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

A blinding light.

A cold room.

A hard floor.

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

Wait a second—

Katsuro cracked an eye open.

He wasn’t dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Release it.” Itachi was growing irritated.

“I-I don’t understand—“

“Do it!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the room there was a weak puff of air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew this voice— He hated this voice!

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

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

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

Katsuro had to die for Naruto to take his place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I did die….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Itachi nodded, waiting as Naruto caught on….

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

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

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

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

Itachi still watched him.

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

Itachi shrugged. “In a way, he was. He was you, but without any of your experiences. He was a clean slate, untainted by any outside experiences. He was a shell. A vessel, if you will.” Itachi paused, but resumed with intent behind his words. “That Naruto was the product of a lifetime of training without the wasted energy of emotions. That Naruto was the perfect shinobi.”

The Naruto in front of him narrowed his eyes. “But he wasn’t me.” Itachi didn’t disagree. Naruto broke away angrily. “So it was a test after all. He was just someone else I am supposed to be. Just another disguise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at the dagger and holster, but he wouldn’t take it. He admitted to himself it no longer felt like it was his. Or Naruto’s. Or whoever he was supposed to be now.

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

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

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

Naruto’s anger exploded.

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

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

Itachi said nothing.

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

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

But Itachi simply shrugged a shoulder as if he expected this response. Naruto raked a hand through his hair, suddenly remembered it wasn’t his, ripped his hand back and swore to himself again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naruto stomped through the dry leaves, still feeling like Katsuro but aware of the bigger sound his heavier body made. It felt good to let his rage boil over, but everything else about this body felt wrong.

He tried to ignore the changes. But the smoke in the air from last night’s fires was there to remind him, even if he was able to forget for a moment. Which he wasn’t.

Kicking at the leaves, Naruto was belatedly pleased that his stride spread farther now. He drew in a deep breath, filling up his new larger lung capacity. It was only then that he noticed the weight of the demon in his gut. He felt foolish all over again. On some level, it understood Itachi’s plan, even when he didn’t. So they got what they wanted. The fox got new quarters, Itachi got a second-in-command. Everybody but him.

Naruto looked down at his hands, his chest, his long legs. This was all he got — this new body. And he thought he wanted it, but now he wasn’t so sure—

The worst of it was that the captain’s dagger now felt like a betrayal. He had won it, but still lost it at the same time. All of this had been over the Captain’s dagger. He was almost ashamed of his behavior now, embarrassed that he had forgotten himself so much. The weapon had been returned to him…in reality he had never truly lost it…. But something had changed in him….

A few men dawdled in the path ahead. Naruto didn’t look up. He had just decided to duck off the path and avoid them, like he always had, but in another step the men were already gone.

Frowning, he continued on. He encountered more of the same. Men moved away when they saw him. All chatter stopped. It only darkened his mood. Naruto let his feet lead him away from main camp and down a familiar path where he had found some little peace in the past—

But the crowd of men gathered in the clearing didn’t even look up to see the newcomer.

They were too busy yelling loudly, struggling over a half-empty rucksack, spilling its meagre weapons out onto the ground, and dividing up pots and blankets. An old tent was flattened, with bootprints and tears making it unusable. Even the cold black fire circle was being trampled out of existence.

He had walked toward his old campsite — Katsuro’s campsite — without even realizing where his feet had brought him.

Naruto’s mouth fell open. Rage roiled up from deep inside. But there was no headache, no feeling that he was spinning out of control. It was simply hot anger, looking for the fastest available outlet — his fist.

“Hey!!” he roared down the path. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

The men stopped, blinking at him, frozen in place. Naruto tromped over to the closest one, ripping a dented pot out of his hand. “Give me that!” He turned to the rest. “None of this is yours! It’s mine— I mean, it belongs to—“

But the words died on his lips. He realized his mistake.

The men sheepishly began looking at the things in their hands, deciding whether to drop their loot as well. But the closest spoke up, bowing nervously. “G-Gomen. Of course. It’s your right. You are the one who killed him, after all…. So his stuff is yours. Forgive us.”

The man was backing away, but Naruto, staring down in at the familiar pot in his now unfamiliar hands, realized his mistake. He pushed the pot back into the man’s chest. “No,” he said, somewhat dazed. “No you’re right. Take it.”

Too frightened to refuse, the man accepted it and bowed again. “Thank you. Thank you.” The other men, nodded along with him.

Naruto didn’t care. His eyes were fixed on his overly large empty hand. In that moment, he had forgotten himself. And forgotten who he’d changed into. Shaking his head in dismay, he shoved the offending hand in his pocket, let his shoulder sag, and dragged his other hand over the back of his neck — a move he’d done a thousand times before in Katsuro’s body — before getting another jolt of discomfort from this unfamiliar body.

On edge, betrayed by his own body and disgusted at the men swooping in like vultures to rip apart the only remnants of his old life— Naruto turned to retreat, half stumbling away from the whole uncomfortable scene.

A familiar sneering voice called out from the back of the group with a laugh. “Didn’t think you had a voice. I never heard you speak before. Now here you are, sticking up for the kids’ stuff? Like it was your own…?”

Naruto stopped. Raiden. He turned back to glare at the man who was standing in the middle of the clearing, taunting him.

There were gasps, but he wasn’t deterred. “It’s a little strange, don’t you think? The guy doesn’t speak, and then he comes around like he owns this stuff?”

“Shut up, man—“ “What are you saying?”

“I mean, look at him! Look at the way he’s standing— He even looks like that little runt!”

Naruto tipped his head. “Shut up Raiden,” he said darkly, sounding very much like Katsuro.

Raiden hooted with laughter “Is this a prank?! Really? Don’t you all see it?!”

This was where they’re loyalty to Raiden ended. The men hastily dropped the loot at fire circle. “Gomen, Kiro-sama—“ A few cringed at the slip of the blond’s nickname, but they kept backing away, heads bowed. “We didn’t mean to take the kid’s things— They rightfully belong to you now— Please forgive us—“

Even Fumio, Raiden’s right-hand man, was edging away. “What are you saying,” he whispered desperately. “Kiro killed the kid. We all saw it.”

But Raiden was scanning Naruto suspiciously, looking for a sign, any clue…. He was seeing someone else in Naruto, someone he recognized—

“Did we? Did we see it? Because it was dark…. And I saw someone get stabbed…. But now I’m not so sure what I saw.” The retreating men stopped. All eyes turned on Naruto. “You act like him, you sound like him.” Naruto awkwardly shifted on his feet, shoulder still sagging and cut his eyes to the side. “You even look like that whiny kid.”

The men were examining Naruto’s behavior, looking at him more openly than they’d ever dared in his presence. A few even nodded in agreement. But they still kept a safe distance, just in case.

“And,” there was a vicious gleam in Raiden’s eye, “you even know my name.” His brazen confidence was what earned him his power in camp. It had always smothered out Katsuro, in one way or another.

Naruto stomped forward into the clearing of his old campsite. He was angry. Angry because Raiden was right. Angry because it was happening again. Angry because he was loosing his power to men who were so much less than he was. Without thinking, his face was red and his fists were made and he was going right for Raiden, just like he always had.

From the other side of the fire circle, Raiden was nodding, almost laughing. Welcoming the fight as if it confirmed the whole thing had been a trick.

Around him, the men weren’t so certain. A few stayed but most were backing away, clutching pots and kunais and ragged blankets to their chests. When Naruto turned his eyes on them, they dropped their parcels and kept moving.

Then Naruto remembered himself. These things were not his. These belonged to Katsuro. And Katsuro was gone.

Naruto stopped.

Raiden had been right, but he would never know it. He saw Katsuro in this body, it was true, but it was Naruto’s body now. It may not feel comfortable or even familiar, but he knew first-hand the kind of power this new body was able to exude. And the chilling fear it was able to induce in others.

And now, he knew what he needed to do.

Naruto straightened and willed himself to act the way his clone would. As if he were the most powerful person in the world. As if he’d never known weakness or fear or loss. As if he’d never been defeated. And he knew he never could be.

Naruto may not know how that felt. But he could fake it.

He let the emotion slide from his face. He squared his shoulders and breathed into his full height. He was nearly as tall as Raiden now, though not nearly as burly. But it didn’t matter. He let all of the cold power he’d seen in his clone seep into his veins.

He stepped in front of Raiden, almost toe to toe, and fixed his blue eyes on him.

He cleared his mind of the other men, the campsite, his old possessions. He erasedKatsuro from his mind.

Naruto instead focused on his clone and what he would do if he were here, completely unencumbered by emotion. Breathing steadily, Naruto found it easy to slip into this role. He began to think like his clone. He analyzed the position of bodies and the number of weapons, how he would attack and how they would respond. And he coldly calculated the amount of time it would take to wipe them all out…. All as Naruto. The perfect shinobi. The one who could not be beaten.

And the first casualty was right in front of him. Raiden. Without the burden of emotion or consequence, the simple truth became clear to Naruto. He could kill Raiden any time he wanted, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

This was the confidence that came with unfathomable power. This was the promise of pain and death. Naruto had witnessed it in his clone, and paid the ultimate price. But now it was written in those ice blue eyes for everyone else to see. And obey.

Raiden’s smug expression dimmed. He gulped thickly, shrugged and looked down, before muttering something that might have been an apology. The men gasped and began backing away in earnest. Their leader was caving. And with that, the power shifted completely to Naruto.

He knew on some level he should have been glad. That this first experiment had yielded immediate obedience. But instead, Naruto was disgusted.

How many hours had he spent imagining how he’d take his vengeance and show them all? But now that he had their fear, he discovered it was too easy. It wasn’t a victory. He didn’t feel better. He just realized how weak they all were to fold so easily before his “act.”

Watching Raiden stutter and squirm, Naruto discovered he didn’t want to extend even an ounce of his energy to kill Raiden. It was beneath him. Instead he decided to send them all a message.

“Unless you want to end up like him,” Naruto said quietly, tipping his head at Katsuro’s flattened tent and pile of goods, “never speak to me again.”

Raiden bowed and was silent for a moment. But having been shown mercy his silver tongue was already working on another excuse. “Gomen, Kiro-sama. I didn’t mean to offend. Some of the other men wanted to—“

A blast of anger that was definitely rooted in Katsuro’s daydreams of revenge came pulsing through Naruto then, and before he knew it, he’d plunged his fist into Raiden’s gut, sending him flying backwards.

Naruto blinked at his own strength, but he quickly hid his surprise, and schooled his features the way his clone would have done.

Fumio went to Raiden’s side and bowed deeply. Raiden, who was now gasping in the leaves, dipped his head as best as he could, cringing over his stomach. But this time, his apology was sincere. The rest of the men, still frozen like rabbits at the edge of the trees, nodded nervously.

Naruto said nothing. He straightened, squared his shoulders, stepped over the destroyed belongings and blackened smear that used to be a fire circle and never looked back.

Let them have whatever they wanted. Those things didn’t belong to him. They belonged to Katsuro.

And Katsuro was dead.

Naruto strode to the munitions tent, purposeful and aloof, still not bothering to hide his footsteps. Men bowed and stepped out of his way, and he acted just the way Naruto would have, expecting that they should behave that way. He was someone to be feared. And obeyed. And avoided.

And no one would ever mistake him for Katsuro again.

As a boy, Katsuro had never been allowed into the weapons tent. He only went on errands for Itachi, and the men who ran it never let him forget that. Katsuro was always stopped at the door and told that children shouldn’t play with knives. Whenever he needed kunai, he had to steal them.

But just a few long strides from Katsuro’s camp site and Naruto knew it would never be like that again.

Every man bowed his head to Naruto as he passed, just as they had always done to Itachi.

Naruto’s back was straight and he looked coldly ahead, ignoring the obeisance, and went straight to collect his new weapons, But he could still see them — scuttling out of his way, bowing their heads while he passed. He could hear their hushed voices in his wake.

They feared him. And respected him. But most importantly, they would obey him.

At one time, that thought would have made him happy. Now, Naruto had seen the hard truth. Their loyalty was only bought with the death of Katsuro. Power was what they bowed to. And nothing else.

Naruto ducked inside the weapons tent. His head brushed against the top of the flap and he straightened quickly, but no one seemed to notice that he had forgotten how tall he was for a moment. They didn’t see it. Their heads were bent over their work.

Naruto tried his best to sound commanding. “I need a kunai…. No, two.”

The effect of his Naruto’s presence in the tent was immediate. The two apprentices darted back to their stations, leaving Tadao, the stern munitions master, alone to speak to the newcomer. Even he straightened and looked sharp. For a moment, memory got the better of him and Naruto thought the man might turn him away. But he was wrong.

Tadao wore an expression he’d never seen: respect. “Of course. Please,” he said smoothly and beckoned him in. “Come.”

Naruto did. He slid his hands forward to shove into his pockets, but remembered himself at the last second. He parted his feet, clasped his hands in front and waited, just as he’d seen his clone do. It wasn’t comfortable or familiar, but it was what everyone expected to see. After Raiden, he would not make that mistake again.

Tadao pulled out a box of kunai and laid several on the table. All were identical, stamped metal with a silver edge, finished with a black lump of a handle. Naruto looked them over without moving, examining which had the sharpest blade.

Tadao cleared his throat nervously. “Of course, those are just standard issue. I’m sure, as a shinobi of your calibre, you would appreciate something more…unique…. I have recently acquired another set….“

Seeing Naruto wasn’t opposed, he quickly brought out a parcel wrapped in a gray polishing cloth and untied it to reveal two kunai and a spate of shurikens. He set them with care on the table, displaying them to their best advantage.

Two silver discs shone brightly from the blunt end of the kunai handles, as if a design had recently been polished off. And a fine line of dried blood still clung to the inside edge of one of the stars. Naruto guessed their previous owner had not parted with them willingly. But still….

He turned his head slowly, studying them. They were masterfully made, as if to someone’s exact specifications. More than just sharpened strips of metal, these were works of art….

Naruto’s fingers stretched out to touch the precisely molded grip of the kunai, wondering what it might feel like in his hand—

“You have good taste! These are a true prize!” Tadao puffed up his chest and angled the blade to catch the light, offering it to Naruto to hold. “A fiercesome shinobi such as yourself would surely recognize the mastery of Leaf weaponry when you see it—“

Naruto pulled his hand back.

“I’ll take those,” he said firmly, pointing to the box of standard issue blades. “Two kunai. And two holsters. Thigh and hip. That will be all.”

Tadao’s shoulders slumped a notch but he retrieved the holsters and the blades as he was told. Naruto slipped them on and, paused for a moment to say thank you and bow respectfully. But he caught himself.

Katsuro had once longed to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged by the weapons master. But Tadao had always denied Katsuro even the worst of the blades.

Now, he offered his very best weapons to a virtual stranger.

His clone would never have offered a show of respect. And still holding onto a little grudge, Naruto was not inclined to either.

And as it turned out, he didn’t have to. Tadao bowed deeply. Naruto looked down at the top of his head, understanding another truth of this body.

Respect was shown to him now.

Without another word, Naruto turned to go.

Naruto’s second trip through main camp was markedly different than the first. He was more comfortable in his body, more confident in his steps, and secure in the knowledge that no one saw him as Katsuro. He no longer cringed at the bowing heads of the men who stopped to let him pass. He kept his back straight and his head up and swept by without a glance. Naruto looked the part of Itachi’s right hand man, and he was beginning to feel comfortable with the idea of that too.

After the special treatment in the munitions tent, Naruto decided that maybe it was kind of nice to have a little power for a change. To get some respect for once. In fact, he could even get used to this kind of treatment—

Dawdling off the path in front of him were two men. They were laughing, speaking closely, cheeks slightly flushed. Naruto recognized them. They were both men who had been kind to him— kind to Katsuro, offering a drink when no one else would. For them, clearly the party was still going on.

One of them stumbled, dropping a empty sake bottle and a dirty, trodden piece of fabric that Naruto recognized. At one time it had been a blanket. His blanket.

“Dumb kid,” the man said as bent to retrieved the bottle and torn blanket, wobbling a bit. The other steadied him.

“Yeah…dumb kid,” the friend echoed soberly before bursting back into sake-fueled glee. “But at least I made a little coin off him before he went down. Look at how much I won!” There was a hollow rattle of coins from deep in his fist. Both men swayed together, laughing over the prize. “His bad luck just filled our bottle—“

Suddenly noticing Naruto, they shuffle backwards quickly to let him pass. “Oi! Kiro-sama,” the men said, speaking over one another, bowing more deeply than was necessary. “We was just— We was just—“ One wobbled, but the other grabbed his arm and the empty bottle and raised it appreciatively. “Good fight last night!” “Yes! Good fight!” They were still bobbing animatedly as the object of their drunken respect disappeared from their view.

Naruto never blinked, never stopped. But he had gone cold inside.

The same men who used make his life misery were now cowering in front of him. The same soldiers he’d tried to hard to imitate were now giving freely what they’d always denied him. The same drunks who offered him friendship, now celebrated his demise.

All were bought by power. There was no loyalty. There was no friendship. None of this mattered….

He strode back through camp, feeling more alone and isolated and purposeful than he thought possible.

These men were all beneath him. And they always had been. But now, it was like a veil had been pulled back. He saw what it was like from Itachi’s perspective. These men, they were all replaceable. All that mattered was power. Getting it. Holding on to it. With unlimited power, you could do whatever you wanted.

This was what it was like to be at Itachi’s level.

He felt unchained. Finally. The camp was falling away around him, breaking into individual pieces that he was finally seeing. He was thinking analytically, logically. Just like his clone had done. Without emotion holding him back.

The men here were the same everywhere. From common thugs to elite ninjas — they all bowed before power. Or were broken by it.

This camp, with it’s haphazardly strewn tents, could easily be replaced by a small town, or even a walled village. There was no system that held them together, no principle, no loyalty. It was governed by the one with the most power. They all obeyed it. In every camp. In every village. In every nation. It was all the same….

He was rising above it.

He no longer felt like Katsuro. This new body was so powerful, so completely his own, that he was even beginning to forget what it felt like to be Katsuro. To inhabit the body of a 15 year old when he was really 18. But more than that, the anger that had burned him up for years finally felt banked. The headaches, the tightness, the feeling that he was breaking apart — all of it was gone. He knew now that Itachi was right. And not because he believed it, but because he felt it. He had been trapped in that body for too long.

And the clone…. He had seen another side of himself. As a clone, that Naruto was unstoppable. But was it a lie? Or was it a sign of what he could become….

He turned for Itachi’s tent, renewed of purpose, certain of his next step. But he needed some answers first. Without thinking or even trying, he tightened up his footsteps, hiding the sound like a ninja did. It was effortless and second nature. He’d been doing it for a long time, but now, it felt right. He had no reason to go tromping around the camp, displaying his anger for everyone to see. Like a child. He was different. They all saw the changes on the outside, and now he felt it on the inside too.

This was what it felt like to be Naruto.

Naruto pulled back the canvas door and entered the tent soundlessly.

Without looking up from his desk, Itachi noticed. “That’s an improvement, at least.”

Everything was still as he’d left it, with Itachi still staring at scrolls, strategizing. The cloak and dagger were still at the edge of the table.

Hesitant at first, Naruto crossed the tatami to stand in front of the desk. He was deeply aware that he was now closer to his clone than he ever was, standing straight at attention, waiting for Itachi. But he wasn’t a copy…or a perfect soldier. He’d have to make this body his own somehow.

Itachi stopped and looked at him, tilting his head and examining Naruto, as if he could see the changes on his face and body. Naruto said nothing. He did not flinch or look away. He breathed in, straightened his shoulders and squashed any discomfort knowing that his clone would have done the same.

Finally, Itachi drawled, “Yes…?”

“I, uh….” Naruto faltered. Things were different between them now too. He pressed on. “I have some questions.”

Itachi nodded. “I expected as much. Go ahead.”

Itachi’s voice was free from impatience or scolding. Naruto’s tension eased a notch.

In a calm, steady voice, Naruto began. “I understand that he was my clone. A perfect version, without emotion.” Itachi nodded. “But he improved, at the end. He began using my own moves against me. How could that be?”

“It was only natural. He was your clone after all. He was bound to recognize his maker eventually. He didn’t copy his moves from anyone else.”

Naruto frowned, thinking it over. “He executed the basic forms perfectly. Some of them I’ve never mastered.”

“I know. He was a clean slate, all of your skill without any emotion. Or lack of practice,” Itachi added with a ghost of smirk.

Naruto’s blue eyes darted back and forth, analyzing this new information, putting it all together. “If I knew it, then he knew it. Only he knew it as the perfect form.”

Itachi nodded approvingly.

“And when I learned something new, then he too could apply that same skill, maybe even better than I could.”

“Right.” Itachi nodded, watching him — the sharp blue eyes, the blond hair, the boy’s questions in the man’s body…. He had changed.

“But he could only ever repeat me. He couldn’t improvise. He couldn’t improve on a tactic or create an entirely new one.”


“So, if I wanted it, if I worked at it…I could be better than him.” Naruto looked up, seeing past Itachi to the new prize that was taking shape.

“Undoubtedly,” Itachi said softly.

Naruto nodded. And Itachi saw the boy’s determination still there in the man’s face. It was the one thing that had him helped him survive, train, improve, beat out all the others, time and again. This was the boy who spent all night throwing knives at a leaf in the sand, just to prove he could.

There was nothing he couldn’t do. If he put his mind to it. Itachi had chosen well.

“Then, if I made a clone, right now, would I be able to test myself against that skill? Add to it, make a clone, then see where I need to improve?

Itachi shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. You had a unique experience. But from now on, your true body will shape your clones. They may show different aspects of you…but none will ever be that Naruto again.”

Naruto frowned, but he was not visibly dejected as Katsuro would have been. He didn’t even seem to be deterred. “I’ve seen what I can become. On my own.”

“Yes,” Itachi said frankly. “So do it. Those who want power must move continuously toward that goal. Only then are you worthy of the gift you’ve been given.”

Itachi nodded at his midsection, and Naruto understood, but it only brought up more questions. Especially since his ‘gift’ had failed him.

He’d always been able to rely on the kyuubi. But this time, he couldn’t. It was a horrible feeling. The worst was when he went to pull out the chakra, his arrogance at how easily accessible that weapon was, he couldn’t get there. The channels were cut. Before he had been all confidence, practically dripping with chakra and power, but during the fight it slipped away, dried up. There was nothing there. He was alone.

He didn’t want to admit any of this to Itachi, though.

He wondered if maybe it was because he didn’t have time to go inward and access the cell. But who was he kidding — he’d never been able to get there on his own anyway. He’d only ever been there a few times before, and only under the direst circumstances.

He didn’t want Itachi to know about that either.

But he needed to find out what was happening. It wasn’t just fighting the clone. The chakra had been out of control. Explosive or unavailable.

There was a lot about the demon he didn’t know. And if it truly was his ‘gift,’ then it was time he found out.

“About that….” Naruto didn’t even like talking about it. But he wanted answers. “Why couldn’t I rely on the…the…power when I needed it the most? It was just…gone.”

Itachi filled in immediately. “Well, it knew you were fighting your clone so it didn’t need to—“

Naruto shook his head. “No, I don’t just mean then.” He was so uncomfortable he wanted to squirm and fidget and bite his nail the way Katsuro would have, but he stopped himself. “Sometimes, it’s right there, ready to go. And when it’s like that it’s almost unstoppable—“

“It’s erratic?”

“Well, yeah, I guess that’s what you’d call it—“

“And it’s been happening for a while?”

“Uh, no, but recently it’s been a little…out of control—“

Itachi was silent.

Naruto sobered. “And then it turned itself off, as if I’d never had any extra power to begin with. That’s not much of a ‘gift if you ask me. So what’s wrong with it?”

Itachi nodded slowly, then began. “Only certain people can house a power like you have. They have to have the right channels, if you will, to regulate the flow of chakra. Until then, your power — the demon’s power — is unstable. But at age 21, your chakra channels fuse with the demons and you can begin to handle immense power. That’s why it’s so important to keep you safe till then—

Naruto’s brow was furrowed, but he didn’t look comical. “So…it’s like they are untamed rivers. And they’re either flooding over or running dry.”

“Right, that’s a good way of putting it. And when you turn 21 the channels will set. If the chakra flows like a wild river now, then imagine turning it into a stone canal, reliable and capable of bringing consistent power to wherever you direct it. Your connection with the kyuubi will stabilize and your chakras will fuse. That power running through your veins can no longer kill you.” Itachi’s voice was serious. “It’s only then that your real power can be harnessed.”

Naruto considered it all, but then fixed him with a cold gaze. “How do you know this.”

Itachi was quiet for a moment. Finally he spoke, but with a tone of gravity. “Long ago, the Uchiha clan was gifted with an ancient source of information. It spoke of the demons and their nature and those who could control such a gift. Only a few Uchiha could read it, and fewer still could understand what it meant. And even then, some of its secrets remained a mystery, until—”

Naruto’s breath caught in his throat. “There are others? Like me?”

Itachi didn’t blink. “No.”

The answer was deflating. Naruto’s shoulders dropped with the release of breath. But his blue eyes were still hard, searching. “Then how do they know—“

Itachi waved his argument away with a laugh. “The kyuubi is old. Very old. You are certainly not the first human to house it.” His voice had turned deprecating, as if he were speaking to Katsuro. But he stopped, analyzing the man in front of him. His tone changed. “But you are by far the most powerful.”

Naruto mulled it all.

Then if what Itachi said was true, by age 21 his chakra would fuse with the demon’s, then he’d be able to use it himself, channel as much power as he wanted without fear of harm. But until then, the demon’s chakra couldn’t be relied on. And shouldn’t be. He had five more years to hide. Train. Improve. Prepare….

He glanced down at the cloak folded on the desk.

“What is the job in the Rain territory?”

Itachi was quiet. “It’s a permanent position. With Akatsuki.”

Naruto said nothing.

“It’s an honor…. And an opportunity,” Itachi began.

“Now you understand what it takes to hold power, to contain and to wield it. True power is only won by those strong enough to control it. Any country, any village would chain you up as their personal weapon. Each member of Akatsuki is bound by this threat. It’s a shared understanding. Unfathomable power is gift…and a burden. Akatsuki offers you protection in return for your allegiance. It is another kind of team, in a sense.

“You are free from your disguise, but the danger from Konoha and from all other villages remains. You must use this time to train and prepare yourself to handle the power of the kyuubi. Akatsuki can provide a network of protection. Pain may even offer you some other details on the kyuubi, although anything he knows would have been stolen from the Uchiha generations ago. So take it with a grain of salt,” his tone was unimpressed as he always was with anything outside his own clan.

“Akatsuki is the correct next step in your journey. And as long as you are loyal to them, you can use that time with others of enormous power to grow even farther,” Itachi’s black eyes narrowed with cunning, “to seek out their shortcomings, test yourself against them, and correct any weaknesses in yourself. It is an opportunity for you, if you wish it to be.”

Naruto still said nothing. “Won’t I be recognized?”

“Who would recognize you? No one knows you. No one has ever seen you. The only giveaway is the kyuubi’s chakra and you already know to hide it completely. And I have taken the liberty of disguising the only outward marks of the kyuubi — the lines on your face—“

Naruto put his hand to his cheek, suddenly remembering, and looking for a split-second like the boy. Itachi laughed quietly, and Naruto’s hand went down. He was the cold collected adult again.

“I didn’t think you’d mind. It’s the only jutsu applied, and it’s razor thin. Just enough to cover the marks. If you concentrate you can feel them.” Itachi looked down, speaking and searching through papers. “Once you have the feel for the placement and the weight, remove my jutsu and replace it with one of your own. Then it can be dispersed into your life force and hidden completely. No one will ever detect it. Only the most elite of the elite, like me— Ah, here it is—“ Itachi held out slim scroll.

Naruto just looked at it, but he didn’t take it. “I would prefer to be on my own. Out here. Like this.”

“You owe a debt of gratitude to the Rain. As do I. Without them, we never would have gotten this far. But I can let you go to them because I know no matter what you do for Akatsuki, no matter what Pain may say or what he might offer you, your allegiance is still with me. Someone — something — like Pain could never understand— Underneath it all, there is a bond that can not be broken.”

He looked at Naruto sharply, as if peering inside him.

“Don’t forget, Naruto, all of this,” he held up his hands, “everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you.”

It was stirring. Deep down, Naruto always had wanted to belong. And the things Itachi said made sense. He wanted answers, he wanted training, he wanted protection. Then this was where he belonged now. With Akatsuki.

Naruto nodded firmly. “You saved me from Konoha. I will forever be grateful.” This time, he didn’t sound like a boy, desperate to please. Now he sounded like a man, pledging his allegiance.

As if reading his thoughts, Itachi seemed to relax. “And I will still need your help, someday soon…. Do you remember your promise?”

Naruto did remember. Long ago, before his escape from Konoha, Itachi had struck a bargain with him. Itachi would rescue and train him, and in return, he was to help Itachi stop his younger brother and avenge the death of his family. Itachi had explained it then that Sasuke was so powerful, it would take two equally powerful to take him down. And there was no reason to doubt him. After meeting Sasuke himself, he was certain it was true. Even one Uchiha could be as powerful as an army. Itachi would need Naruto’s help if he was going to bring down Sasuke. And all those years ago, Naruto had sworn he would help him.

Naruto looked down at his hands. He now felt like the person to do it.

As Naruto, free from disguise, he could control his fate. As Naruto, free from Konoha, he could control the demon. As Naruto, he could become the shinobi he’d always dreamed of, take on any task, defeat any opponent. He had seen what he could become.

Somehow, Itachi had known what he could grow into. And now it was up to Naruto to finish the job.

“I have not forgotten, Itachi-sama.” Naruto bowed deeply. “When the time comes, I will fulfill my promise to you.”

“Good. Then you are dismissed, Naruto,” Itachi said, handing him the scroll. “I look forward to seeing your development into the perfect shinobi.” Naruto accepted, bowing his head scroll.

Travel in his new form was different. He had more power, tired less easily. It was a good transition, and the journey gave him time to reflect on his choice.

He was actually looking forward to trying out his skills and running missions. It almost felt like a game. Or a competition. Itachi had said Akatsuki worked like a team, but he had made it clear to learn from their skills as well. They had a wealth of experiences from all over the world. He would observe them.

But in observing others, he made some decisions about his own skills. He knew to never reveal the kyuubi to anyone. He would learn to rely only on himself.

Watching his clone fight was like watching another class of ninja. The Akatsuki. The elite of the elite. If this was who he was going to be, who he was going to work with or go up against, then he needed to work harder. He wasn’t fighting old soldiers, rogue ninjas and thugs enlisted for petty crimes and labor. No, he needed to be an elite ninja as well. And to do that, he needed to rely on his skills first. His own chakra, his own techniques. Not a weapon, and not a massive power that might turn out to be unreliable in a fight.

And he knew now he needed to work better with the demon’s power. Conceal it from others until he was ready.

His clone was able to provoke him and push him to use his secret powers and then read that power. Naruto would never let someone provoke him that way again. He would always keep them guessing. He would hide the kyuubi down underneath everything and become so powerful he didn’t need to rely on its strength. And if he did, it would be a complete surprise.

He decided the first skill he gleaned from an elite ninja would be from his own clone. The strategy of beating an opponent down relentlessly only to explode at the right moment with a new level of power. Naruto would build in more and more levels of power so he would not need to touch the kyuubi’s strength. And if he did decide to use it, he would slip in the extra chakra with his own, in the disguise of the technique, then hid it again. He would never put it on display like he had with his clone, leaving his raw power out there for someone to sum up and form a strategy against. He would hide and learn how to control it.

He would work and train, as much as he could. Refining and honing, watching and learning. So that when he turned 21 and his chakra channels fused with the demon’s, when his power was consistent and reliable then he would be a ninja worthy of using wielding such a tool.

The boatman at the edge of the grey sea in the Rain territory looked him up and down. Now, Naruto was a formidable ninja. But he was still foreign to the boatman. In the drizzle, Naruto flashed the scroll with the unmistakeable grey knot at the end that signified a direct invitation.

Unimpressed, the black-clad man merely nodded him onto the boat. Naruto boarded and they set off for the deepening dark waters.

Beyond the wall of mist, Naruto arrived at the same waterlogged concrete dock. Nothing changed here. Black water, steel grey skies and a murky building lights reflected in the pools of water on the ground. The rain never ceased.

He was instructed to go straight to the temple, but it was an order he had already planned to break. He had an errand to run, one final promise to keep before he could begin his new life.

He knew it as soon as his hand touched the Captain’s dagger. He couldn’t keep it.

On his way out of camp, Naruto had quietly lifted a rucksack from the edge of a tent — never disturbing the snoring man inside — and shoved the Akatsuki cloak, the dagger and the slim grey rain scroll into the bag. Then he slipped back behind the munitions tent. There was a barrel of empty scroll cases. He had stashed the captain’s scroll there. It was at the bottom, heavier than the rest with it’s sealing scroll concealed inside. Katsuro had promised he’d get the old Captain home. Now Naruto would see it through.

Veering away from the direction of the docks, Naruto followed the roads as the led up, getting narrower and older. This was what he’d heard the men describe of their youth. This was the old Rain village. Stone block buildings with ornately carved roofs that swooped down towards the next row of structures in great grey waves. But they were empty. Abandoned. Each one with open black windows making the very buildings look like they were wailing. All drowning beneath the rain.

This was what they fought for. The memory of their home was what they still died for. But this place was already dead.

Naruto walked alone up the silent network of thin paved streets that lined old canals. There was no other soul here but him, animal or human.

The water was his only companion. It had been tamed in the old village, running through stone sluices in pleasant low tones. It was not like the rivers that cut through the rebuilt areas, throwing themselves against the concrete walls, or the vast black sea that surrounded this forsaken land. Here the water was almost peaceful. The only thing accompanying him was the occasional knock of the rolling stream and the steady plink of rain.

Naruto wasn’t sure where he was going or what he was looking for, but he followed the walkway up and up as it narrowed, until the water ran in just a thin rivulet beside a gravel path…then both disappeared beneath a fallen thicket of bamboo.

Poking out from the leaves was the corner of an old stone lantern. A bird’s nest was in the hollow, but it was empty and sodden, as abandoned as the rest of this place.

Papery leaves covered gravel and wisps of bamboo draped into the trickling water. A curving roof rose far beyond treetops, as if on a hill. Probably the highest spot on this land— He decided he’d probably found what passed for a holy place in this village.

Naruto pushed up the bent bamboo stalks and followed the path. Beyond the bamboo a memorial opened up in front of him. There were stones and statues as thick as a forest on either side of the uneven path. Past that was a rectangular black pool situated at the bottom of steep stone steps, half overgrown with wilderness. The building now had come into better view revealing that the graceful roofline snapped off into a gaping hole where the old wet wood stuck out at angles like broken teeth.

But he had no interest in the old building. This pond in front of him was a fitting place for his task.

Naruto quietly walked past old markers. Only the drum of rain on bamboo accompanied the steady grind of his feet on up the wet gravel. These stones were the last remnants of the fallen warriors of Rain. Now there were too few left to remember and too many who had died on foreign ground. So this place — like all of the waterlogged old village — was forgotten.

Reaching the edge of the pool, Naruto stood for a moment watching the arcs of ripples from raindrops before reaching back into his bag. The captain’s scroll was heavy. The jutsu to disguise a body into an object could never hide the weight of its importance. They always felt different.

He held it for a moment, thinking there was probably some prayer to be given or some old Rain oath that should be uttered on the passing of one of their soldiers. But he had no idea what such a ceremony like that would involve. He had no notion of temple or nation.

So leaning down, Naruto simply let the scroll slide from his hands into the water. He solemnly watched the silver rings spread across the black water until they were broken by rain drops. In the next moment, the blurred shape of the pale scroll was gone.

Naruto had brought him home. He had kept Katsuro’s last promise. He had fulfilled the Captain’s goal.

But there was another object in the bag the weighed on him.

Naruto pulled out the dagger and holster. He held it in his hand, looking at its design and feeling its weight. He knew now that it had to go as well. This was never his. It was Katsuro’s possession and it had been used against him, to control him. It had almost been Katsuro’s undoing. Naruto knew he could never let anything control him like that again.

With a little more force, Naruto pitched it out into the deepest part of the water. It splashed loudly and sank like a stone. The rain quickly erased any trace of disturbance from the surface.

Now it was done. The captain was home. And Katsuro was…gone.

Watching the black water, the pinprick droplets appearing and disappearing, Naruto felt lighter. He let the rain soak his shoulders, enjoying it, realizing suddenly that he was feeling rain on this new body for the first time. It was a fresh start. He was free. He was his own man.

He ran his hand back over his head, slicking back his pale hair, and stepped back from the pond. He left, never looking back at the lonely stones or the trembling bamboo or the wall of rain strengthening behind him. By the time he returned to the rebuilt territory of concrete roads and metal-sided buildings, the drizzle had turned to a cloak of mist, closing off the old village entirely.

Back near the docking port, he scanned the area. He was still alone, but there was life here. Flashing lights and flying birds and the odd shadow reflected back. He never saw anyone for long in the Rain country. Just rain-slicked shapes ducking in and out of doors. He was the only one foolish enough to stand out there and let the rain soak him through.

He’d been down this one particular road before. As if remembering too, his stomach growled on cue. There had been a ramen stand here. Looked like a frog or something. He turned the corner, remembering exactly where it stood and practically letting his stomach guide the way.

It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. And with this new body came a new voracious appetite And just the thought of hot noodles overrode all thoughts of his mission scroll—

But when he got to the spot he was so certain of in memory, there was no restaurant to greet him. The space between the two buildings was empty. So empty, in fact, it looked like there had never been a restaurant there at all. The barren lot only held stubs of grass, clumps of bamboo, broken bottles and puddles of water shining black in the mud.

Naruto stepped forward to a crumbling step, sure it had been right there, in front of him— When a sudden downpour sent a sheet of rain towards him, enveloping everything in a single line. The edge of the empty lot was already disappearing. It was as if it were pushing him back.

A bird on a wire far above him wobbled with a gust of rain, but it didn’t fly. That speck of unnatural movement reminded him suddenly— the origami birds, Konan holding her hand out in the rain as if reading it, controlling it. And Pain’s ominous words “You’re never alone here.”

Naruto looked hard at the approaching sheet of rain. It closed like a curtain over the street cutting it off from him. It was clear his time was up. He was expected at Pain and Konan’s ‘temple’ — the Rain territory’s new temple, he noted. Naruto turned and walked back up the street, and unsurprisingly, the rain didn’t follow him.

The dripping open-mawed god leaning out over the Rain city was as foreboding as ever. Naruto didn’t need to look up at it. He knew where he was headed. He kept his head down, ignored the water dripping down his face and and ran up the stone steps.

The cold temple was quiet and creaking. Birds fluttered from the open windows. The patched metal statue groaned where it had been had been attached to the old structure, as if resenting the unholy merger. For Naruto, knowing that the soaring space was the empty hull of a body somehow made it feel more abandoned than if it were just some ancient building.

He didn’t look too hard in the dark, just moved toward the center platform that would take him up through the body to the top. But in the blackness beyond the platform, something was dragging along the floor…slithering against the ceiling…something large…crawling and writhing in one large mass—

Suddenly, a milk-white face appeared out of the darkness directly in front of him. The sound was gone, the shapes turned to shadow. It was only Konan — with dark hair, dark eyes and luminous pale face half-hidden behind her dark cloak — moving toward him.

Her amber eyes went wide at the sight of him — like she was seeing a ghost. Naruto glanced away, suddenly uncomfortable. But when he looked back, her expression had sunk into disapproval.



“This way please,” she said crisply and swept past him.

He followed her beyond the center of the platform, into darkness.

At the farthest end of the room were stairs, and his eyes were just beginning to adjust when she moved upwards. He got a glance around at what might have been overhead, but he saw nothing but a glut of tubes and wires tacked up all over the ancient ceiling—

Konan cleared her throat delicately. Naruto continued up behind her, getting colder with each floor.

On the third platform she opened a door, spilling warm light out into the otherwise freezing wood stairs.

There was a small room with a large table. And beyond it, shoulders squared, hands behind him, waited Pain.

Konan held the door, beckoning him in.

Empty niches dotted the walls. They were varying sizes, purpose built, but whatever that purpose was it ended long ago. Every shelf was empty. A narrow old table ran the length of one side of the room. Its rough-hewn surface was scratched and dotted with spilled ink. A small roll of black fabric sat in the center.

Naruto walked halfway in, stopping directly behind Pain.

Closing the door behind Naruto, Konan stood next to him, attention on Pain. She put her hand on the fabric roll, turned her eyes to Pain and waited. She did not look at Naruto.

Finally Pain turned around.

Standing opposite him, Naruto was almost the same height, although Pain still stood a fraction taller. While size did have the surprising effect of making Naruto feel more matched in strength than he did before, with Pain he discovered none of that mattered. His authority was the same as Naruto’s clone’s demeanor. Cold, controlled and indisputable.

Pain didn’t move. His strange dark eyes bored into Naruto. But Pain didn’t study him. He didn’t even seem to notice the changes like Konan had. Instead, his eyes radiated in nearly imperceptible circles, rippling out like the raindrops on the pond. Naruto felt like he was looking for something…. Something that couldn’t be seen on the surface.

Naruto desperately wanted to flinch and look away, but he knew his clone never would. So he forced himself to look ahead too. Finally, the inspection was over.

Pain’s low, gravelly voice came to life. “Why are you here?”

Naruto was thrown. He looked from Konan back to Pain, wondering if this were a joke. But it wasn’t. Konan’s amber eyes were fixed on Pain.

Naruto answered slowly. “I was told you had a job for me.”

“I can get anyone to do a job. In any town, in any country, any time I want.”

Naruto thought he must want specifics. He nodded his head, choosing his words.

“I want to train. Become a better shinobi, learn skills and control and—“

Pain’s voice was firm. “You could go to any village and find a master. Why are you here?

Naruto was getting a little mad — because they had asked him, because Itachi practically ordered him — but he didn’t say these things. He got to the heart of the matter: Because he was special. Because he was different.

“I want to learn more about controlling the— the kyuubi,” he said, finding even admitting it was difficult—

“Ah, learning. That is a noble cause.” A ring of taunting the echoed through Pain’s deep voice. “But why here? Any temple could help you in your quest.”

Naruto blinked at him, stunned.

“I can’t just go to any temple— I’m wanted— It’s not safe—“

“You’re smart, capable. You’ll be fine. Why should we accept your request to join Akatsuki?” Pain’s voice was growing more firm.

Naruto looked at him, mouth parted in surprise. He cut a sideways look at Konan. Her head was tipped to the side, confused.

“It’s not a request,” Naruto said. “You asked—“

“But I’m not asking now.”

Naruto frowned. “Itachi told me—“

Pain nodded as if he’d found what he was looking for. “So this is because Itachi released you—“

“Itachi didn’t release me! I came here on my own!” Naruto’s pale face was tinged pink, and for a moment he felt a familiar hot rush of anger, even in the frigid room.

Pain’s stare was cold and emotionless. There was a drawn out silence before Pain’s next words.

“If that’s so, then what’s in there.” He nodded to the bag.

Naruto had forgotten about the rucksack. The anger left him.

In the silence he reached around, pulled out the folded black cloak, leaving the empty bag on the table behind him.

He didn’t have an answer for why he wasn’t wearing it. In leaving it off, he had made a mistake. It was already his. His clone had already been wearing it. He realized belatedly didn’t need to be invited to this position, he was already in it.

He looked up from the folded cloak.

Point made, Pain said again in a low dangerous tone, “Why are you here?”

Naruto remembered what Itachi said. That to be asked was an honor and a privilege. He wasn’t exactly treating it as such. Maybe he was still approaching things like Katsuro had.

But that was all behind him now. Naruto remembered his clone and the way other people saw him. And the way others had treated him in camp when he had become Naruto. That was his life now. All the time, in all places. He’d seen what he could become. He was never going back.

Clear eyed, Naruto started again. “This is what I want. To become a member of Akatsuki,” he said firmly.

“And Itachi sent you?”

“Itachi did not send me. I came on my own. This is what I want.”

“What do you have to offer this group?”

As Katsuro, he would have stumbled over his answer. But remembering his clone and the powerhouse that he was in camp, he would never have been at a loss for what he offered. Naruto knew he wasn’t there yet. But he would be one day. And Akatsuki could get him there.

So when he spoke again he did not think of Katsuro. He didn’t even think about himself, standing there in Rain. Instead, he pictured that pale-eyed clone whom he’d fought. He was the most ferocious thing he’d ever seen.

“I can kill anyone, anytime, anywhere. I am unstoppable.”

“We have a group of killers, of all kinds. Why you?”

“Because I can go farther, do more, take on more risks—“

“I have all that and more in my members—“

“I can do it on my own. With my own skill. Without using traceable jutsus like Itachi or bombs like Deidara or puppets like Sasori.”

Pain listened.

“And no one knows me. No one has ever seen me. I come from no village.”

Pain studied him. His eyes softly radiating. He was waiting for more, and Naruto knew it wasn’t just because he was a good shinobi. So he made himself go farther.

“And…above all…because I have a hidden power that…that can wipe out any enemy.”

Pain nodded, satisfied with that answer. “And what do you want from Akatsuki in return for the use of these powers of yours? Coins, weapons, land— Revenge, perhaps…. For yourself? Or for Itachi? Do you want revenge against Konoha?”

Naruto shook his head. “I want to train and improve my skills.” There was more though. He had to take control of his fate. “And…I want what was promised. I want to know about the demon.”

“Itachi can not deliver these things for you?”

Naruto shook his head. He remembered their last conversation. He remembered what was said, and what was offered. He used Pain’s own words. “He has instructed me well in the ways of Konoha. But…I want more—“

Pain was not impressed, but Naruto thought now he had a handle on what Pain was asking.

“I am here because I understand now what I could not then. About loss. And belonging. I understand what you are offering me. Protection. A place to belong while I grow into this— this power that only I have. I understand I have more to learn.”

Pain waited, motionless. Konan watched them both.

Naruto thought about this place. A leader who operated a secret group from the head of a war god might value tradition a little more than someone like Itachi. Naruto didn’t know the traditions of Rain — or of any village — but he did understand power. And if you wanted to learn from a new master, first you had to submit.

Naruto bowed. “I am grateful for the part that Itachi has played in bringing me here. But there is more that I need to know. And he cannot teach me. I asked Itachi to let me go to a new master. He agreed.”

“And you leave this first teacher to help us build a new nation? You would be willing to do anything we asked, without question? Executing every order, every time, without fail?”

Naruto nodded his head.

“You would pledge your loyalty to Akatsuki above all others?”

Naruto nodded.

“You would be loyal to Akatsuki and serve its needs even if it goes against everything or everyone? Even Itachi?”

It was clear in his voice that this question was a test. Naruto nodded without hesitation. He could be loyal to both. He didn’t see that those were two conflicting interests, no matter how much friction existed between Itachi and Pain. That had nothing to do with him.

Pain seemed satisfied.

Naruto felt emboldened to ask him directly. “And you will teach me more about the kyuubi?”

Pain looked at him, not giving an answer in his expression. “As I have said. But,” Pain looked at the cloak still in Naruto’s hand, “this is not a fair trade. We have offered all of this to you. For your protection. But you have to prove you are worthy of these gifts…and of that deeper knowledge.”

Naruto looked down at the cloak. It was time to take the next step.

Holding the top, he let the black fabric slip from his fingers so that the cloak danced in front of him. He slipped it over one arm, then the other. He knew what he looked like, he’d seen his clone in it. But still, it felt heavier and more formal than he expected. This was his now.

He was belatedly surprised that it fit him so well. Not overly big like he thought it would be, revealing that some small part of him still carried Katsuro’s point of view, even though outwardly he appeared so different.

He was now a wall of black. The collar was high, but it didn’t cover his face. The fabric fell from the straight line of his shoulders to his ankles, and the red cloud was suspended perfectly in the center.

He brushed his hand over the blood-red finely stitch fabric, unable to resist touching it after seeing it from the outside for so long. He discovered he wasn’t overly proud. Or happy. Or even swept up in a sudden feeling of loyalty. But there was some comfort in knowing that he was on the inside now. Part of a group. And one look would tell anyone that his power was not to be trifled with.

Naruto shook off the introspections, ran his hands back over his hair, slicking it down again, then stood with his hands behind his back as his clone had done. Naruto was the cold Akatsuki member awaiting his orders.

Pain nodded perfunctorily, then turned to the roll of black fabric in the center of the table. He gathered it up in a hand tipped with perfectly polished black fingernails.

Naruto thought for the first time that he might be awarded a headband. Perhaps one from the Rain village, cut through just like theirs— or perhaps it was a mark of the new village he hoped to create from its ashes.

He’d never had a headband. He had not been wanted by his own village. But now, was he supposed to just accept the insignia of a village he’d never known? Naruto was discovering he had mixed feelings about headbands too.

He thought it must have showed because he caught Konan’s wary gaze from behind the high collar of her cloak.

Black roll in his hand, Pain stepped forward to bring it to Naruto. Naruto was just about to reach up and accept the headband, when Konan stepped between them.

“No, let me do it,” she said firmly.

Without expression, Pain turned his head to her as if he might argue. But she looked him full in the face until he relented. He deposited the bundle in her hand and moved to the other side of the room.

Amber eyes turned next to Naruto. “Come.” Sporting the same shade of black on her fingernails, Konan pointed to a spot directly in front of her. He obeyed.

“There are some things expected of you as an Akatsuki member—“

“Black fingernails?” Naruto quipped in a very Katsuro manner before he could stop himself.

Konan looked at him as if he were speaking another language. But then she looked down at her nails, the chipping black against pink skin, and shook her head.

“No,” she said softly as she unrolled the fabric. “No, you don’t have to paint your fingernails. But you will need one of these.”

She opened one flap of the roll to reveal a pile of dull metal scraps.

He looked at them, confused for a moment. It wasn’t a headband…. But when he looked up, he realized what he was seeing. It was metal for a piercing, like Konan and Pain’s. He was expected to have one too.

He frowned immediately. “None of the other Akatsuki have them.”

Pain answered first. “None of the other Akatsuki are as valuable.” Naruto stiffened slightly. Konan cut her eyes back at him. But Pain was not fazed. “You have the most potential. Your time as a Leaf nin is over. We are training you in the ways of the Rain now. You need to be connected to us at all times.”

“And that’s what this is for?” He reached for one of the metal hunks, but Konan moved her hand quickly to block him.

“These are unique. Very hard to come by.”

She plucked one of the metal bits from the pile and twirled it between her thumb and forefinger.

Before his eyes, the raw-edged metal smoothed and twisted and rolled outward as if it had turned to grey clay. She twisted it back and forth, until the center was needle thin and a round ball had formed at the one end. She stopped, pinched it, and it snapped back to hard metal. Then a sizzle ran over the whole surface, up to the top and back down again, never hurting her fingers.

The grey was transformed to the deepest black, ringed by a silver shine so bright it made the hard metal ball on the top of the pin look like an overly large drop of ink.

He was impressed. He flicked his gaze over the object and back to her face.

“It is infused with chakra,” Konan explained. “It’s so we can find you if we need you. If something happened to you, or if you were captured—

“By Konoha,” Naruto said with a nod. He straightened. “So what do I….”

“You wear it. Your choice as to where. But somewhere uncovered, it can be reached by us. Like your eyebrow,” she touched a finger to the edge of her brow, “or your ear,” she touched her earlobe—

But Naruto, watching her, responded by bringing his finger to the soft flesh beneath his bottom lip, to the same spot where her piercing was.

“Perfect,” she said, and set the new piercing on the roll of fabric.

Pain made an exasperated noise and stepped forward suddenly. “Let me do it,” he said impatiently. But Konan swiftly stopped him.

“No.” Konan was unyielding. “Not this time.” Pain was not pleased, but he relented.

She turned back to the roll and opened the other flap. Tied there were a few harsh looking surgical tools, a roll of cotton and one long, sharp needle.

She selected the needle and the cotton, laying it all out next to the metal piercing as if she were a doctor. She took up the needle but stopped, glancing at Naruto.

“This will need to be sterilized,” she said to herself, and almost immediately a sizzle of hot chakra ran from her fingers over the whole needle, making it shine. She paused then reached for the cotton — “and there will probably be some blood” — and turned to face him. But looking up, she stopped again.

Her breath fogged once in the cold air of the room. “I don’t have anything to numb the pain—“

“It’s ok. It won’t hurt me.”

She was skeptical, but she began. Stepping forward, she made quick work of pinching Naruto’s lower lip, judging the distance and placement of the piercing, then slid the needle straight through. She twisted it in the hole and readied the cotton to dab the blood that was sure to come from carving a hole in his flesh.

But there was no blood.

And strangely, the needle was going warm in her fingers.

Naruto focused on the top of her head, the breath from his nose making the grey paper flower shudder against her grey hair. He had never seen anyone who was so much the color of rain. But she was. It was as if this whole sodden place had seeped into her too.

There was a pinprick of warmth beneath his lip. But there was no pain. Just a circle of hot chakra trying to protect him from this small intrusion.

Konan looked up at him sharply.

“It’s ok,” he managed.

“It should’ve taken longer to form a clean hole, but….” She shrugged a shoulder, slid out the needle and immediately replaced it with the shining metal stud. Holding it for a moment more, she used her chakra to shape a smaller ball on the other end of the pin to secure it against the back of his lip. She stepped back, finished.

Naruto flicked his tongue against the metal stud. It was warm, retaining the heat from the demon’s chakra that was still trying to push it out, trying to seal this new hole in its host. But the doubled-ended stud meant that it wasn’t going anywhere. And Naruto would just have to get used to the dot of warmth beneath his chin. He relaxed his jaw, forgetting about the piercing almost immediately, and waited, hands behind his back.

Konan turned away, rolling everything back up in the fabric kit.

Pain stepped forward. He nodded at Naruto, sizing him up. They were nearly the same in height and physique. And now in matching Akatsuki cloaks and piercings, they looked astonishingly similar. Like he really was one of them.

Naruto couldn’t ignore it. And Pain nodded again, clearly thinking the same thing. Konan wouldn’t turn around to see it, but that didn’t matter to Pain.

“Good…. Now we can begin.”

Pain picked up the slim grey scroll. It was the same as every other rain scroll he’d ever seen. He passed it to Naruto who held it in his open hand. But Pain didn’t let go.

“Your first task in Akatsuki. Complete it successfully, then we will begin to discuss your training. Your future. And the kyuubi.”

Naruto bowed to his new master.

The scroll said nothing about why. Just the target’s name and an address. Someone who needed to be erased.

Naruto didn’t ask. He left the Rain territory, pulled up his dark cloak. He traveled to a nearby country, staying off the main roads. He was not afraid. He was Naruto, a shinobi who knew no enemy. Who could not be defeated.

He slipped into the town unobserved. He was a shadow on the wall of a compound, a puff of wind at the open gate, a stray leaf blowing towards the family wing.

Life bustled in the raised structures around him, with people moving from room to room, talking, laughing. In the center of the compound was a garden, still elegant in the blue-black light — a rectangular pond, posing statues, picturesque benches and potted plants, staked and tied and tagged with names of remote places he’d never heard of.

This was no sacred space. Instead it was just an artful display to show off the owner’s wealth, Naruto was sure. In another life, a younger version of himself might have curled up his lip and sneered. But not tonight. Naruto let the observation slip away as he moved down the path. It didn’t matter to him. This was just a job.

At the back of the garden, lamplight spilled in soft yellow ribbons over the gravel walkway. There was another room, apart from the rest, behind an artfully planted thicket of bamboo. A separate living quarter or workspace—

A man cleared his throat. The lamplight flickered.

Naruto focused on the spot. He moved steadily through the darkness, hearing the sound of his footsteps over the gravel and erasing them. He disturbed nothing. Even the frogs continued their croaking from the pond. He was no more than a breeze sweeping through the garden.

Behind the bamboo, luminous screen doors stood half open, letting the evening air in. Naruto edged forward, peering through the shadowy silver leaves, and caught the shape of a man bent over his work.

Moths drifted in, lured to the light. “Shoo, Shoo….” came a low voice. The yellow light flickered again.

The man sat back from writing a letter, laid aside the wet brush and picked up an official looking document from the messy pile of papers spread over his low desk. He reread it, dragging a finger down a particular section and speaking to himself before he lifted the hand to gently push another moth away from the lantern. He nodded, mouth forming unheard words, then struck with inspiration he reached again for the brush—

A sudden gust rifled the scrolls. The man lunged forward quickly trying to stop them from blowing away. But he grabbed too fast, smudging the recipient’s name.

“Oh no,’ he said, trying to wipe away the stray marks. But it was illegible. He sighed. “I’ll just have to do that one again.”

Pulling the papers closer together, he moved an open wooden box holding an ornately carved stamp onto the center of the pile to hold them down. Then he stood to slide the door closed.

Behind him, a figure rose up from the shadows. Wavering light cut across his face. The stud below his lip glinted. His blue eyes glowed. He stepped forward….

By the time the man realized there was someone standing right behind him, it was too late.

“What are you— “

A hand fisted his hair, wrenched him down and pulled his head back, exposing his gasping throat and pounding jugular vein.

“No— Don’t— I’ll give you anything you want—“ The man twisted against his attacker, black eyes searching out a face and pleading for his life. “Please— Don’t do this—“

But the eyes he found were cold.

“This is where it ends—“ Naruto said softly, never looking down at his terrified victim.

He flicked out a kunai from his sleeve and plunged into the crease in the man’s neck, slashing the vein that pounded with his heart. Blood sprayed across the tatami mats and pelted the white screens.

The flame flickered in the hollow of its lantern.

The edges of the scrolls lifted in the breeze.

A limp body slid to the ground.

Naruto stood in the stillness, listening. The frogs sang from their pond. Blood dripped softly from the end of the kunai. His breath echoed in his ears. But nothing else. No one came.

He stepped over the open-eyed body, past the red blood that was spilling out onto the floor in an eerily similar pattern to the cloud shape stitched on the front of his cloak, and slipped out the way he came. His first job for the Akatsuki was complete.