'Naruto' and 'Naruto Shippuden' are the property of Masashi Kishimoto and TV Tokyo.
Karin was gifted with the unremarkable talent to blend in. In the closing market she carried herself with the urgency of the crowd. The port was alive with trade; squawking birds, fine silk scarves, brass instruments, woven carpets and polished mirrors from stall to stall. Kiri were a class divided society and they had landed on one of the most indulgent islands off the peninsula. The smell of the ocean lingered and after a month she could taste nothing but salt on her lips.
She slipped into the Fletcher's behind a burly hunter carrying a sack of feathers. While the plucked feathers were bartered over she crept into the backroom to find the business ledger. She had to clean up numbers to bypass suspicion for a future hit. The Akatsuki operated smoothly with these little touches. The storeroom was organised chaos, piled high with birch, red pine, bamboo, ash, maple- and many more manners of wood type. Metal tools for casting arrow heads and chisels for shaping some of the more primitive styles also cluttered the workbench.
The ledger was trapped between a safe and bookshelf that bowed under the weight of technical manuals. She began altering the numbers before wedging it back in its original hiding place. She slid down a pipe to make her exit and landed in a puddle. Irritated to find mud on her boots she stalked back to the crowd.
The island was lined with raised stone buildings and crisscrossed with canals. Karin had to be careful not to follow the slow drift of the flat bottom boats with the leisurely pace of a tourist. She pulled her coat in closer, the soft fur of the hood brushing against her cheek. Even a peak of her hair was a risk. The colour was exotic to the island and in the midst of war an easy accusation for spying. In reverse fate Sasuke could fool any local and she caught his profile blended among a group of fisherman. He looked like some nonchalant catalogue model lounging on a dock. Convincing Kakazu to relocate suited him well.
She had barely approached him. "Are you hurt?"
She placed her hands on her hips. "Of course not."
After the warehouse fire Sasuke had become uneasy. In his opinion even the most trivial assignment spelt mortal peril for her. He'd triple check her parts of plans and tried to phase out more challenging roles. In his own stiff way he was fussing over her. That meant he had lost faith in her abilities and no longer believed her capable. The trust was gone.
Karin refused to allow that and fought at every turn. "Come on."
The shipyard was a behemoth. Hammering and sawing grinded through the open air as they stepped around disjointed masts, sails and the beginning of curved hulls. They took leaping steps over a groove left by a lone man strong enough to drag a rowboat. The drop point was nestled between piled driftwood planks, barnacle ridden anchors, worn steering wheels and frayed rope.
Kisame was a shape shifter. Upon their first introduction he was a grim, bearded man that crooned formalities and then a fast-talking boy that ordered them around with misplaced authority. Then he was a sly woman with bone thin fingers and mocha coloured skin. It appeared that his greatness could not be accounted to one single human being and spaned gender and generation. Karin wondered what it was like to have your face stolen and when he would come for theirs.
"Is it done?" His latest reincarnation was an ancient greyed man, his mouth small and pursed like the beak of a squid.
"It was child's play," Karin couldn't hide the prickly edge in her voice. They were scrutinized to more thievery in Kirigakure than they had been on the mainland. Lining other people's pockets wasn't her idea of productivity.
"Keep her in check Noboru."
Sasuke shrugged in response to his pseudonym and asked for the next assignment.
"Kisame has to be at that shipyard. Nothing else makes sense."
Sasuke grunted his reply and Karin headed back to the cave. After squeezing past palm trees she could no longer hear the crunch of sand beneath her feet. Kisame must monitor the drops somehow. Not a single craftsman took fault with the Akutsuki members gathering in the work bay. Were they all part of the operation? Which one was the real Kisame? Their trail to Itachi was going cold.
It began to rain before Karin made it to the cave. The hot moisture in the air was unbearable. She had learnt to handle the dry heat of Oto but the tropical storm of Kiri seemed intolerable. How could it be suddenly raining and boiling hot? It frizzed out her hair, made her feel like she was constantly sweating and left her sluggish. Their cave was cramped with a fire pit, stored rainwater and a down made of leaves for warmth. She rummaged through her bag for a new focus.
She shifted their fake identity cards and draft papers before sulking at the wrinkled edges of the coded pamphlet. Searching for Itachi means...
"You still have that?"
Sasuke's voice echoed from the mouth of the cave. She squinted at the code, although having memorised every symbol. "It just doesn't add up."
She jumped when there was a heavy slap against the rock she was leaning against. She peered at the twisting, live thing before her and wrinkled her nose. "Eel again?"
Sasuke killed and skinned his catch. "What's wrong with eel?"
She was sick of eating it for days on end. Sasuke seemed immune to such redundancy. "The same thing as yesterday."
"You feed us then," Sasuke retorted. She subtly apologised by collecting the firewood they had stacked to start cooking. Sasuke insisted on living at the frays of society to avoid unnecessary human contact. The barrier traps he set up were the living embodiment of his distrust.
She could never entirely submit. "If we were staying in the village we would eat better."
Sasuke gave her a flat, unamused look and oddly she found herself grinning. Karin raised an eyebrow when Sasuke looked away quickly as if she was somehow indecent. He even cleared his throat before violently cutting off the eel's head. She stared at the pamphlet.
"Cardinal Catastrophe..." she finally announced to break the strange atmosphere. "Sounds kind of raunchy."
Sasuke shook his head as if to say 'you would think that'. "No. It was a tragedy, about a woman choosing between her family and faith."
Karin tilted her head and frowned. "How would you know? There's no synopsis."
"I went to see it with my brother and his fiancée when I was little."
"You're an idiot."
She barely managed his cooperation with new ways to decode the message. They both ended up face down on the sleeping bag, Karin on aching elbows as she wrote and Sasuke in boredom.
"Shut up. It wasn't relevant."
She waved the pamphlet in his face grumpily. "Of course it's relevant. You have a personal connection! This changes everything."
"We have already figured it out. It's done." How he managed to sound more threatening than usual was an achievement really. She tugged at her collar, loosening the buttons in an effort to think. Sasuke groaned and sat.
"I told you it doesn't add up."
"You're an idiot," Sasuke chimed. His childishness inspired her own when she elbowed him in stomach. Since she was a little girl any boy, despite her affections, was privy to the same spectrum of violence. Hair pulling, rib jabbing and biting non-discriminatory. It just made excuses to be extra nice in the future.
She wasn't surprised when he bent over her in pure intimidation. She was too angry to be unsettled, glowering.
"Do. Not. Hit. Me."
"Don't call me an idiot."
"You just called me one."
She fired back, "That's. Not. The. Point."
Suddenly he looked too smug. He swiped her glasses in one clean motion, leaving her world a haze. Her eyesight was terrible. Without her glasses she would have been dead a hundred times over. Panic was thick and fast as she clung to his sleeve blindly.
"Give them back." She tried not to sound scared. She wrapped an arm around what she suspected was his waist, holding her other arm against his. It was outstretched and she vainly tried to brush his fingertips.
"So you can waste your time on a stupid code I already solved?" Even in blurred darkness she could tell when he was amused. The mighty Uchiha Sasuke was not beyond playing games. His were just far more cruel and of greater stakes.
"Sasuke..." his name came out tight lipped.
"Trust me." She wanted to believe that another moment of weakness discredited nothing. Taking opportunity his free hand went up the back of her shirt, tracing the scared skin. Every time he asked about it she kept it hidden. Not because she cared but because she knew he would.
"No. Not when you don't trust me." Her voice was terse now.
It took a lot to shock him. She felt the hand on her back move away, the other lower as if he had been unaware of her seriousness all along. He mumbled an afterthought. "You're shaking."
His hand found hers and she fumbled over the glasses. The world returned to sharp definition as she strode to the mouth of the cave, avoiding the seaweed they were trying to dry.
She felt like her heart had a twin and it was beating up in her throat. She focused on breathing before walking out in the rain. "Fuck you."
Karin took a bath in one of the deeper rock pools. She rubbed the tender skin of her back, pawing at the proof of her survival tentatively. The rain was slowly stopping, tiny ripples few and far between. She squeezed her eyes shut, decidedly more relaxed. She lost herself in the gentle breeze and distant lapping of the ocean. Slowly opening her eyes she studied the markings of the earth. Animal or human, activity littered the ground. She always prized each one as distinct, telling. A great cause to follow. Then a scuffing caught her attention and she was on edge, entirely unprepared.
She felt tension leave her body when she heard him approach from the opposite direction. She found herself musing at the silence when he stopped. She could sense his impatience as she tied her hair up before speaking. "Can you get a change of clothes? I forgot."
She turned around to see his back as he afforded her modesty. He was a gentleman like that. "I need to talk to you." There was a decided urgency in his voice that made her raise an eyebrow. Was he still upset about earlier? She was over that. So would begin the cycle of sickly sweet apologies, batting eyes and pouting lips. Her waring personality was not without damage control.
"While I'm naked?"
That seemed to set him off as he accused unfavourably, "You're doing this on purpose."
"You know what."
"Honestly Sasuke I don't."
"You left your clothes on purpose... everything lately is on purpose."
What was he going on about? He sounded annoyed, taking the same tone he used on Shisui.
"I genuinely forgot my clothes. I promise."
"A likely story."
She was about to argue but shut her mouth quickly. She would forget her clothes on purpose. She was almost insulted it hadn't occurred to her. A grumble left her lips and she eyed off a starfish grumpily. She was being unfairly accused, no measure of argument capable of swaying him. Whatever she was doing 'on purpose' so much had riled him. A devious thought crossed her mind, if he's going to treat me like a criminal, I may as well be guilty.
She climbed onto the shore and wrapped her arms around him. She could imagine him gritting his teeth, the sour upturn of his mouth. Worse she imagined being skin on skin, how annoying and useless his thin shirt was as she tried to hook her fingers in his belt. It was a pain he was so tall. She had to stand on her toes to speak in his ear.
"Have I upset you?"
She tried to forget the cold. Shivering wasn't sexy.
"Tell me exactly how to make it up to you." She was never slow in her seduction. She'd brashly gamble everything.
It figured she had broken him. He didn't tell her off. He didn't push her back. He didn't even seem embarrassed. He just started pulling off his shirt. Excitement bolted through her when he turned with a steely determination to only look at her face.
He threw his shirt at her before heading to the water. "Get your own clothes."
He sounded unimaginably pissed. There was her Sasuke. She folded and put on his shirt. He was not getting it back. Ever.
Pearls were one of Kirigakure's luxury resources and forbidden to leave the isles. Still fine necklace strands, earrings and bracelets were found in every rich woman's jewellery box mainland. Smuggling was the prime industry of the Akutsuki's Kirigakure branch. Karin and Sasuke had been tasked with hijacking a delivery, a somewhat standard mission but by no means an easy one.
"I'm doing the jump."
"You're better on look out."
"I said I'm taking the jump."
Karin replayed her argument with Sasuke over in her head. Despite the risks she couldn't let him box her out any further. Her resolve had landed the staring roll, their success hinged on her actions. Nightfall had come swiftly and Karin remained flattened against the shadow of a fence. She watched for the signal, scrutinizing each boat that past in case Sasuke had missed something. After a long wait she finally caught the glint of Sasuke's mirror and moved to the concrete walkway, dodging the golden circles of lamplight. The next boat was the mark.
When it came into view she bit her lip. The driver was smart and kept to the centre of the 10 meter wide canal. It made a jump impossible and swimming aboard risky. The panic of failure twisted in her stomach. She stared hopelessly downstream to guess at time. Then she spotted the half-moon shape of a bridge and sprinted. Beating the boat she clambered over the rail and clung to the post trying to make her silhouette as small as possible. When the boat slid under the bridge she dropped down startling the driver with the violent rock of the vessel. She judo chopped him in the back of the neck and considered her luck when he tumbled into the canal. She was halfway through sinking the chest of pearls when she froze.
What if she had successfully knocked the driver out and he was drowning face down?
Karin shook uncontrollably as she rubbed at her arms, thighs, chest- anything that might heat her up. Her distant, impassive look was shared by Sasuke to the point either could be suspected of mimicry. Any upset was rich coming from him. He wasn't the one that had dragged the bottom of the canal.
"I hate you," was the only appropriate answer. Sasuke could be solely blamed for the mission setback. It was his influence, righteous and ethical. Tugging at her thigh high stockings she peeled them off. Sasuke's attention was judgemental and scorning.
"We're you just born indecent?"
She half snarled. "I'm freezing!"
"Well you fell in."
He had the audacity to blame her of such carelessness?
"I did not simply fall in. I saved that stupid fisherman from drowning. It almost ruined everything."
Her temper began to wane like smoke in the air. Sasuke's conscience was viral, an infection slithering into her frontal lobe. Without warning she had found herself ingrained with sick notions of accountability, preservation in the world.
"I didn't care about this stuff before you..." She trailed off. She couldn't pinpoint any set moment of moral transformation. It simply was because of Sasuke. Now, unfortunately, the principle seemed stuck.
Sasuke slid out his coat, Karin drawn to the heaving of his chest. He had run to find her and was still out of breath. He draped it over her shoulders and she was torn between craving the kindness or ripping it off. In some respect it was a straightjacket, committing her insanity.
"Where's the shipment?"
The empty vessel had been spotted and an alarm rose. They waited until daybreak. Karin had barely been able to haul the chest to the dock, hiding it under netting and fishhooks. The chest itself was peculiar, wrought iron with such a complex shell pattern hammered in the casting that Karin couldn't help but trace each dip in the ornate border. Despite such painstaking detail a key was tied lazily to the handle, a rookie fault of the deliver. They had to open it. It was too heavy and noticeable to sneak past a patrol.
Sasuke jammed the key in the lock, Karin craning her head around for onlookers. "It's not opening."
She frowned sparing him a quick glance. "Is it the right key?"
It had to be. It had the same embroidery as the chest. She had even frisked the unconscious fisherman just to be sure.
After a moment Sasuke muttered, "The locks fake."
So the trunk was as impressive as its craftsmanship. The lock was a decoy meant to confuse thieves. Then how did it open? It was too well built to simply break. If they left it on the dock it would be found, its finish glinting between the holes in the net. Sinking it would be much of the same as the area was popular to fish.
Habitually they swapped places. She could almost hear Sasuke's disjointed thoughts, stuttering like a dying flame. She studied the shell pressings, trying to make some sense before she noticed the screws. Why were there screws all over the lid? They offset the thatch work, some not lining up. She pawed at them methodically from one edge to the other. Just left of the centre she stopped, noticing a hairline crack that had been dragged back by her fingertips. The screw swivelled and a chunk of the iron slid back to reveal a key hole. The ornate key fit but she had trouble turning it and asked Sasuke for help.
Inside were three dozen pearls the size of grapes and another dozen even larger. Despite this she found the locking mechanism on the inside lid of the trunk more striking.
They lined Sasuke's coat with the pearls, kicked the chest in the ocean and headed back to the canal channel. Their only bother was passing a group of fisherman to the drop.
Fat pearls spilled from their hands into the crate. The Kisame of the day watched them with an appraising eye. She looked like a spoiled housewife, adorned in costume brooches, double chinned with lined eyes and rouged cheeks.
She frowned slightly handing over their next assignment. Karin bristled when she was sized up. "This should impress Miss Hothead. The largest recorded paragon diamond in history has found its way onto the island. I want you to collect as much information on its location as possible."
Karin was a foul beauty. The type of girl Sasuke's mother would have clutched her prayer beads over and his father would have forbid. She'd be cutthroat, the first girl to floor him first sight. Her wide eyes entirely enticing, lips too plump and the soft curves of her body volatile. New and dangerous he'd have fallen for her outspoken edge, the uncompromising intellect. Disapproval wrought Itachi's favour. Sasuke could imagine the sly smiles and nudges across the dinner table. 'An act of rebellion' they'd all dismiss but Sasuke would know her as deeper, real, HIS.
But that was in a completely different life. One where he was allowed to harbour his families concern, make his own decisions and mistakes. Now he was making amends to the empty cavern of skulls and chasing ghosts. Attraction to Karin was an intolerable distraction.
Then why did he still find himself watching her? He'd get caught up with the way she bit her lip when worried. The care she took cleaning her glasses each evening in vigilant routine. The way she'd squirm and knock her knees when she was excited. He'd follow her cool gaze over the world, wondering what she thought. Even now he listened as she rattled off rumours about the diamond. She was narrowing it down to the International Bank with each syllable, testing him to get there first.
After she caught alight he swore he'd protect her. Promises were hollow. His father's blood oath against Danzo, Shisui's silver gilded freedom and Itachi's return could all attest. His family was one cultivated lie but he had been entirely honest. It made for a mind-rotting conflict of interests. Protecting her would involve removing her from his life. His quest for revenge would suffer that.
"Why did you follow me into Root?"
He wanted to know everything. Why she defected with him. Why she didn't swallow that poison and why she remained in the Akutsuki. Intuition told him it all hinged on her answer.
Again she was reading one of her shameful books. Tension graced her shoulders but she turned pages as if undisturbed.
"You are doing my head in."
Fine. She was doing his in.
"Let it go."
He took her advice chokehold and stared into the fire trying to forget. He wanted to burn each memory, the sly hook in her smile, her inexhaustible breadth of scheming, the mood swings, the relief of finding her alive in bitter dirt and ash. Most of all he wanted to forget the day and the feel of her body pressed against his. By that rock pool he had cursed a different kind of frustration and thanked god for resolve and cold water.
Sasuke could only love the dead.
The International Bank was nestled upon a huge estate with a courtyard and canal. What was once a manor had been ripped up and remodelled into a stronghold of lockers and safes. In the daylight she could spot a dozen guards on patrol and suspected the number doubled at night. She could hazard a few points of entry but each one was not without high risk.
"A grapple could be used to climb in that window."
She studied the path Sasuke had picked out. There was plenty of cover from security and they would enter on the second floor. A grapple could be noisy though.
"Maybe," she decided. "We need a closer look."
"I'll go. Cover me."
Sasuke made his way through the courtyard before she could answer, dodging guards and customers before he broke from the path. She hissed when someone walked into her, almost ploughing her into the stone fence.
"Spare change?" they demanded.
She shoved the beggar back with a scowl. "Not for you."
His voice was grating. The condescending undertone stuck with her. "Thanks for the generosity."
She watched Sasuke slip behind a wall. "Anytime."
The cold night made them huddle around the fire long after they ate. Karin lazily rolled the leftover taro roots around each other. They were lucky to find some wild plants growing nearby. Typically the topic of choice was the diamond. A few points of entry at the bank were solid. "We need to find which safe it's in."
"We could sneak in and look at records," Karin suggested.
"Posing as a customer would be easier. I could do that."
The Taro roots crashed into each other. "By yourself?"
He shrugged. "Why not?"
"I'll do it."
She struggled to understand his next sentence before she realised he was speaking Koma. He drawled, "Look any more confused and they'll arrest you on the spot."
She dug her nails into her palm. He remained placid, "You are the one who taught me to keep plans simple. Stop overcomplicating things."
"Stop shutting me out of your plans."
She shuttered at her own boldness, the defensive catch in her voice. She hadn't intended such a childish protest. But what was left to prove but her humiliation?
"Enough of this," he said firmly. "I trust you."
"You think I'm incompetent." She was powerless to stop voicing her doubt like the hurtling abandon of a rockslide. She denied the shake of his head, the heavy sigh. "I want the truth Sasuke. Ever since the fire you've been treating me different."
His silence spelt annoyance. After deciding the confrontation unavoidable he reluctantly offered, "You want us to both speak honestly? No holding back?"
She nodded. "Yes." She consummated the invitation by grabbing his wrist and parking herself directly in front of him. She peered into his eyes, determined to track, focus and analyse.
"Now what are you doing?" The same anger from the rock pool possessed him. She brushed off the tightness in his tone, the shift in his gaze and spine. She couldn't entertain the meanings of any similarity under a more important task.
"People have tells when they lie. If you start lying I'm going to find yours."
She had been top of her class at the Youth Armed Sanctuary in reading body language. A useful skill when the majority of communication was non-verbal. A combination of tells for lying such as avoiding eye-contact, flared nostrils, sweating, touching the face and head movements an indication. She even had her fingers over his pulse to check for any rush of adrenaline. She was completely aware Sasuke had received the same training and prepared herself for subtleties. A more compartmentalised display of guilt that would be painfully and unavoidably him.
She began her line of inquiry. "Well?"
Everything had to be perfectly clear. "Since the warehouse burned down you've been shutting me out. Why?"
"I'm not doing it for you," he argued. She set her jaw and prepared for a verbal attack. She thought so much for honesty before he continued. "It's for my sake."
Much to her surprise he looked away. She'd pegged him to an unholy level of eye-contact, saturated in adverse expectation. Instead of a lie however the action was embarrassment. When he turned back he was flawless in resolve. "It kills me to see you get hurt."
It practically winded her. It didn't upset him, annoy or displease- it killed him.
"Well, you're soft like that."
Sasuke that had stood at the tip of her arrow to save some unknown hunter, Sasuke that spared Dr. Matsuda, the root guards. His consideration was steeped in undeserved equality.
She didn't need training to recognise anger. His pulse spiked, eyes narrowing in disgust. "I've walked through streets lined with corpses. I've witnessed the extermination of my family and culture. It didn't kill me."
Their lives were as ugly as each others. He wasn't soft. He wanted to kill. He just tired of innocent, unnecessary blood.
"Why not?" Still she pushed. As long as her confrontational stance bore fruit she would hold it. "Why should I be any different?"
His answer was bitter. "Karin, I need you. If you get hurt I am responsible for that."
After fighting Deidara she had been caught up with the effects on herself. She hadn't even considered the guilt Sasuke might have felt, however misguided. "The fire wasn't your fault-"
He cut her off. "You wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for me."
"You haven't forced anything on me," she reminded fiercely. "I'm here on my own accord. I understand the risks."
"And I don't understand why you take them." He moved her fingers from his pulse to clutch her wrist as if she was a disobedient child about to run away. It all became apparent with his next question. "Why did you follow me into Root?"
She felt wronged. How had she let the interrogation off track? How had he steered the line of questioning? Why did it feel like a natural progression?
"You promised we'd both be honest," he reminded. The loophole levelled a crater in size. She cursed herself for not noticing sooner.
Why?" His voice was husky and mistaken. "Why come after me?"
The misguided expression on his face made all tension release from her own until she was practically palpable. He did not recoil at the softness in her eyes. She could hardly explain what she couldn't fully grasp. If she was honest about why she came after him... if she admitted to the truth...
She kissed him tenderly.
It was only brief but when she pulled back she found the shadowed edges of understanding in his expression, a hint of clarity in all the complication. Suddenly she was afraid he'd figure it out before she did. So she slapped him hard across the face. He swore at her, pressing a hand to his swelling cheek.
She viciously claimed him on first watch and curled up in the sleeping bag. It took an hour before she could stop fisting her hands tightly in the cloth and much longer to fall asleep.
Lucid kisses woke her. Soft and gentle like the caress of cat fur against skin. Dazed, her fingers twitched against the warmth above her before settling on broad shoulders. It was midnight, his eyes, his hair, everything.
"Mmm..." she moaned against his mouth, deepening the kiss. "Sasuke..."
Sasuke pressed his lips hard against her as if to punish. For wanting him, recognising him or driving him to her she didn't know. She didn't care. It was just finally.
MetaMirage: Finally indeed. The chapter's late, poorly written but hey it's sealed with a kiss. In character or out of character- either way I am sporting a few less strands of hair. How can I stress over something I do for fun? I'm special that way. Anyway, thanks for the patience everyone. Reviews would be much appreciated.
Warning: all that rejoice the end of this chapter will blindly hate the next.