Preview – Chapter 41

Author’s note: Still here, still writing. I know it’s slow in coming, but don’t worry, I’m still at it! 🙂

Preview – Chapter 41 – Akatsuki’s Assassin

Out of the nothingness came a white light. It cut across him. He was dead. He knew it. And this was his Death:

A blinding light.

A cold room.

A hard floor.

So hard that it brought an ache into his stiff body and made his head slowly throb….

Wait a second—

Katsuro cracked an eye open.

He wasn’t dead.

Light from beyond a canvas door slashed down his face. A shadow passed. His body hurt. His head pounded. He was cold…colder than he’d ever been before. So cold he couldn’t move—

A voice passed overhead. The words fell down as if spoken through water. “Ah, you’re coming around. Good.”

Katsuro blinked slowly, feeling like his brain was filled ice. Cold pressed on him from all sides.

He was in a tent. Itachi’s tent. It was all beginning to come back to him….

Katsuro head tipped sideways, shifting his line of vision. A blurry black shape came into focus. Beside the desk stood a black-clad figure. His blond head didn’t turn.

Katsuro remembered the night before.… He closed his eyes and shook his head.

But this…this wasn’t right…. He and Naruto had fought…he’d lost the captain’s blade…and then….

Katsuro didn’t understand how they could both be here. But he still wanted to get up, have another go at him, finish what he’d started. He was so cold though…. His body wasn’t working right. His arm was broken. His leg was crumpled. He was nearly dizzy with pain. And instead of numbing him, the cold seemed to make every injury blare in his brain.

“Dispel the jutsu,” Itachi said. “It’s gone too far already.”

“What,” Katsuro said, his own voice echoing back to him as if through a fog. “What are you t-talking about—“

“The jutsu. Your jutsu.” Itachi spoke slowly, as if to a child. “Remember? Your clone?”

“Oh,” Katsuro said thickly. But Katsuro still didn’t comprehend. He didn’t remember a clone. He didn’t remember…anything. Only fighting Naruto. And…and…dying?

“Release it.” Itachi was growing irritated.

“I-I don’t understand—“

“Do it!!”

Katsuro cringed, the sound hurting every fiber of his being, but he tried to focus.

With supreme effort he brought around his arm to meet the mangled one, and pushed his hands together. They barely touched. He couldn’t concentrate. The pain, the cold…it was consuming him. Fragmenting his thoughts….

A very different scene floated into his mind. A dark night and a low fire, and Itachi’s voice. But from very long ago. Out of the blurry darkness rose a memory. It was one of his first lessons…. Dispelling.

“Push your energy outside your body. Clap your hands together. Then, in your mind, grasp hold of what you’ve made — like that sorry excuse for a clone over there. Then blow…him…up.” Itachi annunciated every word, driving it home. “Imagine him stepping on a paper bomb. There will be a cloud of smoke. A loud pop. And he will fly into a millions of tiny pieces. But really, all those little pieces — that nobody else but me can see — will float through the air and come back to you. That’s how you dispel a clone. Now practice. And no dinner until you get it right.”

Katsuro’s hands shook with cold. His eyes watered. His arms felt like they had frozen and would break off. But he did as the memory instructed. He pushed his energy outward and willed anything that he’d ever made to disappear.

He didn’t care what it was. Because it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t work. There was nothing of his to dispel. It was just the three of them in the tent and—

Across the room there was a weak puff of air.

Katsuro didn’t feel it. He was spent. His arms crashed back to the mat. They felt like they were going to break into shards of ice at any moment. He shuddered once, a soundless scream forming on his lips. He was going to freeze to death, right there, and there was nothing left to save him. The demon was gone. Ripped out of him. His fire had been extinguished. He was no more than a broken vessel. Empty. Nothing but the cold left to fill him. It froze him from inside out, splintering down from the top of his head, cracking him slowly in two—

“Now dispel your jutsu.” Itachi sounded almost bored.

Katsuro’s frozen brain couldn’t make sense of the words. “I don’t know…what you…mean—“ he gasped.

“It’s corrupted. It has been for a while. You’ve just been fighting it.”

“I— I don’t understand—“ Katsuro was nearly crying with pain. Each icy breath was agony.

“You don’t have to understand!” Itachi snapped. “You just have to obey!”

Katsuro struggled to get his good arm back up. His hands were cramped with cold and wouldn’t meet anymore.

Another memory came back to him out of the dark corner of his mind. Itachi speaking at that same fire, so long ago, telling him one word. The right word. The single key that broke nearly all ninjutsus—

Katsuro pushed his last bit of strength to his hands. They were numb but he still smashed them together.

“Kai,” he wheezed with his last icy breath. He could manage nothing more.

His arms collapsed, his body went limp, his head fell to the side and his eyes slid shut. This was it, he thought. This was the true end….

Funny how death was so comfortable…even a bit warm….

He relaxed into the floor, letting the inevitable carry him away…. Breathing into it…waiting for it…welcoming it….

Warmth trickled in, thawing his limbs and making them feel heavier. The cold cracked off like a shell, falling away in large pieces.

Strangely, instead of leaving this world, he became more aware of it. The ridges of the tatami mat against the back of his head. The smell of the Itachi’s tent, the sweet crispness of fresh scrolls and metallic tang of oiled weapons.

Warmth flooded over him, pouring through his hair, sizzling over his eyelids and skin and running to his fingertips. It was glorious. He wriggled his toes inside boots he didn’t realize he was wearing.

He didn’t care. He took a breath, off-handedly wondering how a dead man could still breath, while enjoying just how much his chest expanded. It was as if he hadn’t been able to breath deeply before now. But this, this was deep and delicious. Air was such a lovely thing…. He was going to miss it….

Something clicked. He wasn’t dead. The mat, the tent, the boots…breathing air…. It all meant he still wasn’t dead. Not yet—

His eyes snapped open. He raised up slightly, craned his neck and looked back at the desk. Itachi was there, watching him of course, but folded beside him on the edge of the desk was a cloak…. A black and red cloak….

Snippets of memories, fragments of conversations, pieces of whole days came back to him, as if his mind was awakening from a warm haze too.

“I remember something about a plan—“ He stopped. His voice was deeper—

He knew this voice— He hated this voice!

Ice gripped his heart as he realized just what it was Itachi had asked him to release.

He lifted a hand in front of face to confirm it. And there it was, Naruto’s square powerful hand right in front of face.

He remembered it all now. How could he have forgotten? This was Itachi’s plan. The true plan. Katsuro was only the outer shell. And Naruto wasn’t gone, he wasn’t defeated. He had simply been there all along, inside him. It was Katsuro who wasn’t real.

Katsuro had to die for Naruto to take his place.

Reborn, Naruto stared at the ceiling, letting himself sink into the body that was his, yet not his. It felt heavier, weighing him down. Naruto looked down at his body. He was wearing the black fatigues of a soldier. Or rather…an Akatsuki member.

Sitting up was awkward. His limbs and torso still felt too long. “You said—“ But he faltered again, the strangeness of his own voice making him choke on his words.

“I said…?” A smile colored Itachi’s voice, as if the thought of Naruto having an identity crisis was amusing to him.

Naruto turned back to Itachi. He tried to speak again, but his throat was dry. He swallowed hard, gulping, choking and coughing all at once, making his face twist almost comically into a very boyish, very Katsuro-like expression.

Itachi laughed mirthlessly. “I suppose it really is you in there after all. Shame. You were such an obedient shinobi, for a little while, at least….”

Naruto cleared his throat, struggling with a myriad questions. “What— What happened—“

Itachi nodded. “Just now? That was a death shell that you were breaking out of—”

“So I did die….”

“No, not exactly” Itachi’s said tightly. “You were supposed to, but leave it to you to try and one-up your clone instead of sticking to the plan.” He sighed, looking tired. “No, you didn’t exactly die, but with a well-timed jutsu it looked to everyone else like you did. Naruto knocked you out with the handle of the dagger at the last moment, but they saw a different bloody end. Hence the death shell over you, suppressing all your life signs for twelve hours.”

“Oh….” Naruto processed it, running his fingers through his hair like he always had till he realized it didn’t feel the same. He dropped his hand quickly, leaving several blond chunks sticking up on the top of his head.

His face twisted suddenly, remembering something. He pointed an accusatory finger at Itachi. “Your plan….  Weren’t we just supposed to swap places?”

“There were some unforeseen problems. Namely that squeezing you back into your old form took a toll on you.” Itachi sighed, but continued, sounding more like a teacher reciting a lesson than a concerned mentor. “It’s exactly why you should never re-henge into a disguise of that magnitude. It won’t ever work right again. Your body fights with your mind to try to make the illusion whole until both sides begin to fragment.”

Itachi stopped himself and nodded towards Naruto’s gut, sending the black wisps of hair at his face juddering along his pale face. “It’s only because of your…tenant that you were able to go as long as you did.”

Naruto looked down at his unfamiliar stomach, now longer and flatter and hidden by a black shirt that also felt foreign to him. So he had been wrong. The demon was there all along.

Itachi continued, voice still flat. But that secret smile was back. “But it certainly was interesting to watch…. You withstood the effects longer than I’d ever imagined you could. It’s good to know the current limits of the demon’s power—“ Naruto’s face was going hot with anger at being spoken of like a lab rat. But Itachi didn’t care. He stared back without feeling. “Although maybe your bone-headed stubbornness contributed to some of it.”

Naruto couldn’t contain himself. He pushed himself up to standing, wobbling a bit, hair out at all angles, face red. “Right! If it did such a great job, then why didn’t it protect me?!” Naruto made the few steps to the desk before having to stop and lean hard on it. He quickly found his balance as more warmth poured into his ankles and feet, helping to stabilize him. But he barely noticed.

“I was in danger! What if that guy had really tried to kill me? I thought he was going to! Isn’t that reason enough for the demon to protect its host, like you’ve always said it would!? I thought I was dying! I was dying!! Yet it did nothing—“

“You were never in any danger.” Itachi let the word drag out, still smiling coyly. “The demon knew who you were fighting.”

Naruto caught on and looked disgruntled. “He thought I was fighting myself…. So he knew that guy was a clone even when I didn’t?” He rubbed his head, thinking, but when his fingers touched his hair, he ripped them away. “Then…is that why I couldn’t use any of its power?!”

Itachi nodded, waiting as Naruto caught on….

“Wait a second!” Naruto pointed angrily at Itachi. “And how was that guy even a clone— He’s nothing like me!

He finally stood up straight, raising his voice slightly over the last words. It was the most normal outburst in the world for Katsuro, but standing taller in the tent and hearing the words in a deeper, more powerful tone, gave Naruto a moment of pause.

They were nearly matched in height, and Itachi looked straight across at him, but he didn’t answer. Instead he just watched, surprised and curious at the self awareness playing out on Naruto’s face.

Naruto huffed a few times, put his hands on his hips, thinking. He went from puzzled to angry to puzzled again then finally began to pace, which was not nearly as satisfying for him as it used to be because his longer legs didn’t get enough stretch in confines of the tent.

Itachi still watched him.

“He was nothing like me at all,” Naruto said, sounding different but still pounding his fist into his hand just like Katsuro. “Nothing at all. He knew things I didn’t. Techniques I’ve never done…or at least never done that well. He didn’t know me or listen to me—“ He stopped and threw his hands into the air. “It was like he was another person— A different person—“

Itachi shrugged. “In a way, he was. He was you, but without any of your experiences. He was a clean slate, untainted by any outside experiences. He was a shell. A vessel, if you will.” Itachi paused, but resumed with intent behind his words. “And not just any vessel…. That Naruto was the product of a lifetime of training without the wasted energy of emotions. That Naruto was the perfect shinobi.”

The Naruto in front of him narrowed his eyes. “But he wasn’t me.”

Itachi didn’t disagree. Naruto broke away angrily. “So it was a test after all. He was just someone else I am supposed to be. Just another disguise.”

Naruto went to chew his fingernail, but even that felt different. He tore his hand away and cursed instead.

Itachi shook his head. “He was you. He was a perfect version of you. But….”

Itachi broke off. Instead he looked the blond up and down. He didn’t have to say it. They both knew the Naruto in front of him, with the one with the crumpled hair and slumped shoulders and ruddy cheeks, the one who was governed by emotion and not much else, couldn’t be more different than the fearsome shinobi who had returned with Itachi and immediately become second-in-command without saying a word.

Itachi sighed. “But that version is gone now.”

Naruto grunted angrily and jammed his hands in his pockets. It wasn’t as comfortable as it used to be in his body— His old body— In Katsuro’s body! He swore to himself again and just ignored the discomfort.

Naruto remembered it all clearly now. The plan. How Naruto the clone was supposed to beat him. How Katsuro was supposed to fake his death in order for it to be convincing. But there was no reason it had to be so…so…so real. And there was no reason to keep him in the dark about it—

He shifted his weight on his hip and looked up accusingly at Itachi. “You could have told me,” he said quietly. “You could have just told me what to do. And when. I would have played along.”

Itachi looked at him with eyes that saw right through him. “You never could have played along. I knew from the start you’d figure out some way to fight with him, to test him or yourself. So when I saw you fighting off the effects of the jutsu, I decided to see how far it could go. It was impressive, I admit,” he shrugged one shoulder and lifted a delicate black eyebrow. “But I let it happen. I can still read you like a book, after all.”

Naruto felt his face getting hot again. Itachi had planned it all out. A plan beneath a plan. The pain, the death — him nearly losing his mind — all of it was just a part of Itachi’s plan. He was petulantly angry at being so easily used, yet all the while being told it’s for his own good.

“Which reminds me,” Itachi said. He pulled out something from behind the desk. “I have something that belongs to you.”

He held out a parcel wrapped in fabric. A corner fell back, exposing the arced handle of the Captain’s dagger.

Naruto suddenly felt foolish. That’s how all this started. As Katsuro, he was angry that ‘Naruto’ had taken it. Yet, he was always Naruto. Even the fox knew it….

He took the dagger and holster and held it in his fist. But he admitted to himself it no longer felt like it was his. Or Naruto’s. Or whoever he was supposed to be now.

Naruto scrubbed the back of his neck. But when his fingers hit the longer softer hair he immediately pulled back. He remembered once being so happy about this powerful new body. But now, it made his stomach jolt each time he was reminded of it.

It was hard to be happy about becoming someone you’ve been hating. Even if it was only in your mind.

Itachi said nothing more and returned to business as usual. “You’ve healed quickly, as I expected. Which is good. You are needed in the Rain country immediately.” Naruto scowled. Itachi ignored him. “You have a job,” he cut his eyes to the cloak folded on the edge of the desk. “And you have an obligation to fulfill.”

Naruto’s anger exploded.

“There’s no way I can go out into the world like this!! I can’t go on missions, or defend myself or even talk to someone…. I don’t even know what my own name is—“ Naruto looked at his hands again. They trembled in front of him, but this time from anger. “And what about my power? What if I knock someone out? Or what if I don’t hit hard enough—“

Another thought made his face go ashen. “W-What if my power no longer works…? There’s no guarantees that it will. Or what if it goes the other way. It’s too big, too powerful.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “What if I give myself away?!”

Itachi said nothing.

But Naruto’s face had morphed from desperation to resolution. His fists were tight at his sides. “No! No missions, no Akatsuki, no nothing. I’m not doing it!”

He was fierce in the declaration, if still petulant. His blue eyes were strangely bright against his flushed face. His yellow hair stood out, like Katsuro’s did. He was wild and unmanageable, just like Katsuro. He looked at Itachi, waiting, hoping he might understand.

But Itachi simply shrugged a shoulder as if he expected this response. Naruto gripped the dagger— the captain’s dagger— Katsuro’s dagger tightly, then swore to himself again.

Itachi continued as if Naruto hadn’t spoken. “You will need to be outfitted for weapons. Report to the munitions tent. They have a list prepared for you. These will be your new weapons. In addition to your dagger.” As if to stop the argument Itachi knew Naruto was forming, he added, “You will need it in any case, no matter what you choose to do.”

Itachi looked deeply into Naruto’s face, black eyes looking straight across into blue ones. There was no jutsu there, no manipulation from Itachi to make Naruto submit. Instead it was the truth. And it made Naruto suddenly, viciously angry.

Itachi acted as if it was a choice. But it wasn’t. And both of them knew it.

Itachi had brought them this far, and he didn’t expect Naruto to disobey now. Even in the face of Naruto’s impetuous revolt. Somehow it was all still part of his plan.

Sudden warmth rushed into Naruto’s arms. The anger spurred his urge to fight, and his body responded. The amount of power was surprising but not unwelcome. He wanted to yell. He wanted to rage. He wanted pound his fists into something. Most of all, he wanted to fight back. Against Itachi and all his plans, against the wretched camp…and even against his own body, this new ‘vessel,’ this Naruto, the perfect shinobi that he was sure to never live up to—

Fed up with all of it, Naruto left. He threw the canvas back in an explosion of fabric and stormed out of the tent.