MetaMirage: Oh dear! I want to apologise to those of you that thought the story had ended. It is nowhere near complete! Much like the manga the death of Orochimaru is just the beginning. There is still Danzo's assassination, reuniting with Itachi and joining up with Suigetsu and Juugo (among much more) to come. Things also really start to heat up between Karin and Sasuke. The pairing tag is not just for show! Again I apologise for the confusion and hope you enjoy chapter 8.


'Naruto' and 'Naruto Shippuden' are the property of Masashi Kishimoto and TV Tokyo.


Self-Combustion

MetaMirage


8


Death was stagnant. The slow unwind of muscle and miniscule breathing. Karin mirrored falling to the floor, her body shrivelling up like a wilted petal.

But her eyes remained sharp behind her eyelids. She hadn't swallowed and playing possum was arduous. The Odium Cluster burned and peeled strips of flesh from her mouth like rust blossoming across iron. Finally she gagged and tried to muffle her spluttered coughing when she spat it out. Heavy footsteps echoed through the cries of the dying. The patrol was finishing off any straddlers before turning on themselves.

The same way Dr. Matsuda's body had fought back against dying Karin's mind had kicked in. There was a seam of survival untouched even by Lord Orochimaru that could never compromise. She was too selfish to die. She imagined herself cowered in the tree trunk as her village bled. She was guilty and awful. She was alive.

She stopped breathing when someone crept close. She might have missed it if it wasn't for the rustle of clothes and assessed that they were crawling. Her skin broke out in goosebumps when a hand was placed on the small of her back, the touch soft. It took everything not to let her face mar with a frown when her hair was swept to the side carefully. A guard wouldn't do that. Just kick her over, check for life and move on.

Someone was coveting the dead.

An explosion racked the mess hall causing the culprit to drop but they continued to gently stroke her. She almost broke her act when they leaned their face close and she figured it all out.

Sasuke.

"Well hurry up and kiss me," she murmured. Finally she allowed herself a weak smile as her eyes fluttered open. She caught the frayed surprise of his expression.

"You wish," Sasuke countered before turning away to also play dead. Despite that he couldn't completely disguise the relief in his voice.


It took three days for Kirigakure to finally break through. There was nothing savage, no war cry or victory cheer when they entered the mess hall. There was a weighted sadness in their silence that seemed almost devout. Their eyes traced the bodies or fixated on empty air. Karin could separate the ones that remembered their training when they turned over corpses to search for pulses and the cynics that needed no greater context to accept tragedy. A few bowed their heads in respect but many more vomited. The stench of death was overwhelming.

"They were just kids..." one young man murmured between gaping breaths. "Just little kids..."

The boy next to Karin twitched. They had amassed a small group of survivors and huddled in the corner. Some continued to play dead but Sasuke was sitting in a relaxed posture and locked eyes with one of the passing soldiers. He dropped his kunai in shock and called to the rest of his squad with incomprehensible elation.

"Some of them are still alive!"

They were surrounded and Karin feared she would pass out when one of the soldiers passed a bladder of water and asked if she was okay.


"Everyone 14 and over on the far left!"

They were herded into groups for assessment. A quick count had Karin shrinking on herself. There were 23 YAS recruits left. No, they could hardly be called YAS recruits anymore. All of the true members were gone now. She was one among traitors. She questioned if that would ever sit right with her.

"You have been liberated by Kirigakure!" one of the soldiers shouted to her group. He held the affluent posture of a general. "We are here to present you with a gift of 300 grams of rice."

Karin almost snorted. There were no gifts in war. There were enticers and incentive. There was being bought and paid without realising. Kiri was looking at them as an asset, as soldiers. The food was mere persuasion.

"You're being drafted into the Kiri forces," he finally announced. Official papers were handed out and expected to be signed. "I assure you there will be more food like this to come. We will offer you shelter. We will offer you protection."

So her suspicions were correct. Karin kept her face schooled as the rice was handed out. Having received rations for most of her life Karin had become acute to the weight of her food. Kiri was just like Oto as her bag was not quiet the 300g promised. They'd shaved but Karin couldn't argue it was more generous than she was used to.

"If you are smart you will hold onto this rice and trade it. There is good money in produce. The army will feed you well and you will want for nothing."

What choice did they have other than joining? She imagined the soldiers weren't going to take it lightly if service was refused and what life awaited an ex-YAS member? Without families or a generous community to fall back on there was only a life of poverty, suffering and victimisation. In the army you could be someone before death. In the end Karin would rather be the one striking the kunai than receiving the blow.

She cast a quick glance at Sasuke as he inspected the pouch of rice. They were changing sides.


Before leaving Karin found herself at the threshold of the mess hall. Her reaction was completely visceral when she bent double to dry heave. On the inside she was oddly at peace following a strand of light that illuminated Lord Orochimaru perfectly.

His body would be dragged through the streets and strung up by furious villagers that had suffered his rule. They would throw rocks, hunks of wood, shards of glass- anything they could to maim. That was of course after Kirigakagure finished with him. His testing on their POW's was infamous and very public after all.

But Karin would never remember Lord Orochimaru like that. He would be poised on that throne with such a relaxed expression he may very well be asleep instead of dead. In her own timeless failure he would remain dormant, a challenge to the very core of her new being, a non-healing scar to her altered thinking.


They were issued with one pack and standardised weaponry. It included a set of kunai and throwing stars. She lamented how poor Kirigakure were compared to Konoha. The weapons scavenged from Konoha were always better quality with blades that balance and arrows common fodder. Karin's bow was something she found on a dead archer, a score that would be unheard of with Kiri. She was afraid she would have been stripped of the weapon but was luckily asked to shoot. She got a special mark on her paper and the words of her new commander 'it is better in her hand than anyone else's'.

It took them half a day to reach the closest village. In the overbearing heat Karin headed straight to a vendor to trade some rice for cool water from the well. Sasuke grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.

"Shouldn't we trade it?" she questioned, holding up her bag.

Sasuke replied, "I would rather eat it."

Karin felt her chest tighten as she translated the meaning of his words. In an unspoken agreement they would not be joining Kiri on the front. She waited until nightfall to help orchestrate the finer details of their escape.


Slipping away was the easy part. The hard part was putting enough distance between the soldiers before their absence was noticed. They squeezed between trees and cut through vines. Their distinct path terrified Karin. Tracking them would be simple.

"Go that way."

"But we don't need to go that way," Sasuke replied between clenched teeth. With the main responsibility of cutting down obstacles he had no energy to waste.

"We need to create decoy paths," Karin defended. Ideally she would riddle their escape with them.

"Okay. I'll do the main path, you handle the decoys."

Karin nodded, pulling out her own stolen machete. "Got it."


Finally they escaped the heart of the forest as the trees thinned and the primeval harmony of nature faded. She sloppily hoisted herself over a low stone wall, her lungs burning. They should have stayed with the caravan longer and broken away after the jungle. They had been in that death trap for 16 hours. Sasuke however had disagreed with her and she stupidly followed him. Scratched and bruised beyond recollection she shot him a nasty look in her exhaustion.

"Where are we going?"

"Just a little further."


"Oh my god..."

Sasuke had taken her to a trove of buried goods. Amongst hard coin there was jewellery, porcelain, packets of cigarettes, crystal- anything that could possibly be turned over for a profit. She was in awe at the riches he had amassed, Sasuke claiming all of it belonged to him. Turning over a jewel encrusted mirror to see the Yakushi crest engraved in the back made her believe otherwise.

"You stole all of this?"

Sasuke's silence was incriminating.

"That's why you wanted to work on collection..." Karin murmured. Through collection he'd had access to some of the richest families in the country. He'd returned their hospitality by taking everything that wasn't nailed down. She surveyed him carefully. "How long have you been planning this?"

"Since I first arrived at the Youth Armed Sanctuary," Sasuke said matter of fact. "Assassinations cost."

Breaking it down Karin realised they had the objective and funds but did they have the means? She suspected their operation was going to grow out from just the two of them. She knew more manpower would be necessary. She just didn't have to like it.


They took the journey to Konoha slowly to account for the extra weight. Making a rendezvous with the Autumn Leaf and working under Shisui their main objective. With about 4 days until the capital they set up camp. Karin looked around the forest and wondered what it would be like to grow up with so many trees towering over every move you made. Would it bring the reassurance someone was watching or was that feeling always going to possess a sinister air. The calming journey had bought her no solace. She didn't know what path lay in front of her anymore than the one she left behind. She wasn't able to process anything in the quiet uncertainty.

"Can you get the pot?" Sasuke asked.

They had come across some oyster mushrooms. That paired with some of the sourwood leaves, cress and wild onion they'd spotted in the area would make a half-decent meal with their rice.

Karin bent over their packs, mindlessly sifting through gear. They only had one sleeping bag but that had a habit of getting in the way along with the medical kit.

"Can those shorts get any shorter?" Sasuke's voice broke the silence vehemently. She craned her head back to see him scowling before facing away irritably. She stood, placing her hands over the waistband of her shorts. They were short, but it was hot. What did he expect?

"You don't like them..." she said schooling her voice to vulnerability and softening her features with insecurity. She waited for him to look back before grinning deviously. "...they're gone."

She pulled her shorts down around her ankles giving him a cheeky wink. He was either to stunned to be mortified or off playing-hard-to get as he didn't react. So she boldly continued by unzipping her top seductively. "What do you think of my shirt?"

Finally he frowned at her before walking away. "I'm going to secure the perimeter," he said grumpily.

She sighed at his retreating back. "Guess I'm cooking then."


Sasuke had only adjusted their route by a fraction.

"This isn't the fastest way to Konoha."

He stopped with heels digging into the soft mud. Karin was insufferable when there was a map in her hand. Any path he picked out was upgraded to a 'better' one that was quicker, safer or resource efficient. Annoyingly she was always right in the end.

"I need to take a detour."

Her eyes hinted a deep set disapproval. He hated having to explain himself. "There's a tavern around here I need to drop in on. We'll keep a low profile."

Karin just gawked at him. Sasuke had no time to waste on self-consciousness but handling her critique was another matter.

"Stop staring."

"You drink?" she asked incredulously. He scowled at her shocked undertone. Karin had the uncanny ability to tell when he was lying so he just pushed past her and kept walking. Not speaking was usually his best option. She almost skipped to his side.

"Well alright then. If you insist," she said with a light shrug. He lamented the fact she was acting like he had twisted her arm in any way. "We'll drop in on this tavern."


Chaotic shouts echoed throughout the bar. Karin snarled, stamping on the hand of a drunken man that was clawing at her boots before launching a kunai when a second man lunged at her. "This is your idea of keeping a low profile!"

She caught a glimpse of Sasuke finishing off a sleeper hold before rushing the bartender. Her ears pinched at the sudden absence of sound. It was the type of quiet that had descended upon Konoha during Danzo's address, something born of absolute authority. With the pulling force of a black hole everyone's attention fell to an imposingly tall man with a powerful build that stood atop the balcony. There was a raw ferocity in his stare and such inflicting promise in his muscles. In a world of deception the man was so clearly dangerous it was almost insulting.

Sasuke greeted him calmly. "Kakuzu I presume."


A large drop of condensation slid from the rim of the glass to the table. Karin focused on the way it welled instead of the hairline scars running down Kakuzu's arm. Brawl over she could appreciate the absolute hell hole of a bar. With dank, dark ceiling beams, peeling plaster and a wood rotted counter top it was a palace fit for one of the largest crime organisations in the country.

Sasuke had taken them into an Akatsuki branch. A little fact he had forgotten to mention about his 'detour'.

"I don't like theatrics. Your audacity is a death sentence and a fucking liability," Kakuzu said tonelessly. "However, if you can walk in here and hold your own then I'd be stupid to ignore that. So listen."

The room was enraptured with a dangerous undertone. A pervasive malice seeped into every word until Karin could only recognise treachery.

"The difference between Akatsuki and the other backwater gangs around here is one simple fact: we don't make threats. Only promises. So here's my promise to you Uchiha, double cross me and I will end you. I'll rip away any semblance of a future you have- starting with your girl here. When you have nothing left I will expose you and let the authorities finish off what they started."

The tension in the room threatened volcanic. Sasuke levelled Kakuzu's unwavering stare with his own. "I'm not an Uchiha."

Kakuzu's laugh was inherently patronizing. "I am a man of opportunity! How do you think I got here? I play every advantage and you are clearly an Uchiha. I don't waste talent regardless of its filthy roots. You work for me or you die. Got it?"

Without proper hesitation Sasuke reached across the table to accept the handshake that would seal their fates. For the rest of their lives they would be looking over their shoulder, speaking in whispers and treading carefully through the shadows that claimed them. They were branded criminals.

To say Karin was livid was an understatement.


"You are a spectacular idiot," Karin belittled, throwing firewood to the pile with an angry thud.

"Where did that come from?" Sasuke retorted. She was having no such defiance, rounding on him and getting right up in his moronic face.

"Where do you think? You just signed us both over to the Akatsuki! They've put a price on our heads!"

He gave her a haughty look. "You think I'm scared of the Akatsuki?"

She shook her head in disbelief at his sheer arrogance. "You should be! Any sane person is!"

It was becoming increasingly apparent Sasuke wasn't sane. Not when it came to assassinating Danzo and getting revenge. He'd make improbable sacrifices and take the slightest of chances without faltering. He was guaranteeing their deathbeds.

"You served us up. And for what? A chance to get to Danzo-"

"You think this is about Danzo?" he interrupted abruptly. "You're not even close."

Karin narrowed her eyes trying to pick apart his lie. She was disgusted at how easily he convinced her he was being truthful. Slowly her judgment involving him was being rendered subpar... slipping...

He stepped closer to her and she couldn't help but stare at the hand he placed on her shoulder. For someone who hated touch he was becoming generous with her.

"When I escaped Konoha I went looking for my brother but I couldn't find him," he said. "Then I suspected Shisui knew where he went. He told me Itachi joined the Akatsuki."

Karin huffed and sat cross legged on a log. She remembered that fight between Sasuke and his cousin and rubbed the side of her head for clarity. "You didn't tell me that."

"I was planning to. You just jumped down my throat."

She clenched her teeth. If that had been his intention she should have found out well before the brawl. He was twisting things again and she turned to retreat to the woods only to feel his firm grip on her wrist. She watched him get down on her level with an air of intrigue. He was on his knees, almost begging.

"I need you to help me find him. I just need proof that he's okay. We're supposed to be meeting in eight months but I'm worried."

It was difficult to detach from the pleading in his voice, the suffering that infused every aspect of his being. With all the gold he had stolen she was still the most valuable thing he had. She closed her eyes and would choose to remember how she made him sweat on her answer. Truthfully, "I'll help you," left her lips immediately.