Sakura woke up alone.
This was somewhat unusual; Gaara hadn't left her side since she'd awoken from her chakra exhausted state, and though Sakura couldn't help but wonder where the boy had gotten to, she was a little bit grateful for the (no doubt) temporary alone time. She had to put on a brave face when Gaara was around or else he'd worry. Now, she could let herself be…
Well, she wasn't exactly upset. Another nightmare, but at this point it was becoming the norm, waking up in a cold sweat with the after image of dead loved ones burned into her eyes. At some point, Sakura's mind had just become numb. If she'd experienced the full effects of the Mangekyo, the full 'three days' Itachi had promised, would this have happened still? Or would each death have felt as fresh as the first? Sakura hoped she never had to find the answer to that, but she did know that dealing with the after effects of Itachi's eyes was not great and not something she'd quite figured out how best to approach yet.
Some part of her wanted to cry, and another part of her hated herself for it. She had always been the crybaby, unable to move or act while Sasuke or Naruto handled a tough situation for her. She was sick of crying. Kakashi hadn't cried when he'd woken up. Sasuke hadn't…
Well, perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Sasuke had woken up different after his time with Itachi. Whatever Itachi had shown him, it had been enough to drive him to Orochimaru. And Kakashi never showed much emotion in front of anyone. Sakura desperately wanted to ask him how he'd coped, what he'd seen, how he'd felt...but then she remembered that it was Kakashi and pulling out an honest response about himself was harder than pulling teeth. So maybe, in this particular case, it was okay to cry just a little bit.
With Gaara gone, it was easier to let it come. So Sakura finally let herself feel.
Itachi had been so damn strong that he'd captured her in genjutsu without her even meeting his eyes or realizing he'd done it, from hundreds of feet away. Itachi had caught her in a technique so powerful that Sakura still wasn't sure how she'd pulled free. Kakashi doubted her, but if Kakashi couldn't break it, if Sasuke couldn't break it, then clearly some sort of deity had to have helped her, because there was no way she had some sort of latent ability that enabled her to resist Sharingan.
Her mind began to work through it again as she cried, and it was easier now that she didn't have to worry about keeping her emotions in check. Her amulet had burned, and all of the chakra in her body had momentarily disappeared. Had it vanished, or had she somehow thrust it out of her all at once? The healers had theorized that she'd burned out her chakra coils attempting to do a strong earth jutsu without waiting for her chakra fully return, which suggested the former, but how did one's chakra simply vanish? It wasn't that she'd severed the connection temporarily, it had just been gone.
And there was a detail that she'd missed, something that her mind kept nagging her to remember, but the memory was fuzzy now and Sakura couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen something important and just...forgotten.
Frustration began to override her sorrow, and the tears stopped. Anger, Sakura was learning, had a way of keeping other emotions at bay. It was little wonder Sasuke had developed the way he had been. It was easier to be angry at his brother. Harder to grieve. Harder to cope.
How funny that Sakura understood him now far better than she ever had before, when it was too late.
Her body still tingled at times, but her chakra had almost fully returned to a normal state. But what gave Sakura pause was that it somehow felt different. Like a foreign body had invaded her coils instead of her own chakra. She'd been forbidden from trying jutsu until the healers gave her permission, and with Gaara watching her so closely she'd been hesitant to disobey, but now with him gone…
A tiny little jutsu couldn't hurt now, could it? Just to see? Maybe she'd feel better if she let her chakra just flow for a bit, do something that was too easy to be exhausting.
Her sensing jutsu.
Sakura took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She had to do it now, before Gaara returned to chastise her. She ran through the hand signals and pushed her chakra outwards.
Everything flooded in at once, and Sakura let out a small yelp.
It was like she'd somehow blinded herself with the action, but as she processed what had occured, she realized that somehow there was just chakra everywhere. In the ground, in the walls, in the fungus growing on the cave walls outside, in the lake, in the giant tree that dominated over the village, as well as every person around her, not just shinobi. Shinobi had more than civilians, far more, but everyone, everyone had so much chakra that her mind couldn't process it all at once, so instead she just registered signal.
Slowly the signal began to fade, and after what felt like an eternity it became easier to process. Sakura felt a heavy tingling throughout her body as chakra bled in to replace what she'd spent. Too much, she finally realized, she had somehow put out too much chakra.
And that was more frustrating than she'd liked to admit. She was a master at chakra control, she'd been told so by plenty of people, so how had she suddenly started overusing?
A different test, she decided. She went through a couple of hand signals to create a basic clone. It popped into existence perfectly on her bed, looking just like her, and...no tingling, no overuse of chakra. Nothing.
Sakura frowned. She went through the signs of her sensing jutsu again, and then once again a wave of impossibly heavy signal reached her. She winced, pain coursing through her head as she tried to process. So it wasn't her chakra control that had been affected, but...her sensing jutsu?
Sakura cursed out loud. As if she didn't have enough mysteries on her hands at the moment, now her sensing jutsu wasn't working right, and the only clue she had was that it had something to do with what happened with Itachi. But there were workarounds for this. Too much chakra? Then maybe if she just…
Sakura went through the hand signs again, but this time she held her chakra back. Only a trickle this time, maybe a fifth of what was required…
The world seemed to light up around her, but instead of a blinding signal, it was tempered. More like she was used to. She sensed a presence a floor beneath her, several in the buildings around her, and as she concentrated she could make out signals further out into the village. A couple hundred feet out, perhaps. It would take time to get used to, but essentially whatever had happened had just made it so she needed less chakra to use the sensing jutsu.
It was completely illogical. Her other jutsu had required the same amount. What kind of side effect altered her experience with one jutsu and nothing else?
But maybe it was a blessing. Less chakra needed meant more times she could use it. And if she had time to experiment a little...she could figure out the precise amount of chakra she could use on the jutsu before it blinded her. Maybe she could sense further. She could definitely sense more. Never before had she been able to sense chakra in civilians or trees or water. She wasn't even sure water was supposed to have chakra. She certainly hadn't read about it, the Academy hadn't taught it, and yet…
Sakura took a deep breath and allowed herself to lay back down on her pillow. She didn't have enough information, and letting herself dwell on mysteries was a good distraction from her nightmares, but poor for her mind overall. She could instead let herself be excited. Today was the day she'd get a final checkup from the healers, and if all was well they'd begin the journey to Konoha. She was going home.
(And home had Danzo and Root and the chuunin exams and convincing more Kage to join the pact and-)
Alright, so thinking of the general concept of home wasn't the best idea either. She needed something more specific. Something happy that no anxious thought or worry could intrude upon.
And then Sakura realized, all at once, that today was her birthday.
She shot up from her bed with a start. It was frightening how easily she'd forgotten such an important event. She was fourteen years old today. She'd survived another year, and not only that, she'd become an ambassador. She didn't know many fourteen year olds from Konoha that had her traveling experience or her current privileges. Sure, Naruto was training under the Hokage and Sasuke had Orochimaru, but she'd had the Tsuchikage and what she was starting to call the 'traveling school of hard knocks'. She'd helped out in a shinobi rebellion. She'd taken down demons. Faced down fucking Itachi Uchiha and lived to tell about it. She was fourteen years old today and she had done most these things in the past year.
That was something to smile about. Maybe some of those things had been difficult, but looking at all of the good things she'd accomplished, how could she complain? And not only had she started the Neutrality Project, but she had companions now, companions who believed in her.
As if on cue, both Gaara and Sai hopped in through her window, Emi scuttling along in behind them.
And...Sai had a massive black eye.
"S-Sai?" Sakura pushed herself out of bed, wobbly but able to stand. "What the hell happened? Did you get attacked by someone here?"
It was clear the boys hadn't expected her to be awake. She saw both visibly startle, looking her way and then…
Gaara looked sheepish, and even Sai was beginning to have some sort of expression on his face, which was saying something.
"Gaara and I had a disagreement." Sai spoke up. "We worked it out."
"Are you telling me Gaara punched you in the eye?"
"I said we worked it out. I was clearly in the wrong."
Sakura shot Gaara a look, and Gaara couldn't meet her eyes. Well, they'd worked it out if they weren't still fighting now, but Sakura couldn't just excuse these two fighting over…
"What even were you disagreeing on?"
There was a moment of silence. Gaara looked over to Sai, Sai looked over to Gaara.
"...I asked him how long he planned on dragging his pet rat around and he told me if I called it a rat again that I'd regret it."
Sai suddenly had one of his fake smiles on, and Sakura noticed Emi let out a small hiss at the mention of the phrase 'rat'. Gaara still wasn't meeting her eyes. So, either embarrassed about losing his temper, or…
Sakura frowned. "I don't like being lied to."
"It's not a lie." Sai countered. "I did call her a rat and I do regret it."
"...you both are hopeless."
There would be no dragging a real answer out of them, but Sai was missing enough tact that Sakura could almost believe he'd somehow pushed Gaara to that point. Gaara was very fond of his tanuki friend. Either way, if it wasn't the truth, it seemed as though Sakura wasn't going to drag the answer out of them.
She sighed before making her way to Sai, reaching out to gently touch at his face. The boy flinched at first, but eventually settled.
"It's bad." Sakura commented. "I wouldn't piss off Gaara, alright? He's got all that sand on his body, so his punches land like rocks. Let's go to the healers. They can patch you up and give me my final check up."
Sakura turned to her friend, who definitely was showing the proper amount of shame for giving his comrade a black eye. Compared to the Gaara she'd first met...it was growth, in a way. The Gaara from her chuunin exam wouldn't have batted an eye at causing someone pain.
"Apologize, please." Sakura insisted, her voice gentle. "I don't want there to be any bad blood between us going forward. We have enough problems to deal with already. I know Sai has a hard time holding his tongue, but that's no excuse to hurt him like this."
"...sorry." Gaara mumbled. It wasn't perfect, but a start was better than nothing.
"And Sai? You should apologize too. Emi means a lot to Gaara."
Sai turned to Gaara, that same emotionless smile on his face. "I'm sorry I call your rat a rat. I'll be sure to lie about it in the future."
Sakura saw Gaara twitch a little, but the situation thankfully didn't escalate. Sakura thwapped Sai on the shoulder with her hand. The boy still had a lot to learn, it seemed, but for now…
A start was a start.
In the end, eight Taki shinobi left the village with Sakura and her companions.
Shibuki, of course, was there, along with four shinobi that he trusted with his life. They had decided upon taking one singular team to compete in the chuunin exams, consisting of Fuu and two others, Kegon and Yoro. Both of Fuu's teammates were already high ranking by village standards, but the exams weren't about promotions for the Taki shinobi. They were about proving Taki's strength, and sharing knowledge of demons with the other villages. For Fuu in particular, the exams were a show and she was the star.
It would be all of the Taki shinobi's first time out of the Taki borders. Sakura would have gone as far as to consider it a historic event. Regardless of whether or not the pact continued to go well, this was the first time in several generations that Taki had allowed interaction with other villages at all.
It was also the safest Sakura had ever felt while traveling. Even if a demon did show up, or if a bandit was stupid enough to challenge them, they'd be dealing with a grand total of a dozen shinobi, all of whom were competent and fully prepared to defend their precious comrades. There was no need to take shifts; as head ambassador, the others insisted she get her rest. (And Sakura couldn't help but wonder if they were worried that she hadn't yet fully healed.)
It was a week long journey to Konoha, which gave her plenty of time to speak freely with Shibuki about things she hadn't yet found the time to discuss. Akatsuki was foremost on his mind after her and Fuu's run-in, which was an excellent segue into the only other member that Sakura hadn't been able to investigate yet: Kakuzu.
Kakuzu had worn a Taki headband, so Sakura had been able to deduce he'd been from the village. But upon mention of the name, Shibuki had first reacted with confusion.
"Kakuzu? That shinobi's still alive?"
"Either that or someone else with a Taki headband is going around by his name."
"That's...unfortunate." Shibuki had glanced towards his fellow shinobi at the mention, worry growing on his face. "Kakuzu was a shinobi under Taki decades ago. We had...ordered him to assassinate Hashirama Senju after our negotiations had failed, in the hope that the Bijuu might be set free without Hashirama to subdue them. Kakuzu failed and was punished, but...he retaliated, killing many of our elders and stealing away with several of our prized technique scrolls. We'd heard he'd moved to mercenary life but...to think he would still be alive…"
Someone who'd been ordered to assassinate the first Hokage. Such a shinobi was definitely powerful, and if even Taki didn't know what Kakuzu had up his sleeve, then certainly nobody else would. Sakura would be in the dark about that member of Akatsuki for now.
She would talk with Shibuki a lot, mostly about Taki traditions, sometimes about the legend of Kaguya. But perhaps the most important part of their journey had been the first night, and it had not been with Shibuki at all.
As they had settled in for camp, Gaara already offering first watch, Kakashi came to her once everyone else had begun to doze. He sat down next to her, and for once that book of his was nowhere in sight.
"Maa, well...it's your birthday, isn't it?"
Sakura was stunned. She didn't remember telling Kakashi when her birthday was, and for him to remember it was even more of a shock. She just nodded, and that was all it took for Kakashi to pull something out.
"Well, I thought maybe…well, I've never been very good at this sort of thing."
He pressed something into her hands. It was a kunai, but not like one she'd ever seen before. This kunai had a three-pronged blade, and wrapped around the hilt was a cloth, on which were written symbols she had never seen before. It looked worn, but still oddly beautiful.
"It belonged to my teacher." Kakashi explained. "Minato-sensei...he gave it to me to celebrate my becoming a jounin. He told me, as long as I kept the blade, I would never be alone." He scratched the back of his head while he talked, chuckling. "Well, what I didn't know at the time was that he used these kunai for his Flying Thunder God technique. He used these kunai as an anchor point to teleport to. But now that he's not around anymore, it's just a very versatile blade. Still...it's the sentiment that matters, I think."
"As long as I keep it…" Sakura couldn't help but smile as she turned the kunai over in her hand. As she did, Kakashi reached out to put a hand on her head.
"I'm a Konoha shinobi through and through. But you're still my cute student. Next time someone tries to hurt you...you won't be alone."
She looked up to meet her sensei's eyes. He looked almost apologetic. Did he feel guilt, perhaps, for not being there when she'd faced Itachi?
Sakura squeezed the kunai tight. Even if it was just sentiment...Kakashi couldn't be there all the time, but what mattered was that he'd be there when he could. He'd come to find her in Iwa, began to teach her like she'd always wanted...Kakashi wasn't perfect, but he was trying. And maybe, just maybe, succeeding a little bit.
It wasn't a glamorous birthday, but Sakura felt as though she would always remember it.
As they traveled she often played with the kunai in her hand. It had an odd weight to it that would take getting used to, but she felt that its uniqueness would make for a weapon in combat that not many would expect. It was as she did this that she noticed Sai occasionally glancing at the blade. It was more interest than he usually placed in things, so at their next camp she sat down and showed it to him.
"You keep looking at it. Did you want to see it closer?"
"Not the kunai." Sai admitted. "But...the seals around the hilt. That blade belonged to the Fourth Hokage."
"Yup." Sakura confirmed. "Figures you'd recognize it. Seals are your thing, huh?"
"It wasn't just the Fourth Hokage's technique." Sai reached out, and Sakura handed him the kunai to look at. "The Second used it as well, though his seals were very different. It's said that the Fourth deduced the technique by looked at the Second's seals. He's the only one who has ever been able to master it since."
"Really? I guess they did say the Fourth was a genius." Sakura grinned, leaning forward to watch Sai. "But, you know, you did invent a sealing jutsu all your own. Maybe you could figure this one out!"
"I doubt it. These seals are almost nonsensical. They're nothing like Konoha standard seals. I'd wager a guess that he picked up techniques from the Uzumaki, considering he married one." Sai hesitated, looking up to Sakura. "The Jinchuuriki, Naruto...does he…?"
"Know anything about seals? I doubt it. He didn't know his parents after all, and I don't think they left him anything."
"...I highly doubt that's true. But Konoha might have kept his inheritance from him in an effort to conceal his heritage." Sai handed the kunai back to Sakura, and took on an almost sullen look. "Perhaps, now that he is older, the Hokage might be convinced to allow him his heritage."
"Which means you can ask him for help with the seal." Sakura reached out to poke Sai's shoulder. "You're insidious, you know that? You haven't even met him yet."
"I know. But I should plan ahead for what to say when I meet him, right? Otherwise I might get another black eye." Sai smiled, and there was a hint of genuineness there this time. Sakura couldn't help but laugh at that.
It was on the fourth day that they reached the Konoha border, and there someone was waiting for them. Sakura sensed them before she saw them, having spent the day trying to hone her newly sensitive sensing jutsu.
"Kakashi-sensei...six shinobi ahead."
"Oh." Kakashi smiled. "That would be the Konoha escort for the Taki entourage. I sent a request for them."
Sakura let herself run ahead. If the Hokage knew she was coming, that would meant that it was likely whatever escort she decided would be…
Sakura saw orange flying towards her, and had just enough time to brace herself as she was enveloped in Naruto's arms. She clung to him tightly, not realizing until now just how much she'd missed him.
"You finally made it!" Naruto squeezed her until she thought she might not have any breath left at all.
"Yup." Sakura agreed with a small gasp. "I'm back, Naruto."