15 Oct 2014 3 Comments
Author’s note: In the first few chapters I did not name the members of Katsuro’s team who gave him such trouble on the way up to the temple, after they’d ambushed Sakura. I have since named them — Raiden and Fumio — as they make an appearance here.
Katsuro moved stealthily through the dark camp. Soft fires glowed here and there and voices threaded around tents, but he was as alert to them as if he were moving through enemy encampment.
It had been three days since his return, and the waiting was getting under his skin, making him jumpy and irritable. Itachi had left to confer with the Akatsuki leader and he had forbidden Katsuro from leaving, fighting, discussing anything that had happened, and especially letting even a shred of the demon’s chakra escape. He said it was central to his plan. His new plan.
Katsuro growled under his breath and turned away from a cluster of men walking between the tent rows.
All that was left to do was wait. And the longer he waited the harder it was to control his temper.
The loss of his team was barely noticed in the camp. Some men were too new to have known them. Others cast Katsuro looks of quiet pity. Both rubbed him the wrong way.
But what really stoked his smoldering anger was the return of some familiar faces to the camp: Raiden, Fumio and the band of thugs that had accompanied him to the mountaintop temple with Sakura years before. He had gone out of his way to avoid them. And it had worked…so far….
Katsuro turned away from the main camp toward the treeline where his tent sat alone. But instead of dark woods, a low fire glowed ominously beyond the line of trees. Deep laughter carried up the footpath.
Katsuro swore. This was the result of Itachi’s waiting. Having to tangle with these troublemakers.
He stomped up the path, gritting his teeth and pushing down the fire sparking in his gut.
The men standing around the fire turned in unison at the approaching footsteps, snickering, coughing and nudging each other.
Katsuro stopped at the edge of the clearing. “You shouldn’t be back here,” he said, voice low with leashed anger.
The men at the fire parted, revealing their hulking, bushy-headed leader, Raiden. He had bulked up even more over the ensuing years, and by the looks of the nasty grin, illuminated now by the orange firelight, he knew it. Beside him stood Fumio, his closest comrade. Fumio was just as wiry as Katsuro remembered, with the cords of his muscles stretching down his arms to his thin, cruel hands. Only a new scar rippling across the pad of his cheek showed the progress of time.
Katsuro swung his eyes over the group, recognizing many of the thick-necked thugs, and tightened a fist.
Seeing the gesture, Raiden laughed.
“You’re not happy to see us, little Kat-su-ro,” he lilted.
Katsuro kept his expression stony. “I knew you were here.”
They all laughed then, firelight adding a malicious glint to their hooded eyes.
“We heard about your little ‘team’ getting killed,” Fumio sneered and Raiden added, “Yeah, but what I want to know is how a scrawny thing like you made it out, and the others didn’t—”
Katsuro felt a deep fury well inside him, threatening to spill over like a boiling pot.
“Look at him,” another man echoed. He threw his mop of hair away from his eyes, but Katsuro didn’t recognize him. “He’s all skin and bones, a little runt if ever I saw one. Bet he’d squeal just like that pig we stole last night.” He flashed his gaze toward the rest of his group, proving his was more interested in their attention than Katsuro’s.
It worked. The group laughed, nodding and acknowledging him, all except Raiden. He stood watching Katsuro, arms folded across his barrel chest, frowning. “You are still a little runt, aren’t ya. How is it you look just the same since then, when you was trippin’ over yourself for that girlie—“
The smiles of the men dissolved, replaced by narrow-eyed suspicion.
“That’s right, you threw us over for that girl,” one said, jabbing a meaty finger at Katsuro. “Your own team!”
“Your best team!” Raiden added, grinning cruelly now. “That wasn’t a smart thing to do. ‘Specially since we’re still here, and she ain’t….” He popped his knuckles as he spoke. “And what I want to know is was she worth it. But don’t answer me yet—“ He pulled a metal chain out of his pocket and and wrapped it over his knuckles, making a tight fist.
He stepped forward. “Now that Itachi’s gone, we can talk about it…man to man.” His voice dropped a notch. “You are a man now aren’t you? What with you having a girl and your own team….”
The rest of the men stepped back, forming a circle, just like the fighting rings they used to have in camp.
Raiden spit on the ground and slowly prowled the edge of the circle, watching Katsuro. “Oh that’s right, your team’s dead. And your girl’s long gone.” He shook his head, loosening up his muscles.
Katsuro stood perfectly still, seething with rage. The kyuubi answered with hot licks of promised power. Raiden crossed behind him and Katsuro instinctually hooked his hand over the curved handle of the Captain’s Rain dagger.
Raiden didn’t miss the threatening movement. “Oi, you got a new weapon?” He laughed meanly. “Stole it, more like.”
“What?! “ Jolted by the accusation, Katsuro snapped his head around. “I fought with the Captain! Beside him! He gave it to me before he—“
“That’s not what I heard,” Raiden taunted, his booming voice drowning out Katsuro’s. “If that’s so, then how’d you get back here without a scratch?” The group backed him with a low grumbles of acknowledgement. “Nah, I figure the Captain knew you couldn’t handle it, so he took the hit for the Big Boss’s boy.”
Katsuro’s open expression melted into a dark, furious glare. His hands trembled with rage.
Raiden stopped directly in front of him. “So what I want to know is…when you finally came out of hiding…was the old man’s body still warm when you took it off him? Or was he already cold and stiff—”
Katsuro’s eyes flashed red. Screw everything he’d promised Itachi.
The forest wavered around him as if engulfed in a blazing heat. His teeth ached, wanting to grow. He could feel the power surging through his arms, roiling around his fists. The black woods began to bleed red….
He wanted this. He’d tear Raiden apart. He’d had it coming for so long—
“Come on then, let’s see what you can do with it,” Raiden said, coming towards him, his bulky form closing in, towering over him.
A tremulous voice arrested their movements, but neither Katsuro nor Raiden took their eyes off each other. The rest of the men turned their heads toward the voice coming up the trail and slowly opened their ranks.
“K-Katsuro?! Is that you?” A new recruit hovered at the edge of the circle, his gaze nervously darting around at the sneering men. “Itachi wants you. I-Immediately.”
With a low growl Katsuro turned — almost daring Raiden to take a shot as his back, just to give him a reason to tear into him — and shouldered his way out of the circle to follow the young recruit.
Raiden blustered and bellowed, yelling threats at Katsuro’s retreating form, but the rest of the group knew the entertainment here was finished. They circle collapsed, and they drifted back to their smuggled plum wine and betting games in main camp.
With each step toward Itachi’s tent, Katsuro’s anger receded. He realized now that nothing had changed. At all. And it never would. He would always be the the lowest man. He would always be on the the outskirts, on the outside looking in. And men like Raiden and Fumio and the rest of those thugs would always be around, waiting to be pound him into the ground.
He wanted to be done with this facade, more than anything. He was suddenly glad that he hadn’t revealed anything to the men and messed up his part of Itachi’s plan.
Ahead of him lay the softly glowing campaign tent, Itachi and the future he so desperately desired.
But when he pulled back the canvas flap, he found Itachi readying to leave again. Angry chakra flared in Katsuro’s chest, and Itachi turned to him as if he could feel it. But he was uninterested. He turned back to the pyramid of brand new scrolls in front of him, each blemish free and practically beaming in the soft light, and carefully arranged them at the bottom of the pack.
“Get ready,” he said over his shoulder. “We leave tonight.”
Katsuro blinked, his fiery anger doused.
“Uh…. Where are we going?”
“You want to transform right? Shed your skin, as it were?”
“Well you cannot just walk in here as Katsuro and walk out as Naruto,” he said quietly. He dropped a sack of food stuffs down into the pack.
Itachi finally lifted his black eyes. “Katsuro must die,” he said, his voice as even and toneless as if it wasn’t even worth mentioning. Just something to be checked off his list.
Katsuro sucked in a breath and shook his head, numb with shock. This was Itachi’s plan?
Itachi moved on to other supplies, leaving Katsuro standing in the middle of the tent to work through his thoughts.
He slowly realized Itachi was right. There was no other way. Naruto and Katsuro couldn’t co-exist. He had to give up one to become the other.
And really, it was past time to let go. Everyone saw that he wasn’t changing, wasn’t growing. From the men in camp to infinitely more dangerous creatures. Like Sasori.
It was clear that Itachi’s elaborate jutsu was not adjustable for age. Katsuro wondered how that detail had slipped by. Itachi was always so careful, so precise…it didn’t make sense….
But it didn’t matter now.
“I understand,” Katsuro said firmly. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”
Itachi nodded without turning.
“Good. We leave in an hour. You can’t take anything with you. Everything that yours, Katsuro’s, must remain here. Untouched. I will remove the jutsu permanently.”
Katsuro like the sound of that. The corners of his mouth curved up. Finally.
Katsuro crossed the camp back to his tent, skirting the big campfire and Raiden’s men. They laughed and Katsuro thought he’d avoided notice, but Raiden’s deep voice carried above the rest. “I should’ve hauled that pink-haired girl up the mountain. I’d have taken care of her just fine—“
They all laughed louder. Raiden took a loud swig from a bottle then muttered, “Eh, he’s nothing special.” There was a chorus of agreement. But Katsuro kept going.
None of it mattered. None of it could touch him. Not even the biting comments about Sakura. He didn’t feel it.
Picking his way through the darkness toward his silent tent, Katsuro realized belatedly that the mention of Sakura barely rippled his emotions. In fact the anger that her name provoked wasn’t over her. Instead he wanted to rage at the men for daring to try to control him with something from his past.
His past…. That’s all she was now.
Rosy embers glowed from the deepest parts of the blackened fire pit in front of the tent. Katsuro ducked his head in and looked around.
Leaving it all was the work of a moment. There was nothing there that belonged to him. And even the things he lost in the ambush weren’t really his. Just spare blankets, bowls and weapons that had been assigned to him. There was nothing in there he needed.
However, there was something he couldn’t take with him.
He stood and touched the spot just below his collar bone at the thought, feeling the oblong shape of the necklace through his shirt. His necklace.
He drew it out slowly, fingering the cool smooth stone. That would be a problem.
Who knew what would be required of him when Itachi removed the jutsu. Attachment to a piece of jewelry would earn Itach’s scorn, and he wasn’t entirely certain the Uchiha wouldn’t dispose of it while he was unconscious.
And once the jutsu was removed, who knew what path his life would take.
He pulled it over his head and studied in the dim light. It swung in front of him, glowing soft and green. Her face came swimming into his mind for moment. But he hardened himself to the memory.
This was no longer a memento of her. This was a symbol that he’d survived. He’d survived the demon, and that village that locked it inside him. And he’d survived her and her green eyes. He’d survived all of it. And if he ever needed to be reminded, it was right in front of him.
The necklace belonged to him and no one else. It was the only thing in his life that had ever truly belonged to him. It was his only possessions in the world…and now he needed to find someplace else to hide it. He couldn’t take it with him and he couldn’t leave it here.
He’d bury it, he decided. He’d get a box from the supply tent, then bury it beneath one of the ancient oaks, marking the spot so he could find it again later.
Katsuro flipped up the pendant, caught it in his fist and dropped it into his pocket.
The supply tent sat nearly as far away from the main camp as Katsuro’s tent, just on the opposite side. Katsuro took a forest path shrouded in darkness, watching the cluster of tents and smoking fires of main camp grow ever smaller as he veered around it. When the main camp was nothing but a dim glow in the woods behind him, he knew he was getting close. And at the next turn of the footpath, a lone campaign tent suddenly hung before him, grey and phantomlike behind the dark columns of trees.
The supply tent was manned by old man Masato. Older than the captain, Masato had been a soldier and scrollmaster in the glory days of Rain, in charge of correspondence and other secretive affairs of state. But now, reduced with age to a weathered stump of a man, he whiled away his days managing supplies for Itachi. He was seen as something of a doddering old fool by the rest of the men on the rare occasions when he did surface in main camp.
Katsuro paused at the stained canvas flap of the tent, wondering belatedly if the old man was even awake at this hour—
“Come in, young soldier,” a voice carried from inside.
Katsuro warmed under the epithet, making him miss the captain all over again, and pulled back the flap. His eyes immediately caught on the flash of identical movement across the tent. A cracked old hand mirror hung from a hook. It looked innocent enough, but Katsuro knew it was an old Rain trick that helped the non-shinobi soldiers keep watch.
Katsuro stepped fully inside, letting the flap whisper closed behind him.
The supply tent was as just as big as Itachi’s, but for some reason Katsuro always felt the need to duck when entering this space. Towers of crates lined the walls, floor to ceiling, and faded into the darkened corners. Only someone as rail-like and nimble as Masato could disappear between the stacks and come back out with what he needed. The red kanji for Rain country was splashed over the wooden crates, and long black lines spelled out the contents: tents, blankets, and weapons. Lots of weapons. Enough to outfit a small army. At the end of the rows sat barrels of dried meats and fruits, and clay jars brimming with scrolls, all clean and new.
At the center of the darkened tent, the wooden crates closed ranks around an ancient desk, lending it an air of cloistered secrecy. It was lit by a single lamplight and piled high on each end with scrolls and parcels, red wax and spools of string.
Katsuro took a moment to marvel at the sight, and the clamp of anger that had gripped him that last few days slowly released its hold. No matter where they were, how new they were to the camp, to Katsuro it always felt like the supply tent had been rooted in that spot for ages.
The old metal lantern flickered at the shift in the air, casting strange patterns over the parchment flattened in the center of the desk and distorting the long lines of writing. Old Masato smiled up from his perfect circle of light, a secret smile rippling up his face, and the shifting shadows turned the wrinkles at the corners of his mouth into deep trenches.
Katsuro had always liked the old man. He was always ready with a smile and a solution to any need. But in the golden glow, he looked older than ever, with his head as bald and spotted as a brown egg and just a stringy fringe of white hair trailing over his collar. In spite of his age, Masato sat comfortably on a cushion on the floor, one leg tucked under him and one knee pulled up to his chest, spry as a child.
Katsuro tipped his head in surprise at his appearance. He’d never seen him in anything other than his old Rain fatigues. But tonight over his fatigues Masato wore a ragged old kimono, the faded silk patched and repatched with scraps of old cotton. One sleeve was caught up and held cautiously over the parchment. Moving the curtain of his sleeve, Masato sighed softly and revealed a calligraphy brush and several wet lines of writing running down the page.
It was only then that Katsuro notice the rack of hanging brushes at one side of the parchment and a long ink-stone at the other, the black ink still still shimmering in the deepest end. A lone moth swooped and dove at the lantern, adding its own shadow to the patterns on the parchment.
Still holding back his sleeve, Masato wiped the extra ink from the brush and perched it on the inkstone before offering Katsuro an almost embarrassed smile. “You caught me.”
Katsuro’s hand instantly went to the back of his neck. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt—“ but Masato stopped him.
“No you aren’t interrupting anything. I was just…indulging in an old past time.” He turned the scroll toward Katsuro, and Katsuro was surprised to discover that it wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before.
Mists of color — pale blue, sandy brown and moss green — drifted across the background. Only flecks of bright gold illuminated the dreamy scene. Long streams of ink-black writing tumbled vertically down the page, tracing a path like a falling leaf down each line.
Katsuro crumpled his mouth into a frown, knitted his brows together and tipped his head nearly upside down, but no matter how he looked at it, he couldn’t decipher a single word. Finally giving up studying it, he glanced up at Masato with questioning eyes.
Masato exhaled deeply. “It is old writing,” he said, turning the document back to him. “Very old. It is Rain Country poetry. There are very few who still write it.” He ran his fingers down a line, letting his hand linger on a few phrases. “And fewer still who can even read it.”
With one last long look he slid the parchment off the table and onto the mat beside him to dry. He gently straightened the paper, then spoke as softly as his movements. “I do not know why I persist. It is nonsensical really, to write poems that no one but me can read. All the ones I cared about, those great old days of the Rain country are long gone. But something calls out…and I must answer it. I suppose that somehow it brings us closer to what we’ve lost.”
He turned back to Katsuro and folded his hands on the desk. Katsuro watched the moth spiral closer and closer until it was throwing itself at the lantern again. The lyrical pattern of the words down the parchment was replaced with the moth’s endlessly fracturing shadow on the table.
“I am sorry about your team.” Masato’s words were measured and soft, but they carried the weight of someone who meant them, who understood. “And I am sorry about the captain. He was an old friend.”
Katsuro pressed his lips into a thin line, gripping the necklace in his pocket. He had created a believable enough story about what he needed and why, but suddenly the words felt hollow. Lying to the old man, even burying his only possession in the middle of an empty forest, it all felt wrong.
He drew out the necklace in his hand and looked at it for a moment before revealing it. Maybe some things were too important to be buried away forever.
“I…uh…. I’m going on another mission soon, and I need a safe place to keep this. I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
Masato took it, nodding sagely. He admired it a moment before passing it back. “Yes, yes…I have just the thing….”
He disappeared behind the low table and dug his hand through a nearby crate, pushing it away unsatisfied before clawing through another one.
“Ah! Here it is!”
He laid a small wooden box on the table and popped open the hinged lid so Katsuro could inspect the empty interior.
Leaning over the table, Katsuro glanced up skeptically. But before he had time to ask what was so special Masato swiped of his thumb over the base and a hidden drawer popped out. Katsuro blinked. Masato motioned for Katsuro to drop his necklace it into the drawer.
Katsuro watched it disappear, and Masato grinned up at him. “Problem solved. I will send this to our contact at the edge of the Rain country who holds all of our supplies until we’re ready for them. He’ll take care of this too.”
Masato shoved a handful red wax chunks and a single crudely made metal stamp into main compartment of the box. “In case anyone gets curious,” he said with a wink. Then he wrapped the box in clean parchment, making locking folds at the sides, and tied it tightly with string. He wrote the intended destination on several sides and sealed the crossed strings with a glob of hot wax that he marked with another metal stamp.
Masato inspected the jagged slashed lines in the red wax — it was a fair approximation of the Grass symbol — then dropped the tool back into a box full of similar homemade stamps, all carved with various countries, territories and clans.
Katsuro was impressed. It now looked like a package from any country. Completely hidden in its normalcy.
Masato passed over his wet brush and Katsuro wrote the characters for his name across one side. It was only when he was swiping the brush through the last character that he realized that he would not go by Kat-su-ro much longer. But it didn’t matter now, he decided. He blew on the shiny black letters, committing them to the paper, then handed it back.
“Almost forgot,” Masato said, taking up the brush again. He wrote something beside the seal in the same flowing movements as the poetry. It looked more like a beautiful design than actual letters. “My name. That way he will know what to do with it.”
Masato turned around and placed the small box at the very top of a pyramid of scrolls and crates sitting beside the table. “It will be waiting for you there.”
Katsuro glanced once at the box, it’s writing and wrapping looking so much like everything else under the flickering golden light, as if it had instantly taken on a patina of age. He committed the sight of it to memory, sincerely hoping this wasn’t the last time he saw it. But he couldn’t worry about that now. Whatever happened, it was safer there than with him.
Katsuro turned back to the old scrollmaster and bowed deeply, but Masato waved him on. He was already pulling out another painted parchment — this one with delicately swooping cranes threading through the grey-green mist — rolling his brush through the black ink and gathering up his patched sleeve.
At the door, Katsuro stopped and turned back, struck with a sudden thought.
“I…. I would like to read some of your poetry, some day,” he blurted out, then stopped, feeling awkward in the lengthening silence. He didn’t know what made him say it. He’d never read poetry in his life. But the thought of old Masato, after a lifetime of war and loss, somehow making sense of it was…intriguing to him.
Masato paused, brush over paper. The shadows pooling under his eyes made him look very tired. “I would like that too,” he said quietly.
It took Katsuro a moment to work out that his tone was not of hope, but of a wish. He realized too late that perhaps Masato was speaking of things he knew could never be.
Katsuro stood in silent uncertainty, unable to think of anything else to say, so instead he thanked Masato and bowed again, deeply. When he lifted his head, Masato’s brush was already dancing a long black ribbon down the page. A new poem had begun. Katsuro exited quietly.
“Fair winds, young man,” Masato’s voice followed him through the door. It was an old Rain farewell. Katsuro hadn’t heard it in years. He paused, turning back to see the canvas flap closing behind him. It was hard to believe there was an old man in there writing poetry. It was like a different world. It gave him a little bit of comfort, thinking that perhaps with him the necklace would be safe with him….
Katsuro turned into the clear night, readjusting to his eyes to the harsh lines of the forest, and set off for his rendezvous point.
Katsuro leapt off the branch, following the outline of Itachi’s black cloak into the darkness. They had traveled for hours, but Katsuro was as fresh as when they left the camp. Itachi pounded on, the sunrise at their backs, and Katsuro followed, through countries he knew then countries he didn’t, until the sun dropped from the sky and the mountains rose like a jagged wall from the empty brown land in front of them.
Finally, they stopped.
The entrance to the mountain cave was just a gash in the serrated landscape. Katsuro’s excitement was unabated, even though his feet ached, his face was dusty and his mouth was as parched as the ground. He drank in the cool stillness of the cavern.
Itachi’s hand shot out to the side — juts a pale streak to Katsuro’s still adjusting eyes — and closed his hand around something on the wall. He had obviously been here many times before judging by the confidence of his movements in the darkness.
He blew a small stream of fire, ignited the torch he’d plucked from the wall, and continued on. Orange light showed a long corridor lined with more torches that descended under the mountain. But instead of lighting the whole impressive array, Itachi kept moving, single torch in hand. It flickered and cast long shadows around them. Katsuro followed, curiosity mounting. Dripping sounds and the subtle lightness of moving air were growing as they went deeper, until finally the path opened up on a cavernous space.
Itachi didn’t look up, but Katsuro’s eyes swept in a wide arc as he walked. Stalactites and stalagmites made it feel like they were in the belly of a beast. In the center of the cavern, nine spires rose around a huge flat boulder that sat table-like in the center. An enormous statue carved out of the sweeping back wall proved their were in some sort of holy space rather than a creature. Itachi’s light splashed over the features, giving Katsuro a glimpse of a face, smiling maybe, and two large outstretched hands. It made the whole place feel sacred and important. The only thing troubling him was a sickly smell among the musty scent of wet stone and earth.
It smelled of…blood….
The stench was unmistakeable and his stomach churned once. Katsuro’s hand instinctively went to his middle when he realized it was something deeper, behind his gut. The kyuubi was stirring, waking up as if it sensed a threat. Katsuro was growing more aware of the subtle movements of the demon, however he was at a loss to understand what it meant now.
“Uh…Itachi-sama, are you sure we’re alone?” Katsuro’s hand worked in a distracted circle on his stomach. “What kind of place is this anyway?”
Itachi’s eyes landed on Katsuro’s hand, and he stopped, obviously understanding something that Katsuro did not. Itachi pulled his fingers into a jutsu and closed his eyes. “No, there has been no one here in a while. It’s a hidden base, only used by Akatsuki members for certain…rituals. Nothing you need to worry about.”
Katsuro shrugged, but neither he nor the demon inside him were convinced. It continued rumbling in his gut as they passed around the spires and behind the statue to another corridor carved out of a giant angled fissure. Winding down this narrow hallway, the smell steadily returned to the chalky tang of undisturbed earth.
Another natural cavern opened up at the end of this corridor, and Itachi’s torchlight exploded in fragments of reflected light across the rough ceiling. A pool of water, fed by a spring that leaked slowly from the wall, collected in the center before running out again, disappearing beneath a wedge of fallen rocks. They skirted the thin stream and entered a room carved out of the opposite wall. Katsuro squinted past Itachi’s shoulder at the round room. It was a perfect circle, with the only decoration a single bracket jutting out from the smoothed wall inside the door.
“There is no one else here. You can relax,” Itachi said, sliding the torch into the bracket. He shrugged off his pack and dropped it to the ground. “In fact, I suggest you do. Don’t want your inmate reacting to your stress. Because this will take all of your concentration.”
Katsuro didn’t need to calm the demon inside, it had already slunk back into its darkened corner and disappeared from the edge of his senses. Instead Katsuro investigated the room to ease his own agitated excitement. He explored the perimeter, tracing his fingers over a fissure that cracked like a lightening bolt around the the otherwise smooth wall.
In the center Itachi paced the large circle before dropping to the ground, tugging a hunk of charcoal from a hidden pocket and scribbling great arcs and radiating lines across the floor. Satisfied with his work, he retrieved the new scrolls from his pack and placed one at each intersecting point. Starting at the first scroll, Itachi gripped each one, closed his eyes and whispered a jutsu until an Uchiha fan glowed brightly on the parchment. The stiff unused scroll disappeared and in its place an ancient clan document appear. Itachi unfurled it across the ground with reverence. After opening each one, Itachi scratched more lines onto the floor until the entire room was engulfed in a sprawling spider’s web of words and symbols.
Katsuro took in the sight with astonishment. This was Itachi’s disguising jutsu, the one Katsuro remembered from his childhood…when he left Konoha—
“It’s done.” Sweat pricked Itachi’s brow and his face was pale with concentration, but a fire burned in his black eyes. Everything was ready.
Katsuro was the final piece.
Itachi pointed to the middle, but Katsuro remembered without being told. He gingerly stepped through the web to the very center and sat down, legs crossed, hands open—
Itachi frowned. “No, you’ll need to lay down.” But before Katsuro could arrange his body across the lines Itachi stopped him. “Boots and shirt off.”
Katsuro shrugged and did as he was told, pitching them clear of the circle before flattening himself carefully in the center. Itachi raised his hands together at the first point and began to murmur, reading from the scroll. His hands blurred through the hand signals so fast the Katsuro still couldn’t keep up, even though he’d witnessed Itachi’s jutsu hundreds— no, thousands of times since the last time he went through this ritual.
Katsuro gave up trying. Instead he looked up and watched the golden torchlight flicker over the ceiling. A constellation of minerals embedded in the stone shimmered back. He felt warm and comfortable, even peaceful. His eyelids felt heavy so he let them drift closed. Itachi’s voice slurred together pleasantly. Katsuro had been a little nervous, but this was so relaxing…. He drew a deep breath…. He could stay like this as long as Itachi wanted him to….
The soft yellow light shifted on his eyelids, steadily warming with the temperature of the room to the orange glow of a red hot poker. Katsuro drew in a breath of warm air, measuring the heat of the cave by the the beads of sweat on his brow, then in the hollow of his throat, and then inside the fists he didn’t remember clenching.
The light that danced across his eyelids was as consuming as bonfire, and just as blinding. Katsuro tried to raise up, even open his eyes, but he couldn’t. Itachi yelled at him to be still. But the involuntary push to protect himself was too great, and Itachi sounded so far away. Grinding his teeth, Katsuro leaned into the pressure pinning his body to the ground, when he realized— Something had gone wrong.
At the same moment, Katsuro’s stomach exploded into pain as if he had been branded. The layers of flaming skin grew deeper, twisting into him, until he knew it wasn’t skin but the seal itself that was trying to open.
From very far away, Itachi’s voice reached out to him, sounding as wavering and strained as if warped by the heat itself. “Katsuro…. Don’t—” He gasped as if each word costs him, as if he were holding something back…. “Don’t…move!” Something that was taking all his strength to restrain….
Claws tore at his gut, carving him open from the inside out. Katsuro cried out and with it he heard the demon’s bellow in his ears, smelled its sulphur breath in his nostrils. But he obeyed. Even as his skin turned molten and his vision scorched to blackness, he didn’t move. The scrap of consciousness he clung to, what little was left of him, knew that Itachi was his only hope now….
Itachi’s voice fought for control, nearly drowned beneath the roar of blood and fire in his ears. “Just…hold on…a little…longer….”
The flames consumed him, until he no longer knew where he ended and the demon began. It had control, it had consumed him in its fire, and Itachi had lost….
But Itachi’s voice rang out again, this time a notch closer. He roared the jutsu with a fury to match the kyuubi. And it was working. The fire in his veins began to subside and Itachi’s voice came a step closer, repeating the same words but moving steadily around him. Itachi was closing the circle.
The clawing at the seal faded away. The fire went dark, leaving him heaving in scalding air.
Finally Itachi’s voice sounded above his head. It was deep and confidant. Whatever had happened, whatever had gone wrong, Itachi had won. But before Katsuro could breathe in the cool stillness that was settling around him, returning as he remembered where he was, the demon withdrew, extinguishing all light and sensation with it, pulling Katsuro into darkness.
The soft glow of torchlight beckoned from beyond his eyelids. Katsuro opened his eyes, blinking hard at his blurry surroundings, and fiery memories fused with reality. He wasn’t dead. He was on his back…on the ground…in a cave. He hadn’t been burned alive from the inside out.
He turned his head, slowly, discovering his body was as stiff as a corpse, and saw Itachi slumped against the wall. His head hung over his propped knees. For one piercing moment Katsuro thought he’d killed him. Or that the toll of containing the demon was death. But Itachi’s shoulder rattled with a shuddering breath, and Katsuro knew he was still alive. Awash with relief he eased his head back.
The metallic flecks still winked at him from the ceiling, but he no longer felt comfortable there. Instead he felt strangely…heavy. Like whatever had pinned him down was somehow still weighing on him, ever so slightly.
The warmth of the kyuubi’s chakra began to tingle in his fingertips and the tips of his toes, working from the extremities in, healing its vessel. He pulled his stiff arm up, the warmth slowly traveling up and making it easier to move and held his hand over face. His arm seemed weighted. Even the fingers he wiggled seemed sluggish somehow, like his whole hand had grown—
Katsuro sat up suddenly, despite his body’s creaking protests, and looked down at his stomach, his long arms, his legs stretching away from him….
He had grown! His body wasn’t just held down…there was simply more of it to move!
He sat up, ignoring the aches in his upper legs an back as he outpaced the healing chakra, and took in the landscape of his new body.
Bare feet stretched out beneath the now too-small pants, looking very much like his feet, only longer. But the arms looked like someone else’s. Fine blond hairs dusted the smooth skin, and the muscles beneath bent and flexed in a way he’d never noticed before. It was a man’s arm, not a boy’s.
He examined his stomach — the trace of the seal still lingered there, but it was fading under the pleasant sizzle of warm chakra — and the subtly defined plain of his chest. He admired the muscles in his upper arms and the tight knot of his sizeable fist. It would do a lot of damage in a pinch. All in all, Katsuro was happy to discover that he wasn’t overly developed, instead just the right leanness to hide his true strength — the necessary build for a shinobi.
Suddenly remembering, he raked his hand through his hair. It felt…different. Which of course, it would be. It was different.
His hair felt thick and smooth, not rough and crinkly the way it had been for the past nine or so years. But now he remembered: This was his hair. He tugged a lock over his forehead but couldn’t make out a color. Memories of a yellow-headed boy in a dingy mirror stared back at him from a long-buried past.
With the picture of that boy in his mind, Katsuro smashed his fingers into his cheeks and forehead, attacking his features with boyish enthusiasm to try to determine his new appearance. Just wishing for some kind of mirror, Katsuro remembered the stream.
Standing proved harder than he’d first thought. The demon’s chakra was still melting through him, easing his aches, but moving his new body made him feel clumsy. It took a moment to pull his legs underneath him and stand, and he was glad that Itachi was asleep so no one else could see him moving like one of the drunken men in camp.
He stood, hands on his hips, breathing in the warmth of the kyuubi’s chakra, until all his stiffness faded away into a comfortable numbness.
He tested out his new legs, scuffing his feet through the spent writing on the floor. But he caught the feel of it and gained his balance and in just a few steps the movements became completely natural.
Katsuro still felt different, but now in a good way. Like his legs and his arms, his muscles and his body was fully realized. He felt…powerful. He reached for the torch in its holder, watching his movements, his wide shoulders and trim chest, wondering just how far he could through a kunai with these arms. With each step he relished the feeling of strength that was coursed through him.
But at the edge of the water, it felt like he’d been sucker punched. A man he didn’t know stared back.
Katsuro dropped to his knees to get a closer look, leaving the torch beside the water. Thick blond hair went in every direction. It was as unruly as his brown hair had been, but instead of tangled curls, soft licks of yellow stuck out at all angles as if whipped by an unseen wind.
Piercing blue eyes stared back at him, surprising him with their color. Had they been that blue in his childhood? He couldn’t remember. But even in the dark cave they picked up the light and reflected it back, giving him the impression of something cold and hard. Like the silvered edge of his blade after he’d sharpened it. The glacial blue gaze was more than just a little unfamiliar….
It struck him that these eyes didn’t look like him at all. These eyes looked like they belonged to someone else. Only he didn’t know who….
Shifting his gaze down he examined his nose, mouth and teeth, trying on a few expressions, before deciding he didn’t look half-bad, even with a stranger’s eyes. He might even be considered handsome. He wasn’t as smooth-cheeked and baby-faced as Joro, but surely he looked better than most—
Katsuro’s stomach clenched. Turning his head he saw the black lines of his childhood, three on each cheek, as black and jagged as the lines Itachi had scrawled on the floor. They marred his smooth skin, tearing up towards his ears in the whisker pattern that, in his childhood, everyone but him understood. It was the mark of the demon.
He had simply forgotten. In all of his preening and flexing he had forgotten the most important thing. None of these changes mattered. Those lines were what people would see. And they’d never look past it.
But he was a shinobi. Not a demon. And he’d never go back, even if he had to wear someone else’s face.
Katsuro stood suddenly, kicking pebbles into the water and shattering the reflection.
“Na-ru-to,” Itachi said quietly from the doorway.
Katsuro whirled around, surprised at the interruption and at the word — his name — that was jarringly unfamiliar to his ears. Itachi leaned his shoulder against the wall, watching him.
Katsuro gathered up the torch, noticing the deep lines under Itachi’s eyes and how drawn his face was and. It wasn’t just a trick of the light. He put the torch in the wall holder without meeting Itachi’s inspecting eyes.
“You look like the—” There was note of honest surprise in Itachi’s voice, but he stopped himself. Whatever it was, he thought better of sharing it. “You look like you’re from the Leaf, with your blond hair.”
Katsuro didn’t smile. It wasn’t a compliment.
Itachi pointed to his rucksack, just inside the door. “There is food in there. Eat what you need to regain your strength.”
Katsuro was about to contradict him, but Itachi dismissed his concern. “I’m fine,” he said. “I just need more rest than you.” Itachi looked him over, clearly admiring the healing power of the demon. “It will be another day, at least, before I can travel.”
Katsuro was silent for a moment, thinking. “What happened—” He stopped suddenly. His voice, was a shade deeper and just as foreign to his ears as everything else about his body. He cleared his throat and met Itachi’s gaze. “What went wrong?”
Itachi merely shrugged, a ghost of a smile flickering across his lips. “Nothing. It’s a delicate thing, removing a jutsu of this nature. It wasn’t meant to be removed. And your tenant had grown comfortable with its surroundings. But nothing went wrong.”
There was a whiff of arrogance in Itachi’s tired voice. Katsuro frowned, thoughts snagging on the one flaw in that jutsu again, when Itachi turned to go back into the darkened room. A bigger problem eclipsed all other thoughts.
“Wait! The marks on my face! I—” He touched his cheek as he confessed, “I don’t want them.”
“Yes,” Itachi said, turning his head, “That could be a problem.” He raised his fingers and murmured under his breath. Katsuro could feel the skin on his cheeks heating slightly, as if sunburned. Then it was gone. “It’s a simple jutsu. I’ll show you how to perform it.”
Katsuro felt the smooth skin but wasn’t completely satisfied. He would like to have the marks scrubbed off forever. But he supposed covering them would have to be enough. Itachi disappeared into the darkeness and Katsuro tugged the bag out into the light. He ate and felt energized, and the whisker marks began to fade from his concern. Soon he was back on his feet, eager to put his new body through its paces.
Jabbing the air with swift movements, sparring with the flickering shadows, Katsuro marveled at his new power. His punches ripped through the air and his kicks snapped with controlled accuracy. His hands blurred through jutsus in speeds he’d never been able to attain before. And he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t be certain, but it felt like the kyuubi’s chakra was more comfortable in this new vessel. It seemed to flow better, molding with greater ease around his toned arms and curling into the square palms of his hands.
It was hours later when Itachi appeared at the dark opening. He easing himself against the doorframe to silently observe. Katsuro was tearing through Konoha’s standard training stances with amazing vigor. It really was a sight to behold. It would be weeks till his chakra was fully restored, but Katsuro— no, Naruto was healed and ready to go.
There was no denying now that he was a child of Konoha, Itachi mused as he watched Katsuro spin through a series of kicks. Sweat slid down from the fringe of yellow hair, which was now burnished to near golden by the torchlight— But it was those eyes…. They were the same ones Itachi had seen nearly all his life, watching imperiously over Konoha from cliffs above the village.
Catching sight of his audience, Katsuro turned to the door, drew his hands together and bowed to Itachi.
Standing face to face, Itachi was momentarily caught off guard. They were nearly the same height and when the boy looked back at him with a dead man’s eyes, Itachi had to admit it was unnerving. In Akatsuki, Naruto would be a force to be reckoned with. Itachi was suddenly glad the boy— the man before him would always be under his control.
Itachi stepped into the light of the room. Katsuro watched him for a moment. Blue eyes looked down and at his bare chest then back up. Itachi could still read him perfectly: He was expecting some acknowledgement, some praise or mention of his changes. But Itachi had no use for those empty words. Katsuro, like all shinobi, was a tool to be used. Not coddled.
“It is time to return back to camp.”
Katsuro’s open expression closed immediately.
“But first you will need to make a henge of yourself. Of Naruto.”
Katsuro nodded and brought his hands up. An identical copy popped into existence beside him. But where Katsuro stood relaxed, sweaty hair sticking out in all directions and his too-small pants unbuttoned at the waist, the Naruto beside him appeared in well-fitting black fatigues, hair tamed and orderly. He stood like a soldier, shoulders squared, feet apart and hands clasped behind him, as if he’d done it a thousand times.
Katsuro cast furtive glances the ‘man’ beside him. “Why a copy?” he said finally.
Itachi reached in his bag and unfurled a new Akatsuki cloak. But instead of stopping at Katsuro, Itachi flung it around the shoulders of the new Naruto next to him. The whirl of black and red terminated with a ripple of the hem over the ground. Katsuro turned to watch the whole spectacle with open curiosity. Dressed like Itachi, this Naruto was both fierce and ominous. But he was not impressed. He smoothed out a single wrinkle that ran down the red cloud on his chest then resumed his stance. Face scrubbed free of all emotion, he silently awaited his orders.
Katsuro turned back, frowning. “I don’t understand. He’s nothing like any of the other clones. He’s nothing like me—“
“He’s new, a clean slate. He has no personal experiences to draw from. You’ve had no personal experiences as Naruto. But you will, and as you henge in the future it will reflect that. However,” Itachi turned back to Katsuro, voice stern. “After this, you must never transform as Katsuro again. It will not work. It’s the nature of this jutsu. You can disguise yourself as anyone else, but not him. Your body will not transform the way you remember it — wrong hair at the back, or one eye blue, one brown — and you’ll be exposed. After this one last time, choose someone you have recently seen and don’t have an emotional connection to. That’s the safest.”
“What do you mean ‘one last time,’” Katsuro said, narrowing his blue eyes to slits. Heat infused his strange new voice. “You want me to do it again? Go back to my old body? After I’ve become this!?“ He flashed a hand down the length of his body, shaking his head stubbornly. Beside him, Naruto, the ultimate soldier, never moved.
“Yes,” Itachi said with tired patience. “It’s part of the plan. You need to return as Katsuro. And right now it won’t be hard to transform because the memory of your former self is still so fresh. You will return as Katsuro, and the henge of Naruto will return as well. It is important for both of you to be seen in camp, and then—“
But Katsuro didn’t want to hear the rest. A low growl rumbled through his chest.
“It’s the last part of the plan. And it’s the most important.” Itachi waited for him to see reason.
Katsuro grit his teeth. But finally, he accepted. If this was truly the last part, then he was ready to get it over with.
He brought his fingers together for the jutsu and became the fifteen-year-old Katsuro again. His shoulders narrowed and thinned; his hair curled up on his head, darkening from the edges until it was all chestnut brown; his chest flattened out and his arms and legs drew in. His pants no longer stretched across his thighs, instead they hung all the way to his ankles. He buttoned them at the waist. Everything was smaller, back into its place. He flicked his eyes up once at the Naruto beside him, but the henge, now a full head taller, never even looked down.
Though it was the same body he’d woken up in that morning, Katsuro could feel something was different. The demon’s chakra felt too contained, cramped up inside the curves and hollows of his body. It was a subtle discomfort, like wearing too tight clothes. Only now it was his own skin.
“Naruto will come back to my tent,” Itachi said and Naruto nodded curtly, “while Katsuro will go to his. Your job,” he looked at Katsuro, “is to spread discord in the camp. Let them know you’re unhappy. Say you’ve been replaced.” Katsuro shrugged, plunged his hands into his pockets and looked away. “Then in three days time, he will kill you.”
The cold edge to Itachi’s voice startled Katsuro. But there was no sympathy in his dangerous black eyes. Itachi leveled a hard look down at Katsuro as he delivered his next order.
“And you will let him. Katsuro needs to die in order for Naruto to live.”
Katsuro looked at the two men standing at either side and felt distinctly smaller than he had before. It was the same creeping he feeling he had with the kyuubi: That he was only a vessel, a tool to be used, a pawn in someone else’s game. But there was nothing he could do. He wanted this too badly to turn back now.
Finally, he nodded, and Itachi released his gaze.
Exiting the cavern, each with their own lit torch, Katsuro trailed behind Itachi and Naruto. The shimmer of power he’d felt by the stream had left him. He was the smallest again. And instead of returning victorious, as his chosen name meant, he was instead to return unchanged. It was almost unbearable to think about.
But he reminded himself that this was the final part of Itachi’s plan. So he followed behind them, sullen but dutiful. Just like any fifteen year old would, he thought, kicking a stone off the path. He watched it fly into the into the air, glad to have something else to focus on than the growing stench of blood and the dull ache of the kyuubi’s protest in his gut. The stone clattered against the base of the great statue, and as they rounded it, Katsuro swept his gaze upwards.
Three torches lit more of the surroundings than their single one had on the way in. But the clearer light showed a different scene. The flickering glow danced over the grotesque face of a multi-eyed, multi-armed monster. Instead of a peaceful smile, the demon sculpture bared its fanged teeth. It’s tongue is fell out of its mouth, and it leaned forward, the outline of sharpened nails glinting in the torchlight as they passed, looking ready to devour whatever had been laid on the platform in front of him.
Katsuro’s hand crept to his gut, comforting both himself and his own demon, roiling in its cell. They’d be past it soon.
Katsuro caught a glimpse of angry eyes before darkness engulfed the statue again. This may be a sacred place, but it was where animals— or maybe people, he thought with a shudder, came to die.
After what seemed like an eternity in the dark tunnels, they finally emerged into the light. Itachi adjusted his pack and Naruto fixed his gaze far across the desert. But Katsuro took a cleansing breath, glad to be out of that place. The kyuubi finally settled itself into dormancy again.
He had not been reborn, as he’d hoped. But the discomfort in his own skin reminded him he was not the same person who had entered this hole in the ground. It seemed he was still waiting….
But he was a step closer. Just a few more days, according to Itachi’s plan. Then he could shed his past and start his life anew.
Itachi and Naruto took off across the desert floor, and Katsuro, still trailing, followed their two black cloaks toward the horizon.