Lateral Geniculate Nucleus

A split second is the time it takes for the mind to register an image. It can take a couple of seconds more for the brain to make sense of that image, and sometimes almost a minute for the full implication of that image to sink in.

Sakura, being the highly trained ninja that she was, managed to take in all the repercussions of what she was seeing in under half a minute.

But she was still too slow.

The second raid was better planned, and much more successful. With half of Konoha at their back, Naruto, Kakashi and she had invaded the Sound village, swearing to burn it down, and then salt the earth. Those who could not be converted would be destroyed.

They had, by Jiraya's reckoning, a couple of weeks before Orochimaru's time was up, and he would be forced to take over Sasuke's body. The intelligence and medic units had decided that Orochimaru would wait until the last possible moment before moving to a new host body, in order to limit deterioration.

The infiltration had been fairly standard: set up a bit of distraction along the east borderline, whilst troops moved in from the south-west. Naruto and Sakura, being familiar with the layout, lead the way, and breached the locale with only a few minor killings. Security had been steadily increased concurrent to the nearing of Orochimaru's change-over time, but Shino had been in place for the last week and so had all the sentries tagged with bugs, which made it simple to keep tabs on them. Which, if Sakura thought about it, was kinda gross, but then most ninja abilities were, really.

Naruto made securing the area a lot easier. Standard procedure was to have ninjas run along the hallways, slip flash-tags under the doors and then once they went off, temporarily blinding everyone in the room, to kick open the door and throw a hail of kunai into the room, until everyone inside said room had been reduced to a pile of bloodied flesh. Naruto, with his numerous solid clones, could perform the entire operation simultaneously, and in utter safety.

In fact, the entire thing was going off without a hitch, as one of the chuunin muttered. Which is just asking for trouble.

Whilst Naruto was tied up with searching the secured rooms, and Kakashi was firing off rapid commands to the different units, Sakura raced through the corridors to where she had last met Sasuke all those months ago. It was foolish, she knew, but then she also knew that Sasuke had seriously underestimated her last time, and was unlikely to attack her before the backup squad arrived, by which point she should have gathered sufficient data as to his mindset. A thin excuse, created to please her superiors if she was later questioned. Her real motive? She just wanted to see Sasuke again. It was almost a compulsion. She wanted to see him, to hear his voice, to watch to see how he squinted his eyes slightly when the sun was getting in them, or if his hair still made that soft crinkling noise when he ran his hands through it.

She wanted Sasuke.

He was there.

His back was to her as she came to a gasping halt in the giant crater. He was still wearing that ridiculously oversized belt, and those loose, flowing clothes. Clothes which could be easily grabbed and used to hold him down, clothes which bragged that he was beyond your level of experience, and thus could afford to have such a handicap.

Clothes she wanted off him.

He turned as she called his name, awkward on her tongue from disuse. His hair still flew everywhere and his clothes made a crisp snap as he moved. As he caught sight of her, he gave that funny little almost-smile he used to use around her sometimes.

Half a minute for her to realise what she was seeing.

Too late.

He was by her side, long fingers closing around her mouth, clamping it shut. Dark tattoos ran underneath eyes that were no longer Sasuke's, and a perversely long tongue dragged itself down the nape of her neck. He said something then, the monster in Sasuke's skin, something soft and quiet whilst his once-Sasuke's body was pressed up against her.

She did not hear, because by then her hands were already charged with chakra, whistling through the air as they came crashing down to destroy the thing that had taken her Sasuke.

He caught them. Easily, almost gently, he unclenched her fists, and released her. A small grimace flashed across his face, and his left arm shook. He paused for a moment, and once again Sakura struck.

She would have been faster, had she been attacking anyone else. She would have pushed harder too. But there was still Sasuke's face, looking at her, and Sasuke's hair getting in his eyes and Sasuke's stupid, stupid hands once again grabbing her, holding her still, moving along her body.

But it was not Sasuke's eyes, looking out at her. It was Orochimaru's.

Dimly, she realised that there were pinpricks in her wrists, where he had first grabbed her. A clear droplet of something fell from one of the tiny holes.

As all her strength left her body with a whoosh, she knew that she had been poisoned. Not fatally, but enough to paralyse her. If history was anything to go by, Sasu- no, Orochimaru, would probably position her by the entrance of the tunnel, stand behind her, and then wait until her other team-mates came rushing through. He would allow one moment for maximum impact, for them to see her, and then he would slit her throat.

It was tactically brilliant, killing a foe and demoralizing the enemy in one fell swoop. It was what any ninja would have done under the circumstances.

He made no move to do so.

He knelt down beside her, tilting her head back in a lazy movement so he could see her face better.

"He's still in here." He said. His voice was a strange mesh of Orochimaru's and Sasuke's, and it struck Sakura to her very core. His left arm started shaking again, and with a small exclamation of irritation, Orochimaru grabbed her hand with his left one. The shaking stopped. "He is not too difficult to control, of course, and with time it will become easier, but right now I can't afford to have my aim or concentration thrown off in the slightest. I'm sure you understand." And once again he gave her that funny almost-smile, and she wondered if it were Orochimaru or Sasuke she was seeing.

He slowly gathered her up into his arms, and lifted her off the ground. Sakura had been carried by Sasuke before, several times actually, and for a single moment she allowed herself to dream that it was really Sasuke holding her, that it was his heart beating underneath her cheek, his warmth seeping through her paralysed body. She imaged it was the two of them again, and that once again there was hope. But only for a moment.

'Here it comes,' Sakura thought, 'he is going to put me by the entrance.'

But instead he carried her to the back of the pit and placed her behind some protruding rocks. A small blanket had been positioned out there, and a pillow. Gently he put her down, making sure she was comfortable, even if she couldn't really feel her body. And then, crouched down beside her, he reached forward and kissed her full of the lips. His left hand grasped her shoulder tightly for a second as he deepened the kiss, and it was Sasuke's kiss; awkward and unsure but wanting nevertheless, and something seemed to flicker in the eyes that were not Sasuke's, as if a shadow had passed over the light.

And then it was gone, and Orochimaru-in-Sasuke was leaning back, smirking in a way that had Sakura longing for control of her fists, if only to smash his face in. There was a small noise by the entrance, and Orochimaru stood up, nudging Sakura's arm with his foot.

"I'll be back later." He said, showing far too much teeth, "To keep Sasuke-kun quiet. For now though, I have to go deal with our guests."

And then the screaming started.