Chapter 40 – The Death of Katsuro

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

Itachi strode through first, cold and aloof, as usual. His soundless footfalls, the sure marks of his shinobi training, never strayed from 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.

Itachi didn’t need to see what was in his periphery — it was the same scene it always was. The men closest in were scrambling up from their spots, acknowledging his arrival with their silent nods.

But the deep respect always 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 and stopped talking among the tents. All eyes turned toward the clearing.

There was someone behind Itachi. Someone new.

A blond man followed him. He had 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 lithe 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 even more pallid.

The blond carried himself differently too, betraying a muscular build beneath his cloak. His shoulders were a bit sturdier, his hands just a fraction wider, and he didn’t bother to hide the soft pound of footsteps. That subtle display of strength was a marked change from Itachi, whose willowy form and fluid movements always masked the extent of his power.

The two passed by in silence, never seeing the questions reflected in the men’s eyes.

Was this newcomer an apprentice or was he 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 carrying like wind through the trees…. Change was coming….

They were so riveted to the spectacle of the 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 and assume a position of command as his new right-hand man. Katsuro was to return to his life before and act as he normally would, go about his duties and mingle with the soldiers. Then at the appropriate time, they were to switch. Katsuro would cease to exist, and Naruto would remain.

He didn’t explain how.

Katsuro’s only job was to reinforce the wild speculations that were already spreading through camp. He was to sow discord between he and Naruto — Naruto, the blond-haired outsider, the powerful newcomer….the clone that Katsuro had created.

This was Itachi’s elaborate plan. And Katsuro was just expected to trust him, as usual—

Without another glance at the two men striding away or the whispering crowd forming in their wake, Katsuro veered off to the dark corner of the woods towards where his tent sat. The thought of being left alone and in peace was a balm to the headache that had been slowly forming since Itachi lifted the powerful disguising jutsu off him.

After resting a few hours, Katsuro woke up to a deep, insistent hunger. He decided it was probably another after-effect of having Itachi’s jutsu lifted.

Even though Katsuro looked as he always had — the kid with the tan skin and smattering of freckles, the brown eyes and 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 new, bigger body. Initially it had felt strangely snug, like slipping back into clothes he’d outgrown, but within a few minutes he’d forgotten about the disguise altogether.

Only the growling of his stomach made him feel uncomfortable and tight in his body 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 had forgotten it…but he supposed it belonged to him now. He probably should have hidden it along with the necklace—

His stomach growled. A twinge of a headache was returning. He’d deal with hiding the dagger later. Katsuro hooked it to his belt and headed of toward the glow of the main camp and a bowl of whatever thin gruel was in the cooking pot.

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 discovered his work had already been done for him.

Gossip about the newcomer had brought the men out in droves. The campfire popped and hissed, and talk jumped from lies to suspicion to speculation. In the end, every outlandish theory was pitted against the next, 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 magical powers, from an ancient clan like the Big Boss. 

Or maybe he wasn’t like Big Boss at all. Instead, maybe those smooth looks were just a disguise for some monstrous power…like the other black-cloaked men who sometimes came through camp.

But then maybe the new guy wasn’t any of that at all. 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 listened to it all, laughing inwardly. This was going to be easier than he thought.

The next meal was more of the same. Katsuro scooped out his bowl and listened. But this time, one man had seen the yellow-haired 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 finished eating, the group had decided that the newcomer was worth their respect.

Since the Big Boss was so powerful, he must know something about this new guy, no matter how young he looked. He must be special too.

Katsuro walked back to the pot, smiling at their distraction as he helped himself to another bowl…all thanks to Naruto.

Sure, hearing the whiff of respect that infiltrated the conversations stung him, just a little bit. But Katsuro buried those thoughts in his second bowl of food. He was rewarded with feeling full for the first time in days. He sat back, glad to be left alone to eat. Itachi’s plan was going to go just fine without him.

The next night, expecting more of the same, Katsuro contentedly fished his chopsticks through the broth, chasing a piece of stringy meat among the bits of rice and other mysterious food stuffs. It tasted terrible, but it didn’t stop him from daydreaming about getting more helpings.

Yet before he’d even caught his first bite of food, the conversation turned to reports of a spar. 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 animatedly recounted the story to the riveted audience…of which Katsuro was now a part.

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

In the space of a few minutes, a single 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 his mettle. To hold his own against a shinobi like that, even in a spar, showed just how fearsome the new guy really must be.

Katsuro turned back to his bowl, eating slower. He went back for seconds, and even thirds, which was almost unheard of, but the comments weighed on him. So much so that getting more helpings wasn’t nearly 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 in by Itachi and given preferential treatment. Katsuro had sparred with Itachi too. And when he was older, he had gone up against the men in camp, 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, does nothing but walk through camp and throw a few punches, 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 beefy arm. Fumio whispered something, Raiden laughed.

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

“I hear the Big Boss brought home a new toy!” The comment drew were several throaty laughs from the crowd.

Katsuro closed his eyes and shook his head, ready to snarl back at them. The group suddenly hushed—

‘Good,’ Katsuro thought. But when he looked up, he found he wasn’t the source of their fear. In fact, no one was even looking at him.

All attention was on the two shinobis coming through camp, heading straight toward them.

Itachi and Naruto were as a formidable as a battalion of soldiers. The other men were right: Naruto exuded power. It was a bitter truth Katsuro couldn’t deny: Naruto looked more at home next to Itachi than he ever had.

They approached without a sound, only their cloaks making a whisper of noise. Naruto was learning — he had adopted Itachi’s silent steps. Katsuro admitted he would have never known they were coming.

The two walked from shadow to light to shadow again, in and out of darkness. Katsuro’s gaze narrowed in on Naruto. He told himself, over and over, that this man with the yellow hair and unwavering eyes and Akatsuki cloak was just a figment…. A spare bit of chakra…. A clone.

But his brain didn’t believe him. Naruto looked every bit as real as any of the men around him. And he was nothing at all like Katsuro.

When the two finally stopped at the edge of the clearing, Naruto glanced once over the scene in front of him then focused on some point beyond. He stood, shoulders squared, back straight, and waited. Only Itachi’s piercing eyes were fixed on his sole reason for coming.

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

Katsuro knew that approaching like this, making a show of it, must be part of Itachi’s plan.

It didn’t matter. Katsuro would handle it the way he did always did. No matter what the threat, no matter if the person in front of him was real or a clone, his response was the same. He’d exude an air of bravado that said he was above it all.

Katsuro shoved his hands in his pockets, relaxed his shoulders, angled his face up and muttered, “You lookin’ for me?” He chewed on his fingernail, waiting for an answer.

Katsuro was playing a part. He and Itachi both knew it. So when the amazed crowd swung their heads back to Itachi, Katsuro wasn’t surprised to see the 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’m looking for that.”

Katsuro looked down. A frown line creased his smooth brow, cracking the mask of carelessness.

The Rain dagger was still lodged in the holster beneath his belt, its curved handle conspicuous against his black fatigues. He put it on as a matter of routine, then forgotten about 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, mind racing, trying to guess what Itachi was playing at.

Itachi waited, stoney-faced. He was deadly serious. This was no game.

A few of the men shuffled backwards at the standoff.

Katsuro ground his teeth. This weapon was given to him, and him alone. He knew it. And Itachi knew it too. 

The sudden resentment brought the tightness back. Katsuro pushed down the emotion, telling himself that if Itachi wanted it, then it must be part of his plan. He must obey. Unfastening the strap, Katsuro held the dagger a moment, then pitched it sideways down the clearing.

Itachi effortlessly caught the handle. He turned and made a show of offering it to the blond beside him. “Your blade….”

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

There was a low gasp among the group of men. A wind gusted through camp. The fire jumped and sparked. Itachi turned to go, a secret smile curving his lips. Naruto followed suit. The two men left as quietly as they had come, their cloaks trailing noiselessly over the ground behind them. They never looked back.

Talk resumed with a vengeance, but now it was centered around Katsuro. The men clustered, returning to their meals and whispering 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 stretched from the inside out. His head banged. And he was growing hot. Very hot… Maybe he was standing too close to the fire. It all suddenly seemed too bright, too close.

Raiden passed by, knocking Katsuro’s shoulder hard. He looked down into the Katsuro’s face and said loudly, “So it really is true?! You’re not the Big Boss’s pet anymore, huh runt?”

Those nearby exploded in laughter, but Katsuro pushed it all away. He felt like he was going to burn up— Fresh flames wavered in the breeze. He rubbed his head. He needed to get out of there. 

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

This was all part of Itachi’s plan. It wasn’t real. This was just his part to play. 

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

Doubt and resentment crept in. Itachi had no right to take the dagger…the Captain’s dagger…. His dagger.

The unfairness of it seared him. And this time he knew it was no campfire. Something was changing inside him. Deep and dangerous. Jealousy was taking hold…

Why should he be punished?! Why should his dagger be taken away?! He was more powerful than any of them knew! To make a clone that could walk around completely independent of his creator— He’d never heard of anyone doing that! Even that Naruto didn’t know he was a impostor! 

Katsuro swung a balled fist at the air, punching at the invisible face of Naruto that hung in front of him.

Sure, they may think he’s powerful, but how smart can you be if you don’t even know you’re a fake? Everyone falls all over Naruto for doing nothing. Even Itachi wants to train with him—

Katsuro squatted down, clutching his pounding head. He felt like he was going to crack open—

What was happening to him? He couldn’t go on like this…. This was all Naruto’s fault—

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

What if Naruto wasn’t replacing him, like the men were whispering. What if it wasn’t about Naruto at all? 

Instead, what if Itachi was testing his own skills, seeing how far his skills in clone-making went? Like one of those tests he’d heard Itachi mention for young Leaf ninjas. Like a rite of passage…. Well, maybe this was his test. 

That thought snowballed. Katsuro considered every aspect, ran through different scenarios and tried to think like Itachi, working it out from every angle. Only then did he start feel like he was in control again.

This he could understand. He didn’t feel Naruto like he did his other clones, and Naruto sure didn’t act like a clone he’d ever heard about, but this must be Itachi’s strategy. He too was curious to see how far Naruto could go. He didn’t know. But if Naruto truly was a clone, then as his supposed maker he had just as much right to see these spars as anyone else. 

And maybe afterwards, he’d corner his clone and get his dagger back….

Katsuro stood, nodding once to himself. He’d made a plan of action. And he realized he had calmed down. His cheeks were cool. His headache was gone. He felt better.

So much better 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.’ He was back to normal.

But that afternoon, Naruto’s spar with Itachi — a spectacle that Itachi made no attempt to keep secret from the other men — tore through all of Katsuro’s hunches…about Naruto…about Itachi’s plan…and about how he would ever get his dagger back.

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

Undone, Katsuro ran a hand through his hair and crouched down at the edge of the woods. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing.

That wasn’t from him. Naruto’s perfect punches, those confident kicks? That wasn’t from him…it couldn’t be! He’d never looked so fluid and controlled in his life. How could this be his clone?

Naruto really was the perfect shinobi.

Katsuro felt like he could sink into the forest floor and no one would even notice. He was so far behind this man. No matter how hard he’d trained, none of it had mattered. It made him feel sick. But he couldn’t look away. None of the men gathered there could.

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 admitted to himself he was more than 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 in motion.

Folding his arms over his chest, Katsuro huffed. If it was anyone else down there, he would have been impressed. Deeply so. He might have even tried to imitate some of those moves. If it had been anyone else but that guy.

Katsuro scratched the back of his neck distractedly.

He knew those moves too, of course, all shinobi did according to Itachi. But Naruto made it look effortless. And the longer Katsuro watched the more he found himself wondering if he should be training harder. Revisiting those old forms again and brushing up on his technique….

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. Then he shifted his attention to analyzing Naruto’s choices.

The blond was a formidable opponent with just those kick-punch-kick combos of basic training. Without a single weapon or the use of any jutsu, Naruto would be too much for most opponents.

Katsuro decided the secret was in being relentless. Naruto just never let up. He drilled the same combos over and over again, clearly weakening his opponent in a steady, predictable effort—

Just then, Naruto’s kick-punch pattern exploded into a surprise roundhouse kick from the other direction. Then a jab at Itachi’s neck, shoulder and chest, followed by a kick to the gut. Itachi was moving at lighting speeds in defense, and Naruto wasn’t letting up. The level of fighting just ratcheted up a notch.

There was a collective gasp from the men 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. Even though he was on the receiving end of the blows, he knew he was never in any danger. His pale face showed no signs of exertion. Instead he was concentrating on his opponent. He caught each fist, blocked each kick and stayed a step ahead at all times. Itachi was both engaging and observing. He never said a word but kept his attention was focused on Naruto. In fact, he was so intent Katsuro could have sworn that Itachi was enjoying the challenge.

The men around him took bets on who might win. But Katsuro laughed to himself. There was no doubt of the outcome. He toed the ground, congratulating himself on that pride of place, at least.

Only he knew Itachi well enough to know the outcome. 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, not even in a spar—

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

Katsuro stood slowly. He couldn’t 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 drifted back through the woods to main camp. But Katsuro remained. Itachi spoke to Naruto, quietly giving instructions before leaving. Naruto nodded before turning and picking his holster up off the ground and snapping it on. Katsuro felt a gut blow as he recognized the handle.

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

Anger flashed hot inside Katsuro, urging him to rush the blond and take back what was rightfully his. Naruto was alone, now what the time—

But Katsuro hesistated, watching him….

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.

Naruto retrieved the folded Akatsuki cloak and slid it over his black fatigues. It fit perfectly, masking the outline of his lean form, but it didn’t hide his power. Katsuro thought the cloak actually made him look more intimidating. 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 on Naruto.

One thing was certain, he didn’t want to fight him for the dagger. Because…well, Itachi would might discourage it…and some other vague, half-formed reasons. Really though, deep down, Katsuro wasn’t sure if he could take him….

Katsuro bit his lip and nervously rubbed his thumb, wishing he had another nail to chew.

This might, however, be his best opportunity. He might not get Naruto alone again. 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.

Katsuro suddenly remembered something important—  He had the upper hand, no matter how strong Naruto was—

“Hey,” Katsuro said quietly.

The blond didn’t turn.

Katsuro repeated, louder. “Hey!

Naruto kept walking as if he’d never heard him at all.

Katsuro injected authority into his voice. “I’m talking to you!

But the black shoulders continued moving away.

Katsuro couldn’t believe it. He stepped forward out of the treeline and shouted, “I’m giving you a direct command!

Naruto never stopped.

A few men turned their heads, surprised at Katsuro’s outburst. They laughed and continued on. Alone, Katsuro fumed.

He had remembered one of the rules of forming clones: They had to obey their maker. Thus he could force Naruto to give up the dagger without a fight at all.

But this Naruto was different. He didn’t obey. He kept straight on toward Itachi’s tents, never slowing. The blood red clouds on his cloak were moving away, melting into the falling darkness.

Katsuro felt the heat coming back, the tightness at his edges….

This was wrong. All wrong….

His headache was banging. 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 he were above everyone else. As if he were just like Itachi—

Only one thing was certain: Things weren’t what they seemed.

That clone didn’t act like a clone. The ‘plan’ wasn’t anything like he’d expected. And the whole thing was beginning to feel more and more like one of Itachi’s jutsus….

Katsuro looked down at his trembling hands. He told himself to get a grip. He didn’t want to think about Itachi or Naruto anymore. He wanted this crushing pain to stop. And he wanted was his dagger back.

He jammed his hands under his arms, clutching his rib cage to stop them from shaking, and trudged back to camp.

Once the novelty of having a stranger in camp had worn off, a new kind of normal set in.

It wasn’t uncommon to see the pale-eye, yellow-haired man striding through camp. Silent, powerful, purposeful.

Everyone took note when he passed. Some men bowed, some went as far as to offer a greeting. The newcomer never answered, but that didn’t matter. The men bowed anyway, out of respect, fear, or a mix of both.

Katsuro always hung back. He didn’t attempt to confront Naruto again. But if he thought that somehow his supposed ‘clone’ might seek him out, then he needn’t have worried.

Naruto never looked at him. Not once. It was as if Katsuro wasn’t there.

Itachi may have instructed Katsuro to grumble and make his unhappiness known, but after watching Itachi’s close confidence, Naruto’s sharp nod then promptly obeying his every command, Katsuro found he didn’t have to fake his resentment. It was no longer an act.

Everyone in the camp was attuned to Itachi’s new right-hand man, either through respect or gossip. All talk, all interest centered around him.

Only Raiden and Fumio’s gang watched the blond with bloodthirsty captivation, mostly centered on which one of their band of thugs could take him in a fight. They didn’t even bother Katsuro anymore. He’d had fallen from Itachi’s favor, and now he was beneath everyone’s notice, including theirs.

Surprisingly however, Katsuro found an offer of camaraderie from the most unlikely of sources. Some of the men — the third-rate soldiers who did the grunt work in camp and were thus ignored by the others — discreetly caught Katsuro’s eye, motioning for him to join them at the fire.

Confused and wary, Katsuro stayed away. But after a few times being beckoned, Katsuro realized it wasn’t a fluke.

Katsuro didn’t know what to make of it. No one had asked him to join them. Ever.

Perhaps they were taking pity on him. After all,  he’d lost his team, his captain and his position at Itachi’s side. Now the rest of the men had forgotten him. There wasn’t much further he could fall in the group.

Perhaps it was a lark. Or even a dare. Katsuro looked for the knife’s-edge hidden in their actions, but he found none.

The men saved a seat for him, treated him with kindness and even a little sympathy. There was truth in their words and in their looks…. It would have been so easy for Katsuro to give in, to give up on solving the puzzle of Naruto and become one of them….

But it was too late. And Katsuro knew it. He had craved this feeling of belonging since his childhood. Yet now that it was offered, it meant nothing.

He didn’t feel the warmth of the fire or hear the bits of overhead gossip whispered between the men that flanked him. He didn’t drink from the jug of homemade wine that was pushed into his hands. He didn’t share in their laughter.

Katsuro stared into the flames, growing colder and emptier than ever before. All that mattered was Naruto. He couldn’t shake it, no matter how hard he tried. It was as if unraveling Itachi’s plan had become his curse.

So this was what Itachi wanted? Just someone to order around and look the part? 

And Naruto and his guise of power, that’s what governed the men? Not bonds or friendship or teamwork…. But fear?

Katsuro had gotten it wrong all these years. He had worked for years for Itachi, doing everything he could to improve himself, and the men resented him for it every single day. But after just a few hours with Naruto they’re acting as if he’s their leader, and always had been.

Katsuro knew something was wrong. The banging headache was nearly constant now. His hands shook. Sleep eluded him. He ate but never got full. He’d never been like this before, this…this…unglued….

His only job had been to convince the others that he was jealous. But he discovered that in some twisted way he really was jealous of Naruto.

No one suspected little Katsuro, the runt of the group, once hated and now only the object of pity, of having the power to create and sustain and full-fledged clone who functioned as an independent being. For days on end. Katsuro had never heard of anyone ever even attempting such a feat.

But Itachi told him to do it and so Katsuro did. He never questioned the command, and he never doubted himself. Until now…

But what if it just a lie…a trick of the mind….

Katsuro narrowed his eyes, examining all the possibilities. Naruto could be a figment of Itachi’s jutsu. Or he might be something else altogether. Something unimaginable…like a body, somehow brought back to life….

If he was supposed to be a clone, then Katsuro could find very little of himself in this Naruto. Naruto didn’t act the way a clone should. In fact, he didn’t act like a clone at all….

Katsuro didn’t have to act surprised at Naruto’s actions. It wasn’t an act. He had no insight into the man, no hint of what he was doing or where he was going. He was a complete mystery.

Now, Katsuro was like every other man in camp, seeing the newcomer from the outside. To Katsuro, Naruto was everything the men viewed him as: Itachi’s right-hand man and a cold-blooded Akatsuki agent. A powerful shinobi of mysterious origin and unlimited potential.

Laughter filled the air around him. But Katsuro didn’t hear it.

Red firelight slashed his face. His hooded eyes were focused on the deepest part of the fire. Pain and jealousy crashed over him, warping him, turning him inside out.

These men and their misplaced pity…. Naruto, the pretender…. 

Katsuro’s skin was tight and hot, like he was going to burst. It was more than being too close to the fire. There was something inside, seeping through the cracks, whispering to him and making him forget everything else. Only one thing was left.


Katsuro swore softly under his breath and rubbed a hand over his temple trying to block the heat from the fire. It didn’t work. The heat wasn’t coming from the fire, but from him. He growled lowly, and stretched his neck, trying to release some of the molten rage that was building. They had no right…no right… 

It was they who were beneath him. He was the strongest here. Or had been, at least. There was a reason he was Itachi’s right-hand man. Not Naruto.

His thought focused on that point. He wanted Naruto to see him. Acknowledge him. Fear him, even. He wanted to beat him down and make everyone see how strong he really was. Once and for all. And he knew how he’d do it….

He’d start by taking his damned dagger back.

Giving in to the blinding rage, Katsuro forgot about Itachi’s orders. Instead, he began plotting. He laid low and watched. Dark creases lined his eyes, but he no longer slept. A feral hunger roared in his ears, but he no longer ate. He stayed focused on his goal.

And finally, a window of opportunity opened.

Naruto strode through camp. Itachi’s new right-hand man’s running his useless errands, Katsuro thought bitterly, even though they were the same ones he used to do. While the men were busy nodding and showing their respect, Katsuro slipped ahead. Gauging the direction and time of day, Katsuro guessed Itachi was sending him to the munitions tent for a weapons report. How many times had Katsuro run the same route?

He squelched his jealousy. His deeper knowledge of the area would help him in the end. Naruto would never see it coming.

And Katsuro was right. He didn’t.

The blond walked directly to the tent where Katsuro waited, hidden between the multiple folds of the canvas door. When Naruto pulled the outer flap back and ducked under, Katsuro let the inner flap down, stopping him. Then, in that split-second moment, that pause of being caught between the two doors, Katsuro darted his hand through and slid the blade out, unfastening it as fluidly as if it were on his own belt.

Naruto pushed forward. Katsuro held his breath and edged around, backing out through the shifting fabric. As Naruto went in, he ducked out.

Katsuro slipped the dagger into his pocket and patted it smugly. The curved grip felt right in his hand. It was his. He ducked behind a tree and waited.

Only through his superior knowledge of both the blade and the tent door could he have pulled off this deception. Only he could have done it. He didn’t need blunt force like the soldiers or an elaborate display of chakra like Itachi or one of his Akatsuki shinobis. This was all him.

Naruto exited the tent with scroll in hand, none-the-wiser that he was leaving a little lighter. Katsuro smirked as he saw the flash of an empty holster between the opening of his black Akatsuki cloak.

Katsuro returned to the empty campfire and scraped out the last of the morning’s meal from the big black pot. He ate alone. The edginess that plagued him was his only companion now. It lingered at the back of his mind, clinging to him like a shadow he couldn’t shake. Even with this success, it was still there.

He forced himself to relax. After all, he had the upper hand, a meal in his belly and the weight of the his dagger at his side. It was back where it belonged, with him. But the moment of calm wouldn’t last long.

A new recruit hurried past, spied Katsuro, and immediately pivoted. “Itachi would like to see you. I-In his tent.”

Katsuro sighed, pushed his bowl aside and kicked his legs out as if he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Immediately,” he added bravely, but his courage faltered. All new recruits were afraid of Itachi. “I’m sorry, t-that’s what he said, and…he sounded,” he glanced around before whispering the last word, “mad.

Katsuro rolled his eyes.

He leaned forward over his knees, moving slowly, as if he was still deciding. But in that moment he slipped the dagger from his pocket, letting it plunge into a crevice between the rocks. He stamped down his foot to muffle the dull thud of the blade imbedding itself into the sand.

“Whatever….” Katsuro said as he slowly stood, stretching and dragging it out. But the young man looked relieved. As they walked past, several sets of eyes followed them, guessed the direction and wondering what the Big Boss might want now with his former favorite.

Katsuro stepped into the tent. Itachi was behind his desk, looking down at a scroll.

Across from him stood Naruto, back to the door, silently waiting. His Akatsuki cloak was folded in a chair, a fringe of blond hair fell over the collar of his black fatigues. His hands were folded behind his back and his feet slightly were slightly apart.

Even in a relaxed stance, the lean lines of his body still betrayed strength. Naruto was taut, a coil ready to spring. But right now, his attention was focused on Itachi, never turning his head to even acknowledge that another person had entered the room.

Katsuro stepped up to the desk beside Naruto. He shifted on his feet, keenly aware of the comparison that came from just standing next to him.

Beside this man, Katsuro was every bit the scruffy teenager. A mop of nut-brown hair, lean limbs that verged on scrawny, dark brown eyes, speckles of brown spots across his tan cheeks. There was no way Katsuro could ever be mistaken for the pale, polished shinobi beside him.

For the space of a breath, Katsuro puffed out his chest and squared his shoulders in his own version of Naruto’s stance. But he felt ridiculous. He immediately shoved his hands in his pockets, slouched his shoulders and looked away.

Naruto never moved a muscle.

Finally looking up, Itachi acknowledged Katsuro with a sigh. “I understand one of Naruto’s belongings has gone missing.”

Without thinking, Katsuro glanced at the empty holster at Naruto’s waist, incriminating himself. He cringed inwardly.

Naruto still stared ahead.

“So…you know what I’m talking about then,” Itachi said flatly.

Katsuro shrugged and mumbled something incomprehensible as if he had no idea what Itachi was talking about—

But Itachi had said enough. The comment was a wayward spark, igniting Katsuro’s fury. Naruto’s belonging?! That dagger was his. And he would never let Naruto have it again—

“No matter,” Itachi said, exasperation clear in his voice. “Bring it to main camp later tonight. You can turn it over there.”

Face hot, skin growing tight again, Katsuro stepped forward, seizing his opportunity to rail against Itachi and his messed up plan, Naruto the impostor, Katsuro’s dagger and his rightful place in the group and all of it— when Itachi’s voice cut across him.

“Naruto,” Itachi said quietly. The blond looked up as if snapping out of a trance. “This is the one who took your weapon. He is your opponent now.”

Suddenly aware there was someone else in the room, Naruto slowly turned his head. Cold blue eyes bore down into Katsuro, freezing him to the spot.

There was no recognition, no acknowledgement. This Naruto was no weak clone. Nor was he a jutsu. He was as real and solid as Katsuro. A true shinobi. He was Katsuro’s superior, in every way. And he knew it.

Naruto’s pale eyes never wavered. He never said a word…he didn’t have to. The hard look, the soulless steel in his eyes shook Katsuro to his core. Katsuro was ashamed to admit that if he had something to confess, he probably would have done it.

Katsuro had thought he’d wanted to be acknowledged by this man…. But now he was quickly coming to regret it.

Naruto didn’t raise a finger. He didn’t move. He didn’t employ any lightning-fast shinobi techniques or invisible jutsus. It was only his glare, as crushing as the grip of death, that was closing in on Katsuro, suffocating him, threatening to erase him where he stood. Naruto had one truth written on his face, that Katsuro was already a dead man. Simply because Naruto had turned his eyes on him.

Like a mouse spotted by an owl, Katsuro went still. He resisted the urge to gulp or breathe…or run. He had the sick feeling that Naruto would catch him without even blinking.

But Naruto wasn’t interested in capturing him. Or even touching him. Right now, Naruto was simply following orders, sizing him up, scanning him for weaknesses, assessing him as an opponent.

Katsuro still felt small, despite trying his best to look formidable.

It didn’t matter. Naruto didn’t see it. It was all there, reflected back in his unforgiving, unblinking eyes. Naruto didn’t see Katsuro. Not as a living, breathing human.

He only saw the mission. And he didn’t know what it was to lose. To anyone or anything. He’d never met an opponent he couldn’t overcome. And Katsuro was no more than an insignificant obstacle. Once he was destroyed, Naruto could collect what was rightfully his and finish the mission.

Without so much as a flutter of his eyelashes Naruto turned back to Itachi, face blank, expression almost bored. He had finished his appraisal. He was unimpressed. Katsuro posed no threat. He stared past Itachi to the canvas wall and returned to his waiting.

Released from Naruto’s gaze, Katsuro’s fear melted. Anger swelled up through his chest. His head pounded. He wanted to go after this guy more than ever—

“That will be all, Katsuro,” Itachi said, looking back down to his papers. But Katsuro couldn’t contain his rage any longer.

“Are you doing this,” he savagely accused Itachi. “Is this a jutsu? Is it all in my head? Because this wasn’t part of the plan.” He thumbed back at Naruto, “And that guy is not my clone! I don’t know what he is or where he came from— Or what you expect me to believe— But he’s not me!

It was so hot in the tent Katsuro was getting dizzy. “Tell me,” he demanded, clawing at the too tight shirt at his neck. “Tell me what’s going on—“ He tried to get cool air on his skin, but it didn’t help. Everything hurt. His skin was stretched thin, his eyes burned. The air was scalding his lungs.

“I remember what happened…in the cave. At least, I think I do.” Katsuro was panting. “I remember you told me to make him. But did you? Really? Or was it just…a trick” Wincing against the blinding headache, Katsuro gripped his shirt at his gut, twisting it with the ache behind his belly button. “Why would you do this? Just to test me? Because…I know…you can’t deny it…he’s no clone of me—“

“You’ve finally gotten one thing right.” Itachi’s voice was gravelly with anger. “He is no clone…of you.”

Red swirled in Itachi’s dark eyes, and the black pooled underneath, distorting his face into a grim mask. “He obeys. Which is the only job you have left here. Obey. You have your orders. You’re dismissed,” Itachi said sternly, reaching for a scroll. There would be no more discussion.

But Katsuro couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe.

It was true. He was losing everything….

There was no plan. Naruto was no clone. And he was being replaced….

Bright-white pain split Katsuro’s forehead in two. Molten heat roared up from deep inside, spilling over. It swept around him in hot blasts.

Neither Itachi nor Naruto seemed to notice. Katsuro alone was caught in this whirlwind.

The wind whipped higher, as thick and red and choking hot as a desert sandstorm. It buffeted him, cracking his exposed skin until pieces began to peel back and rip off in the wind.

To Katsuro’s horror, the fragments turned to images. They streaked through the clouds…. Konoha. Itachi. The empty swing. The locked gate…something sinister lurking behind it….

The scenes of his life lifted off him in layers, like pages from a book. The howling wind sheared them away, but fresh layers kept coming…. His first punch. His first kill. An empty temple. An empty stomach. Rage and fear and hatred. And the demon’s eyes staring back through bars…..

Every bad thing he’d known blurred past until he didn’t know what was real anymore. Or just how much of himself was left. He felt light, dizzy. His feet left the ground. Time was a memory.

Finally, he looked down at his arms to see one last layer clinging to him, as brittle and delicate as onion skin. But the hot wind had turned to knife blades. And he was disintegrating before his own eyes—

Someone was coming, through the red clouds. A figure. Dark. Whole. Alone….

It was Naruto. He was in the middle of it all, his clothes unruffled despite the fury of wind. He stood there, staring back with those unforgiving eyes.

He didn’t move. He didn’t attack. He just stood there. Waiting….

Defiance coursed through Katsuro’s veins. Naruto was the reason for all of this. He was here to replace him. To erase him.

But the pieces of his life, blurring around them in the clouds were his. And his alone. He’d never let Naruto take them. 

Suddenly, the scenes flew back to Katsuro like a magnet. The fragmented images folded in on themselves, melting back into Katsuro’s skin as if closing the pages of a book. His body was left whole and smooth. Clouds still scuttled past, but it only ruffled his brown hair.

Katsuro popped his neck. No matter who or what this Naruto was, he was Katsuro’s opponent now. Naruto was his obstacle to overcome.

With that vow, the hot red clouds turned dark, wrapping Naruto in a cloak of black before shredding apart. Cold air rushed in through the dissolving gaps. Only Naruto’s hard gaze was left. Those blue eyes, as cold as death, fixed on Katsuro, waiting….

They were gone with the last wisp of clouds.

Suddenly Katsuro was standing in Itachi’s tent again. The door flapped in the breeze, ruffling his hair. Itachi was reaching for his scroll. Naruto still stared straight ahead, his back to Katsuro.

Katsuro thought he might have been wobbling but when he looked down, his feet were firmly planted. He hadn’t moved at all. His hands were at his sides. Where his shirt should have been crumpled in a knot, it was smooth and untouched.

He felt like he’d lived through an explosion. Like he was in that hot red cloud for hours…but it must have all been in his mind. No one else was even aware of it.

Katsuro touched a finger to his forehead, surprised he was still in one piece, even though it felt so real. Nothing made sense anymore—

He looked up at the hard line of Naruto’s shoulders. It grounded him. He remembered his anger. That was real. Whatever was happening was because of him.

All Katsuro knew was that he wasn’t giving that Naruto an inch. Not his post next to Itachi, not his place in this miserable camp. And certainly not his dagger.

The pain was gone, blown away with the clouds. All that was left was a clear path. Revenge.

He felt the demon’s heat rise within him, sure and confident. It wanted what he wanted. Just like it always had.

He left the tent. He knew now what he had to do. He’d meet this Naruto guy tonight. But it wasn’t going to go the way he expected. Forget Itachi and whatever he was planning. Katsuro would do things his own way. Just like he always had….

He should have known. It was always leading to this. From the moment Naruto set foot in the camp, Katsuro had been slowly losing control. But that ended here.

Katsuro came up the footpath from his tent feeling strong. Not just strong, unstoppable. There was no more edginess, no more feeling like he was trapped in a too-small body, no more breaking apart. Now he overflowed with chakra. It seeped out and buzzed around him. He felt invincible.

It didn’t matter if he was the smaller opponent. It didn’t matter who or even what this Naruto guy was, if he’d had more training or if he looked like he rightfully belonged with the Akatsuki. Katsuro knew his strategy, and he knew he could beat him. The chakra humming in his ears reassured him.

Because even if everything went wrong, Katsuro had the strength of the demon at his disposal. Its power knew no ends, and he could access it whenever he needed. That was his secret weapon. The ultimate weapon.

Katsuro made a fist. He could feel the chakra crackling at his knuckles. He was powerful. They had no idea how powerful he was. He smiled toothily. Naruto was no match for him — and the poor sap didn’t even know it yet. 

Katsuro approached the main camp, making no effort to conceal his steps. Naruto stood alone by the low fire, waiting. He turned, but didn’t speak. He only observed Katsuro with that same indifferent expression, the same dead eyes. The look that said Katsuro was just another part of his mission.

Even though there was no one else in the clearing, they weren’t alone. Figures skulked in the trees, never speaking, barely moving. The stillness was heavy with cracking twigs and low breaths.

Katsuro popped his knuckles and stretched his neck. The hunger for a fight consumed him. He didn’t care where Itachi found this guy — Katsuro was here first.

Stepping into the sandy clearing, Katsuro threw his arms open, proving that he didn’t have the dagger. As if on cue, men crept forward out of the trees, anxious to see how the blond would respond. But he didn’t do anything.

Arms still out, Katsuro swaggered by, brushing past the encroaching audience. Someone whistled under their breath. Katsuro was either very brave or very foolish.

Naruto stood quietly in the middle, turning his head only enough to see his opponent but never making eye contact.

Katsuro wasn’t intimidated. He slowly prowled the edge of the circle, taunting Naruto. He felt his blood surging, adrenaline rising. The low fire was crackling, growing. Katsuro was warming up too. Around him, the men were loosening up, even daring to talk. Soon a bottle was being passed and bets were being whispered.

Katsuro watched Naruto’s shoulders. He’d planned it all out. He’d exchange blows, leading Naruto on and letting him burn off some energy, then he’d finish him off with a surprise move that no one would see coming. He’d tap into the kyuubi’s chakra and punch him with all the fury of a pent-up demon. Everyone would be stunned. Naruto would go flying and Katsuro would be reinstated at Itachi’s right hand. And no one would ever doubt his power again.

He cracked his knuckles again, smiling darkly, imagining how it would all go down. He was ready to go, he was tired of waiting—

The fire popped loudly and, for Katsuro, everything came into sharp focus. This was it. He’d make his own opening—

Crossing behind Naruto, in that split second where he was out of sight, Katsuro leapt foward, driving a fist down at the man’s exposed rib cage. Naruto dodged, as Katsuro expected, stepping to the side. It didn’t matter, the men cheered anyway. They’d gotten what they came to see. And Katsuro got what he’d wanted too…a fight.

They circled each other. In the center of the fire a log exploded into new flame. Sparks shot upward into the darkness. Katsuro growled and rushed forward—

The next few moments were a blur of blows, just like the spar with Itachi — Katsuro advancing and Naruto defending. A jab and a block, followed by a return punch. Katsuro was pleased to see Naruto was using the exact moves he’d witnessed before.

Naruto moved like a robot, without passion or heart. Just a trained shinobi following orders. He didn’t seem to see Katsuro. Instead he moved instinctively, responding with same block. Once, twice…three times….

Katsuro smiled to himself. He’d witnessed this strategy. He knew what was coming next—

On the fourth blow Naruto’s pattern changed. He blocked with his left but the right was already swinging into action. The men gasped in surprise. But Katsuro was ready for it. He moved with the punch, expecting it, and instead barreled into Naruto’s exposed flank.

It was a solid hit, and the flickering wince on Naruto’s face proved he felt it. But Katsuro wasn’t finished. He came hard and fast, angry that Itachi’s new man still didn’t acknowledge him. He wanted to make him crack.

Naruto was squarely on the defensive. Katsuro lunged forward, kicking and punching, backing him up and keeping him moving. Naruto’s back foot came dangerously close to the fire circle. A spray of dirt smothering the flames for a moment.

The men shouted raucously behind him, but Katsuro ignored them. His focus was on Naruto.

Naruto rallied, edging away from the fire and back into the open. He managed to get in a few swipes, but Katsuro kept him on the defensive.

Katsuro fought like he never had before. Hard and fast. Chest, neck, side, legs. There was no space he didn’t go for.

Katsuro came in close, ducking under Naruto’s punishing right hook and throwing a few solid thrusts to his abdomen. He quickly discovered this was Naruto’s weakest spot. Any blow there took a split second longer to recover. He blocked it involuntarily, as if reflexively covering an old wound. Or hiding something….

Katsuro pressed his advantage. He got in close, clipped Naruto’s throat and drove a fist deep into Naruto’s gut. There was a satisfying “Oof,” and Katsuro knew he had him—

Shooting his other fist straight up, Katsuro cracked the blond’s perfect chin and sent him staggering backwards past the edge of the fire. His boot crushed a flaming log. Sparks shot out sideways and the crowd of men jumped backwards. Naruto finally came to a stop in the darkness beyond the circle.

The men whooped with bloodthirsty delight. This is what they’d all been longing for. A real fight. Panting in the firelight, Katsuro soaked it in. This was his moment, his camp, his power. Now Naruto would have to deal with him.

He wiped the sweat off his face and watched the dark figure right himself, stand, shake off the dizziness and touch his chin.

Katsuro laughed. “You’ll never get what you came here for. It’s mine.” Anger laced his every word. “All of it.” His mouth curled into a dark smile. He thought he could feel the demon’s blood course through his veins. “This ends here.”

In the darkness, Naruto stopped. He squared his shoulders. It was as if, for the first time, he’d really heard Katsuro.

Katsuro smiled to himself, finding some measure of satisfaction in finally being acknowledged.

Naruto turned back. Ice blue eyes shined out of the darkness.

It was the same as Katsuro’s vision in Itachi’s tent. It gripped him with cold certainty. Naruto was no flimsy clone — he was a predator. Katsuro could never have made someone like him.

It didn’t matter if Itachi dreamed him up or he was sent by the Akatsuki as a replacement. All that mattered to Katsuro was that Naruto finally saw him. Acknowledged him. Recognized him as a formidable opponent that he had drastically underestimated.

Katsuro’s smile deepened. It would make defeating him that much sweeter.

Naruto emerged from the dark, eyes glowing with reflected light. He hadn’t even broken a sweat.

At the edge of the clearing, Naruto paused to wipe the streak of dirt left on his chin by Katsuro’s punch. Once it was gone, he was unblemished again. As if he’d only just arrived. As if he hadn’t just had a fight that would have put most men down. His blue eyes flicked up at Katsuro.

Katsuro stilled his ragged breathing and focused his thoughts.

The fire had banked. The men hooted for more fighting, but it barely reached Katsuro’s ears. Every fiber of his being was attuned to the man in front of him.

And those blue eyes held him in return, trying to freeze him to his core just the way they had in Itachi’s tent. But this time Katsuro refused to be scared. He wanted this. And it was going to go his way. No matter what—

Without a sound, Naruto sprung at Katsuro, rounding on him and immediately putting him on the defensive. Katsuro skated backwards, blocking and dodging, but Naruto was relentless. Even moreso than when he sparred with Itachi.

Katsuro had forced Naruto to bring his fighting to another level. But he didn’t have a moment to spare for the small victory. Because now, Naruto didn’t hold back. He drilled Katsuro from all sides until Katsuro was sure he would have some bruises to show. Katsuro retaliated, but it was like Naruto already anticipated his moves.

Where Katsuro saw an opening and took it, Naruto was already winding up for a punishing strike to the exposed area. If Katsuro kicked, then Naruto punched. If Katsuro dodged, then Naruto stepped in closer with a roundhouse or a knifehand or elbow jab. Katsuro couldn’t draw in a breath without seeing Naruto’s fist fly at him.

Naruto landed an especially hard punch to his gut, and Katsuro felt it rattle all the way up to his teeth. It happened so quickly that the demon didn’t soften the blow as it usually did.

Katsuro tried hard not to grunt when he moved certain ways. But he couldn’t help it, and it must have showed. The shouting crowd turned savagely against him.

Katsuro fought back even harder, powering through the pain and jeers, letting his anger fuel him. These men would love to see him fail. And Naruto would like to take everything away. But he’d never let that happen.

Katsuro rallied with a surprise boot to Naruto’s jaw that sent the him spitting blood. The tide of support turned suddenly, and Katsuro was cheered again.

He stepped back, seizing a chance to breath. Spots of pain were blooming all over him. Which was a little alarming. Katsuro never worried about injuries because the demon always healed its host. But now even it was having a hard time keeping up.

Naruto wiped off the blood, looking at the red streak on his hand as if he’d never seen his own blood before. Katsuro laughed breathily. Naruto flicked his eyes at Katsuro, and before Katsuro could come back with a taunt, Naruto was across the sand.

Katsuro blocked quickly and tried to shove the heel of his his hand into his throat. Naruto dodged it. He ducked under the punch, rose up close and hooked Katsuro in the gut.

Naruto was faster, stronger, more powerful. But this blow was worse than Katsuro could have ever imagined.

His eyes bulged, air shot out of his lungs. Naruto kept going, driving that fist all the way through as if he were knocking a hole in him. Katsuro’s feet left the ground. He crumbled over the blow. But Naruto wasn’t finished.

Naruto flung him backwards, launching him in an arc towards the crackling fire. Katsuro was powerless to stop it. He bounced through fire in an explosion of firelight that threw burning splinters of wood everywhere, then rolled twice more, limp as a rag, until the momentum stopped.

The men recoiled, covering themselves from the rain of sparks. The smashed remains of the fire burned like a red wound on the dark ground. Everything was flecked with glowing embers. And some of them were starting to burn through the dry leaves….

The top edge of a tent erupted into yellow flame. The man closest to it jumped, and suddenly everyone was aware that the little hot coals were going off like bombs throughout the camp.

Embers melted through tent tops, igniting the interiors. Scattered piles of burning leaves shot off more sparks, burning tent ropes, bags of weapons, travel cloaks. Fresh sparks set fresh blazes. Men scrambled everywhere, shouting, stomping and running for water.

But one figure stood silently in the dark center of the rising inferno, watching the spot where Katsuro lay motionless. Waiting….

On his back in the dirt, Katsuro was in pain. He could barely move, his arm stuck out at an odd angle, his mouth tasted of blood and his ears were ringing. His chest burned with each breath, and his entire midsection felt like it had collapse from Naruto’s blow.

And the demon was no longer healing his wounds. He was sure of it.

It was bad, and he’d seen worse. But this time, it was different.

He was going cold. Down to his bones. Not just from the chill sand, cradling his back. Deep down, he was beginning to freeze. As if some deep inextinguishable fire had been snuffed out. And the rest of his body was dying with it….

He was beaten and broken, but now Katsuro was starting to panic….

Where was the demon….

He called to it, his voice echoing only in his own mind, but it seemed ridiculous now. He didn’t know how to get where it was caged, that weird space that someone hollowed out behind his gut. He didn’t know how to summon it. He didn’t even know what to call it—

And now it was gone….

Katsuro closed his eyes and yelled desperately down into the center of his body, begging, pleading, searching himself for any trace of the demon.

But he got no response.

It was his ultimate weapon, and his life sentence. It was the fire at his core….

And it was gone….



With that last punch, Naruto must have somehow reached inside him and pulled the demon out, extracted it from the very center of him. No wonder it hurt so bad….

In his mind, Katsuro could see the jail cell at his core, sitting now black and empty. The gate swinging open and the walls collapsed. He imagined rocks crashing to the watery floor with every move he made. Just like the old temple, he was left abandoned and ruined.

And he knew who was to blame….

Across the destroyed fire circle stood Naruto, alone. He looked more powerful than ever. A galaxy of red coals burned into the ground around him, igniting tiny glittering fires. Behind him a tent exploded into flame, sending streams of sparks into the air and ruffling his yellow hair with the blast.

But his blue eyes never wavered. They blazed in the darkness. Watching Katsuro, daring him to stand again, now that everything was lost… Now that he had taken it all.

The power of the demon burned within Naruto. Katsuro would have to be a fool not to see it.

Men scrambled by in the darkness, but they were nothing to him. Naruto didn’t move. He was a force to be reckoned with, alone in the darkness. His relentless gaze was only locked on Katsuro, as if nothing else in the world existed.

This was what Katsuro had wanted, wasn’t it? To be acknowledged? But now, there was no escaping it.

Katsuro had been created to be a vessel. That’s what Itachi had said when he’d rescued him so many years ago. That was his sole purpose in life was to house a demon. But now he was hollow. An empty shell.

Worse than that even, because he was smashed in. And broken vessel was no use to anyone.

This was the end. Naruto would finish him off, take his place, take everything that was his and erase him completely.

Naruto watched him, popping his knuckles and stretching his neck. Taking his time and toying with him before the kill. Cold and brutal. But the power was his now, he could do with it what he wanted.

Katsuro had been emptied out, stripped of the demon. Naruto hadn’t just beaten him, he’d destroyed him from the inside out.

Now Katsuro was a husk left on the cold ground, wracked with pain and growing colder himself. Fires burst to life around him. The silhouetted legs of men pounded by. But no one stopped. No one even looked. It was like he was already dying.

Even Itachi had abandoned him—

Katsuro’s breath hitched. He hated Naruto. And he hated to lose to him. He made a fist and hit the ground in frustration, even though the movement nearly blinded him with pain—

A soft metallic tinkle echoed back from the spray of dirt.

Katsuro craned his head suddenly at the sound. There, hidden between the rocks, was the Captain’s dagger. It’s edge glinted silver in the firelight.

In his fog of anger, he’d forgotten it.

Somewhere deep, deeper than the ruins of the demon’s cell, in the pit of his stomach that was wholly himself, he found the will to continue on. Anger, deep and roiling, rekindled a small fire within him and gave him purpose.

That dagger. That’s what started it all…. He’d die before he turned it over to Naruto…. 

His head ached worse than ever. He felt like he was cracking open, ripping apart at his joints. His muscles didn’t respond right, and one arm was useless. But he understood the pain now.

He was no longer protected by the demon. This was what it felt like to suffer. To die.

So he gave in. He screwed his eyes shut, took a breath, grit his teeth and let the pain take him. Break him. He would have his revenge. Even if it killed him.

Because if this was it, if he was going to die here, then he wasn’t going to go alone.

Katsuro rolled onto his side, pushed through the pain and shoved himself up from the ground. Naruto waited, emotionless.

There were no cheering crowds left to see Katsuro, broken and beaten, pull himself to the boulder then slowly drag himself to standing.

It was a silent tableau in the lone dark spot in the middle of the burning camp. Two men stood in front of each other. One unruffled and endlessly powerful, untouched by even a single falling ash. The other was crumpled and blood-smeared,  slumping to one side and taking shallow breaths. He was having trouble even staying upright.

But still he stood, fighting till the end. Even when there was no one left to watch. Even when there was no one left to care.

He’d go out his own way.

Naruto seemed to understand this. He waited for Katsuro to engage, make the first move. It was a victor’s concession, but it only made Katsuro more angry.

He growled like the demon he’d lost and hurled himself at Naruto. Naruto began a formulaic block—

But firelight flashed on something in Katsuro’s fist. Arcing his good arm, he flung every last bit of power into the swing. Naruto’s smooth face froze, and in that split-second Katsuro easily read the cascade of reactions: His opponent had a weapon. His weak block would no longer work. He had miscalculated. He was going to lose—

Katsuro flipped the dagger to drive it down Naruto’s throat, into that notch at his collarbone, where the delicate skin revealed his panicky heartbeat.

That’s when Katsuro knew it…. He’d won.

A feral smile cracked across his bloodied face. “This is where it ends.” He plunged downward—

But in a whiplash of speed, Naruto wrenched Katsuro’s wrist away. A pinprick of blood at the base of his neck was all that remained, but the blade went no deeper.

Naruto didn’t bother with the weapon. Instead he folded Katsuro’s hand over it to immobilize it while he drove his knee sideways into Katsuro’s thigh.

The crack of breaking bone followed by Katsuro’s anguished scream rose over the surrounding fires. Heads turned in the camp, distracted from the fires.

Naruto twisted his hand and forced him down, and Katsuro had no choice but to sink with him.

Naruto slowly pressed the delicate wrist bones forward, almost to the point of snapping. Katsuro screamed in agony, but he wouldn’t let go of the weapon. Katsuro dug deep, remembering his vow of revenge. To let the pain take him. To never give in.

“No!” he roared into Naruto’s face because he could find no other words.

Naruto was unmoved. He held him there, at the brink with that pain, and watched him, waiting…. Soulless blue eyes filled up Katsuro’s view.

A few men crept back at the sound of commotion, but stayed at a safe distance away.

Between the trees, a black shadow peeled away from a tree and revealed itself to be Itachi. He had been there all along. But he did not intervene.

Naruto studied Katsuro as he shifted his grip and to crush the back of Katsuro’s hand and force him to yield the weapon. But Katsuro wouldn’t give in. So Naruto turned to breaking each bone around the curved handle of the blade. It was slow, cruel torture. Katsuro’s eyes were bloodshot, face streaked with blood and tears.

It was only when Naruto closed his hand around Katsuro’s ruined one that he realized what was happening.

“No, no, no—“ Katsuro begged, still trying to resist. The words had the opposite effect.

Naruto snapped his eyes to Katsuro’s, inches from his face. “This is where it ends.”

Naruto’s voice was gravelly from disuse, but Katsuro still recognized it. It shook him to his core. Katsuro frantically pulled away, but it was wasted effort.

Naruto crushed Katsuro’s hand and dagger handle together, turned it toward’s Katsuro’s ashen face, and plunged it down into his throat, stopping the pulse banging against his skin there, forever.

And then, there was nothing.