away from bone—

Katsuro growled against pain. Another whip hissed by his ear then ripped over the top of his shoulder. Blood spurted out. A jolt of white-hot pain hit his ribcage and forced him to one knee, gasping and bleeding out.

His wounds were on fire. The kyuubi’s chakra was regrowing tissue at lightening speed, but it wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the speed of the whips that were taking him down.

Katsuro’s seal ached as if it was trying to untwist itself from his gut, and another earth-shattering boom shook up from deep inside. But this time, the surge of power didn’t speed to his limbs. Instead the kyuubi’s chakra went to his wounds.

Katsuro tried to stand, but a whip-end bit into his lower back, tearing off a chunk of flesh as it jerked away, forcing him down again

Between whip cracks and bursts of searing pain, Katsuro realized just how little control he had over the demon’s chakra. It was healing him, but not fast enough to save him. What he needed now was power. But maybe he’d used too much of it over the last few days—

Another whip snapped across his shoulders, flaying his exposed skin. The nins on either side of him caught up the whips on his arms and pulled them out taut. A boot cracked into his spine and pushed him to his knees. Katsuro crunched his arms inward, using every power he could muster. Heat surged into his arms and the seal at his gut ached, but he pulled like his life depended on it. It worked, the men started to loose ground—

But suddenly from behind a whip cracked around his neck. The blade end dug into the soft flesh above his collar bone and grew tighter. Katsuro instinctively stopped struggling against the men and jerked his hands up to claw at the leather lashing tighter across his windpipe. But it was no use.

The ninjas held him fast. And close behind him the deadly clacking sound rent the air. Metallic teeth blurred at the edge of his vision.

Suddenly the captain’s voice bellowed “No!!” from the midst of the burning campsite. Katsuro went cold. He locked eyes with the captain only for a moment before the big nin with the metal whip stepped in front of him, blocking his line of site. He lashed Katsuro brutally across the chest, nearly tearing his shirt in half and blinding him with pain.

Katsuro knew he would have fallen backwards if his arms hadn’t been suspended. His lungs screamed for air, and now even the heat of the kyuubi’s chakra couldn’t dull the pain.

His eyes were going in and out of focus, but he could just make out the captain, pushing out of the fight to come to his aid. Katsuro tried to cry out, to tell him to stop, but no sound escaped his throat.

The captain shot forward, making giant slashes with his sword and cutting down the men directly in front of him in his furious dash to save Katsuro. But the nins behind him moved as a unit.

One nin caught the captain’s exposed sword arm with a whip and while another smashed his wrist with a weighted handle. Pain broke over captain’s face. He tried to fight them off, but it was no use. His arm was broken. The sword named Sun fell from his hand, but his eyes never left Katsuro,

The rest of the men were on his other arm instantly, immobilizing it then bashing him until Moon dropped as well.

The swords disappeared and another whip cracked around his neck. He was pushed to his knees, just like Katsuro and held there, waiting.

Katsuro mouthed “I’m sorry,” over and over again, tears and blood leaking into the edges of his open mouth, knowing they would be choked to death, and that he should have trusted the captain, and that if he had been smarter or faster he could have saved them, and that is was all his fault, first his team, now the captain, the only one who had waited for him—

A big ninja, taller than all the rest, rose up behind the captain and drove his twin blades down into hollow of neck, leaving the the old man blinking, open-mouthed and dead on his knees. Grinning wickedly, the big ninja kicked his back and toppled him forward into the sand.

For Katsuro, time seemed to slow down. He screamed in stunned anguish, but no sound met his ears. He raged against his tethers but they only cut off more air and blood flow.

With a boot on his shoulder, the ninja pulled out the twin blades and threw them to the side, so that the captain would bleed out faster. Among the smiling, congratulating men, the big ninja waved up to were Katsuro was still held with a message of communication. Beside him, the men understood.

“Finish him,” was all Katsuro heard before another leather whip was looped over his head. It hooked him under the jaw and drew him up, jerking and fighting, off his knees and into the air.

The earth-shuddering boom echoed through his insides again, his seal exploded in pain, but this time the surge of demon’s chakra was too little, too late. It couldn’t save him now.

Katsuro’s feet scrambled among the leaves, his lungs howled for air and his brain screamed for release until everything went red…then black….

Katsuro woke up feeling warmer than he’d ever felt in his life. Warm from inside out. 

Am I…. Am I dead?

He raised up slowly only to discover he was floating in water, his wounds were healed and his clothes were whole. And without turning his head, he knew he wasn’t dead. He was somewhere worse.

He eased up to standing and turned to face the gate he knew was locked deep inside him. He stared into the darkness behind the bars.

Whatever was back there didn’t scare him any more. He’d lost everything. Including himself. What else could the demon do to him?

Just then a thunderous sound rolled toward the gates. Moving with the sound, something black and enormous threw itself at bars, hitting them with a violent boom that sent tremors through the entire cell, even bringing down stones from the cavernous ceiling. They splashed into the water, making it tremble around his legs. But the gleaming lock held. Unsuccessful, the shape drifted back into the darkness.

Katsuro understood now what the sound was. It was the kyuubi, trying to break out. While the nins had been attacking him outside, the demon had been taking advantage of his weakened state and banged at the inside.

Fury consumed Katsuro. He laughed bitterly.

“Your little gamble failed, didn’t it,” he yelled into the darkness behind the bars. “And now we’re both going to die!”

He didn’t care if thing could even understand human language or not.

“Why heal the vessel,” he thumbed at his chest, “if they’re just going to kill me anyway!”

There was nothing but the echo of his voice and the soft lapping of water at his calves.

Katsuro rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “What I really needed was power. Not healing,” he said, speaking more to himself. “Then I could have saved him…. I could have saved myself….”

He accepted what it meant if he was down in this cell again.

“But now,” he yelled viciously up at the gate, a heated growl in his voice, “we’re both dead!!”

He turned his back on the bars. He hated them, hated even looking at them.

A single ripple of water ringed his legs.

“The old man…. My team….” He shoved the heel of his hand into his eye, smothering out tears. “Why did he have to die for me?!

His voice ricocheted against the darkened ceiling and bounced back to him, sounding angrier than he’d ever been. More rings of water rippled from his legs, rolling out towards the walls and the cell bars.

I’m supposed to be the strongest!” He pounded his open hand against chest. “I’m the most powerful!”

More water ripples rolled out, surging through the bars and into the darkness.

“If I…. If I could do it over…. I’d never feel this way again! I would never watch people die for me,” he yelled up at the ceiling. “I take down anyone that stood in my way!”

Rings of water returned from beyond the bars, crossing the ripples around him, and wrapped around his legs.

Long fingers of gold light stretched out from between the bars. They followed the rings and moving slowly across the surface of the water.

“I would never hide again! Any part of me,” he swore, his voice taking a deeper timbre. He slammed his fist into his hand. “I would make them fear me for a change!”

Water lapped at his legs. The golden light seeped closer and closer, turning the surface of the water to liquid flames. It reached out from the shimmering bars and wrapped itself around Katsuro’s legs.

Katsuro breathed deeply, letting the heat of his anger warm him and make him feel even more certain.

“Then they would know. Konoha would know…they would all know what they’d lost,” he snarled, shadows pooling under his eyes and around his mouth.

He leveled his eyes at black depths of the cavern and lowered his voice. “I would never feel this way again,” he said in a soft growl.

It was only then that he noticed the fiery light pooling around his legs. It cast his face and upper body in deep shadow. But the light was moving, growing, rising off the surface of the water in translucent flames and moving up over his pant legs. He was slowly being cloaked in its warmth.

Katsuro turned suddenly to see the bubbling orange flames coming from behind the bars. It reached out to him in one long spear, like a fox tail, and it was growing, wrapping around and engulfing him. He could feel the warmth now at his thighs. It held him there, but he didn’t fight it.

Instead he glared challengingly at the metal bars, staring into the darkness beyond them.

What did it matter? What did any of it matter? The kyuubi couldn’t hurt him. No one could! He was already dead!

Something moved in the black cell. A huge looming shape, much higher than Katsuro ever imagined. He lifted his eyes upward. It was there, watching him.

The orange substance rose out of the water to his waist. Katsuro instinctively lifted his hands clear of it, but he kept his eyes hard on the demon’s shape.

A pair of eyes eased forward out of the darkness. They hung at the top of the cell like two lanterns. The color morphed and changed, shifting like the deepest part of a fire. They were orange and red and black and burned with an unholy hatred as they stared down at their jailer.

But Katsuro didn’t look away. Instead he stared fiercely back, daring it to do its worst.

As Katsuro watched it, he thought that whatever the demon had fought for before it came to be housed in him, whatever it had hoped to achieve by breaking free, was over. They’d both lost.

And somehow…the demon understood. Katsuro knew it did. He felt it deep in his gut, down behind his navel.

He watched the beast warily, not trusting it for a moment, but knowing, feeling that the demon was coming to some sort of decision.

Katsuro watched and waited. The fiery orange substance churned around his waist in great coils, but it did not climb any further. It felt like he was standing in a boiling sea, but it did not injure him.

The demon eased forward, just enough for his massive snout and the tips of its deadly paw to come into view. The fur was blood red, but black on the tips, like it had been burnt. Claws glistened in the folds of his foot. A soft growl escaped with each breath.

It’s head hung over Katsuro, mouth open, teeth bared and drooling as if it would like snap Katsuro up. The demon was so massive it would only take one bite to devour him.

Katsuro stared back, no longer caring.

“Come on!! Take me! If that’s what you want…then do it!” Katsuro threw his arms wide. “We’re already dead—

The demon roared, shuddering the floors and walls and bars, blasting him with hot, foul breath and sending more debris splashing down around him. But it didn’t hurl itself against the bars. Instead a wave of seething orange fire rushed toward Katsuro.

As it wound higher, Katsuro understood what was happening.

This was the tangible form of the demon’s chakra. This was the power that surged through his limbs. This was the healing warmth that closed all his wounds.

The kyuubi was giving some of it to Katsuro to use. As a cloak. As a weapon. As however he wanted it.

The demon was making a deal.

Katsuro tipped his head back to the ceiling, closed his eyes, and breathed in deeply, stretching his arms wide and opening his palms.

He accepted.

The water surged up and a whirlpool of seething orange chakra spun up and over him. It ruffled his hair and lifted up his clothes. It covered him, cloaking him.

Katsuro was pleased to discover that he had not lost himself to the onslaught. Instead the demon’s power thrummed through him.

He could feel it’s heartbeat, its breathing, its desires…. The kyuubi wanted what Katsuro wanted…. It always had….

It wanted out.

It wanted another chance.

It didn’t want to die.

Not here. Not yet.

Katsuro breathed in. He felt a steady pressure at his seal, but it no longer twisted and ached. He felt the stretch of fangs pushing out from his canine teeth. He even felt the burn on his cheeks where he knew the scars were hidden, buried under layers of jutsu. But he was no longer afraid.

He blinked and his vision turned blood red.

This was who he was.

He breathed again, drawing in more chakra and reveling in the fresh power in his muscles and energy in his core.

He no longer felt cold and alone. He no longer felt hollow, a mere vessel waiting to be smashed, his contents ripped out and stolen. He felt sure of himself. Powerful. Unstoppable.

The water slapped his calves, pounding out “never again…never again…never again….”

Katsuro made two fists and roared up into the darkness. The ceiling wavered ominously. He breathed deeply, pulling in more of the demon until Katsuro could feel his breath on his back, and the thunder of his heartbeat beneath his ears.

This was what was inside of him. Part of him. This was who he was. And he’d never hide it again.

Katsuro roared again and the stone walls shattered.

Katsuro blinked up at the dark canopy. The spidery lines of interlaced branches had replaced the cavernous ceiling.

He knew this place. The forest. It looked the same, felt the same…only…. He had changed.

Katsuro blinked again. The canopy was drenched in red. Each branch was perfectly etched against the sky. He saw every detail, even down to a small owl clinging to a high branch, watching for its next meal.

Muffled laughter and the metallic clatter of weapons reached Katsuro’s ears. The multitude of wounds across his body sizzled pleasantly as muscle and skin reknit themselves. He still felt warm all over, from inside out, just as he felt when he was in front of the kyuubi. Warm…and invincible.

Katsuro sat up slowly, watching as the leather whips still lashed around his arms burned through under the cloak of orange chakra and dropped in smoldering strips1 into the leaves. The whip around his neck simply burned to ash.

He rubbed his bare arms, inspecting the areas where he had been flayed. It was all new skin under the chakra. His wounds were completely healed.

He ran his tongue over his teeth. Fangs protruded menacingly on either side. He rubbed his hand over his jaw where shadows of jagged whisker marks showed through the jutsu.

His eyes burned with the hyper-focus of the demon’s eyes. He had never seen his eyes when this happened, but now he didn’t have to guess what he looked like: His brown eyes had turned to the same fiery shade he’d seen behind the cell bars. Black-ringed irises bled from crimson to molten gold, and a thin black pupil slashed down the center of each.

Just like every other change, he knew his eyes must make him look crazed and feral and very much like a—


A ninja halfway down the bank was yelling, pointing at Katsuro and stumbling backwards towards the burning camp.

Katsuro rose slowly and walked towards the camp, watching the alarm spread like wildfire through the rest of the men. Katsuro found he rather liked to see them quavering at the sight of him. He continued at an unhurried pace to where the rest of the men were gathering in a circle, readying their weapons and preparing to fight.

Those whips wouldn’t save them now….

The men looked him up and down in terrified disbelief. There were no marks on his body at all, even though the holes in his blood-soaked shirt attested to his brutal beating.

Katsuro stretched his neck, letting his new power course through him. The demon’s chakra rolled off Katsuro in waves, and the mens’ faces changed from fierce to terrified as it reached them.

“Demon!” one man in the back uttered and started backing away. Still moving as a unit, they all eased backward.

Demon, huh? He’d show them just how much of a demon he really was.

Katsuro roared into the treetops, bearing his sharpened teeth and forcing the orange cloak to surge and drip off him like liquid fire.

There was silence, but only for the time it took to heave a terrified breath, then the men scattered like mice, dashing in all directions for the safety of the treeline.

That wouldn’t be enough to save them. Not this time. Not from him.

Dropping into a crouch for no reason other than it felt oddly comfortable, Katsuro hung his head and watched the men through his red slit eyes. He saw each clearly, thrashing black silhouettes against the bleeding forest. And where he couldn’t see them, he could sense them. The kyuubi’s power somehow gave him the ability to feel out their life force. Frantic bursts of enemy chakra danced on the horizon, flaring here and there like guttering candles.

He vaguely remembered sensing chakra before, but he couldn’t remember when. It felt like a lifetime ago.

Katsuro narrowed his eyes, focused on the nearest outline and launched through the trees. In a blur of hot wind and demon chakra, Katsuro was on the man, snapping his neck and dropping him to the forest floor before bouncing to the canopy to snatch up the next one, killing him instantly.

Screams echoed through the trees as one by one they went down, until there was just one last man left, the big ninja who had so brazenly killed the captain with his own swords.

Katsuro perched on a high branch, waiting…watching…. Suddenly the man scrambled across the forest floor. Katsuro watched him tear through the red woods, dashing from tree to tree. His chakra signature was flaring. He knew he was in trouble.

And he was….

Katsuro swept silently through the treetops and when the nin dashed out again, Katsuro dropped down on him, wrenching his head up from the top of his spine and snapping it to the side so fast it was a blur of grasping hands, taut muscles and popping bones. Then he went limp, and Katsuro threw his lifeless body to the ground.

Katsuro stood over the dead man and stared at his own hands. But instead of feeling the revulsion he might otherwise have felt, he marveled at this new power that flowed through him. It blocked out everything else.

Katsuro turned his hands over, examining the smooth, unharmed skin beneath the demon’s chakra. He had strength and speed like he’d never known. It felt good. But more than that it felt…right.

This was his power. He may be a vessel, but the ability to control the power he contained inside was all his. No one else could do it. Only he had grown up with it. Only he knew it as well as he knew himself.

Itachi was right. He really could become the most powerful shinobi in the world.

Katsuro hefted the dead man over his shoulder and returned to the campsite to dispose of the bodies, but as he approached he was stunned to see a small fluttering movement. In the midst of the smoke and carnage lay the captain, and his hand was slowly moving toward his neck.

Katsuro threw the body onto the fire circle and raced to him.

As he ran, the demon’s power receded automatically. Katsuro’s teeth and eyesight returned to normal, and the chakra no longer cloaked him in orange nor rolled off his skin in invisible waves. But it didn’t fade away completely. The chakra hummed inside him now, ready and waiting for his call.

Katsuro reached the captain, but he knew it was already too late. Blood slicked his chest and hair and had soaked into the sand beneath him. Katsuro gently pulled back his collar. Blood bubbled from a gaping hole. The ninjas weren’t as efficient with the swords as they were their whips; they hadn’t killed him immediately…but he was dying just the same.

“Captain,” Katsuro said, voice raw with emotion. “Captain, why—“

The old captain gulped a last gasp of air into his lungs.

“You’re my soldier,” he said, locking eyes with Katsuro and trying to smile, but the pain twisted it into a grimace. His voice was no more than a whisper, and every word appeared to cost him. Katsuro leaned close, trying to make it easier for him.

“I die for you, boy.” The captain moved his hand to pat Katsuro’s arm, but he winced suddenly. More blood seeped from his neck. He exhaled, long and deep. The words came much slower. “Not the other way around…. I—“

But there was no more. His gaze shifted to a point beyond Katsuro’s head. The bleeding slowed, and his chest did not rise again.

Katsuro grit his teeth and bit back tears.

He studied the old man’s face, those wrinkled, weathered lines that were so familiar to him. The captain had been more of a friend to him than Itachi ever was. A true friend. A mentor.

The person Katsuro was now had been very much shaped by the captain. Not Itachi.

And Katsuro now recognized the difference was between them. Itachi even spelled it out: He only saw Katsuro as a vessel. Something intertwined with the kyuubi. Inseparable.

But the captain…. The captain saw him as a person. A soldier, the highest term of respect the captain could give. To him, Katsuro was someone worth waiting for. Someone worth dying for—

Katsuro choked back a sob. He drew his hand over the captain’s face, closing his eyes for the last time, and stood, only to stare down at his body, shattered in the dirt of a forgotten campsite, so far away from the Rain country that he loved.

Tears burned at his eyes. He made two fists at his sides.

Never again….

But instead of giving in to grief or numbing himself to the pain, he let the kyuubi’s chakra consume him. It crackled over his skin, covering him in a fiery sheen. The wind whipped around him, tugging at his ragged clothes and kicking up dust and leaves.

“Never again,” he growled. Never would anyone die for him again.

A glimmering light shivered through the chakra before it disappeared completely. But the power remained. He could feel it warming him, spiraling out from behind his navel.

Somewhere deep down inside him, beyond the orange-tinged water and the golden cell bars, a black shape turned around and around before coiling up on the cell floor. It had given up some of its chakra control, but in return there was a warmth in his cell, a consuming heat like the demon hadn’t felt in a long time. And it wasn’t all coming from him. Eyes like fire flickered closed, certain in the knowledge that it would survive another day, and, judging by that angry heat, many more days to come.

Katsuro set about collecting the bodies and piling them on the blackened fire circle. He stripped them of their headbands, but left the weapons. However when he saw the captain’s Rain dagger sticking out of the belt loop of one man’s fatigues, he pulled it out and shoved it into his own. Then he set the pile alight with a series of hand signals. Within the space of a few minutes the bodies were reduced to a pyramid of snowy ash.

Katsuro’s mind drifted while he watched the inferno….

He had been here before, at this very fire circle…with her…. But that felt like another life….

Katsuro pushed down the wayward thoughts, locking them away deep inside as just a memory now. They faded away easier than he’d ever thought possible. He turned toward his next task.

Katsuro returned to the captain and, without looking at his face, straightened his body and smoothed down his clothes. Then he retrieved the Sun and Moon and laid them respectfully across his chest. He didn’t know anything about proper traditions, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

It also seemed right to take him with him. Katsuro knew, no matter what, he would not leave his body here. The captain would go home.

Standing, Katsuro brought up his hands, mouthed another jutsu, and a small scroll popped onto the ground at his feet. He unrolled it, flattened his palm in the center of circle of writing, closed his eyes and uttered a few words. The captain’s body dissolved in a cloud of mist, sealing itself into the scroll.

Katsuro rerolled parchment and stood, dropping the scroll into his pocket. It rattled against the necklace, and Katsuro blinked once, having forgotten it was there.

But this time it didn’t make him sad. He devoured the pain, and fed it into the burning furnace that had taken over his soul.

Never again…

Never again would he be someone else’s fool.

Never again would he let a bond hold enough power over him to injure him.

Never again would he let anyone die for him.

Katsuro launched into the trees, determined to find Itachi. And this time he wouldn’t hold back if anything dared stand in his way.

As he went, he fed everything that had ever hurt him into that fire inside.

Never again would he let Konoha, or any village, take from from him what rightfully his.

Never again would he hold back the power that was his to use.

Never again would someone else decide his future.

Pounding on the branches, Katsuro thought about what Pain had offered him. A chance to belong. Something to fight for. Information about the demon.

But it still wasn’t enough to completely persuade him…. He needed something more….

Big drops pattered down into the canopy around him, slowly gaining intensity until everything was shrouded in a curtain of rain. Katsuro continued on, never noticing the small wisps of steam rising off his skin.

The steady cadence of the downpour changed. There was a subtle shift in the rain, something moving up the path to the front of the tent. A lesser man would never have noticed it. But not Itachi. 

He set the scroll aside and stared expectantly at the tent flap.

A sneak attack wouldn’t come through the front door. He smirked. Must be some clod-footed messenger. A shinobi wouldn’t be so careless—

The flap ripped back unceremoniously, and a hard-eyed Katsuro stepped through.

Itachi lifted an eyebrow, about to scold him for letting himself be seen, but he stopped. There was something different about the boy. He could feel it. Something potent and powerful, rolling off him like a wave….

Water streamed down Katsuro’s face, carrying dirt and blood and grime from his hair. Black streaks ran down his forehead, fractured beside his nose and continued in spidery cracks over his cheeks and neck. His eyes were hard in the low light. Water dripped off him onto the pristine tatami, but Katsuro made no effort to stop it as he stalked across the floor and stopped directly in front of Itachi’s desk.

Itachi banked his curiosity behind his flat expression. “Katsuro, I’m glad to see you’re in one piece—“

But Katsuro didn’t answer or even relax into the normal careless attitude he usually adopted when they were in private. Instead, he produced a small scroll.

“I brought the captain back,” he said without emotion

Itachi’s frowned slightly in mild surprise, then he nodded solemnly, understanding what the scroll contained and guessing this was the reason for his serious demeanor.

“He was a good man and a loyal captain,” Itachi said automatically, his mind already moving ahead to who would fill his position. “If you’ll leave the scroll here, I’ll—“

“No. I’m taking him back to Rain.” He slipped the scroll back in his pocket.

Itachi watched him closely, waiting. There was clearly more on his mind.

“And I’ll do what you want,” Katsuro said, jaw set in determination. “I’ll join Akatsuki.”

Itachi nodded slowly. Katsuro had always been too emotional, and the death of an admired leader might certainly spur this kind of loyalty—

“But not like this.”

Itachi stared at him, not comprehending.

Katsuro stepped forward and planted both hands on his desk. He leveled his eyes at Itachi.

“No more disguises. I will join Akatsuki, but on one condition. I will not be Katsuro.” Water droplets pattered down between them. “I will join Akatsuki as Naruto.”

Itachi’s lips parted. His eyes went wide in true surprise. He never could have calculated this.

Katsuro didn’t pause to acknowledge it. “I’ll do what you want, but I want you to take this,” he gestured at his body with disdain, “off. No more disguises. I want Konoha to know what they’ve lost.” There was fire in his eyes and a growl in his voice. “I want them to hear my name, see my face. I don’t care if think I’m just a vessel. I want them to fear me.”

Itachi blinked slowly, closed his mouth and sank back in his seat.

“If…. If that is what you wish,” Itachi said, drawing out each word. He looked over his desk, not seeing the layers of scrolls and maps dotted with dirty water droplets. Instead his mind was racing, jumping ahead, realigning all of his intricate plans….

Itachi looked up suddenly, meeting Katsuro’s fierce expression. “Yes,” he breathed. “Yes— It will work. I’ll take it off.” His eyes glittered. “You will become Naruto Uzumaki.” He let the words roll off his tongue. “And Konoha will learn what they have lost.”