Author Notes:

-=-Suppositions/Important Information-=-

Pairings: There are no yaoi pairings. There is one yuri pairing (not until later). There are several unusual pairings and they will not always be stereotypical nor will they always be 'happy'. Simply put, if you're very serious about a specific pairing being present in any romance you read, you may not find it here and should be aware of that.

Character Portrayal: Some characters will get particularly harsh treatments. Notably Sakura. Life does not continue to go well for her and if you can't handle that (as a big Sakura-fan) then you probably don't want to read this because this work reflects what the author feels would actually be going on as a result of all her recent actions.

Literary Divergence: This story takes place immediately following the events of Chapter 489 "On the Brink of World War!" of Naruto. Events preceding this are considered valid and canon for the most part (barring unforeseen prior events that the author cannot specifically recall), there are some changes that will occur, but these are changes of 'future' events and manipulation of possibility; NOT manipulation of entire events. Following Chapter 489, any events, personality reveals, character reveals, etc.; may (or may not) be changed drastically. If you cannot handle changes of immense measure, this story is not for you.

Conclusive Work: This story is intended to conclude the Naruto series in a separate fashion from the original manga/anime. As a result, this work will end in a likely VERY different fashion from Naruto.

Content is Mature: Don't like seeing characters hurt emotionally and physically? This isn't for you. Don't like death and romance? This isn't for you. Long story short, are you mature? If yes, read on. If no, find something else because I won't be pulling my punches with some harsh moments.

Omission: Some characters aren't going to be making appearances... or they'll be minor if they do. Someone like Konohamaru... probably not gonna show up much. Healing will be done off-focus when it is not plot important. I don't need (and you probably don't want me) to put in a page of healing every time someone is injured unless it is important and relevant.

Italics: These are used to generally represent a character's thoughts. They should be more or less self-explanatory.

-=-Suppositions/Important Information-=-

End Author Notes

Naruto: Spiral Heart

Chapter 1: The Red-Haired Captive

Karin was in the midst of telling her sad sop story to the interrogators when the man with the scars cut her off. Damn, the dull one was starting to buy it! she thought as the scarred one told her to stop telling a life story (and a false one at that) and to tell him about Sasuke and Kabuto. He even reprimanded the dull one who was falling for her fake tears and sobs. Well, there goes my odds of getting out of this as a victim. Now I am going to be a victim of Konoha. she chuckled in her head while her stomach grumbled. Oh well, enough with the ruse, time for the direct approach…

"Bah! Fine, but I've got conditions of my own." she said, dropping her act in under five seconds, the tears and sobs gone and a bored look covering her face. After all, what could Konoha do in comparison to what Orochimaru had threatened before? Nothing she was afraid of, that was for certain. The dull one got a look of outrage on his face at her statement and she smirked, knowing that outrage wasn't just from her audacity but from the fact that she'd made a fool him. "Conditions?" he shouted, as though the mere idea of negotiating with a captive was insanity. She rested her head on a propped-up hand on the table: "Number one, I'm starving. You give me some breaded pork and rice and then we'll talk!" The scarred one smiled, the dull one kept going irate until the scarred one waved him off, no doubt sending him to get the food much to his added humiliation.

"What else?" the scarred one said, clearly amused by the situation but with an air of confidence that showed he completely controlled the interrogation still. It daunted her a bit and she straightened her glasses, regaining her composure instead of looking bored. She'd only done that to further infuriate the dull one, but he was gone now. Hmm, what do I ask for within reason? she thought. "Okay, number two, I'm not executed or held indefinitely in a jail-cell." and again he gave that knowing and amused look. "Agreed, but you'll be held in Konoha until we've resolved the crisis or until other circumstances arise that dictate otherwise."

What the hell does that mean? she thought, but quickly shook herself out of it, must mean something to do with Sasuke, yeah, he comes from here originally. She put a finger to her lips in thought for a moment and then added, "Finally, number three, I'll be upfront with you on everything I know provided you in turn keep me protected from anyone who comes looking for me." The scarred man only gave the briefest look of being startled before his face became amused and impassive again. "Agreed then. I can't imagine them coming here just to clear up one loose end, but your safety here is assured."

Ibiki listened to her information, explaining everything she knew about Orochimaru bases, Kabuto's experiments and goals, Sasuke and his recent activities; all while chewing on the food she'd been brought. Cutting her own losses, clever girl, we could make use of that. He thought to himself, but kept quiet, a hand pressed flat against a pile of chakra paper, using a technique that was recording everything she said (or rather, the interpretations and information he needed from it) onto the paper page-by-page. He only occasionally asked for clarification or additional information, she was either giving him the most elaborately constructed lies imaginable or she was honoring her end of the agreement by being entirely honest.

She ran a hand through her red hair, always on the unkempt side to avoid mussing the smoothed side, as she spoke. She spoke at length, knowing only the quality of her information would determine how favorable the attitude she received was. She held no illusions that the scarred interrogator was bound to honor any agreements he made. The fact that he'd provided food only meant he knew his trade well; a well fed captive is far more amicable and easier to work with… and if she turned out useless, it'd probably double as a last meal or act as a reminder of what she could get if she was useful.

Either way, she didn't care. She had no loyalties to Orochimaru who was slain, or imprisoned… or something; she hadn't quite grasped completely what had happened to him the way Sasuke explained it (what little of it he had). All she knew was that her former master was out of the picture for good. As for Kabuto, well, she'd never liked him. He was almost more treacherous than Orochimaru and that wasn't an easy feat. He always skulked around in a position of nigh-invincibility. He wasn't worth being possessed as a body for Orochimaru and his knowledge and skills made him invaluable to keep around. In short, he was untouchable and Orochimaru's favorite. Two things that had combined to make him a total asshole to deal with. Of course, it didn't help that he was damned clever; he always looked at my techniques and experiments with that smirk like he'd already done all of it. She shook her head a bit and swallowed another bite of food as she kept talking.

Besides, what would the leaf do with Orochimaru and Kabuto's research and labs? Absolutely nothing. No different than giving a sword to a pacifist. She covered a chuckle with another bite of food. No, Konoha would not be using the formula to produce Cursed Seals even if they found the means. With Jugo gone there'd even be limited amounts of the necessary ingredients remaining. In short, she wasn't worried about giving up any 'super secret weaponry' because Konoha wouldn't use it. Their silly "will of fire" would keep them from using almost everything in Orochimaru's various lairs. The most they'd get is a few captives who'd probably gone insane, already escaped, or had died in their unwatched cells.

That left only one thing which she just started to talk about to the scarred man… Uchiha Sasuke. She'd left it for last, knowing full well this is what they wanted to know about most. He was probably the second biggest threat in the world at the moment, the first being his new 'mentor'. I wish I could say I felt bad about this, like it was some kind of betrayal… but it's pretty clear Sasuke doesn't care if I live or die anymore. Hell, he was ready to kill me through his friend. She shook her head sadly, not bothering to hide it behind any other gestures or acts. Lost cause. Sayonara Sasuke. She thought in her mind, writing him off from her life. Handsome and powerful weren't enough to excuse his descent into blood-filled madness and darkness. He'd started off well enough, but ever since he went to kill Danzo at the Kage Summit, he just kept getting more and more dark until there was nothing left but an abyss of murderous hatred.

Ibiki had noticed her gestures and, since his technique was recording, he was observing her more than her information. He saw her react and thought to himself: Good, she's written off her past. There's hope for her yet. and kept observing quietly. Her information was startling though: Sasuke, always a liability due to his thirst for vengeance, had turned his ire against all of Konoha according to her. That meant he'd be probing their defenses or even trying an all out attack. She also made it clear she suspected Uchiha Madara of involvement in his descent to madness. The two together, the last surviving Uchiha clan members, would be a potent foe… but thankfully she'd made it sound like Sasuke despised his 'partner' and that Sasuke was always ignoring his decisions and orders. If they don't cooperate, that's a relief, the last thing we need is them pooling their might. He could tell she was nearing the end of her tale, and so returned his attention to her and not his thoughts.

Now to see if my information was worth anything. Karin thought as her information wound to a close. "That's all I know. Take it or leave it, torture me or not, there's nothing else I can tell you." she took a deep breath, her plate long since picked clean of anything but a few soggy grains of rice, and closed her eyes while picking over the food scraps she didn't even intend to eat; waiting for sentence.

"I believe you. All of it, in fact." the scarred man said, and then stood up. "I am going to fetch someone. I've decided on the arrangement for your foreseeable future here in Konoha. No objections or it's a jail cell or the gallows. Understand? This time you're not negotiating, you're being told how it's going to happen. Whether you're happy about it or not is your only choice in the matter." He then went to the door, knocked and said: "It's Ibiki." and the door opened, letting him pass, closing behind him and locking with a loud click.

She sighed as she was left alone. This was her life now, something in Konoha… she closed her eyes, trying to extend her sensing abilities for the first time since her confinement and got a large blankness. Of course I'm in a chakra-sealed room. I should've realized. It seems they're going to put me to some use, but now what do I do? Maybe I should just be happy I'm still alive. I suppose I could try to pledge my loyalty to a ninja village, and Konoha's the best one right? Wouldn't be too bad to have a place to actually call home. Hah! Who am I kidding? Like they'd accept me! The only one who'd seemed to even give a crap I existed was that 'Naruto' guy. He was the only one who looked at me as anything other than a captive. But what was that darkness I sensed in him? It almost felt like it was… her thoughts were cut off as the door opened again. She had no idea how much time had passed, but it felt like it'd been ages, so she was happy to see anyone else at all.

Outside the room, Ibiki had approached the pink-haired girl named Haruno Sakura. He chuckled slightly while he stared at her, noting how much she'd changed since he'd overseen her first Chuunin Exam. Ah well, enough time for reminiscing later, there's business to be taken care of. "Do you know why I've called you here?" he asked her in the stern and unforgiving tone he always used. She shook her head 'no' and he continued: "It is because the girl you saved, a stray ninja by the name of Karin, is currently in our custody. Formerly of Kusagakure, she was abducted or inducted, if you wish to argue it, some time following that same Chuunin Exam into Orochimaru's service. After his death, she came to serve under Sasuke of her own volition. Now she's here and forsworn her former allegiances. Given her abilities, cooperation, and candidness, we're not going to detain, execute, or turn her back over to Kusagakure. As far as they know, she's dead. She also discarded her forehead protector ages ago, so she can't even be counted as a missing-nin since her origin only comes from our records and her stories. Likely Kusagakure considers her dead and returning her would only be a death sentence to her. A waste of resources that Konoha can't afford right now following the Pain incident and with war looming."

Sakura had listened with a puzzled face: what was Ibiki getting at? He mentioned forsworn allegiances, will she help me find Sasuke again? Sakura thought. She tried to forget the most recent encounter with him, had it not been for Kakashi and Naruto she'd probably have been killed… more than once… but she still felt that there was some way to bring Sasuke back. Naruto would be able to help her bring him back. She brought her attention back to Ibiki who continued to talk after he saw her attention return. "What do I have to do with this, sir?" Sakura asked, interrupting him.

"I was getting to that. Since you saved her life she'll be indebted to you," and since you can no doubt empathize with her better than anyone else, Ibiki thought while he paused, "and so we're putting you in charge of her. You'll watch her while we test her abilities and her information. When the higher-ups have decided what to do with her, she'll no longer be your charge; until then, however, she's going to your responsibility." Ibiki frowned when he saw the startled and disgusted look on Sakura's face. Perhaps the same obsession would make them rivals instead? Oh well, not my decision to make, this is ordered from much higher up. He put a hand on her shoulder: "I know you won't turn this down, Konoha needs you to do this. Besides, we aren't going to leave it all on you alone. She'll be forced to wear a tracking collar that'll monitor her chakra at all times. If she tries anything, we'll know where she's going and what she's doing."

Sakura shook her head violently Why me? I don't want to do this! This isn't fair, why do I have to watch over her! Sigh… guess this will at least let me find out what I need to know, her thoughts were still in a mess after recent events. She sighed again, this time aloud, and finally replied: "I accept. Let's go." She resigned herself to it, she didn't really know Ibiki, but knew that arguing with him would probably be a lost cause; and if the orders really came from higher up, then she had no chance of avoiding it anyway. Ibiki nodded his approval and opened the door to where Karin was being held.

"Oh, you're back… and…? Oh! It's you! The one who rescued me." Karin's face was impossible to read, but Sakura didn't like her tone… there was something condescending about it that she didn't understand. She frowned, but kept quiet; this was Ibiki's show for now. He approached Karin and set a small chrome collar on the table in front of her. "What's this?" the red-head asked, examining it for a moment before closing her eyes and focusing on it, opening them up a moment later again. "Oh… a tracking collar. Well, can't say I'm not familiar with that particular form of embarrassment. Everyone who serves Orochimaru wears one of these for at least a year. Yours at least look a good deal more comfortable."

Ibiki nodded and gave Sakura a nudge. "Go on, she's your charge now." Ibiki said, waiting for Karin to affix the collar to her own neck, putting it just below the collar on her coat so it remained out of sight after securing it. He added one last bit: "By the way, that collar is chakra-encoded to me. Until I've removed it, tampering won't do you any good." With that, he left, leaving the door ajar and the situation in Sakura's hands; though he was waiting right outside it, out of sight to make sure the two got along. Karin stared at the pink-haired girl for a moment and then smirked. "I get it, you're my caretaker, huh? Well, come on, I'm sure we can do proper introductions and the like outside of here. Besides, I'm sure you've got a nice cozy couch I can actually get some decent sleep on." She got up to leave the room but Sakura stepped ahead of her. "Let me lead, you don't know which way you're going." Sakura turned with a 'hmph' and led the way out. Karin just shrugged it off, no sense arguing with her over that, especially when she was right.

As they walked past, Ibiki nodded and let the pair pass, quietly observing but otherwise saying nothing. After they'd left the building, Karin stretched and yawned, despite the fact that it appeared to be noon. You lose track of time so easily underground, you'd think I'd have gotten used to it in those cave hideouts I was in before… but being able to leave whenever I wanted stopped that. She thought to herself, noting that her brief captivity and recovery had messed with her sense of time. She was tired like it was late at night, but decided not to complain, she had a better idea in mind.

"So… I could see it in you while you saved me. You like Sasuke don't you?" Karin threw the first of her barbed hooks at the pink-haired girl, trying to get a feel for her and not really minding if she stepped on some toes. Raw reactions were the most honest in her opinion. She got no response, but could see the stiffness in her 'guide'. "Hmm, 'like' isn't strong enough. Okay, so you love him. Have you two ever done anything together… like that?" she grinned, straightening her glasses with one hand and holding up her arm with the other folded across her midsection. Oh my, that got a reaction, but she's trying desperately to appear calm… Karin decided to set one last hook out there to see if she could get a better measure of her 'caretaker'. "So I take it you've been unable to convince yourself that he's not worth it anymore, even after he tried to kill you?" That got a reaction from the pink-haired girl. She spun and gripped Karin's shoulder tight enough that it felt like it was going to break. A sharp intake of breath was all Karin allowed to betray her pain to the girl she'd been tormenting. Which, I guess is kind of mean to her… but damn it, there she was crying over me about Sasuke while I lay next-to-dead in her hands. Like no one in the world could feel her pain or possibly empathize! I need to know you better than just that if I'm in your hands! The people here will probably judge me first through you! Karin winced slightly as the grip tightened just a slight bit more.

"Let's get one thing straight. I'm not doing this because I like you… Karin? Was it?" I'm doing this because you'll help me find out more about Sasuke. Sakura kept the grip on the other girl's shoulder as she continued, "I don't want any attitude from you and I don't need you trying to bait me into being switched out as your 'caretaker'. I'm not going to show I'm incompetent to every other person in the village over you." Sakura snapped, thinking inwardly that she'd already betrayed a few friends and utterly failed at what she'd betrayed them to do. Good job with that last part so far Sakura…

Karin gave a genuine and mildly embarrassed sort of smile, "Sorry. I shouldn't have pushed you. I wasn't trying to make you look incompetent, I just wanted know a bit more about you; you're looking after me after all right? I've found you get the best measure of someone when they're upset or flustered." As Suigetsu always managed to hit the nail on the head about my interest in Sasuke… "Anyone can put up an act; true emotion destroys those acts pretty quick. Also, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you anything more than what I told that scarred interrogator about Sasuke. 'Sides… you shouldn't want that anymore. I don't know your history… but he's not the Sasuke you probably knew anymore." Karin shook her head again as Sakura let her go with a 'huff' and kept walking. Oh, guess that's a sore spot for her… oh well, guess I don't blame her.

She followed quietly for a short while before quietly saying: "it is Karin, by the way." Sakura turned, taken aback slightly at the sincere tone of her voice. She seemed genuinely sorry for agitating her earlier. That's new, guess she really did mean she was just trying to get a 'feel' for me. Damned odd way to do it, but I guess being stuck under Orochimaru for a while doesn't teach you courtesy as a first priority. "Sakura," she replied, "it's Haruno Sakura… and we're almost there." Karin nodded and followed.

"Okay, Sakura, lead the way."

Naruto lay on the grass, a hill near Konoha but not anywhere near the main city where it was covered in trees and buildings. He was staring at the clouds as they passed overhead, seeing various things in them one second and not seeing them at all the next. He was lost in his own thoughts having confronted Sasuke again after such a long time. Although when compared to the years he spent training with Jiraiya it wasn't that long at all; Naruto felt like an eternity had passed since he saw him at Orochimaru's hideout. All that darkness… killing Itachi brought more problems than it solved, didn't it? He sighed loudly, he had always felt there was only a small glimmer of hope that after his revenge Sasuke would go back to normal. That glimmer was gone now, but Naruto didn't find he missed it much, that had always been a long-shot in his mind and he had seen what happened to people like Gaara and Nagato. Revenge doesn't lead anywhere, it is just the door to a world of hatred. Something I need to keep in mind if I'm going to bring about a world of peace. Of course, Naruto felt that Madara's involvement had changed everything. The masked man must've affected Sasuke a great deal, he'd been right there after the death of Itachi… who knows what he'd done with Sasuke in such a vulnerable state. But what did he do? What has Sasuke been doing, he was cold, sure, when I saw him last, but not that dark! What happened… wait-a-sec! That girl! She was with Sasuke! The one with the red hair, she traveled with him! Naruto sat upright as he had his revelation.

Yeah… she must've been with him the whole time! Then… that'd mean she could tell me what happened to him! She was even there when he killed Itachi I bet! Naruto smiled, he had a lead to follow; and, though anyone else would've considered the situation hopeless, he was always being told those were the situations he did best in. I never give up on anything and I swore I'd bring Sasuke back, I never go back on my word. Naruto smiled and got to his feet to go find Kakashi. He'd know what had happened with the girl with red hair; he'd been carrying her after all. With just a bit of luck and maybe a lot of begging, the red haired girl would tell him more about Sasuke. He wondered whether or not she'd cooperate, but knew it didn't matter… he'd keep trying and asking until she did!

His bright mood carried him along the streets of Konoha even as it was being rebuilt around him following the destruction caused by the invasion of Nagato. I'm not calling him Pain, he redeemed himself in the end and I won't forget that. he reminded himself and kept walking, unable to be depressed by the destruction anymore because he saw the vibrant life around him. He brought them all back, every last one, and I'm not gonna mourn any pile of wood or bricks! The only thing he'd worried about was the Ichiraku Ramen building, and, in light of his efforts to save the village, it had been one of the first things they'd rebuilt. Naruto was half-tempted to go and visit them but quickly shook his head. No! Gotta find Kakashi first, then ramen… and lots of it!

Naruto waited in the surprisingly undamaged Hokage's office. He'd been sent here by the first jounin he'd encountered while looking for Kakashi. For someone who'd been sitting in an uncomfortable chair waiting for the past thirty minutes he had a remarkably cheery expression. The reason for it was something he had not been aware of before arriving: Tsunade had revived. He'd only had minor details following the whole ordeal, but it'd been said she'd passed into a coma. Naruto had worried about her as much as he could spare attention to it. I've been a bit busy, hope she won't mind me stopping in to see her about… well, something she'll probably think unimportant and a fools errand. Naruto grinned and scratched the back of his head, a nervous tick when he was embarrassed or in a difficult situation. "Oh well," he said aloud since no one was in the room, "as long as she doesn't hit me I'm happy."

"Naruto?" an aide asked that had just entered.

"Yeah?" he replied, blinking twice. There are people who still don't know me here in Konoha? Or maybe that's just a thing that they always do… he stood up and walked behind the aide as he led the way to the Hokage's office. The man ushered him into the room and had barely taken three steps away from the door when Naruto came flying back out and smashed into the wall with a resounding crash. He jumped in surprise, but quickly dashed off as that could only be the work of Tsunade's fists, and he had no desire to stay and earn any of that fury himself.

So much for the not-hitting… Naruto picked himself up off the floor and dusted his shoulders, rubbing his nose to see if he was bleeding at all. He walked slowly back into the office, more wary this time. "What'd I do?" he asked, completely oblivious as to why he'd earned such a 'fond' welcome.

"Naruto. You're the Jinchuriki of the Nine-Tails… explain to me why, when I woke up, I was given reports that you'd snuck off to the Kage Summit and then pursued Sasuke after he attacked the summit?" Her anger was apparent from the twitch in the corner of her eye as she waited for an answer. Naruto carefully stepped closer.

"Because I wanted to try and stop the Raikage from attacking Sasuke, I want to handle that situation, I said I would! I never go ba-" Tsunade lunged forward, but Naruto was ready and jumped back, his sentence was still interrupted and, before he could resume it, she cut him off.

"Naruto! Akatsuki wants you alive or dead! You've clashed with them multiple times! Why would you so recklessly endanger yourself leaving the village after they've shown they are clearly using everything they've got to bring you in? Don't you have any idea the kind of danger that puts yourself, and the ninja-world, in?" Naruto hung his head slightly, but then stared back up at her with determination.

"I've beaten two of them, one who we thought was their leader for the longest time. I wasn't alone, either, Kakashi and Yamato were with me the whole time! Besides, even the thought of me being in Konoha caused its destruction! Only a miracle kept that away. I understand you want me safe and out of harm's way with that Madara guy fully active… but I can take care of myself now too and I'm not going to let anyone kill Sasuke or let anyone capture me. I'll defend Konoha and my friends!" Tsunade waited, with arms folded while he replied. She nodded once when she saw he had no intent to back down at all and turned around, facing away from him and looking out the windows.

"Good. You're still the same Naruto. Wanted to make sure whatever went on while I was… unavailable… hadn't changed you for the worse." She turned, a smile on her face for the first time since he'd seen her in a very long while. "Now, I'm sorry for hitting you, but forgive this lady for worrying about the legacy of her friend, Jiraiya. If anything were to happen to you, I'd never be able to face that pervert when I meet him again." She smirked, "…and I suppose I should give you some more credit… you did defeat Pain aftera-" she stopped, seeing the frown form on his face, "I'm sorry, you defeated Nagato." There was an awkward silence for a moment before she continued. "So, what brings Konoha's most unpredictable ninja here, of all places?"

Naruto smiled, obviously excited to share his idea: "I'm here to ask about the red-haired girl we found with Sasuke. She's got to know more about what happened on his side of things. Stuff that Ibiki wouldn't find important enough to record, but may give me some idea as to what Sasuke's been up to!"

Tsunade listened patiently and chuckled a bit. "You underestimate our intelligence division just a bit Naruto, but you raise a fair enough point and you'll have the chance you want since you probably would know more of what she says in relation to Sasuke for its significance. Currently, Karin is being looked after by Sakura."

"Karin? Oh! That's her name… wait, she was that badly hurt?" Naruto looked puzzled, interrupting Tsunade with his obvious concern.

"No no, she's fine now, but we don't want to hold her in a jail cell. We're hoping that with Sasuke so clearly having betrayed and abandoned her and with Orochimaru out of the picture that she might eventually be of some use to Konoha." Tsunade sat back down in her chair and continued, "She's an extraordinarily talented sensor type with some extra abilities we're still figuring out. She has no home to go to and no friends yet here in Konoha so she's being looked after by Sakura until she can support herself. She'll also be undergoing some examinations to determine what she can and can't do." Tsunade nodded once, "is that satisfactory? Also, yes, you can go speak to her as much as you wish, however, there's a time limit."

"Huh? A time limit?" Naruto stared, eyes narrowing as he tried to figure out what she was referring to but already disliking the sound of it.

"Yes, you and the Eight-Tails Jinchuriki are to be sequestered far out of harm's way during the coming war since you're the objective of the enemy."

"Huh! C'mon Granny, you saw me fight, I rescued you even! Don't just toss me out of danger until everything is over! How can I bring Sasuke back like that? How am I even supposed to become Hokage if I'm off in some remote hideout while everyone else fights a war!"

Tsunade let out a 'tut' of frustration and continued as though Naruto hadn't spoken, "The Eight-Tails will be teaching you how to master your own inner demon as he has complete control of his. Pa-… Nagato's Invasion should've been lesson enough on how badly you need that. Especially if you want to bring Sasuke back in any way other than a body bag or ever become a Hokage that people can trust not to go berserk." I'm being too hard on him, but he needs to hear it, it's the truth and nothing is going to change the decision anyway. It was agreed upon by more than just Konoha… if we back out now… no. We can't do that. Not before this war. We all need to work together, and that means you need to realize the importance of this; I'm sorry Naruto. She genuinely felt apologetic, it wasn't quite fair to be so blunt, but she couldn't let him too heavily ride his success regarding Pain. His partial transformation in Konoha was devastating, even with Pain's technique obliterating so much of it. It can't happen again! she thought and resolved herself not to give in or back down in front of him.

Naruto sighed and looked crestfallen. "Can't I train here?" he asked, a hopeful look appearing on his face.

"No, it'd be too dangerous. We lack the resources at the moment as well."

Again his face dropped and he nodded meekly in submission. "Alright… but… how much time do I have before I have to leave?"

Tsunade sighed loudly. Geez, looking at him you'd think I'd asked him to give up being a ninja. There's got to be something I can do… Tsunade racked her brain for a few long minutes of awkward silence as Naruto waited for an answer with patience born of sorrow. He had no desire to hear her answer anyway and so would not press her for it. "Tell you what, Naruto, if you agree to not leave Konoha… I mean not even go outside the city walls until you are ready to leave and join the Eight-Tails… then I can probably convince them to let you stay here as long as you like." She finally answered, quickly adding "within reason!" to the end to keep him from deciding to stay forever. "Probably the most I can get you is a month and even that would be pushing it."

Naruto threw a fist into the air as that familiar smile covered his face. "Thanks Granny-Tsunade!" and before she could object to the derogatory nickname, he had run over and hugged her. Surprised and somewhat confused as to how to react, Tsunade just sort of accepted it and let him run off on his merry way, glad no one had seen that. She decided afterwards that, considering she punched him, it was only fair to let that go and call it 'even'. She shuffled the paperwork on her desk, sighed once, and then set about the troublesome business of coming up with a reasonable excuse for 'detaining' Naruto slightly longer. Some false concern about a heroism festival or feast-thing to honor him for Pain's invasion as well as some bullcrap about the seal needing to be restored to full strength prior to his jinchuriki training aught to do it.

There was a bit of a spring in Naruto's step as he traveled along the streets of Konoha once more. He was happy he didn't have to leave quite so soon. He had, after all, just gotten back from the Kage Summit and from his sage training. He'd spent more time away from Konoha than he had near it recently and it was starting to wear on him. He walked in a leaned back posture with his hands behind his head. Noooow I can get ramen! He smiled broadly, people waving happily and kids pointing excitedly at him only for their parents to drag them along with a smile. Not even five years ago everything was so different… I remember when they pointed in hatred at me. Now I'm a hero to them. Naruto felt something bitter about that and his smile and easy-going posture vanished as he kept walking, he couldn't understand what it was, but something felt wrong about it all. He shook his head, he'd worry about that later. For now there was ramen and then off to Sakura's place to talk to this 'Karin' girl.

Other thoughts drifted in and out his head while he ate quietly, things like controlling the nine-tails and what the future held. What was the Eight-Tails like? Was he like Gaara? Naruto continued to wonder throughout his meal. Not long after he'd finished and was on his way did another ninja approach him. "Hey, you're Naruto right? The hero of the invasion right?"

"Uh… yeah." he was a bit taken aback by what appeared to be a fan.

"Here, sign this would you? It's for my kid. He wants to be a great ninja like you one day."

"Umm…" Naruto was confused, this was someone who had no doubt hated him and told his son not to even ask who Naruto was… and now he wanted an autograph. Why does this bother me so much? I don't want to do this right now… maybe when I've sorted this business with Karin out. "I'm sorry, can it wait just a bit? I've got to go take care of something right away, I'll get back to you on it I promise." and he ran off without waiting for a reply or looking behind him. Why did I do that? All he wanted was for me to sign something to his kid… but…

Naruto shook the thoughts from his head. He'd sort that out after the matters at hand, but for right now, he had finally reached Sakura's home. As he approached he heard a loud crash and yelling. Worried that the girl was attacking Sakura, Naruto quickly opened the door and barged in. He was in a small hallway, a door to the right at the foot of some stairs and a small kitchen at the far end of the hall running alongside the stairs. "Sakura?" he asked tentatively, and heard a surprised yelp and she suddenly came into view from the nearby room on the right, her face red and clearly she was flustered about something. "Oh. Naruto. What're you doing here?"

"Uh… are you okay? I heard some loud noises and thought there might be trouble." Naruto was suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the fact that he was in Sakura's home uninvited and had let himself in. He blushed slightly but decided not to bring it up. If she hasn't noticed, I'm in no hurry to point it out! and when she was about to start talking he added: "It's okay, I know that Karin girl is here too, you don't need to explain it, Granny-Tsunade already filled me in."

"Oh, well that's good… but Naruto you really shouldn't call her that. She's the Hokage after all." Sakura's frustration seemed to ebbing away, and Naruto was glad of that, but he was still curious as to what was going on and the awkward silence reminded Sakura he'd asked her a question. "Anyways, yeah, I'm fine. She's just being… well, to put it nicely: difficult."

Just then the red haired girl stepped out of the same room, roughly past Sakura as though establishing some kind of pecking-order. "It's just Karin ya know. Not 'That Karin Girl'. And I am not being difficult, you're just being stubborn!" She had rounded on Sakura and the two were face to face. Quickly the red color returned to Sakura's face as she got more flustered once again. Naruto just stared as the two resumed arguing, something about Karin being offensive and insensitive, something about Sakura being obsessive. Naruto tried to talk a few times unsuccessfully before pausing to think.

Oh jeez, what have I gotten myself into here. Maybe I should just try to sneak out… replacement jutsu can be used for that right? He shook his head, he'd come here for a reason after all. The best I can do now is just try to figure out what's going on and smooth it over. "Um, don't mind me?" he said, idly scratching the back of his head nervously as he tried to get their attention.

The red-haired girl in the glasses turned back to him. "I don't. She's the one I mind. She keeps acting like I'm some kind of villain because I spent more time with Sasuke recently than she did. Like it is some kind of 'time equals relationship' nonsense." She said it so matter-of-factly that Naruto was a little confused as to the harshness of the statement.

"I did not! I was only saying that I knew him before you did and that you only knew him after Orochimaru poisoned his mind!" Sakura blurted out angrily.

"I keep telling you sweety, I saw him when he first arrived. He was badly beaten up, barely pulled himself in. Your handiwork I hear, Naruto, so don't feel bad, he barely won at all. I was put in charge of taking care of him from the moment he got there and let me tell you: he only changed recently. No matter what you want to argue, he's only recently become the Sasuke you claim you don't know." She folded her arms and straightened her glasses. Running a hand through the unkempt side of her red hair which Naruto observed was completely brushed and smooth on the other side. Huh, interesting style, but it's neat. It's her own thing and she's not afraid to do it. I like that. He snapped himself back to focusing on the argument as Sakura shouted.

"He was not! You don't know him at all! You don't understand anything he went through! I'll… We'll bring him back to Konoha, right Naruto?" she shouted, tears welling up in her eyes. Naruto started to answer but Karin cut him off before he could speak. He just went back to staring at the two of them, taking in the details of Karin while she wasn't half-dead on Kakashi's back.

"Listen Sakura, he doesn't want to come back unless it's to kill every man, woman, and child here. I saw everything that happened from where you left me and I'm a sensor so I didn't even need my eyes to tell me. You tried to kill him but lost the nerve, so you're just gonna have to own up to the fact that you don't know him at all, and maybe never did." Karin was frowning at this point, it was obvious she didn't like what she was saying one bit but felt compelled to say it anyway. Naruto could read in her expressions a feeling he knew all too well… resignation to a bitter and cruel truth. She had given up on Sasuke and was trying to convince Sakura to do the same thing. He was slightly repulsed and slightly touched by her efforts; there was genuine sincerity in her words and she meant well but they were rough and lacked any gentleness or sympathy.

Sakura opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. She repeated this nearly three times as the tears tumbled down her face and dripped onto the balled up fists she held in front of her as if to defend herself from the words. After another few seconds, Karin started to talk again but Sakura just shouted over her: "Shut up! It's not true!" and turned and ran up the stairs to her own room, unsuccessfully trying to avoid crying until after the door slammed shut. Naruto had a hand half reached in a feeble effort to stop her, and saw Karin had done the same. They both looked sort of nervously at each other and then lowered their hands. "She's… not doing well about all that… is she?" Karin asked and took off her glasses to clean them.

Naruto simply stared at her dark crimson eyes. Those would be something that pervy old sage would tell me are a 'rare and delicious beauty'. Of course… he said that for just about any girl with a good figure. "Ahem", she cleared her throat. Snapping back to focus on actually talking to her instead of staring, Naruto resumed scratching the back of his head. "Ya know she isn't… you don't need to ask me that. Then again, I don't think any of us are. His situation is a difficult one. It's only recently that I really understand it. Before then I wasn't handling it well either… but now… now I think I've got it." He nodded, more to himself than anyone.

She stared back at him, taking in his features, actually getting a chance to look at him while he wasn't a sickly green color after being poisoned by a friendly kunai. He's so different from Sasuke. His features are bright, just like his chakra… and he actually smiles with warmth. That's a nice change of pace. I haven't seen a warm smile in years. "umm…" She heard and snapped back to attention herself, realizing she'd been staring at him. "Well, I'm glad you've got an idea about it in your head. Personally, I've never seen anyone so deep in their darkness, and I've worked under the worst."

"I heard about that… Orochimaru must've been a terrible boss." Naruto mumbled.

"He had his moments… but don't they all? I imagine that Tsunade isn't much better at times. At least Orochimaru can't punch through a solid stone wall." She smirked as he involuntarily rubbed his nose at the memory of being punched. So I was right! It was the Hokage's chakra I felt earlier and she was hitting something that turns out to be him. Ahhh that's how he found out about me. Karin quickly pieced the situation together in her mind and watched as Naruto nodded embarrassedly.

"Well, you've got me there. I suppose you get used to most things after enough dealing with it." Naruto gestured with a hand, implying they talk elsewhere than the bottom of the stairs but Karin could tell it was more 'away from Sakura' than it being an 'awkward location'. He had a strange look on his face and she idly wondered what it was that he thought of Sakura. Something had happened between the two of them and she didn't know what, but it was a concern for later. She simply nodded, tucking away that information and curiosity in her mind for later, and walked out the front door, still open from when Naruto had come in to 'help'.

"So what are you here to talk to me for?" she asked, walking with an air of complete confidence as though she had summoned him to speak to her. Naruto followed, oblivious to her sauntering posture.

"Well, I wanted to talk to you about Sasuke." he said after closing the door behind him and looking up to make sure the windows above him were closed and didn't have Sakura staring out of them. Probably not the best thing that she hears me talking about him too much. Not after what just happened and how she's been about all that lately.

"Damn, you sure don't beat around the bush do you?" she replied but took a seat on a nearby bench across the street. When he stood and stared at her, waiting for a reply still, she smiled. He's a little slower than Sasuke, but I can see why he's popular. Endearing in a sort of puppy-like way. "Over here stupid. I'm not gonna shout across the street at you." and she patted the bench.

Naruto shrugged and walked over, sitting on the opposite side with a flump and kicking his legs out. "So, wanna talk about Sasuke or no? And don't worry, I'm not like Ibiki or any of them, I just want to hear your tale told by you. I've known Sasuke ever since I became a Genin, and I was in the same team with him. I've also spent the better part of 3 years chasing after him…" he leaned back and stared at the clouds. "I just want to hear what he's up to. Maybe then I can understand what's been going on with his side of things."

"Hmmm" she mused for a moment, stalling while she considered whether or not to actually tell her own version of things as opposed to the hard-facts version she'd fed the scarred interrogator who she decided had to be 'Ibiki'. He's straightforward about it. He also has an air of acceptance around him. She closed her eyes and let her senses expand slightly too: His chakra isn't reacting violently either so he's not bracing himself to be upset by the news. Huh… I guess he's actually resolved about all of this and just trying to prepare and understand as best he can. Admirable… she opened her eyes with a start just as a darkness threatened her senses again. What is that? What on Earth do I keep sensing in him?

"Karin? Are you alright?" she realized he'd seen her startle and quickly composed herself.

"I'm fine, just getting used to this new place, so many different smells, sounds, and sights." she sighed. I hope he buys that I wasn't sensing him…

"Karin, that's silly, you had your eyes closed. Smells and sounds maybe, but sights?" Naruto chuckled as he said it and then started laughing outright after he'd finished. For all her effort to be angry at the lame pun, Karin found herself giggling too. It was silly but direct and honest. He hadn't found her out, but her excuse had been poorly worded she had to admit… and his laugher was contagious. And… he's got a nice laugh. As the laughter subsided, she stared at him and smiled.

"Okay, it all starts about three years ago." and she began to tell her story in earnest.

Elsewhere, Sakura lay facedown on her bed, limp and immobile aside from the occasional sob that shook her body. She had nothing left to cry with, drifting between being asleep and being awake. Both places her mind focused on the same thing: Sasuke. She tried not to think of all the recent events and news surrounding him but it came unbidden to her mind. Attacked the Kage Summit… murdered Danzo… was about to murder his ally… tried to murder me… tried to murder Kakashi… nearly murdered me after I failed… tried to murder Naruto. She groaned and sobbed again. It kept coming back to those same things. Murderer, killer, madman, lunatic! Sasuke what happened to you! Why isn't anything enough? she hugged her pillow, still crying into it, the thing was ruined and would need to be washed for all the tears in it now.

Nearly ten minutes later the only thing that had changed was now she was sitting upright, head hung as she held the old Team 7 photo. "Sasuke…" she whispered and again tried to write him off in her mind unsuccessfully. He's gone! He's not coming back! He doesn't want you or even care if you live! Nothing you can do can possibly hope to save him! You saw how he stared through you like you weren't even there! Your efforts are even going to get your friends killed! she whimpered, the cruel truth of the matter sent a fresh wave of tears falling onto the glass of the picture frame.

A few tear-filled minutes later and Sakura had set the frame down on the floor. "I'm… I'm… I'm…" she whimpered, trying to nerve herself for what she was about to do. No! Don't back down now! You know what you have to do! Cast aside everything about 'him'. 'He' doesn't exist anymore! Just do your best to help your real friends take him down! If you keep this up you'll get them killed and then he'll kill you! she shook her head, hands clenched in her hair. "I'm sorry Sasuke!" she shouted and drove a chakra-filled heel-kick into the picture on the floor.

The frame smashed apart, the glass was crushed into dust, and the jagged chakra of her teary-state dissolved the photograph. It was done. The Team 7 photograph was gone. She stood up and wiped the tears off her face, straightened and brushed her hair and then left the room, muttering to herself as she went: "Naruto… I won't let you die with him, Konoha needs you." She didn't even bother to clean up the dusty remains of the photo. It didn't matter anymore. It was only a memory, and one she had no intention of recalling ever again.

For all his simplicities, Karin had to admit, there was no audience like Naruto. His openness and directness meant he laughed at the right times (although the ones at her own inconvenience only took two instances of menacing growls before he learned to keep his reaction at those to a light chuckle), he stayed quiet at the right times, and he knew when to press for more details or let certain details slide. All in all, by the time Karin had finished she had told her tale with such enthusiasm that she felt a little embarrassed concluding it with: "And then you came in."

"Mmm" was his only reply, a noise of affirmation before he continued, "Yeah, thank you. That was interesting and pretty much confirmed my guesses about how things happened. Although that Jugo guy sounds pretty tough to handle! For all the bad stuff about it, I guess Sasuke's 'killing intent' you called it had a really good effect huh?"

Karin stared at the sky, leaned back now as she'd seen Naruto do before. Surprisingly, it was uncomfortable in numerous ways, but the view of the clouds was too good to pass up and more than compensated for the discomfort. Huh… hadn't thought about it that way. I guess I was too busy going all mushy over how 'cool' he was, but Naruto is right. Jugo was much better at controlling himself after only a short while with Sasuke. She turned and stared at him while he stared up, Naruto having adopted the same position of staring at clouds.

"That Suigetsu guy though, sounds like a total pain. I know a guy like him, always posturing and trying to get ahead of himself. Though he's reliable in a pinch. Yeah, gotta give them credit on that one. Even the real annoying ones can't help but show their true colors from time to time… and they're always bright colors." he smiled and again Karin found herself fascinated by his optimism and perspective. He could find the silver lining of the storm-cloud that just blew apart his house. She stared but then asked, "Who was it?"

"What?" he seemed to have been lost in his own memories for a moment.

"The guy like Suigetsu." she replied.

"Oh… well…" and he proceeded to explain to her all about Kiba Inuzuka. Starting first with his fight in the Chuunin Exams, then talking about the failed rescue attempt of Sasuke (filling in what he'd heard about Kiba's ordeal during it), then talking about how Kiba had tried to deal with Madara and his "epic failure" when Madara dodged his attack with one slow step of the way. He also talked about how Kiba was always trying to look tough but frequently wound up in positions that made him look foolish. Karin had laughed at how Naruto had defeated Kiba and at how Madara had dodged him.

"You're right. That's just like Suigetsu. He really saved us against the Eight-Tails. Without him we'd have been done for." She found she missed Jugo and well… wished she could send a postcard to Suigetsu… with no return address. She giggled, "You're not what I expected, you know?"


"Well, Sasuke did talk about you from time to time. Always talking about how much you annoyed him and how you always managed to get stronger in a haphazard kind of way. He always made it sound like you were one of the most difficult people to stomach being around. The more I think about it and the more I talk to you, the more I realize that's just how Sasuke thought of everyone." She sat up and straightened her glasses again, they'd started to slip in her leaned back posture. When she turned and looked she saw Naruto was sitting hunched over and had a very serious expression that kind of unnerved her.

"Karin… I'll bring him back. For Sakura, for Kakashi, for everyone in Konoha and for you too. I'll bring him back. I gave my word and I never go back on it. That's my ninja way. I know you heard me tell him that when we fought we'd both die. Well… I mean it. If I can't bring him back, I'll give my life to make sure he doesn't hurt anyone else. If I can't save even one dear friend then I don't deserve to stick around anyway… least of all become Hokage. I'll show everyone in the world that revenge and hatred can be stopped, and then the peace, the dream of too many dear people," his eyes started to tear up slightly, "and my own dream too… will be a reality. I won't let them down. I'll put an end to this cycle of hatred, and I'll start with Sasuke." He had said it with such intensity that Karin hadn't even blinked or noticed her glasses slipping. She was awestruck by his determination and his charisma. He wiped away the wetness in his eyes and stared upward again without leaning back.

This is someone who can lead… people will follow that kind of determination anywhere. There's so much more to you than you let on, Naruto. She smiled and could feel the overwhelmingly warm and positive chakra pouring off of him. She didn't have to close her eyes or focus to sense it, but decided to do it anyway to let it warm her soul even more than it already did. When she focused on him though, that terrible darkness again was there. This time, she stared at it for a moment until she 'felt' it roar. It was a primal, terrifying roar full of hatred and destruction like she'd never felt before… except once. It was nearly the same as Sasuke's chakra when he'd fully awakened that awful power of his when fighting his old teacher, that brief surge of absolute evil. The only difference was that this felt more wild, more unfocused. Whereas Sasuke was pure darkness and evil, this felt more of rage and hatred.

She opened her eyes and looked away, a perplexed look on her face as she thought long and hard. What is that? Does he have the same evil potential as Sasuke? Could he possibly go down that path as well? Is that what is waiting if he fails to save his friend? Naruto… has Sasuke's darkness infected you…? She resolved herself to keep monitoring him. If anything, she owed it to the first person to be genuinely nice to her since she'd been brought to Konoha.

Nearly a week had passed since she arrived in Konoha. Karin had decided that she liked it here, though originally claiming to have not been given much of a choice. Naruto had been the one to break that excuse apart quickly by asking: "Well, where would you go if you could choose?" When her answer had inevitably (after much stalling) been 'nowhere', Naruto had coaxed it out of her to admit she liked the place.

He had been with her for much of the week, showing her around, taking her to eat ramen too many times, and introducing her to people. At first she'd complained, but when she realized that getting a friendly introduction from the local hero would ease the process of making friends, she had relented. A lot of Naruto's friends welcomed her with the phrase: "A friend of Naruto's is a friend of ours… after we get to know you better." It had made her giggle. Apparently they trusted Naruto's instinct more than his wisdom and intelligence. Which was, in her opinion, fair enough.

Meeting Kiba had been interesting, she'd had to watch herself very carefully. Naruto had been quick to remind her that he, like Suigetsu, probably wouldn't handle it well if he knew Naruto had talked about him in a favorable-yet-unfavorable way. Naruto had also wanted to introduce her to a friend named Neji Hyuga but had decided against it at the last moment. When she'd asked him why, he'd argued that a noble family probably wouldn't want to associate with someone who was technically a captive. She could tell he was covering something up, but his reason wasn't any less valid so she accepted it for now. The most confusing of Naruto's friends was Sai. After calling her "two-hair" which she didn't get was his attempt a nickname, Naruto was forced to intercede and explain more about Sai. Oddly enough, right in front of Sai; in fact, Sai had helped in the explanation. It was a very weird encounter, but she decided she liked Sai. He was interesting and she sympathized with his past. She hoped to be good friends with him one day which had made Naruto very happy because he admitted he wanted Sai to make more friends.

All in all, Karin found herself enjoying Konoha more and more. This was what she'd been missing all those years without ever realizing it. An actual life… not always on the run from someone or something. Not always under the watchful eyes of cruel superiors or being stared up at by eyes begging for mercy she could never grant. Control of her life was back in her hands… mostly.

Those were the two things she disliked about Konoha… her caretaker and the fact that she apparently still needed one. Sakura wasn't a bad person by any stretch of the imagination, but she bothered Karin. She was in denial about herself and kept switching her personality around. She didn't know what Sakura's relationship had been like with Sasuke, but it had scarred her badly. The other girl Naruto had introduced her to, Ino, seemed to have gone through the same thing; but accepted that it was just a girlish crush and gotten over it. She even hinted that she had developed a new love interest that she wouldn't divulge. Sakura, on the other hand had drifted into the realm of obsession and couldn't find her way back; even refusing any help in doing so.

It was hard to live under the supposedly necessary conditions of staying with Sakura. Even though in recent days she'd gotten better… it was a 'creepy better'. Lately it was like Sasuke had never been her friend and it unnerved Karin. Every time she mentioned the name, Sakura flew into a rage about him being a missing-nin that should be brought to justice. All the same, she had decided early on to stop trying to analyze or help Sakura. The more she probed and tried to help, the more Sakura behaved strangely.

Karin also had long since grown tired of explaining the collar that everyone eventually found out about despite her hiding it under her clothes as best she could. She decided Konoha was her home now, and was sitting in the ramen stand Naruto liked so much when she decided it was time to do something about the collar.

"You like it here too huh?" a male voice said from behind her, just now entering the ramen stand. She spun in her chair and saw a brown-haired man with a ponytail and a large scar across the bridge of his nose walk in. She stared at him for a moment before he held out a hand. "Iruka Umino." he said as she awkwardly shook his hand in a very unfeminine gesture while he continued talking, "And don't try to hide it. I can see the 'Naruto-Effect' all over you. You hated this place at first right? Now you find you like it and can't stay away. Don't worry, you aren't the first person he's done it to. Though, don't tell anybody, but I did it to him!" he laughed while the chefs nodded knowingly. Apparently the "Naruto-Effect" wasn't an unfamiliar concept to them either.

She smiled, despite his somewhat blunt nature, he seemed to be a very good judge of character. And damn it, he's right, I visit this place a lot now. Well, might as well ask him since he's clearly a ninja here in Konoha, maybe a jounin? She drew a deep breath as he sat next to her. "I don't suppose you could tell me more about Naruto…" Crap! That's not what I'm asking about! she quickly amended her statement before he could reply, the surprise in him evident about her question, "but more importantly, I don't suppose there's any way I can stop wearing this collar?"

He grinned. "Well, I'll answer the more important question first then, shall I?"

What does the future of Karin's life in Konoha hold? Iruka holds the answers!

Naruto: Spiral Heart - No.1/END