05 Feb 2012 No Comments
The days and weeks before the full moon were some of the longest in the eight-year-old’s life. But eventually they all trickled away. The night of the full moon Naruto sat in the shadow of the tree, scanning the courtyard for any sign. His stomach still ached, but this time it was from excitement.
The yard was bright blue with moonlight. No one ever came out for him, and save for a single black bird that alighted in the tree for a moment, he never saw another living thing. He sat for hours in the darkness. Plenty long enough for doubt to creep in.
What if this ninja lied? What if he didn’t come? What if he forgot about him too, just like all the rest?
His nervousness took a sharp edge. And the longer he sat, hoping and worrying, the worse it got. After what felt like hours more, trapped in the hell of not knowing, a thin breeze ruffled his bangs.
Naruto cocked his head, thinking he’d heard a rustle of movement, but it was just the wind moving through the leaves above him.
Dejected, he plunked his elbows on his knees and dropped his chin down into his hands. Maybe it was all just a big, horrible joke—
The wind pushed down through the tree again, kicking up a swirl of leaves. Then suddenly, right in front of his eyes, a dark shape materialized in the spaces between leaves, growing more solid with each step. Naruto blinked rapidly, sure he was seeing things. But the dark outlines of leaves continued to fold and melt into the figure until there were no leaves left. Only a black-clad man walked soundlessly across the courtyard. The pale moonlight shone at his back and cast his front in shadow. And not a breath of air rippled around him.
Frozen in panic, Naruto gripped the edge of the table so hard his knuckles went white. A man…appeared out of thin air and…and…was coming straight towards him! He was about to tear himself from the table and dash back to the orphanage when the terrifying apparition spoke.
“Naruto…. Are you ready to leave?” The voice was flat, but it was Itachi’s.
Relief flooded the boy’s features. “Yes,” he gulped. “Yes.”
Itachi stopped right in front of of the table. Naruto couldn’t help but notice that he looked distracted. And exhausted. Itachi glanced around at their surroundings for a moment, and Naruto secretly looked him up and down. Shadows pooled under his eyes, even in the dim light. Something clung to his clothes and skin, smudging like dirt. He looked like he’d been in a fight. His chest heaved a unnaturally from exertion. Itachi turned suddenly and a shaft of moonlight glinted off a slick wetness on his fatigues. It was splattered across him like—
Itachi cleared his throat. Caught, Naruto sheepishly raised his gaze back up to Itachi’s pale face.
“Ready?” he snapped. Any pleasantries from their first meeting had been discarded.
A sudden fear trilled up Naruto’s spine. Was this man any safer than all the rest? After all, he could be lying too—
“He-Hey, you still want to become a shinobi right?” Itachi said with forced lightness. “Because if you do, we have to leave now.”
Still uncertain, Naruto didn’t move. Itachi frowned in irritation. “If you stay, you know what they will do to you….”
Naruto hugged his arms and shook his head. “No, I don’t know…. Wh-what will they do to me?”
Suddenly, Itachi was right in front of him, leaning into his face. Naruto never saw him move, but he was just there, closing in on him.
“They will crack you open,” he ground out, “pull out that demon and throw you away!”
Naruto forgot how to breath. He stared back at Itachi, wide-eyed with horror and finally managed to croak out “O-oh….”
It must have been enough. Itachi took a step back. His smooth tone returned. “So if you want to live, become a great shinobi, like I said, then we have to leave.” He darted another look around. “Right now,” he said sharply. “We are running out of time.”
Naruto’s face was still pale, but his mouth slowly slipped into a resolute line. The way Itachi put it, there wasn’t really a choice. But it didn’t matter. He wanted to be a shinobi. More than anything.
He took a deep breath. “Yeah…. Yeah…I wanna go.” He scrambled to his feet. “What do I need to—”
Itachi’s hand clamped around Naruto’s small arm, and Naruto was jerked off the table and straight into the air. Itachi leapt from limb to limb, climbing to the top of the tree, then shot out into the air, arcing toward the roof of a neighboring building.
It was bad enough that Naruto’s stomach dropped to his toes when the took off. But when Itachi let go for a fraction of a second to hook his arm around the boy’s rib cage, Naruto thought he was going to crash back down to the empty courtyard below.
But once secured, they moved at a terrifying speeds.
Itachi took such fast, high leaps that the village was only a blur around Naruto. They bounced off one dark roof. Then another, and another. Wind whipped his face and roared in his ears, and he was beginning to feel queasy.
At one point, Naruto tried to touch down, desperate to feel something other than hurtling through the air, but Itachi jerked him back up.
“No. Don’t touch the ground. They could trace your scent.”
And they pushed off again. Naruto’s stomach dropped from the force. He crushed his eyes shut and tried to keep from vomiting. As they pitched silently over the dark village, the boy’s limbs rose and fell like a rag doll.
Naruto didn’t know when they leapt the wall, but eventually the air around them changed. It felt full and moist. Cracking his eyes open he saw the enveloping arms of a tree. They touched down on a branch and leapt off again. The cool air washed over him.
Naruto looked back just in time to see the lights of the village dissolve behind the leaves. Around them now was nothing but sleeping forest.
He breathed deeply. They’d done it. They were free. He didn’t close his eyes again.
They traveled at the same clip until well after the the blue glow of a new day lit the horizon. Itachi said nothing about their destination, and Naruto was simply happy to watch the unveiling landscape. It was wider and more beautiful than he could have ever imagined. He felt like his eyes weren’t big enough to take it all in.
Naruto hoisted himself up on Itachi’s arm to better watch the sun dawn, brilliant and new, over the soft crowns of trees. He relished the startled lilt of birdsong and the fresh leafy scent as Itachi’s footfall shook the branches for a moment. The wind that threatened to tear him from Itachi’s side as they fled the village now seemed to be his friend. It fluttered his clothes and tousled his hair as if it moved with them. Eyes shining, cheeks pink, Naruto couldn’t remember ever being happier.
Sometime around midday Itachi’s pace finally slowed. They descended down through the trees until they came upon a rocky outcrop. Itachi hopped carefully down the boulders to a dark, hidden opening. Naruto marveled at how Itachi had seen this spot from above the treetops until he caught sight of a pile of supplies.
“Oh,” he said quietly. Of course. A shinobi would have planned ahead.
Once inside, Itachi finally let the boy’s feet touch the ground again. Naruto’s first steps were wobbly. He moved slowly, legs tingling as they regained their feeling.
Without a word, Itachi moved to a pack, pulled out a blanket and a scroll, and tossed an orange back to Naruto. Surprised, Naruto nearly missed catching it. Itachi jotted something in the scroll, rerolled it and flipped his fingers into a quick hand seal. The scroll disappeared in a puff of smoke. Absolutely shocked, Naruto dropped the orange on his foot.
But Itachi never looked up to see the boy’s surprise. Instead he laid down, back to the cavernous room, and pulled the blanket over him. In moments he had fallen into what Naruto thought was a deep, soundless sleep.
Naruto watched the steady rise and fall of the blankets, wondering what he should do. He didn’t feel tired, although he knew he probably should be. He wanted to see more, make sure it wasn’t a dream. He was afraid if he fell asleep he’d wake up in the orphanage again. He didn’t think he could handle that after this adventure.
Naruto scooped up the orange and turned toward the entrance of the cave. The thought of being in a brand new place sent his inquisitive mind into overdrive. Where were they? Were they still in the Fire country or were they really somewhere else? What kind of animals were here? He decided he’d peel his fruit and have a look around. Memorize everything. Curious and excited, Naruto started toward the opening.
“Don’t leave,” Itachi’s voice commanded from the blankets, clear and firm. Startled, Naruto jerked to a stop. “It’s not safe.”
Itachi turned slowly under the covers to face him. Shadows pooled under his eyes, making him look years older.
“Don’t go out of the cave. Don’t even get near the opening. I have several jutsus placed around to conceal—” he cleared his throat, “to protect you from Konoha. If you break through them, there is no guarantee I can keep you safe.”
Naruto nodded seriously. Satisfied, Itachi turned away again, moving slowly as if everything ached. In a moment, the blankets were rising and falling steadily.
Naruto looked longingly at the glow of the opening for a moment, then shrugged, pulled out another blanket and laid back to peel his orange. But halfway through the first segment, Naruto’s eyes drooped shut. He nodded off, orange still clutched in his hand.
Everything after that was a blur of sleeping and eating. In the half-light of the cave, Naruto didn’t know whether they’d been there hours or days.
Itachi was quiet but polite. Different from what Naruto expected a shinobi to be like. He thought they would be boisterous and grinning, larger-than-life, glad to share tales of the missions.
But Itachi was different. He was methodical and precise, like packing up his blanket when not in use or hiding the orange peels so as not to leave a trace. And he was courteous, always treating Naruto with quiet respect, asking his preferences and taking into account his needs.
The supplies didn’t have much in the way of fresh food, but Itachi made sure he was well fed.
“You should be taller,” he observed after one meal. “They didn’t feed you well at the orphanage?”
Naruto shrugged. He always thought he got the same as everyone else, but maybe he didn’t and just didn’t know it. He did know that he was never allowed seconds. That memory still stung, when the cook called him greedy and sent back to the table with an empty bowl. She smiled and fawned over the other boys though, always giving them a little extra. But never to him.
Naruto looked away. He guessed there was so much he didn’t see.
Itachi said nothing but heaped more food into his bowl. “Always make sure you eat enough.” Naruto nodded gratefully and tucked into the second helping.
Time slipped by in this way, until Itachi began to look more like the shinobi who approached him in the orphanage yard, and less like a pale shadow of himself.
Their supplies were growing thin, and as Naruto ate one day he calculated they probably wouldn’t have enough for another full meal.
But Itachi didn’t seem concerned at all. He ate his meal and even gave Naruto an extra share, cutting more into the dwindling supplies.
Naruto decided if Itachi didn’t worry, then neither would he. And he tucked into his dinner.
When he finished, he set his bowl aside and leaned back against the wall. His little belly pooched out, round and full. He was just thinking he might take another nap when Itachi stood swiftly.
“I’m feeling well enough now…. I think it’s time.”
Naruto peered up through over-long yellow bangs.
“T-Time for what?” His eyes brimmed with concern.
“We need to move soon. And you are too big of a target looking like the Yond— uh, looking like yourself. You need a disguise.”
Itachi squatted down and looked over Naruto’s features with a critical eye. It was unsettling.
“Your hair, your eyes…. Skin maybe,” he said softly, almost to himself. His observation pinpointed on his cheeks, Naruto’s secret shame. The boy looked at the ground. “Those lines definitely.”
Naruto closed his eyes.
“You don’t like them?”
Naruto shook his head miserably.
“Well, what if we got rid of them?”
Big blue eyes snapped open. “You mean….” Naruto gasped breathlessly. “They can come off?”
Itachi held Naruto’s chin and thumbed over the lines, closely inspecting them. It was the same as the other shinobi, but there was a courtesy in Itachi’s manners.
He shook his head slowly. Naruto’s heart sank.
Itachi let go of his face. “They are marks from the Kyuubi. They cannot be removed.”
Naruto cut his eyes away.
“Naruto…. Do you know what the Kyuubi is?”
Naruto shrugged half-heartedly, but finally shook his head.
“It is the monster that’s locked inside you. It’s a fox. And these lines,” Itachi looked back to his cheeks for a moment, “are what mark you as his jinchurikki.” Naruto gave him a blank look. “The Kyuubi’s container.”
Itachi chose his next words carefully.
“As you’ve already figured out, Konoha put the demon inside you to make you a powerful weapon when you grew up.” Naruto’s face was quickly loosing color. “You were to be used when they needed you and locked up when they didn’t.”
Naruto slid a hand over his belly, twisting his shirt, wishing he didn’t remember the ache in his gut and the blurry feeling when he was angry. He wished that Itachi’s words weren’t true.
“From what I understand, the kyuubi is partitioned from your chakra, like in a cell? Maybe behind bars?” Naruto was stricken. Itachi took it as a confirmation. “And the seal would be at your navel. Do you ever feel anything there?”
Chin wobbling, Naruto looked at the ground. He nodded once. So it was true. It was all true.
“It was to be stored inside you, it’s power available for you to use. But if you ever disobeyed them, they would tear it out and give it to someone else. And that would certainly kill you. Not that they cared….”
He glanced at Naruto, gauging just how deep his words had sunk. He needed to cement the boy’s hatred, right from the start.
“This is what Konoha does,” Itachi ground out. “They throw away the ones who are no longer useful, and crush anyone who gets in their way. And if they have to seal a demon inside of a baby to do it, then they will. Without any thought to what you might have wanted to do with your life.”
He paused and watched the boy. Big tears rolled down his cheeks. Itachi thought this was probably good enough. Now to open another door…
“I think what Konoha’s done is wrong,” Itachi rejoined bracingly. “I don’t think you should be left to rot in an orphanage, while they keep the truth from you. Treating you like trash.”
The boy sniffled. His mouth crumpled in an angry frown.
“I think you should be trained to use your powers, which are unlike anyone else’s, and be free to do what you want with your life.” Itachi watched him for a moment before adding, softly, “And I know you’ve always wanted to be a shinobi….”
Naruto wiped his tears and nodded.
“Konoha did that to you,” Itachi continued, pointing at Naruto’s cheeks. “Then they threw you away.”
Naruto looked up, blue eyes blazing with determination. The tracks of his tears were drying quickly.
“Your only worth to them is as a vessel. But I think you are worth more than that,” Itachi said smoothly.
Naruto nodded firmly.
“So Uzumaki Naruto, your shinobi training starts now. After last night, Konoha is probably already in pursuit… tracking both of us.” A strange expression flickered across Itachi’s face then quickly vanished. “And we need to keep moving. But your looks are rather…distinctive.”
Embarrassed, Naruto rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.
“You’ll need a disguise.”
“Really? Like different clothes or—”
“No, something permanent.” Itachi frowned at his cheeks. “Especially for those lines.”
Naruto beamed with excitement.
“The extent of what I can do depends on your chakra levels, but I’m hoping that since the Kyuubi’s chakra is infused with your own, it will be high enough to sustain a transformation jutsu….”
Itachi took Naruto’s hand, wrapping his long, pale fingers around the boy’s wrist.
Naruto watched with fascination. There was a warm, tugging sensation beneath his grasp. The feeling got stronger.
“Uh, what are you—”
“Are you always this warm?”
Itachi frowned, then moved his fingers, grasping a little higher up on his forearm. He frowned again.
“Let me see your other arm.” He tried a few different places, but the result was the same.
Naruto was becoming concerned, but Itachi suddenly released him with a great exhale of breath. “Well that makes everything easier.”
Itachi rose suddenly to retrieve a scroll from his bag. He clutched it tightly until the middle glowed and a seal appeared. Satisfied, he strode back to the center of the room.
“Applying your transformation justu. You have an astonishing reserve of chakra. More than I ever expected,” he said, shaking his head at the discovery.
Flicking back the seal, Itachi unfurled the scroll between them and squatted down to study it, brows furrowed. Naruto excitedly scanned the document as well, eyes traveling up and down the rows. It was jam-packed with writing and symbols, but more interesting, it was an official shinobi scroll. He couldn’t get enough of it.
Naruto was just leaning out, tipping his head upside down, when Itachi’s voice broke the silence.
“If you have to go to the bathroom, do it now,” he said without looking up. Naruto shook his head anyway. “This is going to take a while. But when you wake up, you should be perfectly disguised.”
Itachi scrawled out lines on the floor, radiating from a single point, and encircled it with one unbroken line. Then he plopped Naruto in the middle. Gingerly stepping out, he turned to face the boy and began a complex set of hand signs.
Naruto gaped like a fish at the sheer speed of Itachi’s hands. It was just a blur of fingers and palms.
When Itachi stopped and moved to another spot on the circle, Naruto closed his mouth and glanced down over his appearance.
Nope, no change yet.
Itachi brought up his hands, and Naruto wiggled with excitement. He was determined to stay awake and witness the magical transformation. And he was really going to focus on those hands this time…see just how fast they were going…and maybe he’d give it a try, once he…once he….
Naruto passed clean out halfway through the second set of hand-signs.
Itachi snorted and left him sprawled in the center of the circle while he finished applying the jutsu.
Between handseals he swiped his sleeve over his forehead. The jutsu was an exhausting one. The boy would certainly be asleep for hours. And when he woke up, he was sure to be starving. They’d have to move out immediately. He hoped nothing went wrong.
Sure enough, hours later the boy sat up with a clutching his stomach and head. But even from across the room, Itachi could see that the jutsu worked.
“I’m soooo hungryyy….” Naruto said groggily. He rubbed the ache at his temple, distantly aware that his hair felt more coarse than usual. And why was he sleeping in the middle of the floor?
Standing up took a near monumental effort: Muscles he didn’t even know he had ached and burned. But fully righted, feet planted firmly on the floor, he felt the pains just melt away under a soothing, almost numbing, warmth. He tightened his fists, testing out the muscles in his forearms. No, they felt alright. The pain was gone. Strange….
Itachi laid on the ground and watched Naruto’s slow progress, but he did not move. He was curious to see if the kyuubi would heal its vessel. A transformation jutsu of that magnitude would put most grown men down for a week or more. But here was Naruto, getting up on his own from the middle of a blackened jutsu circle, stretching as if he’d just finished training spar.
Itachi hooded his eyes. It was breathtaking to think of how much power was contained in that single boy….
Naruto’s stomach growled loudly. He clamped a hand over his gut and looked around, eyes finally alighting on Itachi.
“I’m starving,” he grimaced. “Is there anything left to eat?”
“No,” Itachi said, getting up slowly. Even administering the jutsu took a toll, but he’d be feeling better soon enough. “Come on, let’s go outside.”
Naruto shrugged and followed Itachi through the hazy blue light at the entrance. Stepping out into the sunshine, he was so glad to feel the sun on his skin, breathe in the fresh air. He felt good. Energized. He lifted a hand to shield the light and was surprised to see Itachi scanning his face intently.
“It’s good…. Great, actually. You look like a completely different kid. Now all you need is a new name.”
Naruto patted his face, then pulled down a lock of his hair, realization dawning now as to why it felt so strange. Yep, it was thicker, coarser and…and…brown?
“The lines are completely gone, too.”
“See for yourself.” Itachi pointed to a thin spring trickling beside the rocky outcrop.
Naruto bounded to it and knelt down. He bobbed his head over the the little puddles, excitedly trying to see all of his face at once.
Brown freckles dusted his nose and cheeks. It was as if the marks on his cheeks had just been shifted and scattered. He wiped at the new freckles but they wouldn’t come off.
His yellow hair and blue eyes were gone, replace by muddy brown. But he didn’t care. He stared at the reflection as if he’d never seen himself. A slow smile crept up his face.
He looked like an average kid. He looked like anyone else. He didn’t look like the demon child. And he never would again.
Naruto turned back, ready to burst with joy. But Itachi had already moved on to his next task.
He hitched up a rucksack at his shoulder. “We need to move,” he said soberly. “And we need to get supplies.”
With that, they set off. While they traveled, Itachi outlined some things Naruto could expect to see and how he should behave to keep his identity concealed. And Naruto did his best to listen while taking in the gorgeous, bewildering scenery around him. It was just a forest, but to the boy who had grown up with nothing but the walls of un unkind orphanage, it looked like a paradise. He had a hard time concentrating.
Itachi held up a hand and Naruto stopped suddenly. They were on the outskirts of a small village. Itachi pointed them toward the back of a small store, then quickly relayed the plan. He was going to slip in and pilfer food from the back. Naruto was to creep up beside the building, hide near the storefront and be ready to tip over a crate or make some other loud noise if the shop owner walked toward the back.
Naruto looked down the long, dark side of the building. Little worry lines creased his forehead.
“Is something wrong?” Itachi said it as courteously as if he’d just handed him the wrong dinner.
“N-No, nothing’s wrong. It’s just that…that…. Is this wrong?” Naruto looked up, face tight with concern. Itachi tipped his head for him to continue. “I mean, he’s not an enemy…is he? He’s just a guy selling food. We shouldn’t just take it…. I mean, shinobis shouldn’t do that, right? They only fight the bad guys. Like on missions and stuff….” His voice thinned out.
Naruto looked back at the building. He realized he didn’t know what shinobis did at all. Itachi was only the second one he’d met. Maybe he’d gotten it all wrong—
“Naruto,” Itachi said patiently. “Shinobis do whatever it takes to complete their mission. My mission is to keep you safe from Konoha. And to do that, we need to eat.”
Naruto frowned a little less. He understood, but still wasn’t convinced. Itachi beckoned him to walk a few paces more, then pointed to the open back door of the building. From there, Naruto could see the full crates of produce that sat ready to be moved to the front. They looked like they’d just arrived.
“Now see all that stock?” Naruto nodded. “Well, all of the rest of the stores are smaller, emptier. But this one, it’s full. And he makes enough money to keep it full. If we take something from him, he’ll never know. But if we got our supplies from that one,” Itachi pointed to a rickety stand up the lane with a thin offering of produce, “that man would know immediately.”
“Ah,” Naruto said, understanding dawning on him. However, there was still a hitch. “But it’s still stea—”
“No, we’re on a mission, remember. And on a mission, a shinobi must get supplies from wherever he can, whenever he can. It’s the choice we have to make to keep you safe.”
Naruto sighed a little bit. He was resigned to it, but not convinced. Itachi narrowed his eyes.
“Don’t forget, Konoha is already on our trail. We need to eat and we need to move. Taking a sack of supplies from someone who will never know is not stealing. It’s survival. And it doesn’t matter how you do it, you just have to survive.” Itachi’s tone slipped from patient to deadly serious. “And the longer we stand here talking, the smaller your chances of survival are getting.”
Naruto gulped once. “Right. I’ll just, uh, just head up there to the front of the store. Like you said.”
Itachi nodded and left for the back of the store, never making a sound as he walked. Naruto watched him for a moment, then crept up the long side of the building to a cart angled at the edge of the storefront. He quietly crouched down under it, tucking himself into the shadow of a wheel.
He watched feet come and go, listened to the chatter. He needed to figure out who was the storekeeper. Inching closer, he peered up through the wheel, trying to see clothes, faces, anything that would give a clue. But from his spot he could only see up to their chest. No higher.
The big man in the front of the store looked like he could be the owner, but Naruto wasn’t sure….
“Oi! Good morning! And what can I offer your little man today!”
Bingo. The shopkeeper. Naruto blew out a low breath in relief.
There was some mumbled conversation, then another man stepped into his view, carrying an infant. Naruto could see round arms and legs, and a patch of black hair.
The shopkeeper stepped closer, admiring the baby and asking questions. Naruto only caught fragments of it.
“No, not what his ma wants, but I prefer Katsuro,” the father said, jostling the plump little legs.
The storekeeper made some approving sound. “That’s a good, strong name—”
The father hoisted the baby just out of Naruto’s sightline. “Because you’ll be my ‘victorious son’ won’t you?” he cooed. “Won’t you?” The baby let out a hungry bawl.
“Oh-ho! A hungry boy! Well, I’ve got just the thing….” The shopkeeper threw back an arm to his store.
Just then, a pebble bounced of Naruto’s shoe. Turning quickly, he saw Itachi motioning from the end of the long building. He had a full sack in his hand.
Naruto scrambled out of his hiding spot and dashed down the dirt path beside the building. Itachi frowned at his echoing footsteps.
“We’ll have to work on that. Come on, let’s go.”
From there they traveled swiftly, never staying two nights in the same place. They moved through dry days and wet, sometimes eating, sometimes not. When they were close enough to a town, they tried to gather as many supplies as they could carry.
The plan, carried out successfully at the first store, became routine. Naruto went to the front while Itachi gathered what they needed. And he no longer felt a twinge of guilt about it. They needed supplies, these men had more than enough. Naruto was doing what he had to do to survive. That was all that mattered.
And through their travels in those first weeks, in those silent stretches when Itachi’s black heels would blur in front of him, endlessly pounding over the anonymous terrain, Naruto thought about that baby.
He wondered if the father had his way. Or if the baby went by another name now. Naruto realized it was the only other name he could remember, outside of his own and Itachi’s. He thought bitterly that he never knew anyone’s name at the orphanage.
He had been repeating the name in his head for a few days when Itachi asked him again about the final detail of his disguise while they sat at the campfire.
“My name?” Naruto cleared his throat and set his bowl down beside him. “I, uh, have been thinking…thinking about the name…Katsuro.”
“Ah,” Itachi said quietly, peering at him over the orange flames. Naruto couldn’t tell if he approved or not…. “Well, I think it suits you,” he said decidedly. “You will be Konoha’s ‘victorious son,’ after all. Just not how they expected.” Itachi smirked to himself and continued eating his meal.
Naruto looked down, immeasurably pleased.
“Katsuro…. Katsuro….” he repeated softly, digging his toes into the black dirt beside the fire circle. He enjoyed the sound in his ears, the warmth of the fire, and the feeling that in the darkness, he had done it. He’d thrown off the last shackle from Konoha. He was finally free.
On the dark hillside above the cherry blossom festival, Katsuro shifted in his sleep. He heaved a ragged sigh and turned on his side, pulling the cloak tighter around him. His dreams had consumed him. And even the noisy clatter of leaves as he kicked out his legs couldn’t break their grip.
But the sound didn’t go unnoticed. In the treetops, a thin shadow pivoted, changed course and streaked back over the branches. It grew closer and closer to the sleeping boy.
In the long months after they’d left Konoha, after the newness of constant travel had worn off, Katsuro thought they would settle into another village, another life. But it didn’t happen.
They kept moving. Sometimes in a straight line, from town to town; sometimes veering erratically off into the wilderness.
Katsuro thought it was all calculated to keep Konoha at bay, even though Itachi said they escaped flawlessly. He also let it slip that no one in the village even noticed the boy was gone.
For Katsuro, that was another bitter mark against his former home.
“Oh they’ll realize what they’ve lost,” Itachi said. “Sooner or later. And they’ll be coming for you.” But he didn’t seem too concerned.
It wasn’t until they rendezvoused with a strange man in a dark, lonely forest about a year after their escape that Katsuro got an inkling of a larger plan.
They had just stopped to rest when suddenly Itachi stood and looked around. A twig snapped. He told Naruto to stay put, then went off in the direction of the sound.
And Katsuro did stay put. He sat for a long time, until he thought he heard voices. He listened harder. It was Itachi’s voice. Puzzled, Katsuro immediately made his way toward the sound. He walked as slowly and quietly as he imagined Itachi did, but to little effect. His feet still crunched down on the forest floor.
Peering around a large trunk, he saw Itachi talking with a strange man. He was dressed in black with an orange mask. Itachi’s shoulders bounced in a soundless laugh, and suddenly the masked face with it’s single hole turned right toward Katsuro’s hiding spot. A single eye peered at him.
Katsuro felt a chill, unlike any he’d ever felt before. Something deep down, in his core, told him to stay away from that man. Even half-shielded by the tree, he still felt vulnerable. He spread his fingers out wide on the bark for a ridiculous reassurance that he wasn’t being magnetically drawn to him.
Itachi turned back then, business apparently concluded. He blocked out Katsuro’s view of the masked man. Striding straight for Katsuro he never looked back, never looked over his shoulder. So he never saw what Katsuro did: the air, the woods, the very surface of the Earth twisting and turning in on itself. Great distorted arms leapt out behind Itachi, as if they would pull him in as well.
Panicked, Katsuro stepped out from behind the tree to yell at him to run. But strangely, Itachi didn’t seem to notice the disruption. He just walked toward the boy, unconcerned.
Katsuro frantically looked between the two, unable to process how a great vacuum could open in the world and not pull them both in…when suddenly it vanished. The man, the distorted black hole — all of it. His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding, but that was the only sign of a disturbance.
Itachi stopped in front of him.
“Problem,” he asked, mouth curving into an almost-smile.
Katsuro shut his gaping mouth, but his eyes still shined with confused fear.
“Come on, we have a mission,” Itachi said, flashing a small scroll in his hand.
Katsuro barely acknowledged him. He just kept staring at the space. Birds chirped, even a little sun filtered down. And strangely, he was feeling warmer too. Whatever was there, whoever that was, he was gone now. Katsuro knew it. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he just did.
Itachi stopped a few paces away. “Coming?”
Katsuro inhaled sharply. “Yeah.”
After that, Katsuro noticed their travel was a lot less aimless and a lot more intentional. Itachi was very aware of their surroundings, all the time. He watched and listened, strategically planning out their supply needs and travel distances. Everything was coordinated to some greater plan.
But maybe it always had been, even from the beginning. And Katsuro just didn’t see it.
But once he realized they were on a mission — a real, live, shinobi mission — his excitement was hard to keep down. He couldn’t wait to begin his training, and he peppered Itachi with questions about every aspect of ninja life.
Itachi was a quiet man, with patience enough to see things through to their bitter end, even years down the road. It was what made him the best shinobi of his generation. His dedication to his goal. But for all his skills, he was unaccustomed to having a kid in tow on his mission, infringing on his peace. Itachi realized he needed that time to plan for every outcome. But Katsuro’s enthusiasm for shinobi life, for missions and training, seemed to be bottomless.
So to keep the boy placated, he gave him little missions while they were encamped. Clean the weapons, fetch the water, run a few laps. If Itachi hoped the menial tasks would bore him, then he was sorely mistaken.
Katsuro finished them quickly, then was ready for more. He was cheerful and happy when he had things to do, and Itachi found that reciting a few platitudes of instruction from his academy days kept the boy walking on air. He took everything to heart.
And when the weapons couldn’t possibly be any cleaner, the boy hounded him tirelessly to let him throw one of the stars or cut a branch with a kunai.
Finally, Itachi relented. Katsuro was beyond thrilled.
The boy set right to making a mess of branches for the wood pile, throwing weapon after weapon until he had shredded most of the small limbs. Katsuro earned quite a few nicks himself. The weapons were exceedingly sharp, after all.
Itachi took one look at the mess and the grinning boy…then laid a leaf on the soft sand of the stream bank and told him to hit that, just that, and nothing else.
Katsuro applied himself to the task with renewed vigor, throwing until even Itachi could barely see the mark in the dim firelight. Finally Katsuro trudged back to the circle, exhausted. Itachi thought for sure this was the end. The kid had worn himself out.
But when he walked into the glow of the fire, Katsuro’s grin was unmistakeable. His big eyes glittered. He pulled out from behind his back a kunai: A single leaf was skewered on the blade.
A ghost of a smile crossed Itachi’s lips. He couldn’t believe the kid had done it.
Katsuro flopped beside the fire and, never letting go of the kunai, dropped immediately into a deep sleep. In a few moments he was snoring softly.
Itachi stretched back. This kid was different…. Most men would have given up. And though he had little natural talent, that precociousness that he was so familiar with in the Uchiha clan, this boy had persistence. And for a shinobi, the ability to persevere could not be underestimated.
Itachi toed a stray branch into the fire and watched it flame up. He wondered if Katsuro’s interest in all things shinobi would eventually burn itself out too.
He had his answer a few weeks later, when they encountered some local ruffians in a hard-scrabble town. Itachi came back around an alley, hand raised to give Katsuro the sign that he’d gotten his supplies and they were clear to leave, he found the kid at the receiving end of a left hook.
Katsuro scrambled back up, swinging at anything he could, but never quite connecting with the bigger boy. Ringed around them were several other rough kids, ready to take the big one’s place if they got the chance.
Katsuro had no hope of winning this fight. At least, not like that. But it looked like that thought was the furthest from the boy’s mind just then. He took another swing, grazing his opponents coat, then turned and clumsily swung again, gnashing his teeth as if he’d bite whatever he didn’t hit.
Itachi walked up the alley noiselessly. It wasn’t until he was right upon them that one of the kids noticed the interloper.
Awareness rippled around the group. The big one, just then hoisting Katsuro up by the collar, immediately dropped him.
Out of the corner of his eye Katsuro saw Itachi, but he wasn’t going to stop. He still had plenty of fight left in him. He pushed the kid’s thick chest, then punched at his gut. But the kid ignored him, only making a slight “oof” sound as Katsuro fist sank into his soft stomach.
“Come on! Fight me! I told you I could take you!” Katsuro pulled back his fist again, ready to go for the kid’s face, when he noticed his eyes. They were wide and weirdly fixed on Itachi.
Katsuro spun around. The kids were all frozen, staring in that same glazed way at Itachi. Katsuro turned back slowly.
Itachi stood casually in the middle of the alley, just steps from the group. He looked the same as he always did, but somehow his focus seemed to be sharper. His eyes were moving, swirling…turning red.
Then suddenly, everything went cold. Naruto felt a light breeze on his skin. But a deeper chill had taken hold. As if being frozen from the inside out. Somehow, he knew this, remembered it, deep in his bones. Maybe deeper still. This bitter cold creeping in, smothering and freezing him, making him forget—
There was a flicker of movement from Itachi. The kids collapsed to the ground. The cold sensation snuffed out.
Katsuro breathed in the warm, stale air of the alley, remembering suddenly where is was. But he hadn’t left…strange…. And, what happened to those kids?
“Let’s go,” Itachi grunted and headed back down the alley, stepping over a sprawled leg of one of the kids. Katsuro was still a little disoriented, but followed anyway. The kids never got up.
“W-What happened to—”
“Why don’t you tell me? What happened back there to distract you from your purpose? You had a mission to fulfill, did you not?”
Katsuro cut his eyes to the side.
He couldn’t tell Itachi that those big kids had surprised him in the alley. They’d peppered him with questions and, when he ignored them, they resorted to taunts and threats.
Didn’t he know this was their alley, in their town? Didn’t he know that all this belonged to them? And what was a scrap of a kid doing in a place like this anyway? Lost his way from mommy and daddy?
Katsuro ignored them. He ignored them so hard his face burned as he leaned against the wall of the alley and tried to listen for sounds of the shopkeeper returning to his store. Itachi had told him to stay put and look out, and he wasn’t going to fail at his task because of a bunch of dumb kids.
But it was getting harder to hear over their growing taunts. And when a stone whacked his shoulder, he knew he couldn’t ignore them any more.
The biggest kid stood in the middle of the alley. He laughed and bounced another stone in his hand.
“Yeah, I threw it,” he sneered. “Whatcha gonna do about it?” The other boys had stepped back, giving their leader pride of place. But they snickered and teased from the sides.
Katsuro clutched his shoulder and shot the kid an angry glare. But he didn’t move. He had his mission after all. And even though the road in front of the store was completely empty, it didn’t mean the shopkeeper couldn’t come back at any time. Itachi was relying on him to—
“What? You think you’re some kind of ninja or something?” That got big laughs. “I could whip a scrawny thing like you in my sleep. Here,” he growled and tightened his grip around the stone. “Let me show you what a real ninja’s like….”
Like striking a match in the darkness, hot anger blazed up within Katsuro. He forgot all about his mission.
The big kid snapped back his arm to hurl the rock, and Katsuro launched off the wall in blind fury. He tried to tackle him, but the kid easily sidestepped. Katsuro flailed through the empty air. Mean laughter rang in his ears.
Katsuro righted himself as the other kids closed in the circle. Only he and the group’s leader were left in the center. And the big kid looked down at Katsuro with a knowing smirk.
Katsuro didn’t care. He may be smaller than all of them, but he was special. He was the ninja. Not these street rats. And he’d show them….
But it didn’t exactly work out the way he thought it would.
And Itachi was still waiting for an explanation. Katsuro nervously rubbed the back of his neck.
“Uh…. They were picking on…on a kid.” He cleared his throat. “And I, uh…stepped in to help.” He laughed and shrugged and hoped Itachi bought it.
The dark-haired nin only gave him a long, hard look. The corner of his mouth twitched in irritation. But that was it. Without another word he turned and moved briskly back down the lane to the dark woods beyond the town.
Katsuro blinked once, then scrambled to catch up. “But what happened to them?”
“Genjutsu,” Itachi said flatly. “It cuts deeper than a kunai.”
“Oh. Yeah. A genjutsu.” Katsuro clearly had no idea what that was.
Itachi snorted. “There are more weapons in a shinobi’s arsenal than just dull blades.”
Katsuro was silent while they slipped from the cover of the alley and into the treeline. But after they were safely past the edge of the forest, his ruminations continued. “Genjutsu…. Was that the cold thing I felt—”
“You felt that?” Itachi looked sharply at him. “You didn’t see an illusion? But you could feel it?”
“Yeah…like a cold air or something.” Katsuro had to resist shuddering, but the discomfort was plain on his face. “I didn’t see any illusions though. Is that what happened to them?”
Itachi resumed his detached explanation. “Yes. Genjutsu projects an illusion into your opponent’s brain. You trigger their fears, they believe it’s real.”
Katsuro was deathly silent. “You mean…. Are they…? Did you…?”
“No. They’re alive. They’ve just experienced a projection of their fears and passed out from it. When they get up they’ll never remember what happened to them.”
“Oh…then I was just standing close enough to feel it….” Katsuro lapsed into silence again.
Itachi watched him from under hooded eyes, until he was satisfied that Katsuro wasn’t going to push for more information. The experience must have frightened the boy. Well then, this was probably his limit. His shinobi dreams would end now that he witnessed first hand what was involved—
“That’s so cooooool!” Katsuro wailed. A bird shot out of the treetops. “Can you teach me?! I would looove to learn how to—”
Itachi rolled his eyes and picked up the pace. “No.”
“Oh please!” Katsuro bounced like an excited puppy. “Then it wouldn’t matter if I was against one or 150—”
“No,” Itachi repeated flatly.”You’d kill yourself before your first opponent dropped.”
This drew a cacophony of dissent from Katsuro, which Itachi ignored. However the longer he mulled the idea, the more he saw its merits.
Finally, Itachi cleared his throat.
“If you are going to travel with me,” he said slowly, “you will have to at least look like you’ve had some formal education. That display was a disgrace.” Katsuro muttered to himself and kicked a stone. “However…. It would be wise to learn how to defend and attack, in case I’m not there to save you.”
Katsuro punctuated a grumble with a “Wha—?” He gulped. “W-What did you say?”
Itachi smirked “I said I’ll teach you enough to get yourself out of a jam.” But nothing more. Enough to stay alive, but not enough to escape.
“A-and will I get to learn about—”
“No. No genjutsu.”
After that, a little “training” was incorporated into their daily routine, no matter where they were. And Katsuro was thrilled, even if it wasn’t exactly what he expected.
Itachi would show him a technique once. Only once. And Katsuro had to catch on quickly. There were no questions, no second chances. Itachi did not inspect his form and never sparred with him. Katsuro had to be satisfied with trying out his kicks and punches on any obliging tree trunk.
Itachi often disappeared for hours at a stretch, sometimes coming back with supplies, sometimes nothing at all. But Katsuro didn’t mind. He just worked and worked.
Itachi would pass by, frown, deliver a judgement — Your angle’s off. Your wrist is wrong. Your kick is too slow. — then sail past, leaving Katsuro to decipher his comment. Katsuro would silently return to hacking away at the tree, trying for hours more to shift his balance, stiffen his wrist or snap his kicks. He never knew whether Itachi was pleased or not. But he continued at it, working until he’d collapse next to the fire circle, his body impossibly sore.
Katsuro could not have known that Itachi was actually surprised and a little impressed by his tenacity. His desire to be a shinobi was only strengthened by the hard work. The boy certainly didn’t have the prowess of the Uchiha, but he more than made up his shortcomings by sheer stubbornness.
And that willpower carried Katsuro through the months and years ahead. He grew to know himself, and Itachi began to rely on the boy’s tenacious streak to get things done. Katsuro took everything he did seriously. So when Itachi received a scroll instructing him to manage a small squad of Rain village rebels, bringing with it greater responsibility and the risk of exposure, the Uchiha was not concerned at in the slightest. The young man accompanying him already looked the part of his apprentice.
The sloping woodland hillside was an unbroken line. Leaves and roots dipped and swelled, but otherwise it was vacant. The man scanned it thoroughly. Nope. Nothing here.
Damn it. He’d lost him again. How could one kid be so—
A leaf fluttered up unnaturally. Then another.
The man narrowed his eyes and watched the spot.
It moved again. This time he saw a flash of fingers. It was the corner of a black traveling cloak, not leaves, that was jerking up. The kid was tugging it over him.
He must have gotten comfortable, because the small flutters of movement finally ceased. The kid never even woke up.
The man pivoted noiselessly on the branch and thanked his good fortune. A moment later and he would have missed him completely.
A voice echoed across the dark fabric of his dreams….
The words and a fist hit him at the same time.
Katsuro skidded backwards across the dirt, body curling up around his gut, where the well-placed fist had just sent him sailing.
The big man who delivered the punishing blow snickered meanly and popped his knuckles. He was nearly twice the size of Katsuro. When the kid didn’t hop right back up, he looked over to the captain, shrugged, then strode off. His work here was done.
On the leafy ground of their campsite, Katsuro clutched his gut, wheezing around the ache. The captain’s familiar face drifted into his line of vision, blotting out the sky.
“You left an opening,” he said dryly.
Katsuro coughed. “That’s what you wanted to tell me?”
The old Rain captain smirked, then nodded. Katsuro just rolled his eyes. He wasn’t sure if this was training or punishment. But he accepted the hand offered to help him up anyway.
“Don’t forget, you’re the one who asked for this.”
“I know, I know,” Katsuro waved him off. He just needed to walk around, then he would start to feel better.
“If you didn’t pester the big boss so much—”
“Nah, it’s part of my training.”
Now it was the captain’s turn to snort. But he kept his opinions about the boy’s “training” to himself. After all, he had a whole camp of men to keep from killing each other. The kid was Itachi’s problem. His job here was to make sure the men didn’t kill the boy.
“Well that’s enough training for today. I’ve got real work to do.”
“Thank you, taichou,” Katsuro said hurriedly. “And…um….”
Clearly something important was on his mind. It was etched into the boy’s hopeful, upturned face.
But the captain already knew what he was going to ask. And though the answer was always the same, the boy asked anyway. It was like this every time.
The old captain sighed. He knew his obligation was to obey his superior, but damn if he didn’t feel like he was throwing the kid in harm’s way…
It had been this way from the beginning. He remembered the first day the black-haired nin and his scrap of an apprentice walked into the camp.
The Uchiha clearly was powerful, but he wasn’t doing anyone any favors by dropping a 10-year-old into a rag-tag squad of bitter ex-soldiers and hired thugs. It was bad enough to be subordinate to an ex-Konoha shinobi…but babysit a kid too?
The men took their orders from the Uchiha. They had no choice. But they didn’t like it. And almost immediately they directed their venom at the kid.
The boy upset their pecking order. New recruits were always hazed a bit, just to see what they were made of. Some had to forego tents, some got rusted weapons. And they always had to prove themselves before they earned the right to a warm meal. New recruits ate little, and most importantly, ate last.
But the boy was the exception. He chose his own tent. He picked out several shining kunai, even though they were entirely too big for his youthful hands. And he ate their food. However much he wanted, whenever he wanted. By the Uchiha’s orders.
Yeah, he understood why they resented the kid.
However when the Uchiha asked the captain to find some occupation for the boy, he also understood the hidden message. He had 20-odd years of experience on the Uchiha deciphering cryptic commands from superiors. The dark-haired nin was asking the captain, in his polite way, to make sure the kid stayed alive. He was the one going on babysitting detail. The man nearly groaned.
“Perhaps some weapons training, alongside the men,” Itachi had said. “Just something to keep him busy. He’ll do the rest himself.”
The captain grit his teeth…and followed his orders.
But to his surprise, he discovered the Uchiha was right. The kid absorbed anything he was taught and worked until he mastered it. The captain was mildly impressed. And the men hated him even more.
So when the pup started pestering him about real training, sparring, hand-to-hand combat, anything and everything involving direct contact with the other soldiers, the captain’s answer was a resounding “no.” The kid would quickly find his end at the hands of one of the men, then it would be his ass on the line.
But Katsuro wasn’t dissuaded. Instead he took up his argument with the Uchiha. And much to the captain’s chagrin, the unflappable shinobi finally relented.
“Let him try,” he said blandly. “We’ll see what he can do.”
“Sir I strongly advise against this. The men would—”
“Yes, I know what they would do,” Itachi snapped. “But he won’t be quiet unless he tries. So let him. I’ll step in if there’s a problem. Dismissed.”
The captain left the tent knowing for certain that his days were numbered. The Uchiha would not be able to intervene in time, and there was sure to be a problem.
The men openly taunted the kid and did their best to sabotage anything he was working on. They hadn’t been able to lay a finger on him. Yet. But if they had a nod of approval for “sparring,” then there would be no holding back. They would go after the boy with everything they had.
So the captain personally oversaw the sparring, choosing only the men who were used to taking orders. The soldiers who had fought under him during the civil wars respected him and would stop on his command. The new recruits — hired soldiers and glorified thugs — had less loyalty and almost no work ethic.
They did their jobs well enough. But they were young and fiery, and had not yet learned to be satisfied with a soldier’s life of waiting and watching between missions.
So every night the new recruits sparked their own battles and spun their own tales of conquest and victory.
Firelight flickered from their clustered tents like a beacon, and the steady rumble of laughters and threats was always beckoning. If they weren’t bragging then they were fighting. And if they weren’t fighting, then they were betting the odds in someone else’s fight. Occasionally someone smuggled in saki, and then the brawls got really loud. But most often it was posturing. The unruly men all had allies and rivals.
But the captain knew it was part of the territory when hiring thugs from local towns for their grunt work. They weren’t soldiers, but they got the job done. And if these nightly activities kept them happy, then so be it. Outside of missions, this was their only occupation in a forest camp in the middle of nowhere. So he let it slide.
But he made absolutely certain the kid went no where near those men or their brawls.
Spars with a real soldier were the extent of Katsuro’s training. The captain chose the man and let him knock a few punches into the kid. Some days Katsuro got a few licks in, other days a new maneuver would overpower him. But the kid learned. And always, days or weeks later, that same move would resurface with the boy’s own twist. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. But the captain saw now what the Uchiha did: This kid was different.
And because of that, the captain knew that a few rounds of spars would never be enough. The kid had a fire that wouldn’t be snuffed out so easily.
The older man set his mouth in a grim line and waited for the question that inevitably followed his sparring round.
“Hey taichou…. So, do you think I’m ready for the next one?”
The kid couldn’t stand on his own against one man in a spar in the middle of camp. How did he ever think he could survive a mission….
“No. No missions. Quit asking me. I’ve already told you—”
“But my punches are so much stronger and my stance is good. And you said once I was older…well, I’m already 11 so—”
“You think that matters? That this is all a game?” The captain had the look of a man who’d seen it all. “You think I could send you off on a mission, then call off the other guy when, not if, he overpowers you?”
Katsuro lowered his eyes for a moment. “I know I could do it. Just let me try! I’m not afraid of a fight—”
“And that’s your first mistake,” the captain snapped. “It’s not about fighting. It’s about surviving. And if I sent you out on a mission….” He rolled his eyes at the thought. “Well, you’d have to worry less about the men in front of you and more about the ones on either side.”
Katsuro cocked his head and frowned, clearly puzzled.
The captain’s exasperation returned full force. “You’re more likely to get killed by the men on your own squad before you’ve even fought anyone else!”
Katsuro’s eyes went wide. He opened his mouth to argue, but nothing came out.
The captain smirked at Katsuro’s unvarnished surprise. “Yeah. You see? So if you’ve got two sets of opponents, then you need to be twice as good as everyone else.”
Katsuro shoulders slumped. The captain had to keep himself from laughing. What a kid….
“You don’t know your opponents, you don’t know how to fight, and you don’t know what you’re fighting for.” The boy looked absolutely dejected. The captain wasn’t heartless though. “Listen, the difference between fighting to win and fighting to survive is the difference between a dead soldier and a live one. And it’s my job to keep you alive. So no missions. Quit asking.”
The captain looked at the sullen boy expectantly.
Finally, Katsuro heaved a resigned sigh. “Hai, taichou.” He bowed his head. “Thank you for the training.”
The captain nodded once and strode off to begin his real work. The kid would make a good soldier one day, if only he could keep himself alive long enough. He just didn’t realize the danger around him.
The older man had seen it often enough in his squads: This boy was the loose nail. He stuck out from the rest and was bound to be hammered down. Only time would tell if—
Rounding a row of tents, the captain surprised two men squatting at the front of one. Caught, they shoved whatever they were doing inside the flap and stood hurriedly to face their superior. But they kept their hands out of sight.
The captain narrowed his eyes as he approached.
These two were the troublemakers from the newest recruits. Lean, wiry 20-somethings, they were hired for their knowledge of the land and their willingness to get the job done. Any job. But they had an infuriating disrespect for authority. More than most of the hired men. These two picked fights, bet and stole, and generally disrupted order. And if they were skulking around someone’s tent…well, they were probably up to no good.
The captain slowed to a stop and leveled a hard look at them. The men nodded with bright smiles. But the captain didn’t buy it. Behind them, a suspiciously flat weapons pouch was shoved half beneath the canvas door. The captain recognized the pouch and the tent.
“What are you doing here?” he thundered. “These are not your things!”
The men shifted, both awkwardly stiff. Their hands were still hidden.
“Uh, we were just, you know, uh….”
The captain pointed at their bent arms. “Show me!”
Slowly, the men produced two passels of kunai, one set gleaming and bright, the other rusted and chinked. They were swapping Katsuro’s prized kunai for old ones.
“Ah come on chief, we’re just having some fun,” said the smaller of the two.
The big one flashed a self-confident grin, shaking back his glossy brown hair. “Yeah, I’m sure the kid will think it’s a good joke! After all, what’s the point in having a little runt around if you can’t….”
But his smug laughter thinned under the captain’s cold glare.
“If I find out anyone else has touched the boy’s things, they’re out. And without pay!”
The men dropped Katsuro’s weapons back in the pouch with a quick “Sorry, sir,” and “Won’t happen again,” and strode off hastily. Only when they were a safe distance did they glance back furtively and begin whispering.
The captain pitched the full bag back in the tent. He drew a weathered hand slowly over his mouth while he thought. This wasn’t the first time he caught someone tampering with Katsuro’s things. Or “accidentally” tipping over his plate. Or “forgetting” to deliver a message to him. These men were just baiting the boy. He wondered if Katsuro realized it.
The captain sighed deeply. Not for the first time did he feel like he was sitting on a powder keg. And keeping a scrappy kid alive in the middle of a camp of hired killers should be the least of his concerns.
But the Uchiha had filled the boy’s head with fantasies of shinobi life. The captain shook his head. Well, this was a far cry from a ninja village. And it was bound to end badly for the boy.
He turned to go. He had work to do and a report to deliver. But when he was finished, he’d ask the Uchiha again to send the boy home. Before it was too late.
The soft crunch of his receding footsteps was swallowed up by a gust of wind. Scattering leaves blurred away the empty campsite….
A sudden wind rushed in Katsuro’s ears and blew over his sleeping body. A few damp leaves skittered over his hand. Without waking, he turned on his side and pulled the cloak tighter against the wind.
The dark shape creeping through the tree limbs stopped. He watched the boy’s movement. Another breeze blew, rattling the leaves. But this time the boy didn’t stir.
That was good. He could take his time and get into position. Edging closer, he moved from tree to tree calculating his sight lines. He wanted to find just the right one—
Damn! He sprung straight off the groaning branch to a sturdy one, then swept his gaze over the hillside, sure the boy would have leapt up to fight or have fled again.
But to his surprise, the boy hadn’t even moved. He sighed cautiously and settled down on the limb, deciding not to push his luck. This one would do just fine.
In the leaves, Katsuro did not stir. Even the sharp sound could not rouse him from his exhausted sleep. But the sinking feeling of trouble stayed with him, seeping into his dreams. Frown lines marred his smooth brow, and the corners of his mouth grew tight and pinched. He still slept, but it was no longer peaceful….
“WHERE ARE THEY!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Firelight slashed across the tents.
“My weapons,” Katsuro demanded. “They’re gone. And I know one of you took them!”
The men lazing around the campfire snickered. More men came out of the shadows between the tents at the sound of the kid’s furious voice.
“I saw you at my tent earlier today,” Katsuro said, pointing to a soldier sitting on the ground. “And you,” he shifted to a man who just walked up “were carrying my pouch!”
The man between the tent threw up his hands, smiling innocently. “Hey I was just following orders. Cap’n asked me to get the supplies in order, an’ I thought that’s what I was doing.” But as soon as Katsuro turned, the man’s smile slipped to a sneer.
Katsuro turned in a circle, fuming and yelling up at a few of the standing men. They laughed outright.
Although he had grown remarkably in his years on the run, Katsuro was still a few heads shorter than the rest of the men. They were all at least 10 years older. And where these men had filled out with adulthood, Katsuro was still thin and soft. At 12 years old, Katsuro’s face still carried more childish roundness than the men around him. And the flickering shadows made their faces look even more angular.
The hired men mocked him, casting taunts and cutting words at him. Their laughter was cruel, and their smiles were loaded. They knew where this was going….
Only the one sitting at the fire looked smug and comfortable.
“So, let me get this straight: You’re missing something? And you think we have it?” The lean man laughed carelessly and raked fingers through his glossy brown hair. He was the ringleader of the newest recruits. His smug confidence won him many friends. And his ready fists kept the rest at a wary distance.
Katsuro knew who he was by reputation. The one with the looks and the fists. Stories of his conquests in the towns had followed him here. He charmed the girls and was vicious to his enemies.
Katsuro didn’t care. He rounded on him anyway. “Yeah! My weapons. Where are they!”
The man flashed his palm. “Hmmm…. Don’t see it anywhere around here…. Anyone seen the boy’s weapons?” he called loudly. “He needs them. Anyone seen them?”
The men laughed while Katsuro fumed.
Some of the soldiers who had trained with the boy quietly turned and left. They were loyal to their captain and wanted no part of this trouble. But the other new recruits quickly filled the gaps.
“Looks like it’s not here,” he said with a challenging grin. “And too bad you don’t the captain’s not here to help you.”
Katsuro was blazing mad. He glared at all of them. He wanted so badly to…. But it didn’t matter. The captain had ordered him to stay away from the new recruits. And he’d be furious with him for disobeying.
So with great restraint, Katsuro turned to go. He’d follow orders and let the captain handle it when he returned.
The man lazily stood and stretched, then called to boy’s back, “What does a squirt like you need weapons for anyway?”
“You should be fetching our food, cleaning our weapons. Not using our best blades as playthings.”
Katsuro’s face burned, but he said nothing. Scornful laughter echoed around.
“What do you think, you’re going to be a soldier? Go on missions? A scrap like you?”
Katsuro had had enough. It took every ounce of self-control, but he moved ahead to push through the loose ring of men. Suddenly a familiar clinking sound rang out.
“Well…. Now, look what I’ve found.”
Katsuro turned slowly. The man bounced Katsuro’s pouch up and down in on hand. His kunai jingled inside it.
“Give it to me.” Katsuro’s voice was shaky from anger.
The man shook his head. A few others snickered.
He smiled wickedly. “You know, I like this bag. And the blades are already so nice and sharp…. Nope. I think I’ll be keeping these.”
A hush fell. All eyes shifted to the kid.
Katsuro didn’t move. His heart beat in his ears, and the hairs at the back of his neck stood on end. A fire was coursing through his veins. But he didn’t move.
The man gave a cold, calculated laugh. He was the only one laughing now.
“Don’t worry kid, I’ve seen your training. You’re not going to be a soldier for very long. So why not—”
“A shinobi,” Katsuro ground out.
The man tipped his head in genuine surprise. “W-What?”
“I’m not going to be a ‘soldier,'” he spit out the word, “I’m going to be a shinobi. Now give me the bag.”
The men roared with laughter.
“You! A ninja?!” the man said between gasps. “That’s the best one I’ve heard all day!”
That hot feeling, the one that turned his core molten, the one he couldn’t ignore, swelled up inside Katsuro.
Until that moment he still believed he could leave. Just walk away. But now, he knew that was impossible.
Katsuro swung his gaze around. Surrounded by these men, their mocking faces distorted by firelight, cruel taunts spilling from their mouths….hot anger surged within him.
He didn’t care what the odds were. He didn’t care how many or how big they were. He wasn’t going to back down. Those weapons belonged to him.
Katsuro launched at the man, tackling his midsection. The bag flung free. But the man didn’t topple over as Katsuro hoped. Instead he caught himself and knocked Katsuro back across the forest floor.
“Just what I’ve been waiting for,” the man said and stretched his neck muscles.
Around them, men hollered and packed closer. The circle they formed on the wide swath of black earth, with the campfire jutting in on one side, set the stage for a rip-roaring fight. And the possibility of that someone might roll through the small fire just added to the excitement for these men.
Katsuro growled angrily and sailed at the man, fists high and hard. But the man blocked him easily and pushed him back. The crowd hooted at the kid’s failure.
Katsuro came at him again and again. And each time he was shut down. But he wouldn’t give in.
No matter how many times the man pushed him back, Katsuro continued to hurl himself at the man, hoping to either hit him or wear him down. And Katsuro thought he was succeeding. The man’s taunting expression slipped a notch each time Katsuro got back up.
Panting, Katsuro brushed the sand from his hands to buy himself a little time.
He didn’t have a lot of moves in his arsenal. But he watched closely and learned quickly. One of the soldiers he sparred with had set traps. He used his hits to lull the opponent into expecting a pattern, then he surprised him. Katusuro thought it might work here.
Katsuro ran straight at him, just like the first time. The man easily blocked him and pushed Katsuro back in the loose dirt. Katsuro recovered and ran at him again. Again the man blocked him.
Never varying, Katsuro ran at him for a third time. He could hear the guy scoff at the move. Katsuro bit down on his secret smile. Instead of tackling his middle, Katsuro dodged the block and drove a two-knuckle fist into his ribcage.
The man yelped and pulled Katsuro off, throwing him hard across the sand.
The soldiers teased their peer about getting punched by a kid. And the man rubbed his side where Katsuro got him. Pushing up from the ground, Katsuro was smug. Tired, but smug.
The man leveled a hard look at the kid. “Looks like you’ve finally worn yourself out.” He pushed his sleeves back. “Well that’s too bad…. Because I’m just getting warmed up.”
Katsuro was just scrambling up when the man was upon him, hoisting him up by his collar.
“You come in here, take our things, and think you’re some kind of warrior? You think you’re one of us?” The men around the circle stoked his anger with their growling calls. “You little shit. I’ll show you your place….”
And he smashed his fist into Katsuro’s cheek. Visceral cheers exploded around them.
Katsuro’s was blinded by pain. Blood pooled in his mouth. Hot laughter pulsed over his face.
“Heh, you didn’t like that did you. Well, let’s see how you like this…” Then man pounded the kid with punch after punch. To his face. His chest. His gut.
The man pummeled him relentlessly, never giving Katsuro even a moment to gather his wits, let alone fight back. Katsuro realized between jabs that the man was just setting him up before. Letting him wear himself out.
The knowledge hit him nearly as hard as any of the knuckle punches did.
Dammit. How could he have been so stupid!
His eyes were swelling. His vision was getting blurry, and any blow to his face burned like fire.
But he had to fight back. Somehow.
Katsuro growled and lurched forward. He was determined to stop him. Hit anything he could. And for a few shining seconds, he thought it might work. His fury of swinging arms and flailing fists did managed to find its target. Katsuro clipped his jaw once. But that was it. He frustratingly discovered the man’s fighting skill wasn’t all bragging and lies.
If Katsuro swung at his face, the man jabbed him in the stomach. If Katsuro dove for his abdomen, the move he had employed so effectively earlier, the man caught him with an uppercut. And the last one was a punishing one.
Katsuro’s head flung back like a rag doll. His body could do nothing but follow. The boy staggered backwards once before falling flat on the ground with an unmistakeable “oof.” His eyes blinked, but they stared up, unfocused, at the blackened canopy.
The jeers were louder than ever. The man watched the kid for a moment. When the boy didn’t immediately move to get up, he looked around at the group. Their taunts turned to cheers. His victory was complete. He was smug and swaggering, relishing all the glory of a win over a boy half his age. He soaked up the loud attention, and the boy in the dirt was completely forgotten….
The cacophony of sound hadn’t escaped the notice of the two men returning to camp. Noise of that level was strictly forbidden. The captain knew it could only mean one thing.
He glanced sideways at the Uchiha. The shinobi said nothing, but his mouth was in a grim line. They both increased their pace. This couldn’t be good.
They hit the outside of camp just as a loud cheer went up. Beyond the black lines of tents and the shoulder-to-shoulder bodies was the diaphanous glow of light. The captain ground his teeth just imagining what he would find there.
As they silently crossed the near-empty camp, he had already decided that if he found Katsuro there, he’d beat each man involved into the middle of next week. The boy was his responsibility, and an attack on him meant his ass was on the line. It was a direct insubordination, and he wouldn’t stomach men like that—
Itachi raised a hand to the captain. His eyes were sharp on the group as well, but he clearly wanted the captain to hold off on whatever he had planned. The older man frowned, but nodded.
They slowed until they were inconspicuous in their approach of the group. Another rowdy cheer went up. Heads bobbed and shoulders parted, and they got a clear view of the troublemaking recruit strutting in the pale glow of the fire. Whatever the skirmish, he had come out on top.
He swaggered and talked, popped his knuckles vainly, as if he’d just accomplished some fantastic victory. The captain scanned for his opponent but saw none.
Two men in the front laughed. One tipped back a sake bottle and leaned hard into the other. In the gap, the captain saw the sand. The splayed feet. The unmoving legs. A body was there. A body that was smaller than all the rest. His teeth ground together.
“I’ll tear every one of them to pieces,” he growled and began to push forward into the group. But Itachi clamped a hand down on the man’s shoulder, stopping him.
The men in front of them jerked in surprise at the sudden threat, turned slowly, then went deathly silent. The shocked silence spread in a wave from that source, as each man desperately plotted out the fastest route back to their tent.
Not bothering to mask his rage, the captain glared back at Itachi. These were his men. And he would discipline them how he saw fit.
But Itachi wasn’t looking at the men. It was as if he didn’t see any of them at all. His eyes were firmly on the boy. Without turning, he nodded for the captain to look too.
Grudgingly, he did. He craned around one of the men in front of him for a better view. And this movement rippled slowly around the group, until all eyes were on the boy.
The man in the center never noticed the two latecomers, but he did register the shift in attention away from him.
He stopped walking and stared at the boy. The kid looked, well, different. Perhaps it was the firelight. But it made his skin look almost…almost…orange….
And the closer he got to the prone kid, the more distinctly uncomfortable he felt.
Something had shifted in the air and settled over the camp. A dark, ominous feeling. He didn’t have to look around to know everyone felt it. And it had something to do with this boy….
The strange tint to his skin, the weird feeling…what the hell was wrong with this kid? He got closer for a better look.
Unbelievably, the kid was moving. His eyes were closed. Even wincing as if feeling pain. He was slowly moving, first his arms, then legs. His hands curled into tight fists. A muscle at his jaw jumped once. He grit his teeth.
The man ruthlessly stamped out his discomfort. It was just a stupid kid who needed to be taught a lesson. But leaning into to grab his collar, the man was sure he heard a low, guttural growl.
He forced himself to ignore it and hoisted the boy up by the front of his shirt.
“Dumbass kid. Don’t know how to stay down, do you?”
The man drew back his fist to deliver the final blow….
Am I…am I…dead?
Katsuro stared up at the emptiness above him, trying to make sense of what had happened. He knew he’d just been knocked to the ground. But the sound of the men was growing fainter. And the black canopy of leaves had merged into a solid surface. Orange light still splashed across it, but he was sure he was no longer in the forest.
Other things were wrong: There was no more pain. His body felt warm and weightless. The only sound was the pounding of blood in his ears. His limbs moved gently on their own. It was strangely comforting. He knew he should be in a lot of pain but he felt pleasantly numb—
Warm water suddenly lapped over his throat.
Katsuro shot up with a gasp, sure now that he was drowning. He flailed for a moment before realizing the water was only a few feet deep.
However one look around and his feeling of drowning was supplanted by a deeper, more visceral fear. He sat in the water, unable to move. In front of him, stretching to a ceiling that seemed higher than any forest canopy, was an enormous metal gate.
Katsuro sunk down in the water.
He knew where he was…. This was the cell. From the dream. It was real…and there was no way to escape it.
The horrible thrumming sound pulsed everywhere now. He knew it was a heartbeat. And it wasn’t his.
Katsuro stared up at the gate. Locked behind it must be the demon fox Itachi talked about. Katsuro moved his head slowly, peering through the bars. His blood turned to ice when he thought he saw eyeshine.
As if responding to his fears, a hot wind blasted through the gate. Katsuro blocked his face with his hands, but it scalded him anyway. His cheek twinged with pain and his stomach hurt, but the feeling faded with the cooling air.
A long, low growl was followed by another blast. This time, Katsuro’s whole face burned. And his gut ached like it was slowly being wrenched.
He tried to turn from the wind and stand, but the pain at his midsection was so intense it doubled him over.
Water surged from behind the bars and rushed around him, knocking him down. Now the water was superheated. And his body suddenly registered every injury from his fight: his face, his ribs his knuckles. Everything ached. The back of his head throbbed from where he’d been knocked to the ground.
The water surged again and poured over his hunched shoulders. The pain at his middle, however, was the worst. It was blinding. He couldn’t even find the breath to scream out in agony.
The water churned higher, burning his neck, splashing over his head. Katsuro was sure he be was being torn in two. He curled in on himself, despite the heat. The water was going to swallow him…and he was going to let it. He was going to let it take him—
Heat devoured him. He didn’t know if it was air or water anymore. But it encompassed him and roared in his ears, tumbling over him.
Then the exploding pain in his gut obliterated everything else. He felt like he’d been cleaved in half. Molten heat coursed through his middle. All feeling was gone. All sense of self was erase. There was nothing else left of him but that one spigot of lava pouring from his gut—
The roaring sound in his ears took on a life.
When Katsuro didn’t move, it growled at him again.
Confused and reeling, Katsuro obeyed. He struggled to stand, only to find that the water was quickly receding. He was surprised to find he could still breath…and even moreso that he was still in one piece. He climbed to his feet and slowly straightened.
The pain was fading with the ebbing water. But the sensation that he’d just had his gut wrenched open was still unmercifully strong. He lifted his shirt to inspect what must surely be a wound and was astonished to find a tattoo-like mark in at his navel. A black spiral was surrounded by scrawled lines and characters, and encircled with five glowing characters. They looked like they’d just been branded into his skin. He poked at one; it was excruciatingly painful.
Then before his eyes, the whole thing faded right back into his skin. He would have thought it was an illusion if it didn’t still hurt so badly. He dropped his shirt, keeping the fabric loose at his stomach, and looked up at the gate.
It was only then that he realized his vision had radically changed. Everything was blood red and strangely delineated. Katsuro looked hard through the bars. For the first time he could see a shape back there. It was really, really big and—
The words were distant, echoing in from somewhere beyond the room….
Scalding air roared through the bars. “GET UP NOW!”
Katsuro suddenly felt like his head was going to burst. He winced and clutched his temples. The pounding sound filled his ears. Something was wrong….
“Don’t know how to stay down, do you—”
Katsuro opened his eyes to see a fist barreling right at him. Somehow, he’d slammed back into his body on the ground of the forest camp. Acting purely out of instinct, he summoned all his strength and punched up at the man.
The blow cracked the man’s jaw and pitched him backwards into the dirt.
“Little shit,” the man snarled, spitting blood.
Katsuro was still disoriented. He couldn’t believe he’d hit him so hard. And worse, everything was red. Blood red. Just like before….
In that moment of hesitation, the man pounced, driving his knee into Katsuro’s gut. He pinned the boy with his full weight and yanked him up again.
“I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget,” he rasped past bloody teeth. His fist was up, and he was going to pound the boy’s face to oblivion.
Katsuro saw it all coming through that awful red vision which illuminated every movement as if it were daylight. He could sense the man’s bloodlust, and instinctually, he knew he had to fight back. Somehow, he had to survive this.
The man released his fist to drive it through Katsuro’s face.
Katsuro saw it coming through eyes that were no longer his. The guttural growl that tore form his throat sounded unfamiliar to his ears. And the two-knuckle punch that smashed into the man’s temple as soon as he was in range, was driven by a power Katsuro had never known.
It stole the thrust from the other man’s blow. Katsuro quickly shoved the man off and scrambled to his feet.
His opponent was slower to recover but he was determined win. He slipped a blade from a hidden arm holster down into his hand, and came at the boy again.
The man threw a weak punch, then another. Katsuro evaded them with ease, but he watched closely. That preternatural feeling had not left him. And on the third slice of fist through the air, Katsuro saw it: the glinting edge of the blade tucked between the man’s fingers. It gleamed as if reflecting the light of a blood-red sun.
The man was setting him up, going in for the kill.
An overwhelming survival instinct kicked in again. His stomach ached and his red vision sharpened even more.
Beads of sweat pricked the man’s forehead as he advanced for the final blow. His brown hair, now flecked with dirt, splayed behind him. The blood smeared on his cheek was already drying. Katsuro registered it all in crystal clarity.
The man opened his mouth and snarled something, but Katsuro couldn’t hear it. The steady pounding in his ears was drowning everything else out.
Katsuro didn’t even have to think about what came next. It just…happened.
The loaded fist whistled around toward the boy’s ribcage. But instead of curving to protect his body, Katsuro lunged forward and drove his fist straight up under the man’s chin.
The force of the blow shot him up off his feet and launched him back into one of the tents. When the dust cleared and fabric of the smashed tent settled, the man’s feet stuck out from the end, unmoving.
It was over. He had done it.
Katsuro heaved a breath. The energy that had fueled him receded like the tide. The thrumming noise died away. His vision dimmed to black. He felt dizzy, and his injuries were becoming more and more painful. Something wet and slick was trailing down his ribcage.
Only then did he remember where he was. He looked slowly around. Men stood shoulder to shoulder and stared him down. Some were shocked, some were fearful, some were furious. But they were unanimous in one aspect: All of them knew that no boy should have that much power. Cold distrust was written on all their faces.
Itachi stepped forward from the back of the group, and the men dispersed.
“I knew you could control it,” he said quietly. This time, there something like a real smile on his face.
The captain checked on the defeated soldier. “Somebody see if he can be patched up….”
The last of Katsuro’s energy guttered out and everything went black.
After hauling the unconscious boy to his tent, the captain returned to find the Uchiha still standing at the empty campsite. He was watching the dying fire, deep in thought.
“I think,” Itachi said slowly, “it’s in our best interest to step up his training.” There was an undeniable note of satisfaction in his voice.
The captain nodded once. Obviously, the boy was more powerful than any of them realized. And that didn’t sit well with him.
“Yes, he seems to have a unique skill….”
Itachi cleared his throat. “It’s a family jutsu. Something he was born with. A legacy, if you will.”
The captain was placated by the explanation. He may not be a shinobi, but he’d seen plenty of evidence of special skills in his experiences as a soldier. There was no question this kid was a shinobi.
“Maybe we should let him spread his wings a bit,” Itachi said. “Otherwise it’s going to be like this every time we leave.” Both men looked at the churned-up ground, the blood-spattered leaves. “Just keep him busy. Let him go on a mission or two. Close by, and supervised. See how it goes. I’ll worry about his jutsu.”
Thinking he was dismissed, the captain shifted to go. But to his surprise, Itachi continued.
“I apologize for any inconvenience to your squads or missions. Your man—”
“He had it coming to him,” the captain snapped, remembering finding him and one of his friends tampering with Katsuro’s kunai some months back. There was no telling what else they’d done.
“Still, my apologies for the disruption.”
This time it did feel like a dismissal, but the captain didn’t leave. The Uchiha’s courteousness had made him stand out from other military men he’d known. And frankly, it had made this transition much smoother. All the way from the bottom up. They all respected and feared the Konoha nin. And though the men felt the exact opposite about the Uchiha’s apprentice, the captain, for one, was glad the boy had come as part of the bargain. He was a surprising kid. Must be why Itachi picked him.
“I think,” the captain cleared his throat, “I think the kid will do well. He manages to land on his feet.”
“Yes,” Itachi said slowly, “he does seem to do that, doesn’t he….”
“I was concerned that maybe he’d bitten off more than he could chew this time.” The captain tipped his chin toward the blood-stained earth. “But he came out alright. Even used some of what he’d learned from training…as well as that jutsu….”
Itachi cut a suspicious glance at the ruminating captain.
“I guess what I’m saying is that I think he’ll be a good asset to the group. Sir.”
“Ah. That’s good to hear. I will entrust his training to you then.”
The captain nodded, and Itachi swiftly left.
The older man paused for a moment before crossing the near-silent camp. His mouth quirked into a small smile. It was ironic: He no longer felt like he was on babysitting detail.
The kid was surprising. All that raw power and resolve packed into one scrawny body. He was looking forward to seeing how he would shape up as a soldier. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he made his way back to his tent.
Days later, Katsuro’s body still ached. He lay flat on the cold ground inside his tent. But it didn’t do much good. He still felt like he’d been burned alive.
But he wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact, he felt strangely in control. For the first time, he knew what was happening to him.
Itachi had stopped by early on to speak softly about his “jutsu.” He offered his best guess as to what had brought it out and the aftereffects he could expect. The pain was intense, but the knowledge eased his mind.
“From what I understand, the demon will react if it’s host is under threat. It must have thought you were going to die.”
“So it was protecting me?” Katsuro said. There was something hopeful in his voice.
Itachi laughed. “It was protecting itself. You’re just the vessel.”
Katsuro’s face fell. “Oh.”
“But the kyuubi forced you to open the seal. And now that you know the feeling, you can begin to control it. From what I’ve studied, twisting open the seal lets you access all that power.”
Katsuro thought that was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. But he didn’t want to tell Itachi that. He yawned instead of giving a response. And thankfully Itachi didn’t press him. He closed the flap to let the boy rest.
A day later the captain poked his head into the tent to sternly inform the boy that because of his outrageous display he was to be hereby stripped of all campsite duties. Katsuro winced and shut his eyes. This was what he was afraid of—
“I have no use for someone like you in my camp.” It was the coldest tone Katsuro had ever heard from the captain. “Someone like you…needs to be out. Occupied. Tasked. Not free to laze around, hiding your talent and picking on the other men.” Katsuro barely listened. He just couldn’t bear it.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you, boy?” he barked. “The longer you lay around here, the more missions you are going to miss!”
Katsuro’s brown eyes popped open. He hunched forward, struggling to see the captain’s face. Even though his vision was still blurry, Katsuro couldn’t miss the grinning leathery blob at the opening of his tent.
“A-are you serious?”
“Yes, I am.” Katsuro could hear the smile in his voice. “You’ve proved you can hold your own. You’ve learned the difference between fighting to win and fighting to survive. And that’s better than any training you could ever have. So rest up. I’m going to need some help on a few missions.”
“You mean, me? I get to— You mean, I could—” Katsuro was pushing himself up onto his elbows, but the pain was intense. He had to gasp between astonished thoughts, but it didn’t deter him. The captain laughed.
“Get your rest. You’re no use to me like this. But soon, soon…. I’ll work you so hard you’ll be begging to crawl back to your tent! You’re a soldier now, boy….” And the flap fell closed.
Katsuro barely had time to process it all when the captain poked his head back in the tent.
“Almost forgot.” He pitched a wad of bandages at the boy. “Itachi-sama said you were a fast healer, but I had no idea….”
His eyes drifted over the boys face. By all rights, his eyes should have been swollen shut, lips busted, and he should certainly have some broken bones. But the boy sat up smiling. His face was puffy and there were a few bluish marks, but it was nothing to the injuries he should have been showing after a thrashing like that.
“Anyway, wrap up. I’ve seen enough shinobis to know they don’t like to give any of their secrets away if they don’t have to.” Katsuro went giddy at the implication of the man’s easy words. “And you don’t want to be a target for others who’d like to see just how fast you can heal.”
The captain let the door flutter close, but his laughter still echoed through the fabric.
Katsuro grinned so wide it hurt.
The next years fell away around him. In some ways, life was exactly how he wanted it. Missions and jobs. Running errands and seeing new places. He had a power no one could touch and a life of freedom.
But there were some dark aspects too…although he supposed he’d never be free of that. The men never accepted him. New or old, they distrusted the boy with hidden powers and who was under the protection of the big boss. They were always looking for ways to take him down. Brawls took the place of formal sparring. And Katsuro learned by fighting his way out.
Some of the missions required dirtier work than he ever imagined a shinobi would do. But he chalked that up to child’s romantic view over a teen’s wider understanding. Robberies and ambushes, injury and even death were part of their life. But they had to survive. And they had to protect themselves. And sometimes for them to live, someone else must die.
After all, there had to be some sacrifice for change. Itachi was reluctant to explain it the larger plan, why they had linked up with old Rain village rebels in the first place, but Katsuro heard enough to get the picture. And he was happy to be a part of it, building something brand new, where he would never be excluded….
The darkest shadow on his new life was threat of Konoha. It loomed over him, following him everywhere. If he had been closer with any of the men, he may have been tempted to share in some of their exploits in the towns. But as he wasn’t, it was a convenient excuse to stick to the shadows and keep his identity concealed. Their distrust was deep and mutual.
But Katsuro could care less. He trusted Itachi, and the captain was giving him more and more responsibility. This was the life that he’d always dreamed of. He had everything he wanted. He was a true shinobi, and he was free.
Katsuro sat beside a wavering campfire, kicked his legs out and threaded his fingers together behind his head. He had grown long and lean over the years. He wasn’t as big as the other men yet, but by now, at almost 17, he was getting close.
He stretched back. He was always on the move, and he knew how to keep himself safe. He was confident and in control. And he loved it.
Katsuro looked around at the dark lines of forest. Others traveled in fear here, but he had nothing to be afraid of. He was a shinobi, after all.
Katsuro breathed deeply, feeling fully satisfied. It couldn’t get any better than this….
The restless wind slowed to a gentle breeze. It ruffled the bangs on Katsuro’s forehead. He heaved a shuddering breath and slipped into a more restful sleep, shifting in the leaves to get more comfortable. The two kunai shoved in his thigh holster clinked together lightly. He stilled at the sound….
In the dark forest of his dream, Katsuro listened hard. He was sure he’d hear it: Laughter. It was sweet and tinkling, and it filled his ears for a moment.
He scrambled to his feet.
He knew this sound. Better than he knew anything else in the world.
Katsuro looked around wildly for the source, for some sign, but there was nothing to see. The light from the campfire had gone strangely weak. It couldn’t illuminated the darkness that encompassed him. And without that sound, the woods seemed suddenly empty.
The merry tinkling rang out again. This time much more distant.
It was her.
And wherever she was, he knew he wanted to be there….
He swallowed dryly and plunged into the darkness, following the sound. He was leaving behind his mission, his responsibilities. But it didn’t matter. All he cared about was getting to her.
Katsuro ran until the black dissolved into blue. He hurtled over leaf-littered ground, past soldier-rows of tree trunks. He kept going, bursting through grasping bamboo groves and leaping over glittering moonlit ponds. The darkness had to give way, it had to yield. If he could just keep going….
The laughter rang out, and he ran towards its dawning light. It pulled him over barley fields, shimmering in the golden heat. Past villages and towns, full with merchants stalls and forgettable faces.
He kept going until the landscape blurred green beneath him.
She laughed again and Katsuro looked up, finally seeing for the first time. A large green tree beckoned from the top of an expanse of green hillside.
She was there. Her pink hair swayed as she swept her gaze out over the valley. Then she slowly walked out of sight behind the tree.
Katsuro’s chest went tight. She was so close. But reaching the top, he impulsively looked back as well, suddenly curious to see what caught her attention.
The unending green that surrounded them twisted and turned like the smooth background of the temple painting. Below him was the motley painted village. His enemy, he knew. But this time, he had the light feeling that they supported him, even cheered him on. A gust of wind skittered up, carrying their good wishes, he was certain of it. He breathed in and something in his chest unclasped. They were no longer his enemy. The burden he’d never known he carried was released. He turned to the one who brought this all to him….
But a flurry of white petals blocked his view. The hilltop tree had disappeared. Instead he found himself under the cherry tree from the temple painting. Long streams of blossoms fell perpetually to the ground around him. Behind him, the sound of swirling waters churned the air.
But in front of him, a blotted figure was slowly emerging from the petals. He turned fully toward her, not wanting to miss a thing. She was laughing. He wanted to ask what was so funny, but he kept forgetting the words.
She emerged through the threads of petals. Pink hair and green eyes filled up his vision. Katsuro forgot how to speak.
Then suddenly, she was right in front of him. She raised her hand and brushed the petals from his hair. She laughed again, and this time he laughed with her.
Certainty filled up the hollow well he’d always carried inside. The hole where the kyuubi lived. But the kyuubi didn’t exist here. That was just a nightmare from someone else’s life. This, this right here was what he wanted. He never wanted to leave.
She smiled and stepped back, beckoning him wordlessly to come with her. To stay. Please, stay. He couldn’t move, though. Not yet. He remembered this feeling too, caught between wanting to hold on longer and yet not wanting to shatter their fragile harmony.
A soft breeze filtered through the trees, swaying the branches. Petals swirled around them. She smiled, and the blossoms streaked in pale reflections across her eyes. He watched her and, breathing deeply, let the warmth of the moment fill him. It washed away his fears.
Wherever they were, they were safe. There was no need to run. There was no need to hide.
She smiled and held out her hand to him.
They had all the time in the world here. They were finally free.
He stepped forward, stretching his fingers toward her.
On the hillside, Katsuro turned suddenly in the leaves. He flung one arm over his face, blocking out the dim glow of the predawn sky, and flopped the other out wide beside him. He drew in a deep breath. His mouth eased into an almost-smile. And in the leaves, his hand softly curled open.
The huddled shape in the darkened treetops shifted, taking notice of the small movement on the ground. But as nothing came of it, the body settled back into its previous position against the tree. He could wait. He had all the time in the world now. He’d finally found his prey.