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The Woman in the Picture

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The first time Sarada saw her, she was simply a face on a photograph.

Red hair, red eyes, red cheeks - she stood so casually next to Sarada's father, with a very pleased smile. She was a stranger, perhaps a secret. The picture of Sarada's mother was slipped in front of that part, while pictures of Sarada covered the two other males next to her father.

She was a stranger. Sarada couldn't ask just anyone about her.

--

The second time Sarada saw her, she was a mystery.

She remained her teenage self, printed on a glossy piece of paper. But, Sarada thought more of her, examining her features. Had she been...? Konoha's hospitals didn't have her birth records. Everyone kept dodging her questions - but really, how hard was it to say, "You're Sakura-chan's" or "You're my child. That's your father's friend"? It was fishy.

Somehow, Sarada felt even more distant from her mother than with this supposed stranger. They had nothing in common, except for needing eyeglasses, and that their eyes look similar... then again, Sarada's eyes could have come from being a combination of her known parents'.

Sarada wanted to see her. Sarada wanted to know her. And if she wasn't Sarada's mother? The thought saddened Sarada for a while, but she was still a friend of Sarada's father. This woman can tell Sarada stuff about him if Uchiha Sakura can't.

--

The third time Sarada saw her, her profile was pixels on a screen, and she was Karin.

Sarada thought her suspicion was confirmed - that Uchiha Sakura wasn't her mother, that this stranger was the real deal. The fishy man, the guy with the bluish-white hair, the one her father referred to as Suigetsu, did confirm it via a DNA test. He told her a lot of things, showed her some more old pictures, a few about her father, but more about this woman, Uzumaki Karin.

Uzumaki, just like the Hokage.

But unlike him, she didn't make too much of a deal with her name.

Suigetsu was so noisy. The machine was so noisy. Sarada's head felt noisy too. There was too much going in her mind. Questions came swarming up. What was the truth? Which one was the lie? Why did her mother...? Uchiha Sakura...? Uzumaki Karin...?

Then the Hokage came. Somehow, Suigetsu slipped away. But that didn't matter - Uchiha Sakura was no less than a mother to Sarada anyway. But still, what about Uzumaki Karin...?

--

The fourth time Sarada saw her, Karin was pixels on a mobile.

Sarada had forgotten for a while, touched by the Hokage's words and her father's statement. She was sure there was something she hadn't remembered to ask.

Then, one day, Suigetsu came to visit the Uchiha house.

Sarada's mother was a bit annoyed he came without prior notice, and just then, a small hawk flew over them, containing a message. After reading the message, she shook her head and muttered about 'racing with birds again'... or something along those lines.

Suigetsu had brought so many frilly clothes. Sarada's mother was pleased about them, and began to figure out how they could possibly mix and match. On the other hand, Sarada was fixated on the eyeglass case that came along with it - of course, along with red-framed eyeglasses. It fit her better than her old black-framed ones, plus it matched her preferred outfit.

Sarada just blurted it in the heat of the moment. "How is she?" It was just a small question. She swore she saw at the corner of her eye that her mother was confused at the question and was about to ask, but Suigetsu's big mouth was faster. "Oh, right. I haven't shown this to ya. It was stolen, hehe!" He fiddled with his mobile phone for a moment and showed it to Sarada - and there she was.

Sarada saw Karin as an adult for the first time. But still, she was a stranger, mysterious and somehow, very lonesome. It truly was a candid shot, and it captured a picture of loneliness - the hunched back, the drooped shoulders, the sad eyes, and the brave yet small smile - but what surprised Sarada the most was that, despite being around the same age as her father, her mother, the Hokage, the man in front of her, Karin didn't look a day over 20. Though not as vibrant as with the other pictures, her eyes were still the same red. Her hair was also still so nice, just as red.

"It's in the Uzumaki blood. It's infuriatin', if ya ask me an' all, but --"

Suigetsu kept blabbering. But if it's in the Uzumaki blood, why didn't the Hokage...? Oh, right. He was supposed to be the son of the Fourth. The Fourth wasn't an Uzumaki, and for reasons unknown to her, Hokage-sama adopted his mother’s name. Maybe Karin was a pureblood just like Sarada's father.

"-- an' uh, okay, so she's pretty, but it just makes my blood boil--"

Yes. She is pretty. She's so pretty. And for some reason, her mind thought of a crazy, messed-up line: Why didn't Papa marry her instead?

--

The first time they met each other face-to-face - or so Sarada thought - Karin was a figure that defined "woman".

At that time, Sarada was a bit over 18 years old, and she was on a mission. Her father had told her to go to Karin. Sarada knew the way; she's been there before; she won't have to be taught again. That was her, the female Uchiha prodigy. She needed little reminder. She was a fast learner, and her memory is not all too flawed.

She needed some special medicine that only someone like Karin could concoct. "...she'll know what to give you," so Papa said the night before, and with little finesse, he left without saying goodbye - well, there was the note left on the fridge, but still. Oh well, at least he came a little more often than before. Sarada was quite sad about that, but oh well, this woman was also connected to him, so Karin could probably tell her a lot of things.

Except that when they met, face-to-face, Sarada lost all the words she was supposed to say.

Karin was a bit taller than her. Karin had the same lovely red hair and red eyes framed by eyeglasses as her pictures said so. Of course, Karin was supposed to be as old as Sarada's father - except that she didn't look like it, and dressed as if she was as young as her looks claimed to be. She still exposed her navel, and she still wore thigh-highs and short shorts... heck, if she wanted to stand with Sarada and all her friends, Karin can blend in perfectly well! She could be that one cool sis that everyone could talk to.

As they held the staring contest, Karin must've figured out what Sarada was here for, and broke her gaze off to grab something from the shelves. "Make haste. Your dad's not getting any more patient." The woman said that as she handed out a box. Sarada's concentration broke, and her hands automatically received the heavy box. As Karin turned, Sarada stuttered out, "You're pretty. I mean, nice to meet you, Karin-san." And a huge smile broke out on the older girl's face. "Nice to meet you again, Sarada-chan. You've grown."

Sarada had a lot more to say, but Karin cut her off quickly. "Let's talk some more next time, okay?"

Next time.

Next time!

Next time meant Sarada was welcome to come here again. With that thought, she smiled and bade goodbye, enthusiastic to accomplish the task at hand.

--

The second time Sarada saw her in person, Karin had dressed more modestly.

Sarada heard Suigetsu laughing about it. The other guy, Juugo, was a bit more reserved. Even the suspicious person Orochimaru teased Karin. It wasn't like her; it wasn't just her style. It was to act her age, she reasoned. Sarada only smiled. She appreciated the effort though - Karin still looked lovely in her long sleeves and knee-length skirt.

Sarada came there on her own volition - precisely; she was here to fulfill "next time".

And to her delight, she was very much welcome there.

Apparently, Mitsuki was that Orochimaru guy's son. As for whether Orochimaru was the father or the mother, Sarada's silly thinking said, 'Both.' Mitsuki hadn’t come home in a while, but that was fine, since he seemed to have grown into a fine young man.

Apparently, Suigetsu was the first person Sarada's father had approached, when he made Team-formerly-Hebi-now-Taka. As for how it must've been very much an achievement for Suigetsu, everyone else didn't care much - he just happened to be in the same hideout, didn't he?

Apparently, Juugo had urges that can be calmed by Sarada's father. As for whether these urges still appeared, he smiled and said, "Not so much anymore."

Apparently, Karin was Sarada's father's favorite. (And Karin didn’t know(feel) it.)

As for how that came to be, Sarada wouldn't know, not from her more reserved appearance nor her rather calm aura.

Time had been brief today, and today wasn't just about Karin, after all.

"Come again soon!"

But Sarada was welcome to come and try again.

--

At some point in time, Sarada stopped counting.

 

At some point in time, Sarada came to know that Taka had been loyal to Sarada's father and only him alone, and some weeks after, they became completely loyal to each other.

At some point in time, Sarada came to know that Suigetsu wanted to rule the world, Juugo wanted to live in peace, and Karin wanted to see the revenge of Sarada's father to play out, and that they wanted to accomplish all that with each other.

At some point in time, Sarada came to know about Karin's tragic past, how she and Sarada's father had come from similar backgrounds.

 

At some point in time, Sarada started to desire spending time with Taka more than with her friends in Konoha.

At some point in time, Sarada started to desire asking her father, more than ever.

 

They weren't exactly morally correct people, but they weren't that bad. They were cool, and even as middle-aged adults approaching their late adulthood, they were still so cool, with the dynamics of their personalities and their team.

 

What wasn't with Taka that made him decide to ally himself with Konoha?

 

What wasn't in Karin that made him marry her mother instead?

 

And at some point in time, Sarada caught a hold of herself.

 

Why was she concerned for these people?

Why was she so concerned for Karin?

Why did Sarada feel so attached to a woman who was proven not her mother?

 

Was this woman more of a mother?

 

Was this team more of a family?

 

What wasn't in Konoha that she found with Taka?

 

What wasn't in Uchiha Sakura that Uchiha Sarada found with Uzumaki Karin?

 

And why... hadn't Sarada... approached the subject... with anyone else... at all?

 

Was there something she was desperately hiding?

Was there something to be so ashamed of?

Was there something that was with them, which wasn't in Konoha, with her friends, or with her family...?

 

Sarada cursed herself for being silly. That couldn't be. She was too old to be thinking like this. This was a childish string of thoughts. She needed not to think about this at all.

--

And then, one day, Sarada found herself preoccupied enough to not think of anything else. No, more like, everyone found themselves preoccupied enough to only focus on one thing.

It had been a small movement once, earning a notice or so in the news, and then…

And then, the anti-shinobi propaganda spread like wildfire.

Thanks to technology, groups of researchers had found ways to copy the way ninjas manipulated chakra. Of course, the stronger shinobi communities didn’t like it and didn’t find any need for it. So the products that was supposedly for aiding shinobi were sold to civilians and less skilled nins, who were more than willing to try them out.

That didn’t end too well.

Of course, the five great villages thought that the propagandists were all civilians who were fed up by being always the collateral damage when shinobi went to war. The kages held meetings often; their skilled men sent to dangerous intel-gathering missions. They had to extend their arms to shinobi of lower rank and some retired but still able shinobi to fill in some crucial positions that the higher-ranking nins had to vacate in favor of accomplishing far worse tasks.

Uchiha Sakura and Sarada found themselves busy with working in the medical department. They were already expecting an all-out war, especially that their daimyo was conflicted because of the turmoil in his own city. Sarada didn’t exactly hate being here, but she wanted to get out there and take some action. Her mother told her she needed to calm down, and that Konoha had to use their forces wisely. They spent their weeks familiarizing themselves with medicine names, medical tools, protocols, escape routes, and so on. They were part of the team who would make sure their legacy would live on – and they would do so.

Then, Uchiha Sasuke dragged himself before Uzumaki Naruto one day. Bruised, bloody, and no doubt exhausted – he had met shinobi who were part of the propaganda.

That eventually threw everyone into a war.

The villages began to doubt each other and point fingers. The Hokage tried to settle things with peace treaties, talks, and so on, but it was of no use. More personal forces of the kages reported having barely escaped shinobi who had no doubt mastered the use of technology in using skills that their own chakra couldn’t accomplish. Meetings were long and tense, accusing one another of sending their own men to attack each other. When the rumors reached the smaller villages under the kages’ rule, they began to rebel against their benefactors.

It was a very messy war, with everyone too distrustful to make alliances. The anti-shinobi propagandists used the situation to their advantage, manipulating many different leaders using anonymous letters. While some would be smart enough not to believe them, some others would find truth in those hateful words. Village elders would be locked up, assassinated, or disappear. Towns were disturbed, razed, and pillaged. In the end, the villages turned against each other.

The propaganda was a huge success. Investors to the special weapons and tools that shinobi once turned away from, found themselves swimming in money, especially when the kages started to allow their use. Even their civilian citizens were encouraged in taking part in the war. Media from the daimyo’s villages would risk life and limb to get huge scoops, and the world started to make education, entertainment, and livelihoods out of the lives that would be sacrificed in the name of fear and mistrust.

This would be the last great shinobi war, the one that would wipe out most of them.

But their culture will be saved.

Uzumaki Naruto bid his friend Uchiha Sasuke to make one ditch effort of a back-up plan. The Hokage wasn’t one to give up, but things weren’t going as they hoped it would. Having grown wise in his years, he wouldn’t throw away the chance to find a way to save some of their children and friends, as well as the years of history and knowledge of chakra.

They hand-picked the people who would accompany all the scrolls where everything that built their noble land was written. Obviously, their wives and children were on the list, as well as a few beloved civilian family friends. Some of the people they picked refused, desiring to go down with the place they so loved, or to fight alongside them and other great heroes. Some were skilled men who would play bodyguard to everyone else. All promised not to spill any beans if ever they were caught. They would die with everything and take all their secrets to the grave.

They were split in groups, to depart at different times and meet-up at different places, until they reach their destination, the cosmopolitan city of their daimyo. The scrolls were distributed as well. It was better, that if it would happen, that part of a great culture survived, rather than none.

Both Uzumaki Boruto and Uchiha Sarada were very vocal when they were told to go. Uzumaki Himawari and their mothers only held them close as they tried to reason with their fathers, while Mitsuki, assigned to be a bodyguard, tried to calm them with stories of things he learned about the city. Neither of the older men could give any comforting words, but they can only stall for some time until their other bodyguards showed up – bodyguards hand-picked by Sasuke.

Then, three seemingly familiar figures and faces appeared. Only the Uchiha patriarch and daughter knew who they were.

Juugo, Hozuki Suigetsu, and Uzumaki Karin, who looked no older than Sarada and her friends.

It was the first and last time that the Uzumakis were together again.

The Hokage took a good look at the people he’d leave his family to, and with a very grim expression, bid them good luck, before going off to the frontlines once more. Sasuke briefed everyone – their formation, their route, their meet-up points, and so on. While Mitsuki tried to cheer up his teammates and their family, Sasuke’s former team held stoic faces as their reality was laid out in front of them.

All three had this funny thought that their leader was going to leave them behind, again.

Suigetsu was first to mention it. “You just love ditchin’ people, don’t ya?”

Juugo went next. “If this is your order until your next.”

Karin said nothing, though Sasuke could feel he unearthed all the hatred she once felt for him.

Then, it was time to go. The group picked their luggage up, which comprised of a change of clothes, some food and water, and their scrolls. Of course, they couldn’t just leave yet, but they had a mission to carry out. It would be a lifetime mission.

As they turned from each other, Karin suddenly spoke. “Sasuke.”

No honorifics, no politeness, no anything. Rude, simple, and flat. Uchiha Sasuke turned, and when he did, he was met by Karin’s arms wrapping around him. The gesture shocked the group, but they were even more surprised when Sasuke returned it.

Suminakatta. Forgive me,” he said – pleaded – audible to everyone.

“Don’t be,” came the mature reply from his friend, who was on the verge of tears, “Our reality is war. Always.”

Those would be their last words to each other.

Later on, Karin would tell Sarada that her father’s grip on her was tight, and that when Suigetsu ushered everyone to look away and get started on their mission, the two reluctantly pulled away. Even when they did, Sasuke’s calloused hand hesitated letting go of Karin’s ageless one, before they exchanged one last sad face at each other.

No one had time to grieve or discuss what just happened.

No one had time to mourn for their comrades too.

Boruto was the only male to remain in their group. The three others had to stall all their potential pursuer. Karin had trained herself to feel the chakra generators and thus the evacuees avoided getting caught.

They would be the only group, along with Sarutobi Mirai’s and Nara Shikadai’s, to arrive at the meet-up places. With wits and Karin’s chakra sense, coupled with some costumes and masquerading, they escaped and sought refuge in the city, pretending to be civilians caught up in war.

If they wanted to keep up acting the part, they needed to catch up with civilian culture. Hiding the scrolls beneath floor boards, under mattresses, inside cupboards, and among their clothes, they started to adjust to the civilian life.

--

They never quite realized it until then, but the Uchiha women started to become familiar with Karin’s presence in their life. Uchiha Sasuke may have faded out of the picture and into the other world, but Uzumaki Karin was more than willing to fill in the answers that his wife and daughter needed. Of course, Sarada couldn’t keep up her charade of not knowing Karin until their mission; Sakura was thankfully only disappointed that neither women told her so.

They would become lifetime friends, supporting each other.

Of course, they had to abandon their surnames and fake their identities, especially Sarada, who had been making a name until the war. They played around with syllables. Uchiha Sakura became Akagi Hanako; Uchiha Sarada was Akagi Sayuri; and Uzumaki Karin got Takaoka Rinka. They all laughed at their new names.

Part of their identities were their looks, so they played around with that, too. Sakura gave herself a mole on the cheek and treated her hair an auburn ombre. Sarada opted for a pixie cut and brown contact lenses, which also hid her Sharingan when she couldn’t control herself. Karin also got contact lenses, but more than that, she dyed her hair black with pigments she made.

They were different people now, and they laughed. Sharing it with their friends from Konoha, everyone laughed too, because they also did similar things.

At first, nobody could find employment, because they never had the formal education that civilian society demanded of them. But Karin helped Sakura study for the licensure exams, and soon, Sakura scored a position at a top-notch civilian hospital, becoming renowned for her quick thinking and skillful diagnoses. Karin also assisted her in controlling her chakra and her temperament, or else they’d give themselves away at Sakura’s super-strength and chakra-infused healing abilities.

Sarada went with staying as an intellectual, albeit with a heart. Karin and Sakura urged her to go into a school, and Sarada graduated at the top of her class. Later, she went into child care services, and soon became its public face. She focused on helping children who were affected by war, just as her mother did. On media, she held expressions that was almost akin to a real mother’s, as she herself came from war. A lot of youth were inspired to be like her, making organizations in her name and which she endorsed.

They decided that it would baffle all civilians if Karin never aged as fast as most other people did, so she was cooped up at home. Often, the Uchiha women brought her things to busy herself with – books, plants, and perfume ingredients. Karin would make perfume and cologne, and mother and daughter pair would sell them to their new friends and colleagues. Karin’s creations were popular with children and the sick too – it wasn’t anything like the usual ones you’d see on the market. They smelled very fresh and pleasant, never too strong or annoying. Some even thought that they were miracle cures for some people who were plagued with respiratory diseases. Sarada had to make a public appearance to influence everyone that such claims were untrue.

The others fared just as good or even better, while a few of their shinobi companions were not so lucky. But with the group’s support, their not-so-lucky friends took menial jobs for the meantime, until a better opportunity arised. Something was better than nothing, as Uzumaki Naruto, the last Hokage, firmly believed in.

It was as if everyone was ready to throw their shinobi selves away.

As if.

--

One night, a documentary was played on the television, and the world stopped.

The documentary shed light on things about shinobi that civilians didn’t understand, and clarified misconceptions. Shinobi had been the old military force, before they were replaced by guns. Their abilities were far superior, but that had been the problem, because if that power fell into the wrong hands, it would be a national or probably even international disaster. While the villages did everything they can to control such a power, there were citizens and even outsiders who abused their welcome and knowledge. Shinobi were a people who had been forced to use a dangerous power.

None of Sarada and the rest could quite remember the rest, because they had been mortified by the current state of their homeland. Infrastructures were in ruins. Trees were bent, snapped, and uprooted. Spilled blood, torn flesh, and mutilated bodies decorated every scene. The remaining people bore these very fatigued expressions; some finding the heart to bury the dead, some finding various means to make ends meet, others finding no reason to bother themselves with any task.

It was then that the small group of shinobi that survived had time to mourn. They set up a small altar and burned some incense to remember their loved ones and their beloved home. For a moment, the world would be silent and still to them, a blurred mesh of lines and colors and motions that for some reason have become incomprehensible.

But the world will not be always fair to them.

Support from shinobi sympathizers flowed in, while anti-shinobi protesters made noise. Both sides presented their arguments one after another. Shinobi never said sorry for the accidental casualties of war. Shinobi were used by civilian civilization because enemies had to be disposed of quickly. Shinobi committed more atrocities than just killing. Shinobi were forced to take drastic measures to out-power each other in the fear and to be continuously endorsed and funded.

Media followed the story very closely, all eager to get big scoops of such a controversial topic. They weren’t really allowed to broadcast or publish anything related to shinobi, but with so many citizens talking about it, the law finally allowed some freedom. The press was all too grateful and eager to (ab)use their privilege.

The younger Konoha survivors wanted to step right in, clear things up, and get everyone to shut up. They didn’t want to be reminded of their pitiful past, covered in bloodshed, politics, and power-tripping. Karin, twice already a survivor of tragedies, advised them against it, as did their older companions. They would attract unwanted attention. However, hot-headed and raging, the youngsters would argue.

While they tried to only talk things down and consider each other’s opinions, it would take some time for their personal dilemma to calm down. Unwarranted and unnecessary actions from civilians irritated them, who were known as civilian survivors from Konoha, the ninja community that hid in the forest. Nosy reporters, investigators, bloggers, and other kibitzers lurked around their houses and ambushed them at times. Everyone struggled not to spill, and fought hard to lay low among their civilian friends and colleagues. Some were even tempted to unleash a bit of chakra to relieve some stress.

Sarada was already on the brink of revealing her sharingan, but Karin held her back. The older woman whispered a story in her ear, privy from all their companions, and she calmed down a bit, her rage replaced with sadness, disappointment, and earnest concern. “Then think with your heart,” Karin said, “Remember the important things.”

And so, in a few hours, Sarada called for a meeting.

She spoke of the late Hokage, of the story of Uzumaki Naruto as she heard it. She recounted his life – his lonely youth, his mischief, his downfalls, his successes, his greatest deeds – bringing a bit of sadness, some laughter, and many smiles. She recounted how he entrusted his will to them, one very important task that they should never forget. He did not sacrifice his life and let them live to war with the civilians.

This was his legacy, their legacy. They shouldn’t allow his last wishes to be sullied. With that, their spirits were revived, and they bravely held on, even as the odds seemingly tipped against them. They turned to the altar once more, and burning incense, they prayed for the lost lives and for guidance.

Karin held a very knowing smile at the end of Sarada’s speech. Yes, his last wish will not be sullied…

--

While busy mouths would not stop talking, time would not wait for the controversy to die down, and would force change in everyone that would hopefully help them continue living a normal life.

Sarada and her friends would marry, while their parents and parent-figures would retire. They would enter another stage of life, and with that, they gained the wisdom of wisely selecting their words. They aligned all their fabricated stories, and consulted with each other so that they wouldn’t make a slip at all. None of their new civilian families would know of their real identities.

But of course, there were exceptions to the rules.

Karin’s Uzumaki blood will not let her appearance and vigor yield that easily to time, nor will she let her abilities betray her friends or herself. Sakura helped Karin fake all the identities that the Uzumaki would assume. The Uchiha matriarch would tease her friend that they might have to think of more sinister, more underground, and more creative ways to apply cosmetics or write death certificates, should the former medic nin get too weak for the task.

Because of this, Karin would be the one who would be left to spill the beans. Of course, the timing would be hers to select, but they all guessed it wouldn’t be until she would appear like a middle-aged lady. But of course, she had to perfect her skills to adapt to the changing environment, so she can fulfill her part of the deal.

And to do that, she underwent some training, one of which was for interrogation, which the Uchiha mother and daughter would help with. One day, Karin faced Sarada alone. The younger woman felt playful, and asked, “What’s your relation to Uchiha Sasuke?” Karin was quiet for a while, trying to feel the other lady’s chakra, then she laughed, “This is no longer interrogation, is it? Alright. I’ll tell you everything.”

With that, Sarada took effort to get the most concrete picture of her father as was possible. He wasn’t exactly the image of a father, nor that of a friend. Karin said, however, all it stemmed from his unhealthy obsession with getting the task he deemed priority, all done and with no loose ends. He was aloof, yes, because he never quite learned how to make friends, especially that his circumstances forced him to grow up, even though he wasn’t quite ready for anything like such. All the other trivial things, Sarada already heard when she was meeting up with former Team Taka.

“What about romance and marriage?” Karin never got to know much about that, and even Sakura refused to speak much about it, except that she was so happy when she got married. The Uzumaki learned not to touch upon the subject with either party, because neither gave her the perfect opportunity to talk about it. The two women left the couple’s love story alone.

…not quite. Sarada had some more questions related to Sasuke’s relationships. Karin tried her best to comply. Yes, she did like Sasuke, but he never showed any signs of returning her feelings – no, it was more like, he doesn’t quite grasp the idea of romance, and never quite realized that at age 16, he was being flirted with. Yes, she saw Sarada as a baby, coming out of Sakura – excuse me, no, it wasn’t horrifying, it was very touching –  and they were blood-related, very much, doesn’t it show on your temper sometimes.

Oh, oh yes, Sasuke quite forgot about Taka, in favor of assisting Naruto. They didn’t like his actions, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t try to be the best teammates they could be, so returning to Orochimaru’s side, they tried to find ways to be of use to Sasuke, even from afar. No one was as vocal as her when it comes to arguing with his decisions, though, but Karin thought her opinions didn’t really weigh much. After all, Sasuke didn’t like taking orders from other people, and preferred ‘suggestions’. My, my, she had been very rude with him, hadn’t she?

But, what about that last…? Karin suddenly got quiet. Sarada tried to push for more. "Why did Papa... show you such an intimate gesture? What did he tell you before then? Why did he... why did he beg for forgiveness?"

Karin did not know how to answer. If she kept silent, she would betray Sarada's trust. But if that promise was to be revealed, Sasuke would... no. Karin knew how to answer. It was all for the sake of... yes, that's right. "...for all that he put on my shoulders and my heart."

Sarada accepted her response, and some silence hung between them for a while. Then, the young Uchiha continued, "I guess that at this point, I should apologize too. Ah! I should say sorry to Mama too!"

And she recounted how she enjoyed the company of her father's former team, which made her think all these crazy things and stuff and made her doubt her own mother. Karin giggled. "That's only because you wanted to hear about your father, right?"

"I... I guess so. I'm really sorry about that." Sarada bowed her head.

Silence once again took over, until the younger woman let slip, “You must’ve really loved Papa.”

Sarada found herself frantically buying at least 10 packs of okonomiyaki the next day, and Karin laughed at the amusing way Sarada apologized to her. The Uzumaki accepted it, and promised that, whatever happened, she’d always be on their side.

Karin would disappear one day, and the Uchiha girls would miss her. She had other amusing stories about Uchiha Sasuke, the missing piece of Konoha; some of which she heard, some of which she witnessed. She also remembered many facts and other details that would bring everyone the image of their home village and their former shinobi life in their minds. She’d remind them of the highlights of their past, and pass on some advice, especially if Sarada got stuck. While Sakura did not forget to guide her daughter, she also let Karin do her work, since the latter understood the temperament of Uchiha quite well. Sometimes, the two older women teased each other, wondering who exactly is the mother. “We can share,” they reasoned, “We love the same person anyway.”

Perhaps for outsiders, it would be a puzzling situation, but not for them. They’d love to help Uchiha Sasuke, his family, and his line, any time.

Especially Karin, who would accompany time for, well, quite a longer while.

Sarada and Sakura would often wonder, as they flipped through the albums that contained the many pictures of their almost ageless friend, in the three different identities she assumed. They smiled, they laughed, and they recalled memories. Their good friend, whose presence graced them ever since, smiled back in her pictures.

Neither woman had no clue to her whereabouts or her current assumed identity, but they knew that she’d be safe. They had been entrusted to Sasuke, after all, and he wouldn’t do that if she wasn’t able enough. She’d be there. She’d come back to the picture one day. Sakura prayed for it. Sarada believed it. Karin would be back. Because she was always there, right there in the picture, right there in their lives, right there, in their hearts.

--

Young Sora proudly claimed before the love of his life, “I swear, I’d be the most valiant ninja servant to you, ever!”

He’d be laughed at, while his love interest and childhood friend, Rena, would only laugh at his silly proclamation. She didn’t believe it; how could she? Ninjas didn’t exist! Well, if they did, not anymore. The last she heard, the weapon in warfare now was guns. Guns! A ninja couldn’t stand against those. Sora was better off studying how to stay out of trouble, Rena told him with conviction.

And boy, does he never listen. He played with fire in the chemistry lab again! Many of his classmates screamed and his teacher fainted, as the fire burned bigger and hotter in his gloved hands. Miraculously, he wasn’t really burned, while the room and the rest of his class stayed safe. For that, he got himself into detention… again!

His parents scolded him when he got home, but he didn’t stay in his room as he was made to promise. Instead, when he’d made sure his parents were preoccupied, he quickly yet silently slipped into the attic that he was forbidden from entering. Oh, what was in this heap of junk anyway? There should be something interesting in here!

He explored the dusty room, curious with whatever treasure was potentially there. Old clothes, old toys, some unused books, phew! If there truly was something in here, it was hidden very well! He moved and opened boxes, giving a nasty or amusing comment here and there, and…

And then, he found a sealed box. Finding no harm in opening it, he found scrolls.

He unrolled one, finding nothing written on it. What was that? He felt like there was something there, but he didn’t know exactly what it was. He let his hands feel around it. Well, it did seem something was written, but…

Well, why would he waste his time on something he didn’t understand? Moving on.

Next, from the same box, hidden beneath all the scrolls, were pictures and albums.

He flipped through them, finding resemblance with the people in there and in his family. But he didn’t know who these people were – were they his great grandparents or great-great grandparents or something?

And then, he picked up the oldest, dustiest album. As he took it, a picture fell out – a picture of three teen boys and one teen girl with striking red hair and red eyes. Sora was surprised. She looked lovely… and it was so eerie to see a person with such genotypes. No, no, no, that was impossible. That had to be dye. Those had to be contact lenses.

Even a lot more curious, he searched for the girl in the same album. Apparently, she was friends with these older ladies, and they seemed to have kept contact with two other women who seemed to resemble her, just with some differences in the looks here and there, especially the hair and the eyes, probably her sisters, and—

And then, Sora found a picture of the older ladies in their younger years, as a younger mother and child, with a man, no doubt their patriarch. And the patriarch resembled the man whom the lovely red-haired girl was standing next to.

Oh no. This was getting very eerie… and very exciting.

The next day in class, Sora bragged his findings to Rena, in chemistry class, nonetheless. He was probably related to super-humans, so he could manipulate fire like that. He attempted to show the trick again, much to the horror of his classmates, but he was stopped by an unfamiliar hand… that belonged to a familiar face.

Sora’s jaw dropped. The person might have black hair and black eyes, but he never quite forgot how she looked like.

It was her. The woman in the picture.

And she didn’t look a day over 35.

“Teguchi-sensei is still unwell. I wonder why, don't you think so? Henceforth, I’ll be your substitute for today! If you haven’t heard of me, you stupid brats, I’m your most beloved counselor, I’m Miyazawa Emiko! Emiko-sensei!”

Sora was mesmerized, too distracted to listen to the lessons, and even more when Emiko-sensei called for him to see her in the counseling room after classes. Everyone thought it was because of his brazen actions the other day.

Oh boy. They thought wrong.

Sora sat, nervous and excited inside the office. Emiko-sensei locked the door and closed the windows. She leaned against the wall, and… well…

Whatever she was doing, she wasn’t just staring. It seemed like she was observing him.

“Um…Emiko-sensei…”

“You wanna be a ninja, that it?”

“Uh… uh-huh? I mean, yes! Yes I--! No, I’m already a ninja! I feel it in my veins!”

“That’s probably your chakra running.”

“Chakra? What’s that? Bodily energy that allows me to do stuff?”

“Yep.”

“…can you feel it from other people too?”

“That’s my specialty, brat. Other great shinobi—I mean, ninjas. Ninjas can do it too.”

“I… That’s cool! I wonder if I—?”

“Not in your blood, kid.”

Sora frowned.

“But, I know what your kind can do.”

“That’s cool! Super awesome! Well, how do you make yourself very ageless? Can you use chakra to read totally-not-blank scrolls? Can we like, blast off an entire building into rubble?”

How curious… “Yep. And more.”

“Cool! …hey wait, don’t tell me you’re forever Miyazawa Emiko. You can’t fool people easily these days!”

But of course…  “Alright, kid. My real name is Uzumaki Karin.”

“And I—!”

“And your name is Uchiha Sora.”

“HEY! My family name is—!”

“Congratulations, because you’re the youngest descendant of the ninja clan of the Uchihas. Your number one mission is to hide the fact. Never ever let anyone know. Swear it.”

“Yeah sure—”

Swear it.

Sora had never been in a more bizarre situation than ever before. And he liked the challenge.

“Alright, alright! I swear it! From the bottom of my heart, no one will know I am the great Uchiha Sora, the prodigy of the Uchiha clan of ninjas! So uh… will you help me train in my ninja skills now, Uzumaki-san?”

“Yes. Of course.” Always.

--

He didn’t usually talk to them these days. Well, for the past years, he didn’t, at all. The rude guy – they never thought they’d be called on like this. He blatantly ordered Orochimaru to get out of his business, and he called for Taka. Taka. They were Team Taka again.

And they would be, for the last time.

There would be no other possible outcome. The war was going to take most, if not all, of them. Konoha may have thought that it wouldn’t need outside help, so they merely hid; wherever Orochimaru went, they went. They had no other place to call home – no, they had no place to call home anymore. All their comfort was in each other’s presence, with the hope of Sasuke coming back to them.

He did, for a different agenda.

Sasuke stood before them, and they went straight to business. He did not mind the rude remarks or the endless questions. Something more dreadful was fast approaching, and immediate steps are necessary.

There would be no cheesy or tearful goodbyes. War was their past, war was their zone, and war was their state. They were always at war, no matter what. They had understood what most others did not (or probably refused to acknowledge) – they were warriors; they were a military force. They had little time to cry over loss, or to go after the things that had slipped from their weak hands. To get strong was their task, for to survive was their goal.

Uzumaki Naruto’s was, however, for the future of the ninjas to survive.

They would be bodyguards to the families of two of Konoha’s most influential people and most famous rivals, next to Senjuu Hashirama and Uchiha Madara. Why would they protect those people, anyway? They were the reason that Taka was cast away, right?

Or something like that. Then again, they had no right to complain. They wanted Sasuke’s orders, and Sasuke gave them orders. Suigetsu and Juugo had to make sure that the group would get to certain points on the map, and if necessary, they would have to stall any unwanted pursuers.

And to Karin, he gave the heaviest order of them all. He took a heavy sigh. Karin felt it in his chakra. He was about to…

“I cannot let all Itachi’s efforts to end like this,” he started, “I cannot let things end like this.”

Karin bit her upper lip. She knew it. She knew what was about to be asked of her. He sounded desperate.

“Karin. I know that you have inherited that trait. You will outlive everyone, even my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren.”

Karin knew it. She fought her tears back. Get it over with already.

“Karin. I want you to protect the Uchiha bloodline. At all costs. For all your life.”

But she didn’t refuse it. She couldn’t. She wanted to be of help towards the man she loved. She’s helped him train, take revenge, work for the Akatsuki… Even after he betrayed her to kill Danzou, she found the heart to forgive him and some crazy mind to stay loyal to him. She even stepped out of the picture once she heard Sasuke married someone else, and made sure that his daughter received necessary items and gifts.

“I know there is no reward I can pay you for this. And that, I’ve done many, many things against you… and…”

But still, she’d love to help him again.

“Karin. Swear to me.”

Because he saved her.

“Karin…?”

Because he had been her companion.

“…please.”

Because she loved him.

“…yes, Sasuke, I swear.”

Because she loved him.