A/N: Seeing as there's been some confusion about this, let me go over this now: Karin is a canon character. She is one of Sasuke's new teammates in Shippuden. Both her status as an Uzumaki and her meeting with Sasuke in the forest have been revealed in the manga. All I changed was that Sasuke decided to bring her back instead of just killing the boar and leaving her there with the corpses of her dead teammates.

Also, my version of the Mera-Mera no Mi is obviously AU, in case you've been tracking the manga, since I decided that it was a Deglet Noor. The inclusion was written prior to its inclusion in the canon storyline, however, so I feel that I don't need to go back and change that minor detail unless you guys really want me to. It wouldn't be that big of a change to implement, but first I'd have to figure out what kind of fruit it's actually supposed to be in canon. 'Cause that thing looks like a giant, bloated raspberry that someone just randomly decided to set on fire.

o.o.o.o.o

They were so quiet.

Sakura was worried about them, but Karin, her arm bandaged along the cut they had used to draw blood, had assured her that they would wake up soon. Moreover, the healing properties in Karin's blood, and the girl's very chakra, would prevent infection from setting in with any one of them, even Karin herself.

Still, the marking on Sasuke's shoulder was worrying. Sakura had asked Karin if she could sense anything from it, and the girl had just gotten very quiet for a few seconds, and then admitted that there was a chakra emanating from it like slick oil, dark and slimy. Sakura hadn't asked more after that, not wanting to know.

Sakura was the only one awake at the moment, right here in the dark. She and Karin had agreed to take watch in turns and wake each other up if an enemy appeared. Sakura wasn't optimistic regarding their chances if another team showed up and the boys stayed down. She wasn't one of the team's heavy hitters, and Karin had already established herself as a support type, not a fighter. Their best chance in that case would probably be to just hand over one of their scrolls (they had three now; they'd started with a heaven scroll, and won an earth scroll from a Kumo team early on, and Karin's team had had an earth as well). Their spare earth scroll would be easy to hand over and treat as though it was their original, right?

A small, muffled noise drew her attention, and she spun around, kunai already out and poised to throw as another hand was held over her weapons pouch for more.

The noise came again, and she relaxed as she realized what it was.

"S-Sakura-ch-chan?"

"Naruto?" She came closer, a relieved smile on her face. Naruto was awake! He was still a little weak and groggy, but if a fight came their way, then at least she had some backup beyond Karin.

"My chakra feels weird…" With his face screwed up in concentration like that, Naruto was almost cute, in the same way as a small child.

"It'll be fine, Naruto. Orochimaru did something to your stomach, and Karin-chan thinks that whatever it was might have interfered with your seal, because when she concentrated, the chakra from it felt really muffled or something, and she said she could barely sense it." Sakura whispered, rattling off the information that the sensor had given her.

Naruto frowned at that, but sighed, and wriggled around on the ground a little to get more comfortable. "Okay, Sakura-chan. But it feels really jumpy. Like… like it's going up and down a lot."

Sakura bit her lip, but had no real answer. "I don't know. You'll probably have to ask Karin when she takes watch, if you're still awake then."

"M'kay, Sakura-chan…" Naruto closed his eyes and curled up slightly, already going back to sleep.

Sakura shook her head, but still smiled a little as she went back to take watch. Even if Naruto wasn't okay right now, he would be. He was recovering already.

o.o.o.o.o

Sakura woke up to a small rock hitting her back and a clash of metal. She swiftly got up, taking care to not get tangled in her sheets, and pulled out a kunai. Good thing she did, too, seeing as there was someone attacking her only half a second later.

Wait… she recognized this guy. He was the same one that had attacked the guy with the glasses in the waiting area, Kabuto or whoever.

She'd have to watch out for whatever it was that he did with his arms. Those weird metal circles did something, and she wasn't quite sure what.

Sakura kicked a rock, sending it in the boys' direction and hoping that one of them would wake up. Karin, she noticed, was fighting a girl that used genjutsu, but was, while not quite immune, good enough at manipulating her chakra internally that the illusions had trouble taking root and holding on. At least that was one thing on their side.

Sakura winced as she moved backward to avoid the brunt of the sound-based attack sent her way. It was impossible to avoid, but it weakened over distance, at least. Sounds always did, even the nasty ones.

"Pink hair, really?" The boy snorted. "You're a disgrace to shinobi."

Sakura narrowed her eyes, but was distracted by a shout that gave her a sudden rush of hope.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Naruto's yell echoed across the clearing, and Sakura noticed with a fierce rush of glee that the other male member of the Oto team was being soundly thrashed.

Of course, that was when her attention was brought back to her own fight. Thankfully, knowing that she had backup only made her more confident in her odds. As the boy turned his attention back to her and away from the mess of orange, he was met with a fist heading toward his face from an angry pinkette.

"Shannaro!" Sakura barked, her smile more animal than human.

With Naruto's help, they sent the Oto team packing.

o.o.o.o.o

Two days later, Robin's eyes flew open, and she quickly turned her head to face one of the chunin assigned to deal with incoming teams.

"North end, two incoming teams."

"Village?"

"Both Konoha."

"Do you know their sensei?"

"Hatake Kakashi and Yuuhi Kurenai."

"Any oddities?"

"There's a young kunoichi from Kusa traveling with them, but she does not appear to have any teammates."

"Thank you, Nico-san. We'll send someone now."

Robin nodded and turned back to her job.

o.o.o.o.o

Kakashi blinked down at his students, frowning at the fact that they seemed to have multiplied while he was gone. Well, that was an exaggeration. There was only one extra person, a girl from Kusagakure that seemed to be clinging to them like a burr.

"Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke. I'm glad to see that you all made it through alright. But why don't you introduce me to your new friend?" Kakashi eye-smiled down at them, his tone just slightly warning.

"This is Karin." Sasuke took the lead with the explanation, garnering a dirty look from Naruto, dirtier than normal. Sasuke's explanation was frank and, at first glance, rather tactless. "Her teammates were killed by a giant boar in the forest, but I managed to step in and kill it before it finished the job."

Sasuke, your sense of discretion continues to amaze us all.

Naruto glared at Sasuke even harder and stepped closer to Karin, bumping his shoulder against her in what was probably meant to be a comforting manner. Kakashi noticed this, being a Jounin, and waved at it with one hand. "And why is Naruto so… protective?"

"Um…" Naruto seemed to be having trouble articulating, while Karin herself seemed to be in a bit of a funk after Sasuke's less-than-sensitive words.

"She's an Uzumaki!" Sakura blurted out, and Kakashi took a step back as though thrown by the force of her words.

"Huh…" Kakashi mused, trying not to appear surprised. "I thought the Uzumaki were all dead except Naruto."

o.o.o.o.o

Preliminaries. There were preliminaries.

Now that just wasn't fair.

Of course, this was only the genin's thoughts on the matter. Quite frankly, the preliminaries were neither fair nor unfair; they just were. Of course, to the genin that had just left the Forest of Death, barely escaping with their lives, this was just ridiculous. They were tired, hungry, and in many cases wounded.

Only two teams had gotten to the tower early enough to rest up decently, and neither of them actually needed it.

Naruto glanced around at the teams that had made it in. All the rookies, and that weird spandex team, had made it through. The Oto team had too, as did the two creepy teams, the Suna team and the mercenaries. That was it though… except for Karin. Karin was there too, though she wasn't allowed to participate since her teammates hadn't made it through the Forest alive.

Kakashi approached them after speaking with the Hokage (hey, jii-san was here!), and waved a hand to his teammates, motioning for Karin to stay by Robin.

"Listen, I want both of you," he pointed to the boys, "to come with me immediately after your matches are over, alright? The sooner we fix up those seals you got hit with, the better off you'll be."

Naruto nodded, and then hesitantly asked a question that had been bothering him since a few hours after he'd gotten in to the tower.

"Sensei…?" He waited for Kakashi's attention, and then continued. "Haku and Zabuza said they'd be helping out here to secure trust from Konoha, but I haven't seen them anywhere, so…" He trailed off, not quite sure where he was going with his sentence.

Kakashi was silent for a few moments, and then sighed. "Don't worry yourself about it now. I'll tell you after all your matches are over." Seeing the looks on their faces, he added on a little more. "Don't worry, neither of them is dead."

There was a wave of relief that swept over the team at that statement, and Kakashi couldn't help but reach over and ruffle Sakura's hair. "Come on, my cute little genin. How about you show those teams what you're made of?"

Naruto grinned up at him widely, ready for anything. Sakura's smile was a little more hesitant, but she nodded. Sasuke, as usual, just smirked, but there was a warmth in it that calmed Kakashi down from his worry that the boy was being affected by Orochimaru's cursed seal.

"Alright, now go kick some butt, kids."

o.o.o.o.o

The electronic scoreboard spun, spun, spun, and then it landed on the first name.

Gaara

It spun some more…

vs.

And landed on the second name.

Yamanaka Ino.

There was silence in the room as one combatant appeared in the middle of the room in a silent swirl of sand, and the other walked down with soft footsteps and a trembling body.

Oops.

Let the games begin, darlings.

Let the games begin.

o.o.o.o.o

A/N: I should have kept writing. There was so much more left to cover before hitting the desired word count… but you have to admit that I left you with a really good cliffhanger. I've been planning this fight for months, now. It's going to be a good one. Will the fight itself be a good one? No idea. Will the aftermath be interesting? Of course it will be. This story is all about interpersonal relationships, not action, after all.

Ja ne,

Phoenix.