Chapter 34 – Washed Away

Author’s note: Sorry this one took so long! Still editing this chapter, but I think it’s mostly done. (But please excuse in typos, errors, etc.) Will post notes later tonight.

Chapter 34 — Washed Away

The darkness that surrounded Katsuro, insulating him, was punctured by an insistent white light. It bore steadily into his eyelids, slowly burning through the fog in head. Katsuro tried to move away from the insufferable glare, but his body didn’t respond.

Shadows drifted across him, blotting out the light. That small need met, Katsuro’s thoughts slunk back into blessed nothingness—

But the light flickered, pulling him back. Distant voices met his ears. The words were watery and garbled, but they kept swimming to him, demanding his attention….

“You think he’ll be alright? I’ve seen burns before, but never like this….” Katsuro knew this voice. The old captain. “I can’t believe he even made it out of there. He’s one lucky kid.”

A quiet chuckle echoed back. It pressed through the numbing void, filling Katsuro with unease.

The shadow shifted. It deepened and swept over him in a dark wave. Itachi…it seemed to whisper.

“It’s not luck. He’s got something special in him. Something that will keep him alive.”

Itachi…. Katsuro stirred uselessly. Fragments of images — Itachi’s snaking hair, his unyielding eyes, his billowing black cloak — unfurled in his mind. “Leave him be. When he’s ready, he’ll wake up.”

The light shifted and there was a whisper of fabric on fabric, almost like a tent flap closing…but it was already growing fainter. The comforting dimness was creeping across him.

With a single ragged breath, Katsuro drifted back into darkness.

Katsuro rubbed his eyes against the blinding daylight. It felt like there was sandpaper behind his eyelids. He blinked at the glowing walls of the tent, not caring where he was. He was thirsty. More thirsty than he’d ever been in his life.

He eased up slowly, his body stiff and aching. He mouth was dry, and his lips were cracked and peeling. But there was only one thought on his mind…. Water….

Hooking a cramped hand around the tent flap, Katsuro tugged it back only to be blinded by the glare. He dropped the flap immediately and sat back on the blanket, exhausted and sun-blind.

He didn’t feel right.

It wasn’t just that his mouth was as dry. He couldn’t remember where he’d been or how he’d gotten here. Katsuro peered around at the tent, feeling sure he didn’t remember coming here to sleep. Fetching back in his mind, only shards of a nightmare came to him. A fire. Screaming. And the demon. Of course.

Katsuro shuddered. He’d been seeing those things since he was a child. But this time, it felt like the dream was still with him. Like the demon had crawled out of its cell and lodged itself between his bones. And now his skin didn’t quite cover the two of them….

Katsuro quickly splayed his fingers, inspecting the back of his hands, then raked them through his coarse, choppy hair. Nope, all still the same.

But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. The terror, raw and angry and demanding, was still with him…. Katsuro rubbed his face, trying to push it away and forget—

The tent flap suddenly pitched open. Katsuro clawed at the light, blocking it out. Though he couldn’t make out the silhouetted shape in the door, he’d know that low, mirthless laugh anywhere….

“About time you woke up….” Itachi threw a full canteen at him. Katsuro forgot the blinding light and drank greedily.

Itachi tied back the flap and squatted down, waiting as Katsuro guzzled.

“What the hell happened,” Katsuro croaked between gulps, surprised at how rusty his voice sounded.

Itachi arched an eyebrow. “Interesting…you don’t remember anything?”

Katsuro frowned. “No,” he said, pulling the canteen away from his mouth. “Just a few things, but none of it makes sense.”

Itachi nodded quietly, observing but not volunteering any information. Katsuro felt the pressure to continue. If he wanted to know anything he’d have to do the talking.

He cleared his throat and lowered the canteen to his lap. “There was a fire,” he said, blinking as the memories replayed themselves. He suddenly cringed. “And— And bodies. The Kyuubi was there. But,” he looked up questioningly, “I was there too? It’s not like the other dreams….”

“That’s because it wasn’t a dream,” Itachi said, lips curving into a small smile.

Katsuro stared back, horrified. “H-How can that be—“

“Do you remember your assignment?”

Katsuro wiped a trembling hand down his face, thirst forgotten. The memories came crashing back.

“The little girl— You made me get her— And—“ He rubbed a hand over his aching stomach. “But why…. Why was the kyuubi there—“

Katsuro looked up, eyes wide and unblinking, tears pooling in the bottom lids. “I— I was the demon?” he whispered. “But…how…?”

Itachi’s smile widened. “So you did retain some memory after all…good. Excellent. You are beginning to harmonize with it. And that will help when—“

“But where is she?” Katsuro frantically looked around the tent as if he had misplaced something. “Where’s the little girl? Did I— Did I—“

Itachi tipped his head and watched him with the bemused smile of a child who’s trapped an insect.

Katsuro fisted his hands into his hair, eyes darting around as he remembered more and more…all broken and out of order. But finally one memory surfaced that drove the color from his face.

A single face, one he knew better than his own, came forward out of the darkness.

The seal at Katsuro’s stomach wrenched suddenly at the image. Adrenaline racing, Katsuro doubled over and grabbed his gut. He felt as if a hole was being opened in his middle. The pain stole his breath, but a malicious anger coursed through his veins.

Katsuro glared up at Itachi. “Where is she?” A growl tinged his voice. Threats and desires and fire swirled in his mind….

Itachi’s smug smile slipped. “There were no other bodies found at the site, if that is what you are referring to.” But he added quietly, “save those you killed yourself, of course.”

It was enough of an answer to send the pain and fire slowly receding. The images and urges loosened their hold. Katsuro slowly sat back up, feeling thirsty and aching all over again.

“You need to learn control,” Itachi said firmly, the usual commanding bite returning to his voice.

Katsuro wasn’t interested in the demon inside him at the moment. “But she’s still alive?” It was a risk to expose himself, but he was too desperate to care.

Itachi sat in stony silence for a long time, holding Katsuro’s firm stare with one of his own. “You failed your mission, started an enormous blaze and racked up a body count that required me to alter the minds of dozen farmhands. And then I had to clear the site of your very distinctive chakra.” Katsuro’s eyes slid away. “I would be more concerned about your own life. Because if I were 15 minutes later you would be sitting in a Konoha jail cell right now.”

Itachi’s continued without sympathy. “You need more training. And although this episode has been an interesting demonstration of your power, you need more control.”

“Get dressed. We’ll leave immediately and catch up with the rest of the men. If you can walk, then you can walk through your pain.” Itachi sized him up. “If you want to use that power,” he pointed at Katsuro’s gut, “then you can’t expect to lie on your back for three weeks afterwards.”

Katsuro looked down at the faint traces of healed blisters on his hands as he processed the new information. But he didn’t care about the pain or the demon. He still didn’t have the answer he needed.

“Is she…. Is she still alive?”

Suddenly, Itachi was in Katsuro’s face, his fist knotted in the front his shirt, startling him with a rare display of temper.

“I don’t care about the girl! Do you understand? You are what is valuable here. Not her!” Itachi’s voice dropped to a malicious growl that rivaled the demon’s. “And not some damn kunoichi from Konoha!”

Itachi was being evasive. Relief splashed across Katsuro’s face. He didn’t kill her!

But Katsuro’s expression only fueled Itachi’s anger. Red swirled behind his black eyes.

“They were not among the wreckage. And I do not care what has become of them.” The air in the tent became thick and stifled. The light from the door smeared into the canvas walls as Itachi’s anger flared into a thin genjutsu, demonstrating his own power. “You have an obligation to me for saving your life, and you will uphold it. Otherwise I will go to Konoha, and I will bring you her body myself!”

The words echoed around Katsuro in the swirling vortex of shadows that had replaced the tent. Images flashed in front of him of a feminine form, the same one, lifeless as a rag doll and draped over doorstep, slain in a kitchen door, fallen just ahead of him on a darkened village road. He moved mechanically toward that the closest one.

At first, the hair hanging over the face was black. Fear and desperation tugged him look closer, and as he did the light shifted. The image became real. The night air was cold on his skin, and the smell of blood coated his tongue with a metallic tang. He knew this. It was the smell of death. He ran toward the body, telling himself it could not be her. Her hair was pink—

At the same moment, the light shifted again. The black hair melted to blood red, then faded to pink. Fear gripped him. He couldn’t cover the ground fast enough. He was hoping, wishing, telling himself that it couldn’t be her. She was in Konoha. She was protected—

A pool of blood blossomed beneath her body. As he got closer he could see it seeping upwards, drenching the black shirt a blood-red. He ran harder repeating that a red shirt meant nothing. Hers was different—

And almost as the thought entered his mind, a faint white circle pushed forward on her back. The crimson bled around it and seeped over the rest of her shirt.

A sob lodged in Katsuro’s throat. His seal ached, the demon threatening to overtake him at any moment. But he ran to her with everything he had, still not covering the ground fast enough.

Katsuro was so fully focused on the body that he did not see the black figure leaning against a wall a short distance away, where the road stretched down into a complex of tidy houses, and where more lifeless bodies dotted the ground. The figure laughed mirthlessly, then stood, revealing a clan symbol — a fan — deeply carved in the wall behind him.

Katsuro pounded toward her, gulping the cold air. The pain behind his navel swelled as if held back behind a dam. He was close enough to see her boots materializing out of the darkness, her hip-pack morphing out of a shadow at her waist.

He was almost upon her body, and he meant to throw himself on her when an apparition appeared suddenly in front of him, blocking him.

Black mist sprung from the ground and solidified into a body. Itachi’s face loomed in front of Katsuro, capturing his full attention with those swirling red eyes, and rooting him to the ground, frozen. The mist swept out from Itachi, turning grey and erasing everything.

“I told you before I have forgiven you for your dalliance,” Itachi said in a voice that seemed to echo in two worlds. “Don’t make me regret that choice.”

Katsuro blinked, and suddenly he was back in his own body. The tent walls were mist grey. A dark blanket pooled on the ground at his knees. Only Itachi’s face was still in front of him. Katsuro reflexively gasped for air.

“No, I won’t.” Katsuro panted. “I’ll do what you ask. I’ll do it all.”

“I knew we’d come to some agreement,” Itachi said as he stood. “Get ready. We’re leaving.”

Katsuro doubled over and dropped his forehead into the cool blankets just to feel that they were real.

But the pain behind his navel still swelled there, just as it did in the genjutsu. It was held back somehow, like a lid forced down on a boiling pot. He panted, realizing Itachi must have done something to him to keep the kyuubi in check.

Katsuro crushed his eyes shut, certain that Itachi knew more about his powers than he let on. And that he clearly knew so very little.

But it was okay, he reassured himself. It was only a genjutsu. She was still alive. Both of them were. Telling himself this, the roiling, pent-up feeling began to subside. With slow, deliberate movements, he crawled out of the tent. Only the canteen was left behind, the remaining water slowly leaking out of the open vessel.

Katsuro stumbled through those first blurry days, not knowing where they were going and suffering through fragmented flashbacks of that awful night. He didn’t try to remember anything. He didn’t want to.

But one thing he couldn’t forget: Kisame’s toothy grin when Katsuro realized he was caught in Itachi’s trap. It stayed with him, taunting him.

Back at the campsite, before all of these terrible events happened, Katsuro walked into Itachi’s tent knowing he’d find Kisame there. The old captain had warned him. But he couldn’t have imagined what was in store for him.

Although looking back now, he should have guessed it was bad. Kisame watched Katsuro with greedy, glinting eyes, like he was a morsel about to be snapped in half.

Katsuro knew better than to let the fear that was tying knots in his stomach show on his face. He pushed down his emotions. “What is the mission? I was hoping to be part of the ambush but—”

“No.” Itachi sounded almost bored. “I have something else of value I need for you to retrieve.” Kisame smiled pleasantly, a slip of serrated teeth showing. A wayward beetle scurried at the edge of the tatami mat and darted beneath Kisame’s bench.

Katsuro didn’t trust any of it. But he tried hard to look unflustered. He slung his hands from his pockets nonchalantly. “Hai, Itachi-sama.”

But the formality only made Kisame’s smile deepen. Itachi narrowed his eyes at the epithet, and a chill went up Katsuro’s spine. Something was wrong.

Itachi’s voice was low and even. “It seems your time with the kunoichi was not a complete loss….”

Katsuro’s eyes went wide. Itachi’s face darkened.

“So…. You have been keeping secrets….”

Katsuro gulped. He’d just given himself away.

Denying it now would only make matters worse. But instead he found himself stumbling through excuses.

“Oh that…. It was nothing. I was out on a mission last year…and she happened to be there…and—“

“And the only reason she is still breathing is that you have presented us with something much more valuable.”

Katsuro was slack-jawed. He could only watch Itachi, mentally racing through what he could mean. Kisame snickered.

“I have a mission for you. One that only you can lead.” Itachi produced a scroll. Katsuro took it automatically. “You will take a team to retrieve the chakra sensor, then deliver her to Kisame.”

Kisame looked at Katsuro with a gleam of challenge in his black eyes. “She will make a nice addition to Akatsuki’s resources.”

Katsuro crushed the scroll in his hands. He was sick. He would rather die than turn that girl over to him to be used as a tool. Kisame was a monster. He’d turn her into one too. And if she didn’t do his bidding—

Katsuro grit his teeth, smothering the thought. No. Maybe he could still keep her safe. And Sakura too.

“Listen, nothing happened,” Katsuro said with false ease. “I was only using the kunoichi to…to get to the girl. I know should have told you but I…I thought the girl was still to young.” He rallied, feeling more confident with every word. “I know it was a mistake. But let me make up for it! Let me train the girl. I found her after all, I have the right to—”

“You don’t have the right to open your mouth!” Itachi’s face was pale with fury.

Kisame swung his sword off his back and flipped it in front of him, letting its tip hit the ground with a thud. The beetle scurried out from behind the bench leg. “Why don’t you let me have that one too.” Kisame nodded at Katsuro. “I’ll teach him a few lessons.”

Suddenly the wrappings encasing the sword shifted and moved. Katsuro watched in horror as it bulged towards him.

Itachi tipped his head as if he was seriously considering it. Katsuro’s gaze darted from the sword to the two men, not sure which to be more alarmed about.

“Interesting,” Kisame said, eyeing Katsuro with predatory interest. “The kid must have more secrets if he’s awoken Samehada.” The weapon seemed to shiver then emitted a noise, almost like a purring. The beetle waggled it’s antennae at the unknown creature and crept forward for a closer look.

Kisame narrowed his eyes at Katsuro. “Why not let me crack the kid open and find out what’s inside—“

“No,” Itachi said sharply, squelching Kisame’s growing interest. He breathed, his restrained calm returning. “Unfortunately I have invested too much time in him. And I still have not seen if my investment will pay off. So far, he’s fallen disappointingly short of his mark.”

Katusro ignored Itachi’s goading. At least he wasn’t being shipped off with Kisame. His shoulders rose and fell with a relieved breath.

Kisame laughed at him. Without warning, he shifted the blade and caught the beetle, impaling it under the tip. Its legs wiggled uselessly. Then sword took on a life of its own. It shuddered and bulged downward, crushing the beetle. Green fluid oozed out through the cracks in its shattered shell.

With another rattling purr, the blade bulged out once more at Katsuro before resuming its inanimate shape.

Katsuro tore his horrified gaze away only to find Kisame studying him. The gill slits under his eyes rippled faintly.

Katsuro sensed his interest was sharpening again. Itachi must have sensed it too.

“I do not know what lies she fed you,” Itachi said with an air of finality, “but it is over now. I have overlooked your dalliance, and I expect full compliance in return.”

To go against Itachi now meant death. For the child, and for Sakura. There was no way out. He had to comply.

“Hai, Itachi-sama.” He did not look at Kisame again. Numb, he turned and left the tent.

Out on the sun-bleached road, Katsuro stumbled. He shaded his eyes from the late summer sun. It had been months since that night, and three weeks since the fire. But he could still smell the smoke, still feel the tight sting of the new flesh across the seal.

He and Itachi were making their way to a temporary camp, to meet up with the captain. The black cloak bobbed along the road in front of him, and Katsuro felt like he was a child again. Blindly following Itachi across the countryside.

But it wasn’t the same. He knew things had changed.

His energy was unstable, his seal ached and he felt like two bodies in one. The demon felt too close to the surface.

Itachi didn’t speak to him, beyond what was necessary. They’d walked for five days in near silence when Itachi announced to Katsuro one night was strong enough to proceed on alone.

Katsuro looked up from the campfire. “What’s about the rest? What’s going on with the ambush—“

“It’s in progress. I’m going now to oversee it.”

Katsuro nodded, sliding his eyes back to the fire, understanding that being excluded was his punishment.

“The captain is expecting you. In two days time.” Itachi’s voice was cold and level. “Any delay and I will hand you over to Kisame.”

“Hai, Itachi-sama,” he said quietly.

Itachi pulled his hands in front of his chest, spoke a soundless jutsu, then disappeared in a flurry of black feathers.

Katsuro swore and pounded a fist into the dirt.

Even the damn march through the barrens of the Earth Country was probably a punishment. But a bruised ego and sore feet weren’t the worst of it.

Itachi’s genjutsu had spread his feelings for Sakura wide open. Itachi read him like a book.

He knew he had to let her go.

Staring into the dancing flames, Katsuro pictured Sakura, happy and in Konoha. The little girl would be with her too, of course. He imagined the two of them, walking through the hazy streets of his memory. Smiling and talking. The wall looming behind them.

A yellow flame fizzed suddenly on a smoldering branch, the fire reaching it’s dry core. But it quickly died.

He hated Konoha. That wall had been his enemy for so long. But now it protected her. Them. And Katsuro admitted he was glad it was there. Konoha would keep her safe. And he would do whatever he had to do to keep her safe too.

So he’d let her go. He would move on, do his duty, and never give Itachi a reason to go after her. Them. Ever.

Inside the captain’s meagre campaign tent, the old man filled Katsuor in on the events of the last few weeks.

The ambush had lurched into action. The enormous shipment of metal purchased by their operatives posing as Mist nins had been transported through the territories. The convoy was ambushed at night, on the most secluded part of the road which happened to run closest to the Lightning Country. And their Mist purchaser — or their former soldier who looked like him — had turned up dead. Empty handed. They got the metal and the money. And it all went exactly as planned. The captain was fairly beaming by that point.

“And our men, disguised as Cloud nins, made sure enough of the drivers and guards got away so they could point their fingers back at Kumi.”

“And the rest?”

“Killed. Of course the Boss made sure to scorch them with lightning the way those Cloud nins do.” The captain grinned. “Itachi-sama said it would make it look more authentic.”

Katsuro nodded. This was more than he’d ever heard anyone speak about it at one time. It was always “the plan.” But now, he could see the soldier’s pride showing through in the captain’s weathered face. The job had been a success.

“We now have enough metal for an army!”

Katsuro frowned. “But…Itachi’s not building an army…is he?” Maybe Itachi had lied….

“No, you know as well as I do that he’s going to rebuild the city. Our city.” He smiled deeply, looking off. “The village will be what it was. No. Better. It will be invincible! No more wood huts. No more fishing shacks.”

The captain pounded a fist into his open palm. “The Rain Village will be the strongest of the all the hidden villages. We will break the shinobis’ hold on this world.” He spat the word shinobi. “That system has held us down. We’ve been in the mud, under their boots as those nations used our great country as their battlefield.” The refocused, his face flushed. “Rain will be the center of the new world. And you will have a place there too, soldier!”

Katsuro smiled. He couldn’t help himself. The captain grabbed his shoulder and rocked it, making Katsuro laugh with him.

Though he had become disillusioned with Itachi, Katsuro understood how the captain felt. “The plan” — to turn the old Rain Village into a true powerhouse, hidden right beneath the noses of the other countries — was something that all the old Rain soldiers were invested in.

And the idea that he would belong somewhere, as Itachi had always promised, was one that Katsuro still held dear. The Rain Village would be a new beginning. For all of them. They’d overthrow the shinobi system of governing that only saw men as weapons, and the Rain Village would be ruled fairly. Where shinobi were no longer tools. Where children were no longer plucked up to house demons inside—

The captain slammed down a sake bottle on the long table, followed by two cups. He filled them both to overflowing. Katsuro smiled earnestly. At the plan, the old captain’s mirth, and the feeling that he belonged. That he was accepted. “Drink up, soldier! This is a time to celebrate!”

Katsuro hesitated. Itachi had forbidden him from ever drinking with the men. But surely being offered it by the captain didn’t count….

So Katsuro lifted the cup gingerly and sipped. The liquid tasted both bitter and sweet as it went down. Glancing over the edge of his cup, Katsuro saw the captain down his in one gulp. So Katsuro did the same. This sake burned his nose and throat, but he drank it all.

Seeing the boy’s empty cup, the old captain laughed heartily. “That’s the spirit!” Then he poured another round.

The next morning Katsuro hovered outside the captain’s tent. The night before was lost in a haze of drinking. But the captain ended the evening with the good news that Katsuro had another mission, a solitary one. He clapped Katsuro on the back and told him to come by in the morning for his scroll. Katsuro remembered stumbling back to his tent feeling elated.

But now, thinking clearly in the morning light, Katsuro wasn’t sure if it he had a mission at all. The captain could easily have misspoken. Because surely Itachi wouldn’t allow him out unsupervised, not after everything that had happened.

But there Katsuro stood, cautiously hopeful.

The captain pulled back the flap and smirked at him. His face was tired and drawn, like he hadn’t had much sleep. A canteen of water was in his hand.

“Walking off the effects? Well, that’s youth for you,” he said as he summoned Katsuro inside. He took a swig from the canteen before sitting it on the desk.

It was then that Katsuro realized he felt fine. He had none of the sluggishness he always saw in the other men after a night of drinking. The sake bottles were piled in the corner, evidence that it wasn’t just one cup. But for Katsuro it was like nothing had happened at all. The captain rubbed a hand down his face, looking even more haggard than before, and Katsuro decided not to mention his self-discovery.

“You said you had a job for me?”

The captain grunted and pulled out a scroll.

He was right. It was all there in Itachi’s bold strokes: Katsuro was make a delivery to Rain—

The captain flung a small sack on the table, wincing when it clanged loudly.

“Special metal. Best of the lot. Been chakra-enhanced. Don’t know what it’s for. But the Big Boss wants it.” Katsuro smiled at the funny Rain habit of making nicknames. The captain produced a slim grey Rain scroll and set it beside the sack. “If he likes it, he’ll send word back. So wait for it.”

Katsuro was in disbelief. He didn’t expect to be given missions again so soon. He gathered up the sack and scroll quickly in case it was all a mistake.

But the captain called him out just as he reached the door. Katsuro grimaced. He knew it was too good to be true—

“And hey, uh…let’s keep all this to ourselves, right?” The captain waved his hand at the pile of sake bottles.

Katsuro grinned. “Sure thing, boss,” he said, cheekily addressing him the way the older soldiers did.

“Bah!” The captain waved him off good-naturedly, then went back to nursing his canteen.

Grey clouds huddled on the horizon. Anywhere else they would look like a gathering storm. Or the remnants of one. But Katsuro knew better. Somewhere under that mass was the Rain territory. And those clouds never moved.

Katsuro had several different pictures of this land in his mind, even though he’d never set foot there. But even from the beginning, it seemed like his destiny was leading him to this strange sodden land.

Itachi had given him only the sparest reasons for joining the Akatsuki. But rebuilding the Rain village was at the heart of it.

And Katsuro remembered their conversation well.

“But…. Why would we want to join someone other stupid village?” The nine-year old squinted up cheekily at the black-haired nin beside him. “We’re finally free! We can do what we want!”

“Because…” Itachi paused and gave him a long look, as if changing his mind about something. “Because the Rain is just like us. It has been used as a tool for war for so many years, there’s hardly anything left. They would be like us if we were used the way Konoha wanted to use us. Understand? Rain’s leader wants to rebuild the village, restore it…no, make it even better. And one day it will rule all the other hidden villages.”

Katsuro frowned at the last sentence. “It will be just the same as the others then—“

“No, you see, this one will be a free village,” Itachi said smoothly. “It will never be like the others. That’s why we to help them out. Just imagine, there you could be a free shinobi. And you could fight and help out others like us. Just like you’ve always wanted.” He smiled encouragingly at the boy.

Young Katsuro tipped his head to the side, considering it all.

“The other members of Akatsuki understand this as well. Just like us, they each have a part to play in this great change. Each is responsible for bringing something…unique to the table.” He slanted a significant glance down at the boy.

Katsuro just scratched his head and scrunched up his nose. “But I thought—“

“It doesn’t matter,” Itachi said dryly, refocusing. “What matters is what’s inside you, and that you’re kept safe. And Rain can provide that for us. Right now, my interests and Pain’s are in harmony.”

“What?” Katsuro squawked “Pain? Who’s in pain? Or did you say rain?”

“No. Pain is a person,” Itachi said, losing patience. “The leader of the Akatsuki. And rebuilding his village suits my needs.”

Katsuro wrinkled his nose and opened his mouth wide, ready to ask another question. But Itachi cut him off with a wave of his hand.

“The details don’t matter,” he snapped. “It’s just for you to understand why we’re doing this. And anything I ask of you, you must do. Because it’s for this one cause. Understand?”

Katsuro bobbed his head vigorously. To his young mind, it all made sense. “Yep. We’re helping Rain because we’re going to make it a better village than all the rest. Where everybody’ll be free.” Itachi nodded, satisfied.

He remembered that conversation because that was the moment when the promise of being a village shinobi — of being part of something larger, where he felt proud and knew he belonged — had become tangible.

Even now, years later, he hadn’t forgotten that feeling of hope. It was clouded by the jobs he had to do — the genjutsus, the thefts, the blood and the occasional death — but it was still there, a far off goal. As far away as the old Rain village itself, hidden behind the mist.

Katsuro shielded his eyes and scanned the dry riverbed ahead of him. The Rain territory was dead ahead. Just like the captain said, all he had to do was follow that dark smudge on the horizon and he’d get there.

So Katsuro continued picking his way over the dusty river rocks, slowing moving through the dry, desolate lands that abutted the Rain territory.

Ame was a mysterious, secretive country set in a natural bowl of land, ringed by high cloud-capped mountains. There were only two passes in and out. Narrow one-lane cart paths blasted through of steep mountain walls. Both were treacherous, even for allies.

Listening to the old Rain soldiers talk at the campfires, Katsuro knew it wasn’t always this way. Before the wars, the men claimed it was an open, friendly country, with large swaths of farmland instead of water-logged valleys.

And there were several passes through the mountains, where merchants trundled through lush cloud forests to trade with the thriving village. The steep mountains were the country’s protection and the constant cycle of rainfall was it’s bounty.

The rains fed down into the natural bowl, trickling in streams and rivulets until they united into one broad flat river. It flowed like gentle giant through the rolling valleys of the nation, until it reached the lowest border of the country. There it broke apart again, sluicing down the mountain in rapids or disappearing under the earth, carrying its waters down into the other nations.

In the heart of the country, the Village Hidden in the Rain rose up on a picturesque spit of land at the confluence of the great waters. Its citizens lived in harmony with the moving waters, using a magnificent system of interlocking canals to move around the village. The soldiers often waxed poetic about the “floating city,” although few could claim to have seen it in it’s heyday. Before the wars took their toll.

The bickering and strife that plagued the five great nations had long skirted the small Rain country. But being a tiny nation squashed between the others, their safety couldn’t last forever.

It started small, just a few squads running espionage on their enemies and using the Rain country as their cover. But as it became apparent that the country was the easiest route of attack, war came to Rains’ doorstep.

The five nations, in their attempts to constant foil one another, destroyed the land as it suited them. Trade roads were detonated to stop the advance of one nation. Rivers were dammed to dry up the lands of another. Katsuro remembered the old Rain soldiers blaming it on the shinobis. But Katsuro didn’t think anyone could wield so much power they could move mountains or stop rivers.

The scars left on the land were permanent. Farmlands were flooded. Trade dried up. The five nations intensified their battles. And the Rain country turned on itself.

As the flood waters rose and food became scarce, citizens merged on the city demanding aid. Or blood. Factions broke off. Some went to fight the great nations. They never returned. Others gathered their goods on their backs and left, sloshing through former farmlands toward the only passes left open. Their lives were not much better outside the Rain country. Those that survived the ambushes by rogues and enemy nins faced a hard life in another territory that didn’t want them.

The rest were left in the old city, stranded. ‘Like rats on a raft,’ the soldiers would say.

Many men came, one after another, promising aid. Upstarts from the five nations looking to make a name for themselves. Or quick money. They took what little the citizens had left. And gave nothing in return.

And into this power void came another man. The Salamander, the soldiers called him. He promised to rebuild the country, open the demolished passes and blast the land dams. But he was slippery. And the denizens of the flooded village soon realized he had no intention of restoring their city. He was a cruel dictator who controlled the trade, transportation, everything. It all went to his gain. And assassination was his chosen method of coercion.

Rain citizens were prisoners in their own land. Old farmers turned to fishing, and the once-thriving nation was reduced to a scattered network of fishing huts. The “floating city” was left to drown.

And that’s when the rains started.

Katsuro toed the dusty path. The rocks ahead of him were strewn with dots. Those behind him were not.

A sprinkling rain fell like a curtain from the thin cloud-cover overhead. Yet the full, steel-grey clouds still loomed in the distance.

He frowned and put his hand out, watching the sprinkles spatter his hand. He had expected rain, of course, but not this far from the border pass.

He pulled his rain hood on and stepped into the line of the drizzle. The land around him was still barren, and the water ran away in muddy rivulets. He tucked his hand in his pocket, felt for the slim water-tight container holding the Rain scroll, then kept going.

Katsuro had delivered scrolls to the border before, but never beyond. The Rain citizens were a suspicious lot. So he never minded just handing the scroll to the man waiting for him in the dry wastelands at the edge of the Rain territory.

But the more time he spent with the captain and the old Rain soldiers, the more he was curious to see what the it was like there. Especially since it was the “floating city” that Itachi hoped to rebuild.

And he had to admit, he was also curious about the man the captain called the “Big Boss.”

The Rain people had funny names for their leaders. The Big Boss. The Angel. He didn’t know who they were or what they meant. But he knew those two were in control. Partners of some sort, a man and a woman. But that’s all he knew.

The loyal soldiers would never say it, but some of the men they picked up would…. They would ask if it was true that the old village was ruled by an angel. And an devil.

The Rain soldiers laughed it off, but Katsuro noticed they never corrected them. Though they with a strange reverence for their woman, the “Angel,” they were very tight lipped about the “Big Boss.” All they would say was that he was an old war veteran. The woman worked with him to take care of the village. She did his bidding, carried out his orders, and issued decrees in his name. But no one ever saw him.

They came with the rain.

Katsuro had long suspected the Big Boss and Pain were the same person. Although the captain never spoke his name, and Itachi said it only rarely. But if the stories were true, then this was the man who stood up to the Salamander.

To hear the captain tell it, the man was treated like their savior. The captain was a younger man when he joined the fighting against the Salamander. And one of their soldiers led them all. He defeated the dictator, but at a great personal loss.

And at almost at the same moment of victory, the rains started.

Clouds descended from the forests, covering everything in a clinging fog. Then, the sky began to weep. And it never stopped.

It fell endlessly, through the bloody civil war that pitted Rain soldiers against the last of the Salamander’s regime. Until marshes and swamps filled in where crops used to be and all the great nations forgot that there was even a country there. It was reduced to a smudge on a map, not even worth the trouble of naming.

Katsuro followed the old footpath up into the cool, cloud-covered forests. The rains were increasing. It spattered around him and dripped off the front of his hood. He approached the mountain pass, a dark trench cut through the rocks, and peered around at the fogged forest. Brown tree trunks disappeared into grey nothing.

He listened hard, but the only noise was the steady hiss and drum of raindrops on leaves. It fell evenly, wrapping around him in a curtain of sound. He had expected to be accosted by some guard on patrol. He gripped the scroll, waiting to flash it to verify his intent. But no one came. It appeared he was alone.

He released the scroll, slipped his hand forward to the kunai holstered on his thigh and slowly made his way through the narrow pass. Katsuro nervously eyed the high rock walls. But no one jumped down at him.

Out the other side of the pass, the woods disappeared again into the mist. Katsuro had the eerie feeling he was being watched. He unholstered his kunai. Letting the water run down his face, he stood still and waited. But nothing happened. He was truly alone.

So he began his slow descent into the Rain territory. But he kept his kunai out just in case.

The footpath wound down the mountain, at times growing steep. He slipped on a moss-covered stone and the sack of metal clanked loudly at his side. Not even the steady downpour could mask that sound.

Re-holstering the kunai for his own safety, he pondered the enigma of this country. And Pain.

Katsuro was mildly curious just to get a look at the guy. He must be tough if he went by the name “Pain.” Katsuro snickered softly at the thought.

Itachi rarely spoke of any of the Akatsuki. But he did mention Pain with a note of respect. So Katsuro was inclined to think he was more like he and Itachi, someone with a power to be hidden and protected, than some of the other Akatuski men. Like Kisame. He shuddered at that thought.

The rain pounded ceaselessly, enveloping him.

Katsuro continued down the rain slicked mountainsides until finally the ground began to flatten out. The temperature was a little warmer, and he realized he was in a bowl of land. It was mucky and swampy and perpetually foggy as he slogged over once-rolling farmlands. But at least the rain was beginning to ease up.

He pushed on, finally coming to the great marsh the captain had told him about. Somewhere beyond he’d find an old fishing village. Katsuro had followed the meandering tributaries for what felt like an eternity when sure enough, out of the mist in the distance poked a jagged line of old huts. He sloshed toward them.

A rise in the land separated the marsh and vast water. Teetering on stilts, a handful of fishing shacks clung to the desolate shore. Tattered nets hung from tall poles behind the huts, waiting to be used. Water lapped against the stilts and an old bamboo wind chime stuttered a few hollow sounds with the breeze.

Mercifully, the rain had slowed to a fine drizzle.

Katsuro peered up at the first shanty. The limp edge of a curtain moved at the window. But there was nothing else. He chalked it up to the breeze. The place looked empty.

So Katsuro waited. He looked out, trying to see where the grey water disappeared into the grey mist, but he could not. It just melted together seamlessly. He heaved a sigh.

Now that he was here, he was really hoping to see what the old Rain village looked like. Or at least, what was left of it. Since Itachi had spent years orchestrating everything for its resurrection, he’d like to see it for himself.

And Pain, too. Would he be like Itachi? Or more like Kisame…?

Katsuro watched the water, expecting a large boat to roll out of the fog at any moment. But there was no movement on the still waters. Just the steady lapping of water beneath the fishing huts.

The longer he waited, water running in thin rivulets down his cloak, the more exposed he felt. It was the same at the mountain pass, that eerie feeling he was being watched. He eyed the shacks again and this time saw movement inside, a silhouette behind the curtain. Katsuro realized there must be fishermen or their families inside. Probably hiding, he decided. He breathed a quick sigh of relief. He couldn’t blame them for being suspicious, not with everything they’d probably endured—

Just then, the lapping took on a different tone. It slapped against something solid. Katsuro peered hard and saw long pole spearing out of the mist, guiding a flat-bottom boat to shore. It was narrow and long, and a single man stood at the back. Katsuro was just wondering if it could support the two of them, when the man jumped off and splashed through the small surf towards Katsuro.

He had the same pasty, gaunt look that all the Rain countrymen had. Too little sun. Too much rain. And he wore the same black fatigues as the captain. A Rain soldier. He approached Katsuro with his hand out and a hard look on his face.

Katsuro pulled out the scroll and passed it over. The man read the note, then without looking up opened his other hand for the sack. Katsuro dropped it into his palm. He finished reading, then inspected its contents.

Satisfied, he grunted, “It’s good. Deliver the rest.” Then he turned to go.

Katsuro had still hoped to see the village. “Wait! That’s the message then? The…uh, B-Big Boss doesn’t need to see it?” The epithet sounded clumsy and unnatural coming from him. He hoped the soldier didn’t notice.

He was wrong

The man swiveled back and sneered, “No kid! That’s the message! No one sees th-the B-B-Big Boss,” he stuttered, mocking Katsuro. “Especially not runts like you. Now take off!!”

Katsuro bristled, but he instantly realized his mistake. All Rain soldiers were surly and distrustful. The only exception was the old captain. This man didn’t know him, so even hinting at being taken to the village was seen as suspicious.

The soldier didn’t care, though. He was already stalking back to the boat. Suddenly he swatted a hand in the direction of the old shacks. Katsuro followed his line of sight in time to see a silhouette moved at the window of the closest hut. The corners of Katsuro’s mouth twitched up. He decided that the tough soldier didn’t like the watching eyes of the old fishermen either.

Wiping the mist from his face, Katsuro turned to trudge back up into the mountains. Back into the curtain of pounding rain.

Katsuro returned to find that the camp life he had grown accustomed had been completely dissolved. It took him several days to even catch up with them. And when he did, he was surprised to find that most of the men had been paid off and dismissed. And, knowing Itachi, they were probably sent packing with a light jutsu to cover their tracks too.

Only the old soldiers and most capable of men were left. No more babysitting local thugs.

So Katsuro spent the next few weeks moving with the remains of their group as they tried to lay low. Fall was coming, and with the harvest the towns and trade routes would be bustling.

But Katsuro knew they were waiting for fallout from the ambush. Waiting to see which country would make the first move, and if Itachi’s plan would prove right….

So it was a complete surprise to enter the captain’s tent and find Itachi and three unfamiliar young men, just as the phrase “Katsuro’s team” floated through the open door.

“Come in, Katsuro,” the captain smiled. But Itachi did not.

Katsuro quietly closed the flap behind him, not trusting what he’d just heard.

Three teens, about Katsuro’s age or a little older, stood off to the side. They were all taller than Katsuro, the biggest one by nearly a head.

The captain beamed like Katsuro was about to receive a great present. But Itachi’s pale face remained impassive.

“Katsuro, this is Taichi, Koro and Joro. They will be your new team.”

The three stood in a knot and looked him up and down. The biggest one Taichi, a beefy kid with muscled forearms and a thick neck, snorted and looked away, unimpressed. The other two must have been brothers. They favored each other with their lanky build and sleek pony tails. But whereas Koro had the rugged face and squashed nose of a fighter, Joro’s smooth aristocratic visage was at odds with his shabby clothes. Both brothers looked liked they wanted to laugh at Katsuro.

Katsuro looked from the teens to Itachi and back again. There had to be a catch.

After a long pause, filled with a some snickering from the three, Katsuro cleared his throat.

“I…uh, didn’t know I was getting a team. But…that’s uh…great! What were your names again?” He realized that was a detail he should have paid closer attention to.

The biggest, Taichi, snorted. “Can’t even remember our names? Are you sure your even old enough to lead a group of men like use? Why don’t you just follow us, little pup—“

Katsuro’s face went red. These weren’t skilled fighters! They were only thugs, local street rats no different from all the rest. He threw up his hands and shot Itachi a questioning glance.

But Itachi remained stoic. Katsuro redoubled, guessing that this was the catch. The others were off doing duties, things that mattered, while Katsuro was saddled with a team of idiots. This seemed like the kind of punishment Itachi would cook up. He’d always wanted a team of his own hadn’t he? Yeah, well, now he had one.

Katsuro grit his teeth. He didn’t care about names. He’d call them whatever the hell he wanted.

“Well, what can you do? Can you fight?” Katsuro pointed to Koro’s broken nose. “Maybe he can, but it looks like he lost.”

The kid made a fist and snarled his lip in a silent threat.

Katsuro shook his head, rolled his eyes and turned to Itachi, ready to tell him that he’d rather work alone than do anything with these windbags, when Itachi spoke.

“This group seemed well-suited for you, Katsuro. After all, I discovered them in a village you once visited.” His voice was dangerously calm. “I thought you might have even crossed paths.” He tipped his head, looking Katsuro right in the eye.

Katsuro went still. He looked back to the three then quietly asked the obvious. “Where are you from?”

“Yoshino-shi,” the big one said, inspecting his nails. “If you’ve been there, then you’ve seen us. We rule the streets there.” He drew himself up, expecting Katsuro to be impressed. When Katsuro didn’t speak, he continue proudly.

“Joro gets their attention,” Joro flashed a winning smile, “while I rob them blind from the other side. And Koro jumps in if they put up a fight.” Koro popped his knuckles and sneered in what Katsuro guessed a smile.

Katsuro shrugged. “Eh, Never heard of it.” But his mind was racing. The name didn’t ring a bell. Three glorified bullies…from a village….

Taichi scoffed. “Of course you have. Everyone has. Our cherry trees are the best in the world! Which means our take is the richest!” He waggled his eyebrows while the others snickered.

And suddenly it clicked. Cherry blossoms. A bustling trade village. Sakura.

These were the punks she ran into in the alley.

Katsuro felt the heat begin to rise at the memory. Three thugs, taunting her in the dark alley. The biggest standing over, leering at her—

Katsuro forced his face to stay blank. He could feel the weight of Itachi’s stare on him.

This was the catch. The real one. These guys weren’t just a squad, they were a weight around his ankle. It was Itachi’s subtle way of reminding him that he was being watched.

Katsuro squared his shoulders. Itachi had obviously jutsu’d them. He would have seen that Sakura was with those thugs in the alley, and he would’ve guessed it was Katsuro coming out of the darkness, even though his face was shrouded by his hood.

But Katsuro had already confessed to seeing her. So Itachi wouldn’t have learned anything he didn’t already know.

Katsuro saw this new team for what it truly was. A test.

Leading a permanent group served two purposes. To keep Katsuro occupied with training and chasing after troublemakers, and to clip his own wings. Now, every move he made would be accounted for.

Katsuro cleared his throat. Itachi was still watching him, waiting, expecting him to show any sign of disloyalty, any flicker of leftover feelings. Katsuro wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.

“Never heard of it,” he said carelessly. “And we sure as hell don’t need any more thugs or glorified pickpockets around here.” The three began to argue back when Itachi interrupted.

“Taichi knows the lands beyond the Earth and Wind countries better than anyone else.” Katsuro looked skeptical. “And Joro and Koro are masterful at deception. The three together will suit our needs very well.”

Katsuro looked skeptically at three, who were standing a little taller after that introduction.

“Yeah,” Taichi drawled. “Let us deliver your messages. Your young pup can tag along and see how it’s done.”

Itachi merely raised an eyebrow. But the muscle at Katsuro’s jaw jumped.

“My team,” Katsuro said in a low, threatening voice. “I’ll be the one in charge.”

The three looked at him and smirked. Itachi leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. Even the captain watched quietly, curious to see how the standoff would end.

Katsuro knew the first thing he had to do with new recruits was to show them who was boss. He’d seen the captain do it dozens of times.

So Katsuro widened his stance, propped his hands on his hips and jutted his chin out, tipping his face up to the three taller boys. He gave his best impression of the captain. Even stealing his lines.

“You may have been promised good money,” Katsuro barked, “but if you want it, you’ll be taking your orders from me. Now, your first step closer to your coin is to get outside and show me what you can do!”

He pointed to the door.

No one moved. Then, cursing, Taichi slowly turned toward the door. He stalked out, glaring at Katsuro as he passed by. Joro and Koro followed.

Katsuro knew, from watching the captain, that the promise of steady pay was too much to resist. It always worked over the new recruits. Better than the promise of wine, women or a good thrashing.

Katsuro turned back to the two men left in the tent. The captain beamed like a proud parent. Even Itachi’s lips curved faintly after Katsuro’s act.

“I am curious to see how you will manage your own squad,” Itachi said. There was a note of honesty in his voice.

Katsuro ignored it and instead looked him straight in the eye. They both knew this had nothing to do with new teams.

“I will not disappoint you, Itachi-sama.” It was the same phrase he uttered after that awful night. And he meant it.

Itachi nodded solemnly, accepting Katsuro’s unspoken message.

Fall winds blew across the land, and with it came many changes.

Katsuro learned that his special team was to be a messenger service for the Akatsuki, among other odd jobs that they might be called on to perform. But their primary function, though the three in his unit would not know, was deliver scrolls between from the Rain headquarters to the Akatsuki members. Katsuro would carry the scrolls; his team would serve as his protection and ultimately a sacrifice if he needed to escape.

They didn’t know that, of course. But they should have been able to figure it out. After all, they were a team in name only.

For the first several weeks Katsuro spent every waking hour training them. And they spent every waking hour fighting him. They were insolent and surly, and would rather drink late and sleep in than get up and work. But he didn’t care. He drug their sorry butts out of the tents anyway, put kunais in their hands and made them throw at a single mark on a tree until they hit it. Over and over again. Just as Itachi had taught him.

At first they didn’t want to take orders from someone younger and smaller than they were. “The young pup” they openly called him.

That stopped completely when Katsuro finally took Koro up on his offer of “a real fight-club style fight. Just to show you how it’s done. You’re so little, they’d probably never let you in the door!” The others laughed and came out to the campfire to see the brawl.

The show didn’t last long.

Katsuro knocked Koro out with a single blow, then stepped over him to take down the much larger Taichi without batting an eye.

Taichi, being more parts bluster than hard-headed fight-loving Koro, stepped back and threw up his hands in a show of deference.

Behind him, Joro laughed, saying that “they were just giving you a hard time. You understand, just playing around! No hard feelings, right?!” Dimples peeked out on his smooth cheeks as he worked the charming smile he used so effectively on others. But Katsuro was pleased to hear the nervousness behind his laugh just the same.

The stripped-down camp was always on the move now. And Taichi proved useful in guiding them along shaded short-cuts to hidden coves.

The territories had always been risky, but now they were downright dangerous. Pockets of warring shinobis could pop up even in the sleepiest towns.

Just as Itachi had planned, the battle-thirsty shinobi villages had launched a secret war after the ambush, and the territories were overrun with nins. Not just the five nations either. Every country had sent out spies or squads to protect their interests. Distrust was rampant. No one was safe, no land untouched by suspicion or the threat of bloodshed.

Except for the Rain territory. That land was forgotten. An overlooked puddle right in the middle of everything. Which was exactly what Itachi wanted. He’d set the stage, now everyone was playing their part.

All the way down to Katsuro and his team.

Katsuro’s job was to hunt down the Akatsuki members in their bars or tea houses or mountain tops, and hand-deliver a message from Rain’s elusive leader,: The next phase of the plan was underway. Katsuro figured it would all be outlined in the little grey scrolls. But in case the scroll was lost, all that was needed were those words. The Akatsuki members would know what to do.

So Katsuro set out for the arid territories beyond between rocky Earth Country to the north and the vast desert of the Wind Country to the south. His first scroll was destined for Deidara and Sasori. And he had no idea where they might be. But Itachi said to start in the territories beyond the Rain. So that’s where they headed.

The travel was hard and the were nights growing colder, but for the first time Katsuro was part of a team. He didn’t have a shared history like they did, but he had to admit it was interesting to hear their stories night after night. It was nice being around people his own age who didn’t automatically hate him, like the rest of the recruits always did.

His mind would often wander when the set up camp at night, as he built the fire and listened to the three good-naturedly squabble. Soon they’d be recounting stories about misadventures, close scrapes and hearty victories.

Katsuro couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way it was in the shinobi villages. If he had grown up in Konoha, would he feel this way? This sense of camaraderie? Sakura certainly made it seem like that.

But those thoughts were dangerous. He closed his mind to the memories and propped his fish on the makeshift spit over the fire, moving it farther away from the licking flames. The other three leaned forward and positioned theirs as well, moving theirs to the center.

Katsuro watched the firelight dance over their faces as they settled into comfortable spots to wait for their dinner to cook. He’d learned a lot about his men in the months they’d been together.

Taichi may have known his way around all the small countries, but that was only because of his insatiable lust for gambling. He knew of — and had been thrown out of — nearly every gaming den in the territories. Joro and Koro weren’t much better. Twin brothers, their pleasures were clear on their faces. Joro, with his boyish good looks and smooth charm, headed straight for the tea houses. While the powdered women smiled and blushed for him, they never looked at his brother. Not Koro that cared. His broken nose was a badge of honor at the fight clubs.

Money, or the lack of it, was what brought them together in the beginning. As Taichi told it, he’d gotten a tip on a big spender, a legendary sucker, who was going to be his favorite gambling house the next night. But there was no way they’d let him in. He was, at that moment, sitting on the curb outside, nursing a fat lip courtesy of the back door bouncer, and licking the even worse wound of being taken for all of his money. Those fat old men…. If only he could scrape together enough coin, he’d buy his way back into the game and win it back—

Just then, Koro came flying out of a door down the dark alley, landing on his back. The door slammed shut, but not before the sounds of laughter filtered out. The man at the door sneered, “I keep telling you, you’re too young to fight here! But I’ll keep your share of the winnings so we both can remember!” The the door swung shut and the alley was quiet again.

Holding a badly bleeding nose, Koro stumbled up the dark lane. He dropped to the curb a few feet from Taichi, tipped his head back and shoved a rag to his nose.

Taichi spit watery blood from his lip. “Looks like you’re worse off than me.”

Koro gave a nasally laugh.

Just then another boy appeared at the mouth of the narrow alley. He peered into the darkness, face brightening when he saw the broken-nosed kid.

“Oi! He beat you again?!” The dapper kid came down the alley, nodded once at Taichi, then came to stand in front of the injured boy.

Koro nodded, making snuffling sounds of agreement.

“He take your share of the winnings?” Koro nodded miserably. “Damn,” he sighed and dropped to the curb, not caring that the wet filth of the alley would surely stain his obviously stolen silken clothes.

“Wha’ ‘bout yoo?” Koro said through his rag.

Joro shook his head. “Naw, Momo said she’s tired of giving me loans. And the mothers of the other houses won’t even let me near their door.”

Koro motioned with his elbow at Joro’s clothes. “You like ‘em? Saw them at an open window when I was cutting behind a teahouse.” Dimples peeked out on Joro’s round cheeks and his eyes twinkled. “The owner was a little to preoccupied to care,” he said, chuckling.

“But Bro, I needed you to come through on that coin. What the hell are we going to do now? The night’s too young to spend it alone….”

Taichi scooted closer to the two. “You need money?” The brothers looked up.

“Why, you have some you want to part with?” Joro looked him up and down skeptically, then at stubs in his fist blazoned in red calligraphy “Bao’s Game Parlor” and took an educated guess. “Looks like you’re out too, friend.”

Taichi crumpled the stubs in his hand and scooted closer. “If your friend there can get his money, then I know a way we could double it!”

“My brother,” Joro said pointedly, “doesn’t have a problem winning money. It’s getting out the door with it that’s the trick.”

Taichi tipped his head, not understanding.

“He wins his fights, and they all know it,” Joro snarled, thumbing at the door down the alley where another sap was getting pitched out. “So they let him fight, even though he’s too young, collect bets on him, then keep his money.”

Taichi scratched his head. “You win your matches, but you can’t take the owner?”

Koro pulled the rag away from his nose and tipped his head way back, keeping the blood in. “Yoo haben’t seen the bownser.”

“He’s a mountain,” Joro nodded. Koro grimaced and replaced the rag just as blood was beginning to ooze again.

Joro stretched out his legs in front of him and looked admiringly at his clothes. “All this, just wasted. And Momo was looking so good tonight too…. What I wouldn’t give for a little sake, and a sweet girl to drink it with—“

Taichi leaned closer, grinning and splitting his lip again. But he didn’t feel the pain. “Listen, I have an idea….”

So that night they went back to the teahouses, this time stealing some of the women’s clothes. They waited in the alley until the club emptied out. The last two to leave were the bouncer and the owner. They watched them walk up the alley, and when Joro whistled, Taichi and Koro rose up from the shadows to throw perfumed kimonos right over the two men’s heads.

Taichi, already big for his young age, smashed his meaty fist into the bouncer’s face. His hand hurt, and he didn’t think he did any real damage to the bouncer, but it bought Koro some time to grab the sack winnings out of the front of the owner’s robe. In that moment, Joro came running down the alley trailing a long stolen sash. He looped it around struggling men, kimonos and all, then the three boys tore off down the back of the alley, laughing about their success.

The next night, while Koro nursed his broken nose, Taichi and Joro returned to the gambling house. The made sure to stay away from the alley, although the fight club door was noticeably quiet.

With stolen clothes, Taichi and Joro entered the game room. A busty blond sat eyeing the low table before her. The men around her stroked their beards, sipped their sake and watched her, waiting for her next move. She’d been playing for a while, but had not produced the money they were hoping for. Taichi nodded to Joro, and Joro quickly returned with two glasses and a jug of the house’s finest sake.

Taichi sat down beside the busty woman and offered her a drink, while Joro made small talk with her friend. In no time at all, Taichi and the big spender were clinking their glasses like old friends. And then the dice started rolling.

It was just like the old men had said. She was a legendary sucker. Taichi more than tripled Koro’s money.

Leaving her trying to win back her losses, Taichi and Joro tripped out the front of the gambling house, jingling their bagged winnings.

They were just congratulating each other when they came even with the alley. It was late. The owner and bouncer stood in the dim lamplight, obviously discussing last night’s theft. When the men looked up, recognized Koro’s brother and fat sacks of coins in their hands, they decided they had their culprits. It didn’t help that Taichi and Joro incriminated themselves by immediately bolting.

They raced through the town, Joro breaking off to gather Koro at their flop house while Taichi led the men away. The three met up on the out on the trade road, and they’d been traveling together ever since, running the same swindle in every town they could. And more often than not getting chased out.

Taichi stretched his long legs out by the fire and threaded his hands behind his head. He sighed with satisfaction. “Yep. Joro cozies up to the girls, finds out which game houses are the easiest pickings, Koro wins his fights, and I double our money. Works like a charm.”

Katsuro rolled his eyes, thinking to himself that if their plans worked that well, they wouldn’t have such a good knowledge of every hidey-hole from here to the Rain territory. And if they made that much money, they wouldn’t have been so eager to take Itachi’s.

But they were used to being on the move. So that suited him fine. At least they wouldn’t slow him down.

The sudden smell of smoke had the three jumping to get their fish before they burned up completely.

While his men bounced the too-hot fish from hand to hand — Koro even going so far as to take a nibble only to scald is tongue — Katsuro took his fish from the edge of the fire. The stick was warm but not too hot to hold. He picked back the lightly charred skin to reveal perfectly steamed white meat.

The months grew colder and the missions more tedious. Winter was well upon them by the time they’d tracked down Deidara and Sasori in one of the string of tiny countries beyond the Wind and Earth nations.

Stone and Birds, Stars and Caves, Fangs and Valleys…. The lands were as small and uninspiring as their names. But the shinobis clashes of the great nations had yet to spread into these far flung lands

It was after two days in the arid Land of Plains, poking through every cluster of slap-dash buildings that passed for a town, that Katsuro finally found who he was looking for. Outside a dusty road-side dango stand sat a man with an unmistakeable plume of white-blond hair. Deidara.

“Wait for me here,” Katsuro said firmly to the three men, and pointed to a bench behind a tumble-down shed at the far end of the one lane town. This probably wasn’t going to end well, knowing Deidara.

They shrugged, but didn’t argue.

Katsuro left them and walked up the lane, scanning everything. Sasori was nowhere to be seen.

Seated on a bench at a worn wooden table, Deidara looked deceptively comfortable. He pushed back the curtain of pale hair and sunk his teeth into the sweet dumpling. He was concentrating on keeping the syrup from dripping on his black Akatsuki cloak when Katsuro approached.

Never looking up, Deidara waved him to the empty bench across from him. Katsuro wasn’t surprised. Even doing something mindless, Akatsuki were all still paranoid as hell.

Katsuro stood across from him, but did not sit.

Deidara grunted a greeting and finished the skewer of dango. Finally he sat back, crossed his legs, slowly wiped his mouth and spoke.

“What brings the pleasure of this visit, little Katsuro?”

“Deidara-sama,” was all Katsuro said as he held out the scroll. But Deidara did not stir to take it.

“I assume Itachi was too busy to come himself,” he drawled cooly.

“It is not from Itachi-sama.”

Deidara tipped his head and regarded the scroll. “No…it’s not, is it.” He sighed and unfolded his arm. “Fine, I’ll take it.”

The mouth in Deidara’s open palm smiled cheekily up at Katsuro. Katsuro handed over the scroll, making sure to keep his fingers out of the way of the swishing tongue. He didn’t let it show how much those extra mouths really creeped him out. That was exactly what Deidara wanted.

“If there is nothing else….“ Katsuro said, hoping there wouldn’t be. He wanted to get away before anything could go awry.

But Deidara did not open the scroll to read it. “There is something else, now that you mention it.” He laid the scroll on the table and pushed forward the tray of dango. “Have a seat. You look hungry. Stay and visit for a while.”

Katsuro bowed. “Thank you Deidara-sama. But I can not stay—“

“Itachi has been bragging about you.” Deidara smiled conspiratorially. “Says you are quite brave. Powerful. You might even one day join our organization.”

Katsuro bowed again. “No, Deidara-sama. I am merely the messenger. And I have other messages to deliver.” He knew any kindness from him was a trap.

“You see, that proves it! You must to be brave to think you can refuse me so easily!“ He still smiled, but his blue eyes were clear and cold. “I just want to know a little more about you…. Why would Itachi, who always thinks he’s so much more important than everyone else, with his missions, and plans and secrets,” he snarled jealously before sharpening his focus back on Katsuro, “keep someone like you around…?”

A gentle clicking filled the air, growing louder and closer. It saved Katsuro from responding. Both turned to see Sasori approaching from the same direction Katsuro had just come. He cringed inwardly, hoping that his men hadn’t gotten themselves killed.

Katsuro knew this may be his only chance to escape.

“Deidara-sama,” he bowed quickly in farewell, and strode out into the road, hoping to get around Sasori before he was caught between the two.

But Sasori came to a stop in the middle of the road. His tail circled down and hovered threateningly over the shadowed ground beneath his cloak. Only Katsuro was close enough to see it.

Too late, he thought. He was trapped. “Sasori-sama,” Katsuro bowed deeply. “A message has been left for you.”

Sasori had no inclination toward pleasantry. “Katsuro,” he growled. The triangular rag over his mouth shuddered. “There is something strange about you boy….”

Rattling like hollow bones, Sasori’s tail arched out and circled around Katsuro.

Katsuro stilled, but let no fear show on his face.

“Perhaps I should cut Itachi’s strings and make you my puppet instead,” Sasori taunted. The tip of the tail jittered in Katsuro’s peripheral vision.

But suddenly Sasori’s interest sharpened. His glassy eyes narrowed. “You haven’t changed since the last time I saw you.”

Tail forgotten for the moment, Sasori himself began circle the boy, looking over every inch of him slowly. Methodically.


Deidara stood suddenly, open scroll in hand. “Leave him Sasori-no-Danna,” he announced with surprising firmness. “We’ve finally gotten our orders. It’s time. Let’s go.”

Deidara’s flippant air had evaporated. Now he was all business. Sasori sensed the shift as well.

Shooting a last suspicious look at Katsuro, Sasori shuffled away from him and down the lane. His tail recoiled into the cloak as he left.

Katsuro felt safe enough to take a shaky breath when Deidara called out. “You tell your ’Itachi-sama’” he sneered, shaking the scroll, “I’ll beat him in this as well!”

Not stopping to decipher Deidara’s jealous jab, Katsuro only nodded once then strode quickly away.

It was only at the edge of the one-lane town that he began to let his guard down. He was suprised Deidara didn’t lob a few explosions at him. Must have been something important in that scroll—

He spied the old shed and suddenly remembered his team. They were supposed to be hiding behind it.

It occurred to him that Sasori might have wiped them out already. He approached the shed, bracing himself for the sight of bodies. Bodies belonging to men whom he was responsible for—

“Oi! Look at it! I swear that’s not human!”

“Move! Let me see!”

The three stood on the rickety bench. Their hunched under the eave of the old shed, tipping their heads for a view through the large gaps where the boards didn’t meet the roof. They had a straight shot at all the action.

Katsuro had to laugh.

Joro hopped down first. “Hey boss,” Katsuro’s smile deepened at the respectful epithet, “who were those guys?”

“They look like they’re bad news,” Taichi said, stepping down behind him.

Koro followed. “Yeah, and what was the fighting apparatus on the one? I’ve never seen anything like it at the clubs.”

Standing at the center of the three older boys, Katsuro was warmed by their attention. Their questions and implied respect made him feel like he belonged. He really was glad they were alive. This was his team.

And it helped that were as creeped out by Deidara and Sasori as he always was.

“Eh, they’re just some men that the Big Boss uses. They do his dirty work, you could say.” They nodded, not questioning his intentionally vague terms.

“But yeah,” he chuckled. “They are bad news. In fact,” Katsuro confessed, “I try to stay away from them as much as possible.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Koro breathed, shuddering at the mere memory. Taichi slapped him hard on the back for being scared. Then they all laughed. In high spirits, they left the dusty Stone country town behind them.

That night, while Katsuro listened to their friendly chatter at the campfire, he reflected that this had been their first real test as a team. And it had gone well. Great, in fact.

He had gotten the whole team-thing licked. He could practically hear the captain’s praises now. Maybe they’d assign him even more men, send them on dangerous missions infiltrating hidden camps and—

Joro guffawed just then at something Taichi had said. The sound echoed into the treetops.

“Oops! Sorry boss,” he said, grinning at Katsuro. “We’ll keep it down!”

Katsuro’s returned an earnest smile. He knew he should be immune to it, that’s what the captain would say of course, but the compliment of being their “boss” warmed him more than the fire on that chilly night.

The next day, their route took them back through the territories, near bustling towns the three knew well. They recounted stories and hinted longingly of just stopping in, “just for a quick peek,” they promised. Katsuro had to tell them no, but they seemed to understand his position and didn’t argue back. Each time they sulked a little longer though.

When they stopped for the night in the quiet woods above a bustling Stone Country town, they looked down at the town lights and sighed dejectedly.

It was as if it was abject tortured for them to be so close to their old stomping grounds and not be allowed to go. Katsuro hid his smile.

But maybe letting them go into the town wasn’t such a bad idea…. Just one town, and just to gather some data. They could visit all their old haunts, behave as they always had and pick up any new information they.

What a great idea….

While they were busy making the fire, Katsuro pulled a wad of bills out of his rucksack. They’d saved quite a bit of their ration money by catching their own food. Katsuro took out half the bills, rolled them up tightly and dropped them in his pocket. He turned back to his team with the other half.

Katsuro was rewarded by seeing their faces light up and the promise they’d find out everything the possibly could. Taichi took the money, and the smoldering fire was forgotten. Katsuro waved them off, telling them to have a good time but keep a low profile and find out what they could.

What a mistake.

Three hours later, fish steaming over the campfire, Taichi trudged back into the campsite. He had blown all of his share of the money, as well as Koro’s, and the portion he’d been able to bum off Joro. So he was back for more, promising to win it back…oh and to find out about that information too…. Yeah, he’d, uh, forgotten about that. But if he had another chance he was sure he could win— that is, find out what Katsuro wanted.

Katsuro narrowed his eyes realizing the error he’d made, just as Koro came trundling into camp. He was limping, his eye was purpling and his lip was fat. And he cradled his fingers in his hand.

Katsuro’s mouth flattened into a grim line. “And what the hell happened to you?”

“Taichi and I stopped a couple girls in the alley. We just wanted to talk but…. Well, they put up more of a fight than we expected.” Koro smiled past the swelling, evidently proud that not all of his wounds came from the fight club.

“Probably ninjas,” Taichi groused. “Dammit I hate ninjas. ‘Specially girl ones—“

Katsuro’s jaw dropped. He didn’t know what to take issue with first. Did the dumbass really not know he was standing next to a ninja? Although it was true that Katsuro had not used any shinobi skills, still he thought it was obvious— And was this how he treated Sakura?! Real anger bloomed in Katsuro’s chest.

Taichi, though was turning petulant. “Don’t hold out on us buddy! We know you’ve got extra cash, so let us have it and we’ll go get you what you want!”

Koro jumped in too. “I got a tip about another fight, with a bigger pot than tonight’s. Maybe if we stay one more day—“

A familiar heat was creeping up Katsuro’s cheeks. He had been foolish to think he was their “boss” or their “buddy.” He wasn’t their friend. And he never would be. His responsibility was to the mission. He’d made a terrible mistake.

Just then Joro came thrashing up the hillside. Bare-chested and bare-footeed, he was hoisting up too-large dress pants at his waist. His other hand crushed a white silk shirt and shoes. None of it was his.

“What the hell happened to you!?!” Katsuro’s incensed voice echoed into the forest.

“Come on!” Joro panted. “We’ve got to go!” He dropped the shoes — woven bath thongs, obviously property of some now-barefooted village geisha — and held the shirt out to put it on. But instead of sleeves, two big white pant legs unfurled in front of him.

“Dammit! I thought it was a shirt!!” He pitched it aside and shoved his feet in his shoes. He scuffed frantically around the campsite shoving what was left of his things into his rucksack.

Katsuro opened his mouth to yell every curse he’d ever known, when the sound of angry voices ricocheted up to hillside.

The others already knew the drill from their years on the run. Not sparing another look at Katsuro, Taichi, Koro and Joro scrambled for their things and turned to leave. With or without Katsuro.

Katsuro locked his jaw. The vein at temple throbbed. Torch lights bobbed closer.

“Shit,” Katsuro swore savagely. Then he grabbed his things too. Better to let the townsmen think that they were just traveling thieves. Then he wouldn’t have to cover their tracks.

He took one last look back: the fish on the campfire were almost finished cooking. A pair of women’s bloomers glowed white against the leafy ground. Stomach growling, he tore himself away and chased after his team, just as the yelling men from town rounded the hilltop.

From that point, everything unraveled for the team. Their detour pushed them into the Earth country. To keep out of sight from shinobi guard at the borders, Katsuro skirted as close as he could to the Rain territory. It was a three-day trek through icy winter rains. And the team barely spoke one word to each other.

When Katsuro would leave to buy food — fires were out of the question here — he saw the three huddled around each other, whispering and eyeing him, even as the rain beat down. Taichi seemed to have the biggest chip on his shoulder. Katsuro kept the money on him at all times.

Since that night, they had been surly and insolent, reverting to the three boneheaded thugs he’d met in Itachi’s tent. He had forgotten what a pain in the ass they were in those first few weeks.

And he had no illusions that if Taichi could rob him of their ration money, they’d run off and leave him.

Now he really understood how hard the captain’s job must be. He was responsible for an entire army of degenerates.

It made him feel better that the captain didn’t see Katsuro as one of those. Unlike Itachi, the captain was someone Katsuro never felt had a hidden agenda. He put his faith in Katsuro just as readily as he put his faith in his fallen country. One day it would return, and he was helping get it to that day.

It was a nice thought that Katsuro wasn’t a burden to the old captain the way this lot were to him. Surly, ungrateful and apparently spoiling for a fight.

Katsuro ignored their grumbled threats and treated them as he had done every other thug that came through camp. Even though this was his team, they were no teammates.

A rutted cart path cut through the sodden field in front of them. Katsuro eyed it, but trying to steer clear of towns headed north to cut around it. The rain clouds still stretched out far beyond Rain’s borders, covering the land in a grey pall.

They traversed a slippery ravine and crept into a high scrub forest, when Katsuro held his hand up for them to stop. The men groaned, but Katsuro waved for silence. Rain drummed through the pine canopy.

They were alone. But something had happened here.

A thin line slashed the side of a tree. Katsuro narrowed his eyes through the rain and stepped forward to inspect it.

Running his fingers over the gash, he could see now that all trees bore the telltale signs of fighting. Blade marks slashed the sides. Deep gouges marred the centers.

He peeled back the bark beside one deep puncture to find a red stain had seeped into the tree. Blood. This was the work of shinobis.

Someone moaned pitifully from deeper in the woods. Katsuro’s hand froze on the tree. There were more gouges on the wet-black trees. Eyes wide for any movement, he slowly backed away.

At the edge of the ravine, Katsuro spoke in harsh whispers. “There’s been a fight here. There may still be nins lurking around. We’ve got to get out of here.”

He started back down the steep sided ravine, water pouring in rivulets on the footpath ahead of him, when he heard a loud “No way!” behind him.

Taichi stood at the top, flanked by Koro and Joro. His arms were folded and his resistance was written on his face.

“Come on,” Katsuro yelled as loudly as he dared. “Shinobis will kill you just as soon as they will me! There’s bodies up there already!” Rain water spit out with his words. “There is no other way around but down!

Seeing reason, Taichi and the others followed. But Katsuro knew they weren’t happy about it.

He wasn’t happy with them either.

They skidded back down and retraced their route. At the sodden brown field, Katsuro eyed the two-track cart path. It surely led to a town. But in the pouring rain, he reasoned, they were less likely to draw attention there than they were slogging through the woods. Katsuro turned onto the path.

The road wound through more woodlands and fields before turning abruptly and going straight up into a hillside town. Jumbled buildings staggered up the road like children’s blocks. The first had a hanging sign with “Tea & Sake” scrawled down it.

“Oi! Let’s take a break,” Koro called out. “How ‘bout some warm sake and—“

“We’re not stopping,” Katsuro barked back from a few paces ahead. “We’ve finished our assignment and we need to get back. We don’t want to call any more attention to ourselves than we already have.”

“We don’t have to do anything you say, kid!” Taichi folded his arms and glared up at Katsuro. The brothers flanked him. “We’re stopping here!”

Katsuro turned around. The were frozen in the standoff for a moment, rain forming a fine mist around them as it bounced off.

Katsuro grit his teeth, thinking of all the ways he could make them comply. As if answering him, heat from the demon churned in his gut. But Katsuro remembered how the captain kept order.

“You want to stop? Fine. But I’m going back. And when I get there, I’ll be collecting your pay.”

Katsuro turned to go, and not surprisingly, they followed.

Water spilled out of the meager drains and flooded down the cobbled road. Only the raised stones in the center stayed out of the run off. Doors were closed, windows shuttered and awnings sagged with the weight of the rain.

Taichi was gouging holes into the swollen corners to let the rain funnel out. But more often than not this resulted in deep tears to the already ragged awnings.

Katsuro yelled back once for him to stop. But Taichi didn’t, and Katsuro found he no longer cared. He just wanted to get back and get this damn mission over.

The cobblestones were treacherous under their feet, teetering suddenly and threatening to topple you over into the flooded drains.

Hood down, Katsuro focused on the road under his feet. Water poured in long streams off the front. The only sounds were the slogging of feet and the occasional rupture of fabric followed by a splash of additional water, when a sudden angry yell went up beside them.

Far up under one awning, almost at the steps of what must have been his home sat an old man with a table full of wares. Water was now gushing from the tear Taichi made in his awning. But Taichi’s surprise turned immediately to anger.

“What are you doing hiding under there old man?!” Taichi snapped, stepping under the big awning and looming over the old man. “Nobody wants your stuff on a day like this!” Taichi got right in his face and gave the table top a shove. Trinkest tumbled into the rain.

An image of Taichi standing over Sakura in the alley, sneering into her face, flashed into Katsuro’s mind.

Something inside snapped.

“Stop it now,” Katsuro roared. He reached under the awning with a strength far outweighed Taichi’s bulk, grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and fisted the front of his cloak.

“No more,” he growled into up Taichi’s face. The heat of the kyuubi moved with him. His voice dropped a notch, intoned with a deeper, unearthly timbre. “Pick this up. Fix his table.” Red eyeshine flashed in his eyes. ”Do it. Now.”

Taichi leaned back from Katsuro a different person. His eyes were wide, his face was slack and he was compliant. He scrambled to scoop up the goods then retreated back out into the rain with the brothers. He huddled with the two brothers and whispered quietly, shooting nervous glances the strange boy.

Katsuro turned to apologize to the old man. He stepped forward, ducking under the awning, but he froze at the sight of a familiar tattered straw hat.

It was all there, as if time hadn’t passed. The table covered with jewelry. The old awning covering the doorstep. The old man tipped back in his chair. And that damned hat.

Katsuro couldn’t believe it. This was the town he had stopped in with Sakura. This was the old man who had that necklace….

It looked so different now. In his memory it was a colorful place, a festival day with children and food and Sakura. But the rain had washed it away. The town was grey and empty. Shutters were closed on the tumbledown houses. And there was no more laughter. Just the drumming of rain on the awning.

Didn’t look like there was a soul even here now…except for the old man.

Katsuro caught a beady black eye watching him through the holes in the brim of the straw hat.

He didn’t want his identity to be discovered, though he seriously doubted the old man would even remember him. So he stepped forward to apologize and pay for the damages.

His eyes swept the table. He couldn’t stop himself from looking. But it wasn’t among the necklaces and amulets and trinkets.

He knew it wouldn’t be.

Katsuro withdrew the wad of folded up bills from his pocket, holding back enough to make it home. Still more than enough to buy a new awning, he thought. Hood shading his face, Katsuro held the money out over the table.

“Our apologies for the trouble. Please accept this as payment for the damage we caused.”

A rusty old voice rumbled to life. “So, I see you’ve got your money now.”

Katsuro looked up suddenly, the money still unclaimed in his extended palm. Recognition sparked in the old man’s leathery features.

“Yeah,” Katsuro admitted, laughing quietly. The old man did remember. He should have known.

On that happy summer day he had teased Katsuro, asking how he could get such a pretty girl with no money. Katsuro remembered that he’d swelled with pride at the thought.

A knobby hand scooped out the bills. “Don’t see your girl though.” He slid the money to a hidden compartment beneath the table.

“No,” Katsuro said slowly, trying to keep the regret out of his voice. “But, again, sorry about the awning.”

“Eh, your money will more than fix it,” he said, straightening. “Anything catch your eye this time? It’s on the house!” He waved a leathery arm out over the table, and looked knowingly up at Katsuro.

Katsuro laughed and shook his head. That damn hat routine again. He had watched Katsuro scan the table.

But Katsuro wouldn’t confess to what he was looking for. Because it didn’t matter — it was already gone.

“Try to stay dry,” Katsuro said wryly and turned back to the rain.

“Hey,” the man called out. He pulled something from under the table then held out a clutched hand. A black cord dangled down.

Katsuro ducked for a better look.

“Matched her eyes,” he said, bristling. “Didn’t seem right to sell it to another.” He shook his fist. “Take it!”

Katsuro held out his hand with uncertainty. A rectangular green pendant dropped into his open palm.

His breath caught in his throat.

Slowly Katsuro lifted the black cord. The necklace — her necklace – swung in front of his face. It was just as he’d remembered it.

Greens fused together and white flashed across the surface. Even in the dim light, the stone seemed to glow. The color refused to be drained.

“Th-thanks,” Katsuro breathed.

The old man grumbled something as he tipped his chair back. Still marveling at the swinging stone, Katsuro only caught the tail end it. “…better than that bunch your with now. More trouble than they’re worth.”

He adjusted the brim of his hat. ”Sorry about your girl,” he said dryly. “But you’ve got your money now right?”

Katsuro’s hand closed around the necklace. The corner of his mouth tugged downward. “Yeah, well….” He couldn’t argue.

But the old man just laughed. “Well, that’s always the way it is. Can’t have it all.”

Katsuro clutched his fist to his chest. He still couldn’t believe it. The necklace belonged to him now. He was touched more deeply than he could ever hope to express.

“Thanks,” he said earnestly. “Thanks a lot.”

But the old man wasn’t interested. He waved him off unceremoniously.

Katsuro ducked out into the rain again. His three teammates immediately set off, anxious to put some distance between them.

Katsuro was glad to lag behind. He looked again at the road, amazed at the change. But the stone in his hand was a connection to her. He opened his fingers to admire it, glinting and green in his palm.

It was his now. And it was something of hers that he never had to give up.

He slipped his hands up under the hood and dropped the necklace over his head. It’s cool weight swung back and forth against his chest as he walked. He made his way up the rain-slicked road, his previous troubles with his team forgotten.

Late that night, Katsuro fell tiredly against the base of a tree. He propped up his knees, hoping to get a few hours sleep before dawn. No fire tonight, even though they’d outwalked the rain and the night time air was sharply colder.

He was fine, and he couldn’t bring himself to care about his three teammates squashed together several trees away. They had been conspicuously quiet on since they left the town. But at least they were compliant. So Katsuro was sure it was because he was scared. He hadn’t intended to keep them in line that way. But now he saw how foolish he’d been to try to connect with them. To even imagine they would be some sort of teammate….

He reached into the front of his cloak and pulled out the pendant, still warm from being close to his body.

No, he’d known only one teammate. And wherever she was now, she was still depending on him….

He breathed deeply at the thought of her, a luxury he hadn’t allowed himself in months, and the feeling of a real, tangible connection at his fingertips.

He held the jade up in the frosty moonlight. Deep greens fused with light and a soft white streaked over the surface. It ached in his chest how much it looked like her eyes. With the clouds reflected in them, just like that day on the hillside. But that was so long ago.

He dropped the necklace back into the front of his shirt. The cool jade slipped right into place against the top of his chest, like it had always been there.

Katsuro leaned his head against the tree and watched the cold, mist-softened moon. He wondered what she was doing now. Down in warm, leafy Konoha…. Probably checking up on patients in the hospital. He could just imagine her, smiling in a softly lit window, encouraging someone in a bed, checking on their last medications before turning out the light. She was happy, doing what she loved. And she was safe.

He’d do whatever Itachi said to make sure she stayed that way.

His hand went to his chest and brushed the stone through the fabric. His one connection to her in the world. Tomorrow they’d be in camp. Then he’d be off again on another assignment, taking him through more battle-plagued territories to another Akatsuki member with horrifying powers.

It was so nice to think of her, living happily, protected within those walls, where the grim realities of his life would never touch her. He laid his head back against the tree, hand still at his chest.

Almost as soon as her boot crunched on the pine needles, she knew they weren’t alone. The pale moonlight sifted down through the pine canopy, illuminating marks on the trees, gouges in the bark—

Something rustled far ahead in the shadowed trees. Sakura held up her hand for them to stop. Without a sound, she drew her kunai out. Though she couldn’t hear them, she knew Sasuke and Sai were doing the same behind her.

They walked slowly, noiselessly through the woods. Sakura saw a foot jutting out comfortably from beyond a dark tree trunk. She stopped, flashed two fingers at the tree, then crept towards it. Sasuke and Sai spread into a standard watch formation, keeping their blades drawn and their backs to her, maintaining a radius of safety while she investigated.

Sakura eased forward until her hand was against the wet bark. A black boot poked out of a long black cloak. The leg was tipped to the side. Either the guy was fast asleep or he was….

Sakura kept her kunai high, ready to aim for the neck if she was wrong, and leaned carefully around the tree.

She saw the sword handle first, hovering in mid air, and followed the blade to its natural conclusion where it was embedded nearly to the hilt in the hooded nins forehead. Sakura let out the slow breath she’d held in her lungs. She cupped her hand and waved for Sasuke and Sai, alerting them that this one was no longer a threat.

The nin didn’t have a chance. She looked over everything, replaying the man’s final moments. He had hunkered down there when he was ambushed from above. His other leg was still bent beneath him. The attacker used his downward momentum to drive the blade right through the man’s skull. No small feat, she thought. His forehead had caved in, but his eyes were frozen open. His jaw hung open in a lifeless scream, and dripped with blood that streaked from the wound.

Sakura touched the handle. The sword was lodged too deeply to be removed. The swordsman had either been too young and careless…or it was a calling card from the village known for their blades, the Mist.

She looked suspiciously up at the moonlight through the trees. A mist softened the light. They might still be around—

“There’s more,” Sasuke said quietly pointing to the forest ahead. It was clear there was no fear of hidden nins here. They’d done what they came to do, obviously.

The team regrouped and crept toward the tangle of limbs flickering into view in the pools of cold blue light. Blades slashed the trees. Shurikens were buried in the bark. Beyond them looked to be the edge of a ravine. Whoever did this had herded these nins here to be butchered. She’d heard legends of the Bloody Mist. And it looked like they were living up to that name—

A moan came from mass of bodies. Sakura immediately stepped forward.

“Sakura,” Sasuke said warningly, “You can’t. We’re not here to—“

She shot him a hard look and stepped over bodies turned towards the sound.

Beside one corpse, a headband reflected light. Sakura stooped to get a closer look. An open ended arrow was stamped into the metal plate. They were from the Waterfalls, a small hidden village in a neighboring territory.

“Help— Help me—“

Sakura had a hard time finding him. The body of a teammate had pinned his legs down. Sakura stepped over the corpse to find a shinobi, not much older than herself. Blood, his own and others, slicked his clothes and spattered across his pale, round face.

A laceration near an artery had him bleeding out. It was sheer dumb luck that he had lived even this long. But he was dying. She didn’t need to read his chakra to tell. She could see it in his blue lips, hear it in the rattle of his wheezing breaths.

“Thank you…thank you,” he rasped.

But Sakura didn’t drop to heal him. Not right away. Instead she watched him, while his life slipped away with each exhale, as if she was deciding his fate.

“A-Are you from the relief team? Because I was so afraid—“ Big tears pooled. His voice turned to a soft mewling. “I know I shouldn’t be, but I just didn’t want to die alone…out here…so far from home….“

Sakura shut her eyes. Just this once. She dropped to her knees beside him, hand already glowing. She ignore Sasuke’s irritated sigh that carried over the dead bodies around her.

Reaching into the split of meaty flesh at the base of his neck, Sakura wedged her fingers right up against the biggest artery. It shot another spurt at the pressure, but she held firm and let the chakra do its work, mending the cells and staunching the blood.

Sakura watched the color come back into his face as she worked. Always a good sign.

“When was the relief squad supposed to come?”

“Dusk,” he said softly.

“And when was the attack?”


Sakura set her mouth into a grim line.

She finished, injecting his chakra with a good dose of her own to jumpstart his healing. It should last him about a day and a half.

“Did you see who attacked you,” she asked quietly, already knowing the answer.

“Mist,” the nin said and struggling to sit up.

Sakura pushed him back down firmly. “Stay here. Rest till dawn. You’ll have an day’s worth of strength left. Use it to get yourself to shelter. Safety. Something.” He laid back with a deep breath, to tired not to obey. “Your other teammates….they’re not coming. You’re on your own now. But you’ll live.”

Before standing, she moved to roll his teammate’s body off his legs. She reached under the shoulder, but her fingers sunk into blood and flesh. There were deep cavities where a chest should have been.

“Then…are you a medic,” the man slurred.

“No,” she said, voice flat and emotionless. She stood and wiped the blood and bits of soft tissue off, leaving two long smears on the side of her overskirt. “I’m just another shinobi.”

Sasuke watched her approach, leaving the wounded man behind. There was a challenge in her eyes, as if she had proved her point.

“Mist nins. Struck at dawn.” She walked past him without stopping. “Took out the back-up squad too.”

Sasuke’s face softened. He conceded. She’d been right. “Let’s go,” he said quietly.