Preview – Chapter 51

From Chapter 50: 

“Sakura of the Leaf,” Chiyo rasped.

Sakura leaned in to listen, wondering if, at the end, Chiyo had some message to pass on. Sakura was not so heartless as to deny an old woman her last wish—

Chiyo’s eyes locked on hers. Her hand gripped her forearm, clawing around it in the last ebb of strength—

“You are my student now.”

The light in Chiyo’s pale blue eyes flickered out.

Chiyo’s withered hand slid from her arm. Her fingers fell open on the cave floor. Her eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling.

Sakura blinked at her once, twice…not believing she was actually dead. Because if that old woman was dead…then it meant she had survived…. It was over….

Sakura cautiously blew out a breath and checked Chiyo’s vitals. It was true. She was gone.

She sat back on her knees. Her braid had unraveled at some point, leaving her hair clinging to her neck and shoulders. Messy strands hung over her face. With each breath, they shivered.

It was the only movement in the cavern.

Sakura realized she was the only living thing left in this space.

She felt strangely numb. She wanted to cry, yet was too exhausted to even summon the strength to feel emotion.

Her eyes roved the cavern floor, past Chiyo’s splayed feet, to the dusty body beyond hers. 

Sakura’s gaze traveled over Gaara’s fingertips. In death, they curved up softly, palms open to the ceiling, just like Chiyo’s. But where Chiyo stared up at the ceiling, as if stunned by her own death, Gaara’s eyes were closed. It was the only peaceful thing about him.

Sakura scooted over, really seeing him for the first time. It hurt just to look at him. His entire body had been broken.

This wasn’t the work of days. It was more like weeks. He had been slowly, brutally tortured to death while the Sand village hesitated…. She shook her head, but still scanned his body like a medic would, cataloging his injuries as if she were somehow responsible for him. 

But there was no help that could reach him now. 

His mangled fingers stuck out at odd angles— each one had been broken, some in multiple places. The fine fabrics of his clothes were torn, burned, bloodied and caked with dirt. In between the tears were more angry bruises of broken bones. Every inch of exposed skin was covered with gouges and scraps. 

His wrists and ankles were marred with deep rope burns. But his neck…. His neck bore the cruelest mark. The rope there had been so tight the bruises actually were in the shape of the twisted cords.

She grit her teeth. This was what finally killed him.

She scooted up to Gaara’s face and moved to brush some of the dirt away, when she stopped, hand above his face, and realized it wasn’t dirt at all. It was another bruise, but this time in the shape of a boot print. It had broken his nose and blackened one eye. 

The shock of his injuries stole her breath. It was cruel. Humiliating. They wanted to hurt him. Destroy him. And they wanted him to feel it. 

She moved her hand up to his forehead and gingerly lifted the lock of hair that fell over his tattoo. It was matted with blood and dirt and moved in one clump.

The tattoo read “Love.” 

Tears burned her eyes. 

Who had loved him? Who had let this happen to him? 

Her hand drifted over his chest….

Who would do something like this to another human?

She knew the answer: The Akatsuki. They must have wanted what Chiyo wanted, that malicious power locked up inside him. 

Both had broken him open, both were trying to pull it out. Both were using him for their own purposes…. She still had no idea what that was….

Her hand came to rest on his chest. Her fingers curled over the top of his tunic, brushing the bare skin at his throat, the one patch that was remarkably free from injury—

His skin was warm

Sakura yanked her hand back as if his skin had been on fire.

How is that possible?

She quickly pushed her fingers deep into the side of his neck, deeper until she found what she was looking for…. A pulse. Her mouth dropped open. It was faint but it was there. 

She looked him up and down, several times. It was as if suddenly all the signs of life were winking back into existence within him.

His skin that had been ash-grey just moments before was tinged pink. Everywhere she touched he was slightly warm. 

She leaned over him, putting her cheek just above his parted mouth and waited….

The softest puff of breath reached her skin.

She sat back on her knees, truly shocked. He was dead. She knew this. Everything in his body reported this: the color of the bruising, the crust at the edge of the scrapes. He had been dead for a long time. And yet…now he was alive. It made no sense. 

Human bodies didn’t work like this.

She pulled both hands back to his chest, breathed through her nose and summoned her chakra to do a thorough diagnostic. 

But instead of the softly glowing light that flowed like water from her hand, a web of slender chakra threads unfurled from her open palms and spun down into Gaara’s chest. 

Before she could even think to stop them, they had connected to his body like puppet strings.

Sakura closed her fists on the strands, cutting them off. Cold dread rolled through her, swamping the momentary joy that Gaara might somehow still be alive. 

Chiyo’s technique had replaced her own.

Another, more horrifying thought flooded her. 

Was this what the old woman meant by poisoning me?

Sakura gulped back fear and opened her hands again. Like spider’s webs, two thin nets of chakra strands unrolled. She resisted the urge to pull away and thought of Gaara, her target and where she needed to see inside. 

The strands exploded from her hands, racing into his chest and disappearing into his body.

It worked so much better, so much faster than anything she’d ever done before. Before she had time to blink and process this new reality, she was already connected to Gaara’s chakra network. She was seeing all of him, at the same time. 

There was no preparation. No searching. No gentle massaging of tissues, of organs, of blood cells, persuading them to reveal their secrets to her. 

Sakura simply controlled them with her touch. She received all the information about his vitality, his injuries, his life expectancy, all instantly. She saw it all….

It was truly like he was her puppet—

Sakura severed the connection between them, shaking her head slowly like she was watching something horrible unfold before her.

The weight of her ordeal was crashing down on her. She began to feel her own injuries. The burning ache where Chiyo’s chains hand run through her…. Every bump and bruise from her battles with Sasori…. The deep pain at her arm, where her chakra had been sacrificed to the monster….

Chiyo’s words rattled in her head. “You are my student now.” 

Sakura shook her head frantically, pushing the old woman’s voice out. But it was only replaced by her own fears….

What if I survived her…only to become her instead?

Tears welled in Sakura’s eyes and slipped down her cheeks. 

She looked down at the broken Kage. Another thought made her shudder. Tears pattered on his chest. “What did she make me do to you?”

She looked at her hands. She was the only one left in all this death and destruction. If she had carried out some horrible plan of Chiyo’s, then she might be the one to pay the price. In the eyes of the Sand nation, she might be no better than Chiyo. No better than the Akatsuki.

She brushed her tears away with her forearm, replaced her hands over Gaara’s chest, and forced herself to remain steady.

She summoned her chakra to her fingertips, but didn’t connect to his network. Not yet. Her energy strands, now undeniable replicas of Chiyo’s steel ropes, shined a pool of green light down onto his chest. 

A new thought was whispering through her mind….

I could kill him….

Sakura stared down at his broken body, and her face emptied of emotion. The green glow lined her cheeks and pooled in the hollows of her eyes, making her look much older than she was….

Maybe I should. What if…. What if I didn’t save Gaara at all? What if I only did what Chiyo couldn’t and trapped a monster inside him instead? What if Konoha gets blamed for orchestrating an attack on their Kage? What if they come for me as his would-be assassin?

If I did it now, no one would ever know. It would hide any evidence. It wouldn’t come back to haunt me or the village. Killing him would be the easiest solution. Any Leaf nin would say the same. And any enemy nin wouldn’t waste this opportunity….

The green chakra strands twisted and turned, waiting on her, while she came to her decision….

It’s certainly what Chiyo would have done if she had somehow caught a Leaf Kage….

Sakura felt Gaara’s barely fluttering heartbeat under her fingertips. It was just coming back to life. 

Sakura hated that she knew now just how easy it would be to snuff out. Ruthlessly fast. With just a thought, a flick of her fingertip. Just like she’d controlled Mother, controlled her own body, controlled Chiyo…. He was just another vessel to be controlled….

As if turning away from these dangerous thoughts, she looked to Gaara’s face. At the edges of his sunken, black-and-blue eyes she noticed there were tracks through the dirt-smeared cheeks. Tear tracks.

She could see it all in her mind: They had beaten him. He had begged for mercy. Pleaded for his life when he could no longer save himself. 

She closed her eyes. Fresh tears tracked down her own cheeks. 

I am not Chiyo.

Sakura turned back to his chest and opened her fingers wide. She opened her eyes. They glowed green with determination.

Even after everything that was done to him, he still survived. I will not be like Chiyo. I will not decide who dies. I will not kill Gaara, no matter what the cost. If I can help him survive, then I will.

Beneath her palms, twin networks of green chakra spread down into him, sending a life-giving pulse of energy down into his heart, recharging the blood in his veins. She let her chakra flow into him, healing him as it went and sending back reports about his vitals.  

She felt Chiyo’s energy. He was full of it. She expected this. Her energy was what bought him back his life. 

With deep relief, she realized that there was no sign of the monster. Perhaps she done it, truly contained it. She wasn’t proud of herself. Building a structure inside a living human was surely something that should never be done. It was the realm of power-hungry people like Chiyo, who had no thought for the human lives they were destroying. 

But it certainly couldn’t co-exist inside of Gaara. It would have destroyed him sooner or later. She had first-hand proof of that—

But something else was wrong. Something was missing…. Her eyes darted back and forth, as if reading data from a medical chart. 

She couldn’t find Gaara. Not a trace of him. 

Sakura didn’t expect this. She tried not to panic. But she did anyway—

What if it’s worse than trapping a monster inside Gaara? What if I replaced him with Chiyo instead? What if I just put her inside a new body, letting her live forever in there?

Sakura’s hands began to tremble—

What if I’ve become a puppet master, just like her—

“You truly are singular, Haruno of the Leaf.”