Wow. It's been a really, really long time. In the last year and a half I've graduated high school, started college, switched fandoms and interests more times than I can count, and changed a lot as a person, but I've never lost my need to write. Thanks for all your patience, support, and wonderful criticism/reviews that you guys have left. I've appreciated every one, and they inspired me to start working on this again. Considering how much is already written and the fact that I've had the ending begging to be written for over three years at this point, I feel that to never finish this project would be... disappointing, to put it lightly. With that in mind, I'm going to do my best to write as much as possible in the next two weeks before my second semester of university starts. This chapter isn't actually an example of my current style - most of this was written a year ago and has remained on my computer ever since, with only a few paragraphs needing to be finished. Hopefully the transition won't be jarring.
Once again, I'm sorry that it's taken so long to get this project back on track. I hope you enjoy the next chapter, and all my love and thanks to everyone who has waited so patiently for this to continue and messaged me with their support. You are all fantastic :)
Chapter Ten, or Interlude III: Shattered
Karin had been a small child when she slipped and fell out of the tree beside her house. The fall had been long – unbelievably long, the world slowing down around her as she grasped at the branches above her head until she landed flat on her back, body impacting the ground like a meteor. Her lungs had surrendered her breath in one sharp cry, static bursting like flowers across her eyes. It had been her first experience with unyielding, inescapable pain. Even after her mother came running out and the soothing balm of healing chakra had chased away the agony, she had been unable to breathe, and had lain for an eternity gasping like a fish as her body commanded her to take in the air that her lungs refused to expand for. For several minutes she had been convinced she was going to die, and it was that feeling she despised above all else – the stunned emptiness, an inability to do anything but wait to see if the fall would kill you.
Something in her heart was falling now, almost in slow motion...
She shouldn't have crept up on them. But she didn't know what it was – couldn't have known. There had been raised voices, words glistening with accusations and a flayed kind of beauty. And years of serving as Orochimaru's informant had instilled in her a need to find out, a need to know. So she had pulled a veil over her chakra and crept to the corner of the hallway, leaning out as the voices were replaced with softer sounds.
It took her a moment to recognize the shapes and colors for what they were.
Naruto's fingers had woven themselves into Sasuke's hair, pulling him forward from where he was backed into the wall.
"I know you remember."
"It doesn't make a difference to me."
"Remember that one scuffed tile on the bridge? The one that Sakura never stepped on because she thought it was unlucky and then one day you did and ended up breaking your arm a couple minutes afterwards and none of us ever went near it again?"
"No," Sasuke said, eyes fixed on the floor. Naruto's hands moved to frame his face, brushing a long lock of hair away.
"Remember how after our fifth mission the old man at ramen stand gave us free noodles and how you went red every time his daughter served us and I teased you for months afterwards? Or how there was that big rock down at the river that we used to swim at with Team Twelve, and how Kiba and I would always make you race us and then you and Hinata completely beat our asses because you were faster at learning chakra manipulation?"
"No." But Sasuke didn't pull away from his grasp. "I outgrew those things. We all did."
Naruto shook his head, one of his thumbs tracing the outside of Sasuke's ear. Karin felt the sickening jolt of freefall in her stomach, the moment of inertia before a hard reconciliation with the earth. "Remember how our training site was perfect even though we'd always trashed it the day before, and how at the end of the day our chakras had always mixed together – yours and mine and Sakura's and Kakashi's so it felt like we were one person?"
"I don't," Sasuke said, but anything after that was lost to her because he hauled Naruto towards him by the collar of his shirt and - no no no no no no, they weren't, it wasn't fair, it wasn't -
It same stunning blow that she'd felt all those years ago – heart beating a burning rhythm against her ribs; stomach threatening to collapse; edges of her mind whining a high-pitched note that promised a blistering headache later.
"I miss that. And I know you remember," Naruto said, breaking away from the kiss only to tug at Sasuke's earlobe with his teeth.
Sasuke sucked in a breath, eyes falling shut. "Maybe," he said, voice dropping into a deep rumble as Naruto's hands spread wide across his hips. Karin stood, listening to the drumbeat of her world collapsing in her ears, and tried not to move in case she collapsed as well.
A grin spread across Naruto's face - god, she had forgotten how brilliant it really was; like the sun itself had caressed him as a child.
"That's - progress -" he murmured, lips tracing a steady line down the long line of Sasuke's throat as he tilted his head back, face in stark profile from the lamp burning above them. He didn't look peaceful, exactly - his face was far too ravaged by a lifetime of tragedy and rage for that. It was more a softened wistfulness, a reluctant refusal to open his eyes and face the world that was waiting for him beyond this corridor; beyond the boy that he drew to him, fingers shaking where they traced the rocky structure of his spine. Naruto paused for a moment to breathe, pressing his lips feather-light to Sasuke's collarbone. In return, one of Sasuke's hands drifted up to the nape of Naruto's neck, hovering for a second before dragging him up for another hurried meeting of mouths.
Karin turned and walked away. She stared at her boots as she walked, making sure she didn't step on any of the cracks between the rocks. She kept her pace steady so as not to interrupt the constant click of her heels. She dug her fingernails into her palms, pressing harder every time the pain began to fade. She was going to walk to her room, then close the door quietly and sit down on her bed, and then... change her bandage, yes. She was going to spend some time alone, and it would all be fine, fine, fine.
That plan derailed slightly when she kicked open her door to find Suigetsu inside, hand outstretched for the handle.
"No," she said, before he could even open his mouth. "Whatever it is, no."
Suigetsu raised an eyebrow. "Where've you been?"
"None of your business," she snapped, leaning back against the wall. Her blood was still beating a jealous rhythm against her temples, heart flying hot against her ribs.
"Right. Uh, Juugo and I were wondering if you wanted to spar with us. You know, since things have been kind of fucked up lately. It would be nice. Just… nice." He trailed off and shoved his hands in his pockets as she stared at him, the words lazily spiraling across her eyelids for a long moment before she could bring herself to decipher them.
"No," she said finally when the silence lengthened, and stepped towards her bed, leaving the door open in a clear invitation for him to leave.
"Come on, it'll be good for all of us," he wheedled, grinning at her. "Besides, it's been ages since we had a go."
It was true, but she was in no mood to indulge either of them. "No." Pressure was beginning to coil out from her chest, squeezing down to her fingers, roiling her stomach, thudding through her legs. "Go away." Her voice sounded far away, hollow and strained.
"Hey, are you okay?" Suigetsu's forehead crinkled as he peered at her. "You look seriously stressed out."
No. No. She was not going to go to pieces, especially not in front of him, out of everyone. She pointed at the door, and focused on making her voice crisp, demanding.
It was bitchy, but it was also Suigetsu, and he of all people could suck it up and take it. His grin slipped, and to her horror he leaned forward.
"Karin, what's wrong?" It was the unmasked concern that did it – the deep well within her overflowed, and she flung herself away from him as tears began scrape at the raw insides of her lids.
"Just go away, okay? Please, please, go away." She pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes, expecting a low grumble and the slam of her door. Instead, Suigetsu's hands found her shoulders, and she looked up to see his face tight with anger.
"Did Madara do something to you?" His fingers dug in, shaking. "I swear to the gods, I'm gonna go kill that fucker –"
"Oh, for the gods' sake, stop it," Karin said, fists clenching to keep her vision clear. "It was Sasuke. And Naruto."
Suigetsu's face was blank for a second, but then his eyes widened. "Oh. Oh. You mean..."
He's wasn't nearly surprised enough. Chest tight with embarrassment, she said quietly, "You knew, didn't you?"
"I had an idea," he said, face scrunching in that ridiculous way it did when he lied. At her steady gaze, he flushed. "Yeah. I knew."
She shook her head. "What, was I the only one in the dark?" Suigetsu opened his mouth, but she wrenched herself away from his grasp, heads screaming for something to throw, tear, burn. "Well, I really fucking hope you enjoyed watching me make an idiot of myself, because that's the last time it's gonna happen. Get the fuck out of my room, Su, I want to be alone."
And then, to her absolute horror, she was crying – huge, hot tears that boiled out of her eyes, tracked a scalding line her cheeks, and reduced the world to an unwelcome smear of color. She turned away, steeling her shoulders against the cool mountain air, and pressed her hands over her face. The slick of tears over her palms felt just like the shame and embarrassment and hurt clinging to the inside of her ribs.
There was a gentle touch at her shoulder before Suigetsu's arms hesitantly slid around her. "You're not an idiot, Karin."
"You're such a terrible liar," she said between shaking breaths.
His arms tightened around her, and after a moment she let herself lean into them.
"When was the last time you slept?" Suigetsu murmured into her ear, and she shook her head helplessly.
"I don't know. Madara's chakra is still in my system. It makes it hard."
"You should rest," he said, and after a moment, added in a strange voice, "I have some sleeping tablets. Take them."
"Don't tell me what to do," Karin mumbled, but didn't resist when the pills and a canister of water were pushed into her hands; allowed him to guide her down to the bed and pull a scratchy blanket up to her chin. She barely noticed the hand that smoothed down her hair; the long minute spent in silence as he weighed his options; the quiet voice that said, "You won't have to see that again," as it left her to the night.
Karin slept badly, with violent crashes filtering through to her dreams. Twice someone ran past her room, echoing against the stones, and she woke once to the sound of a brutal argument far away, before disorientation dragged her back to her pillow.
What could have been five minutes or a century later, she blinked into consciousness to see the alien mask of Madara in her face, his hands gripping her wrist, arm already raised halfway to his mouth, and already her chakra was roiling with disgust, someone was yelling outside the room, and she could feel chakra bursts, a battle only a few hundred meters away, and this wasn't right, what was happening, he didn't have permission –
She tried to pull away, found her body bound with a chakra corrupt enough to burn, mouth glued shut so that even when his mouth was on her and teeth were tearing at her veins and she screamed and screamed and screamed, nothing came out but a pitiful whine, and the world was staining red –
When Karin finally woke to the dim, unchanging light, her mouth was coated in the stale taste of sleep and her clothes stuck to her skin with night sweat. The rest of the world was quiet, and for a moment she just lay in bed, trying to figure out why she felt like someone had scoured her veins with a wire brush. A dark wisp of Sasuke tugged at the back of her mind, but she brushed it away. Introspection had never played a large role in her life, and she preferred to keep it that way.
It wasn't until she began to swing herself out of bed that the pain in her arm hit her like a physical blow. She reeled backwards, legs hitting the base of the bed. The sounds and feverish visions of the night swirled across her eyes in a foggy cloud, and she looked down to see the flesh of her arm rearranged in a grotesque parody of normality. Madara had cauterized it so that she hadn't bled out, but he hadn't bothered to arrange the flaps of skin back into place – the inner skin of her forearm was bubbled and twisted into small mounds, stretched and shiny in some places and lumped in others. Above all, it burned, a searing white pain flickering under her skin like flames.
Karin stood very still for another moment, breathing deeply. Then she moved to bandage it, fingers shaking as the evidence was buried under a blanket of white as thick as her hand. She was used to other people using her body and had long ago resigned herself to the fact that she was never going to be beautiful – not with the tracks of other people's teeth running along her skin like tattoos – but this was different. This felt like the time Orochimaru's henchmen had come to her room at night, mouths stretched wide in ugly grins. She had fought them off in the end, and they never came back, but the rough pressure of their hands never really washed away either.
But she didn't want to think about that. Something had happened last night.
When she slipped out into the hallway, she was immediately struck by the long, dark scorch marks stretched across the walls. The air stank of battle - sweat and blood and the dark, heady sex-smell of overworked chakra. Karin flicked her tongue out to get a better taste of her surroundings - Madara's power lay heavy over the scene, layering over the erratic spike of Naruto's veined chakra and Juugo's rage. And underneath it all, the unmistakable tang of terror.
"Oh, good, you're awake." Suigetsu broke into her thoughts, sounding far too nonchalant. When she turned she saw that someone had burned a track from his jaw to his fingers, though he was attempting to hide it under a smile she had come to know as the one he used to hide things. "What's up?"
"What did you do?"
Guilt didn't look good on Suigetsu – it settled onto his shoulders like a yoke. He set his jaw. "I went to Konan and told her about Sasuke and Naruto."
"Naruto isn't leaving here anyways," he said quickly, words tripping over each other. "All that's changed is that he's locked up, and Madara isn't kingpin anymore. It was worth it."
"Come on, betraying Sasuke's trust?" Karin wanted to scream – everything, everything, everything was falling apart. "What, exactly, was worth that?"
"Freedom from the Akatsuki, for all of us if we want it. And... they're not allowed to see each other. We don't have to put up with them fighting or Sasuke acting like a little bitch anymore." Suigetsu fell silent, but she saw what he really meant as he looked away.
"You did it because I was upset?"
"What?" Suigetsu's head snapped up, gaze skittering across her face and onto the floor. "No! Wow, self centered much?"
"For fuck's sake, Su. It sucks, it really fucking does, and I'm mad as hell and I want to beat the shit out of both of them, but you can't – you can't just throw away our entire team because of it!"
Karin pushed by him and ran down the hall – (are they okay where are they where is everyone) – ignoring him when he called her name.
She found Sasuke outside the holding cell, cheek split open in a raw wound he had obviously made no attempt to clean. One his palms rested against the wall, keeping him upright as he looked through the window cut into the metal door.
"You're okay," she breathed, the relief making the hallway spin around her. Sasuke gave her a sidelong glance and shrugged before looking back into the room. She stepped close and followed his gaze, feeling hot rage ignite in her stomach when she saw Naruto's unconscious body. His hair was dark with blood, wrists chained to the wall.
"I didn't do it. Tell them, I mean." Karin hated the way her voice came out – needling, defensive. It was always like this around Sasuke... she cared too much about what he thought, and the tension came through when she opened her mouth, which only served to make her more uncomfortable, which made her seem more tense and unpleasant, until she was ready to jump out of her skin and everyone else was ready to kill her.
"I know," he said, sounding tired. "Suigetsu."
"Yeah." (because of me, still my fault)
They stood in silence for a moment. Sasuke passed a hand over his eyes, not even wincing when he brushed the ragged cut on his cheek. "At least he came and told me what he'd done, and why."
That might have been one of the battles she'd heard.
"What did you do?"
Sasuke gave a humorless smile. "Nothing. Stopping Konan and the others from taking Naruto was more important. But they'd had time to prepare, and it was three against four." A sound echoed down the corridor towards them, and he glared into the dark for a moment before continuing. "With Madara's injuries and Juugo's instability, it wasn't much of a fight."
"I'm sorry," she said, sounding small to her ears.
"It's not your fault." The words were perfunctory, robotic. He shook his head, eyes on Naruto's bruised face. "Not yours."
"I'll heal him," she said, and he nodded.
"I... good." And then, so quiet she could barely hear it: "Thank you." He looked ragged, exhausted, but somehow more sincere than she had seen him in a long time.
As she turned her attention to the lock, Sasuke froze. "Madara's coming," he said in a low voice.
The half-moon wounds in her arms began to flare, and she forced her hands to stop trembling. Sasuke had seen, though, and his eyes set into slits as he examined the bandages winding up to her elbows.
"I don't want him doing anything else to you. Get out of here," he whispered, pushing at her shoulders. Karin didn't need to be told twice. She fled up the hallway and around the corner, entire body seized with the scratchy, static feeling of panic. The low murmur of voices drifted up to catch her ears, and she clenched her fists, coming to a halt. She had not become a kunoichi to run from what she feared.
Karin pulled a thick curtain across her chakra, calmed her breathing, toed off her shoes, and then sidled to the turn of the corridor. She didn't know what she was going to hear – obviously eavesdropping had worked out so well for everyone the last time she did it – but something about the terrified rage when she looked at her arms and the exhausted look in Sasuke's eyes compelled her to stay.
"I'm sure you realize the seriousness of what you've done," Madara was saying, as she took out one of her mirrors to peer around the corner. His voice still held the infuriating tone of pleasant conversation that always irked her, but there were dark undertones to it, a promise of violence and spattered blood.
"I've been a teenager and know what hormones are like, but could you really not have chosen one of your teammates? The Jinchuuriki and the sword-chaser are interchangeable enough. The redhead follows you around like a lost puppy. And the curse-bearer would do anything for you. Because of your lack of self-restraint, Pain just moved from a pawn to a player in our little game. He'll be here in two days. Zetsu has already joined him, and we've lost Kisame as well. His loyalty to the Uchiha ended with Itachi."
"It wasn't a failure of self control. I knew exactly what I was doing," Sasuke said – not apologetically or submissively like she had expected, but with the razor burn of anger. "And if you are such a weak leader that the Akatsuki divided itself over this, then you deserve this exact punishment for it."
Madara laughed without mirth. "You know nothing about politics, boy. A group formed out of fear and unthinking brutality will never last long... as I think you're finding out with your own team now. One of your own betrayed you, for reasons you can't even begin to comprehend – as far as I can tell from Konan's gloating, it seems he felt that it would spare your fangirl from any more pain. And you never saw it coming, because you were so sure you had him under your thumb. That is what politics is. Layers on layers of human weakness. Greed, hate, love, envy, desire, guilt... all of it creates a complex web that can be tweaked however you want with just a few choice words, the right action, catching them at a key moment of weakness. You never see anybody else, Sasuke, just your own emotions, your own needs. That is why your team has fallen apart before your eyes, and your chosen lover is going to die directly by your hand. That is why you are unsuited to politics and leadership. Your selfishness – your critical inability to gauge others – is what has led you here and ultimately failed you." Madara's eye glittered maliciously through his mask.
"It would seem," Sasuke said slowly, "that selfishness is a trademark of our clan." Karin's heart nearly broke to see him so obviously affected – his eyes were wide and glossy, giving him an almost eerie sense of innocence, and his fists shook at his sides, despite visible attempts to keep them under control.
"I don't deny it," Madara said, sounding amused. "But while the rest of us certainly were selfish, we kept it in perspective. And my greed is far less than some of those in the Akatsuki. The difference between you and I is that I have the patience to fulfill my desires over a period of time, while you charge in without looking." He stopped for a moment, voice thoughtful when he resumed. "I suppose one could argue that the only selfless Uchiha was Itachi himself. It takes great will to give up all that is yours. What a noble act, cleansing his village to save it from certain war. It's probably the greatest personal sacrifice of our century. And then, you and I come along to destroy all his hard work." The silken delight in his words was tangible. "How he would hate me, to see what I have planned." His great eye examined Sasuke closely, although the boy did not appear to notice. "I imagine he would hate you too, if he knew what your greatest goal was."
The tone was light, but Karin was not fooled. Madara was testing Sasuke, to see if his resolve was still there. Years of Orochimaru's honeyed and often venomous questions had trained her to recognize the trap.
"It's not his decision to make," Sasuke said, after a long moment of silence. "Konoha will still burn."
Before she was chosen to be a kunoichi; before she was picked for Orochimaru's collection; before Sasuke dragged her into the riptide of Team Hawk, Karin had wanted to be a doctor. She was four years old when she found a raven with a tattered wing and watched it bloom with new life under her hands; was five when she realized that her blood brought release from pain. Broken things could be fixed the way she wanted, and her affinity for them only grew as she got older. Perhaps that was why the torture was so easy for her, Karin thought as she rebound her aching arm. Because there was always the possibility of putting them together again to start anew.
Perhaps that was the reason she loved Sasuke.
But it was so much easier to want something you thought you could save. She wasn't sure she could, anymore.
In the end, it wasn't Sasuke or Suigetsu or Naruto to whom she went for comfort. It was Juugo - sweet and understanding Juugo, willing to both kill her and die for her. It should have been strange that he was the one who she trusted the most – should have, but it wasn't like anything was normal in this place anyways.
"Have you seen Su anywhere?" Juugo's nails were bitten down, she noticed. He was losing weight, too. The hollows of his cheeks were pronounced, eyes beginning to take on a sunken look. She shook her head gently. "Not for hours."
"Damn," he scowled, sitting with his back against the cliff wall. The training plateau was empty but for them, and the sky was gray. At the edge of the horizon was a roiling wall of black cloud heading slowly but surely in their direction. Neither of them had to say it: Pein.
She sat next to him, hands limp in her lap. His eyes rested on the half-congealed scars zigzagging up her arms. "Sasuke told me what Madara did to you."
With almost anyone else, Karin would have covered up the injuries and scowled. But they had intimately seen the worst parts of each other, and despite the pulped flesh in plain view, she never felt ugly in his gaze. "Yeah."
"I should have kept an eye on you. I'm sorry." Juugo was frowning. "Sasuke called me to help defend Naruto from Zetsu, and I... well, you know. I was out of it for a while. I should have stayed with you."
She shrugged, looking down at the years of scars on her body. "It's my fault. Shouldn't have taken sleeping pills, of all things. A real kunoichi knows better than to poison her body."
Juugo made a disgusted noise, and tipped her chin up with his finger. She met his burning eyes with a small jolt.
"Whatever you've done in the past, you don't deserve this," he said quietly, and she felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. "Why aren't you angry, Karin? You lash out when your teammates are hurt – why not yourself?"
Karin pulled her face away and drew her knees up. "Everybody gets angry. I'm not any different."
Juugo's eyes grew hooded. "You didn't poison yourself," he said after a while. "The Akatsuki are what's toxic around here."
"Well, we knew what we were getting into."
Juugo nodded, lips a thin line.
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "It wasn't meant to go like this."
"I know," Juugo said, and tucked a stray lock of hair out of her face.
She swallowed painfully. "And it's not just the... thing with Sasuke not, you know... I mean, I know I'm not what he wants. But the whole situation with Naruto is completely fucked, Ju. Just... I can't believe how much I..."
"Care?" The lines under his eyes made him look ten years older. Karin nodded.
"Just... how did we ever convince ourselves that it was okay to bring him here?" Fury rose like bile in the back of her throat, directionless but thick enough to make her gag. "How did Sasuke convince us? To have your chakra siphoned off like that until you die, it's... inhumane. I remember Orochimaru-" Juugo's breath came sharp, but he said nothing - "doing experiments on a few prisoners, feeding off their chakra until they systems gave out." She shuddered at the memory. "They screamed for days, Juugo. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. Like listening to children die. Most them were ranting nonsense by the end of it. Enough pain can drive you mad. Naruto doesn't even deserve to die, and not like that. Not when every second is agony."
Juugo had gone very still, and when she looked up his face was white.
"Karin, we're friends," he said suddenly. She blinked, eyes feeling raw, and managed a small smile.
"If I was ever stuck in the Curse form, permanently, or was about to be let loose on a lot of innocent people again, you would kill me, right?"
She stiffened. "Why are you asking me that?"
"Tell me," he said, looking past her.
Karin weighed her words against the dull ache of her heart. "Yes. If it was necessary, I think I would. Yes."
"Because that would be best for everyone." Juugo was still staring at the corner of the room, fingers frantically tapping at the ground. "Including me."
"Ju, you're making me nervous." She tried to smile and shoved him playfully, but he didn't respond and her alarm only grew. "Hey, you know that's not going to happen, right? Relax. The Curse mark isn't known to be permanent, and Sasuke's got you under control. It won't ever come to that."
The light was cold on his face, and for a moment he looked like a ghost – smooth and pale, eyes shining with his disease. Karin felt the hair on her arms raise, and had to fight the urge to recoil at the alien aspect of his face.
Then he gave a tired smile and transformed back into the brother she knew. "I know, Karin." He kissed her temple, and they watched the storm approach in silence.
"Naruto?" Karin shut the cell door behind her, skin tight with the apprehension of being somewhere she shouldn't.
"Karin? That you?" Naruto's voice was a damaged rasp, breaking at the end.
She drew closer, breath coming sharp when she saw the dark bruises blooming under his skin, making his skin a tapestry of struggle. The anger at him (you shouldn't have touched Sasuke, he's mine) did not dissipate, but neither did it surge through her veins with the bloodlust she had expected – instead it sunk lower in her stomach, weighted by the added pressure of shame. "Yeah, I'm here."
Naruto's eyes slid shut for a second, and his hands shook. "I thought you guys had been hurt or tossed off the side of the cliff or something. Kisame wouldn't speak to me."
"Uh, no. Just some bruised egos on our side, I guess." She gave him a weak smile. "Didn't Sasuke tell you?"
It was strange to see how he reacted, now that she knew. His entire body shifted, somehow – little things, like the way his eyes focused, the way he leaned forward, the slight tug of his lips.
"He hasn't been here. Is he okay? They didn't lock him up too, did they?"
Fucking Sasuke, Karin thought, and then spent a moment surprised at the vehemence of the thought. But it figured that Sasuke wouldn't go to see him. It was easier to see the faults in him these days; the damage that spilled into all of their lives. It was like something shaking loose within her, drawing a veil from her eyes.
"We're all fine," she said, kneeling next to him. Naruto's hands and ankles were cuffed to the wall with iron manacles that emitted a faint hum of chakra. Suppressors, then, since it looked like he hadn't even begun to heal. "Better than you, at any rate."
His smile was more relieved than anything else, but it held a hint of pride. "I still kicked Zetsu's ass pretty hard before Konan got to me. Creepy bastard's probably still looking for his teeth."
"I hope so." She grinned at him, watched his eyes light up a little despite the chafing at his wrists, and couldn't hold the words back. "This is my fault, Naruto."
Naruto went stiff. "What?"
Karin laid it out for him quietly, looking at the floor. He didn't move throughout the whole explanation, lips carved into a deep frown.
"…I didn't mean for him to do anything about it," she finished, chancing a look up. "I was just… I saw you and Sasuke and I couldn't even think, it was like everything in me switched off."
Silence beat at her ears as Naruto examined her, blue eyes solemn for once.
"You shouldn't carry around guilt like that," he finally said, shifting his chains. "That's so not your fault it's almost funny. Except not really, cus, you know, it kind of sucks in here."
Karin blew out a shaky breath. "Everyone likes to carry some sort of guilt. But okay."
He watched her for another moment, chewing at his lip. "Karin, about Sasuke-"
"Don't," she said. "Don't."
"It was never to hurt you."
"That's enough apologies all around for one night, okay? And I'm not a good enough person to forgive that quite yet. That's not what I came here for. I want to heal you."
Naruto nodded once. "I'll shut up about it if you're quiet about 'not being a good person' or whatever. That's just bullshit."
Karin hesitated, face caressed by the dark. She could have told him about the nights spent torturing for Orochimaru, the children she orphaned, the pleas from people just like him and Juugo that she barely even heard. But some things couldn't be shared, and Naruto's faith was too soothing to throw away on some urge for truth.
"Deal. Now bite me."
He shook his head. "You just healed Madara – I don't want to strain you."
Karin smiled. "It's more dangerous to underestimate your friends than your enemies. I can handle it."
She extended her arm to him. The dim light of the corridor ran an outline of fire around the scars, and after a moment Naruto took her wrist gently, looking the fresh puncture wounds from earlier in the day, vicious and jagged.
"Madara's not a gentle man," she said, shrugging as he ran his finger lightly over them.
"He's a monster." Naruto put his other hand over hers, fingers warm and callused. "I'm going to take him down with me. I swear."
Don't make promises you can't keep, Karin wanted to say. I don't know how you can care for me, maybe. Or: I can see why Sasuke loves you.
"Can't say I mind that," she said instead, looking down. Two of his fingernails were missing, and one of his thumbs had been crushed out of shape. "Look, I wouldn't offer now if I didn't want to, Naruto. And you need this."
He nodded slowly, then raised her palm to his lips – the chains clinked loudly in the darkness – and visibly tried not to wince as he sank his teeth gently into the skin covering the pad of her index finger.
Karin closed her eyes, braced against the bone deep shudder that always accompanied this kind of intimacy. Sometimes it was a razor tide of pain that seeped through her flesh; sometimes closer to a molten ecstasy. And, occasionally, it was like this – a soft relief, like a body released from restraints. Like forgiveness.
"That's about the most unsexy thing I think I've ever done in my life," Naruto said, after pulling away and spitting out the taste. "But thanks, Karin." He smiled, flexing his healed fingers. "You didn't have to do that."
"I wanted to," she said – surprising herself with how easily it rolled off the tongue, the act of wanting something for herself.
Suigetsu was standing outside her room when she got back, fingers drumming in an awkward, unsteady pattern against the wall.
"So you've emerged from wherever you slithered off too," she said, frowning when she saw his backpack at his feet. "I don't want to talk to you."
"I mean it." She slipped past him, into the threshold of her door.
"I can't stay here anymore," Suigetsu said abruptly behind her, fingers stopping their dance. "I'm leaving. Today."
The sound of her own breathing magnified in her ears, and she turned around, anger overtaken by a sick pressure in her stomach. "What?"
"You heard me."
"No. You can't go." The world sounded like it was coming from far away, rushing towards her from a long tunnel. "We need you."
"No, you don't," he said, looking at the floor. "Sasuke doesn't need me any more than he needs you or Juugo, and you know it." He tugged at a strap on his pack. "I said goodbye to Ju. Thought I'd come and wish you luck with everything before I left."
This must be a joke. "What about Sasuke?"
His lips twitched. "I prefer to keep my organs inside my body, thanks. I'll leave you with this particular development to explain."
"Of course. I can't believe I'm even surprised at that," she said, rolling her eyes even as the first wings of panic began to beat within her.
"I, uh..." he paused, looking at the ground. "Tell Naruto goodbye for me, will you? And that he was right about me. He'll know what I mean."
Her eyes narrowed. "Coward. You're not even going to say goodbye to him? You're just going to run away?"
Suigetsu's eyes flashed with an intense anger that she had never been on the receiving end of. "Who's the coward here? You're going to stand by and watch them kill him. I won't do it. And I'm not going to go kill some more children I don't know in a village I don't care about just because Sasuke tells me to. Fuck that shit." He tightened his shoulder strap, face darkening. "In fact, I might swing by Konoha and give them a heads up. For Naruto."
"You mean, to spite Sasuke." Her words had no emotion, and her chest ached as though being crushed under some enormous force.
"That too." His grin was tired, faded. She looked away.
"Well, I can't stop you," she said quietly. "I guess this is goodbye, then."
There was only a foot or two of corridor floor between them, but it might as well have been an entire universe. She examined the frayed strap of her sandal. Suigetsu made a frustrated noise.
"Karin, come with me," he blurted, and her head snapped up.
He took a deep breath. "I already asked Juugo. He said that he had to stay and see this through to the end. And he's reliant on Sasuke." Suigetsu spoke quickly, words tumbling over each other. "But you're not. There's no reason for you to be here. My deal with Konan was that we could leave if we wanted. You're free to go."
Her head was shaking of its own accord before he even finished. "You know the answer to that."
Suigetsu's hands clenched around the strap of his backpack. "There isn't anything for you to stay for."
(no no no no no)
"Don't ask me to do this, Su. I can't. I won't. I'm not going to leave him. Any of them."
She hated more than anything else the helplessness that darkened his eyes. "Karin, he doesn't love you. And he never will. You know that. Don't waste your life because of it."
It wasn't the words themselves that seemed to wind her – Suigetsu always said things like that. It was more the way Sasuke's fingers had trailed through Naruto's hair, the greedy way his eyes drank in Naruto's movements, the way he was going to betray him despite that...
(can't think about that right now)
The images made her words sharp and unforgiving. "And I suppose you want me to come waste my life with you, instead?"
He set his jaw, taking a moment to speak. "It... it wouldn't be a waste. I would never treat you like that, Karin. Never. Seeing you happy is important to me."
"Then stay," she said stubbornly, shying away from the words, unwilling to face what she knew he was saying. "We're a team. Team Hawk. That's what makes me happy. So stay and we won't have a problem."
"Team Hawk is over, Karin." And did he really have to look at her like that? Like this was something she needed to hear? Like this was going to convince her? "And it has been for a while. None of us wanted to admit it."
"We're your friends, for fuck's sake, and you're just walking away from that!"
His face hardened. "I have a right to my own happiness, and I don't want to be a part of what Sasuke is doing anymore. I don't think that you do, either. Come with me."
Panic fluttered in her breast, pounding with her pulse. No one had ever given her this sort of choice before.
"I've made commitments to them," she said, voice quivering for a moment before she had a chance to calm herself. "Am I just supposed to be leave Juugo? He has to stay with Sasuke, he doesn't have a choice, it's not his fault that can't move freely. And Sasuke... he took both of us away from that place, Su. We owe him. And Naruto... I can't..."
Suigetsu just looked at her, and she plunged on. "Besides, what would we do? Where would we go? This is our life, we can't just pick up everything and leave, there's nothing for us out there. I-"
Suigetsu's hands closed around her shoulders. Before she could protest he leaned forward and captured her mouth in a kiss, hot and salty. A soft puff of his breath blew over her face, and then he pulled back with a wry smile.
"I wanted to do that, at least once."
Her voice was dead in her throat. He said quietly, "I don't know what we'd do. But we'd be free of all this. And if you let me make you happy... I mean, fuck, Karin. We're not even twenty. How many times have I seen you almost die? You deserve more than this. You wouldn't regret it."
His face was set in that peculiar way of his, and she could see now that whatever she was going to say would not change his mind. Anger seared a path through her mind – what right did he have to say this now, when she was vulnerable, when he knew that she would listen? What right did he have to spin her insecurities into this fantasy?
It was this resentment, hot and pulsing, that made her turn away, burned her words with her rage. "You can call it whatever you want, but you're still running away. This is still deserting your post and your friends. You're no shinobi."
"Karin-" Suigetsu reached out, and she instinctively leaned into it before her mind caught up with it and she jerked herself back. Her lips were tingling, shoulders still warm from where his fingers pressed into them, and she absolutely could not deal with this. He was not going to give up. He might actually convince her to go, she might come close to packing her bag and leaving this place, and then everything she had done with this team, for this team, would have been for nothing.
"What makes you think I want you? You could never make me happy," she said, uncertainty and blind rage edging her words with venom. Anything to stop him, anything to make sure he didn't convince her...
He was utterly still for a moment, and regret was washing over her already, she was already opening her mouth to apologize, they could still talk this out, he didn't have to leave –
"Fine. Tell Sasuke that he's a dick for me. And... tell Juugo I'm sorry." Suigetsu's voice was controlled and level, but she knew him well enough to catch the slight tremble of his hands. Karin began to open her mouth, but he shook his head roughly, and placed a fingertip over her lips, silencing her.
"Don't. I'm different from you and Naruto. I can't crusade a lost cause."
He turned and walked away, legs tight, footsteps beginning to fade away. Karin stood, frozen to the spot, unable to escape the feeling of her life's path splitting beneath her feet into two roads curving away from each other. And she saw, for a moment, how things could be. Suigetsu was not an easy person to live with, and she knew that neither was she. They would probably argue constantly, have no place to go, no idea what to do with their lives. But it was not inconceivable, the idea of loving him, and the thought made her feel strangely warm – he was vibrant, honest, blazing with life... so different from the cold appeal of Sasuke. And he would wait for her, until she was ready to let go of this tattered love she held for the Uchiha, so close to wearing through. He knew her better than anyone else, would not push it.
(seeing you happy is important to me)
What was happiness, really? A month ago, the answer would have rolled off her tongue, unhesitating. Happiness was when Sasuke looked in her direction, however brief and cold the glance was. Happiness was playing cards with Suigetsu and Juugo in the afternoon sun. Happiness was –
Not something Karin knew much about, if she was honest.
A month ago, she had been so sure. But now, when she looked back, cracks were running over the surface of the memories. Because accompanied with Sasuke's glances was always the sharp stab of jealousy, the rawness of her throat, the knowledge that she was not good enough for him. And hanging over their card games was always death – the blood that stained their hands and clothes, the screams of all their victims ringing constantly through their ears, the heavy thought of more killing tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that...
(let me make you happy)
Nobody had ever said that to her. Not her parents, her teachers at the Academy, Orochimaru, Sasuke... she had always been a tool, a means to an end, even to the ones she loved – especially to the ones she loved. She knew that, and was okay. She had never expected more than that, was perfectly content to serve them in order to glean those little signs of affection or approval that came when she had done something right – executing a particularly difficult jutsu, extracting a piece of information from a tight-lipped prisoner for Orochimaru, bringing Sasuke a step closer to his revenge. All it had taken was a word of praise, the faintest shadow of a smile, and her heart would soar, break free of her derelict surroundings and ruined childhood, buoyed among the stars, because surely this was happiness, these fleeting moments of connection were all she ever needed...
When Suigetsu smiled at her, it was not the tight acknowledgement of a job well done. It was a smile that held all of him, the bad and the good – sly but honest, arrogant but genuine. And all of it, all of it, was for her.
(maybe happiness is making the right choice)
Suigetsu's back slowly retreated, strides heavy but determined, and after a moment Karin stepped forward, opening her mouth to call out after him.
Her arm twinged as it brushed her torso, and the pain jolted her – fiery and demanding. She should have taken the painkiller that Juugo had given her an hour ago –
It was like he was right there, like they were all right there, ghostly hands clutching at her shoulders, whispering to her – (sasuke, darkly beautiful with his smile, unattainable as the stars/naruto, battered and broken, radiant in the shadow of his death/juugo, spiraling away from them all, trapped by his own mind)– pulling her back.
She did not follow him.
"Good luck," she said softly instead, and pressed her fingertips to her lips to stop anything else coming out.
Suigetsu stopped mid-step, and turned around slowly, face pinched. "I'm not the one who needs it. Look, promise me something. Start thinking about yourself, okay? Keep safe."
"I promise," she said, breath cold on her fingers, voice cracking on the last word. He smiled, and she dashed at her eyes with angry palms.
When she looked up, he was gone.
Karin was much more fun to write than I expected at the beginning of this fic. Next up: Naruto, Juugo, the day of the ritual and - wait for it - more angst, whoo! Hope you guys enjoyed - with any luck and depending on my work ethic the next chapter will be up in a week or two.