Another chapter is here!


Sakura paced around the base of a tree that Naruto was perched in, looking down at the rest of the gathered shinobi and kunoichi. With the Finals starting tomorrow, the different teams of the rookie graduates had gathered for a final time. Even Hinata was out of the hospital and sitting along with her teammates, though she occasionally had a bad cough due to the damage her cousin inflicted on her. The only ones missing were Kakashi and Sasuke.

"Where are they?" Sakura asked aloud, her frustration and worry slowly turning to anger. "They should have been here by now."

"Kakashi-sensei is always late," Naruto said, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was the late one the last time. "No point in worrying about when they'll show up."

"I can't help but feel worried, Naruto," Sakura told him. "We haven't seen either of them since the last meeting and you know who his opponent is in the first match. We don't know if he's trained enough to beat him."

"Yeesh, you could at least have some faith in your teammates," said a third voice. It was Ino, standing there with her hands on her hips. "You don't see me discouraging Shika, and he's a lazy bum who only played Shogi the entire time."

"Gee, thanks for the voice of confidence," mumbled Shikamaru, lying down on the grass beneath the shade with his eyes closed. Chouji was sitting next to him.

"I have faith in them both," Sakura shot back, trying not to sound too heated at her. But Ino's teammate didn't have to go against that Hidden Sand boy that hurt Lee, so she couldn't understand what was going through Sakura's head. "But I'm being realistic. If Sasuke does lose then that means Naruto has to face him next. What chance does he have if Sasuke lost first? I don't want to see either of them killed when they can just take the exams again in half-a-year."

"You make it sound like I don't have a shot," Naruto said. "That kinda hurts."

"I know what you can do," Sakura said. She trained with him a good deal of the time and helped arrange the strategy that he was using. "You shouldn't lose to your first opponent unless you do something stupid after everything we put you through. Even then, if you lost you'd still be alive. But that boy is on an entirely different level and Sasuke wasn't as fast as Lee was the first time they met. If he gets his sand around you at all…."

It would be an instant kill. Lee had been one of the fastest shinobi she knew and he still paid the price. Naruto wasn't nearly that fast on his own, but Byakko could match it and Suzaku could keep him in the air. The problem was that Naruto didn't have a solid way of countering the defenses of that sand barring explosive tags, and even that wasn't a guarantee. If he got caught, it was all over.

"I don't know"—Naruto almost fell from his perch with a yelp at the abrupt voice next to him, only for his foot to be caught by a strong hand—"I think Sasuke has a fairly decent shot."

Sakura looked up to see Kakashi-sensei was there, having snuck up when they weren't looking somehow. He hopped down from the tree and set Naruto on the ground. "Though I'm happy to hear you're sure Naruto will win his match. That speaks a lot of how close you've gotten compared to when you first became a team."

True, she hadn't been the best teammate prior to the Forest of Death. But that was then and this was now. She looked around before asking, "Where's Sasuke? Is he not with you? Did he get hurt during his training?"

"As if I'd do something so stupid." From the shadows of the trees emerged Sasuke Uchiha with a scowl on his face. His clothes were torn in a number of places, his bag was slung over his shoulders, and one of his arms was bandaged from the tip of his fingers to just below his elbow. "I'm right here."

"Sasuke-kun~!" Ino gushed upon laying her eyes on him. "You look so much stronger and those bandages are so cool!"

Sakura ignored her old friend's fawning to focus on the more important details. "Are you sure you're not hurt? I hadn't heard from either of you and your arm—"

"It's fine." He balled the bandaged hand into a fist and held it up to Naruto. "I'm going to beat Gaara of the Desert, and then I'll beat you. Try not to get too worked over before then. I'd hate to give you a handicap, Dead Last."

"You wish," Naruto held a thumb up to his headband and tapped the emblem on it. A sign of battle between equals. "I'm going to mop the floor with you in front of everyone."

"As long you beat that long-haired bastard, I don't care who wins between the two of you," Kiba chimed in as he walked over with Akamaru on his head. He was flanked by Shino and Hinata, the latter of whom was nestled behind Shino. "I've been waiting a month now to see him get his pretentious ass kicked. Otherwise, me and Akamaru really will jump him outside the match."

"Um… about the match," Hinata started, pressing her forefingers together. "Um, I—"

"I know," Naruto said. "I'll give him one chance to withdraw and apologize to you. We all know he won't take it, but I'll still give it to him. After that, I'm going to beat him."

Sakura really felt bad for Hinata. She'd hate to be put into a position where two people she cared about were seriously trying to hurt one another. At least with Naruto and Sasuke it was just a thing between boys and she knew they had one another's backs when it came down to it.

For her part, Hinata meekly nodded. It was the best she could get him to agree to.

"So I take it you've come up with a strategy to go against him?" Shino asked. "You know that rushing in would be ill-advised."

Naruto nodded. "He won't touch me." Then he looked over to Sasuke. "Don't expect me to go easy on you just because we're on the same team. I've got a bunch of new tricks up my sleeves."

The Uchiha's bandaged arm tensed and a smug smile formed on his face. "So do I. Don't be jealous when the time comes."

"Competition is great and all but remember that there are limitations, Sasuke," Kakashi warned in a lax tone of voice, even though his eye was angled in a serious manner while staring at his hand. "That technique—"

"Don't use it on the others from the village." Sasuke shrugged his shoulders. "I won't need it for him anyway."


"—and he said he wouldn't even need to use it against me," Naruto heatedly ranted as he paced the room, rubbing his chin in thought. "He's probably learned some super-secret technique from Kakashi-sensei."

"Probably," Karin agreed somewhat absentmindedly. Most of her attention was devoted to the brush in her hand as she used delicate strokes upon the chakra-receptive blank note-tags. She used the last of her savings to have Sakura purchase three stacks worth. Now it was up to her to turn them into something he could use for the Finals.

There was a certain clarity that came with the focus she devoted to etching the sealing script upon the paper. Every stroke had a purpose. Every kanji and symbol had a meaning. Nothing was superfluous, and by focusing her mind on the task everything else that wasn't relevant faded from her mind.

Karin didn't have think about anything else but ensuring that every stroke was fluid and accurate. That meant she didn't have to think about the impending invasion. She didn't have to think about the Hokage's offer and how it was all going to go up in flames. She didn't have to think about how Naruto's goal to become the Hokage would be in vain as he was left to the non-existent mercy of Orochimaru and Kabuto, their scalpels cleaving into his flesh and blood—no, no, stop!

Her breath came out heavy as she noticed her brush's stroke had gone astray. The tag was worthless now. Karin set the brush down, pushed up her glasses, and rubbed her eyes that teetered on the edge of tears. It was then she heard Naruto calling her.

"Karin-chan, are you okay?" he asked, leaning close with concern in his cerulean eyes.

"I'm just a little tired," she lied as she put her glasses back into place. "Anyway, you don't really need to worry about your teammate's new technique. It's not important to you at the moment."

He sat down in the chair across from her and crossed his arms. "What makes you think that?"

"The way I see it, he can't use it against you because your sensei ordered it, so it doesn't factor into your match if he does win. If he doesn't… well, you should probably listen to your other teammate and withdraw from the fight. There's no point in risking your life for a match—it's not worth getting killed over."

Naruto huffed. "Why is everyone telling me to give up before I even try?"

"Because that's the sort of opponent you're up against," she said. "You have to pick your battles, Naruto. Rushing headlong into a fight you can't win isn't brave in this case, it's foolish. Bowing out is the smart, sensible, and expected thing for a Chuunin to do."

A frown marred his face. Naruto didn't like giving up, even when it was the sensible thing to do. There was something to be said for his determination, but this was one-time it worked against him.

Karin's fingers reached out to touch his hands across the table, and her fingers wove their way around his, drawn to their warmth. "Promise me, Naruto. If your teammate loses, I want you to withdraw. If not because it's sensible, then because I don't want to lose you."

She wondered why she was saying all of this. Karin knew it wouldn't get that far. So why were the words coming out on their own? "I just want you to be safe and happy. That's why I'm doing all of this. I want you to succeed, and that means I don't want you to sabotage yourself."

He seemed surprised at the admission, as much as she was by how earnest it was. "If both you and Sakura-chan say so then fine. If Sasuke loses, I'll back down. But if he dies—"

"He won't," she told him. "He's the last Uchiha. Even I know his clan's contribution to your village from the books we've gone over. They won't let him die in something like this. I'm willing to bet the moment that it looks like he's in real trouble they'll call the match and have the referee interfere to save him. That way they save his bloodline and allow an allied village to have one of their own advance without someone dying needlessly."

Even if that wasn't the case, she knew that Orochimaru wouldn't let him die. There was no way he'd risk losing one of the key objectives of his plan by happenstance. He and Naruto were guaranteed to live throughout the invasion.

"Sasuke would hate that," Naruto figured. "He wants to win, but he wants it to be on his terms. He doesn't want it handed to him."

"As long as he's alive, he'll have another chance. That's what matters." The words meant to assure him only served to drive a knife into Karin's heart as she freed her hands from his grasp. It would all be lies in the end. If she wanted him to be safe and happy, she would have gone to tell the Hokage about everything she knew and accepted the consequences.

"I guess…" His expression turned almost wistful as he shifted topics. "After that though, you'll have to leave to go back to your village, won't you?"

Don't give him false hope, whispered the voice of reason of her that lurked within her mind at the prospect of bringing up that she could stay now. That was exactly what it would be. It'll only hurt him worse in the end.

Despite that rational voice making a strong point, she continued on. "Actually, the Hokage's offered to let me become a kunoichi of the village. I planned on giving him my answer after the Finals are over."

"He did?" Naruto's eyes went wide at that, flecks hope dancing behind the blue panes into his heart. He was so easy to read.

She nodded. "That's right. Though I'm not really sure what I'll do after that. I mean, I'm sure there's some kind of housing I'll be able to stay in until I can go on missions and earn enough to get my own place. But I'll still be new here."

"That's awesome!" Naruto's smile practically beamed joy. "The village is great, and I can let you meet all of my friends, Iruka-sensei, and everyone else!"

"We can work out the details later. Right now though, we need to focus on getting ready for your match," she said. "It's getting late. Go take a shower so you can go to bed early after recharging Byakko and Suzaku. I'll finish up here."

Naruto got up to do just that, taking his night clothes with him into the bathroom and shutting the door. Karin waited until she heard the shower running before planting her elbows on the table and pressing her hands against her face. "I'm just making things worse for the both of us in the end, but how happy he looked made me feel so warm inside…."

She exhaled a ragged breath after she trailed off. In spite of every ounce of common sense she had, Karin told him the news. All because she wanted to see if she had the same effect on him that his presence had on her—being happy just knowing that other person was there for them. She wanted to see with her own eyes how happy it would make him to know she was staying and wanted him to fight with that knowledge in his heart, making her feel as though her presence would give him just as great a drive to victory as her efforts to help him.

It was a poisonous, ruinous desire considering what she had to do. But was it so wrong when she had nothing else but despair waiting for her at the end? There was no happy ending for her. No life in the sun with friends and happy neighbors like in her village before it was destroyed or what he had here.

There was only the darkness of Orochimaru's bases. There was only being surrounded by either monstrous experiments, victims begging for death, or ruthless scientists. With that waiting for her in the end, was it wrong to at least pretend that there could be a happy life with him here?

The answer wouldn't come to her no matter how long she thought on it, so Karin threw herself back into her work. She grabbed the brush she had cast aside, dipped it in the inkwell, and began to anew. By the time she was done, Naruto had finished his shower and slipped into his pajamas.

There were thirty-three in total that were usable: twenty concussive-explosives, ten regular-explosives, and three poison-storage tags. He probably wouldn't need all of them, but you could never be sure. She placed them on the nightstand where the masks, two pouches of newly sharpened kunai and shuriken, and several smoke bombs were too.

"I didn't expect there to be so many," Naruto said as he sat in a lotus position on his mattress.

"Pay attention, I don't want you using the wrong ones and hurting yourself." She pointed to the sealing script on the tags. "You can tell they're different by the script written on them but since you'll be in battle and won't have that luxury, I had the rims marked in different colors. The green ones are the concussive explosives, the red ones are the normal explosive tags, and the blue ones contain the poison. The first set won't kill him unless he's very unlucky, the second set are in case of an emergency, and when using any of the last set hold your breath so you don't breathe it in. It would be bad if you poisoned him only to end up in the same state."

He nodded. "Got it."

"Good." Karin walked over to the table and put the ink, brush, and unused blank note-tags into her bag before she slipped on her footwear. "Make sure to fill the masks before you fall asleep. I'll be here to wake you in the morning and we'll head to the stadium together."

"Have a nice night, Karin-chan," he said as a farewell when she opened the door. "See you in the morning."


Karin's night was anything other than nice when she got back to her room at the Petal Fall Inn. She couldn't sleep from the stress of everything, between Naruto's match and the invasion. There was just too much for her have to cope with and she couldn't settle her mind.

After an hour spent futilely trying to go to bed after a shower, Karin gave it up. She opened her Mind's Eye and checked to see if there were any signatures around. There were none near her, not even the usual Anbu officer that normally watched her while she slept. As if she didn't have enough to be unnerved about.

"I suppose I can just take a Soldier Pill if I need to stay awake," she said to herself. The alternative was using sleeping pills, both of which she had in her bag, but she didn't trust herself to wake up in time to see Naruto off if she did. The only question was what she would do until it was time to get him.

She looked over to her bag, where she had the blank note-tags and ink. Now that she thought about it, she never did get the chance to make one of the Barrier Tags that his tutor had shown them when they were retrieving the masks. The sealing design was still etched into her mind along with the events of that day, and even if Naruto didn't need the extras the act of creating them would bring much needed peace and clarity to her mind.

Karin crawled out of bed and went over to the nightstand where the bag was and lost herself in her work….