If you try to take a cat apart to see how it works, generally the first thing you have on your hands is a cat that doesn't work.
I awoke to a pounding headache, my consciousness unwillingly forced upon me before I could get out of the way, as if rising up from some deeper, safer level where it had taken refuge. There was a light which was almost sickening in its intensity. Why was there light? The very concept of light felt like a travesty to all that was good and right in the world.
"Gooood morning, Sakura!" a voice chirped brightly, hammering against my eardrums, and I moaned in protest. My brain was going to fall out of my skull any second. My head would crack like the shell of an egg and my brain would slip out like yolk, dripping down onto the floor and bringing a merciful end to things. The thought was strangely comforting.
"Go 'way, dad..." I groaned into what I realized must be some sort of pillow. "'S not funny..."
"I'm flattered that you've already grown so fond of me, Sakura," the voice said, "but I think your father would take offense."
I blinked open crusty eyelids and winced them shut again as unfiltered, searing light penetrated to my innards. I tried swallowing and immediately regretted it-my throat was dry like sandpaper and my mouth felt like the decrepit mausoleum of an ancient, forgotten horror. I lifted my head slightly, and the world lifted dizzyingly with it. I groaned, immediately letting it fall back down again.
"There's a lesson to be learned somewhere here, I'm sure..." the voice mused. "I wonder what it is..."
I ignored it, willing it to go away. There was silence for a blessed time, and then something jabbed me sharply in the shoulder.
"I brought water," the voice said.
Water. Yes. Wait, water was a fluid. No.
"Come on, now, we haven't got all day."
I inched open my eyes again, enduring the throb in my head that came every time my gaze moved. It took a moment to realize that I was in my room, lying in my bed. I took a deep breath, then slowly sat up, working my way through the requisite muscles one by one and reactivating them with conscious effort. After I'd adjusted somewhat to the light, I lifted my head to look around.
Kakashi was crouching at the foot of my bed-in my bed. I yelped and flinched back, then suddenly ran out of bed on my left side and plummeted sideways with a strangled screech, crashing to the floor. Body and mind screamed in protest at the same time, and for a moment all of my attention was consumed with forcing down the instinct to be sick right then and there. It slowly subsided and my mind turned back to less immediate concerns.
"What the fuck," I choked, my cheek pressed against the cold wooden floor. It belatedly occurred to me that I at least had all of my clothes on - for some reason. I sat up and immediately grabbed my head, moaning. I pushed through the queasy pain and glared up at Kakashi, squinting against the light from the open window behind him. He gave me a small, insensibly cheerful wave.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded hoarsely.
"Oh, just checking in with one of my students," he said and picked up a glass of water from the windowsill behind him, holding it out towards me. "Drink?"
I ignored the glass. "You're in my room. You broke into my room."
"It's a very nice room."
"Why are you in my room?"
"For a lot of reasons, some of them better than others."
I stared at him, mute, then dropped my head into my hands with a small groan, fingers rubbing my forehead.
"Did my parents let you in...?" I asked. If so, I needed to have a serious word with them.
"Oh, no, they're in the kitchen, having breakfast."
I looked up, squinting. "You mean they don't know that you're here?"
He shrugged. "I suppose that's true."
I stared at him with morbid fascination. "You must be the creepiest, weirdest sensei... ever."
"It wasn't a-" I stopped myself. No point.
Kakashi bent down and set the glass of water in front of me. "You should really drink a bit, you know. It's not just water, there's all kinds of things in there. Everything the body needs after a decent night out on the town."
"Decent...?" I asked, pressing my hands against my eyes - the pressure felt relieving. "You're joking, right?"
"I'm afraid not."
"I'm never having a 'night out on the town' again. Ever."
"Very good. Now drink."
With a sigh, I let my hands drop, folded my legs together, took the glass of water and raised it to my lips. I grimaced; the taste was sour and bitter at the same time. About halfway through, I had to stop and put the back of my hand to my mouth as my stomach rebelled against the introduction of new elements. I held the glass in my lap while resisting the urge to regurgitate what I'd already drunk, and shot a withering glare at Kakashi.
"Okay," I muttered. "Explanations."
He nodded. "I already woke up Izanami and Naruto. They should be meeting us outside within ten minutes or so. That's how long you have to clean up and get dressed for your first D-rank."
I stared at him, for long seconds. "You're joking."
"Not even slightly."
"You said today was off."
He shook his head. "No, I said the Administration said today was off."
And clearly, there is a difference between what the Administration says and what Kakashi says.
I experimentally took another sip of the glass and grimaced, setting it down again. I had to admit that it was helping a little - I still felt half a second away from throwing up, but my head was steadying a bit.
I cleared my throat. "I suppose we all volunteered to start early and the paperwork saying so is all in order, signed by..." I eyed him suspiciously.
"Yours truly," he confirmed.
"Of course." I was beginning to get a sense of my new sensei, oh yes. "And I further suppose..." I growled "...that, were I to raise a fuss and tell you to stick your D-rank up where the light does not shine... it would not reflect well on my record."
"Insubordination tends to be slightly frowned upon, yes," he said mildly.
With a sigh, I slowly maneuvered myself to my legs, joints popping and creaking and making me feel like an elderly. I took a deep, slow breath, calming myself and firmly suppressing the impulse to try and punch my sensei in the face. Instead I just cracked my knuckles and stretched glumly, barely managing to not fall over backwards in the process. Then I headed for the bathroom, to see what could be done in ten minutes. More like eight, now.
I took a lightning shower, which was mostly two minutes of banging my head-gently-against the tiled wall to wake up while I turned the temperature down from burning hot to freezing cold, and dressed in fresh clothes. I returned to my room to find Kakashi looking at a couple of papers over by my workshop in the corner.
"What are you doing?!" I demanded.
"You really did fix the timing issue. Huh."
I sped across the room in a single chakra-boosted motion, making a grab for the papers. He reached out backwards and grabbed my arm without even looking, and I stopped dead in my tracks, just like that. I blinked. What the hell had that been? Some sort of momentum-stopping technique? Would that work on yourself? I could see some uses for that. I almost lost track of why I'd been angry before I remembered to glare furiously at Kakashi.
"Easy," he said. "I was just doing a little thing for ANBU. I'm not stealing anything, nor telling anyone how it works, not that I understand it completely myself."
The effect of hearing that was like being doused in icy water. "ANBU?" I asked warily. What did Konoha's black ops forces want with my notes?
Kakashi released my arm and I stepped back, rubbing it where he'd gripped it. He looked once more at the papers he'd held up-old and by now outdated working notes on how part of the triggering mechanism in my explosive scrolls was put together. "You see, a few people over at ANBU refused to believe that anybody but them had figured out how to do it - they were convinced you'd somehow stolen their research. Luckily, they still listen to me, so they agreed to let me go check it out, just to be sure."
"And...?" I asked, unable to suppress a sudden, small shiver. I hadn't stolen anything, of course, but with ANBU you never knew; they didn't follow the rules everybody else did. If there was even a coincidental resemblance to how they were doing it...
Kakashi nodded down at the papers. "Well, clearly you didn't steal their method. Their scrolls work in an entirely different way-much more clunky, really, to tell the truth." He looked at me, the contour of a wry smile forming beneath his mask. "So no problem."
I breathed out uneasily, almost hesitant to feel relief.
"There's a lesson to be learned here, by the way," Kakashi said, waving at the papers now scattered across my workdesk. "I did try not to look, but I couldn't help but see some awfully interesting ideas here."
"Yes," I said. "I get it. Anyone can poke their head in my window and look through everything I own at any time, including my work. Gee, I forgot."
"That's a way of putting it."
I refrained from shooting him a glare. It was... sort of true, after all. Instead, I stared down at my desk, muttering: "I'll... fix that. Somehow."
"Good. Now-" Kakashi stopped and turned to look at the door to the hallway "-I'll be waiting outside." He vanished out the window.
A second later the door opened and my mother poked her head in. Her eyebrows rose when she saw me fully clothed. "We heard sounds from in here and I went to check," she said, a hint of worry in her tone. "Are you really up already?"
"As you can see," I said, then sighed and began gathering up my various equipment belts, strapping them on and checking their contents.
"What's the matter, Sakura?" my mother asked. "I didn't think you'd be up for hours yet, the way you were when you came home earlier." Her tone turned dangerously airy while her face remained straight, though there was a small gleam in her eye. "Your father is making grumbling noises about someone not keeping their promises or something in that vein."
I'd already opened my mouth to reply when I realized that I had no idea at all what she was talking about-I couldn't even recall how I'd gotten home, let alone when... or much at all from before that. I frowned, trying to remember, but... it was all just a darkish blur after the earlier parts of the evening.
Never again, I told myself firmly. Ever.
I licked my lips and forced a smile for her, hoping it'd do. "I'm heading to work, mom. I'll be back later."
"Already?" my mother asked, frowning slightly. "I thought you weren't starting until tomorrow."
"Well, I'm starting today," I said shortly as I rifled through the last equipment pouch. I was still too light on a lot of things, after Kakashi's test-I only had so much cash to spare after all-but this would be enough for D-ranks. My head was another matter; it felt like my skull was playing host to a claustrophobic madman with a demonic sledgehammer.
I suppressed a groan, stepped up onto the windowsill and looked back at my mother. "I've gotta go..."
"Out the window, really, dear?"
"Don't... just don't ask."
My mother stared at me for a few moments, then licked her lips. "Dinner is at six. Will you be home by then?"
"I certainly hope so," I muttered darkly and swung outside.
It was fifteen minutes past one when we finally trundled into training ground five. My feet dragged, there probably wasn't a single part of my body that wasn't somehow hurting, and my stomach rumbled every few minutes or so.
"Where the hell is he?" Naruto asked.
"I don't know," I said and peered around. Training ground five was mostly used by academy instructors who needed the large, open space, but since the final year students had graduated and the rest of the academy's students were busy with their exams, it was sparsely populated. A few teams I didn't recognize were sparring or doing exercises, here and there, but Kakashi was nowhere to be seen.
He'd told us to meet him here at one o'clock when we were done helping the Regulars keep the law and order down by a large market fair, but we'd gotten held up subduing a huge drunken brawl that had sprung up out of absolutely nowhere right before we were supposed to be done. And that after an entire day of chasing shoplifters around and breaking up smaller fights while dealing with the mother of all hangovers. Today I had developed a newfound appreciation for the work which the Regular police did - I did not envy them.
"I guess we'll just have to wait," I said, walking over to a nearby tree and sliding down against it with a heavy sigh.
Naruto smiled, sitting down on the grass in the shade of the tree. "Killer first day, huh?"
"Tell me about it," I muttered, rubbing my forehead.
"You do look a little peaked."
I looked up at him, then self-consciously scratched the side of my freshly acquired black eye. They'd told me it didn't look too bad, but I wasn't so sure.
"I'm fine, really," I said.
Izanami snorted from where she stood against a nearby tree, arms crossed. I looked at her, trying not to glare. "Anything you want to say?"
"Nope," she said airily without looking at me, her gaze sweeping across the training ground.
I stared at her for a few more moments, then leaned my head back against the tree and closed my eyes, sighing again, determined to just enjoy the feeling of sitting down a bit and relaxing.
"This is ridiculous," Izanami said after a timeless interval. I jumped - I must have started dozing off. "He's twenty-five minutes late," she continued.
"We were fifteen minutes late," Naruto pointed out. "Maybe he, uh, just went out to look for us."
"He should be back by now in that case."
I didn't say anything; I had my private suspicions about where exactly Kakashi was, but I wasn't going to just air them out loud here. Izanami could bloody well figure it out on her own.
"We wouldn't have been late if Sakura hadn't screwed up," Izanami muttered after a second.
I sat up straight and looked at her with disbelief. "Excuse me?"
She raised her eyebrows at me. "What?"
"You were the one who stormed in without us, doing your own thing when we were supposed to keep things contained while the police-"
"It got the job done in a hurry, didn't it?" Izanami said. "What else was I supposed to do? Stand around looking pretty?"
I realized that my mouth hung open, and belatedly closed it. "You could have, you know, covered my flank like you were supposed to."
"Girls, girls," Naruto broke in. "Is this really the t-"
"Oh, I'm sorry for assuming you wouldn't have any trouble with a bunch of civilians," Izanami sneered. "I realize now that was too much to expect."
I almost began to reply hotly, but managed to stop myself short. In every confrontation like this, someone had to keep a cool head or things could quickly get ugly. I didn't want to get into a fight. I glanced aside at Naruto; he was glancing between me and Izanami, looking as if he wasn't certain just how much he was supposed to intervene.
Okay, I told myself, looked back at Izanami and took a deep, shaky breath. It's just a problem like any other. And how do we solve problems? By bringing them out into the open where we can examine them, and then dealing with them.
I squared my shoulders almost without thinking, while trying to figure out how to put this.
"Okay, what does it take?" I asked, trying not to let my voice tremble.
Izanami frowned. "What?"
"We've never been on the best of terms. My guess is that ever since you kicked my ass in that first match in third grade, I've been just another annoying little weakling that wasn't worth considering for someone like you. Being on a team with me annoys you because now you have no choice but to deal with me and you don't want to babysit me or make sure I'm alright when you don't think I can keep up, you just want to do the job and get on with it."
Izanami's eyebrows had risen by now. She glanced aside at Naruto, who was looking dumbstruck, and then looked around the training field as if to check whether we were being watched, and finally back at me. I almost shivered, for a moment, at the way her cold, dark eyes examined me - there was something vaguely predatory about that look.
"I'm on the right track, aren't I?" I asked.
She considered me curiously for a moment as if waiting for something to happen, then shrugged uncaringly. "Pretty much."
"So what would it take, to change that?"
The corner of her lip twitched. "I wouldn't even know where to begin."
"You wouldn't even have passed Kakashi's test without me," I pointed out, clenching my jaw. Where did she get off, putting it like that? It wasn't even a constructive insult, it was just bloody useless on every level.
"I'm not so convinced of that."
"It was about teamwork," I said. "If I hadn't gotten us to work together, we'd have failed."
Again, she shrugged. "We'll never know."
I clenched my fist and took a deep, shaky breath, but it was too late.
"How about this," I heard myself say coldly. "I go ahead and hand you your ass on a platter, and then you'll acknowledge maybe I'm not so useless after all."
Izanami smirked at me. "That would almost be interesting if it wasn't so pathetic. You see, I've already won."
She looked aside at Naruto, and I followed her gaze, then blinked-where the hell was he? Where the hell were we? Grass stretched as far into the horizon as the eye could see. Stunned, I looked back to Izanami, but she too was gone now, and so were the trees around us.
Shit, I thought. Genjutsu.
Before I could react, a gust of wind blew and the grass began to turn to dust before my eyes, revealing cracked, barren dirt beneath. Within moments, I could hardly see for the storm of sand swirling around me - it stung the skin and it was uncomfortable to breathe. Overcoming that brief disorientation, I realized that I was floating; the storm was a void of darkness and swirling colors around me - I had to suppress a shiver of discomfort. The darkness parted like the lid of an opening eye, giving way to the image of a slowly rotating Sharingan that filled the whole world. It never moved, but no matter where I looked, I was always staring straight into its center. Just the thought made my brain hurt.
"You're not even trying to break it," Izanami's voice echoed around me, a hint of disdain tingeing it.
I swallowed, fighting a rising sense of panic. That was because trying would be no use. I could maybe break this illusion, flood my own system with enough chakra to sever Izanami's grip on me, but I'd been too slow already. I hadn't caught it in time, I didn't even know exactly when she'd done it - any of the times I'd actually been stupid enough to look her in the eyes, probably. Silently, I cursed myself. This was a lost battle, if you could even call it a battle at all.
"I didn't mean now," I said.
"We don't always get to pick our battles," Izanami's voice replied. "You seem to prefer the blunt approach, so be blunt with yourself. Even if I let this genjutsu go without taking advantage, and the two of us faced off right now, who would win?"
I paused as I considered the answer to that question-actually considered it.
"I thought so," Izanami's voice came when I didn't answer right away. "When it really comes down to it, you're just a scared little girl who has to go home to daddy when it's l-"
There was the briefest of pauses. "What?"
"Give me a month and I will kick your ass in a straight-up fight. If I lose, you can call me whatever you want. I'll even admit that I'm weaker than you, and do my best not to get in your way."
"Don't be silly."
"What, afraid you're going to lose?" I taunted, unable to help myself.
The genjutsu was abruptly released, leaving me standing there on the grass in training ground five again. I jumped at the sudden transition and almost stumbled before I got a hold of myself. Izanami was standing right in front of me, considering me with narrowed eyes. Naruto had his hand on her shoulder as if to restrain her, and was staring at me with a worried expression.
The reason Izanami had released me immediately became apparent when I heard Kakashi's voice. "Is there a problem, here?"
We all turned to look at him, and nobody spoke for a moment. He was carrying a plastic bag - he must have only just arrived.
Or pretended to, anyway.
"We-" Naruto began.
"No," I said firmly. They all looked at me, and I shot a glance at Izanami. "There's no problem at all. Right?"
She stared at me, a frown settling onto her face, and our eyes met for a few brief moments. I let them - she wasn't going to try anything again, not right in front of Kakashi. Her expression firmed and she gave me the slightest of nods, and I knew that I had my answer.
"No," Izanami said slowly. "No problem."
Kakashi looked between the two of us a few times, then shrugged. "Okay." He held up the bag he was carrying. "I brought lunch."
Ten minutes later, we had polished off lunch to the last crumb. I'd been starving, and evidently the same could be said for Naruto and Izanami - we hadn't had time to get anything after that riot, after all, and we'd also been far too busy earlier. Kakashi seemed to have eaten already, and had just sat quietly and waited while we ate.
At first, even just sitting there and eating had been a tense experience, as if lightning could spark between me and Izanami at any moment. The feeling had slowly disappeared, though, and it felt like everybody had finally calmed down a bit. I certainly had, after the mild state of shock and anger had faded into the occasional tremor as some leftover tension released itself.
I'd been spending the last five minutes silently berating myself for letting my temper get the better of me. A month to take out Izanami? I hadn't the slightest idea how I was going to pull that off. In fact, I was already beginning to doubt that I would - I found my thoughts angling more and more towards how to cope when I inevitably failed.
Maybe I'd have a small chance if it had been six months, or hell, a year - why had I absolutely had to go ahead and say one month? I might as well have said one week, for all the good it would have done me. But for better or worse, one month was the deadline I was now stuck with.
I'd just started wondering what options I could actually explore when Kakashi sat up a little straighter and cleared his throat. We all looked at him.
"Alright," he said. "I've been studying your grades and Iruka's notes in greater detail. You've each got some personal strengths and weaknesses, and you know what those are. We'll be working on shoring up the weaknesses, of course, and making the strengths stronger-I'll give what help I can there. What I'm thinking is that I'll assign two of you exercises in pairs, and train the remaining person one on one, for an hour at a time. After that, we're going to be trying variations on team exercises like the bell test, with you three against me, until I'm tired of that. Then we can go home."
He looked at Naruto. "Mostly, it seems like you'd want to work on expanding your repertoire of techniques and refining your chakra control. I've got some ideas for how we can use your... uncommon amounts of chakra - some of them similar to what it seems like you and Izanami have already been doing. We'll see how that pans out."
"Sure," Naruto said.
I frowned; I'd almost completely forgotten about that in the midst of everything else. Even so, I stayed silent for now-it wasn't the time, though I really had to get around to asking him what that was all about. I was beginning to doubt I would get answers, too. If I hadn't been told so far, I probably wasn't going to be told at all.
Next, Kakashi turned to Izanami. "Your progression is rather more obvious. How far is your Sharingan along?"
"Second stage in each eye, like you saw," she answered tersely.
Kakashi nodded. "We'll test your various capabilities and see where our efforts are best applied. I've also got some fire techniques which I think would benefit your combat style."
"Have you been working on anything else?" Kakashi asked.
She opened her mouth as if to reply, then stopped, her gaze flickering briefly at me. "Nothing important, no."
Great, she's working on something else, I thought sourly. That's awesome.
Kakashi seemed to accept Izanami's statement at face value, though. He just nodded at her, then looked at me. I perked up.
"What you should be doing depends a lot on the direction you want to take," he said. "You've got talent with seals, and Iruka's notes said that your chakra control is on a rare level. From what I've seen so far, I agree with him. You could specialize in genjutsu, but with Izanami in the team that might prove superfluous in the short-term."
No, really? I thought.
"You could also plan to enlist as a medic-nin once you're done with field duty and train to supplement that," he said.
I frowned in thought. Genjutsu was definitely out, yes. Medic-nin, though? There was an idea I'd never honestly considered. Healing people actually sounded nice - it was all about fixing stuff, and that I could get on board with.
"You said you wanted to help people," Kakashi added, "and your chakra control means you would make a terrific medic-nin. As far as I can see, it looks like the best option for you."
It sounded nice, yes. "Medic-nin aren't allowed to take part in direct combat if they can avoid it, though, right?" I asked.
Kakashi nodded. "That's part of the oath Senju Tsunade demanded of all of Konoha's medic-nin, yes. Even with her gone, they still swear it. I thought you might consider it an added benefit."
My eyes narrowed a bit at that last comment, but I held my tongue. I'd read about the oath of the medic-nin somewhere, and couldn't recall the details, but I could recall that it was very restrictive. When you were a medic-nin, you were supposed to heal and help people, and nothing else. Tsunade, one of Konoha's three great Sannin and arguably the person who had invented the formalized profession of the medic-nin, had been extremely clear on that point.
And while that sounded nice, too, I had my doubts as to how sensible a philosophy that truly was. Besides, techniques and skills that were suited to be a medic-nin were fundamentally not suited for combat, no matter which oaths I would or would not eventually swear, and that... was a problem.
I was quiet for a few seconds while I considered that, before I finally spoke. "Actually, I think I'd like to start working on my earth affinity. And if you've got time later, I've got a few questions about seals that could get a little involved."
Kakashi frowned. "Elemental techniques are chakra intensive, and learning an affinity can take quite a while."
"All the more reason to get started earlier. Besides, I tend to learn techniques very fast. That should be in the notes as well."
"Are you sure?" Kakashi asked. "I really think becoming a medic-nin would be a better choice for you, overall."
"I can always change my mind later," I said. "For now, yeah, I'm sure."
Kakashi looked doubtful. "You'll be practicing a few other basics besides that, then - I suppose that goes for all of you. As for the rest, I'll answer the questions I can-later, when we've seen what you can do. I also know some people higher up in the academy faculty. Maybe I can get you access to some of the level two or three scrolls and books on the subject."
I smiled. "That would be great."
"In that case, I'll see what I can do." He stood up and clapped his hands once. "Okay! Let's get to work."
Training was less immediately draining than I'd expected. Perhaps Kakashi had realized that we - or at least, I - were already drained from an entire day of trying to keep order in a drunken crowd. He was being... well, gentle was really the wrong word - non-psychotic might fit better. I was likely just comparing it to the way it had been when he was testing us. Now we could set our own pace while we were paired up and he was working with one alone. He'd set us to trying to pull off substitutions with each other in quick succession to train our coordination and familiarity.
It was a tricky maneuver, since the technique had to be applied from both sides at once. Also, substituting yourself with something that had chakra was extremely difficult - even a non-sentient pig or a febrile old man was at least a few dozen times harder to substitute with forcibly than a dead log. Substitution involved lacing the target with your own chakra as a way to, for lack of a better word, anchor yourself as the technique pulled you through space. Naturally, that was much harder when the target was already seeped with its own chakra, however slight.
At first, I was paired up with Izanami. I had my doubts as to how that would work out, but neither of us actually acknowledged what had passed between us earlier in the slightest. Working with her was a clinical experience; we kept it professional and impersonal, which suited me fine. We agreed on a given set of maneuvers and locations and general timing, and then we simply went ahead and did that.
Ironically, with Izanami the technique worked so smoothly I hardly even noticed I was substituting myself for a living being with its own chakra and not an inert rock. I wasn't sure what that said about Izanami, but I couldn't fault her chakra control. I screwed up only once, slipping off a tree branch after substituting with her had left me with a bad footing. The slightly superior smirk she sent me when I rubbed a bruised calf said it all. I grit my teeth and concentrated harder, barreling stubbornly through the tiredness that plagued me. I didn't screw up again.
When it came turn to pair with Naruto, it was much harder than I'd expected. His chakra control was truly horrendous, at least compared to mine. His preferred way of doing things when in a hurry, it seemed, was to just shunt more chakra at the technique until it aligned to what he wanted. When cooperating, though, such an approach was far more detrimental than anything else.
"I even have trouble doing some of the simpler chakra exercises sometimes," he admitted to me, looking embarrassed and scratching the back of his head. "It's like, you've got scalpels while I'm trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer or something."
"At least it's a very big sledgehammer," I panted, and leaned on a tree to recuperate from our latest attempted switcheroo. By being forced to try and counter-balance the enormous amounts of chakra he was using, I was tiring myself out very quickly.
"I do have an idea though," he said. "Let's try this instead. Just keep standing there and don't do anything."
I raised an eyebrow in inquiry. He quickly formed the five hand-seals for the substitution technique and paused on the last, an aura of faint blue suddenly engulfing him. My hair stood on end; I could feel it from over here - no, wait. His chakra linked to mine as he tried to affect the substitute, and then it swept mine completely aside like a stray leaf in a hurricane before I could even react.
In the blink of an eye, my body was awash with foreign chakra. The burning sensation completely overwhelmed me for a timeless moment, and then it was over and I was somehow on my hands and knees, gasping for breath. There was a faint, buzzing tingling all over and I felt very jittery, as if every single nerve in my entire body had spazzed out at once.
"Woah, you okay?" came Naruto's voice. I looked up at him running over to me and became aware that I was where he'd been standing before.
"Warn me when you do that next time," I gasped, then sat back and took a few deep breaths. "That was pretty overwhelming."
Naruto frowned. "Probably not the best idea, though, if it does that to you."
"You've never tried that with Izanami before?"
He shrugged. "Never had to. We don't have any problem cooperating like this, syncing up chakra."
I frowned, for a second. "Then why is it so hard for us?"
He grinned, letting himself plop down into the grass beside me. "It's probably her cheat codes, you know."
"Her what?" I asked, then immediately felt stupid. "Oh."
Her Sharingan's chakra perception would give her a keen knowledge of what the counterpart was doing and how to supplement that and adjust her own technique to fit. The perfect tool for delicate teamwork, handed to her on a silver platter.
Naruto's grin widened, seeing my now sour face. "Yeah, I know the feeling. Those eyes really are scarily useful. I'm glad she's on our side."
"Her brother isn't."
Naruto's grin disappeared. "No, he isn't." He put on a tight smile. "But it's not like we'll ever have to fight him, right?"
I frowned at him, then blinked and looked away to hide my reaction. He didn't mean that. Does he actually expect to meet Uchiha Itachi?
"She's not the only one born with a lot of advantages, though, is she?" I asked in an absent tone, trying to change the topic while my mind was processing that sudden revelation. I looked back at him, indicating clearly who I was talking about.
"What do you mean?" he asked, a little defensively.
"It's really not normal to be able to throw out the amounts of chakra you do. And you don't tire easily either. What is it, some kind of obscure bloodline limit?"
He opened his mouth. "Uuhhhhmm..." He grinned while scratching the back of his head, his gaze flickering from side to side as if looking for someone to extricate him from me. "Well..."
"So you can't tell me about it," I said, and sighed. "Figures."
"Well..." he said hesitantly. "I'd really rather not."
I frowned. "That makes it sound like it's embarrassing, not like it's a village secret." My lips twitched. "What, it's like ninja hemorrhoids or something?"
He half-snorted, half-chuckled, and held up his hands. "No, no, nothing like that, thank the gods." He paused, then relented. "Well, okay maybe a little bit, only... not totally gross."
My eyes narrowed and I glanced sharply over at Izanami, currently sparring furiously with Kakashi in a blurry taijutsu-only display of speed and acrobatics that went almost too fast to follow.
"She knows," I said.
Naruto said nothing for a while, then sighed. "Yeah, she does."
I looked at him again, and he looked back with a surprisingly annoyed expression, one I'd never seen on him before.
"Look," he said. "Could you not push it? Please?"
I blinked, my mouth continuing on without me before I had a chance to think about it. "Sure. Sorry."
He shrugged. "It's okay." He stood up and offered me a hand. "Come on - let's not let Kakashi see us have too much of a breather."
With a small, absentminded nod of assent, I let him help me up, and we began again. The things Naruto had said had me distracted, though, and in the end we didn't even manage to pull off a proper two-way substitution before the next swap. I was the last person Kakashi pulled over.
Mostly, the session with Kakashi passed with demonstrations, mapping out with him exactly which techniques I knew and how well I could control them. How fast could I prepare a substitution when being distracted? Could I body flicker and retain my old momentum? While leaving behind clone images? And dragging wire? Or excluding certain parts of my gear when I substituted, so I could leave behind nasty surprises without even using my hands? Could I internalize the seal when I body flickered so I didn't have to use my hands, or even just manage to do it with one hand?
And on it went; Kakashi's list of demanded feats was long - most of them I couldn't quite pull off, since I'd never tried before, but there were a few of them that I actually managed to do, when I really took the time to concentrate. Not that that would ever be acceptable in battle, but you could always get faster once you had the basics down.
Once I was breathing heavily from the exertion, Kakashi decided to test my chakra control. He had me try a variation of the common leaf exercise, where instead of using chakra to stick leaves to various parts of my body while doing several things at once, I had to stick sand to the palm of my hands or my forehead or wrists or feet in highly specific patterns like circles or squares and keep it there. Then he wanted me to change the patterns around without losing any grains of sand. Then he upped the amount of patterns I should try to maintain. Then he wanted me to-
"Excuse me?" I asked, sitting on the ground with my legs crossed, tired and sweaty. Sand fell down my face as I lost hold of the latest exercise - trying to keep a small sphere of sand cohesive and balanced on the bridge of my nose. It was getting in my clothes and sandals, chafing, and I was really beginning to get tired of Kakashi's progressively more insane demands. I could feel my chakra coils aching from the day's exertions.
"Try to see if you can make it float apart from your skin," Kakashi said again. "That is, without it actually touching the skin."
For a moment, I said nothing, shooting him a slightly sullen glance. He didn't even seem to notice it. Then, with a heavy sigh, I got to work.
I touched my finger to the ground and stuck a layer of sand to the tip, then held it up before my eyes and frowned at it. Manipulating something as fine and porous as sand was tricky. Sticking a layer of it to my skin was easy enough, and controlling how much it stuck in different places to form patterns was doable, if difficult. Changing the patterns had demanded that I actually use my chakra to push the sand around, delicately, without losing any of it. It was kind of like cradling it in a small envelope of chakra that you then shaped to your needs. This was just the logical extension of that.
The small patch of sand on my finger slowly bunched together in a single clump. I narrowed my eyes, and it took on a slightly more spherical shape, resting on the tip. Then I tried to gently push it off and the entire thing broke apart. I huffed with frustration.
Unequal pressure, I told myself. Concentrate and try again.
Kakashi watched me attentively. It took me four more tries before I had a tiny sphere of sand floating half a centimeter above my finger.
"How far out can you go?" he asked.
I tried a little more, pushing it out slowly. One centimeter, two, three, five, seven... the distance from my finger began to make shaping the chakra close to impossible. At around ten, the sphere broke apart and I released a pent-up breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. "No more than that," I said, taking a deep breath and sitting back. "This is tiring."
"That's really pretty impressive," Kakashi said. "I know jounin who can't push that exercise so far."
"My endurance really isn't much to speak of, though," I said, though I had to keep a small smile off of my face.
"It's not a matter of how much force you apply." Kakashi held up a kunai and tapped the tip of it. "But of how you apply it. Your low capacity does cripple your technique selection somewhat, but I," he tapped his forehead protector which hid his Sharingan, "know a lot of techniques. You've more than assuaged my main worry, which is that of how fast you should be able to learn techniques. I think I can have you using some very basic earth techniques reliably in a couple of months."
"Wait, I thought that was supposed to take years?"
He shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Sure, that's what they tell the second and third and fourth-graders, and even some of the firsts." His gaze fell on me, a wry glint in his eyes. "But then, that's not us, is it?"
I grinned faintly, a feeling of elation coursing through me. "I guess not."
And then the feeling faded as quickly as it came, as I realized that a few months wasn't quite fast enough to actually help against Izanami. Well... no matter, I supposed. I hadn't counted on it, certainly - I just knew that learning affinities took intense training with your chakra, which was bound to increase my capacity and control which would be useful enough on its own.
If I kept Izanami believing that I was working on an affinity so I could match her, while I was actually concentraing mostly on some other thing that she wouldn't see coming... maybe that could work out. I'd need to sit down, later, and really think this through. When I first stumbled on the idea for the exploding scrolls, after all, it had felt very hopeless too, after the first few dozen failed attempts.
Besides, I thought, who's to say I can't learn it faster than he thinks I can?
"If you can get a decent repertoire of earth techniques, achieve the near-perfect control of the clone, body flicker, transformation and substitution techniques that I think you can, and with maybe the slight addition of some basic genjutsu tricks and, of course, some support from your fanciful seal-work, I think you can fill out a very capable support role for our team," Kakashi said. "People always underestimate how valuable the basic techniques are when they become as natural as breathing. It's not the big, splashy techniques that make the ninja, after all-try finding a jounin who hasn't fully mastered those four basic techniques and I can guarantee you that you'll be looking at more graves than anything else."
I thought about that. Not a glorious role, compared to a front-line heavy-hitter like Naruto or a budding taijutsu and genjutsu master like Izanami, not to speak of when you combined the two, but... I could read between the lines of what he'd just said, I thought.
The corner of my lip turned up ever so slightly. "I'll take it."
"Of course you will."
That evening at home, I sat at my desk at the small workshop in my room, nursing a cup of tea. I'd apologized to dad for not being home on time-apparently I hadn't gotten home until four-and I'd just barely avoided an argument with him about the black eye. I'd endured dinner, finished doing the dishes, taken a really long shower, and then, finally, I had gotten to retreat to my room, to be with myself and my thoughts, and, most importanly, with my pen and paper.
I sipped my tea while I tried to make heads and tails of the complete and utter mess my notes had been left in. Kakashi had been much more thorough than I realized at the time - not a single piece of paper had been left unturned and not a single drawer hadn't been rifled through. Nothing was in its proper place, but at least nothing had been broken either - if it had been, I really would have had words with Kakashi.
As it was, it wasn't too much effort to track down a few pieces of blank paper and a pen and clear a small space to work in. I chewed idly on the pen as I stared at the blank piece of paper. It was rare that I wrote anything useful down when I did this, but the blank piece of paper somehow always helped set the thoughts flowing. It wasn't working as well tonight as it usually did, though; the headache hadn't completely passed yet, not even now. The inky and faintly charred smell of my workshop wasn't really helping either, even if I normally found it comforting.
With a sigh, I got up and walked over to open the window and get a breath of the fresh evening air; perhaps that would clear my head a bit. I leaned on the windowsill and peered up at the darkening sky, the day having given way to murky twilight a while ago. A wave of fatigue swept over me as I stood there - I probably really should get a solid night's sleep. A calm breeze ruffled the leaves of the nearby trees and blew gently past me. I stood there for a bit, then closed the window again and rubbed my face tiredly.
Even having just aired out my room, the faint scent of chakra ink still hung in the air. I sighed, giving it up for naught and went back to my desk, picking the pen up and chewing on it. Maybe I wouldn't have any strokes of genius tonight, but it always helped to sit and chew on a problem just before I slept. I would sit here until I'd exhausted the topic as thoroughly as I felt I could, as I'd done so many other times before, and only then would I sleep.
In the end, it took hours before I went to bed.
While great progress has been made in the chakra sciences during the past century, any experienced practitioner will tell you that the amount of known mysteries far outstrips the amount of known facts, and that every discovered clue unveils a dozen new questions. Any genuine expert in the field will state that the only thing they know for sure is that they don't know much.
Perhaps the most well-known example is this: It has during the last century become an accepted fact that energy in a closed system is limited, quantifiable and subject to the laws of entropy in almost all cases. Almost, that is, apart from with chakra techniques. This was suggested by the famous experiments performed by Mao Nanyue, who demonstrated that the energy a powerful practitioner receives from the food he eats is not sufficient to provide energy for the techniques he is consistently capable of performing.
Nor is there a sufficient dip in ambient chakra levels to explain this discrepancy as the ninja drawing in energy from his immediate surroundings (rather, the ambient levels of chakra rose considerably during the experiment). Other experiments were also performed, such as studying the effects of fasting on chakra replenishment and total capacity (limited, but still significant).
The only explanation, Mao posited, is that there exists some external, extra-dimensional "source" from which chakra is drawn. This, he states, would also explain how creatures which are simply physical expressions of pure chakra (lesser to greater demons and devas, the tailed beasts which arguably might fit under such qualifications, as well as many others) can possibly exist. Apart from his experiments*, however, there is little proof of this theory and it remains one of the largest open questions in the field of chakra science.
Progress in the field, compared to the other sciences which have seen a boom this past century, has been seen as slow. Undoubtedly, one of the major reasons for this is secrecy. Advanced chakra techniques are primarily used by ninja, samurai and temple monks, all groups which guard the secret workings of their powers jealously, from outsiders and from each other. In a more literal sense than usual, here, knowledge is power.
Another issue is that, perhaps due to the heavily militarized and mysticism-laced nature of the field, there is a lack of a certain attitude of mind. While it is premature to call the ninja of today archaic, it is perhaps appropriate to call them excessively practical. A theory is not necessarily given high regard, unless it is easily translated into newer, more efficient ways of waging war on the enemy. Thus, the past century of scientific growth and the emergence of the paradigms of reproducibility and peer review fit ill with the fundamentally antagonistic and suspicious ninja mindset.
* It should be noted that several possible flaws in Mao Nanyue's experiments have been pointed out by later scientists, who, despite the experiments' reproducibility, are reluctant to draw the same conclusions, if any, regarding the nature and origin of chakra, instead opting simply to admit: "We don't know what's happening, or why."
—Ryuuzaki Leiko, "Chakra Sciences in the new century", Excerpt of Article pp. 5-11, Science Illustrated Magazine Issue 97 - "The World of Chakra"
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