i. This is not supposed to be happening.
Sakura had expected many things when Sasuke was assigned to her team. She'd expected daring rescues and escapes, Sasuke to be sweeping her off her feet with how effortless he made everything seem, him protecting her whenever she was put in harm's way.
Their most daring escape yet came of Sasuke stabbing himself in the thigh.
This is not supposed to be happening. All of Sakura's images of her teammates aren't supposed to be crashing down around her.
She watches Sasuke fight the strange snake woman who had put Naruto out of commission with a single strike to the stomach, following them as best she can through the trees, but a part of her feels miles away as her mind struggles to put together what she's seen.
Naruto had once again proved himself to be brave and true despite everything the world– and she– had thought about him, fighting and refusing to give up, standing firm where Sasuke had stepped back. Perfect hero and prodigy Sasuke had nearly– No. There was no 'nearly' about it. He'd given up. He'd surrendered. He'd surrendered for all of them, and balked in the face of danger until she'd screamed at him to go back into the fight.
And then there's her.
She'd called Sasuke a coward, but is she any better? All she's done is stand on the sidelines, weeping and screaming. Perfect student with a gift for genjutsu, smart and talented with all the potential in the world, once in a generation mind Sakura Haruno had stood by and watched while her teammates handled everything.
She tenses and readies a cry as she spots the substitution a second before Sasuke, but it dies in her throat when the packets of black powder ignite and she finally notices Sasuke's web of wires. Had he been setting this up the whole time? Why didn't she notice that? She's supposed to be observant. She's supposed to be intelligent. But she didn't notice Sasuke leading the snake woman on a deliberate path and weaving an intricate trap.
For a second she convinces herself it was genjutsu that hid it from her but that's no excuse– Sasuke's genjutsu technique dips just slightly below average, if she didn't sense it before now that only proved that she was nowhere as good as she thought.
She feels the heat from the dragon flame but she can't be happy for Sasuke when her mind is still spinning. What good was she this whole time? What good has she ever been? What is she good for when all she does is stare at Sasuke and Naruto's backs while they thunder ahead?
She clenches her fist tight and bounds down to Sasuke's side– She can't find out if she doesn't start moving.
Her voice comes out in a pale imitation of cheer as she stops next to Sasuke; "You did it… You okay? Don't worry, it's all over."
Even before the snake woman stirs Sakura doesn't quite believe that.
She hears the wire snap and feels the familiar crushing grip of the jutsu that had stunned them back at the fight's beginning as she stumbles forward onto her knees. This time her brain gets to work immediately– not a Leaf form of genjutsu, most likely tricks the subject's fight or flight response, forces you to freeze in the face of imaginary danger. Evidently the snake woman wasn't in the mood to invent a danger this time.
Sasuke forces the words out of his throat; "No… Impossible–!"
The snake woman moves in one swift leap to a branch several yards away. Sakura can see now that her face has been severely burned– So severely that the skin is peeling away. She can see a small corner of unmarred, pure white flesh through a hole in the skin, and a golden eye. It feels familiar, like a photograph from a textbook, or a torn-out page hastily tucked away in the back cover of an academy yearbook in a dusty storeroom.
Her voice shifts down into that of a man's as she speaks; "Such mastery of the Sharingan at so young an age, you're a true Uchiha after all… Yes, you'll do nicely."
All Sasuke can do is choke out a roar as he tries desperately to move, to fight against the jutsu like he had before, but he had much more stamina and chakra back then.
The woman? The man? The ninja continues on like they're talking to themselves; "You are definitely his brother. If anything, your eyes are even keener than Itachi's."
That name, that cursed name that Sakura suddenly stopped hearing the morning after the Uchiha Clan's population went down to one, gives Sasuke strength enough to shout, "Who are you– What do you want?!"
They chuckle, tossing the Heaven scroll like it's a ball; "My name is Orochimaru… But as to what I want, that will have to wait until we meet again," green flame starts to spread across the Heaven scroll, taking bites out of it until it's fully consumed, "which won't happen until you finish this test with the best score of all."
The words tumble dumbly out of Sakura's mouth; "The scroll–!"
Orochimaru doesn't even acknowledge her; "First, you'll have to defeat the Hidden Sound ninja who serve me–" Sakura's mortally wounded pride won't let that stand.
So she barks, "I have no idea what you're talking about, but if you've finished why don't you just beat it?! If we never meet again it'll be too soon!"
His voice comes out in a slither; "Oh, he and I will meet again…" His hands form a seal and his neck shoots upwards as it extends, head looping through the air towards Sasuke with his mouth open wide in a horrible grin.
The world slows down around her as Sakura's mind works at a breakneck pace. This is genjutsu binding her, her strength, especially when she's seen it before. She's seen how Sasuke broke its hold when it was far stronger and applied with far greater care. And now Sakura has something she's never had before– Something to prove to herself.
So she bites down on the side of her tongue, hard enough that she immediately tastes blood. She shoves herself up and she runs blindly forward with none of the grace she'd like but all the passion, all the fury and speed she has to spare. Her vision narrows down to a single point– Sasuke.
Several things happen all at once in less than a minute's time.
Sakura's elbow slams into Sasuke's side from an angle he doesn't anticipate, sending him tumbling end over end off the branch.
Sasuke rights himself just a second too late and without checking where he's going to land– When he does his knee twists, he feels a lightning bolt of pain shoot from his sole to his head, his leg gives out.
And Orochimaru's teeth sink down to the gum in Sakura's shoulder.
He rips them out with a ferocity and urgency he never would've used on sweet and soft little Sasuke, but he's too late. A small black flower, five petals all pointing out from an empty heart, blossoms between the holes where his fangs had been. Sakura's knees buckle immediately and she pitches forward, swooning off the branch. He prays that she'll land head first and save him a whole mess of time and trouble, but bright and brilliant little Sasuke breaks into a limping sprint and catches her in the nick of time.
He glares up at Orochimaru, Sharingan burning, bad leg and unconscious girl in his arms all that's keeping him from leaping up and tearing his teeth out of his mouth.
Orochimaru retreats into the shadows with a sneer and knowledge he would be the first to gain– Do not turn your back on Sakura Haruno.
This isn't supposed to be happening.
That's all Sasuke can think as the adrenaline peters out and he sets about the agonizing task of collecting his team. It's a task that shouldn't be agonizing, but thanks to Sakura's split-second decision he has to climb back up to Naruto by carefully channeling what remains of his chakra into his good foot and the arm not holding her. Between the pace and the pain it's enough to make Sasuke fall into a running narration of profanity as he inches up to Naruto.
He wants to blame Sakura. He wants to call her stupid and foolish and impulsive, and when he caught her he almost did. But the words had died in his throat when he noticed she was breathing short, shallow breaths, eyes barely open and glazed over, her temperature spiking up to dangerous levels in the seconds between Orochimaru biting her and Sasuke catching her. She keeps twitching, fidgeting, making pained sounds, but never rousing.
Whatever's happening to her would've been happening to him if she hadn't done something. And considering he'd been the one Orochimaru was aiming for, who knows what could've happened if he'd hit his mark.
The thought leaves Sasuke feeling very cold.
Naruto is also unconscious and shows no signs of waking, not even after Sasuke succumbs to his frustration and slaps him. Twice. Hard. With both hands occupied by people in critical condition and a leg that only hurts worse the longer he keeps trying and failing not to put weight on it Sasuke is forced to carefully navigate the interweaving branches down to the forest floor, and settles for rolling Naruto and Sakura into the first hollow in a tree he can find. Despite how his wounded pride is growling and snarling at him to find Orochimaru and strangle him with his own tongue, his wounded knee is telling him that this is as far as he's getting.
Sasuke regrets paying only the barest amount of attention when medic ninja came into the Academy to teach them basic field medicine, because after staring at Sakura and Naruto for five minutes of silence he has to admit that he has no idea what to do for them. He doesn't even know what to do for himself. He rifles through Naruto and Sakura's packs and the medical supplies they have on them are limited to the bare minimum necessary to plug up bleeding cuts, nothing he can use to wrap up a sprained (or worse) knee.
All he can find for Sakura's fever is some rags and a small canister of water which he clumsily uses to get a rag wet and put on Sakura's forehead like he remembered his mother doing for him when he was sick. And Naruto's problem is the polar opposite– he's ice cold, sleeping so soundly that he almost looks dead. Sasuke's checked his pulse four times now, it's so sluggish he almost misses it each time. Whatever Orochimaru did to him with that strike goes far beyond the reach of Sasuke's half-remembered knowledge of field medicine.
Sasuke leans back against the roots sheltering his team. The sun set quite a while ago now, his chakra reserves are slowly coming back, he could go out and look for food or help– Sasuke tries to stand and this time his leg doesn't even let him start to put weight on it. He comes tumbling back down into the dirt before he can even get halfway out of the hollow.
And for a moment, Sasuke just sits there, staring ahead into space, thinking about how it's been a very long time since he's felt quite this helpless.
He shuffles back out of sight. Carefully, humbly, Sasuke makes the handsigns for a very basic genjutsu– one that should make the hollow look empty to the naked eye. A part of him wonders why he's bothering. Sakura would've done it better.
Sasuke Uchiha, alone in the dark, takes a shuddering breath in, and waits.
This is not supposed to be happening.
Orochimaru had planned this for years– years! Every step of this coup and his personal project to find a new, perfect host had been orchestrated with such precision and accuracy it had even scared him a little, and then of course this happens! He has to talk himself down as his body sinks into the trunk of the great tree, the moonlight making his exposed flesh look positively ghostly, as he stews and simmers in impotent rage.
It's just his luck, isn't it? He runs through hundreds of worthless candidates, Itachi proves himself too willful to be taken, Kimimaro is too frail, and perfect Sasuke is yanked from his grasp by some clanless child of civilians who would die before the night was through. Nothing else for it– Sasuke will have to be taken by force. The girl has a one in a hundred chance of living, but he'll have Sound ninja kill her quickly and take her body back for study; if there was anything interesting about the poor clanless fool it was that her particular curse would further his research.
She should be proud. It's probably the most honor her family will ever receive.
He feels Anko's presence before she touches down on the branch and greets her through gritted teeth, "Not that I don't appreciate you coming to welcome me home, Anko, but let's keep it short. Sensei has had a very difficult day and is in no mood for games."
Anko bares her teeth in a fierce grin; "Good, neither am I."
Ordinarily he'd toy with her, set up a substitution for her to throw around to get her confidence up before bringing it down again, but he's in no mood. He melts into the tree as she tosses the senbon she'd primed in her off hand, distantly hearing them clatter against the wood as he quickly slithers around to rise up behind her. With a single half-seal, he reaches out and takes hold of her curse mark, freezing her in place and forcing a pained groan out from her gritted teeth. Anko's hand flies up to her neck, already doubling over as the pain shoots through her like lightning.
Orochimaru glares at her back as she falls to her knees; "I have no more patience for upstart little girls trying to be more than they are, Anko. Perhaps I should've learned that lesson better with you."
She meets his eyes over her shoulder, still burning defiant despite her complete disadvantage; "Why are you here?! Did you come back to assassinate Lord Hokage?!"
Orochimaru can't help but snort at how pedestrian that question is; "Of course not– I don't have nearly the manpower to do something like that. In fact, I'd come here looking for more, but my plans have been thrown slightly off course. There was an absolutely wonderful boy I had my eye on; I'd even had the same gift I gave you all ready to give to him. But it's been wasted on one of his friends– a girl of absolutely no consequence who'll likely die before morning."
Anko has the unmitigated gall to actually smirk up at him through the pain; "Yeah? Don't count her out yet. I survived, didn't I?"
Orochimaru disguises the jolt of shock that shoots up his spine by stomping on Anko's back with one foot, shoving her face down into the bark of the tree and sending another shot of pain through her curse mark for good measure. Anko cries out, her yowl like that of a cat with its tail caught in a mousetrap.
Anko's a filthy, defiant little stray, but she's also right. She had been even less than Sasuke's little pink hanger-on: a war orphan no one would lay claim to, because everyone had looked her over and seen nothing of any worth to claim. The only thing even he'd seen was that if Anko died in the experimentation process no one would come looking for her. But she'd survived. Out of ten test subjects, many more healthy and promising than her, she'd clawed and scratched through and come out better.
He can not afford to let the same thing happen to Sakura.
So instead he just smirks, forcing mirth and easiness into his voice as he drawls, "But why would I want another worthless castoff when I can instead have the Sharingan?"
Now that gets the fear of Heaven in Anko's eyes as they go wide and her breath catches on that name. Good. That's the look he wants to see in all his pupils' eyes.
He leans casually over, resting an elbow on the knee propped up by Anko's back; "By the way– Three genin from my village are taking part in this exam. It would be an awful shame if the exams were cancelled before they could prove themselves, wouldn't it? It would just crush them, and well… I don't know what I would do if you took away my fun. Keep that in mind, won't you, Anko my dear?"
With that, he takes his foot off her back and turns on his heel, stalking off into the darkness.
This is not supposed to be happening. And he's going to make sure it doesn't go any further.