Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
World: Narutoverse, slightly AU
"Suddenly, my eyes are open, everything comes into focus.
We are all illuminated, lights are shining on our faces.
It was not the same. Imagination and reality had never quite matched up for Karin, her imagination tending towards the awful and fantastical while reality tethered her to the ground of reason. But in Orochimaru's case, reality was far more horrifying than any whim she could conjure from the darkest depths of her fantasies.
"I'm surprised at you," Orochimaru said, golden eyes trained on her over the rim of his wine glass. "Since when do care about anyone who isn't me?"
She possessed a meager height advantage from standing while he relaxed in a chair at the head of a long dining table. Even so, Karin could feel her fingers sliding against clammy palms as she balled her fists and forced her expression to remain blank. She'd learned early on that Orochimaru was a puppet master whose foremost enjoyment in life came from building up his armies just to watch them fall. One slip-up and she, too, could find herself sacrificed the way he'd done with the Sound Four.
"It's because of my loyalty to you that I want to help," Karin said. It would not do to let him see the cracks in her armor whenever they spoke of loyalty. She was an excellent liar, but Orochimaru was possessed of a kind of clairvoyance no mortal ought to have.
Straight-backed and with her head held high, Karin recited the plan she'd rehearsed over and over in her head. "I want to heal Kimimaro so that he'll be ready to be your next vessel."
"Sasuke is my next vessel. Kimimaro may have been an adequate choice once, but even his gifts cannot compare to the Sharingan."
"Of course," she said, catching herself before she let her inward anger show on her face. "But, with all due respect, what if something goes wrong?"
"Wrong? Are you saying something could happen to prevent me from taking what's rightfully mine?"
"...Only that last time, Sasuke didn't arrive in time to be your next vessel. There was no helping that, and what if it happened again? I think it's best to have a backup plan, that's all."
Orochimaru took a sip of his wine, and Karin watched as his throat bobbed slightly with the swallowing motion. Somewhere beneath the too-white skin and reptilian eyes lay the face of another, trapped within his own body. She hadn't known Gen'yumaru personally, having arrived in Sound after Orochimaru took possession of his body, but she couldn't wish such a fate on him regardless.
And what about Kimimaro? a voice whispered in her ear. She ignored it. If it came down to Kimimaro or Sasuke, her decision was easy.
"That's an interesting choice of words. How long have you been plotting this?"
Karin suddenly felt as though the blood in her veins had turned to ice. Could he read her so easily? Was she so predictable? This time, she could not hide the flash of panic in her eyes. Orochimaru bared his teeth in a smile.
"Don't worry, my dear. I agree with you. Only a fool would put all his eggs in one basket. It warms my heart to know I have such a resourceful young ward."
Karin relaxed a little in spite of herself. She really hated being alone with the man, especially in cramped stone rooms with no windows should she want to remind herself that sunlight could reach even these dark depths. But since arriving in Sound nearly two years ago, she'd learned to tell Orochimaru as much truth as she could allow. The truth was the best lie, after all.
"However," Orochimaru said, "while I appreciate your enthusiasm, Kimimaro is grievously ill and bedridden. What can you possibly hope to accomplish?"
It was amazing how he could speak words of concern without caring at all. Karin had to wonder how he'd developed such an eerie mannerism.
"My chakra can heal." Ignoring the twitch in her fingers, she pulled up the sleeve of her shirt to expose a few scars in the shape of human bite marks. "You're familiar with Kabuto's research."
Orochimaru didn't bat a lash at what was clearly an uncomfortable topic for the girl. As far as he was concerned, she was only as good as her usefulness provided. Once that ran out, he would discard her as he had Kimimaro once the illness became too advanced. But if she could reverse the effects, then it would be the most useful accomplishment she could ever claim for the person to whom she owed her true loyalty and more.
"That's a generous offer, but you're forgetting that even Kabuto could not do much for Kimimaro. What makes you think you'll be any more successful?"
"I think I have a better chance of succeeding if I actually do something than nothing at all. Don't you agree?"
He didn't need to give voice to the elephant in the room. They were both fully aware that such an attempt could kill her or, perhaps worse, drain her to the point of permanent damage. For all the vitality of her chakra, it may not be enough to save Kimimaro. And if he took it all, there would be nothing left for her.
But Karin would trade her life for Sasuke's, of this she was certain. Of all the wretched people she'd ever known in this life, Sasuke was one of the few to have helped her without wanting something in return. Maybe it was because he knew loneliness the way she did, the pain of having lost so many pieces of their hearts that there was hardly anything left to make them beat but each other. He'd saved her life once, and she would do the same for him in whatever small way she could.
"Fine," Orochimaru said. "You're dismissed."
Karin bowed curtly and turned on her heel to leave Orochimaru's oppressive presence.
"And Karin," he said. "Don't disappoint me."
She nodded and left the room, taking care to close the heavy wooden door behind her before letting a repressed shiver travel up her spine. Not one to dawdle, she hugged her covered arms to her chest and made her way through the underground maze that was Sound toward the medical compound.
"Don't disappoint me."
For all her skill at spotting duplicity, Karin could not decipher Orochimaru's true meaning. Having a conversation with him was like trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces. She supposed this, more so than his fearsome reputation as a Sannin and former Akatsuki, was what kept him at the top while his minions raced along behind him, ignorant of the traps he lay in his wake.
"It doesn't matter," she told herself. "This is enough."
The medical wing was the quietest in all of Sound. Karin remembered the hospital in Grass well enough from the few times she'd injured herself fooling around with kunai. It was always loud and bright—too bright, even. Staff bustled about, perpetually in a hurry to be anywhere but where they currently were, and patients in all states of hurt and disease wailed from behind closed doors.
This place was nothing like that. The only sound piercing the gloomy stone corridor was a distant, rhythmic beeping from the door at the end of the hall. Unconsciously, Karin found herself tiptoeing toward it, as though any more sound might animate unfriendly shadows in the corners. She hated this area, perhaps even more now that Kabuto wasn't experimenting on her anymore. Where before she came here regularly for testing and checkups, these days a summons to the medical wing meant another forced chakra healing, after which she was always drained and hurting, if she was lucky enough to remain conscious.
Don't think about it.
This time, she was making the voluntary choice to use her ability. That had to count for something, at least. Even though the door was slightly ajar, she hesitated before entering. Kimimaro had always tended to keep to himself, and his interactions with others were usually of a professional or violent nature. Unlike with the other shinobi at the base who were used to her abrasive mien, she had always been a little cautious around Kimimaro. Even Sasuke was more comfortable to be around than him, and he was used to her mannerisms enough to take them in stride. Kimimaro, on the other hand, had always struck her as the type to lose his patience with anyone who looked at him the wrong way. She'd kept her distance for the most part.
The room was carved of stone, just like the rest of the subterranean base, and packed earth filled the cracks. A lone bed sat in the middle of the small room next to a strange machine meant to help with respiration and an IV stand across from it. A thin, white sheet clung to Kimimaro's frame as he slept, peaceful to the untrained eye. But Karin knew better. The clammy sheen of his forehead belied his feverish state, and the shallow rise and fall of his chest made her want to breathe deeper to compensate. She did just that, shaking out her hands to calm her nerves.
"Karin? What are you doing in here?"
Whirling, Karin spotted Kabuto stopped in the doorway holding a clipboard. He looked tired, but she knew him well enough to know that Kabuto was never too tired to make a point. Still, he could not act against her even if he wanted to. Orochimaru found her useful and loyal. She was safe.
Crossing her arms over her chest she said, "I'm here to see Kimimaro."
"Orochimaru thinks I should try to heal him." Kabuto was always easier to persuade when he thought someone was doing Orochimaru's bidding. "It's the only thing we haven't tried."
Kabuto took a moment to examine her before his gaze drifted to Kimimaro. Karin wondered if he was offended by this proposition seeing as he'd only managed to divert the side effects of Kimimaro's disease instead of curing them entirely.
"Let's get started then," he said. "I'll have to wake him. Take a seat."
Karin was somewhat taken aback by his easy compliance. She'd expected him to resent this turn of events, his pride as a top medical ninja likely more important to him than a patient who was more of a specter than a man at this point. He must have sensed her curiosity.
"Don't look so surprised. What kind of shinobi would I be if I didn't recognize my own limitations and work around them?"
Kabuto was dangerous on the best of days. Collected and even borderline cheerful on the surface, Karin was well aware of the cruel, cold persona simmering beneath the facade. It didn't take much to penetrate it, and woe to anyone who did. Sometimes, Kabuto was far more terrifying than Orochimaru. At least with the latter, there was some degree of certainty that any moment could be one's last. With Kabuto, it was hard to gauge his mood at all.
"Not a very good one, I suppose," Karin said as she walked to the other side of Kimimaro's sick bed.
Kabuto summoned his medical chakra and leaned over his patient. Green chakra flared for a moment and Kimimaro's prostrate body convulsed, rattling the metal bed frame and causing Karin to tense. If there was one thing she did not appreciate, it was Kabuto's little surprises. All of a sudden, Kimimaro's eyes shot open and shifted erratically around the room, unseeing.
"But I am good," Kabuto said as he peered down at Kimimaro heaving for breath.
Personal feelings aside, Karin could appreciate Kabuto's talents and, secretly, wished she knew half the things he did with regards to medical ninjutsu.
But he failed Kimimaro, and I still have a chance.
"Uhh..." Kimimaro groaned at having been forcefully roused, pale eyes squinting to adjust to the dim fluorescent lighting overhead.
"Well, Kimimaro, today's your lucky day," Kabuto said with false cheer. "It looks like Orochimaru-sama hasn't given up on you just yet."
Kimimaro didn't respond. He was groggy and only half aware, and Karin wondered if he'd even heard Kabuto at all. He looked much more frail now that he was animated than when he'd been still as a corpse. It made her wonder whether or not her energy, even teeming with more vigor than most, could do much for him. But she had to try.
"Karin, proceed," Kabuto said with a wave of his hand.
She had to swallow the flare of ignominy at exposing herself to Kabuto. For an outsider it may have seemed a small thing for someone to see her scars, but for Karin it was the same as making herself vulnerable to someone who'd violated her in the past. Kabuto watched her, perhaps sensing her thoughts—the bastard—but she would not let him have the satisfaction of seeing her discomfort. Putting on a stony face, she yanked a sleeve up to the elbow, exposing pale flesh marred with the occasional bite mark from old experiments. She remembered every one, though sometimes she wished she did not.
"Kimimaro," she said. "Bite my arm." She let her forearm hover just in front of his mouth and felt her skin crawl under his too-hot breath.
"I..." Kimimaro said, trailing off.
Kabuto rolled his eyes. "All right, we don't have all day." Without warning, he hoisted Kimimaro into a half sitting position and angled him towards Karin's offered limb. "Bite down and don't let go until I tell you to."
Karin felt the familiar rush of nerves and a little fear that usually came with the anticipation of a new bite. She reminded herself that she was in control of this. This was not the same as the trials Kabuto had forced upon her in the course of his research. It would be all right—
Kimimaro sank his teeth into her wrist at Kabuto's encouragement. Pain bloomed at the entry wound and rushed from the tips of her fingers up her arm to her core. Gritting her teeth, Karin willed her elevated heart rate to calm as she felt her energy slowly begin to gravitate toward the bite and leave her body.
As Kimimaro took in her vigorous chakra, he seemed to become a little more self-aware. He reached out to hold her arm to his mouth on his own and used his free elbow to support the weight of his body. Kabuto stepped back a bit to watch the spectacle, his physical support no longer needed.
Karin fisted the sheet that had previously covered Kimimaro in her free hand and tried to breathe slowly and deeply. As the initial pain of Kimimaro's bite became more bearable, she found it a little easier to focus on keeping herself steady despite the fatigue and nausea beginning to fog her mind. Blood dribbled down Kimimaro's chin and dripped onto the bleached bedding as he ground his incisors deeper into Karin's flesh, sucking the life out of her.
She soon became lethargic and her vision began to darken. Her head lulled and she slumped a little. Kimimaro pushed himself further up, his grip the only thing keeping Karin upright. She grew weaker as vitality returned to him, but he didn't seem to notice her deterioration. Sleep sounded marvelous right about now, but somewhere in the depths of her fading consciousness she knew this was a bad idea.
"S-Stop... Kimi..." she said. Her tongue felt too fat for her mouth, the words rolling around it like marbles.
Somewhere in the distance a voice said something incoherent. Karin felt something jostle her, but her body was as limp as a wet noodle and unresponsive. Somehow, she knew the sleep that called to her was one from which she would never wake.
It was the last thing she heard before succumbing to the numbing blackness and falling to the floor.
Leave me alone. It hurts.
"Karin, wake up."
I don't want to go back there...
A cool hand on her cheek felt marvelous. It suddenly registered that she felt hot, burning. She turned her head toward the refreshing cold.
"Karin, can you hear me?"
Harsh lighting made Karin squint as she attempted to open her eyes. It felt like seeing through wool. Lifting a hand to rub them, she noticed the tight dressing around her wrist and faint, red splotches peeking through.
Pushing herself up on an elbow, she came face to face with Kabuto, a clipboard in his hands. "Is he all right?"
Kabuto smiled. "Oh, far from it. He's sleeping again."
Karin was thankful she wasn't wearing her glasses so that she wouldn't have to suffer Kabuto's smarmy face in all its glory. "What are you talking about? I feel like I almost died."
"You almost did," he said, smile curling a little to give him a more sinister look. "It's a good thing I pulled him off you when I did. He was out just after."
"I thought this would work," Karin said more to herself than to him. She fisted a handful of the thin hospital sheet covering her lower half.
"Don't fret. This was just the first round. There's plenty more where that came from now that you're recovered."
"But you just said—"
"I said he was far from being all right. I never said your efforts were totally in vain." Kabuto walked to the lab counter where he tinkered with unfamiliar glassware. After a moment, he returned with a vial in hand. It was filled with a thick, brownish liquid.
"This is Kimimaro's blood sample from a week ago," Kabuto said.
She didn't show it, but Karin was horrified. That didn't look like any blood she'd ever seen. Anyone could see there was something very wrong with it. Toxic. How was Kimimaro still alive in such a condition?
"And this," Kabuto said, producing another vial, "is a sample I took two hours ago."
Karin peered at the younger sample, mind racing. It looked less brown and more maroon than the older sample, but it still didn't look right. "Is this one healthier?"
"Yes, I think it is. It's astounding, really. He's made more progress in the last week than he has in the last year. I suppose I owe you an apology. Your chakra is...quite something."
Karin didn't trust his friendliness for a second. If anything, she was worried that he might think of new and creative ways to use her innate vitality for some lurid project he was working on. Still, Kabuto knew his trade well. If he seemed optimistic, then perhaps there was a real chance here. A chance for Sasuke. She wanted to smile but refrained.
"So I need to give him another dose," she said. "When will I be well enough for it?"
"You've been sleeping for a week and you're still not back to your full capacity. Give it a few more days. He's not going anywhere."
She fought the urge to flinch at the smile Kabuto gave her and hugged her arms. He couldn't see her scars through the white, long-sleeved shirt she wore, but she felt exposed under his false smiles all the same. It seemed no matter how much time she spent here, there was no snuffing out the shivers that followed her through the sunless halls of Sound.
Kabuto let her go back to her room rather than recuperate in the medical wing, for which she was grateful. Padding along as quickly as her still-weakened state would allow, she made good time and ran into no one until she turned the corner leading to the sleeping quarters.
"Karin." Sasuke was just coming out of his room geared up for training by the looks of it.
"Sasuke," she said. Normally she would be happy to see him, but her current bedraggled state was nothing to be proud of. There was no getting past him, however.
"You're injured," he said, dark eyes zeroing in on her wrist.
Karin instinctively retracted her hand, a futile attempt but better than feeling his accusing eyes on the spot where Kimimaro had bitten her. She suddenly felt uncomfortable. "It's nothing," she said, brushing him off. "Just a scratch. You don't want to be late for your training, so I won't keep you."
It was not so easy, however. One minute he was several doors down the hall and the next he was directly in front of her, blocking her path. If Karin had been intimidated by him, she may have yelped in surprise. She was not. "Let me pass."
Instead of answering, Sasuke pulled her bitten arm in between them so he could get a better look. Karin dared not flinch under his firm grip, unwilling to show any weakness in front of him. He expected more from her.
"Who did you heal?"
"It's not important." She yanked her hand away, refusing to suffer this interrogation. He didn't need to know.
Sasuke betrayed nothing of what he thought about her defiance, and a part of her was overjoyed at his concern. Still, this was something she wanted to do for him. If he knew the truth, she was sure he would tell her to stop. He never did like anyone fighting his battles for him.
He brushed past her. "Don't put your life in danger like that again."
Karin clenched a fist, heart pounding. Of course he knew. Sasuke had a way of knowing these things. If she'd been out for a week, he would have known long ago. A smile threatened to crack her ever present facade, and she bit her lip to hide it.
Her small wave of giddiness left with Sasuke, and she was alone once more with her exhaustion. Letting herself into her small room, she locked the door and lay down on the bed, no more than a sagging mattress and moth-eaten comforter. But it was better than the eerie medical wing where Kabuto had free reign. Just the thought of him put her in a bad mood.
It doesn't matter, she thought to herself as she curled up in bed. None of it will matter.
In the end, there was almost nothing she wouldn't do for the boy who'd saved her life and given her a second chance. He alone understood what it was to be alone in the world, scared and cold. But not defenseless. Karin was anything but, and she wielded her weapons with expert precision.
A life for a life.
What did it matter that she'd be trading Kimimaro's for Sasuke's? She'd made her choice, and what better option than to use a boy who wanted to die, anyway? She would return this kindness and reap the benefits of loyalty, just as she knew Sasuke had done.
Hugging her wrist to her chest, she frowned at the soreness therein. He was so pale that she could have seen through him. A ghost in a graveyard with no one in the world.
Sleep beckoned, and Karin held her mauled wrist close, wishing she wouldn't dream of the hurt and horror that surely lay ahead.
He was on the verge of waking, and one uneven step felt like it would send him tumbling back into the abyss. Teetering between the realm of dreams and the land of waking, Kimimaro could have laughed at the absurdity of it all. Wherever he went, the nightmares would follow regardless.
Cracking his eyes open, he made out Kabuto's silhouette against the glare of stale lighting. Before he could protest, Kabuto lifted his head and put a glass to his chapped lips. He choked on the cool liquid, throat protesting as the gag opened up old wounds. But Kabuto gave him a moment to recover, and the second attempt was successful. Kimimaro had no idea how thirsty he'd been.
"How do you feel?" Kabuto ask, placing the now empty glass on a bedside stand.
Kimimaro blinked, still adjusting to the light after so long without it. He had to think about that for a moment. How did he feel? It was hard to say. Having slept for who knew how long, he was still hopelessly tired. More than anything he wished he could walk around outside, enjoy the fresh air in solitude.
"I got your message," a feminine voice said.
Both men turned to see Karin stepping over the threshold. Kimimaro remembered her well enough, having shown up here just after Sasuke, but he'd never had much reason to talk to her. Illness kept him bedridden and later in a coma. He did remember one thing about her, however—she was apparently in love with Sasuke.
"Karin, you're just in time. Come see the fruits of your labor," Kabuto said, beckoning her nearer.
She raised her eyes to Kimimaro's and they held the gaze for a moment. She seemed to surprised to see him, which was odd considering they barely knew each other.
"You're awake," she said, taking a few steps closer to his bedside.
"What's going on?" Kimimaro asked no one in particular.
"Karin here has been giving you chakra transfusions over the last few weeks. You're finally well enough to stay conscious and responsive," Kabuto said, turning his attention to Kimimaro's file on the counter.
"What is he talking about?" Kimimaro said, waiting for Karin to explain herself.
To her credit, she held her chin high. "My chakra has the ability to restore health. Since nothing else had been working, I thought I'd try it as a last resort."
"Why would you want to help me?"
Before Karin could answer Kabuto said, "We all want to help you. Orochimaru-sama will be pleased to know about this progress, too. So I suggest you count your blessings; you've got a second chance at life. Isn't that nice?"
Kabuto's back was still facing him as he worked over the counter, but Kimimaro could just imagine that self-satisfied smirk. He'd never much liked Kabuto for reasons that were largely insubstantial; it was just a feeling he got. But Kabuto was loyal to Orochimaru, and for that Kimimaro stayed out of his way. He could at least trust the man to have their master's best interests at heart despite the niggling suspicion that always lingered whenever Kabuto was near. He tried to ignore it as best he could. He preferred to avoid conflict with the shrewd medic, in any case. If nothing else, Kabuto was the worst kind of enemy to have in this place. Many had learned that the hard way.
But loyalty to Orochimaru had no bearing on his intentions toward anyone else.
"Nothing's worked before. What makes you think this will?" he said, keeping his voice even.
Karin spoke for Kabuto. "Because it's already working. Don't you feel any different?"
It was true. Kimimaro had not felt this well in years even if it was nowhere near healthy yet. He could breathe without feeling the reflexive need to cough. The constant ache of his illness wasn't as pronounced, and he wondered if he got up and walked around it wouldn't seem like the world was crashing down upon him. The notion appealed to him, so he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and prepared to stand.
Karin was next to him in an instant. "Hey, you're not ready to run a marathon. You better take it easy."
Kimimaro did not like that tone of voice that brooked no room for argument, and the poisonous look he shot her made it clear. "Don't touch me."
It took her a moment to register his unkind reaction, and she narrowed her eyes. "Are you deaf or just stupid? You've been bedridden for a couple years. You're in no condition to be walking around—"
Kimimaro swatted her arm away and pushed off the bed on wobbly knees, the blood rushing to his head as he summoned his iron will power to stave off the nausea. After a couple deep, unhindered breaths he took a step forward, then another and another. Silence reigned as he made steady progress toward the door, and he ignored the chill in the room through his too-thin robe. He could feel both Kabuto's and Karin's eyes on the back of his head, pleased and perturbed, respectively.
But after being immobile with one foot in death's door for so long, even his sheer force of will was not enough to cater to his whims for long. Fatigue and severe body ache made him stumble, the queasiness returning. He would have knocked over a nearby metal tray if not for a slim but firm hand on his arm that caught him. Hard, red eyes locked his with, an inner strength he hadn't noticed before brought to the surface.
"Oh my, Kimimaro, you're very eager. But Karin's right; you need to rest before you're well enough to be up and about," Kabuto said, the amusement evident in his voice.
Kimimaro held Karin's gaze, wanting to be angry and lash out. From what he remembered of her, she wasn't much of a shinobi aside from her excellent sensory perception, a rare but non-combative talent. It made her unable to survive without assistance from others.
"Your body's trying to reconcile my chakra with yours," she said softly enough for it to be clear that this conversation did not involve Kabuto. "If you push yourself too much too soon, it could reject my chakra. This will all be for nothing."
She's not afraid of me.
He couldn't decide if he liked that or not. Fear kept people in line, as he'd learned in his days commanding the Sound Five. But Karin's grip was firm and sure, her will immovable. He got the feeling she had a very good reason for doing all this, and he was going to get to the bottom of it. If nothing else, he understood the power of ambition that enabled people to move mountains. The only question was what did Karin want? And what did it have to do with him?
He put a cold hand over hers, but it wasn't a soothing gesture. "The next time you speak to me that way, I'll break you."
Something flashed in her eyes, but he couldn't pinpoint it as fear. It was too controlled, much like she was. It was gone as soon as it had appeared.
"...I believe you."
Kabuto chuckled from his position by the counter, but Kimimaro ignored him. Best not to acknowledge that he was affected, lest it come true. Removing Karin's hand, he made his way back to the bed without incident and sat down once more. Karin remained near the doorway.
"So what are you waiting for, Karin?" Kabuto said as he polished a scalpel. "I won't have to pull him off you this time since he's awake."
She hesitated for a moment but hid it well. Stony-faced and proud, Karin drew up to Kimimaro's bedside, expression betraying nothing. Without breaking eye contact, she pulled up the long sleeve of her shirt and offered him her forearm.
"You have to bite me."
Suspicious green eyes wandered to her arm, which he now saw was riddled with scars that looked like bite marks. It looked as though she'd been mauled by a wild animal for all the old wounds, and Kimimaro found himself a bit disgusted. It wasn't that she had the scars at all—he had his own marks, too, and something as trivial as physical appearance had never been something he'd cared about; rather, it was the idea that this clearly wasn't the first time she'd done this. He didn't have to glance at Kabuto to feel his eyes on them, and that was enough confirmation. He wondered how many times Karin had had to do this, willingly or forcibly, and decided it was pointless to ask. It was not his concern.
"What happens then?"
"You'll receive a chakra transfusion, and the rest does itself."
He had no recollection of biting her in the past, but judging from his markedly improved health he supposed he must have. "How long?"
"...Until I say stop. If you take too much—"
"—you could die," he finished.
Karin nodded, and this revelation further fueled his suspicions. Why would a girl with no connection to him personally put her life on the line like this? The process would leave her permanently disfigured and could end in her death. Why take such a risk? But he kept these thoughts to himself. It was not a topic he cared to broach with Kabuto in the room.
"Fine. Come here."
To her credit, she offered him the underside of her arm without betraying a hint of what she was thinking, something he found admirable. Despite whatever had mangled her body—and he was almost certain that the past experiences had not been pleasant—she was not about to shrink away. Bloodless hands curled around her wrist, and here he could feel the truth. Her pulse was racing, and he spared her a glance.
"Well, I suppose I'll leave you to it, then," Kabuto said before excusing himself. "Don't be too rough with her, Kimimaro."
The veiled threat was not lost on him, but Kimimaro wasn't concerned. He was not one to inflict unnecessary suffering unless it was merited—despite his violent past and reputation, it wasn't something he enjoyed. So he decided to spare her what pain he could, as he imagined having one's essence forcibly sucked out would not be pleasant. Without warning, he bit into her flesh hard and fast.
Karin cried out and clamped her free hand over her mouth to stifle her voice. As soon as Kimimaro broke the barrier between them, the influx of raw, warm energy hit him like a sack of bricks. It almost made him cough and rip her arm away for how overwhelming it was, but he held steady. His whole body hummed with the effects of her chakra, and he felt more invigorated than he'd ever felt, uncomfortably so.
She soon began to slump, but he barely noticed it. His mind was racing, vivid images from his past returning in stark relief as though the memories were from only the other day. He saw Sabaku no Gaara, the fear in his eyes just as he thought he would die by Kimimaro's hand. He saw the sheer determination in Rock Lee's eyes despite his clear disadvantage against a foe far superior to himself. Tayuya's violent, magenta hair, the last color he could remember seeing before his near-death.
His head jerked to the side, but not of his own volition. Karin was losing the ability to stand, her eyes squeezed tight and face contorted in pain. Breaking out of the haze her chakra created in his mind, Kimimaro used his free arm and hoist her up until she was all but lying next to him, her face pressed against his shoulder and breath coming in bursts.
He needed to stop. He knew this, and yet he could not. The discomfort he'd felt before was nothing compared to the inundation of color and memory, things he'd lacked in the dark void of his coma over the last couple of years. After so much cold, empty darkness, this vibrancy of life stemming from Karin's very essence was overwhelming...and he didn't want to let it go just yet.
Her free hand fisted in his shirt, and her nails drew blood through the thin cloth. He didn't care. All he could see when he turned to look at her was the stunning red of her hair, bright as the blood that dripped down his chin onto pristine, white sheets. How could he not remember feeling this before? Was his illness so progressed that he'd been living in a monochrome world and only now could see the hues of life?
Lurid eyes that seemed to glow in this new light found his, and he could not look away. "Please, I'm dying..."
Her words brought him back to reality as though he'd crash landed. The strange haze fell, and he recognized it now as delirium from a chakra high. He released her, uncaring of the few drops of blood and splattered across his chest with the motion. What before had been an incredible phantasmagoria of colors and memories now devolved into a splitting migraine and horrible ache all over his body. Her chakra sang in his veins, a foreign entity forcing its way in.
Cold sweat plastered his hair to his scalp as he attempted to regulate his breathing; it felt like he'd just run for miles and miles through freezing rain. The taste of her lingered in his mouth, sweat and blood and something more subtle he couldn't quite place. Beside him, Karin lay half conscious, her breathing shallow against the nape of his neck.
Kimimaro was not one for physical proximity on most days. He didn't mind it in combat or if he was the one initiating it, but when others crept too close without his consent it irked him. But Karin was half conscious and still glowing, her bright, red hair almost blinding. Kimimaro wondered if this was a side effect of the chakra transfusion.
"Karin..." he said, initial instinct to push her off.
But fatigue brought on by pain made his limbs lazy, and all he wanted was to close his eyes to the colors and recede into darkness once more. So he didn't move her, and he didn't push her away. There would be time for that later, he reasoned.
Visions of red danced in his mind's eye as darkness swallowed him once more.
Uchiha Sasuke didn't have any bonds. He'd severed those the day he left Konoha and never once looked back. Bonds made him weak. They were distractions.
Sasuke only had vested interests, and Karin was one of them.
"Best stay clear of there, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto said, a knowing smile working its way onto his face.
Sasuke ignored him and pushed a hand against the wooden door to the holding room where he knew Karin was treating Kimimaro, but what he saw made him stop in his tracks. Kimimaro, the one he'd replaced, the only one who could rival him in strength and disposition, lay sleeping next to the only person he trusted in this place. And there was only one reasonable explanation for why she was there, sleeping without a care in the world.
"How long has this been going on?"
"Several weeks. He's finally well enough to be conscious and functioning."
Sasuke watched them from afar, neither moving closer nor turning away. To the lay observer, they were just two friends tuckered out from a long day of training or other strenuous physical activity. But Sasuke knew better. He'd heard the stories about Kimimaro, and from what little he'd seen of the older boy first hand before his illness consumed him, he knew this was not a decision Karin could have made lightly and without consequence.
Sasuke turned away from them without a word.
"Leaving so soon?" Kabuto's glasses reflected the poor overhead lighting in a way that concealed his eyes.
Sasuke didn't bother looking back. "Whatever you're planning won't work."
He disappeared around the corner, leaving Kabuto alone. The medic closed the door on the sleeping figures of Kimimaro and Karin and smiled a little to himself.
"I suppose we'll see about that."
He disappeared down the opposite path.
Karin woke to a splitting headache and sore wrist that seemed to pulsate with each beat of her heart. Her glasses sat askew upon her face, a little smudged from the carelessness of sleep. Removing them to rub her eyes, she noticed she couldn't move her good arm. What on earth...?
All thought escaped her for a moment as she took in the sleeping form of Kimimaro. While her first instinct was to scream and shove him off the bed, self-preservation told her to reign in this desire. He was here because they'd had another healing session and she'd passed out. She had no recollection of how she'd ended up on the bed with him, but it was obvious that he'd allowed it in some capacity. While she knew an overdose of her potent chakra could result in a sensory overload, it didn't render the recipient totally incoherent and incapable of lucid thought. But why would he allow her this small concession?
He was probably too delirious.
Even as she thought it, she couldn't quite hold onto her indignity. Sleeping soundly, his cheeks were flushed a healthy rose with life's blood. Lips parted just enough to allow shallow, silent breaths to escape unhindered, and the rise and fall of his chest was almost mesmerizing in its steadiness. The bloodstains did not escape Karin's notice, and she instinctively pulled her torn wrist to her chest, making a note to bandage it later before it could become infected. Half-lidded eyes roamed his sleeping face, thinking of how different he looked like this, calm and softer almost. Without thinking, she brushed a few strands of his hair out of his face, still slightly damp with sweat.
Get better. I need you alive.
Nevermind the fact that this latest stunt had nearly killed her. It was a risk she was willing to take. Besides, he hadn't killed her. He'd stopped, this time of his own free will. The proximity was getting to her, though, so she slipped off the edge of the bed and resolved to recover in the safety of her dingy little room where warm breath and long fingers couldn't reach her. As she slipped out silent as a mouse, she didn't see the eyes that followed her, woken by the sudden void where once she'd been.
"What's what?" Karin asked as she disinfected her forearm and prepared to bandage it. It was their sixth successful healing session and she was finally able to stay awake after them despite the severe discomfort and queasiness.
Instead of answering, Kimimaro reached out as if to touch her, but only grazed the air around her—a phantom touch. "...You're illuminated."
"Oh, that." Karin spared him a glance, her keen eyes tracing the soft waves of violet that emanated from his form like a living aura. It was softer and more subtle than Sasuke's, which blazed blue and bright.
She never would have used that term, but somehow it suited Kimimaro. An oddity himself, it wasn't surprising that he found an alternative way to see the world.
"You're seeing me, for lack of a better term. It's just a side-effect of having my chakra in your system. It'll wear off."
He continued to watch her, icy, green eyes tracing her figure in a way that would have made her uncomfortable if he were anyone else, but she knew he wasn't looking at her with lewd intentions. It wasn't his style.
"Is this always how you see the world?"
She thought about that for a moment. He sounded almost curious, as though he could never imagine this for himself. "In color?"
Against her better judgment, Karin had to fight a frown. Out here in the open, the fresh air whispered secrets in her ear, and there were no stone walls to listen in. They could speak freely, and it struck her that Kimimaro barely said a word to her within the base. There was meaning in his actions, more so than in any other person's, she supposed. Everything was effortless and calculated, every word carefully chosen to describe the sensations he'd never experienced himself.
He wasn't horrible. He just didn't know.
"What do you see?" she asked, knowing the answer already.
Don't flatter yourself.
Kimimaro turned away from her and leaned back on open palms, long fingers digging into the grass as he watched the endless blue of the sky overhead.
Karin shivered and fought the urge to look over her shoulder for cold fingers on her back.
The spring day was sunny and bright, and Karin decided to watch Sasuke's training session with Orochimaru. She liked watching him fight, admiring his prowess in something she would probably never become proficient. Hand-to-hand combat wasn't her specialty by any means. Today, they were fighting with swords and no ninjutsu. The clang of steel was music to Karin's ears as she watched them dance on feet lighter than those of the most accomplished ballerina. To watch this in real time was truly astounding. Sasuke's brother would surely stand no chance against him when his training was complete, she thought.
So caught up in the display was she that she didn't notice Kimimaro's approach until it was too late to slip away unnoticed. She tensed at the sight of lavender tendrils snaking closer as though sentient themselves. His aura was becoming brighter, more intense—the healing was working, if not slowly.
"Kimimaro," she said, not bothering to face him.
He said nothing as he drew up beside her at a respectable distance, empty eyes trained on his master and replacement. Karin wondered if he was jealous or bitter about this—such emotions would help her cause, of course. But she couldn't imagine Kimimaro degrading himself in such a way somehow. He reminded her of Sasuke in many ways, especially the calm exterior hiding a writhing, potent force of iron will and raw power. But where Sasuke was direct and scientific, preferring to speak in statements than ask questions, Kimimaro was more thoughtful, although no less blunt when he wanted to be. Karin could just imagine the thoughts that never achieved voice but in the most roundabout ways. It was like he was constantly thinking, imagining, and searching for the right way to ask a question. The way he carried himself was different, too. Regal and even ostentatious where Sasuke seemed to blend into the shadows.
"Is this where you've been the last few days?"
His question broke her out of her reverie and she realized with mild embarrassment that she'd been staring. She jerked her head back towards Sasuke and Orochimaru and adjusted her glasses to conceal her fluster.
"So what? They don't mind me."
He was silent for a few moments, the only sound that of Sasuke's katana parrying all of Orochimaru's jabs. "You'll learn better through first-hand experience."
Instead of elaborating Kimimaro shrugged off the shoulder of his gi and reached across his chest. The sound of skin rending and bones crunching almost made Karin wince, but she couldn't look away from the sight of his bloodline limit in action this close up. It was like he felt no pain, although she knew this was not the case—far from it. His aura fluctuated erratically, belying his acute discomfort, but it lasted only a moment. Effortless.
"Here," he said, offering her the calcified blade hilt first.
Blood seeped from the natural cracks and grooves in the bone, and Karin was oddly put off by the sight. "You're serious."
He gave her a somewhat patronizing look, and she was sorry she asked. Kimimaro was never one to joke about much of anything. So she accepted the blade, which was heavier than it looked but noticeably lighter than any steel katana. Curious, she swung it lazily to the side.
"Not like that," Kimimaro said. "Your grip is all wrong. Do it like this." He held out another fresh bone blade so that she could get a look at his grip, firm but not too tight.
Karin stared for a moment, still unsure, but she tried to position her fingers about the hilt as he instructed. It felt awkward, all wrong, but she had no idea what she was doing, anyway. The clash of steel still echoed in the background.
"Now defend yourself."
Karin frowned. "What are you—"
When Kimimaro lunged, Karin had only her heightened senses to thank for anticipating his movements just in time to throw up her sword and catch his before he cleaved her. Skinny arms unused to physical labor quaked under Kimimaro's weight, but the bone blades held strong and sturdy. They rang like steel swords, and Karin had to marvel at the thought that they were made of something far sturdier than normal bones.
Impassive green met startled red over the apex of their weapons. "That was poor. I was only using a fraction of my speed and strength."
Karin sputtered. "Wha— Excuse me, I didn't ask you to attack me!" Indignity lent her strength enough to push him away.
"Hey, didn't you just—"
Bone hit bone again, and Karin found herself scrambling backwards as Kimimaro pelted her relentlessly. It was all she could do to keep up, and her wrists rattled painfully with each successive blow until he managed to knock her sword out of her hands. She tripped backwards and landed on her rear, the jagged point of Kimimaro's blade ghosting the unmarred skin of her neck. One swallow and he could nick her.
Soft, purple chakra seeped from cracks in his weapon, and in this light the silhouette of him reminded Karin of a spirit, some otherworldly being passing judgment on her. For a few moments in time, she couldn't focus on anything else around them.
Kimimaro withdrew his blade and offered her a hand, ending the trance. Karin blinked and suddenly heard the pounding of her own heart in her ears—how had she missed it before? Wary, she accepted his hand and he hoisted her to her feet. The contact did not linger.
"You have good instincts, but you're slow and ungainly," he said, face impassive. "I'm surprised you haven't been killed yet."
Karin marched right up to him and poked her finger square in his chest, fluster forgotten. "You listen here. I don't appreciate you throwing me around like one of your punching bags. You're not even close to healthy. You shouldn't be using your bloodline limit at all."
Kimimaro grabbed her hand to stop the infernal poking but said nothing. It pissed Karin off that he felt no need to speak up when she was obviously berating him, and she yanked her hand away. "What the hell was that all about, anyway?"
"I told you. First-hand experience is the best way to learn to defend yourself."
"So you assault me?"
"You're not a fighter, but you're more valuable than any swordsman. Enemies will target you first. You won't always have someone around to defend you."
Karin wanted to be angry. She was angry. But the way he'd said it, so honest it almost made her wince, gave her pause. Why?
"...Why would you want to help me?" she asked.
He said nothing for a moment, expression carefully blank. The sounds of Sasuke's training returned to her then, loud and ringing and she couldn't imagine why she'd lost track of it even for a short period.
"Your death would be meaningless."
Karin didn't plan on dying anytime soon, but she was no stranger to her own limitations. Kimimaro was right—she could not function in battle unsupported. She'd just always assumed that if the day came that she had to fight, it would be by Sasuke's side, safe.
"You won't always have someone around to defend you."
"...Again," she said, shaking her hands to dispel some of the ache there.
Kimimaro nodded but said nothing. He didn't have to say anything. By the time Sasuke and Orochimaru finished their training, Karin and Kimimaro were still practicing. He was patient but firm, unwilling to suffer blunders he thought she could fix. It was hell, and Karin knew she would be hating herself in the morning when she couldn't move an inch without feeling sore. But as Sasuke and Orochimaru passed them and disappeared inside with only a passing glance, Karin couldn't help but wonder why he'd never offered to help her in this way.
Because I don't need to fight. That's what he's here for.
Even as she had the thought, she gripped her bone blade more firmly, panting, and lunged at Kimimaro. He met her blow for blow, and if Karin ignored the voice in her head, she could almost convince herself that this was something enjoyable—fighting for herself.
He hadn't planned on training with Karin, but he hadn't planned on living this long, either. Some things happened without his consent, but Kimimaro was not about to turn down an excuse to get his blood flowing again. The spars, if they could even be called as much, were hard on both of them—Karin because she was having to learn this from the ground up, and Kimimaro because his lungs could only take so much physical exertion before he doubled over in a coughing fit. At those times, Karin usually offered him her wrist.
He hated this. Weakness was not unbecoming in and of itself, but it reminded him that he wasn't good enough. Orochimaru would never accept him as a vessel like this, and Kimimaro acknowledged that. Orochimaru wanted the power of the Sharingan, and Kimimaro would never deny him that, but whenever he watched his master training his new protege while he and Karin took a break from their own practice, he could not deny the spark of envy that flared with each cross of their swords.
"Why are you so devoted to Orochimaru?"
Karin's question wasn't surprising in that it was out of the blue (Kimimaro had learned by now that her observational powers were unrivaled—it was nearly impossible to slip anything by her), but because she'd waited this long to raise the issue. Perhaps most people would shudder at the thought of becoming a vessel for another's exclusive use, a fate worse than death.
Kimimaro continued to follow his master's every movement, so graceful and practiced despite his handicap and slowly deteriorating health. It wasn't obvious, but Kimimaro had been with him most of his life to know.
"He saved me in a every way a person can be saved," Kimimaro said after a few moments of silent reflection. "My loyalty is hardly compensation enough."
Catching a glimpse of his battle-weary companion out of the corner of his eye, he found her hiding her face behind those unruly, chopped bangs. "...My family was slaughtered long ago during a suicide raid on the Bloody Mist. I was the only survivor."
That got her attention. Wide, red eyes searched his. "Are you... Do you want revenge?"
"They chose their own fate. What's the point of fighting for a bunch of ghosts when the living have so much more to offer?"
Karin was silent for a long while, but Kimimaro didn't prod her. What was done was done—all that mattered was what lay ahead.
"Sasuke...you know he's—"
"Don't compare me to him," Kimimaro said, his tone sharper than he'd intended.
"...I was going to say that he's not really like us," she said, voice barely audible as though she were talking to herself and not to him. "I'm the last of my kind, too. Orochimaru found me when I thought no one would." She removed her glasses as if to clean them, but just ended up staring at them with an unreadable, faraway look. "I'd prefer to fight for the living, too."
Idle fingers fiddled with the spectacles, creating a muted cacophony of clicks and squeaks. Kimimaro eyed her for a moment while she continued to watch Sasuke deliver blow after blow. He knew that look so well, too well, and in that moment he had an idea of what Karin meant when she talked about seeing the essence of another.
Kimimaro closed a hand over hers and the fidgeting ceased. Karin turned to look at him and he held her gaze. When eventually he returned his attention to Orochimaru, he could feel Karin continue to watch him. She didn't protest when he never removed his hand from hers.
He never did get around to asking her why.
Why she had started this.
Why she didn't resist.
Why she looked at him like she wanted to see something she knew wasn't there.
Asking why would give the impression that he needed an answer, indicate a lack of control, self-doubt. Kimimaro wanted nothing to do with any of that. Other questions were more pressing, anyway. Like why all he could think about these days was the past instead of what lay ahead. It was a strange turn of events, almost charming in the way a lunatic might daydream about idyllic times when he wasn't losing his mind.
Every time he stole more of her, his memories stretched further back. The first time Orochimaru had praised him in battle. The time he'd saved Orochimaru's life—a calculated move on his master's part, but woe to the eye that discriminates among rotten fruit. Visions of color he didn't think had ever existed in his past. The orange fires of Kirigakure the night of the Kaguya raid a decade ago; his father's too-white teeth bared in a crooked sneer that terrified him more now than it ever had back then; the radiant green of his mother's eyes.
How did Karin not go blind from all the color? It was too bright for him, having known only a black and white world for most of his life—a graveyard where ghosts roamed free and there was no visible difference between blood and water. But it was familiar, and Kimimaro had never minded it. Death had always been more faithful than life in his experience.
Eighteen is such an old age.
There was one question he could not shake, though, appearances be damned. It followed them everywhere, and it never faded. Not when they wouldn't—couldn't—even look at each other as he drained the color from her cheeks under the aegis of the afternoon sun. Not when Kabuto accepted Karin's report of his progress with a little too much cheer. Not when Kimimaro passed Orochimaru leading Sasuke down the corridor to the training grounds outside and the temperature seemed to drop to uncomfortable levels even for him.
Now there's a thought. The voice in his head couldn't much taunt him over the illness sapping away his life anymore, so this would have to do.
Karin was in her room at this time of day as she always was. Kimimaro wasn't sure what she did, though he suspected she liked to record things. Anyone who could see as far and deep as she could would want to write it down as proof that it happened, he supposed. A record of sorts. Something to keep her hands busy when she wasn't binding them up to keep the blood in.
He didn't bother knocking, knowing she already knew he was coming long before he'd arrived. Karin's room was small and cramped, not unlike most other bedrooms, but at least she didn't have to share with anyone. She sat upon her bed, the comforter thin and stained from who knew what, but it was neatly made. Everything in here was in order, now that he took a moment to look. Sound had a natural dinginess to it, perhaps by virtue of it being a subterranean haunt where the air was always thick with the smell of petrichor and old blood. Still, Karin was clean and kempt. Odd, but not displeasing.
"What do you want?" she said, not bothering to look up from her book.
His hand twitched. "Nothing in particular."
She didn't seem satisfied with this answer and closed her book with a snap, setting it and the pen she was holding aside. "Then why the hell did you come here? This is my room."
One step closer. "Remember what I told you about that tone of voice?"
She hesitated for a second. Of course she remembers. Sixteen and headstrong, she was neither stupid nor forgetful. But the headstrong bit was what made her a wildcard.
She flipped her hand, and if he squinted he could make out the jagged edge of a scar peeking out from beneath long, white sleeves. "You can't come into my room and throw out warnings like that."
He approached her, slowly and deliberately so that she could see the twitch of every muscle. Hovering over her, he fancied he could detect some hint of apprehension in her smaller frame. "You would do well to heed my warnings."
Red eyes flashed with anger and she leaned closer to him, defiant towards his displayed dominance. "Listen here, Kimimaro. You can't—"
Kimimaro ignored her. In a flash he had her wrists pinned to the bed, his larger body leaning into her and forcing her to angle backwards, the scowl on her face more pronounced. They got along well enough most of the time, but she had a defiant streak that irked him. Right now, it was testing his last nerve.
"Hey, let go," she said, struggling against his grip.
"What's in it for you?" he asked, ignoring her pleas as he searched her expressive eyes for an answer.
Karin pressed her lips together—had they always been so flushed?—and held his gaze as he knew she would. "I told you. Kabuto couldn't do anything—"
"No, what's in it for you." He leaned closer to emphasize his point.
Eyes half lidded, she watched him through the dim lighting her meager oil lamp provided; there were no windows. "...What does it matter? You'll get what you want in the end."
What does it matter?
All Kimimaro could seem to focus on was the vivid red of her hair, the color he'd started to notice a little more than others. Maybe because he saw it all the time; it was the first thing he saw after a healing session with her. Red like blood, like pain, like passion. Pale eyes fell down her face to the curve of her collarbone just barely visible through her shirt.
"What could be more important than your own life," he said, eyes still trained on the untouched skin below her collarbone.
"I... I have my reasons."
I know you do.
And right now he didn't want to think about what he knew those reasons to be deep down—the life that kept her going, outrunning the ghosts that haunted her past. Green met red, an unmerited show of respect and they both knew it, but he thought this would have ended very differently if not for that one, connective look. Her lips parted slightly, and he wasted no more time. Practiced teeth sank into the untouched flesh just below her collarbone, the familiar rush of her chakra almost enough to elicit a verbal response, but not quite. She hissed from the pain and he bit harder into her, drawing out her very essence and hoarding it for himself.
And then Karin did something she'd never done before. Her fingers found his hair and entangled themselves among it, as if to draw him closer. There were no whimpers this time, no muscle spasms indicative of acute pain or nausea. There was only the two of them, their chakra running fluidly with no end between them.
"Ah!" Her voice made him crack open his eyes, strangely drawn to her reaction. Wanting better support, he removed one arm from her pinned wrist and snaked it around her middle, lowering them closer to the bed as she stopped them from sinking further with one elbow. All the while, her energy raced through his veins like liquid fire, hot and viscous and singing its siren's song.
He supposed that was a fitting name for her and this awful power she possessed. She probably didn't even want it, but here it was and damn if she'd let it go to waste. Kimimaro respected that about her, he conceded. Karin wasn't the type to squander opportunity, especially when there was a promise of reward. But he wondered, despite the pleasant tugging sensation in his hair and the way she bit her lip to keep from making too much noise, what that reward would mean for them in the end. In this place, nothing ever seemed to go according to anyone's plan. What was she trying to prove?
He had to close his eyes again against the glare of color that assaulted his vision. No matter how many times they did this, he could never quite get used to so much vibrancy. Grey was dreary, but it was comforting. All the reds and yellows and pinks were too much for him, and again he marveled at her ability to live in such a bright world. It was enough to see glimpses like this, though. Even now, when he no longer felt much in the way of illness after months of time together, he could not shake the curiosity about this other way to connect with the world.
Like always, it ended as soon as it had begun. Much more conscious of the strain this put on her now that he was healthier, Kimimaro released her and pulled back to give her some breathing room. Her eyes were squeezed closed, breathing shallow and warm. Blood rushed to her cheeks, giving her a healthy flush despite the thin sheen of sweat across her forehead. The effects of her chakra only accentuated every little detail, from the energy flames rising slowly off her to the red, red, red of her hair. Her fingers still held his hair, and for once he didn't disdain the contact. Lazy eyes opened and found his as though waking from a deep sleep. Time seemed to slow as lassitude weighed them down.
"That didn't hurt you," Kimimaro said.
A long moment passed as she stared up at him, perhaps unsure how to answer or, more than likely, unsure how to explain. The eye contact was too much, and she turned away. "No."
Her hand fell from his hair and settled in a firm grip around his bicep. "...I'm not sure."
"How long has it been like this?"
If she was angry that he'd read between the lines, she didn't show it. "It hasn't hurt for awhile, but this is the first time it's been...like this."
Why was she telling him this?
Why did he feel so heavy all of a sudden?
Why did he never want to hear her reasons?
Kimimaro released her and slipped off the bed, leaving her in that half sitting position as he retreated to the door. Even in the relative drear of this room, colors jumped out at him, flaming and demanding attention. A blue jacket over the back of a chair, the yellow glow of the oil lamp, the cover of the book she'd been writing in. And the red, red, red of her eyes as they followed him out.
He never would get around to asking her why.
Somehow, Sasuke always seemed to say so much when he said nothing at all. For all her powers of observation, Karin found it exceedingly difficult to pin down his true thoughts or intentions when he said next to nothing. But some silences spoke louder than words.
She hadn't noticed him at first, too preoccupied with Kimimaro and his stifling presence.
These sensations weren't entirely new; they'd started a little while ago, but they were never like this. Lack of pain was not the same as pleasure. Pleasure. Was that she was calling it these days? Alone on her bed, Karin found she couldn't move for a few moments after Kimimaro had left her there, having chosen not to press her on her reasons. He didn't have to. Karin could spot a lie before it was told, and Kimimaro's entire denial was a lie.
Of course he knew. Of course he knew from the way she looked at Sasuke, from the way he sometimes mentioned the other boy in her presence just to watch her twitch. The only one he was lying to was himself. Karin fisted some of her comforter at the thought.
Why now? Why at all? This gift to heal was nothing but a curse, a lifetime of servile pain subject to the whims of others. But this... Why? A part of her felt ashamed, dirty even, for having enjoyed his touch. And yet she wouldn't deny it, not to him and not to herself. Something had shifted between them. She was no longer jumpy around him, wary of his every move, questioning his motives—they were plain to see. She'd never been afraid of him, but now a part of her was eager for him.
The thought pushed her into action before she realized she was moving. Throwing open the door to her room she burst into the hallway with a clatter, searching for Kimimaro's retreating form. Instead she found Sasuke.
"Sasuke... What are you doing outside my room?"
Dark, depthless eyes stared into hers, searching for something. An uncharacteristic twinge of apprehension ran up her spine, and suddenly she felt embarrassed.
"How long have you been there?"
"You didn't sense me," he said, voice betraying nothing.
The question posed as a statement was so like him, but right now Karin was having trouble finding the words to placate him. She always sensed him. But this time...
"It's none of your business, anyway," she said, summoning that rough front she displayed to the world and rarely to him.
Sasuke's eyes left hers to trail down her face, past her neck, and finally to the pale skin at her collar only partially concealed by her shirt. A few traitorous blood stains bloomed upon soft white, and she felt practically naked under his scrutiny.
But Karin didn't move. She didn't try to hide it or cover it up. It wasn't like those traumatic experiences with Orochimaru's experiments in which she was forced to submit to monsters warped beyond recognition. Kimimaro wasn't a monster, and he didn't hurt her. She had chosen this.
Meeting her eyes once more, Sasuke said nothing. What was there to say? Karin's hand fidgeted, and she recalled how Kimimaro didn't like it when she did that. He always took measures to calm her down in his own way. Sasuke turned away.
"Change your shirt."
Karin watched him go, unable to find the energy to stop him or say something. There was nothing to say. She returned to her room and lay on her bed, dizzy from the drain on her chakra.
Sleep took her without bothering to discard her ruined shirt.
"Kimimaro, what a pleasant surprise."
Orochimaru reclined in his bed, no longer up for walking around much. The time for the body transfer was nearing, and as Kimimaro regained his strength and vitality every day, Orochimaru sank further into decay.
"Funny how you and I seem to have switched places at this point, don't you think?" Orochimaru said, folding his hands over his lap.
"Your condition is only temporary, Orochimaru-sama. Soon you'll be good as new."
"Better, I should think."
Kimimaro thought about Uchiha Sasuke, his prodigal replacement. Perfect in every way. The object of Karin's desire, if he was being honest with himself.
What does it matter? Why should I care?
Overhearing her conversation with Sasuke in the hall was not something he'd meant to do, but the walls of Sound had always been too thin for secrets. He'd had the strangest sensation after he left that he should go back, that she wasn't finished with him.
A singular thought that had stopped him in his tracks, so random and unnatural that he hadn't the faintest idea why it had come to him. A feeling, an instinct. He'd gone back, but Sasuke had beaten him there. For how long would Kimimaro be watching another live his life from the sidelines?
"I wonder..." Kimimaro said, trailing off.
"Yes? What's on your mind?"
It was useless, worthless, entirely redundant. But he had to know.
"If I hadn't fallen ill, would you have chosen me?"
Would you choose me now?
The fireplace crackled in the silence, deafening as Kimimaro waited for an answer to the question he'd been asking himself for years. As if there were still time. As if there were still hope.
"My teacher once told me that no matter how powerful I become, there will always be someone stronger. It's kept me humble over the years, and it might have been the best advice he ever gave me," Orochimaru said, gaze faraway. "But everyone has a place, Kimimaro. Your place is by my side as my greatest defender. And Sasuke's place is as my next vessel. His Sharingan will allow me to acquire every technique. That's my dream. I'm sure you understand that, don't you?"
Of course he did. Of course he knew that the Sharingan was the be all, end all. He knew Sasuke was born with this power and that it was nothing personal. "Of course, Orochimaru-sama. I will stand by you as long as I'm able."
But he didn't have to like it.
"There's probably no meaning to life. However, while you're alive you may be able to stumble upon something interesting, like how you found that flower... Or like how I found you."
But flowers wither and die without the sun to sustain them.
Kimimaro excused himself with a low bow, suddenly wishing he were anywhere but here. Alone in the stone corridor, he clenched his fists.
If Sasuke had everything he'd ever lived for, what was left to him?
The darkness allowed for the illusion of solitude, that secrets were safe and lies could be beautiful. Alone in the darkness, Kimimaro lay in his bed listening to the rhythm of his heart, so much stronger than it had been six months ago. The recovery was nearly complete and he was almost whole again. Just a little more and it would all be a bad dream.
"Are you there?"
Kimimaro didn't bother opening his eyes at the sound of her voice on the other side of the door. "You can sense me, can't you?"
No reply, only the click of his door opening and closing behind her. There was total darkness, a comfort rather than a layer of uncertainty between them. Kimimaro was used to the darkness even her vibrant colors could not penetrate.
"You're almost fully recovered," Karin said, approaching the bed where he lay.
"I am," Kimimaro said, opening his eyes and seeing nothing.
A weight on the edge of the bed indicated that she'd sat down. She was very liberal in her ways and happy to do what she pleased in his presence, he observed. It wasn't a fault, but it was notable. So different from Tayuya, who'd feared him as much as she'd loved him, Karin existed independent of him in her own universe. If she wanted to include him, it was her decision. This was the first time she'd sought him out.
"Then, let's finish it," she said.
Eyes adjusting to the darkness, Kimimaro could barely make out her silhouette. He pushed himself up on one arm, the other reaching for her. There was no resistance, just as there never was. Why? Why did she allow him to do this to her when they both knew this was meant for Sasuke?
He never did get around to asking her why.
"Karin, are you..."
She straddled him for better access, and a hand on his cheek guided him close. "It's okay," she said. "Take it."
Even the smell of her perfume had become something familiar now. It encased his entire world—the sight of her, the smell of her, the sound of her voice.
All of it for him.
At least, this was what he told himself.
Kimimaro did not hesitate this time to sink his teeth into the tender skin between neck and shoulder, untouched and soft. Immediately, the sensations he hadn't even known he'd missed assaulted his senses until he was hyper aware of all around him. Suddenly he could see. The scant moonlight through cracks in the ceiling, the glow of Karin's chakra mixing with his own. And he felt her writhe in his arms.
Strong arms held her close, willing her to calm as he took her in. She tasted like sunshine, light incarnate. He threaded his fingers through her jagged hair, and she molded to him. Willing, wanting more. Pain blossomed somewhere on his back—her nails digging into him through his shirt. A traitorous thought overtook him then: did she ever act this way with Sasuke?
"Ah!" she cried out, as though sensing this thought.
Kimimaro bit into her harder, one hand running over the curves of her waist under her shirt. This was what it felt like to live. As long as he held onto her like this, death would not come knocking at his door. As long as he was with her, he could forget that his purpose in life was fading away despite their best efforts.
He'd used her to get to Orochimaru, just as she'd used him to get to Sasuke. So alike, as she'd said, chasing after that which perhaps they would never attain. He knew her, he realized, more than he thought. Her motivations, her devotion, the frustration that came from looking through the glass ceiling at a sky they could never reach. He knew that, lived it. Once, he would have died for it. And now...?
Karin's nails drew blood from his back, and Kimimaro wondered if this was what it meant to find ecstasy in pain. Whatever it was, he wasn't ready to let it go. Flipping her over until she was on her back and he loomed over her, he released the bite and searched for her eyes. Even through the gloom he could see her, bright and alive and here with him. She'd sought him out.
She raised a finger to his mouth and wiped the blood away. "Don't. You'll ruin it."
"I'm not Sasuke."
Even in darkness she glowed, a sun to raise flowers so withered and decayed they had no reason to hold on. She probably had no idea. She probably had no idea.
"I'm not here for Sasuke," she said, a hand running over his shoulder.
Sun so bright and warm. The searing heat of her palms flared with her very essence, an essence he now knew intimately. Illuminated. There was no use holding back, and Kimimaro closed the distance between them. She was soft, so soft for one so hardened to the world they watched from a distance. Once again, he had to marvel at the way she lived, so unlike anything he'd ever experienced. The moon and the sun may both shine, but never together.
Clothing became a barrier to their desire and was quickly discarded. Kimimaro ran lips and fingers over the jagged scars of her arms and upper body, counting them in his head. How many were his? How many would she acquire later from someone other than him? It didn't matter now. None of it mattered. This belonged to them, and it didn't matter what Orochimaru or Sasuke thought. They were not allowed in this world meant only for the two of them. He kissed the scars on her arms up to the nape of her neck, careful not to miss a single one.
He silenced her with a kiss, pleased that she was responding so well. Rough hands found the curves of her waist, her exposed breast, reveling in the part she shared that had nothing to do with the unspoken deal they'd struck. This was for him. There was no one here but the two of them.
Her hands found his hair and pulled him down, down, down, until there was nothing separating them. In this moment, with her eyes on his in the darkness with no one to see them, he felt more alive than he'd ever felt under Orochimaru's watchful eye. If this was living, then why should he ever choose death?
She clung to him as though her life depended on it, and maybe it did. One day, they would have to return to the ones they bled for. He would have to leave her warm embrace, the feel of her fingers in his hair, the beat of her heart against his bare skin. He traced a scar with his finger as he fell deeper into her, and she accepted everything, everything.
He kissed her full on the mouth, pushing her down, down, down. Long fingers found her hair, glowing with the effects of her chakra transfusion. The feel of her convulsing against him was enough shock his senses, and everything was on fire. He could see her perfectly.
In darkness they lay together, a tangle of limbs with hardly more than shadows to cover them. Karin's breathing was warm and steady against his neck. Despite the physical exertion, Kimimaro felt more energized than he'd ever felt in his life.
She did it.
He could feel it in the strong beat of his heart, the renewed muscle mass and lack of pain. He was cured. She'd done it. He could have laughed at the irony of it, cured solely for a destiny that no longer belonged to him. Inhaling the perfume in her hair, a strong arm pulled her flush against him just as sleep overtook him, and all he could see as he closed his eyes was the shimmering red of her hair, a beacon lighting up even the darkest hours.
It was enough.
After all, what can darkness give to light but a place to shine?
Like all good things in her life, Karin knew this wouldn't last. Sasuke never mentioned anything, unconcerned with her private matters so much as with her personal safety lest something happen to impede the plans he had for them. But she could tell from the way his eyes lingered, and not in admiration. What did it mean? Had she forgotten her promise to him? Did her loyalty belong to another?
What terrified her the most was that she couldn't say one way or the other. With Sasuke she was the velvet night surrounding a bright star, watching his back and keeping him alive and focused. But with Kimimaro, she was the sun itself. And what did she want—to bask in the beautiful light of another or to make her own and share it?
"Stay here," Sasuke said, voice barely above a whisper as they huddled in the shadows of the hallway just around the corner from Orochimaru's private quarters. "I won't be long."
Karin grabbed his wrist as he was about to leave, unseeing eyes watching their connection. "I don't know if now is the best time."
Sasuke took her wrist in his and gently pulled her hand off him. "Kabuto won't be back for another few hours. I'm done waiting."
She should have been ecstatic. She was ecstatic. Even though her plan to substitute Kimimaro for Sasuke was doomed to fail before it even began—naive little girl, your wishes will never come true—Sasuke would ensure Orochimaru would never take his body or anyone else's, for that matter. He would be safe, and Kimimaro would be safe. This was a good thing.
And yet, as Kimimaro had watched her she'd watched him, too. She knew him, perhaps better than she knew Sasuke, and there was no doubt in her mind that this was not the way. To shatter his world, his purpose, was not the way. Just the thought of Sasuke dying...
"There has to be another way," she said, betraying nothing of her thoughts. "Kimimaro is healthy. He's strong—"
"Stronger than me?" Sasuke said, giving no indication of what he might think about that. "Are you afraid I couldn't overpower him if it comes to it?"
Karin fidgeted, wishing she could remove her glasses and feel them click between her fingers. A nervous habit that Kimimaro had never approved of. Kimimaro. She tried to focus on Sasuke. "I'm only saying that you're a deluded if you think you can brush him aside. Don't be a fool, Sasuke. When he finds out about this—"
"Or maybe you're afraid that I will," Sasuke said. "Karin, I need you. Are you with me or not?"
She hesitated. Seven months ago and the answer would have been 'yes' with trumpets blaring and confetti flying. Sasuke needed her. Needed her. This was her purpose, what she'd sworn to do for him. She wanted to help him, save him if she could, the way he'd once saved her.
"I've always been with you," she said.
Sasuke took a moment to study her, searching for something she could not begin to guess. But he let her go and showed her his back, the Uchiha fan fluttering proudly with his steps. She didn't stop him, frozen in place as all ability to move or breathe properly left her. Sasuke disappeared inside Orochimaru's private chambers without looking back, and Karin had a moment of panic in which she had no idea what to do.
Sasuke's right. Killing Orochimaru will solve everything.
Karin couldn't think of any reason the snake Sannin should remain alive. As long as he breathed, they would never find peace. But some part of her knew this was unconscionable, that Kimimaro would not want this to happen. That she was in a unique position to make a difference. For what? What would it matter? Anything she did could lead to a confrontation between Sasuke and Kimimaro, and then what? They were both strong, too strong, and she had no idea what the outcome of such a battle would be.
She was loyal to Sasuke. It was always Sasuke. Karin hugged her covered arms, arms riddled with scars, memories of the forced experimentation and lingering trauma she'd been brought here to endure. Lips, surprisingly soft and tender whispering against them, trailing higher and higher, cleansing her. His hands, rough but unmarred—almost enviable—tracing them, feather light and warm. Hands that had killed, known only death and destruction, now building something new and beautiful for their eyes only. Karin felt ill.
I can't betray him.
She ran down the hall away from Orochimaru's chambers.
Just her luck. Kimimaro was clear on the other side of the base, and it would take her all of seven minutes to sprint there. But she had to try. Rounding a corner, she was so focused on his chakra signature that she nearly ran into a passing Chuunin, smacking into his shoulder in her mad dash.
"Hey, watch it!"
But she paid him no mind, her thoughts convoluted and frantic as she willed her legs to move faster. If only she were a better shinobi, more in-shape and graceful, but she'd never had much of an opportunity. Until Kimimaro put a sword in her hand and gave her a reason to defend herself. To fight for herself. To not worry about Sasuke for once.
Her footsteps clattered down the poorly lit stone corridors, bounding off the walls as though the echos were chasing her. Like they knew to whom she was running. She pushed the thought aside and zeroed in on Kimimaro's energy signal, now as familiar to her as the back of her hand. He was just around the corner walking toward her when she saw him.
"Kimimaro!" she said, skidding to an abrupt halt.
He caught her easily, hands gripping her upper arms in a steady hold while she regained her breath. He gave no indication of his thoughts as he waited for her to calm down.
"We have to hurry," Karin continued, hands on his wrists and pulling him off her. "Now."
"What's going on?" he said, already falling into step behind her.
Karin bit the inside of her cheek, a wave of doubt sending chills up her spine. Kimimaro's hand in hers brought her back to reality, the reality she'd chosen for herself. Red met green and she knew she could not keep this from him.
"Sasuke's going after Orochimaru."
There was a moment of uncertainty, of disbelief because Sasuke was Orochimaru's next vessel and Kimimaro's replacement and there was no way he could ever squander that kind of standing, right? For a fleeting second, she could see that Kimimaro didn't want to indulge her even though she'd never once given him bad or false advice.
Are we so blinded by the love we owe our saviors?
She squeezed his hand, and he seemed to snap out of whatever inner turmoil plagued him. The Kimimaro she knew returned and he saw her. With no more than a last, meaningful glance, he took off down the hall back the way she'd come. Karin swore under her breath and ran after him, doing her best to keep up. He was too fast, and he didn't wait.
Her earlier doubts followed her through Sound's dead hallways, pushing her forward. Had she done the right thing? Was this going to help? Worse, would it hurt? All questions she didn't want to think about as she continued her mad dash back toward Orochimaru's private chambers.
But she was too late.
Sasuke stood outside in the hallway facing Karin, her red eyes wide with shock and a little fear. There was blood splattered across his shirt. At the sound of Kimimaro's voice he stopped, but his eyes never left Karin's.
Behind Sasuke, the door to Orochimaru's chambers stood ajar and Kimimaro rushed out of it, normally stony face warped almost beyond recognition. Fury, pain, betrayal...despair. A part of Karin wanted to reach for him, but Sasuke stood between them.
"What." Sasuke turned to look over his shoulder at Kimimaro, whose chakra roiled erratically.
Kimimaro took a threatening step forward. "You killed our master."
"He wasn't my master, and I never planned on becoming his slave."
Kimimaro's knuckles cracked, a telltale warning that made Karin's heart rate speed up.
"You trash. How could you do this? He trained you. He made you what you are, and you turned your blade on him."
Karin was sure she'd never seen Kimimaro's emotions so out of control. It was terrifying because she had no idea what he would do. This was not behavior she was used to.
"I'm going to kill my brother," Sasuke said. "That was never a secret. Orochimaru's goals interfered with mine. It's as simple as that."
If she hadn't been used to it, Karin might have winced at the sound of bones crunching and cracking beneath Kimimaro's deceptively untouched flesh. It started in his wrist, an outward expulsion of bone harder than any man-made weapon that curled around his hand and lower arm until they were impossible to see. A drill ending in a wicked point replaced his fist and shielded the rest of his arm nearly to the shoulder. It was bigger around the Karin was, and she found herself taking a step back out of genuine fear for her safety. The drill oozed violet chakra as though it were on fire.
"If you don't want to die, I suggest you put that away now," Sasuke said, one hand on Kusanagi. Sparks danced across his knuckles in preparation for a fight.
"You killed him," Kimimaro repeated, eyes clouded with rage. "And now, I'm going to kill you."
Karin barely had time to react as she watched Kimimaro and Sasuke clash in a violent display of sparks. Kusanagi glowed with the effect of lighting style chakra, but it wasn't enough to shatter Kimimaro's weapon. He swung it directly at Sasuke's mid-section, but Sasuke avoided it just in time and it landed with a deafening crack in the wall behind him. A crater as tall as the ceiling dented the wall, but Kimimaro paid it no mind as he retrieved his drill arm from the rubble and lunged at Sasuke once more.
It wasn't supposed to be like this, Karin thought from her vantage point. Sasuke was good, so good, and the skills he'd honed under Orochimaru were plain for anyone to see. But in this enclosed space at such close range Kimimaro was at a clear advantage. His taijutsu and physical durability were unparalleled. The skimming blow to Sasuke's shoulder only confirmed this, and Karin cried out.
They didn't stop. Sasuke extended his lightning blade to pierce the ceiling, sending an avalanche of heavy brick and mortar down upon Kimimaro, who was forced to shield himself from the onslaught. Karin felt her heart leap into her throat at the sight of them fighting, bleeding, killing each other. Tears stung her eyes. When was the last time she'd ever cried? She couldn't even remember.
And still they continued, uncaring that the base could very well collapse on top of them and seal them forever in a tomb together. She couldn't handle this. Anything but this. In careless act of will, Karin threw the caution that had kept her alive and ahead all these years to the wind and ran directly into the heat of the battle. Kimimaro dove forward, drill aimed at Sasuke's chest and heedless of the blood dripping from his head and back. Sasuke readied Kusanagi, his entire body crackling with thunder, and lunged.
"Stop it!" Karin screamed again, running in between them.
Time slowed to a screeching halt as death rushed her from all sides. Kimimaro saw her first, and the blind fury melted from his eyes almost instantly. He swerved mid-dive and crashed into the wall. Sasuke also pulled back, tripping over the rubble and landing awkwardly on his side. Blood flowed freely from his left arm now.
The ensuing calm and silence seemed to drag on for eons as Karin registered that no, she was not yet dead and neither were the two of them. Sasuke was closest and bleeding, so she rushed to his side.
"Sasuke, hey, can you hear me?" she said, pulling him into a sitting position and cradling his head.
He winced and blinked bleary eyes at her. Karin's heart soared to see that he was all right. It was nothing a short healing session couldn't fix. The sound of crumbling rock drew her attention to Kimimaro, who was in better shape than Sasuke. He was pulling himself up slowly, and Karin marvelled at the sight of his bone drill disintegrating about his arm. Green eyes found hers and she felt trapped.
"Move," Kimimaro said, standing up straight and turning his full attention to Sasuke and her.
Karin instinctively shielded Sasuke with her body, not trusting Kimimaro not to continue this. Sasuke pushed himself up on his good arm, teeth clenched as he glared at his opponent.
"You can't kill me," he said, wiping the blood from his mouth. "I won't die before I do what needs to be done."
Sasuke's confidence was reassuring, but Karin had to wonder. If Kimimaro decided to go all out, he might be able to kill Sasuke. He was healthy now, fortified, and Sasuke had just gotten out of a battle with Orochimaru. Kimimaro took a step forward, eyes narrowed as if ready to disprove Sasuke's claim, and Karin knew she couldn't take any changes.
Standing, she stepped over the piles of rubble toward Kimimaro. "Stop this. It's over."
Empty eyes seemed to look right through her. They were there eyes he used to have before all this. Dead eyes incapable of seeing the life right in front of him.
"It's not over until I put him six feet under," Kimimaro said, attempting to sidestep her.
Karin moved in front of him and gripped his shoulders, trying to ignore her escalating heart rate. "Kimimaro, look at me."
He looked, but he didn't quite see. How did it feel, she wondered, to lose everything all over again? To feel this loneliness? The way he looked at her as though he didn't even know her made Karin think she could understand in a way. Tears welled in her eyes. Weak, stupid girl.
Her hands found his face and pulled him close, close enough to blot out the world around them. "Kimimaro."
He was shaking, she noticed. It wasn't just his chakra fluctuating, but a physical tremor wracking his frame. Unstable. She'd never seen him like this, and it hurt.
"Look at me," she demanded.
A few moments passed in silence, only the shivering under her palms reminding her that this was real. The feel of his cold hands over hers stole her breath away, and not in a good way.
"Get out of my way."
Karin let her hands fall to his chest where the Cursed Seal lay hidden beneath layers of ripped clothing. "I've never asked you for anything before, not a single thing," she said, fisting his shirt in her hands. "So please, Kimimaro..."
"He killed him. You of all people should understand—"
Kimimaro cut himself off just as his voice began to escalate. Sasuke stayed silent as he watched them.
"I do understand," Karin said, keeping her voice low. "And I know revenge isn't something you care about. You and I are the same."
You're not Sasuke.
Her unspoken words were not lost on Kimimaro, and he tightened his grip on her wrists enough to hurt her. But Karin bit her lip to keep from crying out. His pain was more than enough. When he squeezed his eyes shut and Karin felt his breath hitch she pulled him close, her hair concealing his visage from prying eyes.
"Kimimaro," she whispered, low and soft. If she closed her eyes she could imagine them far away from here draped in darkness.
He tensed but she didn't let go, waiting for him to calm. Karin couldn't say how long they stood there. She occupied herself with counting her heart beats as they thundered in her ears, willing the storm to pass for everyone's sakes. Finally, he loosened his grip and blood returned to her hands. She ignored the ache there.
When Kimimaro opened his eyes to look at her, Karin could recognize the man she knew underneath the despair. It was now or never.
Kimimaro held her gaze for a moment before shifting to look at Sasuke still on the floor, unmoving. "You will leave this place and never come back. If I ever see you again, I'll kill you."
Sasuke winced and struggled to pull himself up. "I told you, I won't die before I complete my goal."
"Just because you will something doesn't make it true," Kimimaro said. "I'm not doing this for you. Now get out before I change my mind."
Karin looked back at Sasuke, willing him to just submit for once. Tears brightened her eyes, and the fight in him seemed to dissipate at the sight. Sheathing Kusanagi, Sasuke turned to leave.
"Five minutes." He disappeared around the corner trailing blood.
Kimimaro's hands still held Karin's wrists lightly, concealing the bruises she was sure were forming there. They said nothing for a moment until she suddenly registered that the hand he'd transformed into a bone drill was dripping blood.
"Let me heal you," she said, searching for his eyes.
Kimimaro lowered their hands and released her but didn't move away. "You'll need your energy to heal him."
Karin had never been an emotional person, but right now she could not quash the feeling of something ripping apart inside her that drew more tears to her eyes. Of course Kimimaro knew—he'd known all along that this day would come, but Karin had not envisioned it happening quite like this, quite so suddenly. Like a candle flickering out under a frigid wind.
"I'm..." She trailed off. What was there to say? Nothing could change how things had turned out, and Karin wasn't about to pretend otherwise.
With nothing left but precious little time, she raised herself up on her toes and placed a last, lingering kiss on his lips. He let her, and for a single moment of fantasy Karin almost let herself wonder what it would be like...
"Go," he said against her trembling mouth.
How she wished she were a softer woman if only for his sake. Blinking the tears away, Karin began to walk away. But before she left him behind, she stole one last look at the life she'd saved. Was it worth it? All that had happened, was it worth it?
"Thank you," she said, slipping around the corner and out of sight.
She never saw the shock in his eyes at her words, the way he took an unconscious step toward her even as he told himself to let her go, she doesn't belong here.
Kimimaro returned to Orochimaru's chambers. The bed was a mess and blood splattered the sheets and stone floor around it. It smelled of ozone and charred flesh. A giant snake skin, half disintegrated, sat smoking against the far wall, its interior lined with blood. Orochimaru was nowhere to be found. Kimimaro could not say how long he stood there among the carnage, silent and unmoving, indifferent to the cold. He could not say when the tears had started or when they'd stopped. His whole world was shattered, gone, and simply breathing became a burden.
Kabuto returned that night, but he wasn't at all surprised to learn about what had happened. Ever the cold scientist, he simply retrieved samples of Orochimaru's blood and the shed skin to store in his little test tubes and examine under his microscope, as if all the answers could be gleaned through that lens.
When Kimimaro told him to get out, Kabuto just smiled and said, "Enjoy the rest of your life."
Kimimaro lashed out at him with a bone blade, but Kabuto had been expecting it and avoided the blow, preferring to run than fight him hand-to-hand. As it were, no one could rival Kimimaro in close combat, and Kabuto knew it. It wouldn't be until later that Kimimaro discovered Kabuto's lab emptied out as though someone had raided it. Nothing of value had been left behind save for medical history files, common herbs and potions, and a few medical tomes Kimimaro was sure one could procure in any major city. It was like Kabuto had planned this, but that was preposterous. As much as Kimimaro despised the medic, the only thing keeping him from ripping him apart all these years was their shared loyalty to Orochimaru. It mattered little now that he was gone.
As he stood outside and watched the sunset, clothing still ripped and bloody from the earlier skirmish with Sasuke, Kimimaro was almost tempted to laugh. In the course of one day, he'd lost his old life and his new one.
He hoped Sasuke never ran into him again. He hoped Sasuke could defeat Itachi one day and live to tell the story. He hoped no harm would ever come to Uchiha Sasuke because he was Karin's whole world, and Kimimaro knew what it was like to lose that.
It was empty here among the ashes.
One year, three hundred twenty-seven days, and nineteen hours had passed since the day Kimimaro lost his will to live.
Rice Country was secluded, devoid of shinobi for the most part, and even the farming settlements were few and far between vast rice paddies. Unable to bear another day walking the hallowed halls of a kingdom for the dead, Kimimaro had left the Sound base and taken up residence on the outskirts of a nearby village. Healthy but with nothing but an inert Cursed Seal to remember Orochimaru by, he had been suspended between life and death, breathing without purpose and eternally walking with no destination in mind.
Sound's prisoners escaped little by little. Some ran, never to be seen or heard from again. But others stayed, the last of their kind or too broken to understand what a home was. They made their own. And one day, they found Kimimaro. Having never had a hand in the torture and experimentation, they knew him only by reputation as the strongest of Orochimaru's men. This kept them at bay for awhile, but one day not two months after Sound's disbandment Kimimaro opened his door to a little girl in tears.
"Please mister, you have to help!" she cried, unsure whether to be afraid of Kimimaro or whatever demons she was running from. "They're fighting, and my mommy's hurt!"
It had been a long time since Kimimaro fought to kill. The Rice Country had fallen into disorder in the wake of Orochimaru's death. With no established shinobi system to keep the peace, bandits and looters and rapists prowled the countryside and took advantage of the people. He had no obligation to them, no reason to concern himself with them. But the fact that they were knocking on his door was irritating. Curious, Kimimaro followed the little girl back to her home where he found a gang of thugs, both ex-prisoners of Sound and new faces, terrorizing her family. They wanted free sustenance and housing, and they had no qualms about bringing in her mother to warm their beds at night.
They were easy enough to kill. The ex-prisoners remembered him, but they were outnumbered and overruled. Kimimaro let them escape, unwilling to waste his time hunting them down. When he looked up from the carnage, face half covered in the blood of lesser men, he found the little girl with fresh tears in her eyes and a brilliant smile on her face.
"You saved my mommy," she said, reaching for his bloody hand. "You saved her!"
Kimimaro was so stunned that he could only stare, speechless, until the girl's traumatized mother pulled her away. He was alone for a moment among blood and bones, unable to move or think clearly. What was he doing? Why?
"Do you...want to clean up? Inside, I mean," the girl's mother said, voice shaky.
She had a black eye and a split lip, and her forearms were purple with bruises. He didn't have to be able to see through her tattered clothing to follow the path of brutality and its lingering mementos. She gestured to the front door of her house where a warm bath awaited.
It escalated from there. People came to him with emergency situations that usually ended in violence and a ruined shirt. As time went one, they questioned him on more political matters. Could they tax their rice production? What should they do about foreign buyers looking to acquire in bulk? What if someone broke the crude laws they'd put in place to keep some semblance of peace?
The solitary life Kimimaro had resigned himself to lead soon vanished, replaced with the problems of a burgeoning country trying to make its way among the giants at its borders. They relied on him, sought his counsel and his strength, listened to him. At first, Kimimaro thought it was out of fear. His reputation preceded him even post-Sound. But the smiles grew ever brighter, the gratitude more heartfelt, the ease of coexistence more tolerable with time.
One day, Kimimaro woke up and realized he was responsible for them.
One year, three hundred twenty-seven days, and nineteen hours after his fate became obsolete, suddenly there was another offering to rise up in its place. And on this late spring evening as he watched the sun sink over the horizon, heavy with the light of a full day, a world he'd once thought lost offered its hand to him once more.
He'd heard her voice so often in his dreams that he almost thought this was another fancy. Unmoving, he continued to watch the horizon, clothing fluttering in the lazy breeze. He closed his eyes.
Warm fingers caressed his face, and Kimimaro's eyes flew open. Red, brighter than the sun itself, filled his vision. Red like blood, like pain, like passion. How could he forget.
Beautiful mirage to tempt a wanderer's parched throat.
He reached a hand up and entwined his fingers in her wild hair—real and soft and here. He could not breathe. "You—"
Her hand on his lips silenced him. "Don't. You'll ruin it."
Like talking to a ghost.
It was so surreal that he could do nothing but stare at her, the changes and the similarities. She was taller, face more angular and eyes softer. There was an air of weariness about her, like she'd been awake for too long. He wondered what she saw in him after nearly two years.
"Sasuke's not here," she said, mistaking his observation for suspicion. "He's not coming."
Kimimaro knew that story. Revenge attained only to discover he'd been played for a fool, Sasuke lost control and threw away the purpose he'd lived his life to fulfill, despair having bested him. If Kimimaro cared about revenge, he may have rejoiced in the schadenfreude to be had there, but it didn't concern him. Sasuke had pulled through and achieved a new meaning, fighting alongside the comrades he'd discarded long ago.
What is your purpose?
Karin pulled away to stand beside him. The sun was almost set now, and the first stars overflowed upon the encroaching nightscape. It was a beautiful sight.
"I'm here on my own."
Kimimaro turned to face her. Even after all this time, even under the blanket of the approaching night, she reflected the sunlight as though it were her own. Feeling his eyes on her, Karin faced him.
"I'm not Sasuke."
As soon as he saw it, Kimimaro knew he'd never seen her smile. Even just the shadow of a grin, hardly a smile at all, it lit up her visage.
"I'm not here for Sasuke."
Kimimaro had always known she existed in Sasuke's world, for Sasuke's purposes, for Sasuke's happiness. But sometimes when the blood flow staunched and soft candlelight alone shared their intimacy, he could see that even she wondered what it might be like to exist on her own, separate and beyond that which she tethered herself to day in, day out. Kimimaro had had no choice, but Karin did.
"I want to stay," she said, soft and almost tentative for someone who had always made her own decisions despite what the world thought of her. Asking.
Orochimaru was gone. Kimimaro's whole world had imploded that day, and the only comfort left to him chose another man to follow. Still, he could not die. She'd made sure of that. Now, as a leader with responsibilities he'd never envisioned for himself, Kimimaro had nearly convinced himself that perhaps there something to hold on to if he could just rise above the ashes. And Karin...
"Then stay," he said, shoulders heavy as the heart she'd mended long ago beat faster in his chest. A life for a life.
Stay with me.
There was no answer, only the feel of her fingers entwining with his as they watched the sun finally dip below the far horizon. Darkness settled all around them, and Kimimaro turned his eyes skyward. Stars, thousands of them, twinkled in the sky above, little reminders that there was light in this world. Light that shone brighter in the darkest hours.
Alone with the stars as their witness, Kimimaro lost himself in the world they'd created for themselves and no one else between soft sheets and muted candlelight. Inhaling the scent of her perfume, the same as long ago, he let himself smile into her hair.
My life has meaning.