In the rush of the battle and the desperate urge to keep the enemy away from her team, Sakura didn't see Gaara until he materialized in the middle of them. The movement was so quick that her eyes took a moment to process it, and at first Sakura could only dumbly wonder if somehow Gaara had picked up a space-time ninjutsu in the time since the fight began. But something was different about him now, and Sakura realized that she could practically see the chakra oozing off of the boy, hovering about him and giving him a strange hazel hue. About a heartbeat behind him, his sand began to seep into the fray. His sand was quick, but apparently not as quick as the power he'd gotten from…
Whatever Sai had done, Sakura realized. The seal wasn't leaking anymore. Gaara was alive, and somehow everything was different.
The fighting came to a halt as everyone reacted to Gaara's sudden presence, but Gaara did not hesitate. He settled, moving his body into a strange stance that Sakura had seen him practicing sometimes in the evening. He'd told her, when she'd asked, that Shukaku had been attempting to teach him taijutsu, but when she'd first seen it she could only think that the stances were funny and the movements somewhat strange.
Now as Gaara took the stance, Sakura realized exactly what the style was meant for. His legs bent in a way that reminded her of an hourglass, which served to steady him into the ground beneath him. His hands began to move in circular motions, and in response the sand around him swirled and churned and flew effortlessly around them.
The enemy charged, hesitation over, but Gaara responded quicker.
Where the motions were once calm and fluid, suddenly Gaara's form became rooted and powerful. With big, sweeping motions of his arms, the sand moved to both protect them from assault and retaliate. Grains wrapped around arms and ankles, pulling enemy shinobi towards him so that he could land powerful punches, which were no doubt reinforced by whatever chakra was now covering him like a blanket. The precision in which Gaara landed the hits was astounding; there was no effort wasted, and one by one the enemy fell to the ground, bloodied, bruised, definitely out of commission if they hadn't outright been killed by the sheer force of Gaara's blows. As the final shinobi charged, Gaara did not even look their way. He reached out a hand, and the chakra around it seemed to mold into the shape of a claw, a somewhat familiar claw. Sakura was reminded of when she'd first known him, when he'd first allowed Shukaku to take possession of his body, but this time the claw did not reach with the intent to kill, rip, or tear. It simply grabbed hold of the enemy while they were in the air, then slammed the shinobi down in a manner that was strangely gentle. The shinobi was still conscious, and it was clearly intentional as Gaara walked closer to examine him.
"Go back to Danzo." Gaara spoke, his voice harboring a strange rumble. "Tell him to watch his back."
He let the shinobi go, his chakra aura starting to fade and with it the chakric claw that had been holding the man down. There was no hesitation; the shinobi ran off, and with that the battle was ended.
Sakura didn't take her eyes off of Gaara. All that had happened in seconds, and Sakura had only one thought on her mind as she took it all in.
That was so...cool.
Their eyes met, and there was palpable relief between the two of them as it settled in that both of them were still alive. But, almost simultaneously, their thoughts turned to the other member of their team, and they ran to Sai's side immediately.
Though his external injuries had been healed, Sai looked haggard, and Sakura had now learned to recognize symptoms that had once been present in herself: chakra exhaustion, and it was bad. She'd already gotten the lecture from Kakashi about how chakra drain could kill a person, but now that it wasn't her life at stake, suddenly the weight of the concept became abundantly clear. Sai had expended almost all of his chakra fixing Gaara's seal, and he might die from it.
"Live…" Sakura's voice was barely a whisper as she clung to the boy's hand. "You promised me. You have to live."
For a moment, Sai's lips moved as if he was trying to respond. His eyes shut before anything could come out, and though Sakura's heart stopped for a brief moment, Sai continued to breathe. Sakura sent out a pulse of her sensing jutsu, and though it was incredibly faint, she could still pick up traces of chakra in his body. Alive, he was still alive, but who knew when he would wake up again? She allowed herself to grip his hand tighter.
"He was wrong." Gaara spoke. "We're all still alive."
"For now." Sakura agreed. "But who knows how many more teams Danzo's prepared to send after us. Or even just how many teams will try to take out their competition if they pass us by."
"I can...we can keep us safe." Gaara insisted. "Something is...different. Shukaku's chakra, it's no longer running against my own. It's running with. And Shukaku, he…" Gaara looked downwards towards his stomach, and Sakura could still see a faint glow around where Sai had renewed the seal. "Something's different." He repeated. "But it's not bad."
"Not bad. Okay. We can work with that." Sakura nodded, reaching out her free hand to squeeze Gaara's as well. "We're alive, you're right about that. Now we just have to worry about…"
With Sai unconscious, they were hindered. It might be possible for her and Gaara to take on an exam fortress together, but not without leaving Sai unattended. And they certainly wouldn't allow either of them to go it alone, not after what had just happened.
Sakura sighed. "We have six days. It's a gamble, but we have to give ourselves time to rest. If Sai wakes up within the next twenty-four hours, we can go from there."
It was all they could allow themselves. Time, time that, minutes ago, she wasn't sure they'd ever have again.
Alive. They were alive.
And now, all they had to do was figure out some way to pass and they would be safe, so long as Danzo abided by the laws of the village. It was unlikely that would last, what with Danzo clearly manipulating villages against her, but he had clearly expected her to die in these woods before he made his move. If they didn't die, that would throw him off rhythm.
Shikamaru knew there would be an attack, and he trusted in us to survive it. I don't think he knew the extent of what Danzo had planned, but he was under the impression that if we did survive...we'd have something we could use.
It came to Sakura all at once. She stood up, rushing to gather up the large scrolls that had been used to try and break Shukaku from its seal. "Grab that old tea kettle." She told Gaara. "I think I've figured it out." She reached for a second scroll, only to be stopped by the foot of an Ame shinobi landing on it.
"Hey." The boy, Samidare, spoke up. "You're wounded to shit, we saw what that guy was doing to you. Think you wanna calm down for a hot minute before you start running about again? If you pass out, that's just going to be trouble for us."
Wounded? Sakura hadn't even noticed any pain, but as Samidare reminded her of it, she began to feel a dull ache in both of her shoulders, and a tingling sensation that resonated through her whole body. She'd been electrocuted, multiple times, which would likely have caused damage to her nerves, not to mention potential burns on her wounds.
"Let Amaha tend to your injuries." Urin spoke, reaching down to pick up the third scroll that Sakura had yet to grab. "We'll gather these things for you. It is God's will that you remain safe. Until your companion awakens, we will be at your side."
"...thank you." Sakura bowed her head low. "We owe you a debt for today."
"You will pay your debt in time." Urin replied. "God will ensure it."
It was easy with their tents already set up to move Sai to a covered space. From there, Sakura was made to sit down, and the girl Amaha began to work her healing jutsu on her wounds. The girl had a feather-light touch that made Sakura shiver, and while it had a slightly different sheen to the mystic-palm technique she had seen Konoha medics use, it was still very effective.
The other two Ame shinobi had gone to dispose of the bodies of the enemies that had been left from the fight. Gaara had remained outside to keep watch. That meant Sakura and Amaha were alone, for the moment, and Sakura decided to take advantage of the time to ask questions.
"Your teammates keep mentioning 'God'." Sakura began. "It's not the first time someone has mentioned their god to me, but I admit I didn't really know that Ame had a prominent religion."
"It is a new religion." Amaha explains. "God came to us a little over a decade ago. I do not remember when it happened, as I was very young then. But God freed us of a cruel leader, and through his actions brought our country to safety and prosperity."
"So you've...seen your god?"
"Yes. It is not often. Usually he speaks through the Lady Konan, his angel. But when it is necessary, he has appeared before us and spoken. I have seen him twice in my lifetime."
"Twice." Sakura let herself mull over this. "You know, most people can't claim to have ever met a god. You'll forgive me for asking this, but you seem very certain that this is a deity and not just a really strong shinobi."
"You doubt." Amaha concluded. "It is natural. You have not seen God as we have. Those who meet him are convinced of his power. And one day you will meet him and understand."
"You're so certain of this?"
"You're working to unite the shinobi world. Whether this is God's will or not, he will no doubt come to you in time. He would not have ordered us to protect you simply to allow you to escape his influence."
So whomever this Ame 'God' was, he had ordered Sakura's safety. Konan had promised that she would not move against Sakura in tandem with Danzo, but at the time she had not promised help either. That Ame had pulled through for her in this particularly needful time brought a smile to Sakura's face. Maybe there was hope to bring Ame into the treaty after all.
"I think I would like to meet your god. If only to thank him for ordering you to interfere. If you hadn't stepped in, we would have been in serious hot water, that much is true. Are you not worried about passing the exam?"
"The exam means nothing to us. Our promotion is in God's hands. We came to Konoha simply to accompany the Angel and witness what it was you were working on. Participating in these exams is a formality." Amaha prodded gently at Sakura's back, and Sakura realized she was trying to see if there were any other wounds she had missed. "...though that does not mean we will not give it our best effort, once we are assured our work here is done."
"Oh. Well, again, I owe you quite a bit of thanks." As Amaha finished, Sakura moved both of her arms, feeling a distinct lack of pain after the medic's work. "I won't forget what your team has done for us. And I don't think my shoulders have ever felt better."
"Your gratitude is unnecessary. God's will has been done." Though Sakura noticed that Amaha turned slightly pink at the praise. "But I cannot help but be curious in turn. You mentioned gods other than my own?"
"Oh. Yeah, I suppose I did." Sakura reached up to fiddle with her necklace. "A man I met gave me this." She explained. "He spoke of his god, Jashin. His god is one of pain, but...not just causing it, understanding it. Understanding each other. I don't really know a whole lot. We spoke for maybe ten minutes about it at most. But I couldn't help but feel...well, understanding the pain of others is something I strive to do. That's partially how this pact began. I want to bring people together. I want to stop pain and war and struggle and tragedy. But I don't think I can do that unless I understand where everything began."
"You're taking on Konoha's Shadow." Amaha confirmed. "The one who leads the shinobi who attacked you. The one whom Lady Konan mistrusts."
"You're digging into a deep wound. If that wound has bled out into even my own country, I cannot imagine how deep it has spread here in Leaf."
"Far too deep for my liking, that's for certain." Sakura looked to Sai, who was sleeping peacefully. "Sai here was once a part of Root. When we first met him, he wasn't really a person. He was like a shell of something. Like Root had tried to empty out everything that made him human. I can't let them do that to anyone else. I can't let them do that to Konoha."
"You have felt the pain of your companion. And thus understand the pain seated within this country." Amaha smiled. "I see. It is little wonder God has turned his eye upon you. I am glad that we interfered today, Sakura Haruno. Your actions can only mean good things for my country."
Sakura smiled in turn. "I will have to come and visit Ame at some point. When I do, hopefully the world will be one step closer to unity."
It was a quiet morning from there on out. Occasionally Sakura heard strange sounds in the distance that she could chalk up as skirmishes, perhaps even explosions from tags or jutsu, but it was nowhere near close enough to cause them worry.
It was around noon, just as they were beginning to cook some freshly caught fish for lunch, that friends arrived.
Naruto reached the area first, shrouded in a faint red outline of chakra and looked panicked until he caught sight of Sakura. He ran over to Sakura with a cry of relief, pulling her into a tight hug that threatened to crack her spine.
"I felt that weird chakra flare up and it reminded me of when Shukaku got let out. I thought you might be hurt."
"We're a little worse for wear, but we're alive Naruto. Did you leave Ino and Chouji behind?"
"Uh." Naruto pulled back, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "I guess I did. But they were worried about you too, they shouldn't be far behind!"
"Idiot!" Sakura gently thwapped the top of Naruto's head. "Go back and get your team before something happens to them! We've got the Ame team with us, we'll be fine until all of you are here."
"Right, right, I'm going! I'm going!"
When Naruto returned the second time, Ino and Chouji were in tow, breathing deep, heaving breaths as they fell over in front of Sakura's tent.
"Sakura, I need you to tell me how you kept up with this monster." Ino groaned. "I don't think my lungs have burned this much in my life."
"I didn't." Sakura answered honestly. "Naruto's just got way too much stamina."
"I said I was sorry!" Naruto whined. "But if Sakura was in danger, I needed to get there right away! Shikamaru said we needed to look after her in the exam!"
"Yeah, and just our luck we ended up on the other side of the damn woods."
"Food…" Chouji mumbled, crawling his way towards the nearby fire. "Gotta have...food…"
"Get your own!" Samidare called out, pulling his roasted fish out of Chouji's reach. "It took me an hour to find these!"
The two boys began to scuffle over the fish, but there was something about the scenario that just brought a smile to Sakura's face. Now that Team Ten was here, she felt a weight lift itself from her shoulders. She was with friends. She would be safe.
It was another two hours before Team Eight arrived as well, led there by a combination of Akamaru's keen nose and Hinata's Byakugan. Both teams were under similar orders from Shikamaru, it seemed, to rendezvous with Sakura's group and keep each other safe. A little late for Danzo's assault, unfortunately, but their presence would dissuade further attacks, and it allowed the Ame group the peace of mind to leave Sakura in the hands of friends.
As evening began to settle in, the Konoha rookies began to plan.
"If there are any more shinobi under Danzo, they likely won't be as effective against us again." Sakura began to explain. "Trying to undo Gaara's seal is something that is only going to have worked the one time. Sai made a brand new seal, so even if they try again, their scrolls won't have any effect on us. The only thing Danzo can hope for now is for somebody to straight up kill us, which isn't going to be likely if the nine of us stick together and cover each other's back."
"This is not the only advantage being afforded to us. What else, you might ask? If the nine of us work together, none of the exam fortresses will be able to withstand our effort." Shino added. "Hinata spotted four fortresses on our journey over, and I have tagged the location with my beetles. Tomorrow, we can return to these locations and attempt to retrieve the treasures we need to pass."
"And if we see any teams, Hinata can check if they've already gotten their 'treasures'!" Kiba reached over to nudge his teammate. "If it's nine on three, we can easily take out our opponents and claim the prize for us!"
"Make that eight instead of nine." Sakura insisted. "Even if Sai wakes up, he won't be in good shape after using so much chakra on Gaara's seal. On the off chance there's another preliminary tournament to go through after this phase of the exam, we need to make sure he's in top shape to fight."
"Here's a thought. We can keep this setup for a base." Ino put forward. "Every time we get a treasure, we can return here and have a couple of us stay behind to look after them. That way we don't have to move Sai yet either, he can sit and recover while we do the heavy lifting."
"I could stay behind." Gaara offered. "But, that means…"
"If these guys can't keep me safe, Gaara, nobody can." Sakura cut Gaara off before he could protest further. "You're the best of us here at defense, and with Emi around you'll be able to pick out enemies coming before they even see the tent."
Emi let out a small bark of what could only be agreement. She had been playing with Akamaru nearby, but Sakura couldn't help but notice that the little tanuki always seemed to be listening in. There was more to the animal than met the eye.
From there, the plan was simple. Sakura would move out alongside the other two teams in the cover of darkness to the closest fortresses. They would return each time a treasure was retrieved to hide it within the safety of their disguised tent, under Gaara's watch. Once they had three treasures, all nine of them would return to the border, then go their separate ways to return to their starting locations.
As night hit and they made their way into the woods, Sakura realized that this exam had its flaws, in that it was entirely dependant on teams not working together. They ran across one enemy team in the darkness, and even seven against three was enough of an advantage to take the poor team down within a matter of minutes. On top of that, the team had already gotten a treasure, which meant that they were now up one and had one less fortress to try and infiltrate.
It was curious, Sakura thought to herself. It was so ingrained within shinobi culture to only trust one's own team, to not reach out towards others. The odds were stacked against teamwork, of course, but even if every team had doubled up with another, it still meant a better chance of taking a treasure and keeping it. This was the mentality that she was fighting against with the neutrality pact. Shinobi had been trained to work against each other. Sakura had to show them that working with each other was the true way to go.
By the dawn of the third day, the Konoha rookies had retrieved three treasures, and by then Sai had finally awakened. His chakra reserves were still near empty, and even Chouji's food pills were not quite enough to bring him to fighting capacity. Despite this, Sai looked more content than Sakura had ever seen him.
"We're alive." He kept saying, smiling genuinely as he looked towards her and Gaara.
"Yup." Sakura would always reply in turn. "We're still kicking."
There were still four days left in the exam, which meant they could technically try to allow themselves rest to give Sai time to recuperate, but that just meant the potential for enemy teams to find them and attempt to take their stash. In the end, they decided that it wasn't worth the risk. Sai was too tired to run with the group, but the problem was solved quickly when Gaara pulled the boy up onto his back and wordlessly insisted upon carrying him. Sai unusually did not protest at the treatment, perhaps too exhausted for his usual snark.
They came to blows with two enemy teams on the way out, but there were very few teams that could stand up to the might of two Jinchuuriki, as well as the heirs to several of the most prominent clans in Konoha. By the evening of the third day, the Konoha rookies had reached the border, and after one final mad dash, Sakura and her team had returned to the small wooden building where their exam had begun.
Treasure retrieved. Second exam completed. They were alive, and now, more important than the exam, they had the evidence they needed to finally start bringing down Root. Sakura had stored the seals she'd retrieved from the Root shinobi, as well as Suna's old tea kettle. Not enough to challenge Danzo on its own, and even with what she and Shikamaru had collected, it would still take a small miracle for everything to come together.
But, Sakura thought as she touched her necklace, miracles were starting to become less and less unlikely.
Those who passed the second exam early were taken to a building back within Konoha's walls: a large hotel where they were given rooms to rest and recuperate until the exam's time frame was over. It was a relief to allow herself to pass out on a soft hotel bed, and she and Sai both slept for about half a day now that they no longer had to worry about enemy shinobi. Sakura was the first of the two to awaken, and when she did, she awoke to the sound of Gaara quietly looking at the new seal on his stomach. Every time he flared his chakra, the seal darkened and came to life. Sakura recognized a yin-yang pattern, with some artistic additions, and resolved to ask Sai the meaning behind it when he awoke.
"You said things were different." She spoke quietly to Gaara. "With you and Shukaku. What exactly did Sai do?"
"Shukaku keeps saying even he doesn't exactly know. The harmony of yin and yang energy is a very old concept. Before there was the five elemental nature transformations, humans used yin and yang transformations to harness their chakra. The implication of a perfect harmony between yin and yang is something that hasn't been considered since...the Sage of Six Paths." Gaara's gaze seemed to focus at this, and Sakura recognized the signs of Shukaku speaking to Gaara's mind, and Gaara listening in. "Shukaku says...it was that balanced technique that allowed the Bijuu to exist at all to begin with."
"So the Bijuu were created?" Sakura asked, baffled. "The way the legends speak of them, I thought they'd always just been."
Gaara shook his head. "They're old, but...I got glimpses of it. Shukaku's memories. Shukaku was created. Created...from something." He suddenly winced, grasping at his head. "...I don't think Shukaku wants to talk about it."
"So what you're saying is, Sai accidentally used a symbol that just happened to coincide with the technique that led to Shukaku's creation. So of course a seal like that would better integrate with a Bijuu's energy." Sakura concluded. "If I had to guess, Sai was intending to try and make a harmony between you and Shukaku. But he tapped into an older energy in the process. And it's that which has made the way your chakra interacts with Shukaku's so much different than it was in the past."
"Symbiosis." Gaara finishes. "Our chakra aren't fighting each other. We...we sort of hit an understanding. I felt things, and Shukaku felt similarly. I think...I think we have more in common than he'd like to admit."
"You can say thank you whenever you'd like, Grumpy."
Sai had finally awoken, and despite the bluntness, Gaara gave the boy a smile. "Thank you." He said plainly. "You saved my life."
"...we made a promise, didn't we?"
"A promise to keep Sakura safe."
"I guess you got added to the equation at some point."
Sakura wasn't going to ask about the nature of this promise. Something within her thought to that night back in Taki, when Sai had come home with a black eye and the boys had very insistently lied about what the true problem had been. Had they come to an understanding back then? Was that when the promise had been made?
"I've been thinking about something, Sakura." Sai's voice broke her from her thoughts. "Back when you were facing down Tera. The shinobi with the senbon. That electricity should have rendered you unable to move."
"Yeah, it definitely should have." Sakura agreed. "But something happened…"
"Yes. Those strange markings on your face."
"Markings?" Sakura blinked. "I don't remember any markings."
"Of course you wouldn't have. You weren't looking at yourself at the time. But there were markings on your face." Sai pulled out his notebook and began to sketch. "They started at your forehead, but they spiraled outwards as you moved. They were...dark. Black. I haven't seen anything like it before." He turned his book around so Sakura could see the drawing. It was her own face, but as Sai described, there were markings on it now. Dark lines made their way down her face, some of them merging together as they made their way towards her neck. At her forehead, the most prominent of the markings, there was a circle. One solid dark circle, and then a pale ring of unaffected skin around the circle, followed by dark markings again from which the others spiraled outwards.
"Was that...really how I looked?" Sakura asked, dumbfounded. She traced over the drawing with her finger. There was something familiar about the style of the markings, and though it wasn't exact, Sakura couldn't help but think…
That was almost like what Hidan had looked like, back then.
But Gaara had a different thought. He reached out to touch Sakura's back, his own hand tracing the white circle that had adorned Sakura's clothes for as long as she could remember. "It's like the symbol you wear." He pointed out. "The white circle."
"A circle isn't exactly unique. That has to be a coincidence." Sakura shook her head. "Some weird sort of coincidence."
A coincidence...but was it really? The visions she experienced, the sudden burst of power...it had to have come from somewhere.
Maybe even given to her…
"I don't know what it was." Sakura admitted. "But once our business here in Konoha is done...I'm going to find out."