Naruto wasn't scared.

Sure, the Chūnin Exams were full of foreign ninja, and sure, there had been that weird redhead gangster leader with a tattoo across his head, and if he was really honest this forest was kind of creeping him out with all the waving trees and mushy ground – but he wasn't scared.

He had Sakura, who could literally pull out a tree from the ground and use it as a roller to make noodles out of their enemies, and Sasuke, the King of Douche-assery himself, who could squash all their opponents' douche-assery with his characteristic moves of Demeaning Smirk and Vocal Chords of Acid.

He felt ready – ready for this new step into this uncharted territory teeming with foreign shinobi with cool jutsu, and away from babysitting triplets and building farmhouses. A test against his steel – Naruto was prepared. They were prepared. No problem. There was no reason to be scared.

Naruto looked up at the trees – impossibly tall, impossibly dark – nudged at an overgrown root littered with bright mushrooms with his foot and breathed in the musky air. "Seriously," he told Sasuke, "Exciting!"

"Seriously," Sasuke rolled his eyes, "Calm down." Turning, he casually swiped at the air, easily catching the Heaven scroll Sakura tossed at him.

"A good idea," she joined in, sounding vaguely amused. "Calming down, I mean."

Naruto whirled around, a word of protest at ready, set his eyes on Sakura- and blinked.

Sakura stood with a hand on her neck, massaging the pale flesh as she scanned their surroundings. In the uneven shadows of the forest, they all looked kind of psychedelic, but he didn't think that was why Sakura's eyes looked oddly dark and mouth awfully flat.

He blinked again.

She was standing differently, he realised. Her shoulders were straighter than ever, which was a weird thought because it wasn't like Sakura was the type to usually slouch or anything. Most of all, Naruto wondered if she had always been that tall. Naruto glanced at Sasuke, but he was studiously examining the clasp holding the scroll together as if he hadn't noticed anything contrary.

"I think we should head straight to the tower," Sakura finally offered, lowering her hand. She closed the distance between them, and Naruto startled when he realised she was precisely the height he remembered her to be. And yet she suddenly seemed so big. Even her voice sounded a little different. A bit lower. Slightly more commanding.

It was only when Sasuke responded with a cool, "Why?" that the blond snapped out of his thoughts. He shook his head. Focus, Naruto!

"That's where all the teams will be heading sooner or later," Sakura elaborated. "And when they do, they'll one," she raised a finger, "have both scrolls, two, be lowering their guard because they're close to passing the exam, and three, be tired." Waving her fingers Sakura grinned, confident and reassuring.

But something about the image of the three of them crouching in the bushes, waiting to pounce on a battered, exhausted team unlucky enough to come by didn't sit well with the blond, and Naruto asked, "Isn't that kinda low, though? I mean, we're basically going after the weak!"

Beside her, Sasuke slowly shook his head. "No, it's practical," he corrected. "This is only the second phase. We should strategise around passing it, not showing off." He shot Naruto a pointed look, mercilessly cutting off his protests. "But we don't know exactly how large this forest is," he continued pensively. "Nor do we know if there are any traps or other obstacles. We might be better off finding vantage points, stable sources of food and water, familiarise ourselves with the structure…"

But Sakura didn't reply, green eyes fixing themselves somewhere far in the foliage, and Sasuke stopped, frowning. "Sakura?"

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto tried when Sasuke's prompt apparently went unheard.

"Hmm?" Gaze sliding back towards them as if she had just remembered they were in the middle of a discussion, Sakura made a non-committal sound before nodding briefly. "Well, we'll just have to make sure we corner someone quickly, then, won't we? Come on." Already half-turning, she shot them a quick smile, not bothering to wait for their reply before leaping up into the trees.

Watching the seams of her red sleeveless shirt flutter in the air, Naruto gave Sasuke a sideways look.

Sasuke only pursed his lips slightly before taking after her.

As it turned out, they didn't have to wait long for a fight. The moment Naruto fell out of the trees, trying to swerve away from a particularly large tarantula – "Spider!" – and ungracefully dropped down onto the ground, a hand had shot out from the earth, grabbing Naruto's ankle and freaking his lights out. "What the heeeeck-"


Sasuke and Sakura were beside him in an instant, and Naruto felt someone pull him back by the collar of his jumpsuit, the shine of a kunai at his periphery – the bastard, probably – but what surprised him was the flash of red before him, Sakura ducking below with incredible speed and grabbing said hand. Staggering, the blond only had time to watch half in disbelief, half in shock as Sakura and the ground-hand and tugged at each other for a brief second before she pulled the limb out like a weed, the body of an enemy-nin following helplessly behind. Naruto caught a glimpse of cropped hair and dark eyes before Sakura's fist slammed into his stomach – racking the body with shudders – and the guy went down before he could even utter a word.

Really, Naruto was glad he was on her team instead of the enemy's.

As Sakura straightened, Naruto cautiously flipped him over by his foot to check his headband. "Ame," he noted. Naruto vaguely remembered Sakura warning him about them – the ability to hide underground, or something like that – but clearly their surprise tactic hadn't quite worked the way they had expected. Scratch that, Sakura's raw strength didn't work the way people expected.

Naruto tried not to flinch when Sakura gave another savage hit to the nin's back to make sure he stayed down. "Ouch."

Beside him, Sasuke gave the trees above a cold look. "Show yourselves," he called. When silence greeted them, he flipped the kunai in his hand, placing the tip directly above the unconscious Ame-nin's bared throat. When the air still remained quiet despite the obvious threat, Sasuke straightened with a quiet sigh, clearly about begin the offensive himself. Naruto also raised his hands, heading forward and about to perform his shadow clone jutsu-

He headed forward, about to perform his shadow clone jutsu, and he headed forward, he headed… Naruto abruptly stopped, blinking. He'd definitely took at least twenty steps by now, and the trees Sasuke had been glaring at were getting closer, but definitely weren't as close as they should have been. Maybe he had misjudged the distance? Rubbing his eyes, he headed forward, about to perform his shadow clone jutsu, and he headed forward some more…

Then something flickered, and Naruto swore he saw Sasuke running in circles out of the corner of his eye. There was another flicker, then Sasuke was back to walking towards the trees beside him. "Okay," Naruto muttered, feeling something like realisation dawn on him. "Something's definitely weir-"

There was the sound of crunching trees, and two shadows leaping out from the shadows-

"Don't let them get to the ground!" Sakura's voice rang out like bells, though she was nowhere in sight.

"That girl!" Sasuke stopped running in circles, voice full of exasperation. "What happened to strategy?" Extending a hand, Sasuke snapped his fingers in front of the blond's face. "Kai, dobe!" Since the jutsu had long but dissipated due to whatever Sakura had done, Naruto strongly suspected it was just done to spite him.

"Hey!" He protested, though Sasuke was already conjuring up a massive fireball. "I knew it was a genjutsu! You didn't have to kai me!" With a huff Naruto summoned his clones, sending them after the two shinobi to close them in. With their escape blocked, they were clearly attempting to melt into the earth like their unlucky teammate had.

"Katon: Gokakyū no Jutsu!" Sasuke's fireball swerved low across the ground, prompting the Ame-nin to swerve out of the way, performing some impressive mid-air acrobatics that involved using each other as footholds even as the blond's clones clawed at them from below. Naruto thought he would almost be amazed if a tree didn't come promptly crashing into them, splatting them flat into a wall of other trees and to the ground.

"Good!" Sakura exclaimed as she landed a few steps away from them, eyes shining and looking pleased as if her dog had accomplished a particularly difficult trick. "That was great! Not even a chance for them to retaliate."

Naruto winced. "I was kind of kidding when I said all that about noodles, Sakura-chan…"

"Really?" Sasuke said, rounding on Sakura. "The best tactic was obviously to wait for them to come down. Pretend to fall under the genjutsu. They weren't all that good at it, anyway." Naruto pretended he hadn't almost fallen under the genjutsu.

"Yeah," Sakura conceded, pulling out a piece of bark from her palm as if she hadn't just hit two shinobi with a tree like a flyswatter. "But they're Ame-nin. I thought this team might have a nasty clone jutsu, too."


But she was already wrist-deep in the pockets of the unconscious shinobi she had first knocked out. "Search the bodies, guys! Scrolls!" Patting the guy down, Sakura shook her head, "There's nothing good about prolonging a fight, anyway."

"Aren't you feeling unforgiving today," Sasuke commented dryly, grabbing a body buried under the tree and roughly pushing the other towards Naruto. "What if they were stronger?"

The words, Naruto thought, sounded weird coming from Sasuke. "No one's too strong for us," the blond said decisively, digging through his assigned body's pouch. "Did you see how these guys went down?"

Sakura paused. "Nah, Sasuke's right," she said, before starting to rummage through the nin's vest again. "These guys were on the weaker side. But I'm an excellent judge of character. I'll tell you when someone's ridiculously strong." Sakura smiled. "You guys'll run away with me, right?"

Sasuke made a sound that was halfway between disbelief and exasperation. "Don't be stupid."

Which, Naruto thought, probably meant yes in Sasuke-ese. He agreed, but just after that fight, the blond really didn't think an opportunity would come where they would have to desperately run away. That just wasn't Team 7.

"I'm empty," Sakura called, turning expectantly towards them. Sasuke similarly shook his head, turning expectantly towards Naruto.

Naruto found himself inadvertently holding his breath as he searched through the one last remaining pocket, before wrapping his fingers around a familiar-shaped object and emerging victoriously. "I found it! It's…holy crap!" He leapt up. "It's Earth!"

"What?" Sasuke said reflexively, leaning in for a look, while Sakura came sprinting with a loud, "No way!" Grabbing onto his shoulder, her eyes were wide with disbelief. Though they were pleased with the win, Naruto supposed they hadn't expected the day to actually go this well.

"Damn!" The blond howled appreciatively. "Our luck is insane!"

"Shut up," Sasuke hissed. "Do you want the whole country to know?"

"Yeah," Sakura's fingers tightened on his flesh to the extent it was slightly painful. "This is good. It's great. Unbelievable. Come on, I'll keep it." Taking it off his hands, she slipped it into her pouch. Her voice was steady, but the excitement was clearly straining against the surface.

Swallowing, Sasuke gave a nod. "Let's keep going, then."

Sakura looked up, giving a wide scan of their surroundings until she froze, her eyes fixing onto something afar. "Mm, no," she said, tipping her head towards the left. "Let's head that way."

"Wait, why?" Naruto asked, though he still loyally leapt up after her, Sasuke closely at his heels.

Sakura's reply was succinct and in Naruto's opinion, sounded way more ominous than it should have for their luck. "Got a bad feeling."

Sakura's bad feeling, Naruto thought, seemed more like bad information, because she was flying through the trees like Lee was after her or something.

Theoretically, Naruto supposed rushing made sense. Now that they had both scrolls, their first priority was to hightail it out of here without running into anyone else. But occasionally Sakura would even stop, whip her head around as if she was looking for something, tell them to stay put for a few moments, or change directions slightly before continuing.

"Anyone sense anything," she had said, "Tell me immediately, okay?"

Okay, all things considered, Naruto would be lying if he said he wasn't at least slightly nervous. Sakura was always calm – calm at the bell test, calm when they met Zabuza – reassuring and so cool where he and Sasuke flared and lost all sense of direction. She was, in Kakashi's words once, the presence that would hold them back by their collars when he and the bastard were too stupid to realise they were walking off a cliff.

Maybe that was why, Naruto thought, it felt somewhat offbeat to be at the rear this time, watching the white circle on Sakura's back ripple in the wind and unable to help wondering if a kunai came sailing into it he would be able to stop the blade before it pierced her skin. He tried not to think that if he had been the one leading, he would never have worried about something so petty – Sakura and the bastard had his back. End of story.

Naruto spent a moment being angry at himself for even thinking such things – of course he would stop the kunai, no, he had to, no questions asked – before he was broken out of his reverie by Sakura, who had thrust out an arm to stop them and then gone still. He landed by her side, Sasuke at his right – to see her eyes narrowed, focused on something afar into the foliage that he couldn't see. "Sakura-chan?" He whispered.

"Don't move," Sakura replied, her voice just as low.

Beside him, Naruto could sense Sasuke thread his hand inside his pouch. His heart starting to pound for reasons unknown, the blond swallowed, waiting for whatever Sakura had sensed to reveal itself-

When there was a sound of a muffled explosion, dull and thick and raising his neck hairs on edge. Vaguely Naruto noticed that it was windless, the leaves utterly still although the volume of the sound suggested a certain magnitude to it. A glance to his left showed Sasuke's eyes narrowed, Sakura yet impossibly motionless and so Naruto continued wait – this time hearing a soft sort of sound, like what waves might sound like from a far distance, like what an hourglass full of falling sand might sound like if one put their ear close to it-

Naruto instinctively drew in a sharp breath at the smell of blood that started to ooze through the area, subtle at first, undeniably familiar – and Naruto could see Sasuke's face change as he took in the familiar scent. Then wind blew, and the blond's breaths stuttered at the sudden onslaught of sand, like what it might feel like if wind blew up at a beach, scattered across the air that he could feel it on his skin, against his throat, and he began to cough- Immediately Naruto heard Sasuke's own breathing stop, a hand rising roughly towards the blond's face as if to stop the wheezing that kept escaping from his mouth. But it was too late, and as if reacting to the sound, the sand receded, and Naruto gaped as the brown particles came together – writhing and twisting like a disappearing wisp of smoke. "S-Sakura-chan…"

"Naruto, Sasuke." Sakura's eyes were unnaturally bright, wide and ominous and fastened on the tendrils of sand slowly turning in the air. The way she shaped their names was lathered thick with tension. "This is it," she said. "I'm telling you." Naruto only had a second to look to Sasuke in confusion and see a stricken sort of understanding dawn in his eyes before he felt Sakura's arm snake around his stomach. "Run."

They leapt, and the thread of sand multiplied into a wave before crashing into the branch they were on a moment ago.

"Lee," Tenten hissed, lightly nudging his side. "Let's just go. We have our scrolls." When he didn't budge, she leaned in closer, face scrunched with restrained frustration. "Lee!"

"What's going on?" Neji had moved from the branch behind them onto theirs, so silent that she wouldn't even have known it if she hadn't been looking imploringly at the brown-haired boy for the past few seconds. Taking in Lee's round eyes fixed solidly on the shinobi passing below, Neji crossed his arms. "We leave them alone," he said quietly. "There's no need to bother with them."

"It is them, Tenten," Lee said, voice halfway between disbelief and wariness. "I am sure of it."

Neji gave her a look.

"Something Lee saw, apparently," she said, answering Neji's unspoken question with a sigh. "Like a vision. Or a dream, most likely-"

"That girl," Lee continued, pointing at a Oto-nin with long black hair following her team from the back. "Was holding Sakura-san's hair."

"I thought you said you saw Naruto." Tenten frowned. "What's this about Sakura?"

"I told you I saw two flashes, Tenten! I've been trying to remember the other one this whole time, and when I saw them, it just clicked-"

"Lee," Neji cut in, clearly unconvinced. "Get a hold of yourself."

But Lee was already too far gone. "And she had to cut it off until it only reached her neck," he rattled, "and Sakura-san was so injured, then I-" With a gasp, Lee's expression stiffened, and he leapt down.

"What- but Sakura's hair already reaches her neck. Wait, Lee!" His green spandex barely brushed her outstretched fingers as he jumped, face blotchy with worry and anger from whatever he had remembered from his so-called vision. His ramblings about Naruto following their spar with Team 7 had been unbelievable enough, and now he was doing this! Cursing, Tenten took after him, Neji already landing behind Lee, though the line of his mouth made it clear his patience running on very thin ice.

"Stop!" Lee exclaimed at the Oto-nin when Tenten settled beside him, hand already wrapped around her weapons scroll. She ran her eyes over them warily – due to some good luck and fine acting skills from the three of them, they had managed to catch a moderately mediocre team off-guard and take their Heaven scroll to match their Earth relatively early into the exams. She had no desire to go ruining a series of events that was clearly a blessing from the Gods – and yet here Lee was, challenging a trio of ninja they had zero idea about because of some dream.

If they lost, Tenten thought, she was going to kill Lee.

The team from Sound regarded them for a few moments – before the one on the left, a guy with spiky hair spoke up. "What's this?"

"Konoha-nin," the shinobi beside Spikes noted before any of them could reply. Despite the rows of bandages wrapped around his face, the sheen of interest that his single revealed eye had suddenly gained was painfully clear, and Tenten's fingers tightened around the clasp of her scroll, ready to unravel it at a moment's notice.

"We have something to ask you," Lee said, posture alert but neither very offensive or defensive. She didn't think Lee had particular intention to fight them – the moment it became clear that his 'vision' was a meaningless daydream, or a possible aftershock from Sakura's punch, he would probably offer to retreat. But that was only because they already had the scrolls they needed – the probability that the Oto-nin would let them go was low.

Which, Tenten found, was all useless musing, anyway, because the probability that Lee would let them go instantly became zero once Spikes replied, "That's funny. We have a question, too. Are any of you Uchiha Sasuke?"

In idle moments between her training, or watching Naruto and Sasuke bicker about whether they got to go to Ichiraku's for ramen for lunch again, Sakura liked to daydream about shortcuts that could save the future. Naruto meeting Gaara, for example, at a dango shop on a sunny afternoon and bonding over a stick of sweets – ending with the red-haired Kazekage-to-be succumbing to the blond's irresistible charms and deciding to call off his part in the invasion altogether.

Of course, Sakura knew that for Naruto to gain Gaara's heartfelt appreciation and admiration the Shukaku would have to be unleashed, and setting free the one-tailed beast wasn't something that could go around happening just about anywhere. Still, the thought had both entertained and kept her hopeful for the future where the green-eyed boy was a real and trustworthy presence at their backs again.

The break to reality, she found, was inordinately depressing.

"Sakura!" Sasuke shouted as the sand spread like a web, reviving from its failed initial attack and rushing forward again. They had leapt away to different branches, Sasuke to the left, Sakura and Naruto to the right, and she met his alarmed dark eyes before swerving away from another golden streak of sand.

"Don't get caught by the sand!" Sakura yelled back, loosening her grip on Naruto as a tendril shot between them, prompting the blond to jump up. She had grabbed onto Naruto out of pure instinct – but it seemed as if she didn't have to worry, his attention clearly devoted to avoiding the sand rather than to attempt attacking it as she had feared.

There was a certain advantage to them provided by the terrain – the area was dense with trees without any clearing, which provided plenty of footholds for them to use, but the fact was that while they tired, while sand didn't. She clenched her teeth, ducking below a leg of sand and swinging from a branch with her hands. The sand was just blindly plunging forward – so she was right; Gaara might have sensed them, but they were out of his sight.

The redheaded jinchūriki had been the one aspect she had been forced to take a risk with. Sakura had intentionally hung back in the morning at the entrance of Training Grounds Forty-Four where all participating teams had gathered to receive their assigned gates, excusing herself from Naruto and Sasuke under the guise of going to the bathroom to discreetly observe which direction certain teams headed in. With Gate One and Gate Twenty-Two placed at the direct north and south of the training grounds, and twenty-one gates laid each to the east, and the west, once one knew which gate a team started at, their path to the tower, and the general area they would travel in became easy enough to predict.

She had seen the Oto-nin from her past – she still remembered the sensation of hacking through her hair – head east, and the retreating backs of a team from Grass head in a similar direction. Sakura hadn't been sure it was Orochimaru, but there had been long-haired a female in the team, and there weren't many shinobi from Grass in the first place, anyway, so that had made up her decision for her. Team 7, whose gate was placed relatively near the southern point, would head diagonally west, creating as much distance as they could from the eastern teams as they headed for the tower.

Just my luck, Sakura thought savagely, that I'd run into the one team I didn't want to on the western side.

With that sentiment she dropped to the ground, foot extended and solidly connecting with the soil – sending the ground rumbling and cracks shooting forward. As she had expected, the sand stopped in tandem with the rising pieces of the earth – at this distance, Gaara was probably just throwing it in their general direction – and she ducked behind a particularly large slice, feeling a relieved sort of satisfaction course through her when Naruto and Sasuke were immediately beside her.

"What's going on?" Naruto frantically asked, peeking around the earth.

"It's Gaara," she replied, reaching into her pouch and grabbing a handful of kunai.

"Gaara?" Sasuke looked up from dusting the sand off of his shirt. Then, recognition flitting through his eyes, "That Suna-nin."

"Yes." Sakura threaded the weapons through her fingers. "And not someone we want to fight right now." She gave Naruto and Sasuke each long, hard looks. "If they're strong, they'll pass with or without meeting us. We'll have plenty of chances to fight them next time." Knowing that the light in Sasuke's eyes had changed upon mention of the redhead's name, Sakura reached out, placing her other hand on the dark-haired boy's shoulder. "Please."

Sasuke looked up at her, conflict coursing through his expression.

And there was that sound again, sand dragging against the earth – and Sakura leapt again, hurling the weapons into the distance, the kibakufuda wrapped around their handle sparking as they soared through the air.

Grabbing her wrist and pulling her away from a coiling strand of sand midair, Naruto kicked at it, sending the particles flying. "Wasn't gonna complain!" He yelled. "We'll run!"

With that, a series of explosions behind them, Team 7 turned tail and ran, straight back the way they'd come, until Sasuke motioned them to turn right, a stretch of sand sightlessly lunging forward beside them. Sakura cursed their luck – she had sensed Gaara far enough from him. If it hadn't been for the wind blowing it in their faces-

Gritting her teeth, she upped her speed – until she heard Sasuke hiss a pained breath, and she saw a stream of blood flowing from his leg, a clear trace of a shuriken whizzing through his flesh. Sakura began to reach out, when she felt the air shift, and she yelled, "Down!" Sliding close to the ground she grabbed Sasuke as he dropped down from the trees by his arm, who caught Naruto by his collar, and her fingers digging into the bark, swung them around the trunk of a tree – narrowly missing the blades of wind that slashed through the forest, cutting through branches and leafs that scattered down onto the ground.

Temari, Sakura thought darkly, before making to stand again. The scroll the Sand Siblings got from the team they killed just before they heard us must have been the same as what they already had. Or they wouldn't bother coming this far after us. Resisting the urge to swear, Sakura extended a hand towards the boys, who were sprawled on the ground. "Sasuke," she said, looking behind her and trying to estimate the distance left between them. "Your leg."

He brushed it away. "I'm fine."

Sakura bit the inside of her cheek. Gaara, with his sand, Temari, with her wind, and Kankurō with his puppets, were all long-range fighters, which meant this escaping game weren't in their favour. It was only delaying the inevitable. Meanwhile, Team 7 were generally better suited for close-range – and there was a good chance that they might run into another team if they kept running.

"Sakura-chan." When she turned around, Naruto's eyes were bright, his fists clenched by his sides. "I think we should fight. We can't keep running away like this." At her expression, he grinned lightly. "How strong can they be, anyway?"

"The Dobe's right," Sasuke added. "This is a losing game."

Sakura stared at them, torn and conflicted and time on her heels. How strong can they be? This Gaara wasn't the kind and reserved Kazekage Sakura knew – once his bloodthirst came into play, the battle would have to go to its bitter end. If it was any other team – strategically speaking she would have fought them. No, if it was any other team, she wouldn't have run away. If it was any other team-

Sakura took a breath. Pressed her palms to her eyes before raising her head with an exhale. Gaara had almost injured Lee beyond repair, had fought head-to-head with Sasuke with Chidori. Had a high chance of transforming into the One-Tail if cornered. What was the chance to Team 7 would come out in one piece in this fight? What was the chance they would win? What was the chance they wouldn't unleash Shukaku now?

"Sakura." There was a hand on her shoulder, and Sakura startled, her eyes following the arm up to meet black eyes, firm and dark and the Sasuke she remembered and loved except gentler. "You've bought us this much distance. Trust me."

And she remembered Sai, unsteady smiles and rolling the black leather string of his charm between his fingers. Come back alive.

"Okay," she said, hand similarly rising to her pendant. "But there's no choice. If we fight, we fight to win."

"This is from Kakashi?" Anko demanded, waving the piece of paper in her hand. "You're sure?"

The chūnin before her nodded curtly, hand clasped behind his back and alert. "To be precise, it was from his genin, ma'am!"

"And you're sure it was his genin?"

"Certain, ma'am! Haruno Sakura of Team 7, ma'am. She went through into the Forest of Death with her team right after delivering the message."

Thumbing the paper, Anko scowled. "That guy…" Brows creasing with clear frustration, she pursed her lips. "Where's Kakashi now?"

"Unknown, ma'am! Would you like me to search for him?"

She gave a long look at the note, then at the forest, just beyond the fence she was leaning on. "No," she said, "Instead, get me a list of all participating genin from Grass, their starting gates, and their most recent location if any supervisors have seen them." When the chūnin hesitated, evidently confused, Anko barked, "Now!"

Naruto wondered if Sakura knew this Gaara guy, and if so, when she had the time to get so acquainted with the supposed son of the Kazekage, because she was rattling off his and his team's skills like she had stalked them before or something. Gaara, sand, Kankurō, puppets, and Temari, wind. Got it.

He wasn't too happy with the plan – mainly because he had to go after the puppet-guy. Besides the fact he looked like a huge douche, since Sasuke was going after the blonde girl due to something Sakura called 'elemental advantage' between Fire and Wind, that match-up left her with Gaara, and he didn't like the look in the redhead's eyes at all.

"You're sure?" Naruto had said for the millionth time, while Sasuke generally sulked, seemingly just as displeased as him, if not more.

"Yes," Sakura had said. "It's the match-up that'll bring the most out of your strengths. Defeat them quickly, and come help me, okay? I'll be counting on it."

Naruto was half-sure that the last part was only said to get them off her case because she had smiled in that little way she did when she was trying to get him and Sasuke to do something she knew they didn't like doing, but months of having her on his team had made it clear that what Sakura said, usually went. He had glanced at Sasuke, a silent understanding passing between them; as soon as Sakura even looked like she was losing, they were jumping in.

Team 7 stopped at a well-placed clearing – they had gotten further from the tower due to all their running, but Naruto estimated they were still situated quite west – and they faced the Suna-nin as they emerged from the trees out onto the wider area. The blonde girl – Temari – jerked her chin at them. "Finally stopped running, did you?"

"Persistent, aren't you?" Sakura returned just as sassily. She was warily eyeing Gaara, who had his arms crossed, head tilted slightly. His gaze swept over the three of them, pausing for each second at his blond hair, Sasuke's dark expression, and Sakura's pink hair before his eyes narrowed in recognition.

"I remember you," Temari said, raising an eyebrow. "You're the Leaf-nin from before."

"You were acting all tough back then," Kankurō chuckled, thumbing at the paint on his cheeks. "And yet here you are, running away like rats." Naruto felt a flash of indignation. Says the guy that squawked like a chicken as soon as Gaara even blinked at him!

"We've no desire to waste our time with the likes of you," Sasuke shot back. He twirled his kunai once, twice, three times between his fingers between grasping the handle of it again.

"I hope you have the scroll we need," Kankurō continued, completely ignoring Sasuke. He bared his teeth. "We've been unlucky twice already."

"Enough talk," Gaara hissed, and despite himself Kankurō flinched, Temari's mouth reflexively closing shut on his other side. He fixed Sasuke with a long look, whose eyes had flickered red to run over Gaara's sand gourd before returning to the familiar black. "I don't like having to chase."

"We're about to see who's really the prey," Naruto called out. He shook his head, trying to shake away the grains of sand he could still feel stuck in his hair. "We'll make you eat your own sand!"

And with that Gaara's sand shot forward, and Naruto had to gasp at the speed because clearly his control when he could see them and when he couldn't differed by miles – and he leapt up, summoning a shadow clone and using to pull his real body out of the way of another tendril shooting forwards-

The truth was, he still felt guilty for coughing back then and getting all of them found out – Sasuke and Sakura had stayed silent, so why couldn't he manage the same? Why did he have to go and stupidly hack his lungs out?

Ducking under a wave of sand and turning on his feet, Naruto changed directions, heading straight to Kankurō, a horde of his clones behind him at his command.

Kankurō's main weapon is his puppet. That means you need to fight close-range. Destroy the puppet if you can, but focus on getting close to him. Your clones should make it easier.

He had to make it up to them. He had to.

Somewhere off to her left, Sakura could feel the searing heat of fire, and somewhere to her right, the overlapped voices of multiple Narutos shouting at the same time. She was worried, Temari and Kankurō weren't as strong as Gaara by any means, but they were no pushovers – but shook her head and reared her fist back. She didn't have time to worry about her teammates now, and after everything at Waves and all their struggles, she had to at least trust them that much – and she swung it into the air, the aftershock her punch sending the wind rushing forward and whisking Gaara's sand aside. Through the brown particles scattered in the air Sakura met his eyes – green against green – before she darted forward again.

Whether she thought she could beat Gaara or not wasn't the point – the issue was that she was the safest individual to go after him. She was the only one with enough strength to break through Gaara's sand in this point of time where Naruto and Sasuke didn't have the Rasengan or the Chidori – and she was the only one who could continuously heal without taking fatal damage while trying to get near the redhead.

Not to mention she was also fast. She doubted she was much faster than Lee with his weights off, but Sakura hadn't been training her body all this time for nothing, and she would be damned if her instincts weren't better than a young, psychopathic boy of twelve. The image of Orochimaru flashed through her mind – but she pushed it back. Gaara wasn't an opponent she could undermine by holding back right now.

Whipping out her shurikens she hurled them – feeling thankful she had bothered to wrap kibakufudas over each one before the exam – watching as Gaara's sand reflexively rose up to shield himself from the small blasts. Gaara wasn't much for moving during fighting – using his sand as both a means of offensive and defensive, and Sakura used the slips of time where he was too busy defending to dart closer and closer and closer to him-

Until she was too close, and she saw Gaara's eyes widen, instantly swamping a sparking shuriken that whizzed by with a leg of sand while shooting another after her. Sakura felt the coil of sand wrap around her shoulder before she switched with a kawarimi, instead coming at him from above and shoving a kunai downwards onto his head. As expected, his sand rose up, and the tip of the blade dug into it futilely, confirming her belief that as long as she didn't chakra-enhance her strength, breaking through his defences would be impossible. Sakura let a tendril touch her ankle before substituting again.

Next Sakura sent a kunai-clad in kibakufuda to his left – before somersaulting in the air to his right with her leg coming down. Gaara's attention divided – clearly he was taken aback by Sakura's speed, and she saw his mouth purse, his sand gaining another level of strength. She swapped herself with a log before his shield shot up in spikes, splintering through the bark and ripping it into pieces. She repeated it again, and again, pushing herself to gain speed, more, more, more- Stretch her tendons, rip her ligaments, she could heal them later, she didn't care, she needed speed- From her periphery, she heard something like Temari crying out, a tree falling-

And this time when Sakura pounced, she saw Gaara's eyes almost hurriedly flicker away from where she was heading at him from – clearly expecting another kawarimi, another surprise attack from a different direction, another kibakufuda – and she reared her fist back. Clenched her teeth hard, ready, prepared, watching as Gaara's spikes rose, up and up and tore through her shoulder, another skewer through her thigh with a sickening noise of squelching flesh, and Sakura bit her lip to keep the pain from spilling out before slamming her fist against his sand shield with all the strength she could muster.

Her blood spurted, at the same time his sand gave way, crumbling into countless pieces – and through the red droplets and dark particles in the air Sakura saw Gaara's eye slide towards her, wide and terrible and surprised and murderous all at the same time- And through the hazy pain that burned through her limbs Sakura pushed through with a yell, knowing another layer of sand lay covering his body – raising her good leg and ploughing it down onto Gaara's shoulder. Despite all his arsenal of sand and terrible aura he folded like a paper doll, the earth cracking and shuddering below them and Sakura was never more grateful for her superhuman strength – her lack of a Rasengan or a Chidori made up for it when she could feel flesh and bones collapsing under her fingers-

"Gaara!" She heard a male voice shout, before being cut off with a pained yelp, but Sakura didn't look, refused to be distracted as she brought up her uninjured hand, fingers wrapped around a syringe she had already prepared and bringing it down like lightning towards Gaara's neck. She had just pushed the needle halfway through, yellow liquid inside starting to ooze into his blood when his sand rose with a vengeance, his green eyes glaring at her savagely even as he lay debilitated on the ground- and was that excitement she saw in his eyes?

Sakura only had the briefest of moments to shove the syringe in the entire way and watch the concoction wholly disappear before his sand caught up to her leg, another tendril crawling onto her shoulder, sticking itself to her injuries, digging deeper, and Sakura choked in pain, desperately kicking the sand away and her eyes latching onto Gaara's mouth widening in a smirk-


A frantic scream, and there was a clammy hand wildly grabbing at her other arm before starting to pull her away. But Sakura couldn't look away from Gaara's lips and remember anything but a gentle smile, eyes warm and sand for protecting not simply himself, but thousands of people-

She only broke out of her memories when Gaara spoke, pain exploding in her shoulder and vaguely feeling something damp on her face even as she sensed her healing chakra reflexively soar.

"Sabaku Sōsō."

Sasuke rarely shouted, but when he did, it always seemed to be Sakura's name, panicked and harsh and so terribly unlike Sasuke it brought every single hair on Naruto's body on edge. Out of the corner of his eyes Naruto saw Sasuke leaping with Sakura in his arms, expression both feral and desperate with his shirt full of rips and bloody scratches from his battle with the Sand kunoichi. Sakura had her eyes closed, and as Sasuke landed on the ground not too far away from them Naruto saw his pale fingers furiously working at something, something red and sticky and thick and grainy and pushing it off Sakura's shoulder and as far away from her body-

To his left, Gaara lay on the earth, sand swirling around him and Temari, arms covered in burns and fan nowhere to be seen, kneeling over him with wide teal eyes and an empty syringe in her hands. Naruto turned back to Sakura, cold realisation seeping in and his gaze catching on all the blood, and-

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto heard himself scream, feet instinctively darting towards them.

Sasuke looked up, black eyes locking onto his and probably seeing the identical looks of terror and fury reflected in each other's faces until Sasuke angrily gestured at him, and Naruto whirled, ducking under Kankurō's kunai. The Suna-nin had been evidently thrown off when Sakura's kick had sent the ground rumbling and Gaara to the ground, but clearly he had recovered after seeing Sasuke flying away with an unconscious Sakura.

Feeling heat wildly course through his veins, Naruto didn't even have to look as he smashed his elbow into his puppet approaching from his back before kicking its master in the stomach. It had been easy enough to dominate Kankurō's puppets with his endless supply of clones, and once the blond got close enough he found out that the Suna-nin quite sucked at taijutsu – if only his puppets hadn't been so damned complicated, coming apart then reattaching back together while spitting new blades at him every second, he would have been able to go help Sakura, and avoid this mess from happ-

Naruto whipped his head around again, unable to help himself. Sasuke, after apparently getting all the sand away from Sakura to his satisfaction, was staring at her shoulder – placed out of his view by a ill-placed bush – with something like helplessness and outrage, lip turned having white from his teeth biting down onto it too hard. They met eyes again, and Naruto nearly had his ear cut clean off from one of the puppet's rotating blades, and he saw Sasuke's expression harden, obviously seeing that the battle was far from being over – and making a move to stand-

Until he promptly crumpled to the ground, his palm hitting the ground flat and dark eyes looking up in confusion. Sasuke pulled his legs up, trying to put his weight onto them, and failing again – and Naruto saw it, a cut by his left calf bleeding blue and black, the area around it like a bruise. This time, the alarm that flashed through Sasuke's eyes had nothing to do with worry, but held a shadow of fear, and suddenly Kankurō laughed, loud and throaty and sending Naruto's head spinning.

"Finally worked, did it?" Kankurō guffawed. "Did you think my weapons were normal? My shurikens are coated with poison. Oh, to see the look on your fac-"

Naruto's fist crashed into Kankurō's face, feeling a satisfactory crunch on his fingers before he went down, chakra strings pulling his puppet with it. The wind was still hurtling through the air; Gaara's sand was brewing up a storm only a few steps away, Sasuke was down with some unnamed poison, Temari had stood up, fan somehow back in her hands, Sakura was injured and needed protecting and Kankurō's laughter was still echoing through the forest and Naruto couldn't look away from where Gaara was, his sandstorm growing larger and larger and larger-

His head spun. What to do? It was his fault that they were involved in this mess in the first place. What to do? Was Sasuke's injury lethal? How were they going to find the antidote? What about Sakura's injury? Could they run? Could he carry both of them? Would Temari chase them? What was Gaara doing? Preparing for a final attack? Recovering? Naruto blinked, seeing something like a large arm protruding from his sand cocoon-

Sasuke's shout sounded far away as Naruto clenched his eyes shut. Please. He needed power. He needed a solution. He had to save Sasuke and Sakura. Please.

Sasuke kept yelling. It vaguely sounded like his name, and a furious no, but he couldn't focus anymore.

When Sakura opened her eyes, she was in a damp place, echoing with the sound of dripping water and low, rumbling breaths. She squinted, trying to adjust to the dim light – before realising that she felt no pain, could move her arms and legs freely – then remembering Gaara's smile, and his sand, and-

Sakura sat up, exhaling harshly and hand reflexively rising up to her shoulder. Startling to find it whole and smooth, she hurriedly scrambled to her feet, whipping her head around and feeling something cold settle in her chest when all she could see was green-grey blocks of concrete piled up on each other, the air stale. Where is this?

She clearly wasn't…dead, and yet- Was it a genjutsu? But casted by whom? Sakura attempted a kai, feeling both unsurprised and disappointment when her surroundings remained unchanged. Fumbling with her arms outstretched, she staggered forward into the darkness. Where was Naruto and Sasuke? The last she remembered was-

Sakura slid a hand down her arm, remembering the feel of Sasuke's fingers wrapping around her shoulders and soundless pain before darkness overtook her. Were they okay? She hadn't been able to pay attention to how Naruto and Sasuke's fights had been going – trusting them to do their role – and yet she had been the pathetic one, needing someone to come to her rescue again. Sakura bit her lip. Was Naruto okay? Were they somehow trapped in this place, too? What about Gaara? Her concoction? She swallowed. She had to get back, and-

Urgency flooding through her, Sakura called, half in desperation, half in caution – "Is anyone there?"

There was a gust of air, blowing her bangs behind and Sakura instinctively raised an arm, her eyes narrowed at first, then slowly widening as she took in the red pillars, each at least three times thicker than herself and a hundred times taller – stretching up into the darkness and to the side, perhaps like a gate, perhaps a cage. Cautiously, she neared it, her suspicions of it being a cage solidifying into a certainty as she took in the middle bar, at least twice as wide as others and with a large paper seal stuck onto it. It was too high for her to read the kanji, and Sakura lifted herself on her toes, craning her neck-

Sakura froze, the ruby bead-eyes that had silently and suddenly appeared on its other side rooting her to her position and taking the breath out of her lungs. No way. That meant- That meant this was- Impossible.

The word escaped her mouth in a quiet, disbelieving exhale.



Honestly speaking, this chapter sort of had my chest all bunched up half in excitement and half in frustration as I wrote it. Excitement because I was finally getting into all the things I had planned out (yay!) – and frustration because I was unsatisfied by everything I wrote and had to re-write it again and again and again.

I hope reading it has been a more pleasant experience, instead of feeling like me, haha.

I've really enjoyed reading everyone's reviews. Your thoughts and comments do wonders for my motivation. I've also been receiving some PMs, and your speculations and feedback make me think of the story in ways I never have before. Especially since the story is beginning to slowly move, I hope I can interact with more readers this way.

So leave a review below, and see you all next time! (Hopefully it's soon!)