49 – Master and Student

Sakura heard muffled voices in the darkness. For a moment, she was completely disoriented. She shook her head and realized she was on the ground. There was a dim light from beyond the edge of the cavern wall, and she remembered the cave…the explosion…. 

A deep, male voice was speaking somewhere in the darkness…. 

“That was a little much, don’t you think, old woman?”  

Sakura pushed herself up slowly. She was covered in dust. Her ears were still ringing, but that low, gravely voice sounded vaguely familiar…. 

“I didn’t want you to leave too soon, not after I’ve gone to so much trouble to find you.” 

This time it was Chiyo’s voice. But her soft laughter was low and mean, nothing like the tipsy, girlish laughter from outside. 

Sakura stepped slowly around the corner, just in time to see Chiyo light a single match. It cast her face in the same eerie light as Kakashi’s pranks, but somehow it looked much more sinister on the old woman. She stood grinning into the darkness, like a cat that had finally cornered its mouse.

In a great woosh, she threw it at the ground. Instead of guttering out, the match ignited a glimmering line with its spark. More lines were strung like spider’s silk from lantern to lantern around the room. Suddenly Chiyo’s fingers were jumping, dancing, and the little flame was bouncing from torch to torch to torch, hundreds of them, lighting almost instantly around the vast space.

“What a nice party trick you learned in your retirement.”

The cavern was enormous. At the back was a huge carved figure, its enormous arms stretch out, as if in offering…but its face was grotesque and cruel. It looked more like a demon than a god. 

Mounds surrounded the statue, platforms for worshippers…or possibly sacrifices. Dark stains atop them hinted at spilled blood. And on the largest, center platform was a creature that haunted her nightmares. 

She knew the cruelty in that gravely voice. She knew the offset angle of the Akatsuki cloak, draped across him like the beast he was. 

Sasori of the Red Sand.

The sight of him hit her like a punch. Sakura’s soft gasp drew his attention for a moment. She schooled her features and stood even with Chiyo, back straight, looking like she’d never been scared in her life. Panic might grip her body, but her mind repeated a mantra from another buried memory. Fake it. Fake it.

If Sasori recognized her, then he didn’t acknowledge her. He addressed only Chiyo. 

“I see you’ve acquired a new pet.”

Chiyo was stony in her silence. 

It went on so long, Sakura began to think something might have happened to the woman beside her. She didn’t dare glance away— 

When Chiyo finally spoke, her voice was firm and clear. “You have something I want—“  

Sasori snarled back, “Then come and get it—” 

He stepped back, moving his cloak to the side, and that’s when Sakura saw it…. There was a body at his feet. Sakura had the grotesque mental image that Sasori was a spider and had been feeding on it.

But the body was intact, although covered in dust. It made his hair and clothes look pale.

Sasori flipped him over. The body was as limp as a rag.

His clothes were of the Sand nation, his garb high ranking and…familiar….

Sasori kicked the body again, flopping the arm and torso over. The head rolled to the side facing them. His hair was clumped with dried blood, and where it parted a pale tattoo scarred his forehead.

Sakura’s stomach twisted. She was looking at the dead body of the Kazekage.

He had been beaten. Under the layer of dust, his face was bruised. His clothes were torn. His neck had the distinctive red ring of a rope burn. So did his wrists. His lips were dry and cracked, and his grey eyes, though open, held no life in them.

She stepped forward immediately, anger coursing through her as if it were one of her own school mates up there.

This was why Kakashi said it wasn’t their problem, why he was so secretive. It was an assassination. This would most certainly lead to a power struggle and perhaps a full blown war—

She remembered Gaara’s siblings and tightened her fist. They were probably searching frantically for him right now. Surely there were others who were loyal to him. Perhaps even friends. He had changed so much since their first encounter, she wasn’t blind to it. 

But this…. The Kazekage was powerful. This wasn’t the work of a single battle. He had been tortured, perhaps for days, before his body gave out.

Sakura grit her teeth, pushing back hot tears.

No one deserved this kind of death.

“We need to get him back,” Sakura growled, surprising both Chiyo and Sasori.

Sasori laughed deeply, finally looking at her.

But Sakura knew something he didn’t. She wasn’t the same girl he met in the forest that day, so many years ago.

Her fists were tight. She didn’t take her eyes off him.

“Lady Chiyo, your weapons were puppets, right?” 

Chiyo answered, “Yes…. But that was long ago—“

“Will I do?”

Sakura dropped into a defensive pose, watching Sasori for any sudden movements.

Sasori’s eyes narrowed on her, calculating just what she meant.

Chiyo was astonished, but she found her voice. “Yes…. Yes, you will do quite nicely, I think.”

Sasori looked between the two of them for a few long moment, until he was realized Chiyo was serious. 

“Pathetic— An old woman, and a girl—“

He dragged out the last word, laughing at the end. But he was still moving into defensive position. He kicked the Kazekage’s lifeless body behind him.

Chiyo moved quickly, spinning tendrils of chakra from her hands and connecting them down Sakura’s back, at her arms and legs, and her wrists and ankles.

Sasori’s gravelly laughter filled up the cavern. “You’re really going to use her? Quit wasting my time! Neither of you are worthy of my puppets!” Sasori flipped out an array of shuriken in his hand. “That girl’s not even worth the weapons it will take to kill her.”

Razor-sharp throwing stars whizzed through the air towards her. Sakura darted away, hopping from mound to mound. She knew this ploy. He was trying to wear her out—

But she stumbled suddenly. She leapt for one mound, but it was as if her feet were aiming for a different one.

Chiyo swore. Sakura’s stomach clenched. She’d forgotten the strings…. But Sasori hadn’t. 

“I take it back,” he said, laughing darkly. “I have a few minutes to spare. This could be fun.” Then he shot a line of senbon at her.

Sakura scrambled up and kept moving, staying just ahead of the needle-like spikes. She was watching Sasori and planning her next moves, but Chiyo’s chakra would suddenly jerk her away from the ones the older woman thought were a threat. 

Sakura felt like a dancing puppet, which was a terrible way to feel when she was being attacked. Almost as soon as she got her footing, her arm would whip back or her step would be cut short. 

She dashed out of range of his attack, ducked behind a rocky spire and mentally shook herself. She was going to lose if she kept going this way. 

Chiyo’s chakra tendrils were already tugging at her. Sakura stretched her neck from side to side, feeling the invisible strings move with her.

She simply couldn’t focus every bit of her attention on Sasori. She had to fight him and move with Chiyo’s chakra.

Sakura squared her shoulders. She had to trust Chiyo implicitly if this was going to work.

She stepped out, ready to go again. Taking a deep breath, Sakura popped her knuckles, dropped into her fighting stance and, with a long hard look at Sasori, launched off the ledge.

Sakura tore around the cavern, leaping from boulder to boulder, and worked to get closer to Sasori. He kept her at bay, throwing weapon after weapon at her. 

But harmonizing with Chiyo’s chakra was working. She moved with the extra push when she jumped or the extra pull when she leaned back. So she managed to dodge the attacks she didn’t outright block.

It took a tremendous amount of concentration, but she was getting the feel of being attached to cords and was learning to trust the subtle vibrations in the strings. 

Now that they had a rhythm, Sakura knew she had to get closer to Sasori if she was going to stop him and get Gaara back.

She palmed one of her kunai. She had not packed extra weapons, only the standard kit for Leaf shinobi: two kunai, and a few braces of throwing stars. So she had to make each one count. If she could find a vulnerable spot on his strange form, then she could end this quickly—

But Sasori was faster. He kept whipping shuriken at her. She blocked one after another as she dashed, knocking each one back with her kunai in a shower of sparks. She hopped from mound to mound, banked off stalagmites and the cavern walls, but he kept her moving. But she still couldn’t get a clear shot.

Sakura was distantly aware she was getting close to Chiyo’s strings. She caught glimpses of them, glistening like in the air behind her when she moved. 

Sakura crossed in front of Sasori, and banked off a rock spire, certain she’d found a weakness in his flank. But Sasori was ready for her— 

A kunai whistled through the air. She dodged at the same time Chiyo jerked her too hard, knocking her off balance— Then she was tumbling back down the rock slope—

Chakra strings tangled around her legs. She scrambled to get back up.

Sasori was moving into position to take advantage of her clumsiness. Vulnerability twisted in her gut, and she clawed the chakra strings off her legs as if they were real ropes.

“You’re not a puppet,” Chiyo snapped while she took up the slack. “Stop expecting me to treat you like one!”

Sasori laughed at her, but gave her a moment to stand. Sakura knew it wasn’t out of respect. He was toying with her. 

Sakura hopped back several mounds and stopped, panting hard. In the vast cavern she was halfway between Sasori’s platform and the rocky ledge were Chiyo stood with her strings.

She needed to do more, dig deeper. She’d never been trained for anything like this. If she wanted to survive, she’d have to throw out her training and rely on instinct. 

Chiyo was right, she wasn’t a puppet. She was a healer. She had to stop thinking of it like strings. They weren’t two people anymore. She and Chiyo were sharing one energy.

And controlling chakra was what she was good at. The best at. Better than anyone. She could do this….

With a slow exhale, she let her energy spread out from her body and surround the chakra cords. Sakura breathed into each of the points where they attached to her, imagining them flare with green light. She pictured Chiyo’s silvery blue stream of chakra connecting to her at those spots, and spilling into hers like water. 

She nodded once. This felt good—

Sasori struck again. An arc of senbon pitted the rock she was standing on, coming right for her— This time Sakura dodged it smoothly. 

Sakura interpreted Chiyo’s finger flicks as she ran and moved her body with it. If Chiyo pulled the chakra threads that raised arm, then Sakura opened her hand to grasp the rock face. If Chiyo moved her leg to dodge an attack, then Sakura didn’t even have to look — she was already pushing off, pitching herself farther out of his reach. 

As long as she stretched out her senses, she could feel the harmony. 

Sasori rained blades down at her. He carpeted the ground with spikes. His arsenal of projectiles was never ending. He just kept pulling more and more from under the cloak. But he couldn’t land anything even near her. 

Now it was Sasori’s turn to grunted angrily while Chiyo let out a victorious, “Yes!” when Sakura leapt with the strings, trusting their strength. 

Sakura didn’t voice it, but she felt it too. It felt right. They were moving as one. 

Growing more confident, Sakura began to innovate. She used the taut strings to help swing her around to another platform. It worked almost too well. She barely touched the ground before she was jumping away again. 

She took every opportunity to pierce him with her shuriken. When she finally saw a clear trajectory, she hurled one of her two kunai at him. It hit his hunched back, piercing his wide, dusty Akatsuki cloak. Sakura watched him closely for signs of pain— 

But he only shook it off like a horse would a fly. It clattered loudly against a nearby wall and landed on a ledge, far out of her reach.

Sakura kept moving, looking for another vulnerable spot on him. She was dangerously low on weapons now. Each hit had to count.

Sasori turned with her everywhere she went. He was watching her too.

This was a dangerous dance. Because Sasori was an experienced puppet master, Sakura knew he was watching the subtle torque of her body as she moved. He would know where Chiyo had attached her chakra threads. And he could guess her next move based on the position of her feet or the shift of her weight. 

Sakura had to tip the odds in her favor somehow. She might not be an expert in puppetry, but she knew weapons. 

Spread out across the ground and embedded in the crumbling rock walls, Sasori’s own projectiles glinted in the low light. Every few steps was a shard of metal or shuriken that had missed her. 

She made a new plan…. She’d use his own weapons against him. Sakura circled around, leaping from mound to mound, moving erratically so as not to give herself away.

Sasori watched her suspiciously. 

She gauged the distance, and thought she was safe to begin scooping up a few shuriken—

But before she could snatch up the first one, Sasori lunged suddenly, moving his whole body as if to box her in— It forced her to dodge backwards. 

Sakura leapt high, swinging with Chiyo’s taut strings. 

She knew she was the most vulnerable when she left the ground and relied only on the strings to guide her. And so did he. But she was much too far out of his reach now—

Chiyo’s voice rang out, “Look out!”—

A horrible clacking sound filled the air. 

From underneath the back of Sasori’s cloak a long tail was sliding out. Claw-like pincers snapped together at the end. It curved around, hovering over him for a moment like a scorpion’s tail, then whipped out at Sakura.

Sakura was powerless to act until her feet touched the ground. The tail had doubled in length, but they all could see that it still wouldn’t reach her—

The speeding tail began to spread apart. Bony segments were separating and stretching out to cover the distance. It raced toward her, the claw end coming together in a point to run her through— 

Sakura landed in a crouch and ducked as the tail flew over her head. His aim was too high. Sakura turned her shoulder away, anticipating the rain of debris when it slammed into with the cave wall—

But the pieces of his tail suddenly snapped back together. The claw swiveled and hooked up Chiyo’s strings, then the whole tail whipped hard— 

Sakura was yanked backwards into the air and flung to the ground…at Sasori’s feet.

She grasped desperately at the space behind her as if there should be giant ropes on the ground she could pull back on. It was no use. The chakra strings were closed tight in its grip. His tail hovered above her now.

Sakura’s mouth went dry. She was caught.

Sasori’s rusty laugh rang in her ears. 

The strings were lifeless. Blocked. He was too smart to cut them. Then she might have been able to get away. 

She tried to stand, reach back and pull on the cords. But Sasori’s tail pulled her up by her shoulders, shaking her before dropping her again to her knees.

Sakura looked down at her hands, fingers digging into the dirt, as a terrible realization broke over her. 

Sasori was never aiming at her. This was a battle between puppet masters, not shinobi. He was always aiming for the strings.

Sakura was sick at her mistake. The chakra threads that she had used to her advantage when they were taut, were now held just as tightly and used against her.


She tried to get up—

With a growl, Sasori jerked his tail and knocked her off her feet. Each time she came close to standing, he knocked her over. And each time, he dragged her closer to him.

Chiyo snarled in disgust at being cut off. She moved her fingers desperately, trying to see if any of them were not blocked. Sakura felt the strings flutter, but that was it. Chiyo’s power was completely stopped.

Sasori pulled Sakura up directly in front of him. 

Weathered, scarred hands raised out of the sleeves of his Akatsuki cloak. Sasori was still stooped over, but he unbent in the middle to stand a little higher and face her. His fingers danced, and the tail moved, dragging her closer, closing the distance between them….

But Sakura saw an opening. 

Each time he pulled her forward, the claw opened and closed, taking up extra slack. She waited till she was close enough to him, then watched for the claw to open again— 

Sakura pitched her body backwards— It worked. A few chakra strands jerked loose from the claw.

Energy surged back into her right arm, Sakura ripped her remaining kunai from its holster, and swung it around to bury it in his throat. 

But he was too close— He caught her arm, twisted up behind her and crushed her hand against her back. The kunai fell, clanging once behind her feet before tumbling off the mound in a fading echo.

Sakura’s heart fluttered in her throat. 

From across the space, Chiyo was deathly silent. She must know, as Sakura did, that it was her last chance. 

The claw scooped up the remaining string, twisting it even tighter in its grip.

With her arm pinned, Sasori closed the space between them and leaned into her face. 

What she could see of the puppet master was old and scarred, as if the skin on his head had been stitched and restitched. Coarse hair ran in long slashes back over his bald hair. It was bristly, more like animal hair than human. And the way the ragged mask floated in front of his face, the way his breath moved it like a curtain, made her think he didn’t have a jaw under there. 

She turned her head away instinctively as he drew closer. But he kept examining her with the yellowing, bloodshot eyes of a very old man. 

The frayed edge of the mask dragged over her pale, exposed neck, and she gulped back fear at just how close he was.

Sasori’s eyes roved over her face, her neck, her throat, as if deciding which piece he might devour first. 

Desperate to get away, Sakura looked for anything that might help her. Chiyo was moving her arms but she was cut off. She no longer even looked at Sakura, instead focused completely on trying to charge her strings. Sakura reached her chakra up toward the strings, but it disappeared into nothingness.

Sasori chuckled, puffing air across her face. Sakura expected the putrid smell of his breath, but none came.

With cold, smooth fingers, he tipped her jaw from side to side and examined her, particularly her eyes. 

“I can feel you, you know, trying to reach the old woman’s chakra network.” His voice was a quiet growl. “You are merely a fly in my web. Everything around me is under my control.” He dragged out his words to scare her or impress her. Or both. “I can feel it. All of it….”

The tail moved, and its now-familiar clattering surrounded her. It was the sound from her nightmares. Sakura felt it shift the strings as it moved. He was right. They were as useless now as real puppet strings. And she was only skilled in human chakra…. Her mind raced, turning over how she could use that to her advantage….

He looked back to her face, pinching her jaw and making her focus on him.

“You would make such a lovely puppet…. Fine bone structure.” He narrowed his gaze. “And those eyes…. Interesting…. Maybe those old stories have some truth to them after all….”

Defiant, Sakura pulled her chin away. “Let go of me—“

He silenced her with a vicious finger jab to her throat. “Don’t speak, puppet! Your voice ruins it!”

Sakura grit her teeth against the pain, but he seemed to savor it. He traced a cold finger down the front of her neck. 

“The human body…it’s so delicate. Just a little push, at the right place,” he pressed in again, “and there’s no more noise. A little deeper,” he watched her desperate gulping against the pressure, “and it’s all over.”

She believed him. This was the end. Her heartbeat was erratic. Her adrenaline leapt wildly out of control. And the sound of his tail, clattering around her like a constricting snake, was bringing tears to her eyes. She didn’t try to hide her fear. She choked on a sob, her stomach tightening. 

He watched the emotion break over her face, captivated by it. 

“You’re hurting me—“


He grabbed the back of her neck, shaking her like a doll, and crushed the hand he held at the center of her back.

She whimpered, but did as he ordered.

Placating him seemed to calm him. “Much better,” he said. 

He looked down her body, inspecting her limbs, her joints, and nodding. His tail circled around them both. Sakura tried not to shudder at the sound.

He sensed the fear that was consuming her.

“Don’t worry girl, I don’t need all the theatrics the old woman does. I’ll make it painless.” He laughed. “Or, at least, it will be painless by the end….” A cruel smile laced his voice. “Because you will make such a lovely puppet—“

Her eyes went wide with horror.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you want to live forever? Everyone does.”

She shook her head with another dry sob, but didn’t dare speak.

He nodded at her obedience and returned to admiring her face again. He stopped at her eyes. “You really are a unique specimen.”

Chiyo’s voice cut across the cavern. “You finally got one thing right grandson. She is unique.”

He was staring into Sakura’s face, but his bloodshot eyes registered rage.

“And the old stories….” Chiyo sighed dramatically. “Well, there is so much I could have told you, if you had only listened—“

Sasori made a guttural noise of disagreement, like a child who’d heard the same thing too many times.

“But then,” she continued, “you have always been such a disappointment….”

His jerked his head at his grandmother, gripping Sakura so hard he pushed the hand at her back against her shoulder blade. He released her neck and moved his other hand to her collar bone, crushing it as well.

His voice dropped to a dangerous growl, and his tail moved protectively around them both.

“Is she special to you? Then I’ll kill her, old woman.” His voice was a snarl next to Sakura’s ear, but he was no longer focused on her. “And then…I will finish you. I will leave your bones to rot under this mountain. You’ll be the Death God’s final sacrifice. And there will be no more tricks, no more potions, no more hollowed out bodies that can extend your miserable life—“

She laughed as if he’d told a charming joke.

“Oh grandson, I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said in sing-song. “Even now…there is so much you have still to learn—“

Sasori roared and raised his tail to pierce Sakura at the same moment Chiyo lifted her hands to jerk the strings still attached to her back—

This one perilous moment was what Sakura had been waiting for.

Sakura had convinced Sasori that he’d broken her. She was so successful, in fact, that he’d forgotten about her and turned his rage completely at Chiyo. But she’d never once given up. She’d been working the whole time to free herself. 

At the moment she realized they were fighting as puppet masters, she found her opening. If she’d been using her body as weapon, then she could also use it as a decoy.

Sakura let her body’s wildly fluctuating heart rate and adrenaline mask her chakra. Beneath her panic and fear, she was working furiously.

She could still feel Chiyo’s chakra strings pulling on her. But Sasori blocked them with his tail…which wasn’t really a tail. It spread apart, attached to nothing. That meant it was a network of puppet strings as well. 

She was not a puppet master, not even close. But synchronizing with Chiyo had taught her that it was similar to a human network. She couldn’t detect Sasori’s web of chakra, because he wasn’t attached to her. But where they came into contact, at that point, she should be able to identify him. Or rather, what was not hers. Since his chakra was different from the two she knew, if she didn’t recognize it, then it must be his.

So while she gasped and swallowed and cried to Sasori, she was trying to pick out the empty network that was not hers and not Chiyo’s. 

If she could just isolate it, then she could run her chakra up the one she didn’t want. Like an electric shock. Her plan was to cram as much chakra as she could into that network so it would force him to let go of her. 

Somehow, Chiyo must have sensed her searching because she was distracting Sasori admirably. Perhaps too well. Sasori’s grip was close to breaking her bones.

In her peripheral vision, Sakura saw the tail arcing back to run her through. It was just like in her nightmares. Panic seized her. She closed her eyes and let her chakra explode outward.

It raced up into Chiyo’s strings, pumping more and more green light into the lines. When it hit a wall, she knew she’d found where he was blocking Chiyo’s. She continued to force it in, flooding the space. Then, like a bursting dam, it broke through—

Her chakra shot sideways up his network, electrifying his tail like a branching green lighting bolt. 

Sasori’s grip on her loosened. The green flash from her chakra reflected in his shocked eyes. 

The tail fell out of the air, clattering to the ground in a circle around her, going in a wave back to him. The air smelled of singed chakra and bone or wood or whatever his tail was made of—

Chiyo’s chakra surged back into her, her strings came alive, and she jerked Sakura back to the platform, ripping her out of Sasori’s grasp.

Chiyo was gloating. Sakura was panting, her body still aching from where she had been crushed in his grasp. 

Sasori stared dumbfounded at broken pieces of his tail. Finally, he looked up at Chiyo. He didn’t even seem to notice Sakura was gone.

“So this was your plan, old woman? For all your lessons on puppetry, in the end you’ve chosen humans instead? You’re weaker than I thought,” he laughed bitterly. “Was this your gambit? Were you hiding her, just for this moment?”

Chiyo’s high-pitched girlish laughter returned. “Nope! She found me!” 

Her voice was directed at Sakura. “The Slug Princess must have taught you about puppetry and Sand techniques if you were able to pluck apart his strings so easily—“

“No,” Sakura said, never taking her eyes off Sasori. “Not once.” Cautiously triumphant, Sakura threw his own words back at him. “I just felt it.” Her voice echoed around the cavern. “All of it!” 

Sasori swung his livid gaze to Sakura. He couldn’t ignore her now. He glared at her with as much rage as he’d previously only had for his grandmother.

Chiyo giggled softly behind her.

Sakura rose to standing on the platform, shook her hair back from her face and squared her shoulders. “I’m Sakura Haruno of the Leaf, and I—“

He roared back, “I know who you are!”

There was a soft clacking sound, as if he was trying to put his tail back together. But the tail lay on the ground, smoky slightly, unusable. Something else on his stooped body was moving.

“I told Deidara he was wrong,” he growled. Underneath the wide Akatsuki cloak, pieces moved around him. Dust began to swirl upwards from the floor. It looked like he was shifting, morphing. “He wastes time. Wants to toy with everything. Show off his little bombs. So dramatic. Tch….” 

Sasori spoke, but his voice no longer sounded like it was coming from under his mask. Instead sounded like it was coming from the middle.

“That day, in the woods, all those years ago….”

His head suddenly snapped back and his eyes rolled straight upward. A moment longer, and Sakura would have followed his gaze, sure he was planning another attack from the ceiling. 

But his skull shuddered, and his eyes no longer blinked. Then Sakura knew something was wrong with him. No human could bend their neck like that and survive—

There was a loud crack, and his head fell back, seemingly broken off his spine. Sakura winced. His upper body began to collapse.

But his voice continued. “I knew I should have killed you then.”

His body was falling backwards revolving around itself, turning inwards. The Akatsuki cloak was moving, stretching out like table cloth. His voice was changing too, as he spoke, growing smoother and strangely, younger….

“Deidara is always wrong.”

Underneath the cloak, two shapes fell back from the center. They peeled away like orange slices and rocked backwards, revealing two bodies. They unfolded themselves, their heads twisting around in a noisy clacking until they were forward facing. 

On either side of the lumpy mass that was Sasori stood two sad-faced puppets, a man and a woman. They had lank hair and old, tattered clothes, and deep lines on their faces, arms and chests, where the pieces of their bodies came together. Their necks clicked together with a loud snap. They faced out like old grey statues, with their heads tipped down as if praying. Or weeping. 

“Never leave an opponent alive.” The muffled voice in the center now had the timbre of a much younger man. “You taught me that, grandmother. Remember?” 

The shapeless fabric that had been covering Sasori’s body covered a much smaller area. More of it pooled on the floor. It was wrapping itself around a clicking, rolling twisting shape, as if the tail were rebuilding itself underneath in a cascade of clicks and snaps. But the tail still lay inert and broken on the ground. The center of the mass twisted and pivoted suddenly, and opened upwards to double its size.

It revealed a human body, its back toward her, with deep crimson hair.

“They will always come back to haunt you.” 

The voice was coming from him.

He turned slowly, pivoting on this hips with a steady clicking that sounded like the winding of a giant watch, until he faced her. His neck snapped into place with the sound of cracking bones. He turned his head from side to side, stretching it as easily. There were no more sounds of moving parts after that. Every movement glided silently.

The Akatsuki cloak fell naturally around him, skimming his body. There was no other form hidden beneath. He brought up an unblemished hand and opened and closed his fist. Satisfied, he looked up.

“Sakura of the Leaf….” He brushed the dust off the front of his cloak. 

His voice was as smooth and young as the face that looked at her. It was still Sasori’s voice, however younger, and now in the body of a perfectly beautiful young man. He had thick crimson hair, clear grey eyes and a face was the same age as hers. Perhaps even a little younger. 

“To think it would come to this. Because of you—“

He smiled. It was practically angelic.

Sakura stared, taking in all of him. It was not possible, even though she’d just seen him build himself, right in front of her. There were no lines in his skin, his movements were completely fluid. He didn’t look like a puppet at all.

He was pleased that she stared. He preened a little, turning his head so she could see.

“Do you like my new body? He’s beautiful isn’t he?” He caressed his dewy cheek. “I just knew it when I saw him— I had to have him.” 

But he distorted his perfect face to sneer at his grandmother.

“And what about you old woman? Do you see what you’ve made me do?” 

Sakura had forgotten about Chiyo, but she realized now that the woman had been strangely quiet.

Sakura glanced back. Chiyo was pale and shaken, aghast at the sight before her. Her hands were lifeless at her sides. The chakra strings between her and Sakura were slack, leaving Sakura feeling dangerously exposed. 

Chiyo didn’t see anything but the male and female puppets that stood at either side of Sasori. 

“Y-You had them,” Chiyo gasped, voice trembling. “All this time….” Her eyes were watery. Across from the young Sasori, Chiyo now looked very, very old. 

“Of course I did! They’re my parents, aren’t they?!”

Taking advantage of Chiyo’s distraction, Sasori flung out his hands and launched the two puppets at Sakura. The serene expression never left his face. 

Sakura was ready for it. She leapt backward before Chiyo even lifted her hands to respond.

There was a moment of vulnerability when she got tangled in the strings again. But this time, she knew what to do. 

She pushed her chakra out of herself and raced it up into Chiyo’s chakra strings, the same way she had when Sasori had caught her. She felt the cords come alive behind her and knew immediately which ones that were tangled. 

Still moving, she swung her hand behind her lower back, snatched up the handful of cords attached there and yanked them from her body. But she kept the strings alive in her hand.

Sakura saw it all in her mind, just like she did when she healed a body. Just like she did when she destroyed Sasori’s tail. She saw the chakra come alive, and she saw where it needed to go.

Chiyo’s silver strings glowed green in her own hand where her chakra flooded into them. And the attachment spots at her lower back still pooled in little green dots, waiting to be reconnected.

She leapt over the strings, and in her next step began to reattached them.  

Sakura thought she could actually feel the strings pulling together, wanting to reconnect. It seemed like all she need to do was fan out her fingers, then direct her chakra back to the spots with her mind. 

She listened to her intuition. It worked. She opened her fingers and her chakra reached for itself like a magnet.

Sakura took off at a run. Sasori’s two puppets were already hard on her heels.

She had no time to dwell on what she’d done, but she guessed this must be some of the power of a puppet master. The ability to direct objects from a distance…. It was powerful feeling.

From the mound behind her, Chiyo felt her chakra merge with Sakura’s, then be kept alive and reattached to her body.

Her shocked expression shifted from the two puppets to the girl darting across the cave. She nodded and lifted her hands, purpose suffusing her old face as she renewed her fight.

“You are exceptionally powerful,” she said as Sakura drew near for a moment. “Much more than I even realized.”

Sakura nodded once at the compliment, but had to keep moving.

Their harmony worked even better now, and the puppets couldn’t catch her. 

From mound in the center, Sasori’s was growing angrier. Dark shadows marred his beautiful face. He snarled at his grandmother, mad that the shock of his secret weapon had worn off so quickly when compared with Sakura’s surprising abilities.

“So you taught her some of the most guarded Sand techniques? The ones you wouldn’t even teach your own grandson. I had to steal those too! Just like Mother and Father—”

Chiyo grunted as if his last barb had physically struck her.

But Sakura answered as she ran, snatching up weapons from the ground and flinging them backwards at the puppets. One after another. 

“She didn’t teach me,” she said between volleys. “I figured it out.”

The puppets blocked the repetitive throws…but that was the plan.

“I’m no puppet,” she said with a small smile as she slid the last shuriken between her fingers.

But her last shuriken was in fact two. 

She fanned the both throwing stars in her fingers just slightly, altering their trajectory. One flew at the puppets in the same pattern, the second arced sideways toward Sasori.

Mother and Father dashed apart to block both projectiles. Father threw out his arm to protect Sasori, and the shuriken lodged in his wooden arm. He didn’t remove it.

Sakura’s perceptive green eyes saw it all. The puppets used the same moves to block themselves, over and over. They were predictable. And since Sasori protected himself with Father, then Mother was the weaker puppet. The expendable one…. 

Sakura would take her down first. 

The two puppets merged back together and redoubled their efforts. 

Mother and Father sailed down at her, their old robes and dirty hair flying around them, making them look more like ghosts than puppets. But the lines at their mouths and the mechanisms at all their joints kept them from looking even remotely human. 

They are just weapons, she told herself as she ran. They have a weak point like any other.

She caught sight of one of her own kunai where it landed on a high ledge. She grabbed the ledge to pivot, and hid the kunai in her palm. The weight of her own weapon in her hand renewed her fight. She made a new plan.

Sakura set to work luring the puppets toward her, daring them to attack. They tore across the cavern, coming after her in a criss-cross pattern.

Sakura regripped the hidden kunai in her hand. If she had been trained in Sand techniques, then she might have tried to slice through the chakra cords to cut it off from its master. But with her own kunai and her Leaf weapons training, she knew she could smash the puppet’s joints and rip across its body, dismantling it—

When the puppets split apart again, Sakura moved into Mother’s path and fell back. Unable to stop, Mother rushed past her. Sakura turned with a swinging strike, revealing the hidden kunai. It caught the orange light and looked like a blade of fire whistling toward a direct hit on Mother—

But Sakura stumbled suddenly. Her arm pitched sideways, just out of striking range. Mother passed by unharmed.

Thinking Chiyo must have seen she was in danger, Sakura quickly corrected herself.

But when Mother and Father circled back to attack again, they stayed together. The element of surprise was lost. Sakura would have to change it up if she wanted to take Mother out first. 

Driving chakra to her feet, Sakura ran up a tall stalagmite, pivoted at the top, then leapt down on the approaching pair. She wrapped her kunai with chakra and flung it at Father, knowing he’d raise the same arm to block. The kunai lodged deep in his arm, and the effect of the added chakra was the equivalent of a body blow. It knocked him sideways off the mound.

Sakura bore down on Mother and pulled back her fist to drive a chakra-loaded punch right through her core and blow her apart—

But energy spasmed through Sakura’s arm suddenly. She was only able to smash Mother’s shoulder before she ducked away. The puppet’s arm swung uselessly as she leapt back to Sasori, but Sakura’s plan had failed. 

Sakura glanced back over her shoulder, certain this time it wasn’t her. 

Sasori started laughing. “Can’t bring yourself to kill Mother can you? Your pride and joy. But what about Father?” His fingers danced. “I wonder if you feel the same—“

A clattering mechanical sound ricocheted around the canyon behind her.

Sakura turned to see panels on Father’s forearms slowly rising up. But the arm he’d used to block Sakura’s attacks still had her kunai sticking out of it. It was wedged in a groove on his arm, preventing one panel from opening fully. It clanked loudly, but didn’t engage.

Father turned the working arm toward Sakura, revealing a brace of tiny darts hidden in his forearm. They were poisoned, if she had to guess. He swung his arm and they spiraled out, whizzing toward her head, her feet, her arms.

She dodged them all— But the last one grazed her thigh. Her skin immediately began to swell and bubble along the bloody streak.

Chiyo pulled her back while Sakura retrieved an antidote from her medic pouch. It was a common enough poison, and the universal antidote she carried would stop the spread. But she only had one dose. It would protect her from a few nicks, but she didn’t have enough to protect herself from an onslaught of poison darts. And she guessed he had at least another arm full and probably more hidden in his legs.

Sakura flicked off the cap and jammed the needle into the outside of her leg, near the wound, and plunged the antidote into her thigh.

From their distant ledge, Sakura watched Sasori warily. He was watching them too while he repaired Mother and Father.

Sakura said under her breath to Chiyo, “Why does he call them Mother and Father…?”

But Chiyo didn’t respond. She was preoccupied, watching Sasori’s movements with the puppets. Her fingers were trembling slightly, dancing in that subtle way they did when she was operating the chakra strings, but Sakura couldn’t feel the vibrations. 

Sakura repeated the question, in case Chiyo didn’t hear.

Chiyo nodded sadly, then said, loud enough for Sasori to hear, “It’s true. Those are his parents. He is my grandson…. Unfortunately.“ 

Sakura looked down at the puppets, horrified. 

From across the cavern, Sasori glared up at his grandmother.

“I had hoped to spare him of the life of a puppet master,” Chiyo continued, rare softness seeping into her voice. “But when his parents were killed, he was so sad, I thought if I made him puppets he would cheer up.” She sighed. “It wasn’t enough—“ 

Sasori exploded into a rage. “Liar!” Beside him, the puppets arms shuddered with his angry movements. “Everything you’ve ever said or done! All lies! You’re nothing more than a power hungry—” he jammed forward levers on Father’s hands, “blood thirsty—” his fingers danced and Mother’s wrist snapped back, “crazy old woman!” 

The two puppets sank into a fighting stance. Sasori raised his arms. 

“I’ll show you what true power looks like.” 

Mother and Father flew at Sakura and Chiyo. 

Sakura tore off the ledge. She wasn’t fully healed yet, but she had to move. The antidote was working, however. As she leapt away, her leg was hot were it battled back Sasori’s poison.

The puppets pressed down her. They were armed now for close combat. On Mother’s still-working arm, a long spike sprouted where her hand used to be. Between Father’s fingers, silver claw-like blades gleamed. 

Sakura stayed one step ahead of them. She needed to buy herself just a little more time for her injury to heal—

When she realized she had a steady stream of chakra at her disposal. It could speed up the heal  exponentially….

She wasn’t just a puppet on a string, this was a give and take between her and Chiyo. And right now, she needed to take a little more. 

So while she moved, Sakura gently pulled more of Chiyo’s chakra into her system to regenerate her own, testing it as she moved the extra resources to the puncture wound. It worked. It was like she had an extra well of chakra to draw from.

But to make sure she wasn’t taxing Chiyo too greatly, Sakura let some of her own flow back into to Chiyo’s strands, going farther up this time. The chakra formed a sort of regenerating circle between the two, making both of them stronger. It was the best use of their shared resources. 

Sakura didn’t know chakra could be used like this. If she’d let it, it would have gone on indefinitely…. But the power surging through her now was more than enough. 

It felt like she’d never been more alive, like she could take on both puppets at once. The chakra that usually just overflowed from her hand and dripped off the edges, now seemed to bubble up from her center.

Sakura shook her back her pink hair, confident. She easily stayed ahead of Mother and Father. They weren’t able to stop her. There were a few close calls, but they always missed. Chiyo helped her, but Sakura was going farther and farther on her own. This was her battle to win. Sasori had to focus completely on her.

Mother rushed forward to attack, lunging her spiked arm at Sakura. Sakura moved to protect herself, half expecting Chiyo to drag her backwards again. Thankfully, it never came.

Sakura would not miss this time. She was going to take her out. 

She deflected the blow and bashed in Mother’s elbow joint, immobilizing that arm. Then she closed her fingers around the spike— And everything seemed to slow down around Sakura for a moment—

She felt it all…. The air sweeping her hair back off her face. The weakness under her fingers where the spike was attached. The glimmering of jade green at her knuckles where the chakra was pooling just because she thought about it.

A small smile curved up her lips. This power, and hollowed out puppets to take it out on…. She didn’t have to hold back—

She wrenched off the spike and drove a boot into Mother’s gut, knocking her backwards off the mound. 

She turned to Father and tossed the spike from hand to hand, taunting him. Sakura blew her bangs back out of her dirt-lined face and smiled. This was almost fun.

Father came after her with his clawed hands but Sakura beat them back, using the spike like a kunai. She drove into him, using it like Mother would have, to try to spear him. She got one hand, knocking off the claws and shattering a few fingers, but had to let go and dodge a swipe from his other hand.

He kept coming, driving her back—

A human would have felt pain. But a puppet was undeterred by any injury that didn’t destroy it. Father kept swinging his claw hand at her even though the other hand was mangled mess that would have stopped a human. She hopped backwards, ready to take out his legs—

But he lunged suddenly, forcing her to jump.

She leapt back off the edge, expecting the chakra strings to pull her high into the air. But her jump was only human size. Chiyo did not pull the strings. Sakura landed hard on the next mound, not nearly far enough away to give her an advantage.

Father sailed down at her, claws out on one hand, other hand twisting at the broken wrist to reveal a new monstrous weapon hidden in his arm. 

She had to stop him before he started. 

Sakura blocked his hand by shoving the spike through it. Then she swung around a punishing roundhouse to demolish the arm. It dented in, blocking the mechanism, and sent him flying off the mound sideways—

But swooping up out of Father’s shadow was Mother. Chakra threads ran down her arm like gossamer sleeves, moving joints and fingers that should no longer work. The center of her chest had split in two, and with broken hands she was drawing out a long, silver sword….

She thrust it straight into Sakura.

Sakura was too close to dodge it, and there was no tug of chakra from her back. She bent over the blade in a vain attempt to minimize the injury. But it was far too late for that. Sakura could only gasp as it drove in further….

When Mother stopped, they were so close their heads almost touched. Her head was slumped, her puppet mouth hung open, and her eyes were hollow and lifeless. But she still held onto the sword. 

Sakura’s green eyes were going glassy, and her head dropped a little more with each increasingly shallow breath. Disheveled bangs covered her eyes. Her messy, dusty braid spilled over one shoulder. Blood seeped out from the corners her mouth, forming two lines down her chin.

They all knew this was the end for Sakura. Once the sword was ripped out, blood would gush from her like a river, draining her and killing her within minutes. But right now, the sword was blocking the flow of most of it, stopping her like a cork.

Sasori swung his eyes up at Chiyo. 

The body of the Kazekage now lay at Chiyo’s feet.

“I see you’ve traded one vessel for another,” he said. His face was calm, grey eyes calculating.

While Sakura had been fighting and distracting Sasori, Chiyo had been attaching chakra threads to Gaara’s body. At the moment Mother attacked, Chiyo yanked the Kage’s limp body through the air to land hard on the mound where she stood.

She put her foot on the dead boy’s chest, claiming him, and tipped up her chin to gloat over her victory. But a glance at Sakura’s unmoving form and she realized the gravity of the girl’s wound. Her triumphant expression slipped a notch.

Sasori chuckled softly. “You can’t have them both, old woman.”

But she was defiant. Chiyo pushed into Gaara with her foot, examining him, still looking for signs of life.

“You should have stuck with the living one.” Sasori nodded toward Gaara. “He’s nothing but a bag of bones now. You’re wasting your time. Not even you can get him back.” He looked at Sakura. “But this one. She would have been fun—“

But Chiyo kept examining. She kicked his arm back where it had flopped over his stomach. A spiral seal was burned into his skin. 

“What is it you want from him? He’s a husk now! His power’s gone. He’s been emptied out—” 

“I doubt that you have the ability for such an undertaking,” she said. Without sentiment, she prodded the soft flesh of the Kazekage as if she were inspecting a slab of meat. 

Sasori’s voice rose. “I was here! The whole of Akatsuki did it together. All that power, just for one vessel. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!”

Chiyo spun out more chakra tendrils from the hand closest to Gaara and attached them to the spiral. She ignored Sasori completely. She continued her examination, letting her blue light glow in the darkness.

The threads connected to Sakura from the other hand were limp and unmoving. 

A new thought broke over Sasori. “What were you hoping to do? Transfer his power to someone else? Her? Or maybe yourself?” He burst into laughter. “Old woman, did you think you were going to live forever? Was he your ticket?”

She was prodding at Gaara, but she looked up in some kind of realization. 

Sasori was still laughing. “I told you. He’s empty. We broke him open. We emptied him out!”

She looked at Sakura, then back at Gaara. Her mouth parted in pain or horror. 

Sasori didn’t know or care. He was delighted. Boyish laughter bounced off the cave walls.

“You’ve lost them both! YOU’VE LOST!”

Her old face was going pale. Now it was Sasori’s turn to gloat.

“I’m the only one—” He put his hand to his chest. “The only one!! I alone have unlocked the secret to immortality. All of you,” he wave his hand in the air, “even the Akatsuki! Still believing in myths. All of you with your ‘vessels.’ Still looking for the ‘chosen one.’ Pouring power in and out of bodies like water out of a cup—

She looked so much older and weaker. Like the loss of the two was a real blow to her. 

Sasori was smug. “You are weak. Your human body is failing. Only soft flesh and failing parts.”

She was going pale. The chakra lines were still glistening, but both the ones connecting her to Sakura and to Gaara hung slack from her fingers.

“This is true power, old woman. This is what you were never able to do.” 

Sasori unfastened the top of his Akatsuki cloak and revealed a bare chest. He ran his fingers down the center, and shadowy lines rose where it looked like only flesh and skin. A door pushed out of the skin at the top of his chest. He ran his finger over it, and it opened to reveal the structure of puppetry inside. 

Snugly tucked in between the armatures and joists that filled out his form was another, much smaller door. It had a beautifully crafted lock and matching hinges. Red threads shot out from the corners and were tied to the surrounding frame, making it look as if it were suspended in the space. But it was as solidly connected to his body as his arms and legs.

He tapped on it, letting the loud knocking fill up the cavern. 

“You all chase power, but I have had it all along. I will live forever.”

Smiling at Chiyo, he slowly refastened the doors.

“But you…. You already know…. This is the end for you…. 

Chiyo looked down in shock, apparently overcome by the loss of them both. Her gambit had failed. 

Sasori left his cloak open, taunting her with how little of a threat she was to him now.

“I will leave you here old woman. I will bury you with your precious girl and the shell of the kage. And no one will make your bones into a puppet. Your legacy ends here. You’ve lost.”

Her head hung down, just like Sakura’s. Just like Mother’s. They were pitiful. Only Sasori and Father looked down, imperious under the open mouth of the Death God statue, which looked like it wanted to consume them all.

Drops of Sakura’s blood softly pattered from the handle of the sword. It was the only sound in the cave. 

Sasori spoke into the stillness, leveling his words at his grandmother. “You did nothing for me. You kept everything from me, hoarding your secrets. Telling me that someday, when I was worthy, you would teach me. But I saw through you and your lies. And I made my own way. And I have gone farther than you ever thought possible. My power will live forever—“

Chiyo looked up at him. She was tired. Her eyes dark and there were deep circles under them now. But there was still fight left in her.

“You were always foolish, grandson,” she said softly. “Such a disappointment. So you stitched yourself into your puppet. Get help from your little club? From the one who steals hearts and sews them in? Pathetic.”

Chiyo was slowly straightening, strength and defiance returning to her voice. “You only cared about weapons and building puppets. You neglected your studies and never did what I told you. It is you who never learned the rules, so never learned precisely how and where to break them.” Her voice was rising, beginning to shake, holding his attention firmly. “It is you who will not outlast this!” 

“I hated you,” he exclaimed. “You turned your own children into puppets! Everyone thought is was from grief. But I knew. I always knew. Even as a child. You didn’t do it for me. It was just for revenge. It was always only power that you craved. If there was ever a part of you that was human, it died with them.”

Chiyo couldn’t hold his gaze. 

“Even they weren’t enough for you! When your party trick was over, when there was no one left to shock, you abandoned them. You threw them away—“

For the first time, his voice sounded very young, enough to match the face that it came from. 

“You left them for me to find, in pieces, in boxes.” His voice crackled with emotion, surprising Chiyo who turned back to him. “They were my parents. They protected me. Now they fulfill their role—“

For a moment, something like grandmotherly tenderness flitted across her face. 

“I would have made you apprentice. My legacy. I would have taught you everything I knew,” Chiyo said softly. “But you never listened.”

Sasori scoffed, but Chiyo talked over him.

“I told you to study the body, learn its secrets and how it can be used. I brought you every obscure text in the world. Gave them all to you. My teacher’s whole library! And you turned your nose up!! Wanted to play with weapons of war. Puppets.” She flashed her hand at Father. “Trinkets.” She flashed her hand at Gaara. “What did I always tell you—

“Spare me the lectures about your medical garbage.” The whine in his voice made it sound as if this argument was worn out in his youth. 

“It is not the power of the puppet—“ 

“Don’t say it—“

“It is the power of the chakra wielder—“

“I don’t want to hear it, old woman—“

“And the first wielders are the healers, because they control life and death. They decide.”

“No more! It’s the same lie you’ve been peddling all these years! Healers are as worthless as the bags of flesh they work on. They will all fail—“ Even Father had turned his head to the focus of Sasori’s rage. “I alone have risen above. I am better than a puppet. Better than human—“

“Not healers, grandson.” Chiyo’s eyes were shining, there was a little color in her cheeks. “For them, everyone is their puppet, if they are brave enough to take control. Every bit of energy is theirs for the taking. Not a stupid vessel.” 

She moved her fingers, motioning to her own children. There was a softness in her face as she tipped her head to look at them. 

“They died so long ago. You’re right, I never should have made useless puppets out of them. I should have let them go….”

Sasori looked at her openly, surprised at her admission of guilt—

“I know now they could never have been strong enough,” she said. “They were empty shells, unworthy of my guidance.” She shifted her gaze back to him, eyes cold, voice hard. “Just as you were unworthy.”

Sasori’s young face suffused with unbridled rage. A guttural yell exploded from him and echoed around the cavern. “Enough!!”

Chiyo smiled patronizingly at him, as if it were just a childish temper tantrum. “There is only power in the living. Only they can hold true power in their veins— And I have finally found one that is truly worthy.“

“I have always hated you, old woman—” His voice was as old and gravelly as it was in his former body. “I have looked forward to killing you for so long. This will be a pleasure.”

Sasori pulled his arm back, and Father moved with him, getting into a striking position.

Just then, Mother began to move on her own. She was slowly pulling backward, sliding the sword out of Sakura’s stomach. 

Sasori looked at Chiyo, thinking that the old woman had tricked him again and somehow attached her chakra threads to the puppet while he wasn’t looking.

He shook his head. “Still have to use a weapon? For all your talk, it’s still all just lies. Like it always has been—“

Mother kept steadily sliding the sword away from Sakura.

Sasori moved his hands, but he couldn’t make Mother work. It was like she’d been blocked completely. 

“What are you doing, old woman?” Sasori looked over to Chiyo’s hands. They weren’t moving. He didn’t understand. He looked closer at her. At Gaara, even. 

Chiyo just giggled. Sasori was grew angrier. 

“Even sacrificing your latest pet isn’t enough,” he said. “You never cared about anything but yourself did you?” Sasori shook his head. “Have it your way. I’ll kill Mother first, then leave you here with the Kage’s husk—“

His fingers danced. Father leapt and landed close to Mother and Sakura on the mound. The center of Father’s chest sunk in, revealing a sword hilt. With long smooth fingers, he drew a matching sword out of the hollow spot.

Mother’s arm was inched moving backwards. She was still close to Sakura, their heads bowed almost to touching, even though the blade was almost out. 

Deep red blood ran backwards up the sword and down the Mother’s pale arm, dripping offer her elbow. 

And then it was out. The sword clanked to the ground. Mother continued to move her arm back, slowly dragging the tip across the rock.

But there was no other movement. Behind Mother, Father was waiting, sword up, ready to defend. But Sasori just watched, almost curious to see what would happen next, as if it was a real puppet show. 

Mother’s body still completely blocked Sakura’s, but beyond her jointed shoulder, Sakura’s head was slowly lifting.

Mother shifted her weight and took a small step to the side. Sakura appeared to be swaying a little, almost moving with her. As Mother moved, a soft green light between them began to appear, lighting up Mother’s arm. She took another small step away. 

Sakura stood like a copy of Mother, head hanging down, holes torn in her clothes. 

But where there should have been an enormous gash in her stomach, it glowed green. And instead of deep red fluid pooling at her feet, a shining emerald light was spilling out. 

Mother moved even more, and it was clear the light wasn’t coming just from the wound, but from all over Sakura. It shimmered and shifted in the light, coating her like water. And it gathered in brightness at her fingertips.

Her hair had come loose and fallen in front of her face. But when she lifted her eyes to look out through her messy bangs, her eyes glowed with luminous green light. She looked straight at Sasori. 

Sakura suddenly jerked her hand in a cutting motion to the side. Mother spun around with her sword and sliced the air behind Father, cutting off some of his chakra strings.

Sasori was so overcome with surprise, he actually moved backwards with his puppet instead of attacking. But he recovered instantly, saving enough of Father’s chakra strings to defend himself.

Father swung around to cut down Mother— But Sakura, matching her movements to Mother’s, raised her arm and slammed Mother’s sword into the center of Father at the last possible moment, stabbing upward.

They impaled each other, in the same place, with matching swords. Their heads fell together, foreheads touching. They were hopelessly entangled.

Sakura was panting, and Sasori’s face was slack. But his eyes were huge.

Sakura lowered her hand, releasing the threads. The bright green at her fingertips receded. Chiyo lowered her hands as well.

Sasori looked between them. 

Sakura was not trying to hide her movements, she was not that proficient. Chiyo was standing and helping guide her, having been restored to full power. She grinned at having taken Sasori by surprise.

Sasori was livid. He looked first to Sakura. “You— you’re healed—” She nodded. He looked to Chiyo. “And you…that whole speech, all to distract me while you were healing her?“ 

Chiyo shook her head, unable to contain her glee. “A distraction, yes. But I didn’t heal her. She did that all on her own. As well as taking over your prize puppet.”

He was boiling mad.

“She used her resources as a good medic would, taking advantage of every spare bit of energy, restoring her own, borrowing from mine and cutting you off from your empty puppet without you even knowing.” 

Chiyo directed her voice at Sakura.

“Your Slug Princess would be proud. I think you are more talented than she ever was, even at the height of her powers.”


Chiyo turned back to Sasori.

“Sasori, take note. If you had shown a fraction of the Leaf’s girl’s determination and ingenuity, then you would be so much more powerful. Instead of still playing with empty dolls—“

Sasori was pale with anger. He snapped his strings to Mother and Father, causing them to clatter to the ground in a pile of hollow pieces. 

Sakura jumped backward, more pulled by Chiyo than before. She let Chiyo guide her backward.

Chiyo strengthened the amount of chakra running down the strings toward Sakura, but glanced at the her back, nodding approvingly. She was deeply impressed to see that Sakura was much farther along in her heal than she expected. Sakura had not been deceiving them with lies or distracting them showy chakra. 

Chiyo narrowed her eyes, curious. “You must have started healing yourself from the beginning.”

“I did. From the moment the blade went in. I cauterized what had been cut and coated the sword in a thin layer of my own chakra.” She nodded at her hands. “Like with your chakra strings, I kept the edges of the wound ‘alive,’ then reattached it when the sword went out. It was a much faster heal.” She shrugged a shoulder. “I didn’t know if it would work. But I had to try something….”

Beyond Chiyo lay Gaara. Sakura’s eyes landed on his broken body, but she looked away quickly. She couldn’t help him till this was over. 

“We should try to get out. My group, I’m sure they’ll be looking for us—“

Chiyo’s eyes were fixed on Sasori. He was moving around, snapping off pieces of puppets and muttering to himself. 

“No…. We’re not finished here yet.”

Sakura wanted to disagree, but Chiyo continued.

“So you began healing a wound before it even started? That’s very good…. And Tsuna-chan didn’t teach you any of this?” 

Sakura looked at her, gathering that must have been a nickname for Tsunade in their youth, when they were students of the same teacher. Sakura shook her head. “No.” 

Chiyo’s shoulders bounced with a soundless laugh. “Doesn’t sound like she’s turned out to be much of a teacher then.”

Sakura glanced sideways at her, detecting a note of bitterness in her voice. Chiyo was still looking down at Sasori with an almost bemused expression. He was scavenging pieces off of the broken bodies of Mother and Father as well as his tail. 

Sakura almost answered and confirmed the lie that Kakashi had said, that she was actively Tsunade’s apprentice. But she held back. 

The truth was, she had learned more in this battle so far than she’d learned from Tsunade. Not about healing, but about fighting. Tsunade only taught her to protect herself and bring things back to life. Chiyo seemed to be speaking of control over death. It was very different from what Tsunade taught.

But Sakura made her mind up. She was a Leaf nin, and that was the path for her. 

“I don’t think Tsunade-sama meant to be a teacher,” she began. “And it’s not official…but I am actually her appr—“

“None of this matters!” Sasori roared up at them. His cheeks were flushed and his hair disheveled, so that he looked very much human at that moment. “Your so-called abilities,” he snarled at Sakura before looking at Chiyo. “Your endless speeches.”

Sasori had reassembled the pieces of Mother and Father to look very much like Kankuro’s Crow. There were multiple arms and legs, and the rest of his tail was fitted onto the pieces of bodies as either protective shields or weapons. Or both. 

The pair of heads, with their open-mouthed jaws, were fastened to the front of the body and flopped back down where a spine would have been. It looked like a nightmare creature with its neck broken—

“Your human will wear out, as will you, old woman. But I will last forever!”

He raised his arms high. Sakura sunk down into her stance, as did Chiyo. 

He flung his arms down and launched the creature at Sakura, who immediately jumped away.

It ran after her on arms and legs, crawling over everything. It looked like the monster she thought Sasori was underneath his cloak.The two open-mouthed heads of Mother and Father swiveled to keep their aim on Sakura as she darted away from the monstrous creation.

He began the next assault. It was a hail of weapons from all parts of the bodies. Some of the items didn’t engage quite right, but he skipped on to the next ones. 

Sakura would have darted behind a pillar or tried to find the upper ground, that was her instinct from her shinobi training. But she found that her limbs were not under her control. Chiyo would not let her duck or dodge.

Instead she was running her down, making Sasori shoot at her and empty out his weapons, and only keeping her one step ahead. Sakura dug deep to keep up with this strategy. It wasn’t what she would have chosen, but cycling Chiyo’s chakra with her own, she knew she could do it. For a little while, at least. She just had to hope that he would give out before she did.

Sasori worked harder than ever to catch her. His arms moved in wide arcs, his fingers were a blur. He shot everything he could from the monster puppet.

When he emptied out the blades from the arms, the leg panels opened up. Shards of metal rained out to shred her. But Sakura was too far from their shortened trajectory. 

Sakura hurled weapons back at the creature whenever she could, scooping them up and aiming for its joints. It worked, several arms swung from severed ligaments. She landed a kunai at a kneecap and sent the puppet teetering sideways for a moment. But the legs circled around underneath and stabilized the body.

Sasori crossed his arms and clawed the air with the chakra strings. The puppet ripped off the broken limbs and threw them at her like spears. Sakura dodged them. 

Then Sasori punched the air. The puppet launched paper bombs at the ceiling. They exploded whatever they hit, but she sidestepped in big leaps to miss the crumbling stalactites. 

And when he ran out of projectiles, Sasori snapped his hands, like breaking an invisible stick. Father’s head broke completely open to display a row of razor sharp “teeth” built into his jaw. They gleamed purple at the tips. Poison….

She kept moving, putting distance between herself and the crawling, two-headed creature. This was what she was worried about. If these were in his head, then they were a last line of defense. Which meant the poison would be much more powerful. And she had no more antidotes….

He fired off shot after shot at her.

She dashed faster than ever before. Chiyo tightened the threads and she leapt high. The poison teeth pitted the wall beside her, then the ground when she came down. There weren’t many, and Sakura was sure it was nearing the end…. But one ricocheted and sank deep into her arm.

The poison was so strong it stopped her before her next step. Chiyo was keeping her from falling forward off the mound, but she couldn’t stop herself from dropping to her knees.

Sakura looked at her arm. A fang-like dart stuck out. Purple liquid oozed from the wound, its acid already burning her skin. Deep purple patterns exploded under the surface, and Sakura’s lips were growing numb. 

This was powerful. Too powerful….

Chiyo just chuckled. “Trying to use my own recipes against me grandson?”

From a medical pouch hidden under her cloak, Chiyo pulled a small, capped vial. Shimmery golden fluid sloshed back and forth.

Chiyo flung it at Sakura, then moved her arm to catch it when Sakura’s uninjured limb didn’t respond fast enough. While Sakura desperately fumbled to get the antidote into her skin, Sasori moved quickly to finish her off.

“No more playing puppets with you grandmother.”

He snapped Father’s head back and rolled his fingers to pull Mother’s head forward— But something went wrong. The head wouldn’t engage.

Sasori twisted his hands, snapped his wrists back and jumped his fingers, but it was no use.

“You pushed too much chakra into them! You’ve ruined them! These are delicate machines— works of art— And you’ve ruined them!”

Chiyo laughed. She flooded her chakra into Sakura’s system, forcing her stiffening fingers to work Chiyo made her sink the needle right into the bloodstream closest to the wound. From there, her own chakra began to fight back.

It was the strongest poison she’d ever encountered. She was lucky Chiyo had the right antidote on her. If it weren’t for that, she’d be long dead by now.

Feeling was starting to return to Sakura’s limbs. Even with the antidote and hers and Chiyo’s powerful chakra, it still weakened her. She started to stand….

Sasori shook his head. It clearly didn’t have the effect on her that he expected. Even with the antidote.

“What are you doing to her old woman— She shouldn’t be recovering that fast.”

Sakura realized that they were still puppet masters. He fully expected Chiyo to have the antidote to his poison. It easily could have killed her. It should have killed her— But it all seemed like a game to them.

“You’ve underestimated her,” Chiyo said with a whiff of pride. “As a medic-nin, she’s already been conditioned to withstand most poisons. And with the right antidote, it will go twice as fast through her system.”

Sakura stood on shaky legs. 

What Chiyo said about antidotes wasn’t true. Or at least, it wasn’t about her. She didn’t know much about poisons or how people used them. She only carried a generic antidote. What Chiyo said sounded more like it was about her and her own medic upbringing. Sakura thought maybe the older woman was bragging because she’d made the poison as well as the antidote. 

But Chiyo seemed to be baiting Sasori….

Sasori’s lip twitched. His fingers trembled in anger.

Chiyo was almost gleeful. “Of course…you would know all this if you’d ever studied any of the medical books I gave you.”

It was the wrong thing to say. 

Sasori dropped the puppet creation and ripped open his cloak. A panel appeared on the center of his chest. It ran down his entire middle, and he opened it like opening a door.

Inside, he was hollowed out and full of moving parts. It was monstrous….

Sakura was still moving too slowly to get away on her own. She looked at the open maw of his chest hanging in front of her, fear freezing the blood in her veins.

Everything inside him was a weapon.

“You should count yourself lucky. No one has pushed me far enough to reveal this,” Sasori said to Sakura with a smug smile. “I made some improvements to my beautiful boy. You’ll have to tell me if you like them—“

The center of his chest was a hole, with doors thrown open on either side. It spiraled in on itself, twisting like the inside of a giant clock. The cloak was thrown back onto his shoulders and flapped behind him. He looked like a beautiful angel of death. Her death, she was certain. 

Row after row of purple-tipped weapons glistened inside his him. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. It was one weapon, and it was many. She couldn’t duck or dodge it. She couldn’t outrun it. 

Sakura felt so heavy there on the platform. Her limbs were still sluggish. She just needed a little more time…. She kept expecting to feel the tug of Chiyo’s chakra strings, at any moment pulling her back. But it never came—

The clicking noises were getting louder, and Sakura knew she was hearing the setting of weapons in their slots. Any second it would start. 

Wincing, Sakura dropped to one knee and turned herself bodily away in a last attempt to shield herself. Even though she knew it would never be enough. Nothing could save her now—

An explosive crack rattled from Sasori’s chest—

Sakura shut her eyes—

But the onslaught of poison-tipped weapons never came.

Sakura dared to look up through her bangs. 

A jagged metal shard, crackling with blue chakra, pierced Sasori’s chest and pinned him to the wall. It sunk into the upper corner of his chest, straight through a small box Sakura had not noticed. 

Sasori stared down at it in horror.

Sakura’s body sagged. She stifled a sob. She was in shock that she could somehow still be alive. But flattening her hands on the dusty stone mound and sucking in a few ragged breaths told her that this was real. She was still there. 

She gulped back emotion and looked more closely at the source of her salvation.

The blade was a brutal chop of raw metal, with no handle. Vicious snags and scallops ran down its razor-sharp edges. It was meant to destroy anything it sunk into. Pulling it out would mean shredding everything around it. 

Even from a distance, Sakura could tell it was no ordinary weapon. It looked like it came from an ancient sword that had been broken in half. The blade was so black it gleamed like wet ink where the light hit it. Chiyo’s ice-blue chakra still popped at the edges, its reflection fracturing like lightning across the rough surface.

Sakura expected to see Chiyo’s chakra strings shimmering in the air, attached to it, but no matter how she tipped her head, she could not see them.

She gave up. She had no idea how Chiyo had done it. It didn’t make sense. Weapons couldn’t hold chakra. Only living creatures could do that. She must have used some other trick….

But Sakura wondered, if she’d had a weapon that powerful the whole time, why didn’t use it earlier? She could have decided the battle in her favor from the beginning. Perhaps that was why she was so confident in seeking out Sasori on her own….

At the wall, Sasori reached up to the box. He had forgotten about everything else — about the Kage’s body, about his opponents and even about the strange blade that had run him through.

He whimpered as if it hurt him, but Sakura knew that was impossible…. He was no longer human….

He carefully touched what must have been a small door. It was now broken nearly in two. Moving his arm caused one half of the door to fall away. The other side swung back on its hinges—

Sakura gasped softly.

Inside was the soft tissue of a beating heart. It had been sewn in, just like Chiyo had said. It was a pink as baby’s skin. The sword pierced it through the middle. It was pinned there like a butterfly in a box. Red threads had suspended it in the center of the box, and ran outward from through the arteries to connect it with the body. But now the threads hung limp where they’d been ripped from the rest of the borrowed body. There was still a small amount of Sasori’s blood in it, but it was slowly dripping back up the blade with every quivering spasm of his heart. 

There was no way to remove the sword.

Sasori’s smooth young face looked down with such grief and shock, that a small part of Sakura actually felt sorry for him.

It had been a trick on Chiyo’s part. She had used Sakura as the bait. But for Sasori, this was truly the end. 

Still shaky, but now more from the adrenaline rush than the poison, Sakura stood. She opened and closed her hands, testing her chakra. The poison was gone. Feeling and stability were returning to her limbs. She slowly hopped from platform to platform, gingerly threading her way back through the litter of weapons and broken bits of puppets.

Sasori found his voice. “You…you had it all along. The Sand Dagger. It’s legendary…. But you gave it up. For…. For her?” He looked at Sakura, there was a note of jealousy in his voice. But he shook his head, then looked at Gaara. “No…. For him.” He looked at Chiyo. “I-I don’t understand. That was your way in. You’ll never be able to force the vessel open now.“

“I don’t need that weapon,” Chiyo scoffed. “Rough and untrainable, and just as useless as your puppets.”

Sakura was confused. Was she calling Gaara a weapon?

Chiyo pulled Sakura back over, helping her to Gaara’s side. She never disconnected her chakra strings, even as she spoke, and even as Sakura began to move on her own.

Sakura stood over Gaara. Chiyo had flipped him over on his back. He faced up, eyes closed. There was no visible life left in him. His face was pale. His clothes were in tatters and bloody in the center from some as-of-yet unknown wound. His face was deathly pale. His crimson hair was so covered in dust it looked brown. The tattoo at his forehead was marred with a giant scrape, as if he’d been kicked. Bruises were blooming along his jaw and at both eyes. He was beaten before he was brought here, repeatedly. 

Sakura’s heart ached for him. 

He had been tortured. His body had been broken before they killed him. The bruises were different colors, so he was tortured over several days. 

Sakura looked down his body, trying to piece together why this happened to him.

His shirt was torn and caked in dirt and blood. Perhaps they stabbed him through the stomach. Through the jagged tears in his once fine Sand clothes, there were scars on his stomach as if someone had burned a pattern into him. 

To do this to someone, anyone, Akatsuki were truly cruel and brutal. She thought of the devastation Itachi brought to the whole Uchiha clan. The whole group must be just like him. 

A memory floated through her mind.

“All Akatsuki are monsters….” 

Gaara’s body was in front of her, but it was a voice from her past, one she didn’t allow herself to listen to, that was echoing back to her. 

This one time, she let herself answer it.

He was right. And he, of all people, would know—

Sakura’s knees suddenly collapsed forward. Her kneecaps cracked loudly on the stone, and her hands stopped herself from falling almost directly onto Gaara. But her hands and legs were not under her control. Nothing was. 

Chiyo rocked her back on her knees and lifted her hands off the ground and brought them together in the air over Gaara’s body. 

“You really have gone crazy, old woman! That girl can’t break the seal—“ His strained voice was choked off by a wheezing cough. 

Chiyo rose up behind Sakura. Her voice was clear and strong as it echoed across the cavern. 

“Of course she can. I’ve seen her power. No wonder the Slug Princess had her. But she should have trained her student better. The girl told me herself that she was her power was.” Chiyo chuckled behind her. “A healer?! Bah— She’s a chakra wielder. The best I’ve ever seen. She’s a natural at it. The world is here for her to use. She doesn’t have to steal her skills like her teacher did.”

Sakura shook her head at the lifeless body before her. “Of course, I would heal him. But it’s clear that he is….” She trailed off, considering the importance of what she was about to say….

Chiyo’s strings glowed ice blue. She spoke softly, almost to herself. “I knew it the moment I saw her. I knew I could use her….“ 

Sakura thought perhaps she shouldn’t be the one to declare the leader of another country dead. She ought to leave that to one of their own citizens. “Of course I’ll try to heal him, but—“

Chiyo pushed her body back down, snapping, “You’re not going to heal him. I am going to heal him! You’re merely the instrument. You’re the way in!“

Sakura looked back over her shoulder, confused. “I don’t understand—“

There was a crazed look in her eyes, and she spoke to Sakura the same way she’d spoken to Sasori. “It’s not your place to understand!”

Sakura tried stand up, but Chiyo had total control of her body. 

From the wall, Sasori swore under his breath. 

Chiyo’s face was illuminated in cold, blue light. She lifted her hands and spun out more and more chakra threads. They stuck like magnets down Sakura’s wrists, elbows, shoulders and the back of her neck. 

These were different than the others. They glistened like silver and looked as strong as steel.  

Sakura tried to stand up, but Chiyo forced her back down into a healing position. She tipped her head down and placed her hands, palms down, over Gaara’s stomach. 

Sasori yelled at her from the wall. “You’ll never do it! Not even the leader of Akatsuki could do it. It took all of us together to crack him open! And you think just one girl can do it?”

He wheezed again and his heart shuddered dangerously.

“I know she can! I’ve felt her power. She doesn’t even know she has it. That foolish Slug Princess sent her out into the world without teaching her what she was—” Chiyo laughed maniacally. 

Sasori shook his head.

Sakura’s chakra was being activated without her doing it. It was glowing green, but it wasn’t just dripping off her. Instead it was running into long veins, like channels of rushing water. They were running to her hands, pulsing and pushing there, forming a growing ball of light.

Sakura squinted at it. She didn’t know what Chiyo was doing, but she knew from her medical books it was bad. All her texts warned about using too much chakra. It could permanently harm the healer, and it could burn up the patient. 

But perhaps her abilities were protecting her. Perhaps she really was different from all the others, like Chiyo said….

If she wasn’t so proficient at wrapping her chakra around things, and now so accustomed to Chiyo’s chakra mixing with her own, this level of external energy might have burned her up by now. Sakura felt like she was keeping up with it….

But Chiyo was pushing more of it through her. There was so much green light in the room, it was hard to see Gaara’s body under her hands. And at the center of the green was Chiyo’s silvery-blue chakra. It looked white under her hands. 

Having no where to go, the chakra was going around and around itself, until it was streaked with green and white. 

Chiyo forced her hands closer to Gaara. The spinning ball of energy blew back the tattered remains of Gaara’s tunic, revealing a blood red spiral on a his stomach. 

The closer her chakra got to the wound, the more it revealed. The history of the injury became clear, like she was reading a chart. 

The top layer was burned in, crusted with dried blood. It had been done over and over, until the edges were black with destroyed tissue. 

She’d seen the shape before, it meant something. It wasn’t just another wound. But she couldn’t think about that now. 

Chiyo was pushing her closer, until she was almost touching his skin. Sakura resisted with everything she had. 

“This much chakra— It will burn up him,” Sakura said over the rising din. “It will tear him apart! I can’t heal him like this—“

“You’re not healing him, stupid girl! You’re rebuilding him!”

Sakura was flung forward, both hands together in a single conduit, pumping green and silver chakra directly into the Gaara’s center. 

Her dirt-stained face was bathed in green. Her eyes went wide and shined with an emerald glow. But it wasn’t coming from her, only reflected. 

The jagged spiral beneath her hands was starting to move. It was growing bigger. She thought the energy was starting to grind through his flesh—

But she could feel that she wasn’t making it happen. It was responding to the chakra she was being forced to pump into it. Her energy was turning it like a screw. At the center of the spiral, a small black dot was slowly opening above his navel.

She knew she was pushing further into the wound. She could sense the chakra imprinted on it. It was recent and from many people. She guessed these were from the Akatsuki. 

But deeper down, there was something older. Maybe from Gaara’s childhood. The spiral twisted, getting bigger. Wind was starting to whip around her as if she were opening a door to the sky. There was more chakra here, but it was very old. So old, it didn’t even feel human. She had never experienced anything like it. 

She gulped back fear at the black hole that was growing in the very center of Gaara’s stomach, spreading out wider than her fingers. She knew this feeling of dread….

It felt like the very darkest parts of the Forest of Death. Worse, even.

And it did not want her there. 

The spiral turned into a clawing, vicious thing. It threatened to consume her and grind her up the more she pushed herself into it. 

Sakura tried to pull her hands back, sensing she was on the edge of something vast and terrible. It felt as if she were standing on the edge of a cliff.

She heard Sasori’s voice through the whipping wind. “Stop it, old woman! It will never work! You’ll only destroy them both! You really are a monster—“

But Chiyo just laughed and pushed Sakura hands closer and closer, until—

Sakura’s fingertips made explosive contact with Gaara’s stomach. 

For the briefest of moments, she saw the spiral-shaped wound in her mind, turning and opening in its entirety. It was going…backwards…. 

She had seen this before…. A memory flashed through her mind— the partial seal she’d seen in the old book in Tsunade’s office, the one that went the wrong way — but she tore through the it as Chiyo pushed her deeper and deeper.

“I told you.” Chiyo’s voice was dangerous growl, now. She sounded very much like her grandson. “True power is only in the hands of the living.” 

Chiyo drove Sakura farther down, using her own chakra at her back and pushing her forward as if she were on the tip of a long blade. Sakura was powerless to stop it. The black hole beneath her hands was opening wider and wider. She was tearing Gaara open. It was big enough now that she might fall in.

If Chiyo kept going, his body was going to become a black hole that would swallow her up.

Sakura instinctively surrounded herself with chakra, reaching around her and trying to grip the sides, trying to hold herself back from tumbling forward—

It had the opposite effect.  

When Sakura’s charka touched the edge of the darkness, it was like plugging into another network. She was no longer being pushed. She was suddenly being wooshed inward, sucked down a drain into a giant whirlpool of dark energy.

It pulled her chakra, first her hands, then her arms, then her whole upper body, all into the darkness. 

“No, no—“ Sakura dug her knees into Gaara’s side, trying to hold on, begging her own chakra to return, to help her, to stop her from falling—

Chiyo pushed again, and the energy inside the black hole overwhelmed her. 

She felt her legs slip over the edge—

She was tumbling, head over heels, into darkness, falling farther and farther away from everything she’d ever known.

She had an energetic body, but she no longer had a physical one. Her consciousness was on the very farthest edge of her chakra. And getting farther by the second—

But suddenly she was dumped out into the darkness, left heaving, on all fours, on a hard stone floor. She felt like she should have been wet and dripping, but there was no water. She only felt the grit of sand over stones.

She blinked into the dark, seeing nothing, until she didn’t know if her eyes were open or closed.

She had never known darkness like this. She felt, rather than knew, that light didn’t exist here. 

Standing cautiously, Sakura felt the strings of chakra at her back sway. They were so thin it seemed impossible that they were still connected. 

She turned and followed them back up, higher and higher into the darkness, until she thought she could see where she was tethered. 

Chiyo and the life she’d known before were no more than a pinprick of starlight in the darkness. 

Sakura was abandoned. 

She fought the panic that rose in her throat and closed her eyes. Tears slid out. She wiped them away, but there was no water on her face. No tears wet her fingers. 

She looked back to the single dot of light. She closed her eyes and let her chakra network come alive in her mind. It raced up and up, for miles it seemed. Yet in the dark, everything became clear. 

Her body was on the surface, as lifeless as a puppet. But her energy, her chakra, the part of her that spilled out like an endless supply of water was as far away as she could possibly imagine. 

At any moment, the thinner-than-spider’s-web chakra strings could snap, trapping her there. Forever.

She would have sunk to her knees, curled up into a ball and cried. This was worse than any nightmare—

But the chakra tethers tying her to Chiyo wouldn’t let her. She felt them, tugging at her, just like they did to her real body. 

Chiyo’s far-away voice echoed down through the darkness. It was clear and unforgiving. “Get to work. It’s the only reason I let you live.“