A/N: It's been forever but I'm back! Lots of Uchiha in this chapter and the clash at the stage two Chunin Exams are finally here. Some more backstories as always to fill in Sakura's childhood and her shenanigans. I've decided to change the route of Sakura and Orochimaru's confrontation, adding in a few surprises that will hopefully continue to flow well with the fic.

As always, let me know of any suggestions or characters that Sakura should mess with. I really do read all your comments and have noted down multiple people I had forgotten about. Thank you to everyone for all the support and love even though updates are so sporadic!

El


Chapter 5

.

Every inch of Sakura's body was aching from exhaustion and strain, but she refused to let it show.

It was only supposed to be a recon mission. Get in, hunt for supplies and get out.

Konoha, or at least what was left of it, was one of Sasuke's most guarded areas. Whether it was due to some childhood familiarity to his ex-village or the fact that the old Uchiha district was inside, he had made it nigh impossible to gain entry.

Yet, desperate times called for desperate measures when Ino had been gravely injured in a surprise clash with the Rokubi, and Sakura was not enough to heal her of infection and poisonous bijū chakra.

She needed fluids and antibiotics, and she needed them fast.

Sai had mentioned the high possibility of Danzō's underground Root network being still intact, as it dug three levels into the earth. All the supplies Root Anbu had used for both combat and medical purposes were wasting away.

They had been delayed a few days, but miraculously made it inside after careful watch. Sakura shoved armfuls of supplies into her massive storage seal, moving with haste. Kakashi was rummaging through each floor with her while Sai guarded the topmost level.

She knew their luck wouldn't last forever, and just as she feared, the maelstrom came without warning. The two of them were tearing apart Danzō's old office, when Sai's guarding ink bird explode into a puddle.

Kakashi immediately moved. "Time to go. Now!"

Bolting out of the room, Sakura heard the roar before she saw him. An earth trembling cry pierced through the decimated village, and a massive orange paw came into view as she and Kakashi ran from the building. The Kyūbi stalked around the corner, eyes brimming under the Rinnegan's control.

Sai ran towards them, clearly out of breath. "Sasuke must have had a genjutsu over him. I didn't sense him until he got close."

"Fly us out, Sai!"

A massive ink bird burst out as Kakashi finished his sentence, and the three made no hesitation in jumping on for dear life.

The wind picked up around them as Kurama's massive tails went flying, trying to knock them out of the air. The bird swerved and dodged, barely missing each time and Sakura felt her heart lodge in her throat with every move.

Sai was sending out more animals with every stroke, and Kakashi shot a stream of lighting anytime a tail or paw got too close.

Useless, Sakura thought, knowing she had no real long range attack to offer. Useless again.

As soon as it felt like they would make it, there was a cry of pain as two tails came rushing in at either side and Sakura turned to see Sai slammed off the back of the bird.

"Sai!"

There was a crash as Sai went flying into an old house, only to reappear out the other side and thrown into another.

"We have to go back!" She cried, trying the steer the ink bird. "Turn around!"

Sakura knew without a doubt that Kakashi would never leave anyone behind, as he was the one who taught her such in the first place, but the look of worry in his eyes said enough.

The bird shot back around, and before she could spot him among the rubble, there was a burst of chakra and a massive ink tiger jumped into the battlefield.

It was larger than anything she had seen Sai conjure before, easily matching the Kyūbi in size and towering over the village.

There was a great clash as the two beasts collided, and Sakura spotted him below. "There!"

The bird dove, dodging wayward tails and upturned rubble once more, but Sakura could tell its lifeline was nearly gone. Its form began to flicker, unsupported by Sai's chakra.

"Get out of here!" Sai yelled up at them, noticing their struggle to descent. "I can distract the Kyūbi!"

"We're not leaving without you!" She screamed back, ducking under a tail.

"Ino needs you back!"

In the split second of their distraction, the tiger roared in struggle, falling to the weight of six tails, and the Kyūbi's focus shifted. His eyes gleamed towards Sai's unguarded back, paw raised for a strike.

And Sakura knew what was going to happen.

It was as if time was slowing down and all she could see was Sai doing his best to defend himself, leaping through the air. All attention seemed to be on him and suddenly there were too many tails, too many claws.

"Kakashi, take my hand!" She yelled, reaching behind her.

He knew what she was going to do. "You haven't perfected it yet! The Hiraishin will tear you apart!"

"Sai has my seal! I need to try!"

He gripped her hand.

Sakura felt for the tug of her Hiraishin seal and she followed its path, hoping to every deity above that it worked.

Please!

In a white flash, the two appeared beside Sai just as Kurama's paw caught him against a wall and a single claw impaled him right through the waist. Sakura grabbed a fistful of Sai's shirt, imagined the seal back at the base and vanished.

The imperfect space-time jutsu tore at her body as she suddenly reappeared in a long room, collapsing on all fours. Her skin was burning from the inside, ripped apart from the messy transportation. She coughed and heaved, stars dancing in front of her eyes, unable to breathe properly.

Kakashi groaned, releasing her hand and dragging himself up. With incredible effort, she forced her eyes to turn to Sai, cradling his face in her hands.

His blood spread so fast, it was a miracle he was still breathing. The hole in his body must have taken numerous organs along with it.

"Sai," she whimpered, her hands flickering green against the giant chasm in his waist. "It's gonna be okay… you look at me."

His gaze was glassy as he coughed, expelling blood. "You're such a bad liar."

The tears were unstoppable, and Sakura cried out, cradling his head with one hand and trying in vain to heal with the other.

"Stop talking," she muttered, voice breaking through her tears. She saw them drop rapidly onto Sai's face, then trail towards the ground. "I said you'll be okay… I got you."

His breathing was hoarse now, skin rapidly turning cold and blue. "Hag… you shouldn't cry… makes you look more… ugly…"

She broke into another sob. "You shithead. I said— I said to stop talking. Kakashi and I are right here."

A small smile stretched his lips as he lifted his head ever so slightly, looking as if it took all his effort. His forehead met hers briefly, slick with sweat and dirt.

"I'm glad…" he murmured, closing his eyes. "Thank you."

Their foreheads separated, and he fell back limply against her supporting arm.

"N-No! No, please!" She shook him, even though the rational side of her said it was too late. She hadn't been strong enough. "Sai!"

Distantly, she heard a bang as the door opened and footsteps ran towards them. Sakura couldn't see or even hear through her tears, but she knew that chakra signature now.

"Shikamaru," Kakashi called first, voice sounding much stronger than hers. "What happened?"

There was a torn hiccup as she raised her eyes just enough to see him, broken far beyond anything she had ever seen.

"Ino," he whispered, eyes clenched and fists tight. He took in a ragged breath, sounding all too crushed and weary. "She's gone."

There was a great moment of silence as Sakura tried to process that information, but it all seemed stuck. They had been too late.

She leaned her forehead back down, unable to even move. She felt numb.

"It's okay," she whispered. "Sai will keep her company."

.


.

Sakura fidgeted slightly as she stood outside the Yamanaka clan's flower shop, staring discreetly through the glass windows in order to peak at the girl inside. Ino was crouched down by a bed of water lilies, her small hands tending carefully for the flower while her mother sat behind the counter.

They were only five, having started the Academy a few months prior, and Sakura still hadn't had a single good interaction with her old friend.

An old friend she failed miserably in the past.

Steeling her nerves, Sakura walked through the open doorway, making her steps noticeable and clear.

"Welcome to Yamanaka Flowers, how can I—" Ino stopped mid-turn, staring at Sakura with recognition. "Oh wait, I know you! You're in my Academy class right?"

She nodded swiftly, watching Ino dust off her apron as she rose to her feet. "I'm Sakura."

"Ino," the girl stuck out her hand, and Sakura gave it quick shake. "You're the one that's always with that Naruto-baka and Sasuke-kun."

"Well yeah, I—"

"That's what all the other girls say, anyway," Ino interrupted, flipping her shoulder length hair back. "Do you like him too?"

"What?" she said lamely, not catching onto the blonde's quick change in words. "Say what? Like who?"

"Sasuke-kun!" Ino waved her hand, looking at her as if it was obvious. "You like Sasuke-kun too, right? That's why you always hang around him."

Sakura felt like punching something at that moment, wondering how Sasuke could be ruining her potential friendship for the second time around.

"Sasuke's just a friend," Sakura insisted. "Of course I like him, but not in that—"

"So you do!" Ino cut in, eyes wide. "I mean, there's no way you wouldn't. He's the number one student in our year, and he's so handsome and cool." She sighed dreamily.

"I'm serious," she argued, scrunching her face in a grimace. "I don't like him that way."

Ino pursed her lips, suddenly looking extra bold. "Well I like Sasuke-kun. I'm gonna marry him someday!"

Trying not to sigh in exasperation, Sakura gave a tight smile back. Appreciation of boys was always a part of Ino, no matter the day and age.

"And since you like Sasuke-kun too, you know what that makes us?" Ino leaned in, a gleam in her eyes.

"Friends?" She asked hopefully.

"No, Sakura! It makes us rivals in love!" She proclaimed, holding a water lily to her chest. "You may have some advantage now but this is just the beginning!"

She frowned. "But I don't like Sasuke like that."

"That's what you think," Ino shook her head with a devious grin. "All the shy girls say they don't like Sasuke-kun either, but I can tell they feel different. You'll admit it to yourself soon too."

Sakura stared back helplessly, unsure if she could convince the blonde otherwise anymore. As sad as it made her feel, her friendship with Ino would have to come naturally as it once did in the past.

"Well..." Sakura whispered. "Sasuke apparently likes girls with long hair."

Ino's eyes went wide, and she nodded quickly. "I heard that too! I'll prove my hair is the most beautiful for sure!"

If she were being honest, Sakura didn't think anyone in Konoha had prettier hair than Neji, but there was no way she would be caught saying that out loud. He'd probably skin her — or try to.

"You know what could be even better?" She continued, leaning in. "Training with us after the Academy finishes. Sasuke will be there."

Ino looked scandalized. "Training? I don't want Sasuke-kun to see me sweaty and gross. He can only see me at my most beautiful!"

"But you could impress him and improve your skills at the same time," she offered.

The blonde crossed her arms stubbornly, lips pulled into a pout. "I already do so much training with dad, like two hours everyday! Can you believe it, Sakura? He said, 'now that you're becoming a true shinobi, you'll start learning our clan's ways'."

Sakura conceded. If Inoichi was taking good care of her, she could let the insistence on training together pass. For now that is.

Before Sakura could respond, a familiar voice shouted through the store.

"Ino!" Her mother called. "Can you come back here and help me with the roses?"

"Coming!" Ino yelled back. She turned to Sakura for a second, giving her a calculating look. "Guess I'll see you around, my rival in love."

Sakura chuckled, plucking the water lily from her hands and placing it in Ino's hair. She knew before traveling time that nothing was going to remain the same as she remembered, and that was something she had to sacrifice. Ino would grow up to be slightly different, but she would keep her promises this time around.

She'd protect her no matter what.

"See you later."

Turning on her heel, she walked out of the store, suddenly feeling her eyes prickle with tears. Her chest heaved with a deep sense of loneliness, and Sakura closed her eyes, letting the mid afternoon air cool her skin.

She took in a sharp breath, shaking her head of negative thoughts and headed down the street.

Now she had to find out if that silly rumor about Sasuke's hair preference was even true.

"Hey Sasuke, do you like long hair on girls?"

He gave her a disgusted look, face scrunching from the difficult katas they were doing.

"Ew. Girls are gross."

And that was exactly the sort of answer she had expected.

.


.

The first time Sakura really met Sasuke's parents, they were seven.

He had grumbled under his breath how his mother wanted her and Naruto to come over for dinner the next day, as she was dying to meet them properly.

Dropping off her half-unconscious son after a spar did not constitute as a proper meeting apparently.

"Sakura, please leave your running mouth at the door, and Naruto, have some table manners," Sasuke pleaded, looking rather serious.

Sakura raised a brow. She was quite well known to take shit from no one, even if they were well above her standing. Respect had to be earned, she believed, and the discrimination that often came from clan elders were not to be tolerated in her book.

"If your father gives me nothing to remark about, then my mouth will stay shut," she supplied.

Naruto just looked dejected. Table manners meant eating slower, and paying too much attention to where he put his elbows and trying not to talk. "Fine."

When Sakura and Naruto arrived outside the Uchiha compound, Sasuke met them at the gates and led them towards his place.

"Kaa-san, I'm back!" He called, slipping his shoes off at the door.

Sakura had met Uchiha Mikoto a few times while dropping Sasuke off, and knew the woman had a kind heart. She disliked being called 'Uchiha-san', saying there were way too many Uchihas in the house and it was just all hassle. From what Obito had told her, she and Naruto's mother had been close friends before the Kyūbi attack.

"Good evening, Mikoto-san!" Sakura greeted cheerily. "Thanks for inviting us over."

"Nonsense," she waved a hand. "Any friends of Sasuke are friends of the clan. I'm happy we can finally sit down together for a meal."

Sakura nodded, lifting up a small bundled box in her hand. "Naruto and I made dessert at my house earlier. It's dango."

Mikoto blinked in surprise, then smiled, taking the box from her hands. "Thank you both. My eldest son and I are both a big fan of sweets." She winked.

Naruto seemed to glow from the compliment, as he had gone through hell and back in the kitchen to make them with her. He proclaimed that anything that wasn't as easy to make as ramen was just too hard.

"Come on," Sasuke ushered, leading them towards the living room. "I'll show you around."

"Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, Sasuke," Mikoto reminded. "And wash your hands before you return."

"Yes, Kaa-san."

The three of them wandered the compound as Sasuke toured them throughout the long halls and the open rooms, occasionally stopping for Naruto's commentary or Sakura's questions. It was an obnoxiously large house, clearly more than necessary for four people, and holding rooms Sasuke had never even stepped in.

They had a wide backyard with well groomed trees, a koi pond, a garden, and a training field towards the back. Beyond the fence led to the forest that ran along the Naka River, and connected to the remaining Uchiha compound.

It was definitely luxurious.

They stopped by the washroom to clean their hands as Mikoto demanded, and waded their way back to the dining room.

At the large table, Sakura saw Itachi sitting at one corner, in quiet conversation with his father. This was her first good look at Fugaku, and she immediately noted where Sasuke got his adult physique. He was broad shouldered, obviously tall, and had a strong jaw that added to his constant serious expression.

This was the man that fell deeply into the Curse of Hatred, and would bring Konoha down to its knees with a coup— a future she could not allow to pass.

"Aniki! You're back!" Sasuke greeted, running ahead with a grin.

Itachi's attention was immediately taken away, and his eyes softened. "Otouto, I see you've finally brought your friends."

Sasuke jumped next to where Itachi sat, eyes eager. "How was the mission? What did you do? Where did you go?"

There was a stern throat clearing before Itachi could answer, and Sakura turned to see Fugaku sitting at the head of the table, eyes narrowed.

"Sasuke, I've said before that missions are confidential and are not to be spoken of like such," he said warningly.

"Yes, Otou-san," Sasuke immediately dropped his smile, sitting up a little straighter.

There was an awkward moment of silence as Sakura stood to the side with Naruto, who had been uncharacteristically quiet.

"And you two are?" Fugaku finally turned to them, expression like stone.

She stepped up first. "I'm Haruno Sakura, and this is Uzumaki Naruto. We're in the same Academy class as Sasuke, Uchiha-sama."

"Hn," he grunted, eyes assessing. "Haruno, huh?"

Civilian, she heard unsaid.

"And you want to be a kunoichi?" He pressed on, trying to determine her worth.

She blinked. "I want to be a shinobi, Uchiha-sama. A front line medic-nin to be specific."

There was a flash of surprise through his gaze and Sasuke shot her a warning look at the correction. Itachi looked mildly interested.

"There hasn't been a successful front line medic-nin since Tsunade, a Senju," he remarked, a challenge in his tone. "You believe youcan live up to that?"

The taunt was clear in his voice, and Sakura steeled herself, ignoring the look on Sasuke's face.

"Certainly," she said with confidence, giving him the biggest smile she could manage. "Everyone in this room was nothing more than a mere Academy student at one point in their lives. Who's to say what I cannot achieve from here?"

The silence was deafening as Sasuke looked at her in horror, Itachi with well concealed surprise, and Fugaku with a frown.

Naruto's lid then blew off.

"Sakura-chan's the best!" He defended, glaring at the Uchiha head. "She'll definitely be better than that Tsunano person, 'ttebayo! She already beats Sasuke-teme easily!"

Said boy pressed his face into his hands, groaning quietly, and Sakura squeezed Naruto's hand.

"Is that so," Fugaku said darkly, eyes darting to his youngest son. "I was under the impression that you were at the top of your class, Sasuke?"

He seemed to shrink back into his older brother, looking as if he wanted to disappear. "I… I am."

Fugaku narrowed his eyes. "In name only it seems, if an Uchiha loses outside of the Academy." To a civilian-born.

Before Sakura could argue, Itachi quickly intervened. "There is nothing lacking with his form or training, Otou-san. I have personally seen that Sakura-san just happens to excel in taijutsu. She would do well as a front line medic-nin."

The sudden support surprised her, but she had no time to thank him as Fugaku quickly turned back to her.

"And who in your… family, taught you such things?"

Sakura learned that the best way to fake the guise of a child prodigy was to give no excuses. No one had to teach them; there were just things that came after observation and analysis of their surroundings.

"I was not taught by family, Uchiha-sama. I simply happened to see an older shinobi training one day and became inspired by his form."

"And who is that older shinobi you speak of?" He shot back.

She smiled at him again, grin slightly feral. "I'm afraid I don't know his name. He does wear an incredibly eye catching green spandex suit however, and has a habit of training in the early mornings."

Gai's description was obviously recognized, and Sakura knew that man was too much sunshine for the Uchiha Head to deal with and question. But before anymore could be said, Mikoto came swooping into the room like an angel.

"Dinner is ready!"

Glancing at Naruto and giving Sasuke an apologetic look, she sat down at the side of the table, ignoring Fugaku altogether.

Dinner was a rather unusual affair, as the Uchiha Head mostly kept his attention on his sons, asking about noteworthy achievements and briefing over clan happenings. To her surprise, he didn't seem to exhibit any sort of discrimination against Naruto, clearly unruffled by the fact that the tailed beast responsible for all the accusations towards his clan was sitting only two spaces away, tucked away behind the blonde's navel.

Sakura was perfectly fine with the arrangement as she got to talk to Naruto all throughout dinner, occasionally bringing Mikoto into the conversation. When Fugaku opted to watch and listen, the table seemed to lift with Naruto's laughter and Sakura's unfiltered remarks. Sasuke's forced demeanor of cool eventually broke, and he too, argued with Naruto as usual.

At last, Fugaku rose from his place as dinner finished, not bothering to stay for dessert. He bid his family a temporary farewell, then turned to her and Naruto.

There was a gleam in his eyes of grudging respect, even if the rest of his face sat in a permanent expression of distaste. "If you two decide to join my family for dinner in the future, I do hope to hear about all your success."

She nodded. "Of course. Have a good night, Uchiha-sama."

He left without another word and dessert was eaten blissfully with his lack of presence. Itachi and Mikoto especially, seemed extra absorbed in eating the dango she and Naruto had made.

All in all, It was one of the most awkward dinners she had the pleasure of experiencing.

"Teme," Naruto grunted, crossing his arms. "Your dad is such cold fish."

With Fugaku long gone and Mikoto cleaning up in the kitchen, Sasuke threw himself over the table, tackling the blonde while growling right back at him.

Insults and fists went flying as Sakura lazily looked between the quarreling pair, then back at Itachi, who was still nibbling on the remaining dango, watching with amusement.

A missed kicked bashed the side of the table as Naruto and Sasuke's brawl came too close, jostling Itachi's elbow and making his dango fall.

Sakura swore she saw a flash of red as he glanced at the fallen dumpling, his face murderous. The air suddenly grew cold, and Sasuke immediately tensed mid-fight, slowly looking back with dread.

"Oh no."

.


.

"Sooo cute!"

Shisui squealed delightedly, pulling on the cheeks of a very surprised pink haired child. She was nothing like he had imagined, even when Itachi described the little girl who beat his brother into the dirt.

"Whaa ou doin?" The girl demanded, unable to speak properly with her cheeks being pulled. Her bright green eyes were wide, trying to pull back her face from his offending hands. "Leggo auf me!"

"So you're Haruno Sakura?" he asked with a grin, unrelenting in his grip. "The one who beat my silly cousin over there?"

"Hey!" Sasuke growled, evidently still bitter about the loss.

"But you're so adorable," Shisui retorted, noting how squishy her cheeks were. "Like a little forest fairy. So delicate."

Sakura's eyes narrowed rather dangerously, giving him a small frown. "Imnah a forst fry."

As if to prove her point, Sakura raised her foot, nailing him right in the left shin. Shisui fell over with a surprised grunt, actually having felt his bone split, and his muscles give away. He released her cheeks, clutching his injured shin.

"Owww, kami," he groaned, feeling the wounded area. The pain was alarmingly sharp, throbbing up his entire leg. Mildly shocked, he glanced back at the girl, watching her rub her red cheeks in irritation.

"Shisui," Itachi's voice cut through his thoughts. "Please stop being dramatic and groveling on the ground. You're attracting attention."

"She kicked me!" he protested. "Really hard!"

His cousin's eyebrow twitched, betraying his amusement at the entire situation. "A seven year old girl in the Academy kicked you. Tragic, isn't it?"

"I feel like my leg is broken," he whined.

A small cough halted his next words, and both he and Itachi turned to the noise. Sakura's cheeks were still red where he had gripped them, arms crossed as she tried to look as intimidating as possible.

"You can't just grab someone's face," she grouched, eyes calculating him. "Besides, I'm not a fairy, and I'm not delicate. Who are you, anyway?"

Before he could answer, Sasuke cut in. "That's my idiot of a cousin, Uchiha Shisui."

"Oi, oi, what's with this blatant disrespect, Sasuke-chan?" he pouted. "I'm still six years older than you."

"Age doesn't mean a thing," he argued.

"Yeah? Say that to Itachi. To his face. Right now."

Sasuke went promptly red, glancing nervously at his brother. "No, I— um, didn't mean it against you, aniki. I swear!"

"Sakura-chan! Sasuke-teme!"

Shisui glanced towards the new voice, watching as the blonde Kyūbi container came running forth, hand waving. He had heard all about Uzumaki Naruto as well. Not only from being in Anbu, but from all the stories Itachi had told him thanks to Sasuke.

"Naruto, you're late!" Sakura berated.

He grumbled. "Sorry, Jiji wouldn't let me go until I told him about my landlady. I think he's going to change her out."

"Good," Sakura said firmly. "She was really mean to you."

"Yeah," he shrugged, trying as usual to act as if it didn't affect him. "Doesn't matter anymore so it's fine. Eh— who are you?"

Naruto's bright blue eyes found his, and Shisui grinned back. "I'm Uchiha Shisui, Naruto-chan, nice to meet you!"

He raised a wary eyebrow. "Um, why're on the ground?"

Suddenly reminded of his predicament, Shisui pushed himself to a sitting position. "Well, I— "

"Sakura kicked him for invading her personal space," Sasuke answered easily.

"I think invading is a bit strong of a word," he argued, getting to his feet. His left leg gave another painful twinge.

"Hn. Well now that Naruto's here, can we get going?" Sasuke glanced between Sakura and Naruto. "I really want to check out that Training Ground."

"Where are you three going?" he asked with curiosity, suddenly realizing that they appeared to be packed for a field mission. They had large backpacks slung over their shoulders, sleeping rolls tucked under the straps, and a bottle of water sticking out from each sleeve. "It's the weekend, shouldn't you kids be doing fun weekend things?"

Sasuke smirked. "Hn. We will be doing fun weekend things."

"Let's go, let's go!" Naruto jumped excitedly, towing the other two by their arms. The three started running down the road, their bags bouncing against their backs.

Sasuke turned, waving at Itachi with a grin. "Aniki, tell Kaa-san I'll be back in two days!"

"Two days?" Shisui repeated, looking at Itachi with confusion.

"Shisui-san, go to the hospital!" Sakura yelled back, throwing one last wave. "Sorry!"

Naruto cheered, pumping his fist into the air. "To the Forest of Death we go!"

Then the three turned the corner of the street, disappearing from view.

Shisui blinked in surprise, and he felt Itachi still next to him. "Did Naruto just say the Forest of Death? Who the hell told them about Training Ground Forty-Four?"

"We should go stop them," Itachi muttered, eyes darkening in obvious displeasure. "Those gates will do nothing to keep those three out."

Nodding, he leapt after his cousin— and immediately crumpled to the ground.

Itachi stopped a few paces ahead, looking back with a frown. "You can't be serious," he said softly.

"It was chakra," Shisui breathed, realization dawning on him. "I thought I felt something else to the kick. Wow... that's actually really impressive."

He hurriedly pulled his pant leg up, unwrapping the bandages that covered his left ankle. An ugly bruise was quickly forming, unnaturally running around his shin— even the back of his calf where Sakura hadn't touched was just as bruised.

"She didn't injure me with her kick," he muttered, mouth slightly agape. "That little fairy cut me with her chakra. Through my skin. Have you ever seen something like that, Itachi?"

Itachi blinked once in silence, indicating his lack of knowledge. "How bad is it?"

He shrugged. "To be honest, it feels like she snapped my muscles apart. I can't really feel my toes. Some kekkei genkai of hers?"

"I don't presume so," Itachi shook his head, eyes contemplative.

Shisui whistled, impressed beyond words. "You told me she was good, but you didn't say she was like you!"

"Like me?"

"A blooming smart-ass," he answered, grinning. "She reminds me of you, you know."

Itachi didn't seem to appreciate the comparison. "Hardly."

"I think those three will be okay," he chuckled, rolling his pants back down. "An Uchiha, the Kyūbi Jinchūriki, and a mini-you."

Itachi narrowed his eyes. "You just don't want to hobble to the hospital by yourself."

"Aw, come on, Itachi! Don't leave poor me here!"

Releasing a quiet huff, Itachi pulled his arm over his shoulder, allowing Shisui to put the majority of his weight on his good leg. With a mighty jump, Itachi leapt onto the closest roof, heading towards the hospital.

"I hope today was a lesson well learned," Itachi noted dryly.

Brilliant green eyes flashed past his memory, her gaze looking far more intelligent than they seemed.

"Nah," Shisui waved a hand. "I'll still do it again— but next time, I'll be faster."

Itachi sighed.

.


.

The air was cool on the borders of Iwa, gently caressing her exposed arms and slipping into the cracks of her white Anbu mask.

Five feet away from her, a body groaned into the dirt, his long blonde hair matted and loose.

She had been tracking this particular shinobi since Orochimaru attacked Itachi and Shisui, as she knew it was only a matter of time before Akatsuki made moves to replace the Sannin.

All she had to do was follow the grand explosions.

"Who the hell are you, yeah?" He grunted, glaring and panting from where he was crushed into the earth.

"Well, if you had just let me ask some questions before you tried to blow me up, this wouldn't be happening," she mused, crouching so that they were nearly at eye level.

"You insulted my art, yeah!" He bellowed, pouting like a child.

Sakura cocked her head, trying to remember if she ever did such a thing. "I was talking about your terrorist bombing habits, Deidara, not arguing about the fleetingness of art."

"Hn. What does Konoha Anbu want with me anyway?" He grouched, wincing as he jostled his numerous broken ribs. "I haven't done anything to them, yeah!"

She took a moment to study him, noting his fierce expression that was still lined with baby fat, and bright blue eyes that reminded her strikingly of Naruto. He was supposedly four years older than her, which made him fourteen now.

Barely out of childhood, and already a Missing-nin.

"I'm not here on behalf of Konoha," she replied at last. "I'm here on my own accord actually. I just wanted to chat with you."

"Bullshit, yeah," he scowled. "Did Iwa send you after me?"

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Are Konoha and Iwa even on good terms to borrow shinobi from each other?"

He hissed, muttering 'probably no' under his breath. "You can blame your Yondaime for that, yeah."

Sakura knew the exact mission he was referring to. The Kannabi Bridge destruction during the Third Shinobi World War, where on one side, Obito was lost to the world, and on the other, Namikaze Minato single handedly defeated a thousand Iwa-nin.

Things were understandably never the same after that.

In fact, it was thanks to the Hiraishin that Sakura was able to outmaneuver Deidara to victory. She was probably the worst match for his explosive kekkei genkai.

"No one sent me," she reassured. "And I'm not here to kill you if you hadn't noticed."

He scoffed. "Then what'd ya want, yeah? You going to hire me?"

"Actually, that's not a bad idea," she muttered in thought, seriously considering the possibility. "Well I wanted to ask you something first. Have you heard of the Akatsuki?"

He glared at her for another minute before he seemed to concede that she was going to get her answers one way or another.

"No. What kind of dumbass name is that—Ow!"

She flicked his forehead, channeling in the barest of chakra so he felt her annoyance vibrate through his skull. "You have quite a mouth, don't you—

"I have three, actually— Ow! Stop flicking me!"

She rolled her eyes. He was much more childish than she remembered. "Then stop being an idiot and listen. Akatsuki is an organization made up of missing-nin, with the goal of world domination through extracting bijū. In fact, I believe they'd be out to recruit you sometime soon."

"Like I care," he snapped. "My art is my purpose, there's no way I'm going to join some ragtag group of idiots, yeah."

"Do you think they'd give you a choice?"

"Come all they want, I'll blow them to pieces!" He said defiantly.

She said nothing in return, choosing to look blatantly at his undignified position on the dirt.

"You don't have to look at me like that, yeah! You caught me off guard with that stupid jutsu, you hear? I'll blow you up for sure!"

Rubbing the back of her neck, she sighed. "Listen, Deidara. Why don't we strike up a compromise?"

"I don't work with anyone, much less enemy-Anbu, yeah."

"Do you think that I'm your enemy?" She questioned. He certainly had no idea what was to come. "Because let's face it, I'd have killed you about an hour ago. I want to help you."

Sakura made the agreement with herself that she wanted to save lives first and foremost. And while Deidara was a problem, he would be less so if he didn't get recruited into Akatsuki.

"I don't need help with anything, yeah."

Reaching into her hip bag, Sakura pulled out a thin card, half the length of her palm, and put it in front of his face. "Here."

He stared at it suspiciously, blue eyes narrowing. "What is it, yeah?"

"It's a calling card," she supplied, having given this explanation many times now. "Channel chakra into it and it will summon me. I'm not saying you have to use it, but… if you find yourself cornered by Akatsuki, and you don't quite want to join them… explode the card, and I'll come to help you."

"Why the hell would I believe you about any of this nonsense?" He challenged. "This could all be made up for some sick plan of yours, yeah."

"Why would I have any reason to lie to you?" She shot back. "I simply think that you are much better off not getting involved with an organization I am actively hunting. Unless you'd like to have another enemy."

He went silent, trying to peer at her through the slits of her mask. Finally he seemed to relent. "Fine. But don't think I'm ever going to need you, Anbu. I have my art, and I won't be caught off guard again, yeah."

She surely couldn't force him to use it, and if Sakura had to take responsibility for his life in the end, she would do it.

Smiling, she dropped the card by his face, pressing two fingers against his forehead in order to release the paralyzing jutsu. "Fine by me. Also, go see a medic. I heard there's a nice one on the border of Ishigakure. Not too far off from here."

Before he could move or speak again, Sakura turned on her heel and disappeared in a white flash.

.


.

A week after the big reveal of Naruto's fox host, Sakura thought he was taking the whole thing rather steadily.

Kakashi already knew and treated Naruto the same. Sasuke seemed to realize that the knowledge made no difference anyway, and Naruto took it all in stride. He had been contemplative for a day or so, then bounced right back into his cheery, too-bright demeanor.

He even complained about the injustice of it all, realizing that the Kyūbi was basically living in his body for free without even paying rent. He was now officially dubbed the worst roommate ever.

"Hey, Naruto."

"Mnh?" He mumbled, having partially fallen asleep on the grass.

She gave him a look. "I was thinking about your roommate, and well… what exactly is his name?"

Naruto blinked in confusion and Sasuke sat up, his interest perked.

"Name?" Naruto repeated, face scrunching. "Wouldn't it just be Kyūbi?"

She shook her head, trying to hook Naruto's curiosity. If she could get him connected with Kurama faster, he would be an immense power boost and a steadfast ally.

"You heard Hokage-sama last week. Kyūbi is just a reference to his status, like how 'shinobi' is to us. That isn't our name though."

"Hn. Sakura's right," said Sasuke, looking thoughtful. "He even said all the tailed beasts are different, like they have their own personalities. Surely they have names."

Naruto scratched his head. "I mean… does it matter?"

Sakura fought the urge to bonk his head. "Of course it matters, Naruto! He's sealed into you so technically his chakra is also yours to use when needed. Wouldn't you want to at least try talking to him?"

"I dunno…" he said warily. "I know Jiji said he can't get out, but he did try to squash Konoha…"

Dammit Obito, she inwardly sighed.

"Well think about it this way," she said instead. "Let's say you were an extremely powerful shinobi, Naruto. So powerful that no one in the Five Nations can match you—"

Naruto grinned dreamily at the suggestion and Sasuke snorted.

"So strong, in fact, that people start to fear you. They don't know the extent of your power, all they know is that you can move mountains, and crush villages with a single hand seal. Fear turns into paranoia, then to hate. You can't be killed, so the people decide to strip you of your freedom, and seal you away. They won't listen to your protests because they fear your strength. This is the only way to have peace, they say— for years and years. After one host dies, you're just moved right over to another, forever trapped, misunderstood, and unacknowledged. How would you feel?"

The training ground had long gone silent, and a serious atmosphere settled in the air. Sasuke frowned and Naruto looked horrified.

"But that's not fair, Sakura-chan!" He argued. "I hadn't done anything wrong! I wasn't attacking Konoha first!"

She drummed her fingers, leaning forward. "Not quite, Naruto. Remember, who was our first Hokage?"

"Senju," Sasuke intervened, eyes widening as he quickly picked up her point. "He first established peace between the nations by offering the tailed beasts. That was how they balanced out power."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Naruto grumbled, not getting the picture.

"Dobe, don't you see it?" Sasuke grabbed his shoulder. "The Kyūbi has been in Konoha for a long time. At least since the Shodai. That means you're not the first sealing host. It was sealed inside someone else during those days, and probably got released on accident or something."

Sakura took her cue. "And again, how would you be feeling after years of containment, only considered a weapon between shinobi?"

Naruto's blue eyes seemed to darken. "I'd be mad I guess. That sounds… lonely."

"I'm not justifying what happened twelve years ago during the attack, but there's a lot we just don't know," Sakura shrugged. "The Kyūbi might have a good reason for his anger though. It's only fair we respect that too."

"I suppose… but how do I even talk to him?" Naruto wondered with a frown.

"I'll help you study your seal," Sakura declared simply, patting his head. Jiraiya had already explained the ins and outs of it, but analyzing it up close would do wonders. "Would you trust me with that?"

He grinned, melting under her hand. "Of course, Sakura-chan!"

Sasuke was still quiet, gaze lost in thought. "Why Naruto, though? Sealing a beast doesn't seem like an easy decision to make, so why did the Yondaime choose Naruto… on the day of his birth no less? Did they even consult his parents?"

"I dunno," Naruto shrugged. "Jiji said they died in the Kyūbi attack too."

"No," Sasuke muttered, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Something doesn't seem right about this. Everyone refers to the incident as the Kyūbi attack, meaning it was unprepared for, not some sort of planned sealing event."

Sakura glanced at him under the hood of her eyelashes, not responding. Sasuke at this age was much smarter than she remembered.

"Then what?" The blonde grumbled.

"I… " Sasuke trailed off, in deep thought. "I think whoever your parents were, they were very close to the Hokage, Naruto. There's no way that children would be chosen at random to house a tailed beast— that just wouldn't make sense. Like Sakura said, the Kyūbi has been around Konoha since the Shodai, meaning that it probably went through a couple other hosts before the attack, where it was released unexpectedly, and they had to find another host right away. The Yondaime must have been familiar with your parents or your history somehow, and thus, chose you."

Sakura bit her lip hard, trying not to speak. She knew he would meet his parents someday, but that moment just wasn't now.

"It's possible," she said softly. "It could also explain why the Hokage refuses to diverge any information about them to you or the public. He's trying to protect you still."

"Hn. Whoever your parents were, they must have had a lot of enemies out there," Sasuke deduced, plopping his chin against his palm.

Naruto grumbled ever so slightly, a frown of determination crossing his face. "I'll show Jiji how strong I am for sure… I won't need his protecting soon enough."

Sakura turned on him, grinning. "And you know what the first step is to discovering the Kyūbi?"

"What?" He asked warily, eyeing her grin.

"Meditating."

Naruto groaned. "Noooooo!"

.


.

"Temari! Kankuro!"

Both shinobi turned in surprise as Sakura came running forth, a smile on her face. The early morning streets were bustling with life and activity, it was almost strange to see the two wander about freely.

They were cataloging Konoha for the invasion, no doubt.

"Do you remember me?" She asked breathlessly, stopping before the two. "It's me, Sakura."

While she had spent most of her time with Gaara during her stay in Suna, she had played with the elder two siblings a handful of times as well, getting to know their family dynamic— or lack thereof.

There was an obvious flash of recognition through their faces, and Temari gave her a small smile.

"It's been about six years, hasn't it?" she said in greeting. Kankuro gave her a nod. "I see you've been well."

"Where's Gaara?" Sakura asked cheerily, looking around for distinct red hair. "It's been so long since I've seen him too. My teammates told me you all ran into each other!"

She didn't miss the noticeable flinch both siblings gave, darting their eyes around in fear before looking at her with something akin to guilt.

"Um," Kankuro muttered, watching her warily. "Gaara stayed back at our hotel. He... well, didn't your teammates say anything yesterday? The blonde doofus and the broody-looking one, right?"

She chuckled at his description. "Say anything about what? Gaara?"

Sakura knew she was baiting them, but she wanted to hear the words from their own mouths.

At last, Temari quietly sighed, rubbing at her eyes. "Look, about Gaara... It's been years since he's been like what you remember. He's changed a lot. You know how he was."

She frowned. "A little shy and scared of people?"

"No," she momentarily scrunched her eyes shut, looking defeated. "I mean, he's become very... closed off. Angry. Wanting to fight all the time. I really wouldn't recommend searching for him. In fact, I'd advise you to steer clear of him entirely."

He'd kill you, was written all over her expression, but remained unsaid.

"I see," she said slowly, taking in her words. "Why the sudden change? I remember you three were fairly close. What happened?"

After a great pause, Temari answered once more. "Let's just say he and our father had a rather terrible fight. He hasn't been the same since."

Sakura nodded in understanding. "I'm sorry to hear that. I was looking forward to seeing him again."

"Just be careful, all right? Steer clear if you see him and try not to poke too much into his actions," Temari remarked, another flash a guilt running through her eyes. "We'll see you at the exams."

"Don't go easy on me if we meet in battle!" She called, letting them go. "I'll show you how much I've grown with my team!"

"Same to you, Sakura."

With that, the two Suna siblings continued down the streets, not once looking back.

Sakura watched them go with a frown, having a general idea of how they were feeling. She couldn't imagine the pressure of being a Genin in foreign village, knowing you were going to ambush it within a month's time.

Releasing a sigh, Sakura turned and left the central market. The day was still bright and there was much to do in preparation.

.


.

Five kunai thudded against the practice target, sinking into every vital area that would leave the victim bleeding to death.

Tenten smiled at her success, glancing between her two male teammates with a sense of confidence. They were definitely a strong team, and likely one of the best Genins.

"So did you guys hear?" Lee turned to them excitedly. "For the first time in five years, there are going to be rookies in this Chūnin Exam."

Tenten nodded, throwing a set of senbon. "Sakura told me yesterday. All the rookie teams were nominated for the exams."

Ever since their meeting last year, Tenten had continued to meet with Sakura, occasionally trading gossip and helping out with each other's training. As much as she liked her team, it was always a blessed and productive time away when she met with the fellow kunoichi.

"Of course Sakura-san would be nominated!" Lee pumped his fist, eyes blazing. "She is truly the manifestation of youth!"

"Can't say the same for the other teams," Neji inputted, resting against the tree. "You have to feel sorry for them."

Tenten perked at the well covered compliment, noting that Neji hadn't refuted Lee's claims. Ever since their fight, she had been wary of bringing Sakura's name into the conversation, but Neji had been surprisingly relaxed.

"So what do you think of our chances?" She asked, twirling a kunai. "Just within the Konoha teams in this instance."

Neji silently contemplated as Lee yelled proclamations of their success.

"We have the upper hand in experience and teamwork compared to the rookies," Neji replied, pausing again as he thought. "From what I've gathered, there's eight other Konoha teams that have been in the field longer, but the they're nothing too noteworthy."

Tenten nodded. "I think we've got this exam in the bag, especially you, Neji."

He gave a slight frown at the comment. "I suspect it'll be Kakashi's team that will need closer attention. Although, I've heard the Uchiha's hardly comparable to his elder brother's genius and skill, and the blonde one just seems to be a powerhouse of chakra— no finesse."

"And Sakura?"

There was a long stretch of silence before he muttered out a reply. "A problem."

Lee finally settled, interested in the conversation. "You think what Gai-sensei said is true? About her learning taijutsu just from seeing him train a few mornings?"

"Who knows," Neji grumbled. "It was apparently the Uchiha clan head that relayed that info. Credibility can't be accounted for."

The unspoken question was clear. They would find out who topped over the other when they met in battle.

From the way Neji's eyes seemed to gleam, he was more than ready for a rematch.

Tenten hummed. "Prodigies sure are scary."

.


.

If there was one thing that threw Sakura's entire plan for the future into unsteady waters, it was saving the Uchiha clan.

Itachi and Obito had persisted marvelously with her, trying to predict every outcome and possibly of the consequences from saving the clan.

But that's all they were — possibilities.

The Uchiha clan had around a hundred and fifty members in total. Many were elderly, those retired from active service, and those who never fulfilled the potential of their famed pinwheel eyes. Only about thirty were currently active shinobi.

And it was within that thirty that Sakura found her miscalculation.

Standing in the crowded hallway filled with hopeful Genin trying to get into the Chūnin exam room, Sakura spotted a familiar face, that was actually not someone she knew at all.

"Sasuke," she called, gently grabbing his shoulder and gesturing to the other side of the hall. "Who's that?"

A boy with pitch black hair and matching eyes stood with his two teammates, his pale skin and angular features undoubtedly marking him a member of Sasuke's clan.

"That's Ichirō," he supplied, looking uncharacteristically bitter. "He graduated two years ahead of us, but hadn't gotten the chance to partake in the Chūnin Exams until now, I suppose."

Naruto looked in their direction. "Another one of your weird cousins, teme?"

Sasuke scoffed. "Uchiha he may be, but we're not closely related. I've only seen him a handful of times in the old compound and he moved out a while back when his parents died."

"Why's that?" She inquired softly, cocking her head.

He shrugged. "He was never really around. It was fine by me though; Ichirō's from the branch family so he was always trying to prove himself and stick up to my father. It was rather annoying."

"Cold fishes like always," Naruto shook his head. "Your entire clan—"

"Finish that sentence dobe, I dare you."

They glared fiercely at each other and Sakura moved in to separate them. "Be nice you two. Besides, there's no one that can match the weirdness of Shisui."

"Truth," both boys muttered in agreement.

Sakura let her gaze wander back to Ichirō as Naruto and Sasuke bantered about, her sharp mind analyzing the current situation and spinning with alternative actions.

The boy was an unexpected wedge into her plans, which surprised her. Itachi and Obito had both confirmed that no other Uchiha would participate in the exams as they were all either past the Chūnin rank, or not yet Genin.

So there was something Sakura had done in her last seven years that triggered Ichirō's sudden appearance.

It was then that her memory suddenly clicked, and she recalled his name with absolute clarity.

Uchiha Ichirō — a friend of Sai's in the Shinobi Restoration Program.

Root.

Now it all made sense. Danzō would have wanted a second pair of loyal eyes within the clan, and likely took Ichirō right after his parents' passing or even before. That was why Sasuke rarely saw him in the compound even though they were close in age. He was a boy of the branch family who was desperate to prove himself and Danzō took full advantage of that.

In the past timeline, Itachi or Obito must have killed him during the massacre, not knowing he was secretly training into Root Anbu. He was likely regarded to be a part of the other twenty Uchiha members, who never lived up to their potential to become active shinobi.

And now that Sakura suddenly had two Uchiha boys in the exam, her plan was flipping upside down.

Orochimaru — who had definitely taken over being Kazekage within the last few months — was sure to come and try something. She knew he had temporarily halted his efforts in gaining an Uchiha body without his cursed seals, especially after failing to take Itachi. Since the seals were mixed with his senjutsu chakra, it made the soul transfer critically easier, and coerced the victim come to him for power, corroding their minds and ultimately falling into insanity.

Something Sasuke wasn't particularly interested in this time around.

If Orochimaru was going to attack, it was going to be against the vulnerable and the suppressed, someone more like Ichirō.

His eyes suddenly shot left to meet hers, and Sakura quickly gave him a warm smile and a wave. He frowned slightly in response, before slowly raising a hand and robotically waving back in clear confusion.

She would have to look out for him as well. Sakura was well aware that given the right circumstances, anyone could end up like the past-Sasuke.

There was a sudden crash and an outraged cry near the doors, and Sakura peeked over Naruto's shoulder to try and see the commotion. Lee had been thrown on the floor and Tenten was valiantly defending her fallen teammate against the guards. With a backhand to the cheek, she also fell back.

"Idiots," Sasuke muttered. "Doesn't anyone see the genjutsu?"

"I'm sure they do," she said calmly. "But underestimation is also a strength in these sort of exams."

"Che," Sasuke grunted, obviously not wanting to blend in. "Well we're going in."

Rolling her eyes at his dramatics, Sakura walked over to Tenten instead, knowing Naruto and Sasuke had it under control.

"Sakura!" She blinked in surprise, then smiled sheepishly. "I see you made it."

She crouched down, pressing a hand against Tenten's red cheek, and soothing the bruise away. "Was the underestimation tactic really worth the strike?"

They glanced at the new commotion by the door, noting Lee's interference.

Tenten sighed. "Well now that Lee's thrown it all out the window, no, it wasn't worth it."

She snickered, pulling Tenten up to her feet with a firm tug. Neji soon came stalking out of the shadows with a look of exasperation at his green-suited teammate. He quickly gave her a nod, and continued on to Lee.

"I knew the valiant Sakura-san was to come!" Lee's voice boomed through the hall towards her. "I am now a changed man, so please go out with me and I will definitely protect you until — Oof!"

Naruto's foot and Sasuke's elbow went flying, momentarily shutting Lee off course before he bounded away.

"Hey, hey, Thick-brows! No way we letting you take Sakura-chan!" Naruto bellowed. "She's our teammate!"

"Hn."

A bandaged hand shot out, grabbing Lee's collar and dragging him back. "Cut it out, Lee. Let's get inside."

Lee looked like he was about to argue with Neji before resigning. "Very well. A good shinobi knows when to retreat."

Sakura sent him a wave. "See you guys inside!"

The hall began to thin out as Genin made their way up to the third floor, and she glanced between her two boys, all exchanging a similar grin. "Shall we?"

Naruto cheered. "Let's crush this exam, 'ttebayo!"

Thirty minutes later, Sakura watched Naruto's stiff shoulders from five rows back, able to feel his frustration with the written exam.

She nearly sighed as she sat in between two Suna shinobi, pencil in hand. The tension in the room was thick, and seven people had already been caught cheating.

Her eyes quickly trailed over to the other side of the room where a certain grey-haired shinobi sat, blazing through the test.

Kabuto.

Orochimaru wouldn't come into the picture until he had murdered the group of grass-nin, but Kabuto had already wormed his way into Naruto's pure heart, deceiving the entire Rookie Nine.

Her hand was itching to make a move—anything to get him out of the game before the second part began, but her arms were tied. Sasuke and Naruto's safety was her priority in the forest, and she couldn't spread herself too thin by trying to fight them both.

She stared at her blank test, already having decided that it was a waste of time to even complete it. She knew the last question was the only one that mattered, and it gave one less person that others could copy off of.

The lack of mind transfer from Ino also indicated that she noticed Sakura hadn't moved her pencil at all.

Sighing softly as Ibiki began to explain the tenth question, Sakura allowed her thoughts to wander, going through all the different paths she could take, and how to get her team in and out the way they went in.

Ichirō's appearance posed a problem that she hadn't expected. All her plans revolved around the fact that Orochimaru was the one to come to them. If he didn't, Sakura couldn't exactly abandon her teammates to try and find him. Even if she did, trying to knock out Ichirō's team first and fighting the snake sannin would raise a lot of questions after they woke up.

Inwardly grumbling, Sakura sent a longing look at the back of Shikamaru's head, wishing he was there to plot with her.

A clone wasn't good enough to protect Naruto and Sasuke in her absence in case they ran into formidable shinobi, nor would it do her any good to send one to Orochimaru.

She was nearly certain the Sannin would go after Ichirō' team. If his time in Root Anbu was anything to go by, Sakura was positive Danzō had gotten the Sharingan to appear long ago, compared to Sasuke who still hadn't activated them. Ichirō was also older and theoretically stronger.

Inwardly sighing, Sakura pressed her head into the desk. She would have to wait it out. While sealing him away was preferable, making sure Naruto and Sasuke made it through alive was her first and foremost goal.

Then there was always the invasion to consider. She could finish him then once in for all.

When the final question had been set and every remaining team in the room passed, Mitarashi Anko came crashing through the window, ready to take them to the second exam.

Clenching her fist, Sakura stood with the rest of her team.

So it begins.

.


.

"Sakura, you hold onto the scroll," Sasuke urged, handing her the heaven scroll.

She stilled, not having expected that. "Why me?"

"Between Naruto and I, you're the strongest at taijutsu, so if the enemy-nin got close enough to take our scroll, you'd have the best chance of fighting them off," Sasuke explained. "Besides, no one would expect for you to hold onto it."

"I'll take that as a compliment," she muttered, tucking the heaven scroll into her hip bag.

Sasuke had a fair point though. Behind the lean muscle and boyishly cut hair, Sakura looked liked a weak, fairly delicate member of team seven.

After separating to their respective gates, Sakura craned her neck, observing the tall metal fence.

"Well, this place sure has some good memories," she smiled. "It's been awhile since we camped here though."

Sasuke smirked. "Yeah, because last time Naruto couldn't keep his mouth shut and ended up attracting a horde of giant tigers."

"That was you, teme! Your katon basically gave the entire forest our location!"

He raised a brow. "Yeah, and who was the one who screamed back at them, 'come at me, cretins!', huh?"

Naruto crossed his arms in defiance. "I have no regrets. They stepped on my ramen cup."

"Come on, the exam is about to start," she warned.

Sure enough, a shrill bang echoed through the forest and Sakura knew it was time.

"Let's go!" Naruto shouted, and all three of them bounded into the trees.

"So what's the plan, Sakura?"

"I'm willing to bet we know this forest better than any of the other teams," she supplied, pushing off a branch. "So let's stick close to the river and head straight towards the tower. Any teams we meet along the way can be lured into our traps. Full out confrontation is dangerous with unknown shinobi. We observe first, then attack."

"Hn."

"You got it, Sakura-chan! I'll make the biggest trap Konoha's ever seen!"

They traveled for the next hour, exchanging tactics and bouncing off trees, when she felt unfamiliar chakra signatures come into range. They were all well hidden, but growing stronger— definitely coming for her team.

Before she could warn of their arrival, Naruto suddenly stopped on his branch, looking sheepish.

"Sakura-chan… There's a problem."

"What?"

"I really have to pee."

Sasuke groaned and she smacked her forehead, shooing him on with a hand. "Go then! And be careful, okay?"

Naruto disappeared into the trees just as the cluster of unknown chakra grew close.

"Foreign shinobi coming from the west," she announced quietly.

Sasuke fingered his kunai holster. "How far?"

"Close," she muttered, concentrating on them. There was a long pause of silence as she listened, feeling a spike of chakra in the distance. She sharpened her gaze, reaching for a kunai.

Sasuke did the same. "Hn."

After another quiet moment, Naruto walked back into view, rustling through the bushes. "Aah! I feel so much better!" he sighed, rubbing the back of his head.

The second she spotted his holster on the wrong leg, Sakura threw her kunai and Sasuke did the same. One sunk into Naruto's forearm, and other caught the edge of his shoulder. The henge disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving behind a thoroughly surprised Ame shinobi.

"How did you know?" he hissed, yanking the metal out.

"Sasuke! Find Naruto!" she yelled, charging the masked shinobi. Sasuke leapt away, muttering curses under his breath about stupid blondes.

"Are you the one with the scroll?" the Ame-nin snarled.

"Maybe I am," she replied coyly.

"It's your unlucky day then! I'll have to kill you!"

He charged her wildly, and Sakura easily danced around his swipes, assessing his form.

She had remembered this particular shinobi to be intimidating. Sasuke fought him the first time around while Sakura had been so scared to even help — she couldn't remember much other than the fact that he got away.

Analysis over, she flickered behind him with a chakra laced fist, knuckles slamming into the base of his spine before he could react. His body easily snapped under the pressure and cracked into the earth, upturning the ground.

"Not likely," she muttered, pulling back her fist. She rummaged through his broken body, picking his spare weapons and explosive tags. They were mediocre to the ones she custom wrote for her team, but more was always better.

Deep inside his leg pocket was a Heaven scroll, and Sakura snatched it from his body— not the one they needed but useful nonetheless.

"Sakura! I found the idiot!"

She twirled around finding both boys run into the scene. "No other teammates of his?"

"They got away."

Naruto shook his head. "Man, that was so low! Catching me when I was taking a piss! Who does that?"

"Shinobi," Sasuke answered, hitting the blonde's forehead. "You shouldn't have let your guard down."

"Where is he? I'll totally take him on!"

Sakura lifted the scroll. "No need, Naruto. I already took revenge for you and found ourselves a lovely gift."

Their eyes lit up. "Awesome, Sakura-chan! Can we head to the tower now?"

"That's a heaven scroll, dobe, we need an earth one."

She nodded, tossing the extra scroll. "Here, Sasuke, you take this one."

He caught it, pocketing it in his waist as Naruto grumbled. "What about me, Sakura-chan!"

"You can hold the earth scroll when we find one," she amended softly.

"Besides, I think our scroll would have already been lost seeing as I found you all nicely tied up and gagged five minutes ago," Sasuke countered.

"I was preoccupied!" Naruto protested, pouting.

She pat his head. "We know, Naruto. Now come on, let's get going."

After twenty more minutes of travel, gossiping about other teams, and dodging venomous leeches, Sakura felt another disturbance in the air.

It was colder and heavier this time, and she knew for certain who it belonged to.

And now who he was after.

She refused to willingly bring her team to face Orochimaru just for the chance that she could seal him, so it meant that he was off the grid for now. And even if Sakura went back after they reached the tower, he would have been long gone.

There was no plausible way of helping Ichirō's team without dragging Sasuke and Naruto into it.

She clenched her fist at the thought. It was a heartbreaking decision, but one she had to make. She had once put Konoha's safety over the Uchiha clan when she saved Shisui, and now she had to do the same, putting Sasuke's life over Ichirō's.

She swallowed bitterly, feeling sick.

There was a rustle in the trees and all three of them tensed, attention snapping towards the noise. A kunai shot from the bushes, and Sasuke swung out with his own, deflecting the weapon.

"He's fast," a deep voice spoke. "Better than the other Uchiha you think?"

Two shinobi came melting out of the shadows and Sakura immediately felt that these were not normal Genin. The metal on their foreheads marked them as grass-nin, but she knew they were anything but. One was on the smaller side with a mask over the lower half of his face and neck, and the other was broad, towering over them with beady yellow eyes.

Orochimaru's shinobi. There were two with him on his stolen team, and had probably been ordered to stay out of his work.

They were very close then.

"Who are you guys, huh?" Naruto yelled, bracing himself. "Attacking us like that!"

"We should not interfere," the other shinobi muttered, looking spitefully at them. "If that one fails, he'll come for this little Uchiha."

"Hey," Sasuke called, voice dripping in annoyance. "I don't know why you're talking about me, but I'm not going to stand here and let you guys off!"

He ran ahead with a cry and Sakura gave one look at Naruto before the two of them bolted on after him.

"Kage Bunshin no jutsu!" Six more Narutos appeared in a cloud of smoke, running to tackle the smaller grass-bin.

She met eyes with Sasuke in a well practiced signal, and pooled chakra in her mouth. Sakura lifted a hand seal and blew, shooting out a thick stream of oil.

The entire right side of the forest blew up in Sasuke's flames, but the shinobi were quick to dodge.

"Your mouth will be your ruin," the second nin hissed at the other, looking thoroughly irritated at the sudden fight. He leapt away, sliding through Naruto's bunshins with ease.

"We'll just kill them then," the first growled back. "They are not worth Orochimaru-sama's attention."

Sakura tensed at the name, dancing under a sailing fist.

They were fast, and definitely not normal Genin level. The first shinobi matched her sealed speed shoulder to shoulder, clearly the more nimble of the two. They were Chūnin if not almost Jōnin level.

Sakura swerved and strategically moved around her own teammates, going through many of the group attack formations that they had practiced. A chakra blade nicked the larger nin's leg, and he momentarily staggered. The fact that these two were able to hold under their formation showcased enough skill.

"Eat my foot, you bastard!"

There was a clang of kunai and a slap of fabric, and Naruto's leg was caught and thrown back, knocking him down.

The ground suddenly softened and Sakura's heel sank into the dirt like quicksand, as rings of vibrations ran through the earth.

"Dobe, look out!"

The jutsu caught him the worst, and Naruto was stuck knee deep into the dirt, unable to move.

The masked nin rapidly flipped through hand seals. "Fūton: Kazekiri no jutsu!"

Wind chakra whipped through the air, shredding through anything it touched and headed straight towards Naruto's prone form. Sakura turned to run back, but the larger shinobi cut across her path, blocking her.

They were isolating him, trying to take them out one at a time.

Before she could summon a wall of earth to protect Naruto, Sasuke blurred in front of the wind blades, eyes gleaming with defiance.

There was a flash of red as he raised a seal to his mouth. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!"

Fire and wind collided in a giant hiss of heat, blocking the majority of her vision.

There was a cry of pain as something battered Naruto and Sasuke, but she couldn't see.

Feeling a rush of anger, Sakura ran lightning down her arm and slammed her fist into the ground with all her strength.

The earth groaned and split under the pressure, breaking outwards and overpowering the quicksand effect. She shot out of the dirt, rushing towards the larger man with an open palm.

Unbalanced from her attack, he staggered right into her hand, and his chest ruptured open in a shower of blood and bones.

"Kinta!" His partner yelled, wide eyes turning to her. "You little bitch!"

"Don't you look away!" Sasuke yelled, flying out of the smoke. His stomach was covered in blood and deep cuts adorned his arms.

Dozens of wire suddenly materialized from the trees, catching the masked nin by surprise and holding him in place. Naruto leaped from the broken ground, throwing two kunai at his back, and Sasuke tugged at the wires around the grass-nin's jaw, forcing them to meet eyes. Blood red orbs flared in response, tomoe spinning in a weave for genjutsu.

"Die," he spat, forcing the shinobi go rigid under his gaze.

Naruto's kunai sank into the man's unprotected back, protruding out the front of his chest and neck.

With a slow groan, he fell, body limply hanging against the wires.

Blinking away the adrenaline, Sakura ran towards them, cataloguing their injuries. Sasuke looked to be the worst, while Naruto had minor cuts along his waist, and burns on his hands. They were both breathing hard, looking at the man they had just ended the life of.

It was then she realized that they had just made their first kill together. Of course, Sakura couldn't coddle them forever, but she hadn't meant it to be this early. They were only twelve.

"Teme," Naruto pointed at Sasuke's face with shock. "Your eyes!"

"I know," he replied tiredly, but a sense of pride still remained. He had finally gotten his Sharingan, and to Sakura's eternal gratitude, it was from a strong positive feeling.

The will to protect his teammate.

She stopped near the grass-nin's body, looking between both boys. "You idiots, look at yourselves! You're bleeding all over the forest."

"Sakura, they — this shinobi — he wasn't normal," Sasuke muttered seriously. "That level of fūton is comparable to what Itachi-nii can produce. His killing intent was real too. I had to do it."

She softened her gaze, biting the inside of her cheek and sighed. "I'm just glad you two are okay. Here, let me see your injuries."

They limped over to her, Naruto more so than Sasuke, and fell into the dirt. Sakura crouched in front of them, hands humming green.

The stronger wind had likely blasted through the fireball, leaving behind the large gash on Sasuke's stomach. Naruto's ankle was broken from his forced escape of the sinking dirt, but Sakura knew Kurama could have it taken care of in a few days.

"What the heck happened to your guy, Sakura-chan?!"

She glanced back at the man she had killed, noting that his body was slumped against a tree, organs and blood splashed ten feet out from where he died.

"Explosive chakra attack", she murmured, hoping they wouldn't probe further. "And Sasuke, switch off that Sharingan. It'll start draining you otherwise."

He blinked, eyes returning to black.

"That guy… he said 'Orochimaru'," Sasuke said quietly. "And something about going after the Uchiha."

Naruto scratched his head. "Why does that name sound familiar… another cousin?"

"Konoha's Sannin," Sasuke corrected. "Don't you remember anything Iruka said about the Third Shinobi War?"

"We're not talking about a loyal Konoha-nin, however," she continued, keeping focused on Sasuke's injury. "He defected long ago for unknown reasons, which means one important thing: he's an unwanted enemy."

"So what does he want with the Uchiha?" Naruto questioned.

"That's what we don't know," Sasuke grumbled, wincing as she cleaned out the dirt.

She bandaged Sasuke's stomach, resolute on taking a look at Naruto as well. "You're cleared from anything critical but I want to get to a safer location before fixing it all. Our fight must have attracted unwanted attention."

"Thanks, Sakura," he muttered absentmindedly, rubbing his sore abdomen. He slowly got to his feet, deciding to search their fallen enemies for anything useful.

She turned to Naruto, bracing his ankle with a makeshift cast and soothing the area with chakra. It was a rough break, and from the way his face scrunched with every movement, it was causing him pain. Reaching deeper in the nerves, Sakura forced the pathways to close with her chakra, numbing the area.

"How does it feel?" She probed.

He grinned good-naturedly. "Great, Sakura-chan! I actually can't feel a thing!"

She ruffled the dirt from his hair. "Okay, I'll carry you back so take it easy. I know your roommate tends to heal you faster but it doesn't mean you have to aggravate your injuries."

He didn't protest as she pulled his arms around her shoulders, settling him against her back. After adjusting him, Sakura heard a muffled gasp from Sasuke, and turned to see him stare in disgust at the shinobi he had killed.

"Sasuke, what's wrong?"

"His face," he choked slightly, looking sick. "It's melting off."

Sure enough, the skin was sagging away, revealing the true face of Orochimaru's subordinate. Sakura gave a quick glance to the man she had taken down to find a similar situation.

"Orochimaru's work no doubt," she remarked darkly. "They must have killed the real grass-nin and stole their identity."

Before either could respond, a scream filled the dead silence of the forest, sending shivers down her spine. It was not of scream of surprise or even terror, but one of pure agony, hoarse and ear-shattering, as if they were being tortured. A scream she heard one too many times before.

Sasuke whipped his face around like he had been hit, eyes wide. "...Ichirō."

A dozen different scenarios ran through her mind as Sakura tried to process the new circumstance, glancing between the sudden screaming and Sasuke's shocked expression.

"Sasuke, wait," she called, noting his tense form, as if he was able to jump away any second. "If it's really Orochimaru out there, it'll be too dangerous. You can't go — especially not in that condition."

His face tore with conflict, and Sakura realized that there was a lot more to Sasuke and Ichirō's friendship then he spoke about. "I… I can't leave him behind. And if Orochimaru is really going after the Uchihas, he'll come for me anyway."

"Yeah we'll kick the stupid Sannin into the dirt," Naruto declared into her ear.

"Naruto you shouldn't even be talking about fighting on that foot, much less with a Sannin!"

Another pitch in the screams was all Sasuke needed to make his decision. He looked to her, desperate. "Sakura, please. I can't do it alone."

His pleading stilled her, not having heard such vulnerability in a while. The last time she had seen such an expression was when Itachi was severely injured.

She could only hope the Anbu came quickly now.

At last, she resigned with a firm nod and he shot off towards the noise like a bullet.

Cycling chakra through her legs, Sakura took off from the ground, Naruto's weight hardly holding her down.

Orochimaru's presence had been subdued and momentarily forgotten by their own battle, but feeling was unmistakable now. They must have moved closer during the fight.

The screaming grew louder as the three of them stopped by a clearing. A large part of the forest had been blasted apart by jutsus and nearly all the trees had been knocked over. In the center of the pit, Ichirō was in a fetal position screaming and clutching at his neck. Two bodies that indicated his teammates lied motionless to the side. Blood pooled around them, and Sakura didn't have to feel for a pulse to know that they were close to death.

The less ties his victim had to the village, the better.

Further up ahead, Orochimaru stood on one of the broken trees, his grass-nin disguise having fallen off. Other than a large rip through his shirt, he appeared to be well intact.

Before Sakura could voice her opinion to hide and watch first, Sasuke shot off without delay, running towards his cousin.

"Ichirō!" He yelled over the screams, landing messily beside the elder boy. "Ichirō, it's me, Sasuke!"

Sakura dropped next to them, every muscle of her being on alert.

"Uchiha Sasuke…" Orochimaru said slowly, looking rather surprised. "For you to have come here… the irony is not lost."

"What have you done to him?" He demanded, still trying to shake Ichirō back to reality.

"I merely gave him a gift." A long tongue slithered out mockingly as he looked at the suffering boy with disappointment. "His capability to survive, however, seems to be shrinking. A shame I chose wrong. I cannot give another one so soon."

He was right. Sakura had seen her fair share of curse seal recipients and the way Ichirō's body was reacting was not good. He was shaking uncontrollably, eyes glassy and skin cold, rapidly losing control.

A one in ten success rate.

The only good news was that Orochimaru wouldn't be able to give another Cursed Seal for another full week while his senjutsu chakra restored.

"Sasuke," she said seriously, keeping her eyes trained on the Sannin. "I need you to take Ichirō and get out of here. Naruto, you follow them too. I'll hold him back."

"No way, Sakura-chan! We're not leaving you behind with this creep!"

"Sakura—"

"He's dying!" She stressed angrily, upset that it came to this. She could escape with the two of them, but that left her back wide open to Orochimaru. If she fought while the boys did nothing, Ichirō would likely die anyway. They were never reported to last more than a day. "If you want to save your cousin, then you have to take him and run, Sasuke. Run back and alert the Jōnin."

Orochimaru chuckled as she finished her demand, looking as if he was enjoying himself. "The girl is right, Sasuke-kun. What will you do? Leave Ichirō-kun to die, or leave your teammate to die?"

"I'm not going to die," she retorted.

His expression tore as he glanced back between her and his cousin, and for a moment, he actually looked ready to comply to her request. "I— Sakura — I don't—"

"Sasuke, NO!" Naruto cut in, pushing off her back. He stomped over without a care for his broken ankle, eyes alight with fury, and promptly punched Sasuke across the face. "How could you even think about it! Those who abandon their teammates are worse than trash! Sasuke's not a coward who would turn his back on us! If there's an enemy then we'll face it as a team, you hear me, teme?!"

"This isn't easy, Naruto!" He yelled back, clutching his face. "How can I save one but willingly abandon the other!"

His words felt like a knife to her heart, and she clenched her jaw— because in the end, she had chosen to leave Ichirō behind if it would save Sasuke.

"You're not abandoning me," Sakura reassured, trying to intervene in their sudden argument while keeping her eyes trained on Orochimaru.

They didn't seem to hear her.

"We fight this bastard together and we bring your cousin back after!" Naruto said with such simplicity.

"We can't even beat Kakashi-sensei yet, dobe! What makes you think we can win against a Sannin?"

"We are NOT leaving anyone behind!" Naruto threw back. "We'll win this together!"

A deep, amused laughter filled the clearing.

"Such confidence," Orochimaru cocked his head, looking interested. "And a touching sentiment, truly, to believe you can hold against me."

"Shut up, you creepy bastard! We'll totally take you on, 'ttebayo!"

Orochimaru grinned. He leaned forward ever so slightly, mad lust igniting his gaze. "Then let's have a bloody battle, Naruto-kun… with our lives on the line!"

His killing intent stormed down on them, filling the forest in all directions and suffocating the very air. Sasuke collapsed to his knees, shaking and gagging under the pressure. Naruto's previous bravado seemed to instantly vanish as he choked, watching visions of his own death.

Running forward, Sakura shielded her team with her body, arms outstretched, glaring at Orochimaru with the most hatred she could muster.

She had lived through Uchiha Madara. Lived through the resurrection of the Ten-tails. Lived through the goddess Kaguya.

This was nothing.

"To stand under my fear," he noted curiously, "you are no ordinary one either."

With a single hand seal, a strong hurricane of wind tore through the clearing, blasting them apart. Still partially paralyzed with fear, Naruto and Sasuke went flying back without restraint, and Sakura called their names in dread.

Another separation tactic, no doubt.

There was a flicker of black and Orochimaru appeared right before her, blocking her attempt to run to her teammates' side. A white snake burst from his sleeve, fangs glistening for her throat.

Moving on instinct, she twisted into the air, landing a solid strike against its mouth and watching with satisfaction as it exploded. Orochimaru countered back immediately, drawing her into a deadly dance of taijutsu.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto's voice called from some distance behind her. A grunt. "Teme, cut this off me!"

"Stay there!" She yelled, not daring to turn her eyes away from the opponent in front of her.

Sakura was slow. With both limiter seals still in place, she was barely dodging Orochimaru's reach. She knew he was playing with her, cataloging her speed and form with a critical eye.

She couldn't even fight back at full power. Naruto and Sasuke were still conscious somewhere behind her, doing so would raise more questions than she could afford.

Yet they would have to stall until the Anbu arrived.

His hand blurred, suddenly picking up speed and moving faster than she could dodge, pinning her shoulder against a tree. Orochimaru's tongue lashed out, catching her around her waist and locking her arms to her sides.

Sakura cursed.

"I have no use for you," he said slowly, lifting her into the air, "but perhaps I'll come find you later. The one I want to test is the Uchiha."

He slammed an open palm against her stomach as his tongue released her, and Sakura was launched across the forest, losing sight of her two boys.

"Sakura!"

She crashed into tree after tree, unable to use her chakra to align herself and stop the momentum. There was a sting in her abdomen and Sakura lifted up her shirt to find a hastily placed seal. At last, she crashed into a large trunk, dropping onto a branch with a groan. She spat out blood, lifting up her shirt again to see the seal.

Thankfully, it was one she recognized—the Seven Edge Seal—used to disrupt chakra flow. Forming the unseal in her hand, she concentrated, trying to mold the right chakra to execute the release. Her chakra fizzed out, unwilling to be used.

Cursing again, she punched the tree trunk, scanning her surroundings. She could barely sense or hear Orochimaru's battle with Sasuke and Naruto anymore.

There was a rustle behind her, and Sakura moved just in time as fangs longer than her body crushed the branch she was on. An enormous purple snake hissed at her, rearing its head for an attack.

"You have got to be kidding me," she groaned, leaping into the air.

She ran along the trees quickly, trying to gather her focus as the snake shot after her. She forced her breathing to calm, imagining the network of chakra running through her body. If there was one thing she was absolutely confident in, it was her chakra control. Feeling the right amount of chakra on her fingers, she lifted her shirt and slammed her hand down.

Seven Edge Unseal!

There was a blast of chakra and a short stab of pain before Orochimaru's seal vanished, and her chakra was regulating properly again

Sakura swiped across the first limiter seal on her ankle, releasing the inhibitor. A series of clicks ran down her spine and through her limbs, allowing her to move at full speed.

She'd keep her second seal in place, but questions be damned, she wouldn't be caught being slow again.

Pivoting on her heel, she shunshined backwards, her foot thrumming with high frequency chakra. Orochimaru's snake burst forward, jaw wide in an attempt to swallow her whole, and she landed straight on its head, slamming the snake summon into the earth. She felt its skull give away under the pressure of her chakra, cracking outward in a sick noise.

It definitely won't be moving after that.

Kicking of the snake, she sped towards where Naruto and Sasuke were fighting; unable to believe she had been thrown so far back. Her only saving grace was that Orochimaru would keep both of her teammates alive. He couldn't risk injuring Naruto too much without releasing the Kyūbi, and he was unable to procure another Cursed Seal for Sasuke.

Within moments, she arrived back at the scene, finding Naruto's body unconscious against a tree, the Kyūbi's chakra permeating the air. Sasuke was crouched in front of him in a protective manner, sharingan spinning and barely on his feet.

Her chakra poured from the silver band on Sasuke's wrist, and she could see his injuries began to heal.

Orochimaru seemed to notice as well. "An interesting trinket you have there, but I can't have you recovering so soon, Sasuke-kun."

He disappeared, and Sakura knew Sasuke wouldn't be fast enough to dodge. Pushing her body, she performed the fastest shunshin she could manage; landing between the two shinobi and grabbing Orochimaru's wrist in an unforgiving grip.

"Sakura!" Sasuke cried in relief, looking close to collapsing.

"Hey," she smiled. "Sorry, I'm late too. I think Kakashi-sensei's bad habits are rubbing off on me."

There was a blast of chakra as Orochimaru forcibly ripped his hand back, leaping away to another tree.

"You broke the seal," he said in observation, glancing down at his now fractured wrist. "How fascinating!"

She placed a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, looking him square in the eye. "I promise, I'll protect you both with my life."

"Sakura, what—"

She lashed out with two fingers to the side of his head, forcing him into a state of unconsciousness.

Sasuke sagged in her arms, dropping the kunai in his grip. Carefully, she placed him next to Naruto by the branch, making sure both would be safe from possible collateral damage.

Ichirō had long gone quiet, his body rapidly collapsing under the seal.

Her mind ran through hundreds of plans as she stared in tense silence, wondering how much longer she would have to stall for.

It was then she felt it.

A different sort of heaviness weighed down on them, and Sakura inwardly faltered under the feel of it. A flash of annoyance ran across Orochimaru's face as he darted his gaze around, mouth twisting into a grimace. "Company."

They were finally here.

There was a blur of grey and two Anbu appeared between her and Orochimaru, and Sakura could feel the raw killing intent rolling off them in waves.

Three more flashed into the clearing a little further out, and a cry of absolute rage caught her attention.

"Orochimaru!"

Anko landed roughly in the dirt, her coat flying behind her, and eyes slanted in a furious glare. She was panting slightly, skin paler than normal, and clutching at her neck where the cursed seal undoubtedly reappeared. "You're brave… daring to show your face here."

The Sannin merely chuckled, seemingly unaffected by the fact that he was surrounded by numerous enemies. "Impatient as ever, Anko. You appear to be having some trouble however, do you require my help?"

The Anbu closest to her took a step forward. "I'd take a good look at your own luck, snake. I believe I have a score to settle with you."

Even muffled by the mask, Shisui's voice and hair were easily recognizable, and from the way the second Anbu next to him kept glancing back at Sasuke, made his identity clear as well.

"He's mine to kill," Anko hissed, looking as if she was about to fall over any second.

Orochimaru clicked his tongue, his feet sinking into the dirt like liquid. "Not so soon. I'll take my leave for now, but it'll only be a matter of time until we meet again."

"Grab him!" Anko ordered, all but on her knees now, clutching at her neck.

Shisui was the fastest, lashing out with his sword, but Orochimaru had already sunk away, disappearing into the forest ground.

"Reverse-summoning," one of the Anbu muttered, tracing the dirt with his hand. "He was thoroughly prepared."

"Damn that slippery bastard!" Shisui sheathed his katana. "I swear I'll get him back!"

Now that the threat was gone and the Anbu were there, Sakura ran to her teammates, giving them a quick clinical scan. Naruto's ankle had swollen grossly and Sasuke's stomach wound had torn open, but both were still alive.

"Anko, your cursed seal," a quiet voice drifted over, unfamiliar and belonging to a boar masked Anbu. "We need to take you to the Hokage."

"No, the exam can't be stopped," she said weakly. "To the tower."

"Don't be stupid," another rebuked. "Martial law has been implemented the moment Orochimaru appeared. The exam is meaningless now!"

"I'll explain when we get to the tower!" She shot back, struggling to get to her feet. "Panther, Hawk, please tell Hokage-sama to meet us there."

The two Anbu Sakura recognized nodded at the command, and Itachi's cold voice replied, "very well."

"Let's go," Anko commanded, still clutching her neck.

"Wait a second!" Sakura called, surprised at their lack of concern. "Orochimaru attacked this team, you've got to help him! He's dying!"

"It's useless," Anko retorted, looking grim. "There's nothing we can do. Their bodies will be retrieved once the second part of the exam ends."

Sakura blinked in disbelief. "What are you talking about? He's still alive!"

"You haven't seen what I have, little girl!" She snapped. "He won't make it past the hour, or the night if he's lucky! That cursed seal can't be countered by any means unless he survives the ordeal first."

"Not without trying! You have to take him with you!" She demanded, furious that she had to make such a request in the first place. Where was the value of shinobi in Konoha? "Hokage-sama can see him! His teammates are dead, the exam doesn't matter to them anymore!"

"That isn't our responsibility, girl," Anko shot back, growling now. "Orochimaru has infiltrated the village and is on the loose, we don't have time to deal with casualties right now."

Sakura felt her blood run cold, and a wash of pure rage filled her chest. She could understand choosing the life of one shinobi over another, but to sacrifice a life for protocol, or to chase a man who was already far beyond their reach was simply inexcusable.

A trickle of her raw killing intent slipped out, causing every Anbu in the clearing to stiffen.

Her face felt like stone as she met Anko's gaze. "What a disappointment. As a Konoha shinobi… you are worse than trash to leave this boy behind."

Anko's eyes went wide, both fear and rage shooting through them. Before she could utter a rebuke, the boar masked Anbu flickered forward, gently taking a hold of Ichirō's body.

"We'll take him to the tower, so enough of this," he muttered. "Hokage-sama will see this through."

Relieved at last, Sakura gave a curt nod and the tense atmosphere seemed to fall apart.

"Let's move!" Boar ordered.

In a mass flicker, the forest clearing became quiet once more.

.


.

Anko was still trembling as she led the three Anbu to the tower, one hand clutching the throbbing seal on her neck.

She wanted to blame her shaking on the reappeared curse mark, but she knew it was more than that. Far more.

It was only for a split second, and just a slither of killing intent, but Anko felt her neck bow in a long forgotten submission, unable to move or speak in retaliation.

What a disappointment.

Suddenly, it wasn't the little pink haired girl staring down at her, but a much taller man with gleaming amber eyes and a twisted smile.

I expected better of you, Anko.

S-Sensei, I'm trying… I'll do better.

She violently shook her head, banishing the memories from the forefront of her mind. Her heart was still rattling wildly against her ribcage, beating as if she had just avoided a clash with the death god himself and barely escaped with her life.

What the hell was that?

If she hadn't been on the receiving end of it, there was no way Anko would have believed such a feeling came from a little girl. A Genin.

"That was Kakashi-taicho's student, wasn't it?" A soft voice asked, breaking through the silence.

Anko didn't bother turning, already knowing Yūgao was the only female Anbu in the current group.

"Was it?" Anko muttered, hating how her voice shook ever so slightly.

"I believe so," Boar answered stiffly, still carrying the Uchiha boy in his arms. "That line about being trash for abandoning teammates clearly came from him."

She grit her teeth, feeling a sense of anger and humiliation fill her again. She didn't even know why the words of a mere Genin affected her so. "Cheeky little brat, is more like it."

"Taicho said his team was formidable," Yūgao said simply. "He's trained them well."

Anko felt a soulless smile stretch her lips. "No… training can't give you eyes like that."

No one responded, already having given their silent agreement.

It was going to be a long night.

.