Preview – Chapter 40

Author’s note: I’m still alive! Sorry it’s been radio silence from me for a while. But the good news is, I’m finally back to writing and being able to post again! Thanks so much for the notes and comments!! They’ve kept me going! So… a preview from the next chapter of AVitW! And there will be more to come!

40 – The Death of Katsuro

From the moment he stepped back into the camp, Katsuro should have known things weren’t going to end well.

Itachi strode through first, as cold and aloof as usual. The soundless footfalls and gliding steps, the sure marks of his shinobi training, were trained to their purpose.

He moved confidently as if he were the only person in the world. Ink-black hair fells in strands around his pale face, but he didn’t move to brush them away. He didn’t need to see what was in his periphery.

After all, it was the same scene it always was. The men closest to Itachi were scrambling up from their spots, marking his arrival with their usual silent nods.

But the respect almost universally reserved for the ‘Big Boss’ quickly gave way to open curiosity. Several stopped in mid bow. Farther back in camp, men looked up from their duties, put down their weapons, stopped talking among the tents. All eyes turned toward the clearing.

There was someone behind Itachi. Someone new.

A blond man followed him, with the same intimidating gate, the same unseeing gaze. He even wore the same black and red cloak. The new guy was only a notch shorter and had a similar build as the Boss, but the more the men stared, the more differences they found.

Maybe it was the yellow hair and blue eyes that gave newcomer an air of vigor. Or maybe it was the sun-touched skin that made Itachi’s normally pale face look a shade whiter than usual.

Even under the cloak, the blond clearly had more bulk. His shoulders were a shade broader, his hands just a fraction wider. He didn’t bother to hide the soft pound of his footsteps. The subtle strength on display was a marked change from Itachi’s willowy form, one that masked the power underneath.

The blond may be have been a shinobi like Itachi, but he also looked like could take you in a bare knuckle fight.

The questions were all reflected in the men’s eyes as they passed. Was this newcomer an apprentice, or was he here as an equal? Would he assist Itachi…or unseat him?

Whatever it was, this man was different. He would be one to watch.

But the blond didn’t care. His icy gaze was only on Itachi’s back and whatever destination lay ahead of him. He didn’t even notice the men edging out of the recesses of the camp, creeping forward, trying to catch a glimpse of him.

Their hushed whispers carried like wind through the trees. Change was coming….

They were so riveted to the spectacle of a second aloof shinobi, that no one even noticed the third in line, trailing behind them through camp.

With the hood of his dusty dark cloak drawn up over his head, Katsuro was practically invisible at the end. Which was just fine by him. He walked slower, letting the distance spread out between him and his traveling companions.

Itachi had explained it on the journey back. Naruto was to stay with him, assume a position of command as his new right-hand man. Katsuro was to return to his tent and his life before. Act as he normally would, go about his duties, mingle with the soldiers. Then at the appropriate time, they were to switch. Katsuro would cease to exist, and Naruto would remain.

Katsuro’s job was to reinforce the wild speculations that were already spreading through camp. Katsuro was to become part of that narrative by sowing discord that would ultimately lead to a confrontation. A final confrontation between he and Naruto — Naruto, the blond-haired outsider, the powerful newcomer….and the clone Katsuro had created.

This was Itachi’s elaborate plan. Itachi didn’t share any more, and Katsuro didn’t ask. Katsuro was just expected to trust him, as usual. He wasn’t exactly happy about it, but these were his orders, so he guessed he’d follow them. After all, Itachi promised this would be over soon—

Without another glance at the powerful men striding away or the whispering crowd that was forming in their wake, Katsuro veered off to the dark corner of the woods towards where his tent sat.

After resting a few hours, Katsuro woke up to a deep, insistent hunger. Another after effect of having Itachi’s powerful permanent-disguising jutsu lifted, he realized.

Even though Katsuro looked as he always had — the kid with the tan skin and a smattering of freckles, brown eyes and a mop of curly brown hair — this version of him was now the disguise.

At Itachi’s request, Katsuro had used a simple henge to mask his bigger body. Initially it had felt strange, like slipping back into clothes he’d outgrown, but within a few minutes the feeling diminished completely. He’d forgotten about the disguise altogether.

Only the growling of his stomach made him feel uncomfortable and tight again.

Katsuro hurriedly rummaged through his pack. There was no food, but his hand did wrap around something familiar: the curved handle of the Captain’s Rain dagger. He frowned. He supposed it was his now too…yet he had forgotten to hide it along with the necklace.

The stomach growled. His was beginning to throb. He’d deal with hiding the dagger later. Katsuro hooked it to his belt and strode of toward the glow of the big campfire and a bowl of rice.

He ate quietly, trying to drag out a meal that he already knew would not be nearly enough to for his new appetite. But slowly the hunger pangs ebbed, and Katsuro began to feel like himself again.

He thought he might start to put Itachi’s plan into action, but he found his work had already been done for him.

Gossip about the newcomer had brought men out in droves. The campfire popped and hissed, and talk jumped from lies to suspicions to speculations. In the end, every outlandish theory was pitted against another, until everyone was caught up in the wildfire of conjecture.

The newcomer might be a powerful warrior, come to train with Itachi. 

Or he could be an upstart, come to topple the Big Boss. 

He walked so smoothly through camp, he must be a shinobi with mystical powers. 

Maybe he was a spy that was like Itachi, with powers of the mind. 

Or maybe he wasn’t like Itachi at all, instead like the others in that group, and those handsome looks were just a disguise for some hideous power.

Or maybe he was just a regular guy like them, only a whole lot stronger.

There was no consensus, except for the fact that they’d all dearly like to see him in battle.

Katsuro ate silently, listening to it all, and laughed inwardly. This was going to be easier than he thought.

The next meal was more of the same. Katsuro scooped out a bowl of food and listened. But this time, one man had seen the young stranger. He recounted his experience, enjoying being at the center of attention.

“Yeah, he an’ the Big Boss was coming and going. He never looked at anyone, but the Big Boss treated him like he was real important, letting him go ahead, pointing out things, explaining stuff— I think he’s here to stay.”

The circle nodded emphatically. Others backed up the story with versions of their own.

By the time Katsuro was scraping the rice from his bowl, the group had decided that the newcomer was worth their respect because Itachi showed his favor. And since Itachi was so powerful, he must know something about this kid, no matter how young and smooth-faced he looked. He must be special.

Katsuro took his empty bowl back to the pot, smiling at their distraction. He helped himself to another bowl of rice, all thanks to Naruto.

He couldn’t deny there was a little sting in hearing the whiff of respect that infiltrated the conversations.

But he buried those thoughts in his second bowl of rice, and was rewarded with feeling full for the first time in days. He sat back, content to be left alone to eat his fill.  Itachi’s plan was going to go just fine without him.

That night, expecting more of the same, Katsuro contentedly sunk his chopsticks into a chunk of stringy grey meat. He was already daydreaming about getting more helpings.

But before he’d even pulled out his first scoop of rice, the conversation had turned to reports of a fight. It was the newcomer against the Big Boss.

Men scooted closer to listen. Katsuro turned his head too, surprised he had not felt something, some ripple at least that a person he’d created was in some kind of a fight.

It was apparently something to behold, according to the men who told the story with animation to the riveted audience…of which Katsuro was a part.

His chopsticks drooped as he listened to the more and more outlandish tales of of flying punches and spinning kicks, of hidden powers and what must surely be secret jutsus—

In the space of a few minutes, a simple spar was blown into a battle of epic proportions. The remainder of the time was spent deducing where the new guy was from, who he’d fought before and what he’d done to become so powerful.

One thing was clear: Going up against Itachi was proof of the new guy’s mettle. To hold his own against a shinobi like that, even in a spar, showed just how fearsome he really must be.

Katsuro returned to his food, eating slower. He scooped out a second bowl, and was even able to go back for a third, which was almost unheard of, but the comments weighed on him. So much so that getting more helpings wasn’t as satisfying as he expected it to be.

Katsuro was not so different than Naruto. He had been a newcomer once, an outsider of unknown origin, brought by Itachi and given preferential treatment. Katsuro had sparred with Itachi too. And then when he was older, he had gone up against those same men, again and again, proving himself a better fighter than nearly everyone there. He’d never shirked a fight. He’d stood up to anyone, and yet… they still looked down on him.

Now this new guy comes and does nothing but walk through camp, and they practically worship him.

Katsuro huffed to himself and put the bowl down with a thud. Thinking about Naruto, Katsuro had eaten mechanically, barely even tasting that third bowl.  And now he felt full — too full. Uncomfortably hot and tight all over. Katsuro stretched his neck, trying to ease his discomfort.

Okay…so maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.

He decided to walk it off. But standing brought some unwanted attention.

Fumio knocked a sharp elbow against Raiden’s much more developed arm. Fumio whispered something, Raiden laughed.

Across the circle, Katsuro rolled his eyes, but the pair called him out before he could leave.

“Looks like you’re not the Boss’s favorite anymore!” The comment drew were several throaty laughs from the crowd.

Katsuro closed his eyes and shook his head at the group. They all hushed.

Satisfied that his displeasure was enough to back them off, Katsuro was about to give them all a withering glare. But when looked up, he found he wasn’t the source of their fear. In fact, no one was even looking at him.

All attention had shifted to the two shinobis coming through camp, heading straight toward them. Even Katsuro’s attention was caught.

Itachi and Naruto were as a formidable as the whole camp full of soldiers. The other men were right: Naruto exuded power. It was a bitter truth, but Katsuro couldn’t deny it. Naruto looked more at home next to Itachi than Katsuro never had.

They approached without a sound, only their cloaks making a whisper of noise. Katsuro never would have known they were coming.

He watched them slip from shadow to light, their faces never quite clear. Katsuro saw Itachi first, but his gaze was slid to Naruto as the two walked steadily through the opening between the tents.

Katsuro told himself, over and over, that the man with the yellow hair and pale unwavering eyes and black akatsuki cloak was just a figment, a spare bit of chakra…a clone. But his brain didn’t believe him.

The two stopped. Naruto’s gaze swept over the scene without registering it and fixed on some point beyond. He stood with shoulders squared, back straight, and waited. Only Itachi’s piercing eyes were fixed on his sole reason for coming.

An uncomfortable silence descended.

As if on cue, the men edged backwards, forming a channel straight to where Katsuro stood.

Katsuro, knowing this must have been some part of Itachi’s plan, fell back on what he always did in these kinds of situations. No matter what the threat, no matter if the person in front of him was real or a clone, Katsuro stood his ground.

Well, in his own particular way….

Katsuro shrugged, shoved his hands in his pockets, angled his face up and said carelessly, “You looking for me?”

It was a game, an act. Both he and Itachi knew it. So when the amazed crowd swung their gaze back at Itachi, Katsuro wasn’t surprised to see a hint of a smirk on his face for a split second.

“As a matter of fact,” Itachi drawled, “I was. Or rather,” his gaze dropped a notch, “I was looking for that.”

Katsuro looked down. The Captain’s rain dagger was still lodged in the holster beneath his belt, it’s curved handle conspicuous against his black fatigues. He had put it on as a matter of routine and had simply forgotten to hide it. Katsuro slid his hand out of his pocket, palm open and ready, but he did not touch the weapon. It now felt as heavy as the gazes watching his every move.

“I believe that was only given to you for safe-keeping.” Itachi’s voice held quiet authority. “It is time for you to turn it in.”

Katsuro cut his eyes back. Itachi waited placidly. A few of the men shuffled backwards sensing a tense standoff. Naruto looked beyond them all.

Katsuro ground his teeth, fighting against the unfairness of the request.

This weapon belonged to him, and him alone. He knew it. And Itachi knew it too. 

Something happened inside. The tightness returned, along with a heat…. Maybe he was standing too close to the fire. It suddenly seemed too bright, too close.

Katsuro took a breath and struggled to regain control.

If Itachi wanted it, then it must be part of his plan. He could trust him….

Calming himself, Katsuro unfastened the strap. He held the dagger a moment, then pitched it sideways down the clearing.

Itachi effortlessly caught the handle. He turned and offered it to the man standing beside him.

“Your blade.”

Naruto, in clockwork response to Itachi’s voice, accepted the dagger without a word. He nodded at Itachi, fastened it beneath his belt, and returned to his soldiers stance, awaiting his next order.

There was a low gasp among the group of men. A wind gusted through camp, making the fire jump and spark. Itachi turned to go, a secret smile curving his lips, and Naruto followed suit. The two men left as quietly as they had come, with only their cloaks whispering over the ground behind them.

Talk resumed with a vengeance. But now it was centered around Katsuro. The men began to cluster and disperse, laughing darkly at the new turn of events.

In the middle of it all stood Katsuro, unmoving. An unnameable fury had taken hold. It roared in his ears, making his skin feel like it was being pushed from the inside out.

Raiden passed by, knocking Katsuro’s shoulder hard. He looked down into the boy’s face and said loudly, “Guess you’re not the Big Boss’s pet anymore, huh runt?”

The group exploded in laughter, but Katsuro pushed it all away. He needed to get out of there. 

Once back at the quiet solitude of his own dark campfire, Katsuro forced himself to calm down.

This was all part of Itachi’s plan. And he had his part to play. 

But the specter of Naruto floated in front of him…with that smooth face and that powerful stance and those cold, dead eyes…. Then the whispers came back, that Katsuro had been replaced….

The unfairness of it burned him up all over again.

He was more powerful than any of them knew! To make a clone that could walk around completely independent of his creator, a new human being that no one had ever seen before? He’d never heard of anyone doing that!

Even that Naruto didn’t know he was an imposter! Sure, they may think he’s powerful, but how smart can you be if you don’t even know you’re a fake? 

Katsuro swung a balled fist at the air, punching the invisible face of Naruto.

Meanwhile, everyone falls all over Naruto for doing nothing, while Itachi gets to train with him, see what he’s made of—

Katsuro squatted down in the darkness and clutched his pounding head. He felt like he was going to crack open. Adding to it was the wave of anger churning at his gut. It was so powerful, so close—

What was happening to him? He couldn’t go on like this…. This was all Naruto’s fault. If he just hadn’t made that clone—

Katsuro blinked. His whites of his eyes were glassy in against darkness. A new idea was forming, pulling him up out of the swirling anger and pain….

Naruto was his clone…. He’d made him. Then didn’t he have a right to see what Naruto was made of too?

Slowly, he thought he was beginning to grasp what Itachi was thinking….

Maybe that’s why Itachi is going to such lengths. Maybe he wasn’t singling Naruto out. In fact, maybe it wasn’t about Naruto at all. Instead couldn’t this just be a test? To see how well Katsuro’s cloning skills had become….

That thought — and several more that brought Naruto down to size — bolstered Katsuro. He considered every aspect, ran through different scenarios and tried to think like Itachi would. He tried to see things from every side. Only then did he finally start to calm done.

When he stood, he realized he was in control again. His cheeks were cool. His headache was gone. He felt…better.

He felt so much better in fact that he was able to sleep comfortably and wake hungry, just as he usually did. He even shrugged off the morning ribbing about his new replacement.

The discomfort of the night before was a distant memory. He felt back to normal.

But watching Naruto spar with Itachi that afternoon — a spectacle that Itachi uncharacteristically made no secret of — tore through all of Katsuro hunches.

Naruto was powerhouse. And Katsuro had no idea how that was possible.

Undone, he ran a hand through his hair and sat down at the edge of the woods.

Katsuro couldn’t understand what he was seeing. That — those perfect punches, those confident kicks — wasn’t from him. It couldn’t be. He’d never looked so fluid, so confident in his life. How could this be his clone?

Naruto was the perfect shinobi.

Katsuro felt like he could sink into the forest floor.

But he couldn’t look away. None of the men gathered there could. Katsuro scowled down at the dry river bed that was now their sparring pitch, watching his creature that he was supposed to have created.

More than powerful…Naruto was skilled. Observant. Even calculating. His movements were as precise as a machine, his emotions as unruffled as Itachi.

But there was something else, something more forceful behind it that made him stand apart from his sparring partner. Something that Itachi lacked…. Katsuro studied him closely, trying to put his finger on it.

Naruto exuded a kind of raw power that Katsuro had to admit he was a little envious of. The length of Naruto’s leg snapped into a straight beam with each devastating kick. His fist was a knot, his arm a battering ram. The arc of his punch was a death sentence.

Folding his arms over his chest, Katsuro huffed. If it was anyone else, Katsuro would have been impressed. Deeply so. He might have even tried to imitate some of those moves. He knew them of course, all shinobi did according to Itachi, but Naruto made it look effortless.

The longer Katsuro watched the more he found himself wondering if he should be training harder. Revisit those old forms and start working on them again…. He admitted he hadn’t done it in a while, but Naruto just made it look so natural…. Maybe he should be trying harder.

Katsuro’s attention turned toward analyzing Naruto’s choices. The blond was a formidable opponent with just those kick-punch-kick combos of basic shinobi training. Without a single weapon or even the use of any jutsu, Naruto would be too much for most opponents.

Brow furrowed, Katsuro took it all in. He ran a hand through his mop of hair, leaving it even more unruly. He chewed his thumbnail to the quick.

The secret was in being relentless. Naruto just never let up. He drilled the same combos over and over again, clearly weakening his opponent—

Then suddenly Naruto’s kick-punch pattern exploded into a surprise roundhouse kick from the other direction, followed immediately by a jab at Itachi’s neck, shoulder and chest, then a swing at his gut from the other direction.

There was a collective gasp around him. Even Katsuro’s mouth dropped open in surprise when he realizing what he was seeing. Naruto wasn’t weakening opponent, he was setting him up. The combo was to catch him off guard, make him expect a pattern. When the opponent fell for it, that’s when Naruto struck.

It was a plan within a plan. This was Itachi’s strategy. Naruto had executed it perfectly, and Katsuro had fallen for it.

Katsuro snapped his mouth shut. A deep frown settled on his face.

Itachi however looked faintly pleased. Though he was the object of the blows, he was never in any danger. His pale face showed no sign that he was even exerting himself. He caught each fist, blocked each kick, staying a step ahead of Naruto at all times. Itachi was both engaging and observing. He never said a word but kept his attention was focused on the shinobi in front of him. He almost looked like he was enjoying the challenge.

The men around Katsuro took bets on who might win, but Katsuro was never in doubt. He kicked the ground, congratulating himself on that pride of place, at least.

Only he was close enough to Itachi to know he worked. Not these men, about to lose all their money betting on Naruto. This wasn’t win or lose — Itachi was always in control. He would never let someone else triumph over him—

Suddenly there was a cheer, and the spar was over. Katsuro looked up. Itachi held up Naruto’s hand and bowed. The men cheered wildly, some even exchanged money, thinking it a victory. Naruto’s position as Itachi’s right-hand man, his equal, was cemented.

Katsuro could believe it.

A few men around Katsuro even began comfortably tossing around the nickname “Kiro” or ‘yellow’ in an obvious reference to his blond hair, though such a disrespectful epithet would never be used in front of someone so close to the Big Boss.

Spirits high, the men started to slip back through the woods. But Katsuro remained. He watched Itachi speak to Naruto, quietly giving instructions, then leave. Naruto leaned over and picked up a holster off the ground. He snapped it on, and Katsuro felt a gut blow as he recognized the handle.

The Captain’s dagger. Naruto had snapped it on so casually, as if he’d always done it…as if it were his….

The familiar anger now sparking inside Katsuro urged him to rush the blond and reclaim his weapon. Naruto was alone. But Katsuro waited….

Naruto wasn’t the least bit winded after that spar. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. There was still a lot more fight left in him.

The blond picked the folded Akatsuki cloak up off the ground and slid it over his black fatigues. It fit perfectly, masking the lines of his lean form. But instead of hiding his power, Katsuro found he actually looked more intimidating under the cloak. With those red and black clouds rippling around him, there was no doubt that Naruto was Itachi’s equal.

Katsuro hooded his eyes and looked around. There were still a few bystanders. Enough to draw back the crowd if Katsuro confronted him and it went wrong. Katsuro settled his gaze darkly back on Naruto.

One thing was certain, he didn’t want to fight him for the dagger. Itachi wouldn’t want him too, of course. And Katsuro didn’t want to fight him either, not really….

Somewhere, very deep down, Katsuro admitted that he wasn’t sure if he could take him….

But this might be his best opportunity. If he wanted the knife back, then he’d have to think of something else. And quick.

Naruto strode purposefully past the treeline, crossing in front of Katsuro without seeing him.

“Hey,” Katsuro said quietly. The blond man didn’t turn. Katsuro repeated, louder. “Hey!

Naruto kept walking as if he’d never heard him at all. But Katsuro wasn’t finished. He remembered something— something that Naruto would have no way of knowing. It gave Katsuro the upper hand.

“I’m talking to you.” Katsuro’s voice carried confidence and authority.

If this Naruto truly was a clone, then he should obey his maker and give up the dagger without a fight at all. 

But the black shoulders continued moving away.

Katsuro stepped forward out of the treeline. “I’m giving you a direct command!

Naruto didn’t stop. He kept on toward Itachi’s tents, never slowing. The blood red clouds on his cloak were disappearing into the falling darkness.

Katsuro felt the heat coming back, the tightness at his edges. His fists were made before he’d realized it—

Naruto did everything like Itachi. He dressed the way he did, fought the way he did, even moved the way he did— 

As if no one else mattered. As if all others should stay out of his way.

Katsuro was really beginning to hate him.

The pounding in his head came back, worse than before.

But something else had become unavoidably clear: Things weren’t what they seemed.

Katsuro didn’t feel right. That clone didn’t act right.

And he was beginning to wonder just what Itachi’s real plan was….