Note: I'm sorry for the awful delay, college was quite hectic these past months and I barely realized such a long time had gone by. But here is the final chapter of this story, at last!
But before that: thank you to all those who have been keeping an eye out for this story even despite the lack of updates, I couldn't be more grateful to you. Now, it's my turn to hope the epilogue is enjoyable enough that you will look forward to the sequel.
Maybe Next Time
The jounin looks over his shoulder only to find a redhead making her way towards him. "Yo, Karin," he greets as Karin reaches him, giving him a smile from over the top of the two grocery bags she is holding against her chest.
She has gone back to wearing her fishnet stockings and undershirt in place of bandages; Kakashi notices all this only with half-interest, his eyes lingering on her face instead. There is a band-aid on her left cheek and the shadow of a healing cut on the other, but aside from that the girl seems to be scratch-less. While he makes no effort to show it, he is glad to see Karin came back unharmed from the forest, given that Konoha's current state and his long overdue talk with Sasuke had prevented him from being able to check on her.
Granted, from what Asuma told him the girl had entirely ignored his warning to stay put at the forest entrance. Kakashi guesses that was to be expected; she is an Uzumaki, after all.
Not to mention, she did spend a lot of time with Sasuke.
Not the best of influences, huh….
"You're heading to the Sandaime's funeral, Kakashi-san?"
Kakashi blinks, not having realized how lost he got in his own musings. "Hm… you could say that." Truth is, he was on his way to the Memorial Stone to visit a deceased friend. Then again, Karin does not need to know that. "You aren't coming?"
Karin shakes her head and manages a weak smile. "My team and I thought it wouldn't be appropriate for us to attend… but we did pay our respects earlier today. The Sandaime looked like a very kind man."
"He was," Kakashi confirms, not missing the fact that for the first time since he has known her, Karin actually spoke like she has a team to belong to. "It will take Konoha a while to get over his loss…."
The white-haired man allows himself a moment of nostalgia before flickering his gaze to Karin's bags. The mood is somber enough as it is, what with the funeral and the gray-clouded sky; Kakashi won't be adding to it if he can help it.
His look has the desired effect, since Karin follows his gaze and gives a start. "Right! We may have to camp on our way back to Kusagakure, so I'm supposed to get some provisions just in case."
Kakashi blinks with surprise. With so many things happening at once, Karin's return had completely slipped his mind. "Oh, you're leaving already?"
"Yeah…" Karin nods, a rueful look in her eyes. "I'm glad I got the chance to see you before leaving, Kakashi-san… all this time I've been meaning to thank you for taking me in and giving me the chance to grow as a shinobi," she visibly lights up, her lips curling into a sheepish grin. "Heh, hadn't it been for your training, I may have died a couple of times during the invasion. So, thank you, Kakashi-san!"
Kakashi observes the grinning girl for a long moment before giving into a smile of his own. She won't be able to see it, of course; but true to her heritage, Karin is observant and perceptive like few. She will probably be able to pick it up from his body language alone.
"…You are a good girl, Karin. I'm glad to have had you as my student, even if only for a short time."
It is with amusement that he watches Karin avert her gaze to the ground, face flustered with gratitude. She is an interesting girl, and a good pupil; hard-working and cooperative. And talented… probably, much more than she gives herself credit for. As an Uzumaki, there most likely are many faculties lying asleep beneath the surface, just waiting to be explored.
Like her sensory skills. Asuma did not need to be aware of her lineage to realize just what had truly happened in the forest. And it is Karin's awakening as a sensor that confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kakashi's impressions were right all along.
If only she were in the right hands….
The possibilities are boundless, and Kakashi can't help but to feel vestiges of disappointment at the thought. It was such a pity that the invasion had to happen when it did….
It occurs to him, then, that he has grown quite fond of the girl.
Then again, he has not been the only one.
"Hm… did you already bid goodbye to Sasuke, Karin?"
To Kakashi's surprise, the girl tenses up, a pale red hue spreading across her cheeks. "Ah—about that, actually…," Karin looks away, shifting the weight of the bags in her arms. "Uh, could you do that for me, Kakashi-san?"
Kakashi ceases staring at her only long enough to blink a couple of times, finding her behavior nothing short of suspicious. Karin seems to take notice of this, because she trips over her words in a hurry to explain herself, face getting redder by the second. "It's—it's not that I don't want to see Sasuke or anything! Really! It's just—you see, we want to leave before noon, and—uh, I'm not done shopping yet, so I really need to hurry! I—It's a shame but that's how things are! So… um, could you?"
Karin visibly relaxes, oblivious to the fact that Kakashi had not bought her excuses for a second. "Thank you, Kakashi-san!"
A rustling sound catches his ears and keeps Kakashi from replying. He looks up only to catch a glimpse of an ANBU jumping through the rooftops at a swift pace, the telltale purple hair a giveaway of the place she is heading to.
… I guess Obito won't be the only one receiving visitors today, will he, Hayate?
They lost so many valuable companions in little over a month. Things were calming down now, but Kakashi is still feeling on edge.
A part of him can't help but fear this is nothing more than the calm before the storm.
When his gaze lands back on Karin, he finds that something has shifted in her features; she is looking at the ground, brow furrowed, fingers clutching the paper bags so tightly they might tear at any moment.
"…Is something the matter, Karin?"
Karin hesitates and then gives him a restless look, parting her lips—only to close them once more. "Nevermind. It's nothing, Kakashi-san," Kakashi can only watch, mystified, as she shakes her head with a thin smile. "I should be heading back. My teammates are probably wondering what's taking me so long," the smile enlarges until Karin is beaming up at him one last time, nothing but fondness to the gesture, and Kakashi doesn't have the heart to point out that she has just blown her charade.
Heh, didn't you say you weren't done shopping yet?
The redhead turns around, starting to the inn in a hurried throttle. She hasn't given more than eight steps when she's already turning to take one last look at him, beaming still. Kakashi lets his wave reply for him. It truly is a nice smile, sunny and honest.
Kakashi hopes she won't lose it any time soon.
As he watches Karin's retreating back, the fond smile creasing his own lips and eye slowly withers into a wistful expression.
And to think that, if only things hadn't gone so wrong so soon, Karin and her team would have been accompanied by Konoha scouts, her return to the village all but guaranteed. Alas, now that the Sandaime has been lost forever… Kakashi can only wonder just how much longer it will take.
The jounin can't help but sigh.
It really is a shame that Karin was not born in Konoha. Not only for her own growth, and for Naruto, but also—
…She is good to Sasuke.
Three hours later, Team 7 departs from the funeral service. It poured nearly throughout the whole ceremony, the sun only now beginning to peak through the clouds.
But that is just as well. The torrent should have been enough to push their depart, if only for a while.
He may not be able to help her when it comes to her heritage, but there was something else he could still do for them.
Kakashi waits until Naruto has said something silly enough to take Sakura's attention away from the silent Uchiha before addressing him. The aforementioned boy barely reacts at all, letting out no more than a noncommittal grunt to show he is paying attention.
Inwardly, Kakashi can't help but to smile with amusement. If Karin's reaction was anything to go by, Sasuke's apparent aloofness is about to shift, that is for certain.
"…I ran into Karin this morning."
His words are kept casual but their effect is immediate. As expected, the mention of the redhead's name is enough to make Sasuke self-consciously straighten much like Karin herself did a little over three hours ago; an odd look flashing through his profile, gone before the blink of an eye.
But it had not gone overlooked by Kakashi, who arches both eyebrows with interest. Something must have happened between them, he concludes. He can only wonder—what?
"…What about her?" Sasuke asks, nonchalantly. But his eyes are now open and he is giving Kakashi a curious, sidelong look, slowing down his pace in order to fall in step with him at the rear of the group and out of hearing rage from the other two teens.
It's almost a physical affliction to keep himself from teasing his student, but Kakashi sadly reminds himself that there is no time to waste. So it is while deliberately keeping the usual drone in his voice that Kakashi bluntly spells it out, "She is leaving today."
Sasuke's eyes widen and he nearly halts. Kakashi goes on, pretending to have taken no notice of it. "She asked me to give you her regards, so…."
Heh… if only you could look at yourself just now, Sasuke.
The white-haired man lazily looks away from the boy, pretending to be deep in thought. "Hm, I'd say… right about now?"
Sasuke's dark eyes widen an ounce more, and Kakashi has a hard time keeping the mirth off his voice as he peeks at the boy. "But you may be able to see her off if you hurry, Sasuke."
The Uchiha hesitates, a part of him probably picking up on the fact that Kakashi was carefully assessing his reaction and that if he were to go see Karin, he would only be playing into his trap. Kakashi can almost see the moment when Sasuke decides that he doesn't care, barely aiming him a moody look before jumping away towards the nearest rooftop.
"I'll be back," he mutters, but Kakashi doesn't bother to grant him a response. He just looks at the empty space where Sasuke had been standing just seconds ago and wonders, truly wonders, if during this past month his student noticed—at least once—just how oddly he has been behaving.
…Knowing him, probably not.
Little did Kakashi know, he was only half-right about that.
"Wha—there's no way a shinobi would ever want to do that, Naruto! Isn't that right, Sasu—Huh? Where's Sasuke-kun?"
The jounin offers Sakura a reassuring smile, calmly shortening the distance between him and his remaining two students.
"Sasuke had something to do… don't worry, Sakura, he'll be back soon. What were you saying, Naruto?"
"Oh, right!" The blond lights up, grinning up at him. "Hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei! Don't you think that…—?
Karin looks up at the clear sky through her fingers, shielding her eyes from the sunlight. They are lucky the weather improved before lunch-time; else they might have had to push their return back even further, which would have been no good. They are behind schedule as it is; the Daimyo will be expecting a report.
When her level stare greets the land once more, it is met by the sight of Konoha's gates coming into view.
Three steps ahead of her, Ryuu looks cheery at the prospect of going back to their village; even Kurotaro seems to be in a good mood, a certain jolt to his step as he walks by Ryuu's side. And while Karin can't deny that she is looking forward to it too, missing her home and the land and the forests, her fingers nevertheless turn white as she clutches the straps of her back-pack. Try as she may, she isn't able to hold her mind back from wandering to everything she is about to leave behind.
All the places she visited. All the things she learnt. All the kind people she met—like Kakashi and Ino and Naruto and Sakura and also—
Karin takes out a small, green bottle of ointment from her skirt's pocket, her stare blurring with wistfulness as she regards it.
…At the end, she was too much of a coward to go see him, after all.
I… guess it's for the best, huh? She thinks to herself with a slight smile, fingers closing around the ointment. I'm really awful at goodbyes.
The smile wavers. But still, I…
If she were to be honest with herself, Karin would admit that throughout the whole morning, she had hoped to bump into him whenever she rounded a corner. That it had been the only reason why she offered to buy the provisions in Ryuu's stead in the first place. That she had to make a physical effort to restrain herself from tracking his chakra. That, even though it is greedy of her, the truth is—
I guess I would have liked to see him, one last time.
She doesn't have the enough time to dwell on how that makes her feel before a voice breaks through the silence of the road.
Karin shoots up as if a bolt of lightning has just ran through her, her heartbeat increasing to a deafening beat. She is rooted in place, but that voice is unmistakable and attached to a chakra signature that she knows better than she knows her own.
It is with widened eyes that she turns back, his name leaving her lips in the form of a surprised whisper, "Sasuke…!"
Uchiha Sasuke in the flesh stood a couple of feet behind her. Hands morosely stuck in his pockets, face denoting no expression aside from casual detachment. And coal eyes set on her.
"Yo," he greets with a small nod. Karin can do nothing but blink, hardly believing her eyes.
"Oi, Karin! What's taking you so—? Oh," Ryuu trails off with realization as his gaze lands on their unexpected visitor. A few steps ahead of him, Kurotaro also looks back to see who is causing all the fuss and does a double take.
A smirk quirks up Sasuke's lips at seeing the expression in Kurotaro's face, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. "Heh, don't look so down to see me, Kurodo. I don't have time to kick your ass today… unless you ask for it, that is," he says sardonically, his smirk only widening with evident amusement as Kurotaro glares at him.
"Tch, freakin' bastard," Kurotaro scoffs, looking away at last with an airy frown. "Shut your trap for once, will you? If you came to say goodbye to her get the hell over it already, you're wasting our time!"
Ryuu hisses a warning to the older boy, flickering a cautious glance at the guards of the gate; neither were paying them any heed.
"Hn, whoever said I came to say goodbye to Karin?" It's Sasuke's turn to grunt, his eyebrow starting to twitch.
At that, Kurotaro gives the Uchiha an incredulous are-you-kidding-me brand of look while Ryuu arches both brows in puzzlement. "Huh. Then what are you doing here, man?"
"…That's none of your concern," Sasuke shoots back, gaze darkening with intent.
"W—wait a second, guys!" Karin chimes in with a sheepish look, turning to her teammates before either of them could have the chance to put their foot in their mouth again. Once their eyes are on her, she raises both hands palms-up in a pacifying gesture, "It's okay if I talk to Sasuke for a bit, right? I'll be right back!"
Kurotaro opens his mouth but the redhead does not wait for him to talk, too busy stomping over to Sasuke. She gives him a warning look before grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him even further away from the gates and her on-looking teammates.
Once she's sure they're out of Ryuu's and Kurotaro's hearing range, Karin rounds in on Sasuke. "Sasuke! How did you—?!"
"Kakashi," he states flatly, cutting her short. Then he lightly frowns, disgruntled. "You didn't tell me you were leaving today. Why?"
Karin squirms a little under his scrutiny, feeling both parts embarrassed and apologetic. "S—sorry about that, I'm just no good at goodbyes," it's a half-truth, but to her horror her mind betrays her and she can feel her cheeks warming up at the thought of what happened yesterday afternoon. Idiot! Get a hold of yourself, before he catches on! "Uh, I guess… I should thank you for coming on your own, right?"
Luckily for her, Sasuke's brow begins to twitch again and he looks off into the distance. "Hn. I told you already, I didn't come here because of that. I just want to know what you are planning to do when you get to Kusagakure."
"Huh…?" To say that Karin is quite lost would be an understatement. "What about?"
His eyes land back on her, expression back to its usual blankness. "Your training," he says it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
And knowing him, Karin figures that it probably is. She feels torn between the urge to sigh or smack her forehead. "Right," Of course you would want to ask about that. Sasuke can be so simple minded sometimes.
"I'm going to talk to the Daimyo when we give him the report. He keeps track of every shinobi jitsu in the land, so he may know of someone who can sense chakra, too… and even if he doesn't, I'll look into it in the library. There must be something about it. I'm sure of it."
There's vehemence in her words, her features hardening with resolution. She will find out about it on her own, no matter the cost; otherwise, the decision she made that morning—that Kakashi has already helped her enough. That she would find the answers on her own, learn on her own, without depending on others—would be in vain.
And Karin will not let that happen. Next time her path crosses with Kakashi's, she will show him that the time he invested in her bore its fruits.
"Hn…" Sasuke tilts his head to the side, watching her. "It's fine to hone your sensory skills, Karin, but you shouldn't stop training your body."
"I won't," she reassures with a playful smile. "Give me some credit, Sasuke. I told you we'd see each other at the next Chuunin exams, didn't I?"
Slowly, a smirk draws itself across Sasuke's lips. "Heh… are you sure they'll be able to train you enough over there? Next time you may have to fight me and I won't go easy on you, Karin."
Karin snorts and smirks back, feeling giddy with excitement and something else she does not care to name. "You better not. You can forget about us being friends if you even think of it, Uchiha Sasuke!"
Sasuke gives her an odd look in return, something shifting behind his smirk. His eyes cling to her for a moment longer, and then he looks away.
"…You can come back, if you want," he murmurs, so softly that she nearly misses it.
Karin blinks. "Huh?"
"To Konoha. When you run out of things to learn in Kusagakure," Sasuke explains, flicking his gaze to her face. Karin thinks he looks slightly embarrassed, but the change is so minute that she isn't sure if she is imagining it. "Hn, Kakashi probably won't mind."
"Sasuke…" she whispers, touched, before catching a hold of herself and perking up. "Heh, if you and your team go to Kusagakure for a mission, you should go find me! I know you like taking walks and there are lots of fields you may like over there. I can even take you sightseeing, to pay you back the favor!"
Sasuke parts his lips, but before any words could come out Kurotaro's voice carries over to them.
"Damn, Karin! Hurry up, will you? We're already running late!"
"Right, I'm coming!"
When Karin turns back to Sasuke, she finds him giving Ryuu and Kurotaro a thoughtful look.
"…Looks like you guys are getting along."
Karin grins, feeling happy at the thought despite herself. "It's ironic, isn't it? Seems like you were right, Sasuke. Kurotaro is the type to learn only after a fall, after all."
An amiable silence envelops them as they're both taken back to that afternoon spent at the Hospital, talking under the oak tree. A lifetime might as well have gone by between then and today; and yet, it felt as if it happened only yesterday.
Karin's grin slowly dissolves, until all that's left of it is a serene smile. The edges of Sasuke's self-satisfied smirk have also softened considerably, and Karin finds that her insides feel warm as she looks at the gesture.
Startled, both of them stare at each other for a long moment before Sasuke gives her a curt nod, signaling that she should go on.
Karin breathes in deeply, hardening her stare. "Sasuke, about yesterday…."
She can swear Sasuke stiffens at the words, but she forces herself to go on and not pay it any heed. "I meant what I said," she affirms, face determined; eyes boring into his until he returns her look with a surprised glance. "There may not be much I can do, but when the time comes… I will help you track Itachi. I'll definitely help you with that, at least. So if you need me… go find me, Sasuke. I'll be waiting."
It's a promise.
The boy stares at her, long and hard, yet his lips remain devoid of words. Karin does not mind. Sasuke's eyes are so expressive that he rarely needs words to accompany his gaze, and this time is no exception.
Ever so slowly, Karin's lips fondly tilt upward. She can recognize that look.
It's probably the same one she sports right then, as she takes a step back and offers him a slight bow. "For everything until now… thank you, Sasuke."
When she straightens, Karin finds that there's a new look whirling in Sasuke's eyes—one she cannot quite read. One she can't remember ever seeing before, not this clearly, not this raw. She tries to speak once, twice—but the words can't seem to come out and remain stuck in her throat, robbing her of her breath.
What… what is it? What is it, Sasuke?
For once, Sasuke seems to be as lost as she is, and it's almost too much. Her body is overcome by the same need to put some distance between them and lightheaded, Karin slowly begins to step back from him, her gaze unable to leave his.
"Karin…!" This time, it's Ryuu who breaks her trance. Karin does not hesitate; she whirls around and turns her back on Sasuke. Forces herself to snap out of it and aim one last smile at him over her shoulder.
As she runs towards her awaiting teammates, Karin's heart is beating so unexplainably fast and painfully that she can hardly breathe.
"Jeez, took you long enough!" Kurotaro scolds, arms crossed. But it's only barely that Karin registers his words or her own half-hearted apology.
Her mind seems to be stuck in that look Sasuke gave her. In that feeling that beats and reverberates inside her chest, threatening to choke her with longing.
Just having gotten to see Sasuke one more time—just the fact that he bothered to come and bid her goodbye is more than enough.
It has to be enough.
Karin firmly repeats this to herself, resisting the urge to take one last look at Sasuke as Ryuu gives her a friendly pat on the back and the three set off.
They have just walked through the gates when his voice calls her back—
And this time—this time Karin does not fight it. Karin turns back so fast that her neck cries in protest, but she can't bring herself to care.
For as her gaze lands on his and Sasuke holds her eyes with his own, raising his hand in his own nonchalant version of a wave, his lips curve up in the same smile he gave her back in the Forest of Death.
The same warm, kind smile that made Karin's heart race and her cheeks warm up.
It has the same effect, now. And Karin finds herself hypnotized by him, holding her breath and hanging by a thread as he parts his lips and—
He does not say anything else, but there's nothing Karin would have rather heard. So she stares at him during a minute that seems to stretch forever in time, taking this sight in—memorizing him, basking in the feeling of his sincere smile, before closing her eyes and grinning back at last; not trusting herself to do anything but animatedly nod in response.
Truth is, Sasuke is her precious friend.
And, truth is—while she wasn't looking, while she didn't even think of it—he probably became much, much more.
Became a feeling that made words like 'precious' and 'friend' just fall short.
Karin can't be certain—not yet, at least. But she is starting to realize that even if it scares her—terrifies her—she wants to be.
And she will be, because—
They will meet again. It's only a matter of time, that much Karin knows.
She can feel it. And something in Sasuke's smile tells her he can feel it, too.
So until then, Karin is fine with wondering if—
"…Until next time, Sasuke."
Little did they know, they would meet sooner than any of them could have possibly imagined.
...In circumstances neither could have ever expected.
- END -
It's a wrap! I think this is my first time actually posting the last chapter of a multi-chaptered fic. Shame on me.
But more than that, you guys get the title now, don't you? I actually never intended to write any outright romance in this story (hence why it's tagged a friendship/general rather than romance) because this was meant to feature solely the development of their bond, to a point where romance could and would bud naturally from it—but in the future. Aka, in the hypothetical sequel, which I'm still fleshing out.
For reading until now: thank you! And for those who have been reviewing all this time: an even greater thank you! Your encouragement and support continuously made the story evolve, to a point where what I've posted is quite different from the original draft in many ways - which is a good thing, if you ask me!
See you all next time!