~Author's Note – Essential to Understanding this Fanfiction~

Written for Sasuke's Birthday, July 23.

This takes place when Sasuke, Karin, Jugo, and Suigetsu are still Team Hebi. Also, there was indeed a moment in the manga in which Jugo called Taka "nakama." It was right after the Hachibi fight. No one objected to his use of the term, and in fact, they were all silent - uncomfortable, but accepting. Calling your comrades "nakama" is very significant in Japan and signifies a bond beyond regular friendship. It's like being comrades-in-arms.

A note about Tanabata: "Tanabata (七夕?, meaning "Evening of the seventh") is a Japanese star festival, originating from the Chinese Qixi Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. The date of Tanabata varies by region of the country, but the first festivities begin on July 7 of the Gregorian calendar. The celebration is held at various days between July and August."

When Orihime found out that she could not be with her husband Hikoboshi, she "cried so much that a flock of magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come and the two lovers must wait until another year to meet." [taken from Wikipedia article on Tanabata]

"What are you so pissed about?"

Karin kept her neck craned upwards, not turning towards the nasal drawl she knew to be Suigetsu's, keeping her mouth set in a firm line.

"I hate this holiday."

"Tanabata? Why?"

"It's in vain, and therefore pointless. It can only serve to raise hopes that have no basis in reality."

"Aw, come on, Karin. It's just a bit of fun."

"But it's hardly harmless. It's a belief in nothing more than a shadow of a desire, a desire not strong enough to be actualized with one's own hands."

Suigetsu was silent a moment, quirking a skeptical brow. "Sounds like you're overthinking it a bit. Let people believe what they want. It's not your problem."

Still, Karin stood, glaring upwards at the bamboo above her hung with tanzaku, papers inscribed with the wishes of hundreds of people. A foolish notion, she thought to herself.

"Okay…whatever. I'm gonna go back to the inn. Stay here and sulk if you want." Karin ignored him. "Tch, be that way then…" He left her there, standing on the bridge over the river and imagining how the people who had strung up these wishes would all come out to take them down, toss them in the river at midnight, and hope.

She sunk her nails into the soft, pale stone of the bridge railing she leant against at the thought. It had been four years since she had last set a wish afloat on the river, four years since her family and friends had been slain. Every wish for happiness during the festivals of years past had been nullified in that moment, so every future wish would be delusion.

Karin wanted to go back to the inn, get something to eat, help Sasuke plan their future movements, if she could. But she could not get herself to leave, so she stood there, sulking, just as Suigetsu said she would. Letting the vitriol of her disbelief sink deeper into her marrow and ossify further.

Among the bamboo shoots, high above in the branches hung with tanzaku, a crow perched, watching.

She did not go back to the inn that night. She wanted to see them come and set their wishes afloat. It was masochistic, really. She anticipated an acute, feral sort of anger to pour forth and command her attention then, like deep red blood from an inward wound.

The riverbank was soft and moist, the grass bedewed on the cool summer night. Karin looked up at the clear sky above. No rain to hamper the magpies in their yearly sojourn. She pushed this thought away. Nothing but a childish story.

She sensed Sasuke's chakra approaching, and she turned to face him as he walked towards her, down the riverbank. "What are you doing out here?"

"Oh, Sasuke, I was just getting some air. It's a nice night." He stopped and stood at her side, while she remained sitting, arms curled around her legs, hands cupping knees. "Take a seat beside me, the riverbank's very comfortable." She edged towards him and tugged at his hand, but he brushed her off and backed away. Oh, well. It had been worth a shot.

"Why did you follow me out here if you don't even want to sit with me?" Karin snapped at him.

"Just wanted to make sure you weren't doing anything stupid."

"Since when have I been in the habit of doing stupid things?" She jutted her chin out, as she often did when indignant. Sasuke made no reply, just stared down at her, without affect.

She turned away and wondered at his reaction. Did it mean that he thought she wasn't in the habit of doing stupid things? Or was he just not bothering to respond in the affirmative? Karin had always been possessed of impeccable analytical skills, but they often failed her when it came to Sasuke. She let the matter rest.

The dreamers were here, as midnight approached. The liars. Delusion. They crouched on the riverbank, leaned stupidly over the bridge's railings, watching their hopes float downstream to no avail.

"What do you think of this holiday, Sasuke?" She looked up at him, but he did not look down at her; he gazed down the river to where the tanzaku vanished into the horizon.

"It's meaningless."

"My thoughts exactly! I wish someone would put a stop to it, just nix the whole damn thing! Show people that dreams don't come true except through random coincidence! Coincidence is not spiteful, but it certainly does not reward the dreamer." Sasuke finally looked down at her, thoughtfully. On some level, that was how he thought about things, too. What he had was not a dream, because he would make it a reality. But there was another aspect to his ideology – that of a steely determination that would force coincidence to bend to his will.

"Of course, those who can overcome quirks of fate with their own strength needn't worry about coincidence. It bows before them. I have always believed that you are such a person, Sasuke." Somehow, it seemed, Karin had read his partial disagreement in his face. It was the slight twinge of dissent in his chakra that had caught her attention. And she was being sincere. "But you will have to be careful as we approach the fulfillment of your dream. Coincidence does not always bow so easily, nor will your strength endure unwavering."

His eyes slipped away from hers again, as she expected them to. He rarely held her gaze. But he did not disagree. He let her assertion linger in the cool, still air between them, and she could tell he was not ignoring her. She had spent much of her life being ignored, so she was perceptive enough to tell when someone was actually paying her attention.

They stayed like that until the last tanzaku had drifted beyond their sight. Karin, ever alert, had done something totally out of character. She had become lost in thought, and continued to stare off down the river until Sasuke spoke.

"Karin, we should go." Snapping to attention, she brushed herself off and stood up, embarrassed that she had lost track of herself.

"Right. Yes, the festivities are over."

They headed home, Karin taking advantage of the moment to walk as close as she could to him without touching him. It was then that she was able to enjoy the cool glow of his chakra the most, to bathe in a part of him, since he would not let her any closer. As usual, he let her. He tolerated it.

Once back at the inn, they went to their separate rooms. Karin sat up on her sleeping pallet, unable to sleep. This whole Tanabata business was really getting to her. The full, pale moon shone directly down on her, and she didn't bother pulling her curtains down. Instead she looked up and into its light and wondered at it. Such a beautiful thing, this world. For the most part. It would be flawless were the ugliness of humanity not inherent to it. Somewhere outside, over the roof eaves, a crow cawed harshly.

She sat there gazing at the moon for what seemed like an age, when suddenly, she sensed a cluster of new chakra signatures approaching rapidly. Shinobi were on their way into the village, not a lot, but no small amount. Their chakra did not register as hostile, however. Should she wake the others? No, they might needlessly attack. Not that she was against taking a life if it meant saving the lives of those in Hebi, but these shinobi were not on the offensive. Their chakra ran clear, as devoid of the impurity of malice as a mountain stream. This was something she could do on her own, and what better to do to occupy her mind when she was clearly not going to be able to sleep? She would seem harmless to them, as she always did – physically weak and therefore unthreatening. And she posed no threat to them, in any case, because she meant them no harm.

Karin left the inn as quietly as she could, and once out in the street, stepped into an alley between the inn and the restaurant on its right. She breathed in deeply and carefully, so as to not make any noise, put two fingers to her lips, and felt for the shinobis' presence with Kagura Shingan.

There were dozens of them, but not hundreds. They seemed to be gathering in a central location. There were a few strong chakra signatures among them, but not many. Nothing to worry overmuch about, but Hebi should definitely take their presence into account.

Suddenly, she felt him.

"Karin." Karin froze, her jutsu disrupted by the shock, and turned to face Sasuke. He stood in the alley behind her. How had he gotten there so quickly? As good as she was at sensing, he must have been fast enough to arrive in the alley as quickly as she was able to sense him. He was a truly powerful shinobi.

"Sasuke, I was just doing some reconnaissance on my own. I sensed a group of shinobi—"

"Don't do that."

"Do what? Take the initiative? I thought that's why you recruited me – because I have a good head on my shoulders. I don't need you looking out for me all the time, I thought you knew that. I ran that damn Southern Base on my own for two years, and I managed just fine, thank you very much," she snapped.

"There aren't any jail cells here Karin. And if there were, you wouldn't be the one holding the keys." There was no edge to his voice, as usual. It was bizarre, hearing him express concern in a voice so lacking in any kind of emotion.

"Alright, alright. I just figured if I woke you all, you might do something rash. No need to go after these guys; we are not their objective at present."

"Why would I do something rash? Suigetsu, yeah, he probably would, and it would be troublesome to stop him. But you know I'd do it. And Jugo only takes orders from me."

"Well, yes, but—"

"Do you not trust my ability to keep them under control?"

"I do, but…" Neither of them said anything for a moment, Sasuke merely staring at her, meeting her eyes as he so seldom did. "I guess I just wanted to be useful and do something on my own. I'm never able to do anything without some kind of backup or protection, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do without all that." He was still staring at her, as if she ought to explain herself further. "I just don't want to be a burden to you, Sasuke. Ever." Karin couldn't believe she was saying this. It was a good thing the others weren't around. She couldn't stand to let her insecurities be known to anyone; doing so made her feel powerless. And she never wanted to feel that way again. She'd spent too much of her life feeling that way.

"Karin, the mission always comes first. That's the only reason you're here. Forget about your own insecurities; they don't matter. Just focus on the mission. I'll deal with the variables."

"Alright, fine then. Whatever you say," she retorted.

He started walking back to the inn and she followed after, grudgingly.

"Well, what did you sense?" he asked.

"A few dozen shinobi, no hostile intent, very few strong chakra signatures for now. They're all gathered in a central place – the village meeting hall, I believe. They're probably there for some kind of summit. In my opinion, we should stay here until they leave. Any sudden movement might make us appear suspicious."

"Very well, that's what we'll do then." She couldn't help flushing at this. Every time he took her advice without even questioning it made her very proud, even though she often thought she was generally in the right, whether he took her advice or not.

They headed back to the inn, went back to bed, and Karin was finally able to fall asleep, no longer mulling over her misanthropy, but instead thinking fondly of her contribution to Sasuke's mission and how readily it had been accepted.

Karin felt safe in this village, as it was quite isolated in the middle of a vast, dense forest. She was relieved that they would be staying put for a time. As much as she had wanted to travel and never stop traveling after getting off that isolated base, surrounded by water for miles, Karin had tired of their nomadic lifestyle. Staying in an inn for the next three weeks, until the ending of the summit to which so many shinobi had flocked, was a welcome delay.

During the two years she had spent almost entirely alone as a prison warden, Karin had become an excellent cook, and given the fine produce the village market afforded, she was able to make elegant meals for her less than refined companions. Even though he never went anywhere since they had to lie low until the summit was over, Karin made a beautiful bento for Sasuke every day. Jugo never complained when his share was less elaborate, but Suigetsu always had a provocative remark at the ready.

"Going out of your way for Sasuke again today?"

"Shut up, Suigetsu."

"Not willing to directly address my question, I see."

"I don't have time for your smartass remarks. Just eat your damn food and be grateful that someone around here knows how to cook."

"Suigetsu, she does get you fresh yogurt every day. Be satisfied with that," Jugo said coolly, with customary sternness.

"Tch, can't get a laugh out of any of you sticks-in-the-mud…" muttered Suigetsu, lazily stirring his yogurt.

Karin felt a strange lightness of step and calmness of heart during those quiet weeks after Tanabata. It was a bizarre feeling that she could hardly remember having before, and it took her about a week to realize what it was, and even then, it took someone else pointing out the change in her demeanor for her to realize it.

"Thank you, Karin," Jugo said when she handed him his plate for dinner.

"For what?"

"You remembered to get me beef this time. You know I hate chicken, because I don't like to eat birds. That would be…immoral."

"Yes, well, it wasn't any trouble."

"All the same, I must thank you."

"You're welcome, but really it wasn't any trouble." Karin could feel her face getting hot. Why was she so flustered? Sasuke regarded her levelly across the table, and Suigetsu smirked.

"What are you all looking at?"

"Karin, you've become such a sweetheart since we started staying here," Suigetsu observed with a wry grin. "I didn't know you had it in you."

"It's not a big deal! All I do is go to a different vendor for the beef! Geez!" She couldn't stand the knowing glance exchanged by Jugo and Suigetsu, and Sasuke's blank stare always annoyed her, now even more so. With an angry toss of her voluminous red hair over her shoulder, she stalked off.

She walked through the village streets until she came to her favorite haunt – the white stone bridge over the river. Karin liked to stand here, not just because it was the center of the village and therefore the best point at which to monitor the chakra fluctuations at the shinobi summit, but also because she loved to watch people pass through here. Normal people living their normal lives, as she had many years ago in Kusagakure, in a similarly isolated village without any talented shinobi to speak of. It hurt her heart, but she felt it giving her faint hope with every passing day. If these people could go through this world unscathed, then someday, perhaps she too would be able to do the same, though she knew she would always have her scars to think of.

She sensed Jugo approaching. What was he doing? He rarely went out when people were around, for fear that he might have one of his episodes and accidentally kill innocent bystanders.

Karin turned to face him, arms crossed as she leaned against the railing.

"What are you doing out here? You shouldn't be out here. It's dangerous, with all these people around."

"Karin, I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I had things under control," Jugo said gently. "I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Yeah? What?"

"Have you thought that maybe…you are making it difficult for yourself to accept that for the first time in a long time, you are happy?"

"Like hell," she said immediately, waving her hand dismissively. "You're a ticking time bomb, Suigetsu's a homicidal maniac, and Sasuke won't take my advice. How could I be happy?" She actually felt a twinge in her conscience as she noticed the acrimony in her own words. Since when had she ever regretted a thing she said? What was wrong with her?

But Jugo was impassive as ever. Her jibes never seemed to faze him; he put such confidence in Sasuke's ability to rein him in and valued his opinion alone. "You don't have to believe me. Just consider it. And thank you, again, for the beef."

"Bah, whatever," she snapped testily. "That's my job, feeding you dopes. Can't even make your own meals."

Jugo smiled at her, that gentle, serene expression she had only ever seen him make when talking to birds.

"Karin, you will come to accept it. We are like fish in water, so close we can't do without one another. We are nakama."

Normally Karin would've had something to say to that. Something like That's fucking stupid. Our rag-tag gang of Orochimaru's former toadies could never be called something so touchy-feely as "nakama." But the fact that he had said it at all left her shocked and speechless. Of course, he was the only gentle soul among them; he would be the one to say that. But how could he be so deluded as to think that about the four of them? That they were nakama, comrades. Yet she could not deny what he had said, because the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had begun to think it was true without even realizing it.

"Come back with me to the inn, Karin. Your food will be getting cold." She nodded and walked with him in silence.

"What was that all about?" Suigetsu asked the minute she set foot in the door of their quarters. She looked up at him testily, but before she could speak, Jugo spoke up for her.

"Leave her be Suigetsu. It's none of your concern." She looked up at him, eyes wide with gratitude, and he knew that even though she was not smiling, that she was thankful for everything, for fending off Suigetsu, for coming out to get her, for his own gratitude for her hospitality. And he smiled that smile again, the one he usually reserved for birds alone.

Suigetsu frowned, but he said no more. Karin caught Sasuke looking at her out of the corner of his eye, but when their eyes met, he did not look away. It was too direct, too confrontational, that glare. All sharp edges. She cast her eyes downward.

The other two had finished dinner, but they stayed in the room while Jugo finished and Karin began her meal. There was an awkward silence. Why did Sasuke and Suigetsu stay? They didn't have to, there had never been any formality between the four of them. They could've gone to bed already, should they have wanted to. Yet here they all were, Jugo eating slowly and deliberately, Karin wolfing down her okonomiyaki as fast as she could in order to cut the whole thing short as quickly possible. She expected a rude comment from Suigetsu about how unladylike her eating habits were, but he was quiet, polishing his sword sullenly. Sasuke sat with his eyes closed, thinking about who knew what. And Jugo continued to eat slowly and look out the window, probably listening to the birds above the eaves.

The silence was uncomfortable, so Karin decided to attempt the unthinkable – table talk. She wiped the grease from her mouth with the back of her hand.

"So…" she began with difficulty, "What did everyone do today?"

"Mah, just polished my Kimikiribocho. Nothin' else to do," Suigetsu said boredly.

Sasuke opened his eyes slightly and gave her a half-lidded stare. "Nothing of importance."

Jugo turned away from the window to face the others. "I took a walk in the forest."

Sasuke opened his eyes completely now and looked at him with interest. "And?"

"The birds had nothing to say. There were more crows for some reason, which I thought was strange. There normally aren't so many in one place. And they refused to talk with me, which I also found strange. But not all birds take kindly to humans, and crows aren't very friendly to begin with." Sasuke nodded, closing his eyes again.

Having finished her dinner, Karin stood up and picked up her plate. She reached for Suigetsu's, since he was always too lazy to put his away, but to her surprise, he had already picked it up. Wordlessly, they all took their dishes to the main hall, where an attendant took them to the main kitchen. Once in their quarters once more, they headed for their separate rooms for the night, but Karin could tell something was different between the four of them. And she didn't dare believe it, but it definitely seemed that Jugo was right. She was happy.

The next day was July 23rd, Sasuke's birthday. Karin knew this from the files Orochimaru had given her access to as a prison guard with basic information on all of his subordinates. She had always wanted to do something special for his birthday, but she had never had the chance. They had spent half a year together in Otogakure, and that was all, before she had been deemed capable of running the Southern Base on her own, and so was sent off and secluded while he continued his training. Their fifteenth birthdays had passed, as had her sixteenth birthday in June, and now it was his sixteenth. Karin had something planned, and though it was modest, she had hopes he would appreciate it.

She had taken great care to prepare what she thought would be the perfect meal for him: omusubi with the best okaka she could get, and fresh tomatoes, diced and lightly salted. Omusubi with okaka was what he had always asked attendants to make for him in Otogakure, and she remembered that he had asked for tomatoes to be grown in the garden at the hideout in which the two of them had kept each other company for a time. These were most definitely his favorite foods.

Now, to get him away from the others. She couldn't let them witness her preferential treatment of him any more than they already had at this point. If they couldn't tell she was keen on him already, then they would definitely be able to if they saw that she'd made him a birthday meal.

Karin was an actress, and a good one. The tough, no-nonsense persona she had assumed in Otogakure had been no more than a façade at first, but she had gradually come to fit the mold so well over the years that it was no longer a façade but her true nature. As there are for any normal human, there were things that frightened her, but she'd become so good at feigning fearlessness that she could even fool Orochimaru. Surely, then, she could trick Sasuke into joining her for a birthday meal.

He always went out for a walk this time of the day, very early morning, just before dawn. He rose with the chorus of birds that sang in the half-light, anticipating a not yet risen sun. She followed him out, sliding the door shut behind her.

"Karin, I've told you before," he began, turning to face her. "I like to go for walks alone."

"Yes, I know, but I sensed a strange chakra in the night. Nothing to be too alarmed about since it wasn't malicious, so I decided to let you sleep. I figured we could go after it first thing in the morning, when our movements would appear less suspicious."

"So…you've been up all night then, tracking it?"

"Yes, of course! And I can pinpoint its exact location."

"Very well, then, take me there."

"Right, this way." Karin lead him, his meal safe within the knapsack she always kept belted at her waist, to a forest clearing beyond earshot of the waking village, but close enough that she could still monitor the chakra signatures of Suigetsu and Jugo in case anything were to happen to them. She wasn't being completely irresponsible.

"Well, what is it that you sensed, Karin?"

Karin smiled coyly and took out the bento in which she had packed Sasuke's birthday meal. "I have a confession to make. It is your birthday, Sasuke, so I made you this. I wanted you to have it here, with me. Please, sit with me and eat."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Karin…"

"I picked this spot specifically because it was far enough from the village that we could eat in silence, and close enough that I could still sense Suigetsu and Jugo's chakra. So if anything were to happen to them, I would immediately know. You can relax." She walked towards him, proffering the bento, smiling eagerly. "It's omusubi with okaka and tomatoes, your favorite."

"Well…alright." Sasuke took the bento from Karin and sat down with it on a smooth rock that bordered the clearing. She sat down on the rock, too, but not too close to him, he noticed. Not trying to press her luck, he supposed.

They sat like that as the sun came up, Karin watching the first rays of the sun turn the pale silver of the grassy clearing to a deep green. A crow cawed somewhere, rather unusual for this time of day. Karin didn't have to look at him, sitting there, she just had to sit there, near enough to feel the outer edge of the aura his chakra threw off mingling with her own.

She could hear him finishing up, closing the lacquered lid of the beautiful bento box she had bought on the market, dark wood etched with flowering tree branches. He stood up and walked over to her, holding out the box. "Here, Karin." She took it from him, looking at him expectantly.

He turned from her and started walking out of the clearing, and as he did so, he said, "Thank you." Levelly and clearly. Without affection, but with gratitude, and that was enough. She walked behind him, letting him have his space, since he'd let her close enough for one day.

And then she sensed it. "Sasuke!" she cried. "There's a powerful chakra over th—" A stream of blood shot across Karin's field of vision, and it took her a moment to realize that it was her own. She dropped to the ground, clutching her bleeding arm. She had raised it to point in the direction of the immensely powerful chakra she had just sensed, and a shuriken had slipped beneath it, slicing into her axillary artery. For a normal individual, this would have caused death by primary hemorrhage in about five minutes, but Karin knew she had remarkable stamina, if little other physical talent to speak of. She'd last a bit longer than that. Dizzy with shock, she shook her head and regained her focus, pointing again, this time with her other arm, in the direction of the chakra. "Over there!"

"Karin! We need to get out of here, your arm will bleed out—" Sasuke yelled with uncharacteristic heat.

"Don't worry about that, worry about the fucker who threw that shuriken!"

Sasuke looked in the direction she had pointed, and there he was. Itachi, face etched with that infuriatingly impassive disdain, hand tucked languidly into the fold of his cloak, eyes scarlet and black with the jagged pinwheel of the Mangekyou Sharingan.


"Now what will you do, Sasuke?" Itachi said evenly in that voice Sasuke had long since grown to hate – calm and dry as the air before a storm.

"What the fuck was the point of that?" He hadn't imagined things like this – it was supposed to be just the two of them, no one else, finishing what he had started. He'd avenge the Uchiha, and there would be an end to it. No one else would share in the victory, for it would be a victory when the day came.

But today was not that day. No one else was supposed to be involved.

He ran to Karin, who was on her hands and knees, but she waved him off with her good arm. "Go on, get a move on! This is your revenge, right? I can make it back; you know a little scrape like this isn't enough to do me in. Jugo will take care of it." He hesitated.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, damnit, now go!" So he turned to Itachi and left her there. She picked herself up and started running out of the clearing. She knew better than to make eye contact with Itachi; he'd explained this to her before in the event that they crossed paths.

But in an instant, none of that mattered – Itachi lifted his cloak in a single, smooth motion and from its seeming lack of depth emerged a murder of crows in a shrieking, seething mass.

"This genjutsu does not require eye contact," Itachi said coolly.

The earth fell away, and Sasuke and Karin hovered high above the crowns of trees pink and heavy with cherry blossom. The colors of the ground were inverted somehow, the deep green of mid-morning grass interchanged with the pale blue of the sky above in patches. Sasuke had never seen or heard of this jutsu before. Why should he have? It was probably another of Itachi's own creations. The crows shrieked and flurried over and under them, pulsing and shifting as a single, living thing, finally converging on a singularity and partially condensing into a humanoid mass, blurred at the edges where the crows still fluttered and shifted.

"Fucking genjutsu," Karin cursed under her breath. She didn't need her skills as a sensor to tell her that this was not reality. But the blood seeping from her artery was very real, and it was not slowing.

"What will you do, Sasuke?" Itachi, or rather, the semi-human mass of crows that hovered in front of them, asked. "Her time is running out."

Neither he nor Karin could move. Had he still not advanced enough even to break Itachi's genjutsu? Would this be it?

He cried out in agony. The Cursed Seal of Heaven! This was the first time in years that it had involuntarily activated, and such activations were always painful.

And then, the genjutsu was over. They were on the ground, Karin was bleeding profusely, and Sasuke's transformation to Level 2 of the Cursed Seal continued to advance, his skin darkening several shades, his sclera blackening, amphibious wings bursting from spine.

Itachi stood before them, solid and real once more, not a crow in sight. "I understand now," he said, and holding his index and ring finger to his chest, dissipated into a flock of crows once more, which tore away into the forest as quickly as they had appeared.

"A clone…of crows?" Karin gasped. "Well, anyway, he's gone now, let's get out of here…" Sasuke took a moment to get his bearings; he had not felt such agony since he had first received the seal. It was as if something had been pressing against the mitsudome branded black into his skin, something struggling to get out. The pain finally subsided. He turned to Karin, arms out, and she gratefully collapsed into them, speaking not another word.

Even now, he noticed, she did not flinch. How many Cursed Seal recipients had torn into her flesh as part of Orochimaru's experiments? How many test subjects who bore an uncanny resemblance to himself had feasted on her chakra, and at how young an age? She had seen him transformed this way on a few occasions before and never once had she expressed fear, disgust, or even shock. Karin always looked at him as if nothing had changed.

Sasuke carried her back to the inn as quickly as he could, making good use of the increased speed the Cursed Seal granted him. He slipped into the inn without anyone noticing the state of his appearance, and found Jugo and Suigetsu there, confused, but ready to do whatever needed to be done to resolve the situation. Karin was still conscious and capable of telling them what to do to treat the wound, using the healing balms and sutures she kept on hand for the four of them. Soon enough, she was breathing steadily and sitting up, though she was still shaky.

"That's over and done with then," Karin said weakly, try as she might to speak loud and clear as she usually did. "I'm fine, Sasuke's fine." She looked over at him, standing with his shirt in tatters, but otherwise intact. "Sasuke…why haven't you deactivated the Cursed Seal?"

He looked away from the three of them and glared at the hardwood floor in silence.

"Can you…not deactivate it?"

"Not right now."

"Has this ever happened before?"

Again, he said nothing, but then, "No."

Karin looked at him in shock, and the others shifted uneasily in their places.

"Surely it's just a passing phase…" Karin said encouragingly, but tailed off without anything further to add. She stood up and walked over to him.

"Well, come on then."

"Now where are you taking me?"

"Away. We can't have anyone seeing you here. Don't you have any sense? Now make use of your speed boost again and get us into the woods."

"What about us?" Suigetsu said testily. "Just going to ditch us again?"

"Yes, for the time being," Karin said matter-of-factly. "I have a plan. Please trust me. We're nakama, right?"

Suigetsu looked put out and further confused by the use of this term, but her eyes met Jugo's and he nodded in silent, grim consent.

Sasuke carried her deep into the quiet emerald heart of the forest, and the silence between the two of them began to open up like a chasm of the sort that had rarely existed between them; a cleft in their steady, wordless trust. It was hard to read the look in Sasuke's eyes when the Sharingan was activated, as his expression rarely changed then, given his perpetual focus. But in his chakra she could sense a deep black undercurrent of resentment.

"It's not my fault, you know." He said nothing. "You'd really have to be an idiot if you think it's my fault. I don't know much about your brother, but one thing I do know is that if he wanted to get you alone, he'd get you alone. It was only a matter of time." Still, not a word.

Karin looked directly up at him, jutting her chin out and speaking again. "It'd be easier for you to return to normal if you'd just focus on the task at hand rather than on where the blame lies."

They stopped inside of a cool cave, damp on the bottom with a small stream that had overrun its bed.

"First things first, Sasuke. I'll go outside, give you some time to calm yourself down, and if you aren't able, I have a plan that will put an end to this mess."

That was just like her, he thought. Trying to place blame on and attribute weakness to someone else, even when it was her fault.

"And don't you dare assume I'm blaming you or calling you weak. I've done neither. Circumstances simply dictated that things should be this way, but we can fix them, one way or another."

Karin left the cave in a huff, but once alone by the side of the cave, she carefully leaned herself back against the curve of the rock and began to worry her hair, a habit she had not lost from her pre-Otogakure days. She never let anyone see her doing it anymore.

Inside the cave, Sasuke sat cross-legged, closed his eyes, and began to concentrate. The cool, sweet smell of the cavern spring and the lingering scent of honeysuckle – Karin's perfume – faded away with the trickle of the stream and the distant morning chorus of birds. This was how he had first learned to control the spread of the Cursed Seal's infusion – through a separation of body and spirit. Gradually, the transformation had come to be entirely voluntary and his mastery of the process had extended to partial transformation as events demanded.

But nothing was happening. The darkness in his skin didn't smolder and burn backwards, receding into the Seal as it should. Nothing was different. He was doing everything exactly as he had done in the past. Why, then, was it so difficult?

He tried for hours, deep into the night, and eventually woke up to realize he had drifted off sitting up. Karin had finally come back into the cave and lay on its cold floor, a bed of leaves beneath her. She had made one for him, too, on the other side of the cave.

She slept fitfully, shivering in the cold, her back facing him. Suddenly she turned toward him, eyes wide open.

"You haven't slept," Sasuke observed.

"No." He couldn't help but glare at her. She was at fault here. "Don't look at me like that. You think your brother wouldn't have found a way to get you alone?" She paused and sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees and looking straight at him in the semi-darkness, alleviated by the faint moonlight that filtered through the fissures in the cavern's ceiling.

He continued to glare. Karin laughed coldly. "Why would Itachi attack me like that? What would be the point? I haven't deluded myself into thinking I am actually your comrade. My wound should have been the least of your priorities in that battle."

"It was."

"As expected. You recruited me by saying you 'need me,' not want me. I am a tool, and once I have served my purpose or failed in its pursuit, I am no longer necessary. " His glare didn't soften, though her own gaze did. "But I think I know the cause of your condition. I conducted research on Cursed Seal recipients for Orochimaru, as you know. On occasion there were recipients who became capable of exercising a large degree of control over their transformations, like you. And like you, some of them ended up being unable to turn back." Here, his eyes widened with shock, ruby-red sclera mixing with the milky white of the moonlight. "Becoming stuck in this way was usually the result of enduring an event that terrified them – that induced a flow of adrenaline, a pumping of the heart, and a psychosis of the mind unlike anything they'd experienced before. None of them were able to undo this transformation, but I do think that it is possible."

She stood up and walked over to Sasuke, standing just in front of him and looking down at him. "If you take in enough of my chakra, I believe I can undo it. I have laid here, running through calculations, and I have determined that if you bite me here for five minutes—" she pointed to the area around her right clavicle "—the chakra released from the corresponding tenketsu will be enough to return you to your normal state. I chose this particular tenketsu because of the potency of the chakra that flows from it - it is close enough to the center of my chakra flow to be extremely effective for our purposes, and far enough that you can draw chakra from it long enough to undo your transformation and leave me alive. But you have to time it perfectly, or I will die." He continued to look up at her, awestruck, eyes wide.

"Do you want to do this or not? I've thought it over, and I can't come up with a single way you'll undo this otherwise. Staying like this leaves you vulnerable to a takeover by Orochimaru's genes, not to mention makes it impossible for you to travel in the open. So what'll it be?"

"Alright then," he assented. So she sat down beside him and unzipped her jacket. There was a black tank top beneath, and she slipped the right sleeve down, so that her clavicle was visible. Unlike her shoulder and arm, it was unblemished by the grayish purple stipple of old bite wounds.

He hesitated.

"Go ahead," Karin said, closing her eyes tightly and gritting her teeth.

So he sunk his fangs into it (for in this state, he had fangs), and though she managed to stifle it a bit, Karin still let out a strangled yelp. It had to be painful, since he was biting into bone, with so little tissue between the clavicle and the surface of her skin. He immediately began counting, focusing with all his might on the passage of each second to the next, which was nearly impossible given the sensory flooding invoked by the sheer vitality of Karin's chakra.

And it was during that five minute outpouring of her essence that Sasuke realized her hold on him. A flow of adrenaline, a pumping of the heart, a psychosis of the mind. This was what induced a permanent shift to the Cursed Seal state, and for him, it had been her endangerment by Itachi. Karin could not have been more wrong when she said his need for her was simple necessity – it had always been desire. He had not understood that until this moment; it had been buried under layers of obsessive self-righteousness and raw malcontent. But a twitch of a limb and the scrape of a shuriken against an uplifted arm were all it had taken to strip him of these fixations and lay him bare.

Still, he focused on counting, and he began to panic as she went limp in his arms. Had he miscounted? Had she miscalculated? He started to pull back, but Karin immediately gripped his arm like a vise. He would trust her. She had never been wrong before. Never.

Finally, it was over. He lay her down on her bed of leaves and sat beside her. She was unconscious, but still breathing. And the cursed seal was receding, wings balling into fists and crumpling into his back, flames glowing and retreating into the spiral of mitsudome. She would be fine; she just needed time to rest. He knew how her Heal Bite worked.

Karin would wake up sometime the next day. They would go back to the inn and leave once the summit in town had disbanded in seven days' time. And neither of them would ever speak of this again. He'd never bring it up, and she respected his privacy enough to refrain from mentioning it. But Sasuke didn't even think she realized the implications of what happened here – she didn't think he considered Hebi nakama, much less that he thought of her as anything more than a means to an end. He thought of her as far more, and was thankful for her ignorance of that fact.

Itachi looked at the tanzaku again, a shadow of a smile passing over his face. He had seen the girl scribble it furiously and toss it over the edge of the pale stone bridge. One of his crows had swooped down to catch it before it could hit the water, and she hadn't noticed. She'd already turned away from the railing, as if ashamed of having participated in the ritual and unwilling to acknowledge that she had, in fact, tossed her wish into the river like so many others on that night.

The crow had flown into the forest where he had been waiting for word of his brother's companions, high in the branches of a maple tree, back against its trunk. It landed on his outstretched hand, and he stroked its glossy black head as he considered the waning Tanabata moon above. What were they like, these broken, lost souls, of which his brother was the most broken, and the most lost? Two had allied themselves with Orochimaru, one in the wake of a massacre of which she was the survivor, the other in the wake of a massacre of which he was the perpetrator. One had grown up in Kirigakure, the Bloody Fog, lost the brother he loved, and lived in captivity in an amphibious form for years. Each had been drawn to Sasuke, for one reason or another.

His brother was hard to read, and even the girl, whose observational skills were the best he had ever seen, could not understand him. But Itachi could tell, after testing things out to ascertain his theory, that she meant a great deal to him, and that Sasuke was extremely disconcerted by this.

He would have to use the Sword of Totsuka to extract Orochimaru, he knew that for sure now. Itachi's endangerment of Karin had been a means by which to measure the degree of Orochimaru's infiltration of Sasuke's soul, and that degree was dangerously high. His brother's hatred ran too deep for any weaker method to suffice, so now was the time to prepare the circumstances for Sasuke's victory over his depraved older brother, Konoha's Uchiha Itachi.

Itachi smoothed out the tanzaku, which had become crumpled in the pocket of his cloak. It read, "I wish to see Sasuke smile." The wish was so dear to her heart that against her judgment that Tanabata was a pointless holiday that cruelly encouraged the desperate to believe in magic, she had thrown it over her shoulder and into the river in a fit of passion nonetheless. This was the kind of love Itachi wanted for his brother.

He was not sure how long it would take, what the two of them would have to go through, and how Sasuke would finally come to terms with his feelings and express them to her. But he cared for her, that much was evident.

Itachi laughed quietly to himself. So much had happened on Sasuke's birthday. He could not have received a better present than the devotion expressed on this scrap of paper, and he would never even know about it, not explicitly, anyway.

"Happy birthday, brother. It is as that young man said. You are like fish in water, so close you can't do without one another."

*By the way, the genjutsu Itachi uses is the Dusk Crow Genjutsu. He uses this jutsu in both the animé and the manga.*