"S-SOMEONE, HELP!" Karin Uzumaki screamed unreservedly as she fled across the grass and root-strewn floor of the Forest of Death with a fake scroll in her hands. "SHIGERI! KOTSU! ANYONE!"
The only answer she received was the stalwart silence of the trees, which was drowned out by the bear's growls as they grew even more haggard from the chase. Shigeri and Kotsu, her teammates for the exam, left her die after they had purposely aggravated the bear with two kunai. Then they left her to stand there and become the target of its rage, hoping that someone else would come by.
They hoped someone would see her, a young girl with red hair and glasses, and save her from the bear. Only for them to swoop down afterwards and steal their scroll, rewarding their heroism with knives in the back. So much for that famous Hidden Grass diplomacy she'd heard about.
She told them it was a stupid plan. They were in the middle of a competition. People died during these things, and they were warned ahead of time what kind of place it was. No one would save her, and she had already been tired from the non-stop running to this point.
The Forest of Death could give even the Great Forest of Kusa, where the enriched earth and sun-blotting canopy allowed the mushrooms and fungi to rival the height of buildings, a decent run in how savage it was. Sure, it had snakes and poisonous lizards. But at least it didn't have freaking tigers, or giant centipedes, or leeches that tried to suck you dry, or goddamn bears that wouldn't quit chasing her!
Damn it, if she had known this would have happened she would have… well, she would have done it anyway. Orochimaru had laid the groundwork for getting her into the Hidden Grass village a year ago, leaving her to act as a spy and help him with whatever plan he had for the Hidden Leaf village this year. She knew the price of failure, and that her worth was only because she was still useful.
It had been two years now since that day. The small village where she and her mother lived ended up being attacked while she was out in a nearby field. She sensed them coming, along with the almost palpable bloodlust and eagerness, and how some of them stood out by having more chakra than the others.
It scared her. To have that malevolence, that revelry of the dark nature of mankind, touch her mind at such a young age without realizing what was happening left her terrified, clawing at her head to get it to go away. Then the screams from the village reached her ears as the blood began to soak the earth and flames ran wild.
She ended up hiding, crying as the tears mixed with the ashes until it was all over the next morning. Her mother hadn't made it. No one else had.
The path through the field to another village was long, leaving her cold and tired as her power seemed to flicker on and off. By the time she made it, she couldn't muster the energy to resist even as men threatened to take her and sell her into slavery. Nor when Orochimaru killed them and offered her a place to go since she had nowhere.
It had been luck that she had made it to this point. But her luck refused to hold out any further. It only took a single moment, where the sweat stung her eyes and forced her to blink, for her to trip over an upraised root and end up sprawled with her back against a mighty tree.
The impact stole her breath and forced it out of her throat, heated and raw. She was left staring down the eyes of the maddened bear, angered by the pair of kunai wedged in its back and worked up by the chase. It was going to kill her.
"H-help…" Her plea was near-silent as the bear opened its mouth and revealed the stained fangs from a recent meal, matted with bits of meat and strings of saliva. She realized she was going to die….
"BANNNZZZAAAIIII!" screamed innumerable voices, a chorus that came from above. It drew both the bear and Karin's gaze, whereupon they witnessed a rain of blonde-haired, orange-jumpsuit wearing boys descending. The group piled on the bear, hanging off of its larger and looming figure as it swiped at them and shook desperately to remove them.
Karin felt a hand grasping her shoulder and jumped. She looked to her right to see another one of the boys, reaching for her arm. "What are—"
"Come on!" He threw her over his shoulder and sped off, foot glowing with the illumination of chakra as he darted from trunk to branch. He carried her some distance away from the bear, leaving her to watch as the last of his doppelgangers removed the kunai in the back of the bear and then vanished in a puff of smoke.
It was only after the bear, which seemingly glared in their direction for a moment, trotted off that she breathed freely... and then remembered that she was not in the safe comfort of her asshole teammates, but a complete stranger from a rival village. She was being taken hostage!
"L-Let me go!" she said, slamming the bottom of her fists and the scroll against the small of his back while flailing her legs. "Release me this instant!"
"Hey, don't struggle so much!" The effort seemed at best to annoy him as he came to a stop and set her down against the crook of a tree limb. He pouted as he scratched his head. "Geez, was that the thanks I get for helping out?"
Karin reached for a kunai and held it out defensively, clutching the false scroll to her chest with trembling fingers. She had to sell the impression that it was real. "I won't let you have it!"
The blonde hair boy held his hands up next to his head harmlessly. "Hold on, I don't want your scroll. Besides, my team already has the Earth Scroll."
The mention of a team set her mind to high alert. Was this an ambush spot? Where were they hiding? She couldn't take her eyes off of him, otherwise he'd disarm and capture her, but she could spread her Mind's Eye out and sense anyone hiding nearby.
The range seemed to only improve when she was riled up, afraid. She could feel the chakra surrounding them within a larger range than before. There was no one besides him, a strange and warm chakra that reminded her of… her mother's.
"You can put that thing down now," the boy said, tilting his head. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"If you…." She swallowed, trying to calm her heart as it hammered in her chest from the chase. "If you don't want my scroll, then why did you save me?"
"You called for help, right?" She nodded. "Well, Sasuke and I had played a round of Janken to decide who would go in what direction and I lost. So I went this way and heard you screaming. When I saw that the bear was going to get you, I called up a bunch of Shadow Clones to drop down while I went down the side of the tree and around to where you were."
He demonstrated by making a hand seal and she felt his chakra split in half. It literally split in half as another one of him came into existence, virtually identical in terms of chakra amount and type. Had she not been in front of him she would have no clue which was the real one.
He dispersed the clone, the chakra immediately retuning to him. "Anyway, you're okay now… umm…"
"Karin," she told him, naturally still wary of the situation. Why was he being so good-natured? Could he not see her headband was different than his?
"Oh, that's a pretty name," he said, grinning and pointing a thumb to himself. "I'm Naruto. Naruto Uzumaki!"
Her head seemed to become cloudy and hazed at the mention. That name was… it was her clan's name. But that should have been impossible. Why….
Karin stiffened when she felt two familiar chakra signatures approaching. Shigeri and Kotsu. Of course they'd pop up now, of all times. They'd no doubt try to jump him and, while she didn't know how the fight would go since he could clone himself, she didn't want him to lose.
If they managed to beat him, they'd probably take him and his scroll as leverage against other teams to get what they wanted. She was fairly sure he was slow on the uptake, a good-hearted rube if anything, but… yeah, she couldn't let him get caught by those jerks. Even if they had better odds that way, she just wouldn't be responsible for that—especially if he was who he said he was.
It wasn't like she even cared about passing the exams anyway. "Leave!"
He blinked. "Huh?"
"Get out of here!" She held her kunai up and stepped towards him. "Go back to your team! Now!"
"Okay, okay." He did as he was told, jumping from the tree limb they were on to another in the distance. He looked back towards her a final time before departing for good, disappearing in a Body Flicker. She felt him heading in the opposite direction until he was outside her range.
Karin breathed easier, even as the two older boys landed less than ten seconds later. She wheeled around and faced them. "Where were you two when that bear was attacking me?"
"Sticking to the plan," Kotsu said, unashamed. "Worst case, we'd have gotten you out."
"Bullshit!" She threw the fake scroll towards Shigeri, who caught it without blinking. "That bear was seconds away from tearing me apart and you didn't do anything! You bastards left me to die!"
"The plan worked," Shigeri said. "Or it would have if you managed to stall him for another few seconds!"
"He didn't even have his Scroll on him." She crossed her arms. "And his team had the same one as ours. Did you even think about that when you came up with this plan?"
"We still could have taken him as leverage."
"If you thought you could, then you cowards would have tried to get him when all those clones popped up! Don't blame me when I didn't even want to go through with this stupid plan in the first place!" Karin jumped and skirted down the trunk of the tree. She didn't want to be around them any longer than she had to, and she got the feeling that it was mutual between them.
Besides, she had other things on her mind. That boy said he was an Uzumaki, the same clan as hers. She wanted to know more about that…
But first she had to get through this damn forest alive.
Karin's thoughts about the Uzumaki boy continued until the final day came. They failed the second portion of the exam because they didn't find a Heaven Scroll in time, but Karin didn't care. Why should she when they didn't care about her enough to refrain from using her as bait?
Those two had already left, mentioning how they would let their Jounin know she didn't play along. Karin decided to wait there until she saw Kabuto arriving at the entrance of the underground path back to the village. His own teammates had chosen to remain behind for preliminary matches in the arena and would join once they were settled. She steeled herself and walked up alongside him when there was no one in sight and no cameras.
"What is it?" he asked, short and to the point.
"Mmm…" She struggled to ask him because, quite frankly, Kabuto scared her. He was Orochimaru's right-hand for a reason. She'd watched him kill a man with no visible wounds, animate his body, and then sent him on a civilian-killing spree to frame a group of shinobi without batting an eyelid once. "Do you have information on a boy who entered the exams, a 'Naruto Uzumaki' he called himself?"
He gave her a side-glance in idle curiosity before nodding his head once. His hand slipped into his pouch and he pulled out a single card, pouring a trickle of chakra into it to activate the ink and data stored within it. "There."
She held the card with both of her hands, finding them trembling as she read the data. He was about a year or so younger than her, but that really was his name. And, now that she thought about it, didn't that orange jumpsuit have their clan symbol on it?
Why was his hair blonde then? Maybe he was half-blooded and the traits of his not-Uzumaki parent became dominant? The card listed him an orphan though. Did… did he lose his parents like she did?
She had so many question, and yet no answers. But that was fine. She could find him in the village now that she had felt his chakra. Given how quick he was to talk, he would probably be willing to talk to her about being from the same clan despite being from different villages.
"Get ready to move once you get back to the village," Kabuto told her, breaking her line of thought. Figures. "The dead members of the Hidden Grass that Orochimaru replaced were found and word will have been sent. The village will be recalling all their shinobi since none of them made it to the finals. You'll head back to the seventeenth base once you cross the border and await further orders."
So she was being recalled. It made sense, though it would put a damper on her plans. "What about the three I came with?"
"They'll be taken care of along the way." He adjusted his glasses, shifting the glare of light off of them. "I have a corpse that'll pass as you as well. Three dead Genin and a Jounin in the wake of the Chuunin Exams won't draw too much attention."
She wished she could say that the death of her teammates and leader would bother her, but she couldn't. There was no attachment. Not to them or the village. There wouldn't be much of a point when she was there as an infiltrator in the first place. The fact that they were jerks only softened it further.
But, if she was heading back to the base and faking her death, she wouldn't see that boy again. A possible link to her clan was right in front of her, and if she left it would be gone forever. Karin couldn't just let that slide.
"Is…" She trailed off when he looked her in the eyes. It took a deep breath to muster her courage. "Is it possible I can stay in the village for reconnaissance or another assignment?"
"That's not in the plan," he said, plucking the card from her hands and holding it up to the light. "But I'll contact him and see what his opinion is on the matter. My own cover wasn't blown, so who knows what we could do between now and the plan's fruition."
That was probably the best response she could hope for as he walked ahead.
Karin was awoken in the middle of the night by the feeling of scales scraping against her bare legs in her room in the Inn. She pulled back the covers and found a white snake there, maybe three feet in length. The only reason she didn't scream was because her sensory power kicked in the moment she was woken and picked up traces of Orochimaru's chakra composing it.
The snake coiled up and then stuck its head high, flicking its black tongue that contrasted the pale scales. Its eyes found hers, and a voice followed as it opened its mouth. "He has approved your request, child."
Karin sat up properly, tucking her bare legs beneath her and placing her glasses on her face before resting her hands on her knees. "He has?"
The snake bobbed its head once. "That Uzumaki boy is the Jinchuuriki of this village. He houses within him the Nine-Tailed Fox. It should be said that he has an… interest in retrieving him."
"Is that right?" She had a basic understanding what a Jinchuuriki was. After all, she and Kabuto had been given clear orders to avoid that Gaara boy from Suna like the plague. And she damn well knew why considering what she felt from him.
But Naruto was different. Even though she was still growing adept at using her power, he seemed to teem with Yang chakra, vitality and life. He was like a warm sun onto himself, just like her mother was before she died. That meant the seal holding it in must've been superior to the other boy's.
The snake opened its mouth wider, unhinging its jaw so that a scroll could come out of its mouth. Karin reached over to the nightstand where she had a cloth to clean her glasses and used it on the scroll before opening it. The snake patiently waited until she had done so before it continued.
"The boy's status as a Jinchuuriki is known amongst the adults of the village. He has been ostracized because of it. He is eager for bonds, the kind that can be exploited by your clans being one in the same. You will use that to get him into a position where he can be claimed during the impending plans."
She went over the information on the scroll. It had his grades, close associates, a rough schedule of his activities up to the Chuunin Exam, a list of pranks he pulled, and more. It had to be Kabuto's doing. That man really did scare her.
"But the Jounin told us that we'd be leaving tomorrow," Karin told the snake. "What will be done about that?"
"You will convince them to leave you behind while they go ahead," the snake said. "State that you will do reconnaissance into the Exams and the Finals, to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the other villages, on your own. Kabuto will supply the information in your place, leaving you to arrange for the Jinchuuriki to be taken."
So that gave her a month to get to know him and more about their clan. It shouldn't be too hard if what she was reading was right. "I think I can do it by then."
"Be warned. This will interfere with the immediate plan to take the Uchiha in hopes of obtaining them both at a later date. If you fail, you will be punished severely. Your talents make you valuable, but there are… other fates worse than death. He does not wish for this, but an example will be made. Do you understand?"
She swallowed, a drop of sweat running down her brow at the very real threat. He could render her brain-dead, or lock her up into a vat to be used as a tool rather than a person. Or hand her over to Kabuto and let him get creative.
"I… I understand," she told it.
"Then, there is one more matter that needs to be attended to." It uncoiled and slithered around to the sole of her feet. "Cover your mouth now. This will be… painful."
She barely got her hands over her mouth as the snake lashed out and bit her in the sole of her left foot, where the heel bone rested just above. Pain unlike anything she'd ever known attacked her, unholy agony ran through her leg, carving its way up from her heel to her knee. The scream that wanted nothing more that to come out remained muffled by the mattress and sheets as she collapsed with tears in her eyes onto the bed, only able to endure the agony while the snake impassively watched on as the seal formed of poison and blood etched itself onto her.
Karin had been marked.