//So back when I was re-watching Naruto, I noticed something during the Sound and Sand Invasion Arc.
Bear with my long post as I delve and ramble into detail ;)
Sasuke ran off to stop Gaara the moment the attack started, urged by Genma who declared he was already at Chunin level and to consider this the continuation of their fight. Genma holds off Baki who was supposed to capture Sasuke on Orochimaru’s behest. Without question Sasuke runs off ahead to do his part. Once Kakashi notices this, well aware of the danger that threatens his student, he has Sakura wake Naruto and Shikamaru from the genjutsu to pursue their comrade. He wants them to catch up and get Sasuke (and themselves) to a safe location before any harm can come their way. He also knew Gaara was no regular Genin (unaware that he was a Jinchuuriki at the time) and is worried for their safety. Sending Pakkun to help in tracking and avoiding the enemy, he declares it an A rank mission.
As we know, they catch up, Shikamaru separates to fend off a group of Sound ninja that ultimately was no match for him. Asuma’s timely arrival saved him.
Sasuke used too much chakra in pursuit, during his small/brief fight against Temari, and mostly in his battle against Gaara. He fought to the point of exhaustion, pushed himself near death by forcing a third chidori (which Kakashi warned him plain and simple that it could kill him) and ultimately succumbed to the overwhelming pain the curse mark manifested, causing him to become immobile. Gaara was going to kill him, but Naruto comes in time to strike him aside. While Sakura is immediately at Sasuke’s side, worry forming as she fears the worst.
Sakura defends him when Gaara bypassed Naruto, getting caught and rendered unconscious in the process. While she is stuck and Sasuke is incapable of moving, Naruto advances. However, he gets struck and sent flying back. Sasuke, despite the pain he’s enduring, lunges himself forward to soften the blow, something that wouldn’t have harmed Naruto all that badly had he hit the tree instead.
Afterwards, the two debate on the fight, wondering the best course of action to take. Sasuke overcomes the throbbing pain, managing to stand again. This is a very important character development scene for him. Although his whole life, revenge has been his fuel, his reason for existing, Sasuke willingly put the life of his comrades ahead of his own. Claiming that he’d sacrifice himself in order for Naruto and Sakura to get away, even if he only bought them a few minutes, he’d give that. He’s even out of breath as he explains, showcasing his growing fatigue.
It’s just as Orochimaru mentioned back during the preliminaries of the Chunin Exams. Being around his friends, mostly Naruto, changed Sasuke’s heart. For someone who should be preserving his own life, selfish in design in order to kill his brother, shouldn’t be so ready to die. But he takes no reproach upon himself for being weak here. He doesn’t even hesitate or pause to think of another solution. Deciding that if he died here, he was never meant to go further, tossing any chance of avenging his clan aside.
He lost his family, everything that was precious to him when he was merely seven years old. His heart and mind never fully healed, but being around Team Seven, living instead of simply surviving, caused them to become family. Just like in the Land of Waves, Sasuke stopped Haku from killing Naruto by getting in the way of a fatal attack. And later when he hears Itachi is back in the village, his instinct isn’t vengeance, it’s saving his friend.
Sasuke has taken loss after loss, structured his world on loneliness and sorrow, growing up in a devastation he learned to hon and tolerate. Yet, he’s grown. He managed to comprehend what truly mattered throughout his time with them. Although his protective instincts are usually buried in fear of losing more, he’s learned from those around him. Orochimaru’s offer of power is certainly desirable, but there was never a moment where Masashi depicted him contemplating the idea (despite the fact that he probably had at some point prior to the Sasuke Retrieval Arc).
His words stir Naruto into action, making him realize what it means to be strong. Sasuke sparked the notion of strength via protecting others into Naruto’s head, making him remember the power that lies in having people you care about. Due to Gaara’s ferocity, he nearly forgot, questioning it. He and Gaara were alike, so much that he began to fear the idea of what he could’ve become if he didn’t have Iruka and the others, that it somehow made Gaara stronger than him, unbeatable. Until this very instant, recalling all former mentions and selfless actions that were proved by Sasuke’s words, he knew he had nothing to be afraid of.
Naruto tells Sasuke that’s he’s done enough, that he should rest, while he decided to take over the fight. In obvious consequence to Naruto’s raging power and capabilities to take down Gaara, Sasuke is surprised to see just how much stronger his friend became. And as Naruto did the same during the exams, while Sasuke and Gaara fought, he belittled his own strength by comparing. It’s only natural that this occurs due to their rivalry and competitive nature.
However, in Sasuke’s perception, it’s different. He considers himself only strong when he’s stronger than those around him, stifling his inferiority by his nurtured superiority complex. He gets criticized over this, but it’s what he’s done in order to make it this far. He has to claw his way out of the past, out of the vulnerability that was exposed when Itachi took his entire world away from him. Rebuilding a future around the destruction caged inside was all he considered himself capable of until those ideals were squandered by his upcoming defeat at Itachi’s hand.
Once the fight draws to a close, the sand binding Sakura to the tree disappears. Her interference in order to protect him caused her to get hurt. The guilt is betrayed on his face. He catches her, placed her down gently, telling Pakkun to keep an eye on her as he goes to check on Naruto’s condition.
After reaching Naruto, hearing that Gaara wishes to stop fighting and go home, the other passes out with a smile on his face. Initially, Naruto is still trying to move, but Sasuke warns him that it’s enough, and tells him Sakura is safe, allowing Naruto to feel relieved. Their teamwork might not have been on display during this fight, but their devotion to protecting one another outweighed any question to how deeply they care for each other. This is a prime example to how much Team Seven has developed since they first formed as a team. They’re imperfect, maybe even mismatched at times, but their imbalance stabilizes them, forming bonds.
Now I can get to the actual point of my post. This is where Masashi decided to close on their progress and we only see these three later on, well after the invasion forces are being drawn back, this arc coming to a close.
But at this time, after the Sand Siblings leave, they still need to get somewhere safe. While his teammates are both unconscious, Sasuke is the only one able to move despite his physical exhaustion taking a toll. He has to take the both of them to a place they can hide from enemies. Now as Pakkun and Shikamaru stated enemy shinobi are lurking around, travelling in strategic groups to ambush any ninja they come by in the forest, all Chunin level or higher.
Sasuke had to manage all on his own, carrying his friends, probably running into numerous fights along the way in order to protect them. The strain he must feel on his body is enormous since the curse mark siphons chakra and he depleted himself the moment he decided to use a third chidori. Forcing himself to stand is one thing, but being on the verge of collapse, pushing past his lack of strength, he gathers himself, his friends, and fights.
They were sent out to stop him, and in the end, Sasuke is the one that has to safeguard them on his own against all odds. If that doesn’t display Sasuke’s development and where his priority truly lies before he was enticed by the lure of power, then I don’t know what does. But even then, Sasuke proves himself many times over before leaving the village that he cares and is no longer the child he used to be, clinging only to self-preservation. His devotion goes beyond revenge. It’s only the mix of fear and confusion that shatters that resolve later.