A/N: ... Hi. Well. It's been over two years and I didn't think I'd be able to come back to this story. But I have, even though I seriously considered abandoning it while writing this chapter. I've changed as a writer, with new styles, ideas and standards. When I look back at a story as old as Blossom, my first multichapter, I cringe at all the bad decisions, OOC-ness and unnecessary babble. But at the end of the day, I love this story for the memories and I feel I owe it to the readers who do want to see this finished. So here I am with the most ridiculously delayed chapter ever! A two year old cliffhanger, haha. You may need to glance through previous chapters to refresh.
Chapter 17 recap: Tsunade and Sakura talk about Naruto and Sakura's budding relationship with him. Later, Naruto is helping Sakura train in Wind manipulation; they talk about her blindness and Sasuke, and Naruto ends up asking who Sakura would save first if both he and Sasuke were about to die. Meanwhile, Sasuke prepares to return to Konoha and bring Naruto to Orochimaru. The next day, Sasuke shows up at Naruto's apartment. Only Sakura is home. She impulsively slaps him and struggles when he tries to subdue her, forcing Sasuke to knock her through a wall. Before she falls unconscious, she hears Sasuke say "I'm sorry."
Details to recall: Sakura is blind (just checking, haha). She 'sees' through using Wind and Earth manipulation by putting her chakra into the air and ground. Way back, Sakura once got lost at a festival and was accosted by a drunk. Sasuke saved her and later went to Naruto's apartment.
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." – Eleanor Roosevelt
"Oi, Iruka-sensei! Why does an outstanding ninja like me have to be on the same team as that bastard?"
"You idiot! Apologise to Sasuke!"
"Tch. Just don't get in my way."
"What did you say?"
"NARUTO, LET GO OF SASUKE!"
Her first attempt to prise open her leaden eyes sent a sharp flash of white pain igniting at the base of her skull. Wincing, Sakura squeezed her eyes shut again, fingers twitching to curl slowly against the scarred floorboards. She lay there for a while, senseless on the cold floor even as it shook slightly beneath her. Debris sprinkled down to cling to her skin as if the building were about to crumble. Distantly, she could hear the clash of kunai.
Her eye prickled. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Sakura knew there were tears on her face. Why had she been crying? She wasn't a powerless genin anymore. She wouldn't sit on trembling knees to watch Orochimaru take Sasuke, or selfishly rely on Naruto to solve her problems. She'd vowed to protect them, hadn't she? So why-
"Where is Naruto?"
Sakura's sightless eyes widened as the haze in her mind rapidly dissipated. Her head throbbed with the flood of memories, but it didn't stop her from clenching her hands into fists and pushing her aching body off the ground. Hunched over on all fours, Sakura held the position for a moment even as warm blood trickled lazily down her face to spatter wetly against the back of her hand. In seconds, her head was clear.
The weight of the situation knocked her back as Sakura shakily rose to her feet. Konoha was under attack. Sasuke had come back. He was after Naruto.
Sakura spun on the spot, guided by nothing more than instinct as she stumbled toward the door, not caring that she tripped on the chaotic mess that was the apartment she'd once known like the back of her hand. She couldn't still her mind, couldn't make the fuzzy edges of the chakra she forced in abundance into the air come into focus. No matter what she did, all she could discern was blackness. Her breath caught for a second, because the harrowing sensation of being engulfed by the suffocating darkness brought her back to waking in the hospital, alone. It frightened her.
She didn't know where she was going, but something made her race uncoordinatedly down the stairs with falling and breaking her neck the last thing on her mind. Something desperate.
Bursting out into the street filled Sakura's ears with the rush of battle. All around her, agitated chakra signatures flared. Sakura whirled around, her quick breathing somehow louder than the yells and clash of jutsu. "Naruto!" she called, ignoring the sting of her split scalp. "Naruto, where are you?"
She was answered by a sudden rush of air. Glazed eyes widening, Sakura had barely enough time to raise her arms to shield herself from the heavy blow that blindsided her. She skidded back several metres, heart pounding. Focus, she tried to tell herself, but her body wouldn't listen. She couldn't make out where her opponent was. She was completely open.
She couldn't see.
She was scared.
Move, she screamed at her body, because there was no other way to stay alive. Move, she pleaded with her bruised hands and weary limbs.
The terror in those words made Sakura's head snap up, suddenly aware of the hostile chakra presence bearing down on her in close proximity. Move, she thought distantly, one last time.
Her hand came up almost on its own. Chakra tingled at her fingertips, and Sakura thrust her arm upwards.
A sharp blade nicked her shoulder, catching on flesh before tearing through in a shallow gash. Sakura winced, wondering where it would have pierced if she hadn't shifted her weight at the last second. But it was a superficial wound. She was alive.
A choked gurgle sounded above. Then something heavy collapsed on her, sending her falling backwards. Sticky warmth seeped into her front. Ragged breaths resounded hollowly by her ear. Sakura held her breath as they gradually slowed and softened, until all she could hear was her own heart pounding against her ribcage.
In the next second, the dead weight was pulled off her. Her arm came free with a sickening squelch. She flinched when someone grabbed her by the shoulders. "Sakura. Sakura, are you okay?"
"Ino," Sakura breathed in nothing more than a whisper.
Ino sighed in relief. Despite the dire situation, she couldn't help but pull the trembling girl towards her. "Don't do that ever again."
Sakura clung to the embrace. "Defend myself?" she asked faintly.
Ino couldn't laugh properly, nor could she find it in herself to correct her. There was no way she could put into words what it was like to see the girl who could snap a bone with the flick of a finger, sit defencelessly as war raged around her, not even knowing that her sightless eyes were staring directly at the enemy. Ino hated that her friend had looked like a civilian.
Decisively, she pulled Sakura to her feet. "Come on. I'm evacuating you to a safe house."
Senselessly, Sakura let Ino pull her along. She heard the other girl shout out to the large, blurry chakra presence that could only be Chouji. Then, cutting through the chaos, Shikamaru yelled.
Ino abruptly yanked Sakura back down to the ground, flattening herself over the blind girl. She hissed as something streaked above them, right into Chouji's oversized hands. "Got him!"
After a short pause, Ino dragged Sakura up again. "Come on."
"Ino, are you hurt?"
"Careful – the ground's broken up here."
But Sakura had already automatically sidestepped the fissure. "Ino," she said again, softly. Something began to rise in her chest, coming up her throat in a deep breath as the warmth of her hand in Ino's penetrated the thoughtless haze in her mind. Too warm, and wet. "Ino, stop."
The blonde girl did, involuntarily and instantly. It took her a beat to realise that it was the firm, authoritative tone in Sakura's voice that had compelled her to obey without question. Ino looked over her bleeding shoulder at her companion, studying the expression on her face. "You're hurt too, you know," she told her after a moment.
Sakura wiped the back of her hand across her temple, smearing blood across her cheeks. "Are we… safe?" she asked.
They were standing at the mouth of a narrow alleyway, a shortcut to one of the village's many evacuation routes. The shadows of the tall apartments on either side of them meant that most Sound nin raced past their location without a thought. "You tell me," Ino replied, watching Sakura's face.
The pink-haired girl's milky eyes shifted uncertainly as she frowned. Then she held out a hand. "Give me your arm."
With a short laugh, Ino obligingly leaned forward to let Sakura find the wound on her shoulder blade. "Welcome back, Forehead. You should have told me earlier if all I needed to do was cut myself up."
Sakura grimaced, both from the all too familiar handseals of the Healing Palm that she hadn't formed in so long, and the lingering concern that Ino failed to conceal with her jibe. "I'm sorry. I… couldn't think." Her head was suddenly clear, but that in itself was enough to instil a renewed sense of fear in Sakura's being. She would be lying if she denied that her heart was still thumping painfully fast in her chest.
Ino winced as the glowing chakra stung her broken skin, but Sakura quickly adjusted her control so that the dull pain slowly ebbed away. No handicap could take the medic out of that girl. It made Ino want to shake her friend and crow See? I told you. Instead, she quietly thanked her and said, "I'm still evacuating you."
Sakura's frown deepened. "No, you're not."
"You can't fight like this."
"I've just never had the chance to try. I can do it, Ino. When I'm focused, I can- I can 'see'."
Ino shook her head. "Liar."
Sakura frowned. "There are three trash cans behind you. One is full and tipped over. This alley is two arm-spans wide. Shikamaru ran past just-"
"You're scared out of your wits by the thought of going out there, and you know it," Ino interrupted sharply. She didn't know why her frustration came out as anger. Maybe because she knew Sakura Haruno would always be so stupid. She'd throw herself into the impossible just so she wouldn't feel helpless, not caring what happened to her as long as she could do something.
Sakura went silent. Ino ran a hand through her hair. "Look Sakura, listen to me just this once. Let me get to the safe house and leave this to us. Do it for me, okay? Because if anything happens to you, Naruto is going to-"
"Sasuke's here. He's looking for Naruto."
Ino stopped short to stare at Sakura. The latter drew in a breath as the reality of her own words hit her. Her sightless eyes widened. At the same time, a glint of resolve flashed through them. She squeezed Ino's wrist. "I need to go to Naruto."
The blonde girl opened her mouth, then closed it again. The sudden eerie calmness and urgency in Sakura's voice told Ino that anything she said would fall on deaf ears; when Sakura was like this no one could dare to stop her. But Ino tried anyway. "We'll take care of Naruto and Sasuke. You are evacuating."
Sakura's lips pressed into a thin line. "You can't stop me."
"Don't try to tell me what I can and can't do, Billboard Brow."
"Spare me of your hypocrisy, Pig."
"Excuse me?" Ino felt like throttling her best friend. "Damn it, Sakura, I'm trying to protect you!"
"I know that!" In the back of her mind, Sakura wondered if arguing was the only way she and Ino could see eye to eye, the only way they could be honest to each other. "You know how I feel, Ino! Why won't you let me protect him? Because I can't?"
On its own accord, Sakura's mouth fell open. Then her fingers slowly curled into a tight, deadly fist. "Ino," she ground out, "if you're going to run, you'd better start now."
Ino didn't bother pointing out that Sakura hadn't even given her the chance to, before the coldly incensed girl slammed her fist into the wall behind them.
The instant a minute crack split in the brick, Sakura froze. Ino knew exactly which breed of horrified, sheepish look her friend would give her if she had the time to convey it before the structure's foundations blew out and the building began to keel over their heads.
The two kunoichi skidded into the open street just as the alleyway collapsed in a loud crash of debris. Ino coughed in the drifting dust. "You are so lucky we already evacu-" She whirled around to knock Sakura back as a compressed sound wave raced past them. Ears ringing, the blonde girl released a brace of shuriken at the Sound nin, seized by Shikamaru's shadow only half a second earlier.
She spun to face the second assailant coming up behind her. But before Ino could draw a kunai, the man was already smashed into the ground two feet away from her. The bone-shattering collision shook the earth.
Sakura was breathing heavily as she straightened. Without gloves, her knuckles were scraped and bleeding – but she hardly felt the ache. She'd been through worse training with Tsunade. It seemed that all she'd had to do all along was let her body move as it remembered.
Ino idly watched the guilty glow of her friend's face as she flexed her bruised fingers. Sakura was relieved that her body remembered how to destroy. At the end of the day, she was still a kunoichi. In the past months, Ino knew that she and their friends had tried to treat Sakura otherwise, because there was no easier way to protect a shinobi than to prevent them from acting as one. Even Naruto had unconsciously done it himself. But now, Sakura had made her choice and there was no holding her back.
"Naruto's on a mission picking rubbish out of the south lake. Go protect him, or whatever crazy ideas you have behind that ridiculous forehead."
Sakura raised her head. "Ino?" She tilted her head with a slight frown. "Don't tell me you-"
"Jeez," Ino sighed loudly. She turned away even though she knew her companion could not see her small smile. "You argue when I don't let you go and you still argue when I do. Make up your mind, woman. Are you going to fight or not?"
Sakura stepped forward, mouth open, but faltered when the winds warned her of an airborne object falling in her direction. She caught it uncertainly. A weapons pouch.
"Just go. Naruto's waiting."
Sometimes, words simply weren't enough. So Sakura just nodded, attached the pouch to her hip, and ran past her friend.
Orochimaru. Sasuke. Naruto. Sakura knew she wasn't supposed to fit in this picture, but she did because a certain loud blonde did. She didn't know if standing by him would make any difference – after all, all those years ago, two stupid boys had decided that their pains and hardships should have nothing to do with her – but she would fight. Because all Sakura knew was that if she didn't go to him, she would regret it.
It seemed to Naruto that he was always at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He raced through the forest, flinging himself between trees. His narrowed eyes never wavered from the smoke that steadily rose from the village he had grown up in. He cursed to himself for the umpteenth time. He'd sensed them coming and had begun moving as soon as he realised the sudden flock of chakra signatures were hostile yet in spite of that, Naruto still felt helplessly slow.
It had to be Orochimaru. None of the other countries had the motive or forces to attack a fledged village like Konoha. Naruto didn't have time to ponder what they could possibly be after with. He was worried about his home, worried about Tsunade, about his friends and the villagers, and about Sakura.
What would Sakura do? She had to be scared, shaken by the violent sounds and tremors. She'd want to fight, and Naruto guiltily wished that she was well away from the battlefield. Someone would have to drag her, he knew. The old Sakura would have plunged into combat without hesitation. Even now, Sakura would want to be there among the sweat and blood, even if just standing there unnerved her.
"Damn it." The winds snatched the frustrated curse from his lips. He was supposed to be there.
Chakra stirred in Naruto's coils, propelling him forward. He had been deep into the village outskirts when the first explosion had hit. Now, the trees gradually thinned and paved into harder ground as the village buildings loomed closer. He could smell the acrid smoke and taste the coppery tang in the air. His eyes flashed.
He was so close to where he was supposed to be – so close that when an intense chakra presence abruptly uncloaked itself, Naruto let out a growl of impatience and flung out a brace of shuriken before he'd even whirled around.
His agitation ebbed away almost immediately afterwards, because there was something so tauntingly familiar about the atmosphere that slowing down was all Naruto could do to keep himself in check as his eyes locked with dark, murky ones.
For one moment, the village and Sakura fell away from Naruto's mind.
"Back to D-ranks, huh?" that flat voice said.
Naruto's fists clenched by his side. "I don't have time for this, Sasuke," he warned through gritted teeth. He was calmer than he'd thought he could be around his best friend. But he'd been calmer, hadn't he? He'd been cold, ruthless and spiteful that time Sasuke had shown up at his apartment and soothed Sakura's dark dreams with a single touch.
Looking at the dark-haired boy, perched nonchalantly on a spindly tree ten metres ahead of him, Naruto wondered when and what had changed. Naruto had once sprinted through the dim corridors of Orochimaru's hideout as if his life depended on bringing Sasuke home. When they had failed – again – he and Sakura had cried and vowed to become stronger together, all to bring their lost teammate back. Yet somewhere along the way, things had changed and now, the three of them were neither here nor there.
"Is Orochimaru here too?" Naruto wanted to know. His voice was bristling with tension, but he kept it controlled.
"No." There wasn't the slightest of inflections in Sasuke's tone.
"I suppose those would be your buddies making a mess in our home, huh?" Naruto shook his head. "Don't tell me you're attacking us because you were bored waiting for Orochimaru to take your body."
Sasuke's eyes flickered. "Sarcasm," he noted. "Impressive, dead last."
Naruto closed his eyes for a brief moment. The two of them had bickered like this so many times. For some ungodly reason, Naruto always came out on the short end. Sakura would usually take Sasuke's side but when she laughed at Naruto's shortcomings, the blonde could never help grinning back. Sometimes – not often but enough that it was precious – he and Sakura would gang up on Sasuke and force him to smile. Kakashi would just lean against whatever tree or post available at the time, absently flicking through his orange book, and half-heartedly call for them to focus on the mission.
It went without saying that Naruto missed those days. It had been so simple back then, and they had felt like such small existences against the larger shinobi world. He would give any limb to bring back those easy days. But even Naruto knew the time had passed for childish arguments and competition.
"We're going to fight, right?" he said softly, sadly.
"Unless you're smart enough to follow me back to Sound. Which you aren't."
He had suspected as much. He didn't need to ask what Orochimaru could want him for. The simple reality that Naruto was the Nine Tail's jinchuuriki was undeniable. He should have known. The attack on the village must be a diversion of some kind. And from the way Sasuke had located him so quickly and surreptitiously, Naruto suspected that the assault was fuelled by Orochimaru's bitter grudge against Konoha, and not to support the Uchiha.
Naruto's molars ground painfully against each other, gnashing together with enough force to make his jaw ache. He hated that he was the reason his home and its villagers were under attack. It wasn't fair.
"Oi, bastard." He raised his eyes to his old friend's, not flinching when he locked gazes with the crimson glint of the Sharingan. "Do you ever get homesick?"
"Hey, I'm being serious." Naruto regarded the other boy – somehow, he felt he was looking at a complete stranger. The Sasuke Uchiha in Naruto's mind was still thirteen years old.
Then his gaze lingered on a fading red mark on Sasuke's pale skin. With a jolt, Naruto wondered if Sasuke had been to his apartment before coming here. It would be the logical thing to do. His eyes narrowed. "Sasuke," Naruto said dangerously. "You didn't forget, did you? What I said the last time you came back?"
Sasuke's only response was to slowly draw his katana.
"If you hurt Sakura-"
The low voice cut through Naruto's snarl. "You'll kill me, right?"
Naruto's answer was swallowed by the loud swirl of condensed chakra ripping through leaves, bark and the air above Sasuke's head. Sasuke didn't look away from the blonde's dark expression even as the pressure threatened to crush him. His own features twisted.
Sakura carefully waded through the running stream. The liquid chill licked at her ankles, the fluttering sensation exactly the same as all the times she had sat with her eyes closed and her legs in the lake. But she wasn't a genin anymore, and no longer had the leisure of winding down like that after a long day with her team, looking forward to a warm dinner with her parents.
She picked up the woven basket. The chakra-infused wind that she wrapped around it flowed strangely, passing through the many openings to leave Sakura with a skeletal image. She willed the breeze down to her feet, where she sensed what she suspected was a soggy nest of fishing nets, crushed cans and plastic bags wedged between two wet stones. Sakura gingerly set the basket aside.
Naruto had been here, but he clearly wasn't in the area anymore. Sakura knew that even without extending her range to its furthest – he would have hastily returned to the village the moment he was aware of the invasion. He moved so fast now that he might be within Konoha's walls already, flooding the streets with his shadow clones.
If Sasuke hadn't found him first.
Pulling herself out of the shallow water, Sakura sucked in a long, calming breath before throwing herself into a hard sprint through the trees. Her head ached and pounded at the thought of the Uchiha. He had taken her down so easily that Sakura's desperate search through the forest was just as easily fuelled by frustration as it was anxiety. She resented that everything she had made of herself in the two and a half years that they had been apart, everything she had painstakingly dragged her through – none of it seemed to matter when it boiled down to this.
Her breaths were loud, just like the quick thump of her heart in her chest, as Sakura cast out her chakra as far as it could reach. There was a chance that Naruto had passed her by and had reached the village, but a strange intuition told Sakura that he was still in the forest. It wasn't that she could sense Naruto among the tall, quiet trees; rather, Sakura simply understood Sasuke enough to see that he would lure Naruto to a place where they wouldn't be interrupted, no matter where they clashed. When it came to Naruto, Sasuke was almost predictable – it was the closest Sakura could come to understanding the Uchiha.
Until today, Sakura had thought she knew what Sasuke wanted with her: nothing. They were Team Seven, but it was Naruto that Sasuke had always been conscious of. Even back then, Sakura had known that no amount of acceptance on Sasuke's part could make him see her like his blonde rival. When she made herself useful, she was an asset; other times, an inconvenience. The way Sasuke had tried to dispose of her almost a year ago was only a painful reminder. And yet…
"I'm sorry, Sakura."
A low branch lashed Sakura's cheek when her focus slipped, drawing a long, shallow but jagged gash on her skin. Her eyes stung.
Sakura wouldn't let herself believe that Sasuke could be unpredictable when it came to her. After all, it would only prove that he was even more whimsical towards her than he was towards Naruto. He had claimed to have spared Naruto's life three years ago on a whim, yet he was ready to hand Naruto to Orochimaru.
Sakura's glazed eyes hardened. She couldn't see how he could do that, only that he had already sacrificed so much just to avenge his clan and lost childhood. But Sakura wasn't going to let him sacrifice what was hers. She swore she wouldn't. Not Naruto.
Naruto reeled back as his clones were thrown back by a full-body Chidori. He had already hit the charred ground in a tight roll when a crackling Kusanagi came down on his head. He whirled around to snap his leg at Sasuke's side – and fell into another roll as the illusion faded. He barely had time to curse.
A roaring dragon of fire rushed at him. Its sheer heat formed beads of perspiration of Naruto's forehead as he hastily flipped away from its path. When it winded in on itself to snap at him with fiery jaws, Naruto threw both hands up and a strong gust of wind surged past him to slam into the beast. The dragon fell back, shredded by the sharp gale.
Naruto remained crouched as his eyes flickered watchfully in all directions. There wasn't much place to hide. The two of them had rapidly levelled most of the surrounding forest within seconds, and the few remaining shrubbery smouldered with small flames.
The soil beneath Naruto's feet exploded. He managed to jerk backwards just as a shimmering blade flashed past his face, cutting through the surprised breath he had exhaled. He caught a glimmer of the Sharingan on the metal surface and quickly averted his eyes. Naruto wasn't going to take any chances now, not when he was already at his limit keeping up with his opponent.
"What do you think?" Naruto grunted as he stopped a fast kick, the impact shuddering up his arm. "Seen enough to regret underestimating me?"
Sasuke shifted his head as Naruto's fist flew at his face. "You overestimate yourself, dobe," he said flatly.
He felt strong fingers seize the back of his shirt by the collar, and he tossed Kusanagi into the air to catch Naruto's other hand. Their faces drew up close, arms trembling beneath a rivalry that had only intensified over the years, and the pressure of each other's strength.
"As long as you are tied down by bonds, you'll never be anything but weak," Sasuke told him.
Those words angered him somehow but Naruto pressed it down. "For you, maybe. Me, I live for those bonds. They keep me on track."
Sasuke's katana spun through the air, hanging suspended above them for two long seconds.
Naruto smiled grimly. "But maybe I am weak. I couldn't protect our bond, after all."
They flew apart as Kusanagi stabbed into the ground between them. Skidding back, Naruto summoned a clone and put his hand out. He watched unwaveringly as Sasuke crouched slightly, an electric blue glow sparking in his hand.
Naruto closed his eyes for precious few seconds. It always came down to this. Alone, this was the only way the two of them knew to deal with each other. They hadn't clashed like this since the Valley of the End. They almost had a year ago, when Naruto had burst into the clearing to find that same Chidori run through Sakura. But they hadn't only because Naruto had seized Sakura and ran; ran so quickly that her blood was still warm on his hands when he desperately crashed into the hospital. He'd left Sasuke standing there, silent and unmoving while crimson steadily dripped from his fingers.
As the howl of whirling chakra and the high-pitched cries of a thousand birds filled the air, Naruto opened his eyes.
And he faltered as he blinked at the frown on Sasuke's eerily-lit face. The erratic chirping emitted from the Uchiha's right hand lessened slightly as his eyes narrowed.
"What are you doing here, Kabuto?"
The Rasengan wavered. "Kabuto?" Naruto echoed warily.
The shadows sheltered by the trees fringing the ravaged battlefield stirred with a soft, peculiar chuckle. "I was just curious to see this fight." Dim light fell on a slim, pale face. Naruto scowled at the too-familiar gesture of the silver-haired man adjusting his glasses. "My, my, you two have already destroyed this place. You should be more environmentally conscious, boys."
The hum of the Rasengan escalated once more. "Want me to do the same to you?" Naruto growled. Some part of Naruto blamed Kabuto for Sasuke's defection and Sandaime's death. He could never forgive that.
Kabuto just smiled.
"Kabuto," Sasuke said in a low tone. "What are you holding?"
Naruto's gaze travelled down to Kabuto's side, cloaked by the shadows. He had something tucked under his arm. Naruto squinted, trying to discern what it was. His stomach was already churning unpleasantly, his throat dry when he swallowed.
Kabuto tilted his head. "This? I found her running around."
Naruto didn't see or hear much of Sasuke's reaction. All he knew was that a deep, dangerous rage was bubbling in a deep, dark pit within his consciousness.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"Don't be mistaken, Sasuke. I simply thought an extra medic could be useful to Lord Orochimaru. We can leave as soon as you finish up here."
Sasuke didn't say anything – but even if he had no one could have heard it over Naruto's incensed yell as he broke into a blind sprint. "Let go of her, you bastard!"
He smashed into the tree, Rasengan crunching into the wide trunk until it broke through. Naruto looked over his shoulder as the tree toppled. "Let. Go. Of. Her," he snarled across the field.
Kabuto looked over at Sasuke, eyebrow raised. "We should hurry, Sasuke. Lord Orochimaru is waiting."
Naruto's narrowed eyes knifed to Sasuke's impassive expression. "Sasuke," he said breathlessly. "You're just going to stand there? You don't care?" He angrily stabbed a finger at Kabuto's damningly smug face. "He's trying to give Sakura to Orochimaru for no reason! You're after me – fine, it's not the first time. But Sakura – Sakura doesn't belong there!" She belonged here, where their friends were, where she was safe and happy, where Naruto could catch her if she fell.
Wordlessly, Sasuke stepped forward to pull his sword from the ground. Naruto watched him. "Sasuke," he muttered. "Come on."
He barely brought up a kunai in time to catch the blow Sasuke lashed at him. A shrill screech made Naruto's ears ring. "This is why you are weak," Sasuke murmured. He sank his knee into Naruto's stomach.
Naruto grimaced and staggered backwards one step, before flinging his kunai at Sasuke's neck. Kusanagi sliced through it. Before the sharp blade had cut completely through the other, Naruto pulled up against Sasuke, his arm pulled back. Sasuke's hand came up defensively.
Naruto's fist smacked against his jaw. Sasuke's head snapped to the side and, distantly, the dull impact felt just like Sakura's open palm. His Sharingan had seen it before it landed; it wasn't a chakra-enhanced blow, just a regular punch clenched with intense anger. The kind Naruto had thrown at Sasuke far too many times.
Naruto's head was bowed, his eyes dark. "You came back for her that time, so I thought you cared about Sakura. I thought…" He couldn't think. All he knew was that Sakura was hanging limply off Kabuto's arm like some beaten, ragged doll. It haunted him. Naruto clenched his fist and raised it again, eyes roiling with fury and frustration. "Goddamn it, Sasuke!"
Evading the blow was child's play. Sparks leapt from Sasuke's skin, sending Naruto hurtling backwards. The blonde flipped and braced himself against a tree for a brief instant before launching himself back at his opponent with a hoarse yell. In one stroke, Sasuke cut through the shadow clones that had materialised behind him and pivoted to catch the elbow Naruto had flung at his gut. Sasuke transferred his weight so he wouldn't skid, his eyes flashing. Naruto's blows were noticeably harder. Glancing up, Sasuke saw that that the blue eyes had become slitted.
Already stirring the tailed beast inside him. Sasuke relocated behind his opponent before Naruto could break through his guard. He backhanded Naruto across the shoulder blade; he didn't even stumble, only whipped around to snatch at him with clawed fingers.
Sasuke continued to dance away from his opponent's feverish strikes. Wondering why he chose to take the defensive put a frown on his face. Was it that he didn't want to fight this way? It was ridiculous. Sasuke knew he was a fool if he thought he desired to face Naruto Uzumaki without the Kyuubi or the Cursed Seal. He didn't.
Pausing as Naruto caught himself in a genjutsu he had laid, Sasuke's eyes flickered to catch Kabuto's. A small smile crept into the man's face. Kabuto was difficult to understand even to Sasuke, and that was why he continued to distrust the man.
Sasuke idly regarded Sakura's motionless figure. Blind. She'd struggled futilely against a mere drunk; she stood no chance against Kabuto. She couldn't be much use as a kunoichi anymore.
If Kabuto got his way, Sakura would wake in a dim, cold chamber with her chakra sealed. She would cautiously slip off the hard block that was her bed and warily feel for the stone walls. She might trip on the uneven floor and skin her knees. At some point, Kabuto would check on her. She would angrily lash out at him and he would easily subdue her to heal her scrapes. Then he might take her to Orochimaru. Naruto might be there, mangled in some way, and Sakura would struggle and curse the Snake Sannin. Whatever happened, Sasuke would be far away on the other side of the compound like nothing had changed.
Sasuke cut off his own thoughts. Itachi, he reminded himself. Itachi Uchiha. I'll make him-
His thoughts broke off, this time on its own accord. Sasuke's eyes were drawn back to Sakura. She seemed to stir, but when Sasuke peered more intently, he saw more. He cursed mentally.
How could he not have seen that, when he had easily seen the exact instant that Naruto had sidelined their battle to leave Sasuke to face a clone? That idiot. He had concealed himself well in the shadows behind Kabuto, blazing eyes fixed on Sakura. He had to know that there was no way Kabuto would not sense him. But Naruto had always been reckless and sometimes, when it came to his precious people, he was completely nonsensical.
Sasuke knew Naruto Uzumaki too well.
The confounded clone, tangled in Sasuke's genjutsu, lifted its head when it sensed the vague presence behind it. Without pausing, Sasuke dispelled it with a merciless stab – just as the real Naruto pounced at Kabuto. "Let go of-"
Sasuke looked away.
The body beneath Kabuto's arm burst into writhing snakes. Naruto's face was a mask of horror as barrelled straight into them. His face was frozen as the reptiles' wide jaws stretched to reveal glistening fangs and he didn't even move as they swarmed over his face, arms and chest, sinking those fangs into his flesh.
Then he dissipated into smoke.
The snakes fell and twisted on the ground for several moments, winding over each other until they piled into a hissing pillar. Pale white skin melted into place, knitting into hollow cheekbones and a long, purple tongue that licked half-formed lips.
"I'm disappointed, Sasuke."
"Why are you here?" Sasuke questioned tonelessly.
Orochimaru made a soft clicking sound. "It's a good thing I am, don't you agree?" he asked coyly. He was answered with an unwavering stare. The Sannin laughed. "Ah, Sasuke. I didn't expect you to be so soft."
At that moment, Naruto emerged from the bushes. He tried to catch Sasuke's eye, to no avail. He looked confused. But there was no time to be, not when Orochimaru was here. Naruto tensed.
Orochimaru shook his head and turned away. "Come, Sasuke. We'll let Kabuto deal with Naruto here."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "This is my fight."
"I thought your fight was with Itachi."
Sasuke was silent, his Sharingan eyes hooded. Orochimaru smirked and strode deeper into the forest. Sheathing his sword, Sasuke followed him into the shadows.
"Wait, Sasuke!" Naruto stepped forward, his arm rising to reach out for what he couldn't grasp. Sasuke didn't stop or look back. Naruto's fingers tightened helplessly before dropping down to his side.
"Open your eyes, idiot."
Kabuto was watching him with faint amusement. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised."
Naruto was – but hell if he would give him the satisfaction. Sasuke's low voice was in his ear the same way it had been in his clone's moments it had been impaled. Naruto knew what he had heard, and a small spark of hope ignited in his chest, clouded as it was. Another whim?
A small smile formed on Naruto's lips. It didn't matter, did it? Whim or not, Sasuke had helped him. He couldn't wait to tell Sakura.
Naruto rounded on Kabuto. "If you touched a single hair on Sakura's head," he warned, "I won't even honour your last words."
The man chuckled. He nudged his glasses up his nose with one finger. "I think you have greater concerns, Naruto. Will you come quietly or will you force me to get my hands dirty?"
Naruto held up his hands in a familiar handseal. "What do you think?" he growled.
A long, heavy silence filled up the space between them. Kabuto, still smiling steadily, didn't move. Naruto didn't either.
Yet somehow, neither of them noticed her until her shadow grew too large to ignore.
A/N: Keep in mind that this was written when Orochimaru was still the big baddie, before Sasuke grew blind with hatred. It lessens Sasuke's OOC-ness a little bit. I couldn't fix that; I'd characterised him like that in previous chapters. Never winging a story chapter by chapter ever again...
Last word: by making myself finish this story, I could well be butchering it. It's quite glaringly obvious in this chapter, actually. The writing is careless no matter how hard I try to change it. Sorry about that! All I can say is: don't expect fantastical things from these last few chapters. Hate it, love it, I hope you'll stick around and simply enjoy the last part of this ride with me :)