“Naruto… was here?” The words that came out of Karin’s mouth were heavy. Distressed. If there had been anything that would undercut the joy in learning that Sasuke and Sarada had been there earlier, it was the fact that Naruto had come with them while she was away.
That he saw Hanami.
“Did you know he was coming?” she asked Orochimaru while the two were in the monitor room, alone.
“Not when you left,” he answered from his seat at the monitor desk, tapping on the keyboard. “The child sensed the arrival of others from quite a distance away, but with no reference she couldn’t identify them. Had I known that he would have been coming, then I would have respected your wish and sent her off to her room.”
Karin had a moment of doubt, but it passed. After all, he had been honest with her in every aspect since Hanami was conceived. Respecting her own wishes and requests where it was within his ability. To think that he arranged for it to happen was… ludicrous.
She changed her question. “Does he know?”
“He does.” He brought up the camera footage from her office. It showed Naruto using the DNA analysis machine and then the results. “I did try to deflect any answers and went ahead and erased the analysis from memory banks so that Hanami didn’t discover it by accident once they departed. But he left a number in my possession and asked that you contact him as soon as possible. If not, he would be visiting again.”
Of course he would. A gnawing itch prickled her chest. He knew about Hanami now, so she shouldn’t be surprised that he would try to get in contact with her. But exposing her to him now would mean…
Orochimaru observed her indecisiveness for a moment in silence before rising from his seat. “Viewing it through the lens of an experiment, there can’t be a change in the dependent variable if there is only a constant.”
She stiffened at his words because she understood the underlying meaning.
“My part in this experiment has long since been fulfilled,” he continued. “I had the chance to improve upon the modifications that you yourself underwent to a genetic level, and that data proved useful. Since I have no interest in projects that stagnate, you can proceed as you wish.”
Standing in front of her, he then held up the number for her to take. “However, if you’re going to properly test if everything you’ve done has had any merit, you must observe how the dependent variable changes in response to multiple independent ones. Ideally while they are still things you can control.”
Karin accepted it reluctantly. “I… understand.”
As Orochimaru left out, Karin found herself staring down at the direct line to Naruto’s personal cellphone. As a scientist, she understood his point perfectly. To experiment meant to expose something to different stimuli and processes to see the effects they had on it.
If Hanami was the dependent variable, she and the others in the base had been the constants. As long as nothing changed, then she would remain as she was. And that was fine as far as Karin was concerned. Let the world around them remain frozen for all she cared.
But… life wasn’t a constant. Karin knew that as well. It hadn’t been for her. It hadn’t been for her mother. That was why she put Hanami through everything she had the moment she learned she was pregnant and well after she was born.
There’s no getting around it. It was better to get it out of the way sooner than later, so Karin picked up the phone and dialed the number. Her feet paced the room while she did so, until it rang thrice.
Then Naruto’s voice came through at the end. “Hello?”
Her feet stilled her. Legs locking into place and her throat tightening, she was frozen where she stood by fear. She couldn’t answer.
“Hello?” he asked again.
This is pathetic, she told herself as she leaned against the wall. Letting another man stir up these feelings inside of her was something she just couldn’t help but feel ashamed at. They couldn’t be more different, yet the thought of either one of them and what they could do to her left Karin afraid enough to nearly make her legs give out.
As the silence dragged on, there was a pause. Thinking, no doubt. Then he asked, “Karin, is that you?”
She forced herself to swallow the lump in her throat and answered. “It’s me.”
He sighed over the line in relief. “How have you been?”
Karin didn’t want to drag this out longer than she needed to. “Is this line secure?”
She took his word for it, paranoid as she may have been. If anyone had a secured line, it would be the Hokage. “You know Hanami is—”
“My daughter.” He sounded somewhere between hurt and angry. “I’ve had a few hours to think on it now that Sakura is safe. I know that Orochimaru agreed not to cause any sort of commotion, but to hold leverage like that and not use it now that I’ve succeeded Kakashi-sensei means that there had to be another reason besides his own interests.”
While Orochimaru had been pardoned, that did not mean his sins were forgiven. He was constantly under watch for a reason since Kakashi had been made the Sixth Hokage officially. Now that Naruto had succeeded him…
Well, Naruto wouldn’t even consider a request that would endanger the village. But he wouldn’t endanger his daughter either. It would still be leverage that he could have used in some way or other.
“Karin, why didn’t you tell me?”
“You weren’t ready for it at the time,” she told him. “There was nothing between us but that night. Knowledge of a child born between you and a subordinate of Orochimaru could have cost you your reputation. You found someone else. I can give you a number of reasons why I didn’t tell you about her, and all of them would be valid.”
Which was true enough. The last thing he needed then was for it to come out that he had a dalliance and then a child with her. Even now, if this had gone public, he could only think of the trouble it would have caused Hinata, Boruto, and Himawari. Not to mention the sort of pressure it would put on Hanami herself and that it wasn’t just him would who harbor the blame.
The last thing a child should have to suffer from is being blamed for simply existing.
Or for being an outsider.
Even Naruto, as he was now, could admit that. “I won’t say you’re wrong. But it wasn’t just for my sake, was it?”
Karin didn’t answer him.
And the silence dragged on again until Naruto was sure he wasn’t getting an answer. So he changed the question. “…Karin, do you still think that things would have been better if you never came out of it at the end?”
Burning anger welled up inside of her chest at being reminded. “I never thought going right for the jugular was a thing you would do.”
“You know I didn’t mean it that way.”
“The answer is no.”
“Karin, if you still think you would be better off—”
“I SAID NO!” Her answer came out louder and more forceful than even she expected. Her Mind’s Eye of Kagura snapped awake as she checked to make sure no one was within hearing. Then she exhaled, letting the frustration and tension leave her body as she slid down the wall until she was sitting on the ground.
“…Sorry,” he said over the line. It was even sincere.
“I never should have told you in the first place.” She pushed up her glasses to rub her eyes at an abrupt, stinging itch. Tears had formed. Sucking in a sharp breath, she held it and then let it out slowly before she spoke again. “I just thought… that if anyone could have helped me, it would have been you.”
The Fourth War had consequences for her. Specifically, the Infinite Tsukuyomi. It was supposed to show everyone who fell under the illusion their happiest dream. But for her it was different.
She relived her past. Remembered how she and her mother were used as tools for the right to stay in a village constantly at war. They weren’t people, they were assets. Given the bare minimum to stay alive and then used up when needed. Never appreciated, never treated as one of their own.
Karin had been a tool to be used. To exhaust herself to death for the sake of letting their soldiers keep fighting. And she was supposed to do it with a smile on her face.
She only really felt elation at the end. When she finally had the chance to kill the man responsible and then died after seeing Sasuke smile, having helped him with his goal. Revenge and death afterwards. That was the only path of happiness that she could grasp in a dream where anything could happen.
The very thought haunted her afterwards when she returned to the waking world. That no matter what she did, only those two things would make her happy. If that was the case, then what was there any worth in living aside from a fear of death itself?
So many times, she had tried to change that. She couldn’t on her own. And who else could she go to?
Sasuke was either traveling or… not emotionally available. Anything he would have suggested was probably something she would have tried anyway. Juugo was nice, but not really someone she wanted to talk to about this. Suigetsu… not if the world was ending.
Orochimaru knew her past. He knew her pain. He had offered a balm to it in the past when he took her in. He made her feel as though she belonged and gave her power and knowledge. But he couldn’t offer her what she needed.
So that left Naruto. At the time he was the man who could do anything, having fought against overwhelming odds during the Fourth War and then made Sasuke change for the better. Despite Sasuke suffering so much, Naruto could relate to his pain and bring him back from the self-imposed misery he was going to put himself through to maintain peace through fear.
So, if anyone could have helped her, she was sure it was him.
She desperately wanted it to be him.
That was why she…
“…Karin, the world has changed since those times,” Naruto told her. “A lot of people our ages suffered from the war in the same way, so Sakura and Ino have established a system to help them. You don’t have to go through this alone. Let us help you.”
“I don’t need it,” Karin told him. “I have been since then. I’ll handle it myself.”
“Then what about Hanami?” he asked. “You can’t believe that raising her in isolation with those people is a good thing. She doesn’t even see a family as anything more than their genetic code. You can’t tell me that’s normal for a girl her age.”
“So you want to take her from me?”
“That is the last thing I want to do,” he said. “I just want her to have a chance to experience the world as it is, rather than seeing it in such an inhuman way. She needs to have a chance to make friends, otherwise she might end up worse off than both of us. You can’t keep her sheltered from the world forever.”
That. That was why she didn’t tell him. She didn’t tell him because Naruto would have wanted to take her out into the world. There was no way he would keep her a secret and let her be raised in private. Not after how he had grown up.
“I can try,” Karin told him. Even if the chance was next to nothing so long as Naruto was alive and as powerful as he had been back then, she wouldn’t risk it. Hanami wouldn’t end up like Karin did. Not like her mother did.
“Karin, at least—” Click!
She hung up and turned the phone off. Nothing he could say would make her change her mind. Then, rising to her feet, she walked the long corridors of the base towards her daughter’s room.
She was sure he wouldn’t try coming for them so soon. He’d try to convince her again before he made any overt move. But most likely she’d have to move away with Hanami soon. Orochimaru had limited influence compared to when he was free, but it wasn’t as though she hadn’t made contingencies in the event it was necessary. She already knew someplace nice where no one knew who they were, and they could start over.
Karin was partway down the corridor to Hanami’s door before it opened. Suigetsu came flying out, his body in a semi-fluid state as something rummaged around inside of him, pressing against the outline of his body enough to stretch without breaking. It was almost comical as he fell to the ground, rolling down the hallway while laughs came from her daughter’s room.
Then Suigetsu spotted Karin and clung to her ankle as he demanded, “Get it out of me!”
Karin sighed as she crouched down. “Vilu, what have I told you about swimming in filthy water? You might catch something.”
The rummaging stopped as out popped a slender, foot-and-a-half serpentine figure from inside of his shirt. Crimson, glistening scales that reflected the corridor light gave way to a black dorsal fin that ran along its spine until it came to a stop with a black tuft of fur on its tail. Short legs with webbed feet and black claws flexed as it set foot on the ground next to him. Then turning around, its pointed ears unfastened from its head, and its black eyes looked towards her.
Vilu, as he was named was an artificial creation turned pet. A chimera of sorts that combined the aspects of aquatic animals, serpents, and foxes. A gift for Hanami’s birthday years ago based off some of Orochimaru’s old work. “Good boy. Now go back to her room.”
“I can’t stand that thing,” Suigetsu groaned as he rose back to his feet while the creature scurried back from whence it came. “Science goes too far sometimes.”
“Quit whining,” she told him. “I can tell from his size and chakra he didn’t absorb any of your body this time. You should be fine.”
Suigetsu looked her up and down without saying anything as he rubbed the back of his neck. Silently appraising her. Then he smiled mischievously with a shark-like grin. “So, you and Naru—”
The pointed tip of a chakra chain at the base of his throat shut him up.
“One word,” she warned him. “One word and you will never recover from what I do to you.”
The lump in his throat shifted as he swallowed. A single nod showed the message carried. Then he, quickly and quietly, walked around her and went elsewhere.
Dismissing her chakra chain, Karin exhaled slowly and then forced herself to smile as she walked back down the corridor to her daughter’s room. Hanami was sitting at her desk, though her swivel chair was turned facing the doorway, allowing for the young girl to jump up. Mother and daughter embraced.
“Sorry I was gone for so long,” Karin said softly while they hugged before pulling back somewhat. “Still, what did I tell you about Vilu and Suigetsu?”
“He did that on his own,” her daughter told her. “I think he wanted to cheer me up, so when Uncle Sui came in he jumped inside of him. It was funny though.”
“Even so, he’s your pet so you should take responsibility for him,” Karin said, releasing her to just listen about her day. “And what upset you enough that he needed to cheer you up while I was gone?”
“We had guest today!” She sat back in the chair and looked up to her mother with an excited smile. She guessed Vilu’s antics did the trick after all. “There was an Uzumaki like us with really warm chakra. Then there was that man from your picture, Sasuke Uchiha. His was kind of dark, but it was calm too. And two girls around my age, with one of them being his daughter.”
“Sarada,” Karin said fondly. “Did you get along with her?”
Hanami’s smile faltered. “I… tried to. But she didn’t seem to like me.”
“Why do you say that?” Karin asked. She had something of a soft spot for Sarada after helping deliver her after all. It was probably the only time she saw Sasuke smile at her in thanks. One of the happiest notes in her miserable dream.
“Because she got upset when I suggested trying to transplant her Sharingan into my eyes, even though I was going to give one of them back when I was done evolving it.” she said, turning to face her desk and then laying her head down in her arms. “She even got mad when I was going to suggest using the eyes of that person they were chasing instead, telling me it wasn’t right.”
Karin brushed her hair. “Not everyone is comfortable about the thought of transplanting sensory organs. Especially people who have abilities related to the part in question. Losing them is terrifying, more so since they can’t be easily replaced.”
“I still don’t understand why she was so reluctant though,” Hanami said. “I mean, if she had the Rinnegan, wouldn’t that make her parents love her more?”
Karin’s brows folded in. As far as she knew, Sarada’s relationship with her parents was very well. To imply that either could love her more was to say that they didn’t love her with every fiber of their being, which Karin very much doubted from what she knew of those two. “Why do you think that?”
“Because she won’t be able to get the Rinnegan on her own like her father,” her daughter explained. “She won’t be the perfect hybrid of her parents’ genes and pass that on in the future to her children. So they won’t love her as much as they could, and she won’t love her kids as much as she could.”
Hanami looked downcast at the very thought of a parent not loving their child. “That’s so sad, I think.”
…The phone in her pocket abruptly felt heavier as Karin found herself afraid to ask how she came to that line of thought. The hesitation ensnared her throat and wrapped its cold, clammy fingers tight. Choking her to avoid the words leading to a worse experience.
But she had to ask. “Do you really believe that a mother won’t love a child if they’re not perfect on a genetic-level?”
Hanami didn’t hesitate for a second to nod, sitting back up. “I mean, that’s why I went through all of those tests, right? So I could be perfect for you.”
Karin’s mind froze as she remembered those tests of her genetic modifications. Hanami couldn’t meet the same end as her mother had. The moment Karin found out she was pregnant, she knew she had to do everything she could to protect her.
The secrecy was one part of it. If no one else knew she existed, then no one else could take her. But that wasn’t enough. Just in case something did happen, she needed to be able to survive no matter what. That was when Karin turned to Orochimaru.
‘I know it hurts, but I’m doing this to make sure you’re perfect,’ Karin had told her to justify it while she cried on her lap from how painful that particular series of tests were. She explained how genetics worked and how she had the potential to be greater than both her Karin and her mother ever were. And her children would have that same potential as well.
That way Hanami didn’t end up experiencing the pain that Karin had. So she that she never needed to fear it happening to her own children either. She wouldn’t end up like her own mother had before she passed away, used up and then tossed away.
Karin didn’t love Hanami because she was perfect. Because no self-respecting mother would want her child to think that they had to be perfect to be loved. She wanted her to be perfect because she loved her.
And somewhere along the way she hadn’t passed that message along to her daughter, whereas her own mother had been able to do the same for her. Did I make a mistake after all?
“Are you okay?” Hanami asked, her head tilting as her violet eyes stared into Karin’s crimson pair. “You’re crying.”
“I just remembered something a little painful,” Karin said as she pushed up her glasses and rubbed away her newly-formed tears. Like father, like daughter it seemed. They knew just the thing to say to hurt her in ways others couldn’t anymore.
“I’m going to need to step out for a little bit. But when I come back, you can show me that theory you were working on before I left. Okay?”
Hanami seemed enthused at the prospect. “Sure!”
Karin gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek.
Then she headed out to redial Naruto’s number. Apologizing was never something she was fond of. And she still didn’t think that she did the wrong thing in raising Hanami as she had to keep her safe.
But that didn’t mean she hadn’t hurt her daughter in other ways without realizing it.
Hopefully it wasn’t too late.