She was slow, this girl. Not slow of mind, as far as he could tell, but she could not keep up with himself and Orochimaru very well. He watched her intently and she tried to avoid making eye contact with him, though he did notice that, not infrequently, she would look at him, only for her eyes to dart away just as swiftly.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But I will need to rest soon
I am not as strong as the two of you."
"That is fine, Karin," said Orochimaru. "In time, you will come to increase your endurance. For now, do not worry yourself about it."
They came to a halt in a secluded grove, hidden above by the overhanging branches of trees so immense and high reaching that the forest canopy blocked out what little daylight was left. Orochimaru left to do whatever it was he did every night. Sasuke had never seen him sleeping.
He removed a sleeping pallet from his backpack. There was only one.
"Karin, here." She looked up from the small fire she was making.
"Oh, Sasuke-kun, you don't have to"
"Don't call me that."
"But I've only just met you."
"Look" He sat down across from her on the loamy forest floor, the fire crackling softly between them. "There is no need to address me formally."
"None of that matters." He was practically glaring at her at this point, and she shifted uncomfortably. "Now, there's only one pallet to sleep on. You can have it, if you want."
"Oh, that's alright. I mean, I couldn't take yours."
" He laid the pallet down within the light of the fire, laid down, and turned away from her. She lay down on the forest floor, which was rather grimy and moist. She would have regretted not accepting the pallet, but she knew there was no way she'd be falling asleep soon anyway.
Karin rocked back and forth where she sat, tugging at her red hair, as she was wont to do when anxious. What was she doing, alive? She didn't care for vengeance. It was what was to be expected, given that everyone she knew was dead, and she knew who did it. But it was pointless blood was not like water. Once shed, it did not recall life from the soil. She continued to worry her hair.
This needs to stop! Karin thought. I can't sit here like this, a quivering and twitching coward for the rest of my life! But she could not stop tugging at her hair. Before she realized what she was doing, she had slipped a kunai out of her holster and begun hacking away at her hair.
"Stop that." A strong, pale fist enclosed her own, and gently but firmly prized the kunai out of her hand. It was Sasuke, though she hadn't even seen him wake up, much less move to her side.
"Oh, Sasuke, I
" She didn't even know what to say. What was there to say? Whatever she was doing, she imagined it wouldn't make any sense to a normal onlooker.
She flushed beneath the cold disdain of his gaze, turning to look at the strands of her pale red hair that now littered the ground in front of her.
"Don't do things like that."
"Because," he let go of her hand and stooped to slip her kunai back into its holster, "there is no point." Sasuke turned from her and lay down again, this time facing her. "Now lay down," he ordered, "and go to sleep." Karin lay down and turned her back on him, uncomfortable with his unbroken stare. She stayed awake for a long time, but finally, she drifted into a mercifully dreamless sleep.
She awoke in a deep green half-light, the morning sun just barely reaching the forest floor after traveling through the dense upper reaches of the forest. Sasuke was already up and standing on a thick, low-hanging branch, leaning against the bole of the tree with his eyes closed. Orochimaru was still nowhere to be seen.
"Good morning," Karin said.
Sasuke said nothing.
"You could at least acknowledge my existence. What's with you?" Sasuke opened his eyes, surprised by the edge in her voice. She was almost as surprised as he was. She had always been known for having a rather mercurial temperament generally shy and mild-mannered, but a spitfire when angered. And no one herself included knew what her breaking point was. She found it hard to control her emotions when flustered or aggravated. But since the massacre three weeks ago, she had not felt angry at all just desolate at best and numb at worst. It felt good to feel something other than grief and despair, and for once, she welcomed the vitriol that flowed through her veins.
"Nothing," he said dismissively. He looked away, but then turned back to her once again. "Good morning." She smiled involuntarily, and was thrilled at the fact that she did so. It had been too long since she had last smiled.
"What's Orochimaru-sama doing?"
"Don't call him that."
"He knows he's stronger than you. He doesn't need a title. And you don't need to remind yourself that he's stronger."
" He was glaring at her again, but she was beginning to realize that these withering looks were perhaps not all they seemed. He was, perhaps, giving her advice. He did not seem to like to talk. Maybe this glowering was his way of impressing upon her the importance of his words.
"You know you can just tell me that what you're saying is important. You don't have to look at me like that." He turned away from her again, looking off into the forest. "Seriously, look at me!" He did, with that same cold glare. "Cut it out! I don't need to put up with that, along with everything else!"
He leapt off the tree and landed right in front of her, just a few inches from her face. "Look," he snapped, "if you're coming with Orochimaru, you can't let something as insignificant as a stare-down get under your skin. You're walking right into a trap if you do."
"What do you mean? You told me to come! It was only because of you that I came!"
"I know. But you can't be this way."
"Vulnerable. Weak. Quick to anger. You will be destroyed that way."
She backed away, crunching the remains of yesterday's fire into the soles of her sandals.
"Alright, alright. Fine." She compulsively took off her glasses and rubbed them with her shirt, still blackened with soot, and immediately regretted it. Now her glasses were grimy as well. "What happened to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did he do something to you?"
"No. Well, yes and no. But that's not your concern, and it doesn't have anything to do with my emotions. Those are fully under my control. And I'm strong."
"Yeah? Well, whatever. I'm not. So what do I do?"
"It doesn't matter that you're not strong. Just act like you think you are. Orochimaru needs you for something. Figure out what that is, figure out how to use it such that he keeps needing it. Then you will be safe."
"What if he stops needing me?"
"Then I'll protect you." She looked up from cleaning her glasses, squinting at him in disbelief, and smiled again.
"That sounds more like you."
"You saved me before, in the Forest of Death. Now you're promising you'll protect me again."
"It's not a promise," Sasuke said flatly. "I'll do what I can, but I have my own reasons for being here."
"Fair enough." She started to walk away from him to find something to sit on and clean her glasses.
"Hey," he said. "What are you going to do? About the people that killed your parents?"
Karin did not turn around, for she could see the beginnings of hot tears blurring her vision. She waited a moment before speaking, to master the quaver in her voice. "Nothing. They don't deserve my time and going after those who killed my parents won't bring them back. But if ever I am strong enough, I will destroy the Village system. It has been the cause of too much pain and death to be considered viable any longer."
"I see." By this time she had found a log to sit on, rotting, but still sturdy enough. She fingered the kunai in her holster, considering hacking off the rest of her hair to make it even. But she liked it this way. She was no longer who she once was: she was embittered, defiant, unhinged. It would make her seem unpredictable. Wherever she was going, she would make sure that those she met with on the way would think her a wildcard. She would never let them know her pain, only the swiftness and vitriol of her wrath.