Our next few missions involved things that I couldn't really use my magic on. A few were babysitting young children(No Naruto, I'm not petrifying them), and others involved delivering messages (No Naruto, I'm not flying you halfway across Konoha) or carrying heavy objects for cranky old ladies (No Naruto, I'm not going to put a silencing charm on them). Kakashi insisted that the boys do this work because they needed to earn their pay too.
So I spent most of the next few days hanging back and trying to pin down Kakashi long enough to have an actual conversation. He had this strange habit of disappearing whenever I wanted to talk to him and reappearing in hard-to-reach places like the tops of telephone poles, in trees, and on roof tops. He never gave any satisfactory explanation for this, but I thought it must be because he wanted to read his weird orange book.
I finally managed to corner him three days later during a training session. I was taking a much needed break while the boys continued to fight. Naruto might have made a small army of clones and was running around like a maniac, but he still had a seemingly endless supply of chakra and energy. Sasuke on the other hand, was simply a master of controlling his body, making no unnecessary movements and wearing his opponent out with small but effective attacks. Thus I ran out of steam long before either of them was even winded.
"Kakashi-sensei," I panted, snagging the sleeve of his jacket before he could dart away. I was a bit surprised that he allowed it this time. I took a second to compose myself, though I still didn't let his sleeve go for fear that he would run off again. "I need your advice on how to fight more effectively with my magic. You can see that it wasn't much better today than it was before. I haven't even been able to hit Naruto all day, and Sasuke won't let me get close enough to attack. Is there anything I can do?"
I was half expecting him to shrug and tell me to train harder, but Kakashi ran his free hand through his hair and looked down at me.
"Hmm, well normally we like to encourage our students to find what works best for them rather than molding them personally," he said. "But I suppose a few hints wouldn't hurt. Alright, what is the range of your attacks?"
"Twenty feet," I said instantly.
"Is that a fixed number, or can you extend it with training?" He asked.
"Magical strength is tied to age, talent, and training," I explained, letting him go because I was pretty sure he would stick around...for now. "My magic will naturally become stronger as I get older. My talent was determined at birth. And I already train at the optimal level for increasing my abilities. By my calculations, I can gain approximately three inches per week, though the rate of growth will accelerate when I become a teenager and will start to drop off after I turn thirty or so."
"Do you think your rate of growth will be good enough to catch an enemy unaware?" he asked.
"No." I wasn't sure what else I could add to that.
"Alright, then working with magic exclusively wouldn't be such a good idea, would it?" he asked.
"Are you saying that I should try using ninjutsu as well?" I asked. Then I felt stupid. "Oh! I could use kawarimi no jutsu to replace myself with something closer to Sasuke, or I could do what you did in the bell test and replace myself with one of Naruto's clones and use henge to hide or something."
Kakashi was giving me a happy eye smile.
"See, there's nothing there that you didn't already know," he said. "You're the smartest kunoichi that the Academy has produced in a while. Have more faith in your own intelligence."
I blushed a bit. It was the first time Kakashi had actually complimented me, but I also felt a little foolish for not thinking of it before. I had become so focused on thinking like a witch that it was hard to remember some of the other skills I'd learned. I'd just decided during the bell test that my ninja skills weren't going to be effective, and so I'd ignored them. Now that I thought of it, I hadn't even used kawarimi or henge in almost a year.
I knew that my ninja skills were not the best. I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my team, and so I ended up relying exclusively on the one ability that set me apart rather than improving the skills that were lacking.
"Sakura, there is one more thing I want to warn you about," said Kakashi.
"Yes, sensei?" I asked.
"A ninja is usually only as good as the tools they use to get the job done," he said, his eye now very serious. "Those tools can be their weapons, their body, or their chakra. Your tool is your wand. It is very effective at what it does, but ultimately, it is a very small, very brittle piece of wood. If it were broken, would you be able to make another one?"
"No," I said nervously. "There are special wizards who make and sell wands. And the wands themselves are quasi-sentient. Mr. Olivander, the wizard who made my wand, told me that the wand chooses the wizard. Even if I could make a wand, there is no guarantee that it would choose me."
"And you can't perform magic without your wand," he said.
It wasn't a question, but I answered him anyway.
"I can perform wandless magic when I am in a heightened emotional state," I said. "However, I can't cast spells or control the magic to any great extent."
"Time Out!" Kakashi shouted across the field. "Sasuke, take a break. Naruto, to me."
They stopped immediately. Sasuke slouched off to sit under a tree at the edge of the field. Naruto bounded toward us. I wondered what Kakashi was planning now. I had a sinking feeling that it involved scaring magic out of me.
"What is it, sensei?" Naruto asked.
"I'm going to work with you and Sakura on taijutsu training," he said.
"What really?" Naruto asked excitedly. "Hey, that's great! Right, Sakura-chan!"
I was so relieved that it didn't involve whatever horrors I was sure Kakashi could think up that I merely nodded. We spent the next four hours reviewing basic stances and choreographed movements. I also sparred with Naruto three times, him without his shadow clones, and me without my magic. Naruto's form was sloppy, but he more than compensated with his enthusiasm, strength, and ability to shrug off pretty much every hit I could land.
Kakashi occasionally left us alone to check on Sasuke, who was practicing fire jutsu by the lake. By the end of the day I was flat on my back with muscles like jelly and stabbing pains coming from every part of my body. I saw Kakashi and Sasuke walking over, so I rolled into a painful sitting position.
"From now on Sakura, I want you to practice kata for at least an hour every morning," Kakashi said. "I can tell from today's training that your strength, speed, and taijutsu are below average. If you get into a fight and do not manage to surprise your enemy, it is doubtful that you will survive the encounter."
I nodded mutely. I knew this already even if I didn't want to hear it spoken aloud by my sensei.
"Don't worry," he said. "You're not hopeless. But I want you to focus on bringing your taijutsu up to a solid Genin level before you worry about incorporating your magic into a fight."
That made sense. It was what I had wanted in the first place even if I was too ashamed to admit it. But Naruto had sparred with me for hours, and he'd never made fun of me or called me weak. And if Sasuke thought I was beneath him, well, he seemed to think that way about everyone. It wasn't something for me to worry about.
"Alright, sensei," I said with a smile. "I'm here because I want to be stronger. If that's what it takes, then I'll do it."
"That's good to hear," he said. "That's enough for today. I'll see you all tomorrow."
And he poofed away, leaving us in a cloud of smoke.
I still didn't know whether or not I would be attending school next year, but that didn't stop me from starting on all the homework my teachers had assigned over the summer holidays. There were three books to read, seven essays ranging from five to nine rolls of parchment, and a proposal for a theoretical potions synthesis to keep me busy between missions and training.
It was at the end of the second week of the holidays when I received my first letter from Ron. Errol, the Weasley family owl, swooped into my room just before dawn and face-planted right onto my bed. I was more than a little surprised to find that Errol had managed to not only get through the portal connecting our worlds, but had also managed to find his way here considering that my magical alias was completely secret and that I looked almost nothing like my magical counterpart. I had just finished getting dressed, so I walked over to him to see if he was alright.
He was out cold.
I folded his wings gently to his side and arranged him so that he could sleep comfortably on the blankets and then reached for Ron's letter. It had Hermione written on it in an untidy scrawl.
I tore open the letter to read.
I hope you're having fun down in France with your family. Can you believe the amount of homework Snape assigned? Git.
Anyway, I wanted to warn you not to call Harry this summer. I tried and his uncle answered the telephone. I think I got Harry into a lot of trouble. Those muggles don't seem to like magic or wizards very much.
I think I'm going to ask Harry to come over for the summer. Mum says its okay, and if you decide France is boring, you're welcome to come too. If not, we'll be in Diagon Alley during the last week of the holidays to pick up our school books, so we might see you then.
I winced when I read about Harry's uncle's reaction, but the fact that Ron was going to invite him over for the summer mollified me a bit. I didn't know very much about Harry's family, but I suspected that they weren't fond of either Harry or wizards in general. There wasn't much I could do for him here. The few telephone lines in Konoha didn't connect to the muggle world, and I didn't have my own owl to send letters with. I'd have to wait for Harry to send me a letter before I could reply with anything meaningful. I didn't like feeling so helpless. Well, if I couldn't talk to Harry directly yet, I could still try a secondary route.
I took out an unused roll of parchment, ink, and a quill and set down to write my response.
I hope Harry is okay. Send him a letter to make sure nothing happened, and try to arrange a time to talk to him when his aunt and uncle aren't home. I haven't had a chance to call him yet, but I suppose now it wouldn't be such a idea.
I'm having loads of fun here in France. I've only been here two weeks and I'm learning so much. I've even made a few friends with the locals. One of them is just like you and the twins. Thanks for the invitation, but I think I'll see you again at the end of the holidays right before we go to school.
I stopped then and bit my lip. If the Hokage didn't give me permission to return to school, what would happen then? Ron and Harry would be worried. Dumbledore and McGonagall would probably contact the Ministry about finding me. I glanced over at Errol, suddenly worried. If an owl could find me here, what was to stop a trained Ministry wizard?
I wouldn't be able to just disappear. That would have been cruel. I needed to concoct a reasonable explanation for my departure. I knew that ANBU would take the simple route and just arrange for my 'death.' They could make very realistic bodies, ones which even magic couldn't identify as false.
What would they say when they found out?
The homework for this summer isn't that bad. Just don't leave everything until the last minute. I know you can handle it because I've seen your work. You're really smart when you put your mind to it and after everything we've done, a little reading and writing should be fine. And if you still need help, you know I'll always be there to give you a hand.
I stopped again. I obviously couldn't tell him outright all the things I wanted to say. Ron might not have been the most observant person, but he wasn't stupid either. As much as I wanted to tell him about following rules and protecting his friends and being brave and noble and a good person, I just couldn't do it in the context of a simple letter without making it sound like I knew something terrible was about to happen to me. I sighed.
I'm so busy, I might be out of reach for a while, but don't worry. I'll definitely be in Diagon Alley right before the start of term. I'll see you then.
It was too short.
There wasn't enough of what I wanted to say. But despite the fact that it was far too simple and barely covered the basics, I had spent too much time on it already. The sun had fully risen by now. I needed to start on my kata before going down to meet my team. I finished arranging my shuriken in my thigh holster and I left out a bowl of water and a few strips of jerky for Eroll when he woke. Last, I tied the letter to Eroll's leg as he still lay asleep, and I slipped out of the room.
Eroll would take my letter back to Ron when he woke.
I hoped that Ron would get the letter soon and that Harry was alright. But even more than that, I hoped I wasn't a liar.
Just when I had decided that I had no life outside being a kunoichi, ANBU decided it was time for a demonstration of my new skills. While the rest of my team was off doing more new missions, I was left standing in a dark room with half a dozen diagnostic jutsu running around me. There was a large seal on the floor that spiraled out twenty feet with eight ANBU sitting evenly spaced around the circle and three more standing silently in the shadows. There were only a few candles and torches to light the space, so I had to squint as I walked into the center of the circle.
"Begin with the disarming charm," said the gruff voice of one of the shadowed ANBU. I could vaguely make out a white rat mask with green markings. "When I tell you to start, fire three consecutive spells. First aim at straight ahead at the wall, then at the practice dummy, and finally at Salamander."
The Salamander masked ANBU gave me a small wave from where he stood leaning against a life-size wooden practice dummy.
"Boar, are the readings stable?" asked Rat.
"Chakra stable at 97%," said Boar. "Baseline fluctuation patterns have been recorded. Energy recovery linear at 0.5% per minute. All diagnostic seals active and receiving. Ready when you are, Captain."
I drew out my wand and shifted into a more stable fighting stance.
"Start," said Rat.
I aimed my wand at the empty air and shouted "Expelliarmus!"
Predictably, with nothing to hit there was no visible reaction. I switched to the practice dummy and repeated the spell. The dummy flew back ten feet to smash into the wall, the dull kunai laying in its hand suddenly flung upward. I tried to keep track of it even as I turned to Salamander and shouted the spell for the third time. Salamander was thrown back, his own practice kunai also flung upward. I looked over in time to see a rabbit-masked ANBU use body-flicker to dart around the room and catch both kunai before they could hit anyone. Salamander was already back in his previous place looking none the worse for wear.
"Chakra still stable at 97%," said Boar. "Fluctuation patterns were briefly spiked at the release of the spell. Energy recovery dipped to 0.4%, but recovered to previous levels within 0.7 seconds. The main chakra detection seals coming up negative. The splitter and amplifier loops are recording only atmospheric interference. Alpha and Beta energy lines stable. Theta energy lines were noticeably elevated during casting with logarithmic decay upon release. No significant variations between spells."
"Is the Theta energy pattern clear and distinguishable?" asked Rat.
"Yes," said Boar. "It's energy pattern is similar to other attack spells. We should be able to isolate the offensive spell baseline template and have the seal reference it for future use."
"Good," said Rat. "Haruno-san, repeat the three spell pattern, but this time cast them all at empty air and vary the strength of the spell. Start strong and end weak."
It went on for hours.
I might have regretted not having the end of year exams to practice with, but Rat ran me through every spell at least a dozen times while the others identified the underlying energy signatures that defined each of them. We took a break for lunch as my stamina began to drop from standing and casting all morning, and when we returned that afternoon, I was made to repeat all of my first year spells so that they could compare results.
The next few days were dedicated to clarifying information found in my books, essays, and notes. The main problem with this was that everything I had was in English and not all of it translated very well. ANBU had some very skilled translators, but even they wanted to make sure the description of the Bat Bogey hex was correct.
Then they had me practice all of the spells I'd written about but hadn't been taught yet. I had very good success for all of the third year spells and many of the fourth year spells after a few days of practice, but beyond that my abilities dropped off rather rapidly.
I was only partially surprised by my rapid progress. On the one hand, two weeks was practically nothing when learning new spells, and I'd mastered over a year's worth of new material in that time. On the other hand, there's nothing more terrifying than a masked ANBU who doesn't take any sissy excuses for a lack of results. With that kind of motivation glaring at me while I waved my wand, it was a wonder that I'd made it through training at all.
It took more than two weeks, but they were finally done with me.
Still, by the end I was very glad that I could essentially coast my way through all my classes next year and try to focus on ninja training in my spare time if I wanted to. I had no doubt that if I came back at the end of third year and hadn't improved that Naruto and Sasuke would be on a whole other level from me. As it was now, I had a faint chance of keeping up with them if I worked at it, but that meant dedicating a large portion of my time to training every day.
I was also glad to have another attack spell added to my arsenal. The stunning spell was still a little difficult to handle and gave off a very obvious flash of red light, but I could think of several situations in which I would rather have the victim unconscious rather than frozen and aware. There was also the downside that it was clearly not as powerful as the petrifying spell because it only rendered the victim unconscious for about two minutes. I suspected that the spell would grow stronger as I became older and more powerful, but right now it wasn't something I was willing to rely on.
The last thing the ANBU did before sending me on my way was to take the remainder of the polyjuice potion for testing. I'd made more than enough, knowing that ANBU would want the largest possible sample, and so there were a total of 10 doses left.
After my previous experience with it, I should have been happy to see it go, but unbeknown to them, I only gave them five samples and I kept the rest hidden for myself. Why did I do this? Partially because I didn't know when I might need to be someone else, but mostly because I'd gone through too much trouble to make it just to hand it all over to someone else.
All in all, I was rather happy to return to my team. Naruto was as enthusiastic as ever, and even Sasuke seemed relieved. When I asked Kakashi about their last few missions, he told me that they had all been particularly smelly.
I decided then that I didn't want to know more than that.