~Author's Note – Essential to Understanding this Fanfiction~
This fanfiction explores what might have happened between Sasuke and Karin before the formation of Team Hebi, then picks up in the present day. Readers should take note of the following information from the Third Naruto Databook about Karin: "Once in a village* wiped out by war, there was a young girl, all alone and totally unscathed. 'She could tell lots of people were coming.' Which prompted Orochimaru into inviting Karin to the Hidden Sound village... She's served Oto (the Sound) ever since, thanks to her honed perception ability, and her clear head. But even as Orochimaru's underling, Karin feels no obligation towards him. Karin still fulfills her duties out of affection for Uchiha Sasuke." (*"Village" here means "A normal village, not a shinobi housing facility.")
The crowns of the trees blocked out any daylight unfiltered by the deep viridian green of the surrounding Forest of Death. Karin panted, clutching at a stitch in her side, her arms slick with a sweat that made the chill forest even colder.
She wasn't surprised they'd left her alone. The three of them had never been close, what with her being so quiet and timid. She had few skills in ninjutsu and taijutsu, though her skills as a Sensor were unparalleled in her village. They probably figured she'd be useless in a fight to retrieve a Scroll of Heaven if she couldn't adequately defend herself, so they left her behind. They didn't hate her. Things would just be more efficient this way.
But they had entrusted her with the Scroll of Earth, so she had to hold onto it. If she wasn't strong enough to take the Scroll of Heaven from another team by force, she could at least do that.
She was leaning against the bole of an enormous tree at the foot of which she had stopped to catch her breath when she was set upon by an enormous bear.
"Guys! Where are you?" she called out to her team. She recalled that when you're confronted by a bear, you should seek high ground and make yourself look as big as possible. She laughed hysterically. There was no way she'd ever be able to do that. The bear was enormous, almost as tall as the towering tree beneath which the two of them now faced each other.
Karin turned to run, but after having been leaning over for a while, and given the sweat-slickened state of most of her body, her glasses slid from her face and onto the ground. She couldn't see a thing without them; she had to get them back. Or she would most certainly die. Dropping to her knees, she clambered forward as quickly as she could, reaching for a dark blur she hoped was her glasses. The bear bellowed and, if her ears could be trusted, readied itself to lunge at her.
"Shishi Rendan!" cried what sounded like the voice of a boy, probably her age.
The bear let out an agonized roar, the cry of a creature on its last legs. Karin looked towards the hulking mass of the bear, now motionless and supine. A boy stood on its head. Having found her glasses, she put them on and craned her neck upwards from where she lay on the grass.
"Oh, you have the Scroll of Earth too," he said. The boy was ebon-haired and pale-skinned, with an angular, aquiline face. They looked at each other for a moment. Karin didn't know what to say – she hadn't expected help from another village, and she'd been told that she ought to be suspicious if it were given. But he had saved her – if he'd wanted her scroll, he could've taken it after the bear had killed her.
He smiled at her, without a trace of irony or condescension. "Bye, then." And with that, he was gone.
Karin knelt in the corner of her home, now little more than smoldering rafters and a few blackened beams to support them, weeping into hands blackened with soot.
"Why are you crying, child?" lisped a strange, uncanny voice, at once hoarse and melodic. She turned towards the speaker, a tall, pallid man with serpentine eyes and long black hair. What new devilry was this? A boy stood behind him – she could easily see them both, for her house no longer had any walls.
"D-don't come any closer."
"I don't intend to harm you. I make it my habit, in fact, to care for talented young shinobi, and cultivate their powers. Isn't that right, Sasuke-kun?" The boy had come closer, so she could see him better.
"You're th-the boy from the Chunin Exams…in the Forest of Death." He nodded, his face without affect. He'd had a smile on his face the last time she had seen him, after he had saved her life, but he was easy enough to recognize. She noticed he was not wearing a hitai-ate.
"Just leave me here, p-please," she managed to stutter between heaving sobs.
"What happened here?" asked the man.
"Everyone is dead. Go! Please, I beg you!"
"You're not dead," the man said gently. "Do you consider yourself a ghost?"
Karin looked at him dead-on, and there was a burning hatred in her eyes, though he could tell it wasn't for him.
"It has been said that you die two deaths: one when your physical body is destroyed, and another when you are forgotten. When everyone who ever knew you or cared about you has been annihilated, you have bypassed the first death. I have already died twice."
"But I know you," said Sasuke. That was all he said, and his expression remained impassive, but he said it so emphatically and with such self-possession that it calmed her grief, at least momentarily. Out of nervous habit, her hand went to her glasses, adjusting them slightly.
"You are not dead, then," the man said, leering at her and making her extremely uneasy.
"No…perhaps not." She hugged her knees closer to her chest and scooted further back into her corner.
"How long have you been here alone, child?" Karin imagined he was taking in her feral state – her bedraggled, greasy hair, her sleep-encrusted eyes, her wasted face.
"Three weeks now."
"What is your name?" asked the boy, Sasuke.
"What happened to you, Karin?"
"There were several units of Hidden Stone shinobi…they came to my village and easily wiped it out. We have few shinobi here, though we do manufacture supplies for Kusagakure, and the Iwagakure shinobi took out everyone in the village as a warning to Kusagakure." She had said all this with difficulty, voice quavering all the while, but Sasuke had locked eyes with her, and his steady, attentive gaze sustained her. He used no suffixes; he addressed her directly. His frankness was not rude, it was intimate in a way she did not expect, and was exactly what she needed.
"How were you able to escape?"
"I could tell that people were coming. I went into the forest and hid my presence with a chakra-concealing technique I've been developing." She bit her lip so hard, it turned white. "I have no skills in combat. I…I just did what my parents told me I ought. They wanted me to live."
"I see. You're a Sensor…" said the man, stepping closer to her now. "How would you like to attain the power to punish those who destroyed your village? Who killed your parents?"
Karin said nothing, but continued to look to Sasuke, whose gaze hadn't wavered. She hadn't really thought about revenge. She'd always been so weak; how could she ever have the power to do as such?
"If you do, then come with me. I will teach you the illimitable possibilities of the shinobi. No one will ever take from you what is precious to you ever again."
She met the man's reptilian stare, golden eyes flickering in the half-light of dusk. "If I am not already dead, then I almost am, if only two people know me. I don't intend for anyone else to know me."
"Karin," said Sasuke, walking towards her until he stood directly in front of her, a few feet away. "Orochimaru thinks you have potential. I know you exist, he knows you exist, and most importantly, we both acknowledge the importance of your existence. So you have died neither a first nor a second death. Come with us."
Orochimaru looked at her sidelong. He terrified her, with his deathly pallor and his fixed stare. He had not once blinked since he had looked at her. She looked at Sasuke again, and the earnest, urgent look in his eyes.
"What do you intend to do with me?"
"It is just as he said," said Sasuke. "You will be trained."
"To what purpose?"
Sasuke was silent for a moment, looking past Karin into the smoking ruins of her village. "It depends on what he needs at the time. But you can be sure, the strong who train beneath him have their own objectives. And you will not be harmed." He looked at Orochimaru with a stern, unwavering stare, as if daring him to say otherwise, then looked at her again.
She looked around at her village, little more than ash and charred wood now. A bleak sun was rising over Hidden Grass. Its pale face shone weakly through the oppressive fog that clung clammily to the approaching dawn, feebly illuminating the silver meadow that encompassed the village. The mist had begun to dissipate with the rising sun, but Karin knew it would not shine brightly here today. Though the fog would disperse, the smoke would shroud this place a while longer. Karin had loved this land of verdant hills and lush forests. But there was nothing here for her now.
"I will go." A smile spread across Orochimaru's face to reveal the glint of uncannily sharp canines. Yet Karin was not uneasy, for her companion was he who had saved her from the first and second kinds of death. She got to her feet and followed these two strange interlopers out of the ruin she thought would be her grave and into an uncertain dawn.