51 – Perfect Vessels

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 needed to release any emotion.

Her eyes roved the cavern floor, beyond Chiyo to the body of the former Sand Kage. He was splayed out like a rag doll, left behind in the dust.

In death, Gaara’s fingertips curved softly upwards, palms open to the ceiling, just like Chiyo’s. But where Chiyo stared up, 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 he was far beyond anyone’s help 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 twisted coils.

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

She leaned over Gaara’s face and moved to brush some of the dirt away— 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 it stole her breath. It was cruel. Humiliating. They wanted to destroy him. And they wanted him to know it. 

She moved her hand up to the side of his forehead and gingerly lifted the lock of hair that fell over the tattoo she knew was hidden there. Matted with blood and dirt, it moved in one clump.

It was just a single word. “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 that malicious power locked up inside him. 

Both the Akatsuki and Chiyo had broken him open, both were trying to pull it out. Both were using him for their own purposes…. And she still had no idea what that was….

Her hand came to rest on Gaara’s 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 she’d touched fire.

How is that possible?

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

She looked him up and down, several times. All the signs of life were suddenly winking back into existence within him. The skin that had been ash-grey just moments before was tinged pink. Everywhere she touched he was slightly warm. 

She leaned over him, holding her cheek just above his parted lips 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 makes no sense…. Human bodies don’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.

Shocked, 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…. It’s like it replaced mine….

She wanted to weep. But, gulping back fear, Sakura opened her hands to try again. Like spider’s webs, two thin nets of chakra strands unrolled under her palms. She resisted the urge to pull away. Instead she thought of Gaara, his injuries and where she needed to see inside. 

The strands exploded from her hands, disappeared into his chest and raced down through 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, organs or 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 from his wounds, all instantly. She saw it all….

It’s like he truly is my puppet—

Sakura gasped and severed the connection between them. Hands frozen in place above his chest, she shook her head slowly as if she was watching something terrible unfold, right before her eyes.

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

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

Sakura crushed her eyes shut and shook her head frantically, whipping her loose hair around her face, and pushed 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?”

Sakura looked at her hands, his shattered body, the litter of broken rocks and discarded weapons all around them. She was the only one left in all this death and destruction. 

It dawned on her just how dangerous this situation was for her.

This was a secret mission. We aren’t even supposed to be here. They didn’t ask for help. But here I am…with their Kage’s life literally in my hands.

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

But cold clarity was slipping in, replacing fear and emotion. 

When they find me, they might think this was the plan all along. In the eyes of the Sand nation, I might be no better than the Akatsuki.

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, cast a pool of green light down onto his chest. 

What will happen when they finally get here? 

She played out every scenario in her head. There was not one where she didn’t wind up in a Sand prison. Or worse. Someone would have to pay. And that someone would be her.

A new thought was whispering through her mind….

I could kill him….

Face empty of emotion, Sakura stared down at Gaara’s broken body. 

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 this attack on their Kage? What if they come for me as his would-be assassin? Could this be the spark that ignites a new war between our nations?

The green glow that lined Sakura’s cheeks and pooled in the hollows of her eyes made her look much older than she was….

If I did it now, no one would ever know. All evidence would die with them. I alone could tell them any story I wanted. And nothing that happened here would follow me out of this cave. It would all end here. 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 under her fingers. It stretched towards the Kage’s chest, grazing the ruined fabric, as if it wanted to act on what she was thinking….

Sakura’s face suddenly hardened.

It’s certainly what Chiyo would have done if she had somehow caught a Leaf Kage. She’d kill him without another thought….

But beneath the tips of her chakra strands, Sakura felt the smallest ripples of energy, echoing through the empty space between his body and hers. It was like far below her, there was a bird trapped in a cage, beating its wings against the bars. 

It was Gaara’s barely fluttering heartbeat. It was struggling to stay alive.

Sakura hated that she knew now just how easy it would be to snuff out that life force. Ruthlessly fast. With just a thought, a flick of her fingertip. Just like a puppet. Like she’d controlled Mother, her own body, Chiyo…. Gaara was just another vessel waiting 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 running down his dirt-smeared cheeks. Tear tracks.

She saw 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 slid down her own cheeks. 

I am not Chiyo.

Sakura turned back to his chest and opened her fingers wide. 

Even after everything they did 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.

She opened her eyes. They glowed green with determination. The chakra under her hands straightened, ready to work. 

Her voice was nothing more than a whisper as she declared to herself as much as to Gaara, “I will help you live.”

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

She felt Chiyo’s chakra. He was full of it. She expected this. Her energy was what brought him back to life. 

With deep relief, Sakura 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 for Gaara to survive, it had to be contained. Whatever it was, it certainly couldn’t co-exist inside him. It would have destroyed him sooner or later. She had first-hand proof of that—

But the more she reached into him, the more certain she became that something 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 there was only one answer to why he wasn’t there—

What if I didn’t just trap a monster inside their Kage? What if it’s worse? What if I replaced him with Chiyo instead? What if I just put her inside a new body, letting her live on forever in there?

Sakura’s hands began to tremble. She raced through him desperately, searching for any signs— But she found nothing. Gaara was gone. Only Chiyo remained.

Sakura was sick with dread.

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

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

Sakura shot backwards, extinguishing her chakra and grabbing a discarded kunai. She’d forgotten about Sasori. She was suddenly certain that he’d put himself back together again while she was focused on Gaara.

But he had not. His head still hung between his parents. The rough-hewn Sand Dagger still pierced his heart and pinned him to the wall. 

“You could kill him,” he said, voice rasping a little, like a wind-up toy starting up again, “yet you chose to heal him instead. Interesting….” 

Sakura scowled up at him before dropping the kunai and returning to Gaara’s side. Since Sasori wasn’t a threat, she vowed to give him none of her attention. She knew Sasori had distracted Chiyo long enough to let Sakura gain the advantage. She wouldn’t let him distract her now. 

He had stabilized enough to speak comfortably and show human emotion in his limited movements. But even stabbed to a wall, he was still dangerous.

Sasori seemed to understand. He let out a low breathy chuckle.

“Chiyo was crazy, of course. But she was smart. And she saw you for what you are….”

Sakura cut her eyes up at him. He smiled. 

“A threat,” he drawled.

Sakura shook her head and refocused on her search for Gaara. She refused to let Sasori lure her into conversation.

“She wasn’t wrong,” Sasori continued. “She knew your abilities would outshine hers. She hated anyone who was better than her. Why do you think she hated me?”

Sakura didn’t give him a response. He continued, content to hear himself talk.

“I would know, because I understand the value of your skills, the value of life. And not just because I have taken so many,” he gloated, watching her. 

Sakura still didn’t look up. 

“You don’t believe me? You don’t think I still have feelings? Even in this form?” He paused before answering himself. “Life is beautiful!” His words echoed around the cavern. “The body is a work of art!”

He relished the sound of his voice calling back to him.

“What better way to honor life than with a puppet? Even my parents would have been proud to have lived on this way—“ He trailed off, wheezing slightly from the exertion. 

But when he spoke again, his voice was a snarl. “The look on that old woman’s face when I revealed Mother and Father…. That alone was worth all this—“

That comment caught Sakura’s attention. She stilled her hands over Gaara while she considered what she had learned about grandmother and grandson in their bitter exchanges.

Sakura asked quietly, “Chiyo said she made them for you. But you said she was a liar….” Shaking her hair back out of her face, Sakura peered up at him. “What was she lying about?”

Sasori smiled at her. It was dazzling coming from that beautifully boyish face. He was delighted to finally have her attention. He didn’t answer, only grinned wider, drinking in her emotions as the realization crashed across Sakura’s face.

“Were they— Were they actually your….” He nodded, almost giddy, making her say it. “Parents?

“Yes,” he drawled, smiling toothily, savoring her shock. “Can you imagine, that woman making puppets from her own children?” He added triumphantly, “See, I told you she was crazy.”

Sakura shook her head, not bothering to hide her disgust. 

She moved her hands over Gaara’s chest, refocusing her healing. She still couldn’t find Gaara’s energy signature, but his healing was progressing well. Better than she expected, actually. The patch of blemish-free skin at his throat had spread out to encompass more skin. All over his body the scrapes and bruises were fading.

She didn’t question it. Whatever was happening, it freed her up to listen more closely to what Sasori was saying.

“They were my parents first,” he said. The possessive tone was twisted into something more desperate by his youthful voice. “Chiyo did remake them, of course. But not for me…. Only for herself,” he growled. “She made them to keep them alive. To harness their power. She turned their bodies into puppets just to prove how powerful she was.”

“You mean,” Sakura interrupted, wishing that she didn’t feel even a shred of sympathy for Chiyo. “So that her children would live forever.” 

“You would think that, soft as you are, Leaf girl. That’s what a mother would want, right? I used to think that too, when I was still a child. But no…. It was so that her power would live forever.” Deep hatred crept into his youthful voice, lowering it a notch. “She wanted to prove to everyone that she chose when people died. She chose when people lived. She wanted the ultimate power.”

Sakura shook her head, staring down at Gaara’s chest unseeing, trying to process just how blindly powerful and detached from life you must be to even consider such a thing. Turning humans into puppets. It was beyond cruel. It was monstrous. 

Sakura paused on Sasori’s phrase. “Ultimate power?” She glanced up at him.

Sasori nodded. His neck clicked as he moved. “Power over life, power over death…. The ultimate power to control fate itself.” The corner of his mouth hitched up in a dry smile. He laughed, low and mirthless, then rolled his eyes as if he shouldn’t have to explain it. “It’s what they all want.” His focus sharpened on her, eyes darkening as he whispered, “but only I have achieved it….”

Now it was Sakura’s turn to roll her eyes. She turned her attention back to Gaara and swore not to look up at him again, no matter what nonsense he spewed next. She’d just let him talk himself out.

“But they were my parents after all, weren’t they? So what do you think I did? I stole them back! He laughed once. “They would have never wanted to stay with that crazy old woman. They deserved to protect their child. Isn’t that what you do when you love someone? Protect them?”

Sakura’s gaze dropped to Gaara’s tattooed forehead. 

“It’s what they would have wanted. So I took them. And then I took them apart,” he growled. “I learned from them. They taught me everything I needed to know. My parents were my true teachers, never Chiyo. I rebuilt them myself so they could always stay with me. And I kept them safe until they needed to protect me—“

Sasori stopped so suddenly that Sakura looked up. Head tipped at a sharp angle, Sakura thought he might have suddenly died. His face was frozen, staring at her, almost dreamily. 

“But you,” he said finally, softly, “I would have gladly given up Mother and Father for you—”

His dark eyes shifted suddenly. They locked on hers in a way that made her feel entirely too vulnerable. 

Irritated with herself for being distracted by him, Sakura shut down his flattery.

“Tell me about Gaara,” she said firmly. “Chiyo called him a vessel. A weapon.” She glared at Sasori. “What was that thing inside him?”

Sasori laughed deeply. It clattered with the sounds of the mechanisms that operated his throat and chest.

“Whatever you found in there was nothing compared to what the Akatsuki already ripped out! Chiyo put you through all this just to get her hands on a few drops of energy, nothing more.”

He looked at her with narrowed eyes. His beautiful face turned sharp and cruel.

“But if you truly do not know what he is, then you still have a lot to learn, Leaf girl. Even with your talent. Your teacher isn’t serving you well by sending you out into the world uninformed. Especially with people like Chiyo out there….” His voice turned, softening like a lover’s. “Or me….”

Sakura ignored him, seizing on another fragment of their conversation.

“Is it true? Did Tsunade really kill her teacher?”

Sasori nodded, never taking his eyes from hers. He seemed determined to keep her attention now.

“And Chiyo never forgave her for it. Waited and waited for her revenge. She finally got it when she poisoned her fiance,” he chuckled. “When Tsunade returned to power it really rattled her. She was probably plotting some new revenge.” 

He watched Sakura, thinking, considering things. “But I’m not interested in Chiyo….”

“Chiyo said she poisoned me,” Sakura said, voice barely above a whisper. “Was that a lie too?”

Sakura had scanned herself, yet she didn’t feel anything different about her system. But if Chiyo had already poisoned Tsunade’s fiance, then killing her apprentice seemed like the kind of revenge she’d go for. Sakura shook her head, trying to chase the blind panic from her mind that there was a deadly toxin inside her, sleeping somewhere in her body….

“Who knows,” Sasori sighed, sounding bored. “She was the poisons master after all.”

He looked at her whole face, dark eyes fixating on her mouth. “It would be just like her to ruin you that way. Infect your soft flesh with something undetectable…unstoppable….” He flicked his gaze to her eyes. “I would never have been so cruel to you, my dear…. 

She angled her head, not catching his meaning.

“I would never let you linger. I would have made your death so quick—”

Irritated, Sakura ripped her attention away from him and turned back to Gaara. She replayed everything she’d learned so far. But none of it solved the mystery of why she was able to heal Gaara so quickly.

Because she couldn’t deny it now, something was happening inside him. Something she wasn’t controlling. He was healing faster than anyone she’d ever seen.

It was Chiyo’s energy. It had to be. Sakura could feel it moving through him, healing him everywhere. At this point, she knew the feel of the old woman’s energy as well as she knew her own.

But still, it shouldn’t be enough to heal Gaara like this. 

Sakura managed to heal a few scrapes here and there, but the rest had simply melted away from the surface of his skin. Like they never happened at all. The bruises were fading but they were still there, like markers on the skin of what was once broken underneath. 

The broken bones had all reknit themselves. She glanced at his hands, palms still facing the ceiling. They were no longer mangled. Those delicate bones in his fingers had all slipped back into place when she was not looking. 

Whatever was happening inside him, she wasn’t doing it.

Her hands were clasped over his chest, green light still pooled there and her network still connected to his…. But she was merely an observer.

Humans don’t heal this way. Even with a master healer’s entire life force flowing through them.

Sasori had been watching her the whole time as she scanned Gaara’s body, shaking her head as she mulled over, then discarded, ideas. He delighted in her mounting confusion and dismay. 

Finally Sakura narrowed her eyes at him. “Tell me about what’s inside Gaara,” she demanded.

“Tell me about yourself, Sakura Haruno.” He said her name slowly, as if savoring it. “Those eyes, that hair, all that chakra just dripping off of you…..Tell me what you are.” 

His gaze was penetrating. He stared at her as if he wanted to have her. Keep her. As if she was a possession he had longed for.

She jerked her chin away, refusing to be rattled by him if he wasn’t going to answer her.

“Where does your power come from,” he said with a breathy laugh. “That you show up here, out of nowhere, and survive the most powerful shinobi the Sand has ever produced.” His lips curled into a beautiful smirk. “And Chiyo too.”

She pressed her lips together, ignoring him.

“Were you made this way? Were you one of Konoha’s experiments….” He stopped short with a small gasp. 

She glanced at him through her eyelashes. She couldn’t help herself.

“Is that why Itachi chose you, all those years ago?” The only human part left of him — his heart — beat a little faster in its box with his excitement, despite the Sand Dagger piercing it through the center. “Did he know what you were? Did he know then just how different you are?”

Confusion clouded Sakura’s face….

“I hated Itachi Uchiha,” Sasori growled. “Always plotting, always thinking he was so much better than everyone else, that he deserved more—“ He continued, muttering and grumbling.

The more he complained about Itachi, the faster his heart beat. A single drop of blood oozed from the dagger wound and slid to the bottom of his pale heart, where it hung, quivering.

Sakura had gone very still. Sasori noticed. 

“Or perhaps,” he smiled toothily, pleased he’d gotten under her skin, “you were sent to lure him out? All that power, in such a pretty little package….”

Sakura’s lips parted suddenly. Her eyes were wide, her hands unmoving above Gaara. A new, horrible thought crashed down on her…. 

If Chiyo and Sasori saw something in me…then what if Itachi did too? How many others in the village do too? Kakashi, Tsunade…. What if they all know something about me that I don’t—

She shook her head. None of this is true. It couldn’t be—

“Yes, I see it,” Sasori said softly, devouring the emotions which were so clear on her face. “You have a lot to learn…. I could have taught you so much….”

Sakura immediately schooled her features. “You said—“ She shook her hair back and forced her voice to be calm. “You said Gaara was some kind of ‘chosen one—‘“

“Him? No!” Sasori laughed, but it came out with a wheeze. “I’ve seen a dozen Chosen Ones so far, and killed off half of them!”  He snorted, gloating in his knowledge. “It’s just a ridiculous story that one generation uses to control the next. Chiyo probably thought you were the Chosen One. All that power crammed into one vessel.”

He tipped his chin up proudly. “If anyone is the Chosen One, it’s me! I am the only one who has conquered life and become the master over death!” 

His expression was triumphant. His face practically glowed with pride. Inside the box in his chest, the pink heart beat a little faster. The drop of blood splattered to the bottom of the box. Another drop oozed out and took its place, clinging precariously to the bottom of the heart.

“I have made myself both puppet and puppet master. I control both the power and the vessel. I alone have it all, the ultimate power they are all so desperate for!!”

Listening closely, Sakura had let the green chakra from hands fade. She glanced down at the chest that was no longer glowing with the light from her energy and sighed. 

I’ve done everything I can, but Gaara doesn’t need my help anymore. He’s completely healing himself now.

Sasori followed her gaze to Gaara’s body. 

“The Akatsuki broke him and took everything out,” he continued. “Or so I thought. But I suppose even a smashed pitcher will still have a few drops of water left clinging to the pieces.” He scowled. “That old woman must have known that whatever was left behind was enough to restart his worthless life. She had a plan for him. And it had nothing to do with saving him….”

Sakura snapped her gaze to him, curious about what he meant. Delighted to have her full attention on him, Sasori smiled broadly. He wouldn’t waste it. He began, narrating the past like putting on a puppet show. 

“Chiyo had been experimenting for years. Trying to see just how much power she could pack into a body. She used her potions to keep their failing flesh alive, and swapped power from one body to the next, just to see if she could do it. 

“When she ran through all the low-level criminals in the system, she turned to spies, prisoners of war. When those were spent, she moved on to desert raiders, buying captured merchants, traders or any fools unlucky enough to get caught in the desert.” Sakura was horrified, remembering her own dangerous trek through the desert. He chuckled. “Why do you think the Sand has a reputation for being so brutal to anyone caught within its borders? It was all her!

“But it was all a waste of bodies and time, all until he came along….” He looked over Gaara’s body. “The illustrious Sand Kage,” he said with a sneer. “He was nothing. A scrawny, sickly boy. She made him what he is today.

“But it still wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to keep going, expanding her power. She wanted to make more like him. A whole army of puppets for her to control.” 

Sakura shook her head slightly, the very idea made her blood run cold. Sasori nodded back. He lowered his voice a notch, lacing it with the suspense of a practiced storyteller.

“The Sand Council finally wised up. She was getting too powerful. They knew they had to stop her. Even though they were afraid of her, they still wanted her knowledge…. So they encouraged her to take an apprentice, someone she could train. Then they could kill her off.

“They had a huge contest, selected the best medics in the village to assist her…. And what do you think happened?” 

He paused for dramatic effect and looked down at Sakura like a child sitting before a stage. 

“She killed each and every one of them,” he said with a broad smile. “Turned them into puppets in her lab. Had them working for weeks before anyone realized what she’d done.”

He waited for the flash of disgust on Sakura’s face and was not disappointed.

“When the Sand Council found out, she threatened to replace them with puppets too if they didn’t leave her alone. So, they burned down the lab, said it was a horrible accident. Chiyo went along with it, acting as if the shock had knocked something loose in her brain,” he sighed. “Just a daft old woman. Crazy and harmless. But it was just an act. Another puppet show.”

Sakura’s face was pale, remembering Chiyo’s last words. “You’re my student now.”

She’d forced Sakura to learn her techniques to survive. In the end, she’d chosen a new apprentice. Her. And in doing so, she’d exacted a twisted revenge on her childhood rival: She’d stolen Tsunade’s apprentice and made her her own. 

Sakura went hot and cold. She felt sick to her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her middle, flattening her hands against her rib cage to keep them from shaking.

“Most people think she’s some revered, albeit crazy, elder. A batty old healer. But the ones who’ve known her the longest have seen her true side. She’s a maniac. A desert snake, just waiting for her moment to strike.

“She was never here to save the Kage. She was only here to get her master creation back. He was her key to holding onto power. If she could bring him back to life, even if he was just a bag of bones, they’d never be able to stop her again.

“Remember I know her better than anyone. I learned from her, even when she didn’t want me to. Then I stole the rest. I knew exactly what she was thinking. She had it all figured out.” 

He paused to smile.

“That is, until you came along…. She underestimated you. Chiyo thought she could push your endless chakra supply into Gaara, then reanimate him. Then Gaara would have been her puppet forever. Her own ‘ultimate vessel.’”

“But you,” he said softly. No longer a storyteller, he spoke like a possessive lover. “You turned everything upside down—“

He angled his head, marveling at Sakura anew. The movement rocked his torso, just slightly, and shifted the fragile balance of body parts he was tangled in. The broken door beside the tiny hollowed out space that held his heart finally fell, taking another piece with it. It revealed fully the bellows underneath his heart box. Every time his heart beat, the bellows compressed, sending air in and out of his mouth. This was how he “breathed.” But it was slowing. 

Sakura had to remind herself each time that his breathing wasn’t real. It was only to fool humans. Only his heart was still real. 

The drops of blood were oozing out with each beat. They now ran in a thin dark trickle and pattered one by one off the bottom of his heart, like seconds ticking away on a clock.

Sakura looked back to Gaara. Everything that had happened revolved around him. “What is inside Gaara—“ 

Sasori didn’t seem to hear her. He was still looking at her with fascination. “But it was you all along wasn’t it. Not that empty husk of a Kage on the ground. I think it was the only thing Chiyo got right. You might very well be the perfect vessel. Your body is a conduit.” 

He breathed deeply, forcing the bellows to open wide, and closed his eyes, looking deeply satisfied. The bellows compressed again, straining to pump air back through his system, but he didn’t seem to notice. It was like he was caught up in a dream.

“It would have been a joy to restring your bones…. Hang your heart in your chest, like mine. We could have lived forever then— No more soft flesh and failing parts. It would have been perfect— perfect— perfect—“ 

The bellows hitched momentarily, causing his voice mechanism to trip over the words. But it restarted.

Sasori opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Just the two of us. My techniques. Your endless chakra. There are no limits to what we could have done together. We could have ruled forever. We could have pulled the strings of whole nations. We would have kept a closet of Kages to do our bidding. At the snap of our fingers we would have set them all dancing— dancing— dancing—“

Sakura was growing pale. His voice was as soft as a lover’s. But his words…they were from a nightmare….

“If I could just get my hands free, I would kiss your perfect mouth and snap your perfect neck. I would watch the light die in your eyes…. But don’t worry, I would bind your chakra to your bones, to me…. Then there would be end and no beginning. Just you flowing into me and….” He glanced down at his pitiful heart, as pale and translucent as a baby bird left to die a nest, “and whatever is left of me would flow into you. I would give it all to you….” 

He was still pinned to the wall, but she felt vulnerable by his talking. He kept looking her up and down, eyes covering every inch of her, until she wished she could drag Gaara behind a rock, away from Sasori’s gaze. She was certain he was planning something, making a new trap, dragging it out….

Sasori’s gaze drifted back to Gaara. 

“Perhaps I would even give him to you, too. Restrung him as a gift, a token of my… love?” He wheezed a laugh. “I have not thought of that human emotion in decades. But all because of you….”

“You would have been beautiful together. A matched set.” He looked at Gaara’s face, where the red bloom was returning to his cheeks. Sasori’s mouth suddenly curled in disgust. “He would have been a perfect too, if his body hadn’t been corrupted by that monster.”

“Tell me,” Sakura interrupted. “Tell me what he is—“

Sasori rolled his eyes. “He is power. Nothing more. A waste of the flesh to house it. That’s all they want. But you…. It would have been so different….”

Voices were calling, growing nearer to the collapsed opening of the cavern. But Sasori’s gaze was so intense she couldn’t look away. 

“Had I known what she planned, I would have never let her use you. I would have never let her touch you.” Rage trembled through him, shuddering more droplets off the bottom of his heart. “But she got her way. You finished the job she set out for you—“

“Tell me what she made me do—”

It was like he didn’t hear her. “Had I known what you were that day in the woods, I would have taken you. I would have taken you then, and never let you go.”

His voice was soft, gravelly, so intimate it made her skin crawl. He watched her from under hooded eyelids. She was so glad there was distance. She felt completely exposed.

“You should have been mine.” 

His head fell to the side and he stared at her without blinking. His heart was so pale. The trickle of blood was no more than a line of red thread down the outside. The cadence of falling drops had grown dangerously slow.

Sakura rose to her knees. They were both running out of time. And she needed to know, before anyone else came in. “Tell me— Did I put Chiyo into his body? Or—“ The words were like ash in her mouth as she said them. “Or did I turn Gaara into a monster? Please! Tell me what I did to him!”

Sasori’s head didn’t move. It hung there, tipped to the side, looking at her as one would a beloved child. But his eyes had life in them, and his smile still curved in that deceptively human way.

“I will give you a better gift. Sakura of the Leaf…. Soft, beautiful, breakable human who should have been mine…. Since you’ve outlasted all of the Sand’s best techniques, and if you survive my last trick,” his angelic smile was edged with cruelty, “then I hope you live long enough to thwart that insufferable…Itachi…Uchiha….” 

His voice guttered out so that the name was just a low growl over his parted lips. 

His face stilled for a long moment while the small bellows in his chest expanded, slowly drawing in air. Finally, it started to compress, pushing air out, setting in motion the complex systems of machinery that kept Sasori ‘alive.’ Sakura let out a breath, exhaling with the bellows.

Sasori’s voice began again. “He has a secret weapon. He thinks he’s so clever, hiding it in plain view. But I know— I know— I know—“ His voice sped up suddenly, hitching as he finished his sentence, then began slowing again. “He wants it all. Just like the rest of them. Ultimate power.”

His heart beat erratically. The trickle was nearly dry. Just a few drops left….

“Only I know what he’s done. Only I could see it. The boy— The boy— The body that never changed….” 

His voice died out as the bellows expanded again, this time more slowly than ever before. The blood stopped dripping from the bottom of his heart.

There were sounds outside, rocks moving, yelling— But Sakura’s entire focus was on Sasori. She held her breath, watching the bellows crawl back open entirely. It felt like it took years. 

Finally, it began to compress again. But it was had lost so much momentum. It barely had enough pressure to push the exhale of breath back through his system. The weak pulse of air that rattled through Sasori’s voice mechanism was barely enough to keep it going—

“Itachi has already caught— caught— caught—“

The bellows stopped, half-open. Sasori’s jaw fell open, slurring the last bit of sound like an unwinding toy— “his giiinnnnn….”

One last drop of blood shook free from his heart. Then there was no more. The life force that held him together slipped away completely. For everything he tried, he was still human. If only just his heart. But he couldn’t ‘live’ as a puppet without it.

Suddenly, his head fell to the side with a crack. Mother and Father sank inward, collapsing on him, covering him. It looked like a pile of arms and heads stacked against the wall. The Sand Dagger slid down between them, just the cruel jagged edges and handle sticking out.

In the next instant, light speared through the pile of rubble that was once the entrance to the cavern, blinding her.

Sakura shielded her eyes and knelt over Gaara to protect him from any falling rocks. 

Dogs with vests pored through the hole in the rubble, sniffing the air and barking back at the silhouettes behind them. Kakashi, Sasuke and Sai, climbed down, relief written on their faces. Behind them were Gaara’s siblings, plus a few Sand nins and medics.

Sakura pushed herself to standing as they clambered down the rocks.

Kakashi got to her first. He looked her up and down, more shocked than she’d ever seen him. She instinctively brought her hand to her stomach to hide the burn holes. He let out a shaky sigh of relief, and Sakura could almost hear his voice in her head. ‘Wounded is better than dead any day.’

Kakashi looked around, surveying the carnage and destruction around her, but stopped at the body on the ground behind her. 

“He’s alive,” he uttered, astonished. “I can’t believe it,” he whispered. 

She looked back over her shoulder and nodded. She didn’t believe it either. Gaara looked so out of place, almost fresh among all the destruction. With the healing that was going on inside him, he was practically glowing. But maybe only Sakura saw it….

She looked away hiding her nervousness behind a mask of calm. She had to look the part of a healer. She had to look like she meant to do this….

Kakashi came even with her and clamped a hand down on her shoulder, shaking her a little. “Good job,” he said. His voice was light, but there was emotion in his eyes as he looked down at her. “I knew—“ he swallowed. “I knew you’d make it.”

The utter relief in his voice said that he’d been deeply worried she wouldn’t.

Emotion rose up in her chest. She nodded once, struggling to keep it in check. 

Sai was behind him. He scanned her face, making sure she was truly okay. When he was satisfied he nodded and went on, mapping the cavern, the weapons, the bodies and destruction. His anbu training was already shifting gears inside him.

Sasuke was behind them. He got to Sakura and stopped a step from her, within arm’s length. He would never show anything but shinobi behavior, even now. It wasn’t who he was. But his fingers twitched to touch her. 

“Are you okay,” he asked softly.

A sob lodged in her throat. Her eyes burned suddenly with unshed tears. She nodded, unable to speak. 

If there was more time, if they were alone, then maybe he would have given into his emotions, closed the space between them and wrapped his hands around her arms like he clearly wanted to do. Or maybe she would have run to him and made him fold his arms around her while she broke down completely.

But any reunion between them was eclipsed by the Sand nins.

Temari and Kankuro pushed around her to get to Gaara, as did several Sand nins that she now recognized to be wearing medics’ tunics.

Only their arrival could have torn her attention away from Sasuke at that moment. 

These people…they knew Gaara best. They were certain to discover what she’d done…. She watched them, stomach turning in knots.

Kankuro knelt down beside his brother, holding his face, clutching his shoulders. “He’s alive,” he kept whispering. “How is that possible—“ 

Temari stood behind him, observing the interaction with hawk’s eyes. She looked at Gaara’s now blemish-free face, the dried blood in his hair, the tears in his clothes, the lingering bruises were the worst broken bones were…. 

She was making the same calculations Sakura already had. He shouldn’t be alive. His body had been broken. All the signs were there.

Kankuro looked back at his sister, tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe it—“ Temari’s face, however, was hard. There were no tears. She didn’t believe it either. She cut her eyes at the medics to see their assessment.

There were three. Two of the medics were about the same age as the Sand siblings. But the other one, the lead medic, was much older than the other two. He could have been a grandfather to all of them. Even Kakashi. 

The only thing that gave his age away were the deep weathered lines around his eyes. The thin strip of his eyes were all that was visible from behind his protective face coverings. The younger medics had unbuttoned coverings and let the fabric swing freely on either sides of their faces. 

The medics had attached their chakra in thin ropes to Gaara’s network at several places down his body in a healing version of the puppet-master technique. It was so startlingly like what Sakura had done, that she had to force herself to keep watching. Their heads were bent, faces lost in the glow of chakra, so Sakura couldn’t see what they were discovering about Gaara, about what was inside him….

Her fingertips were going cold with panic. Her knees felt weak.

“Sakura,” Sasuke said softly at her side. She didn’t respond. 

Everything in her was focused on the lead medic. He suddenly severed his connection with a flick of his hand and looked up at her with flinty grey eyes.

“You attended to him?”

Sakura nodded.

“Tell me what you did—“

Feigning shock, Sakura looked at him as if he spoke another language. The truth was she knew he was asking a tactical question, not a medical one. And she didn’t want to expose herself in case she’d done something truly terrible—

In the stretching silence, everyone looked at her. Even Kakashi and Sai turned back.

“You are a foreign nin on our soil,” he glanced at Kakashi as if daring him to challenge him, “and as I am the ranking official here, you are obligated to answer my questions. Truthfully.” He added with a snarl, “And quickly. Or I can have you thrown in prison for their deaths—”

Sasuke stepped beside her, fist balled at his side. “That’s enough—“

The younger medics nervously exchanged glances. “Lady Chiyo was our most esteemed healer,” one of them began, trying to smooth over the apparent misunderstanding.

The older man snapped at them. “I’m sure the Leaf nins know who Lady Chiyo is!” He turned his glare back at Sakura, leveling her with a cold calculating look. “I can feel it. I can feel what you’ve done….”

Sakura felt sick, she wanted to run—

The other young medic interjected more forcefully. “It is clear Lady Chiyo sacrificed herself to save our Kage,” he declared to the group. “I can feel your chakra signature too,” he added to Sakura, “you assisted in helping to heal some of his surface wounds. And for that we are grateful.” Both young medics bowed once to her, perhaps to appease the older man’s rudeness. “But the rest of it was Lady Chiyo. All her.”

“So who put an end to Sasori,” the old medic sneered. He looked Sakura up and down. “Certainly not someone as young and inexperienced as—“

Sakura found her voice. “I fought him,” she said firmly. She had nothing to fear there.

The younger medics nodded at each other as if they were both reading the same medical chart. “So the Leaf nin battled Sasori of the Red Sand while Lady Chiyo saved the young Kage,” one of them asserted with authority. “That corresponds to everything we’ve found so far too.”

The older medic looked like he didn’t believe them. He narrowed his gaze on Sakura. “And where were you when she, uh…transitioned the energy.” 

Sakura kept her face a mask of uncertainty, as if she didn’t know what was hidden inside Gaara. This man must have. He was only asking tactical questions, not medical ones. And he was much older. Perhaps he even helped Chiyo put that monster in there….

Kankuro and Temari locked eyes with her. Where the medic was suspicious and accusatory, they looked at her with a different expression. Fear. They were terrified of what she might have found. And of what she might reveal. Their fear, almost palpable, struck her deeply. Gaara was their little brother. They hadn’t been able to protect him. But they still loved him.

“Speak, girl!”

Beside her, Sasuke hooked his hand around his thigh kunai, all his anxiety transmuting effortlessly into anger, but Sakura raised a hand to stop him.

Chiyo was dead. Sasori was dead. She was the only one left. So she got to decide the story.

And she decided to let the lie tell itself. 

“It’s just as you said. I fought Sasori while Lady Chiyo healed the Sand Kage. I helped with what I could but,” she shrugged, “I’m only trained as a field medic.”

None of her teammates so much as blinked as she said it. 

The old man peered at her. “So you saw nothing else? No outbursts of unusual power? Any techniques she might have used….”

Sakura knew immediately if she said yes, he would have thrown her in a Sand prison till he picked her brain apart to discover how Chiyo had done it. 

This was the last performance she’d give to anyone from the Sand for a long, long time. But she needed to make them believe her.

She shook her head tiredly, letting the exhaustion she’d been holding at bay seep in. She changed her body position, hung her head and rolled her shoulders forward, then sagged toward Sasuke like a puppet that just had its strings cut. 

“I already told you, I only helped at the end.” She let her voice go raspy, her eyes slide half-closed. “I was too busy fighting off him—“ 

She pointed to the wall and they all turned with her, looking at the crumbling wreck of arms and legs. The Sand Dagger still poked from the middle. A thin thread of smoke was curling from the pile

Kankuro recognized the blade and gasped, “It can’t be! Is that the Sand Dagger—“ 

He stood up to hop over to it. 

Sakura looked at the smoke and considered Sasori’s words about ‘his last trick.’ It suddenly clicked—

“Wait!! Get back!” Kankuro stopped. “Sasori’s final form was a barrage of weapons— He rigged his body to explode after he died!”

The pile of bones started to pop and sizzle. “We have to get out,” she said to them all urgently. “Now!” 

Her mouth was suddenly dry, the grip of panic returning. It’s not over yet.

The medics hoisted Gaara up between them. Chiyo had been covered with a sheet, her arms folded at her sides and her body treated with more care than she deserved. 

They were deciding who would carry which body, when the pile exploded into a cloud of purple smoke, followed by the setting of weapons in locking mechanisms. 

Chiyo’s body was abandoned. They lifted Gaara between them and carried him as quickly as possible out the entrance, followed by his siblings and the Leaf nins.

Sai was already at the entrance. The dogs had disappeared.

They got out just as the entire cavern exploded in a hail of rocks and poison-tipped projectiles. A grey and purple mushroom cloud rose up into the atmosphere behind them.

This was Sasori’s ‘last trick.’ She had survived it, but only because he had told her about it. 

She shook her head. He was cruel. But he was also a by-product of Chiyo’s cruelty. The two couldn’t be separated in life. So being buried together under a mountain of rocks was a fitting end for them both.

The Sand nins were anxious to move. Sakura noticed an enormous white bird circling the horizon. Someone was standing on top of it, scanning desperately in their direction— Seeing the explosion, it turned and flew away.

The older medic was giving the other two marching orders. Sakura wondered if he was really a medic at all. 

“Thank you Leaf shinobi, for lending us your brawn in defeating Sasori. We are indebted to you.” He bowed deeply to Kakashi first, but Kakashi’s eyebrows raised at the slight. He pointed to Sakura.

The man added a short, crisp bow in her direction, as did the other medics. Sakura nodded back, but before she lifted her head they were already on the move. Behind them, the Sand siblings bristled in anger at the backs of their countrymen. Temari was especially enraged, gripping her giant fan with white knuckles. 

Kankuro turned to Sakura, and bowed deeply. Putting her anger aside, Temari did too.

“You will forever have our deepest gratitude, Haruno-san. You brought our little brother back to us—“

Choking on the words, Kankuro stepped back and jerked his face quickly away from them. Temari smiled softly at his back. 

She turned to Sakura. “And unlike those who call themselves advisers, we know exactly who brought him back to us. Thank you,” she said, and bowed again deeply, just to Sakura. “You will always have an ally in the Sand.” Kankuro nodded fervently, but kept his body turned. He wiped his cheeks several times. Temari bowed to the rest of the Leaf nins, then joined her brother. 

Within a few steps, they’re cloaks disappeared into the folds of the sand dunes.

The energy that was carrying Sakura was quickly fading. Kakashi scanned her, seeing the signs. “Can you travel?” She nodded. “Good. We’ll put some space between us and this place before we stop for the night.”

Kakashi and Sai went ahead, speaking softly to one another and watching the horizon, leaving Sasuke and Sakura to make a slower pace.

Sakura opened her mouth to speak but her thoughts were a jumble. She wanted to tell him nothing was as it seemed. That it was all a lie to cover just how awful it was. That so many times she thought she would die. That she was completely unprepared for everything they threw at her. That she didn’t know her skills at all. That she didn’t even know how she got out. And that it still felt like a dream to be alive, to be standing outside, in the open air, with them—

But Sasuke spoke first. “I was so scared for you—”

He looked at her, and for a moment, Sakura wanted to cry at how much he understood her now, how much he had changed—

“But Kakashi said we should trust you. That if anyone could pull through, you can.”

She looked at him, surprise breaking through the haze of emotion.

He looked ahead, seeing that they were alone, and grabbed her hand quickly. He didn’t care about her scrapes and bruises. He rubbed his thumb down the back of it. 

“You are so strong. Stronger than anyone I know. I should never have been scared. Kakashi was right. You pull through. You always do.”

She wanted to cry now, for an entirely different reason.

Sasuke smiled at her, misinterpreting the tears shining in her eyes.

“You killed Sasori. You saved Gaara. I’m sure you helped Chiyo more than you let on back there.” Pride swelled in his voice. “I’m sure it was all you. I’m sure you had a plan, had the whole thing figured out, and you didn’t let up until it all went your way. You’re amazing. There’s no one like you.

His face was open and trusting and…proud. So deeply proud. It was possibly the kindest thing he’d ever said to her. 

He brushed his thumb down her hand again and let it go. Sakura could still feel his touch burning there.

He believed in her.

She couldn’t look at him.

“Come on, I can tell you’re tired. You don’t have to talk about it right now. The sooner we catch up, the sooner you can rest.”

The steps ahead of her disappeared in the blur of tears. What was she supposed to do? Correct him? Tell him none of it was true?

She kept walking, forcing her emotions down.

She didn’t know her own power. She couldn’t control it, and so someone else had. She had broken herself to save herself. She had done unspeakable things to Gaara. She might have put a monster inside him. Or she might have sent back an imposter in his place.

She had no plan. She had held on by her fingertips. And somehow, she’d survived. 

She was nothing like he’d believed she was.

But she wouldn’t tell him any of that. That’s not who they were together. That was not how their partnership worked. This was not who she was on their team.

If she admitted to him that she was as useless and flawed as he’d always believed when they were children, she didn’t think she’d ever make it back.

He saw her differently now. She might have believed in it once too, that picture he painted of her as a strong shinobi, in control of her skill and her surroundings. But that facade was the only thing that was whole about her now. Everything else was broken.

Studying her face, Sasuke whispered beside her, “It’s okay. It’s over. You made it through.” 

She wiped her tears away. She’d never heard Sasuke speak with such compassion.

He’d changed so much. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She wanted to be this person, the one he saw. The one he believed in. The one he was relying on to be strong. 

Maybe she still could be, if she just put it all behind her—

So she brushed back her tears and gave him a watery smile. “Yeah. Thanks. I’m just…tired. That’s all.”

He nodded, understanding. 

She closed her eyes and kept going, trying to stop the tears from slipping out.

Long after the sun had gone down and the ink-blue sky had cooled the sand, they stopped at a box canyon. They set up camp deep within its high walls where it was easiest to defend.

They made a small fire, cooked meals and ate. They were quiet. Tucking her hair into a loose bun, Sakura moved through it all mechanically, eating but not really tasting her food. She kept expecting it all to be an illusion that would disappear if she closed her eyes for too long.

Her mind wandered to the Sand village. She wondered if they would discover something in Gaara. She kept glancing up at the high walls. She realized she was expecting them to come roaring back over the ledges any moment, demanding to know what she’d done to their Kage.

Kakashi had uncharacteristically left her alone, not asking her what happened. He had, however, noticed the torn clothing. She’d laughed it off. But Kakashi looked closely at the burned edges of her clothes, the black marks on her skin. She was certain he knew what chakra burns looked like. And she had them. On her clothes, her forearms, her hands. She didn’t have enough strength to heal them.

But he didn’t ask. And so she just treated it like any other normal injury she might have gotten in a fight.

Sasuke and Sai took the first patrol. Sakura sat by the fire, feeling warm and full. She didn’t realize how tired she was until she settled back against a pleasantly warm rock wall. Before she knew it she had drifted off….

She was back in the cave, stranded in the dark. Abandonded again. Panic ripped the air from her lungs. She hadn’t escaped. Sasori was in front of her, laughing at her before running her through with a sword. She fell backwards, plunging into darkness, until she was plucked up by Chiyo who danced her like a puppet on strings. Below her, was a malicious red fire. It was getting closer, snapping at her feet. Suddenly Chiyo let the the strings go and she was falling into that burning abyss—

Sakura sat up with a jolt, gasping for air and throwing her arms out wide to catch herself. It took several blinks to even remember were she was. There was the fire, the canyon walls, and Kakashi. Only then did she trust it and remembered to breath.

Across from the fire, Kakashi didn’t move. He wasn’t startled. His hands were folded over his mouth and he watched her knowingly.

Sakura rubbed the back of her neck and laughed it off, as if it were nothing. As if her palms weren’t clammy and her heart wasn’t trying to beat itself out of her chest.

Sasuke and Sai were still gone. They sat in silence for a long time, listening to the pop of the fire before Kakashi spoke.

“Sakura,” he said quietly. “You wounds…they are chakra burns.” He paused, choosing his words. “I’m betting those didn’t come from the puppet master.”

Sakura looked down, confirming what he already guessed.

He nodded. “Lady Chiyo is…. She’s not what she appears on the surface.”

Sakura’s voice was barely a whisper. “No.”

Sakura’s gaze traveled over the burns on her hands, the holes on her shirt. She knew there were matching ones on the back. Beneath that were black burn marks where Chiyo’s chains had ripped through her. Flashbacks of the fight came back to her. She shut her eyes, pushing them out. 

Kakashi’s quiet voice cut through the horrors echoing through her mind. “When you’re ready, I’d love to hear about what really happened. And not just what will end up in the final report.”

She breathed deeply, deciding which part to share, where to start, where to untangle the mess inside her.

She opened and closed her hands again, testing the burned skin. It was already healing, without her trying to heal it.

Sasori’s voice rattled through her mind. “What are you?”

She blinked. Doubt seeped in. She was different. Both of them saw it, and used her for it.

Did Kakashi know too? Had the Third, when he came to her house as a child? Is that why such an unusual array of shinobis came too, fighting between placing her in the ranks of anbu or the academy? She knew now that this never happened.

None of them, it seemed now, were what they appeared on the surface.

She looked at Kakashi, trying to find words. Kakashi tipped his head, and waited patiently for her to speak.

The crunch of footsteps echoed up the canyon. Sai and Sasuke were returning. But Kakashi didn’t look away. He watched her. 

Her mind buzzed with questions. 

Did he know why my chakra was so different— Was this why he picked me for Team 7? Not because I’m was the normal one, but— 

The realization broke across her face before she could stop it. 

Because I’m an ‘odd one’ too?

She stared at Kakashi in shock, about to ask him, dare him to tell her the truth about just how different she truly was, when Sasuke strode up. 

He looked at her intensely. “Are you rested enough to heal yet?” He nodded to her hands, her stomach.

Sakura had forgotten that she could. She was slipping between these worlds, of what was flashback and what was real.

She turned away from them and rummaged through her pack till she found a roll of gauze. It was small, but it was enough. She wrapped it around her stomach and tucked it in, then her hands and arms. They couldn’t question what they couldn’t see.

Satisfied Sasuke settled against the wall a few feet away, giving her space but near enough that he could reach out to her if she needed something. 

Sai took a seat guarding the opening of the canyon, crossed his legs and leaned against the wall.

Sakura leaned against the wall and didn’t look at any of them. Exhaustion was pulling her down. The healing that was happening to her was taxing her. Her body craved sleep. But every time she closed her eyes now, the cavern flashed before her eyes. Or Sasori. Or Chiyo. Or the monster.

Every time. It was awful. She couldn’t lean against the wall, it was too dangerous. It made her want to fall asleep.

She scooted forward, away from the wall, and decided to stay awake. She’d wait till she got back to her apartment where she could lock the doors, turn on all the lights and banish the dark. Then she’d sleep. But after a few minutes of staring at the low flames, her head nodded forward and she fell asleep sitting up. 

It didn’t last. This position proved even more traumatic. Each time her eyes drifted shut a different horror painted itself on the inside of her eyelids. Chiyo holding her down. Sasori pulling her bones apart. The monster shredding her, piece by piece.  

She snapped her head up with a gasp. Sasuke and Sai were asleep. But Kakashi saw it all. He sat, still as stone, across from her, as if still waiting for her to answer his questions. What happened to you?

She’d never say. She didn’t know what she’d done. She didn’t know what she was. And she didn’t know how to make these nightmares stop— 

She was getting desperate. Tears burned her eyes. She would have already started walking back if she didn’t think that Kakashi would stop her and demand answers—

As if reading her mind, Kakashi stood suddenly. She looked up shocked. Had she said it out loud?

She watched as Kakashi reached into his hip pack, pulled out a thin silver whistle and blew into it. It made no sound. He blew again, but still no sound.

Sakura was so surprised she forgot about the terror that had sunk its claws into her chest.

Why was he standing in the middle of a foreign desert, blowing a broken whistle?

He blew a third time — still no sound — and then, satisfied, sat down again closer to the fire.

She blinked at him. This was weird behavior, even for him. 

He began feeding small sticks into the fire, banking it and making it glow. The little twigs caught and exploded into yellow flames.

“When I was a young boy,” Kakashi began, watching the fire and speaking just loud enough that only Sakura could hear, “my mother died. My father cared for me as best he could. Trained me. I learned a lot in those two short years. But fate….” He sighed. “Well, it would take him away from me too.” 

“I’m so sorry, Kakashi-sensei. I didn’t know—“

“We were the last of our clan. And then, I was alone.” The twigs cracked and splintered, sounding like a low rumble. “I didn’t know how I was going to make it. I didn’t know how to go on.”

The rumble of the fire grew as Sakura listened to him. But it didn’t sound like it was coming from the fire anymore. It sounded like it was all around them.

Kakashi didn’t notice it. Or didn’t hear it. He was intensely look at the fire, feeding more sticks in.

“I thought I was all alone. But I was wrong.”

The rumbled turned into a stampede of feet barreling down at the canyon. She looked back desperately. How did Sasuke and Sai not hear it? Why weren’t they waking up?

She looked up at the canyon opening, expecting to see the heads of Sand nins coming through. Perhaps coming to drag her away after discovering she’d broken their Kage—

Heavy breathing echoed up the canyon walls, rolling through the opening towards them, but no humans appeared. 

Kakashi put up a hand. “Yo,” he said with a lopsided grin.

She saw a movement near the ground, the flash of eyes and teeth, and realized why she was wrong. She’d been looking too high. These were Kakashi’s dogs. All of them, all with vests, wagging tails and tongues, casually running towards them in the middle of a desert. 

They tumbled into the space like unruly soldiers. They sniffed at the walls, rubbed their heads on the packs and nosed the food wrappers. The smallest one, the one Kakashi called Pakkun, even started to lift its leg on Sasuke’s foot. 

Instead of yelling at Sasuke to wake up, Kakashi snapped his fingers and Pakkun trotted over, forgetting all about marking the human. They all came over at the sound.

Kakashi spoke to them like they understood him. “Remember when you helped me? When I was little? This one needs your help now.” 

He pointed to Sakura, and all their heads turned as if they’d understood him perfectly. They looked at Sakura as if she was supposed to speak to them next. 

“Tonight,” Kakashi said. “And maybe tomorrow night, if we’re still out.”

The dogs didn’t move. Kakashi added. “I made the fire nice and warm, and there’ll be food in the morning—“

The dogs sprang into action before he’d gotten the last words out. They piled around Sakura in a heap, pushing in on her, flopping paws and heads and tails over her like she was just another puppy. She was shocked. She lifted her arms and tried to move, tried to make space, but they surrounded her, shimmying and wiggling, each one getting comfortable. 

She started to get up from the pile when Pakkun jumped right into her lap, effectively holding her down. He looked up into her face with what almost seemed like a smile. A mischievous grin. As if he was saying, ‘You’re not going anywhere. We’re all comfortable here.’ 

Pakkun in her arms, nestled among a pile of dogs, Sakura looked up helplessly at Kakashi. He smiled. 

“You don’t have to sleep. But they can help you relax.” He added gently, “they help you feel a little less alone in the world.”

She looked around. She was nestled in the center of the dog pile as if she was another one of them. They grumbled and shifted and moved, and were warm and fuzzy all around her. She wasn’t supposed to move. She was supposed to stay in the middle. 

Kakashi lowered his voice to a whisper only she could hear. “They also help keep the nightmares at bay.”

She mouthed a watery “thanks.” She looked down and she could have sworn she saw Pakkun nod at her as if he was answering too. He curled in her arms three times, gave a small “woof” at Kakashi, and then closed his eyes. 

Sakura leaned back. Kakashi sat on the other side of the fire, watching the opening, the edges of the canyon walls and all their surroundings.

Sakura let herself relax back into the dogs. It was like sinking into warm, furry waves. A few were already snoring. She leaned her head back onto one’s side, and another gave her forehead a wet snuffle, like a mother would to its pup. With a small smile, let her eyes drift shut, and was finally able to find some rest.