Chapter 3: Ars Magica
“Hey, hey, Sakura!”
Naruto crouched next to the girl. She was sitting lotus-style on the side of the tree, running a finger through the dirt. She was drawing some sort of mandala. Sakura looked up at him and smiled. As always, Naruto’s heart skipped a beat.
Sakura was, as far as Naruto was concerned, the prettiest girl in their class. He kept that thought to himself, however. Sakura wasn’t like most other girls. When Naruto forced other girls in the class to acknowledge him, they always got mad or frustrated. They would yell at him and sometimes hit him to make him go away.
Not that this stopped him. Shouting and hurled objects was better than the usual treatment, which was just being ignored as if he didn’t exist. No, there were only two girls in his entire class that didn’t either ignore or shout at him, and one was Sakura.
The other, Hinata, always just sort of locked up and stammered. Which was strange, because the one other thing Sakura did was to throw the stammering girl at him.
Naruto never had found out why the two of them were friends. They had been basically inseparable all throughout school. Hinata was always walking around behind Sakura. For her part, Sakura would drag the girl behind her, always pulling her into group activities and making certain she participated in games. Now that he thought about it, the only time Sakura was ever away from Hinata during classes was when Naruto approached her.
That was when Sakura would somehow give Naruto the slip and leave him alone with the blushing and stuttering Hinata. Sometimes she just gracefully excused herself. Other times she slipped behind Hinata and disappeared somewhere. One time, when Naruto had been working up the courage to ask Sakura out while she and Hinata were playing on the jungle gym she had literally tripped Hinata and caused her to fall on top of him so they ended up lying on the ground with her on top of him.
For some reason, Hinata had frozen in place and not reacted for nearly a half hour after that. Naruto had taken her to the medic’s office; he was so scared she might have broken her head.
It made one thing clear. Sakura really didn’t want anything to do with him. So he mainly pined from a distance.
“Naruto?” Sakura waved a hand in front of his face. “Can I help you?”
Naruto gulped and glanced away. Ugh! Be a man, Uzumaki! You can just ask her for a favour as a friend! As a teammate! It was perfectly natural! Right! He pumped his fist.
“Sakura!” he shouted. Then he paused and glanced super-stealthy-like towards Sasuke. The gloomy bastard was glaring at him. Naruto rocked back on his heels and looked away. No way he was going to let him listen in! He leaned in and whispered, cupping his hand conspiratorially.
“How did you do the tree walking thing?”
She chuckled. “Well, since you asked-“
Sakura blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it again. “Come again?” She looked, for the first time since Kakashi had first met her, taken completely off-guard.
“I said, ‘why did you not mention the puddle’.” As he spoke, Kakashi walked – with some difficulty – across the bridge to where Sakura was sitting. His crutch was silent as he moved. Grim experience had made Kakashi one of the few ninja who knew the secret to stealthy crutch-walking. Secretly, he was a little bit proud of it.
Didn’t make it any more fun to practice, however.
Sakura fixed him with a steady gaze as he approached. “The puddle,” she repeated slowly. “I… assume you mean the puddle those Mist nin were concealed within? Why would I have mentioned it?”
She deliberately looked away from him, fixing her gaze on the workmen on the bridge. The sound of tools hammering and drilling rose and fell constantly around them as work continued on the ambitious construction. Kakashi gave the workers an idle glance. Hmm. Yes. That certainly looked like a bridge being built.
“When we passed them, you looked directly at the puddle and clicked your tongue under your breath.” Shifting his weight with a skill developed by regrettable experience, Kakashi made a half turn and gracefully sat himself next to her. “It’s normally polite to inform your teammates when you know they’re about to be ambushed.”
Sakura turned back to him, sighing and putting a hand to her forehead, before running it through her hair. “Of course you would notice that.” For a moment their gazes locked, before she lowered her and her entire expression became more animated as she grinned mischievously, a cheeky child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Honestly, it happened too fast. I wanted to have an idea what they were doing before I alerted you guys, because it might have tipped them off.” Her eyes raised again, staring innocently at him. “Then, when things happened, it was over so fast I hardly had time to do anything. You’re too good, sensei.”
“That’s certainly… a very plausible story,” he noted.
“Yup!” she agreed cheerfully, popping the ‘p’.
“So, are we going to talk about what happened at the lake?” he continued, not giving her a chance to get her feet under her.
Sakura blinked again, then her smile returned. “You don’t like formality, do you?” Her tone was wistful and teasing at the same time. “I really didn’t do anything.”
Kakashi knew that, and found that entirely suspect, but that wasn’t the mystery he was after right now. He tapped his hitai-ate with one finger. “Tell me. What do you know about the Sharingan?”
This time, Sakura took the seemingly abrupt change of topic with aplomb. She made an immediate pout of displeasure. “A cheating cheaty thing that cheats. Seriously, how ridiculous does that thing get?” She spread her hands expansively. “Okay, so, it starts out simply. Enhanced high-speed perception and the ability to memorise anything you see. That’s pretty damn good right there, especially in a world where you cast jutsu with hand signs that the thing can easily see and copy no matter how fast the opponent is.”
She plopped her chin on her laced fingers. “Then it’s also able to cast genjutsu on someone just by maintaining eye contact. Okay, fine.” She snorted. “And then it can see chakra itself, and pierce any illusion or deception. Like, you go and introduce three whole types of techniques into the world and right away you get a special eye that makes you immune to an entire third of all potential jutsu.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “And it just gets more ridiculous from there. Sooner or later, you’ll be telling me someone can just use their eyes to resurrect entire towns of people or create a moon.” Her expression was disgusted. “If I didn’t cheat just as much, I’d be upset.”
Kakashi chuckled, mostly genuinely. “Eloquently put.”
The workmen continued, unknowing and uncaring of the presence of the two ninja sitting nearby. It was a clear day, and Kakashi could see the old man directing them out of the corner of his eye. Ostensibly, Sakura was protecting him, though Kakashi didn’t anticipate another attack until their foes had recovered. Which was good, given Sakura’s surprising lack of performance in the violent clashes in this mission so far. Which brought his mind back to the topic at hand.
“So… about the lake.”
Sakura was quick on the uptake. “You looked at me through the Sharingan when you were fighting Zabuza, right?”
“I could hardly help it.”
“Hmm.” She nodded, removing one hand from under her chin and waving it in a long slow pattern. “I’m guessing, from the fact that you didn’t start screaming or foaming at the mouth when you saw my aura, that you’ve spoken to the Hyuga clan about me.”
“It was quite an experience,” Kakashi replied, his steady tone not betraying the scale of the understatement.
“I know what it looks like to the Hyuga. Or, at least, how they describe it.” She looked at him. “I’m curious: what did your Sharingan eye see, sensei?”
Kakashi closed his good eye and thought back. There was only one word he could use to describe what he had seen. There were any number of sensations. He could describe how his flesh had crawled. He could speak about how his stomach had clenched and his bowels had shriveled. He could talk about feeling every hair on his body stand on end at once, or about how the moisture evaporated in his mouth and nose. But there was only one word.
“Chaos.” He looked down at her. “It was chaos.”
Sakura nodded. “So what would you like to know?”
“Is it some sort of kekkei genkai?”
“Nope.” She smirked at him as she insolently popped the ‘p’ again. “And you were doing so well. No, this isn’t a bloodline power. There are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in your philosophy, sensei.”
She pulled her hand in and looked down at the palm. “Let me say this. Reality is… softer around me. If it helps, imagine the universe as a series of rules. These rules say how cause leads to effect. If you drop an object, regardless of mass, it will fall at an acceleration of 9.8 meters per second per second. The entropy in a closed system always approaches maximum. If you want to form chakra, you need physical energy generated from cells combined with spiritual energy produced by your chakra network. And so on and so forth.”
Kakashi had no idea what exactly the part about entropy and closed systems meant, but it sounded like something that someone who knew what they were talking about might say, so he let her continue.
“Chakra seems to defy explanation, but it’s just another set of rules.” She clenched her hand into a fist. “Think of it as if the laws of physics were not blind, mindless processes that exist only as descriptions we made up for our benefit. Imagine instead that they are like laws of the court, but imposed by a magistrate who is omniscient and completely consistent. This magistrate enforces effect from cause.” She started going through the hand signs, methodically cycling through them in order. “Ninja appeal to a higher court. One that can override the rulings of the magistrate. This higher court is corrupt, and demands bribes – chakra – from those who appeal. He also insists on very specific forms, hand signs, fuinjutsu seals and so on.” She smirked at him and tapped his hitai-ate. “But he’s a corrupt bastard, so he favours certain people over others and just lets them get away with almost anything they want.”
“An interesting analogy.” Kakashi grinned, allowing his visible eye to crinkle.
“What I am… is an outlaw.” She indicated herself with a thumb. “The same rules don’t apply to me as to you.” Here Sakura frowned slightly. “Or at least, not the higher court laws. The magistrate is still able to rule on me, just like you.” Her frown vanished. “I’m like a diplomat. I carry a different set of laws with me into your court’s jurisdiction. I have immunity.” She glanced away. “Except… it isn’t that simple.”
“Nothing you are saying sounds simple,” he said with a teasing tone.
“I suppose not.” She picked up a loose nail. “Can I see your hand?” He gave her a long look. “It will only hurt for a moment, I promise!” She gazed up at him with wide green puppy eyes.
Foolish girl. He was immune to puppy eyes. Still, he held out his hand, and she took it. As she drew closer, something about her scent tickled at the back of his nose.
“So this nail is the laws of the magistrate.” She scratched it along one of his exposed fingers. A small trickle of blood appeared.
“And this is the law I respond to.” She began to gesture. Her hand gestures were unlike anything he had seen a ninja use before. “Ars magica: restriccione in contrarium inde in scholam absolvisti; prohibere sanguinem,” she chanted. An image began to form in the air between them as she spoke and gestured. Each motion produced a glyph in bright pink light, all the size of a fingernail. What at first seemed random rapidly produced a pattern, and that pattern only grew more apparent as lines formed between the symbols, creating an elaborate mandala. Each line was made of constantly shifting symbols, and he realised quickly they were numbers. No… formulas. Incredibly complex mathematical formulas. Once the mandala was complete and she finished speaking, she pushed one hand through the centre and touched his bleeding finger.
Kakashi felt a tingle from the wound on his hand, followed by numbness as rainbow particles of light sprayed briefly from the cut. The light of the mandala faded along with the particles. Kakashi rubbed his finger with his thumb. The skin beneath was undamaged.
She chuckled. “The important thing to remember is that I am subject to different laws, not no laws. Just like you can appeal to a higher court, so can I. In both cases there is a cost. In both cases, we require specific forms to be followed. There are rules, and then there are rules for breaking the rules. Understand?”
“I think so,” he said.
“Good. Now, this is the most important part.” She held up her palm and raised the nail above it. Then with a flash of motion she drove the nail through her hand. There was a sound more like puncturing metal than flesh. She moved her hand away and he could see blood welling up from around the nail. It had stopped halfway through her palm. Her expression was focused, but she didn’t show any pain.
“In the end, the magistrate is still the magistrate.” She turned her hand over, watching as blood slowly crept down the nail and then fell in droplets to the bridge. “It doesn’t matter if I throw the nail in with normal physics, or you push it in with chakra.” She yanked the nail out quickly. “If you prick me, I will bleed.”
As Kakashi watched, the blood flow slowed and then stopped. The wound seemed to knit together before his eye. He raised his eyebrow at her. “Well, at least for a little while.” She grinned mischievously again. “A girl has to have some tricks up her sleeve.”
“Well.” Kakashi allowed a long pause to drift outwards to an appropriately uncomfortable length before continuing. “As usual, Sakura, talking to you has been an education in confusion and horrible implications.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to check on the boys.”
As he began to walk away, Sakura called out. “Wait.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her.
“I never actually answered your question.” She looked down at her hands. “The one you didn’t ask right out.” She looked at him. “The truth is, sensei, that if I told you the truth about what I know, you would hate me.”
Kakashi waited patiently.
“Sometimes it’s easy to fall into a certain way of thinking.” She clenched her fists. “Despite having the evidence right in front of your face, you listen to what other people say about a person. You hear stories about what a person is like; how he was unreliable, lazy, or how he abandoned certain people to focus on certain other people. You spend so long hearing those stories, that you begin to believe them.” She looked into his eyes. “But we’ve been together a couple of months now, and you aren’t that person.”
She stood up and bowed formally, her head near parallel to the ground. “I apologise, sensei. I judged you poorly.”
“So does this mean you’ll tell me the thing that will apparently make me hate you?” He kept his tone flippant.
She winced. “I… I’m still afraid of what you would do if I told you.” She kept her face towards the ground. “If I told you… you might even die.”
Kakashi placed his hand on her shoulder. “Sakura.” She seemed startled that he had managed to return to her so quickly and silently. He smiled beneath his mask as he pulled her up to a standing position. “You aren’t the only one who has learned to not judge her teammate.” He stepped back and waved a chiding finger in front of her. “Being teacher and student is not a one-way relationship. Respect and trust is a two-way street.” He reached out and mussed her hair. “So you trust me, and Naruto and Sasuke, and we will trust you to do what you think is right.”
“Kakashi…” Her voice was strained with emotion. “I don’t deserve this.”
“Nevertheless,” he said. “Now, I really do have to make certain the boys haven’t killed themselves.”
Sasuke stared up at the tree. His eyes traced each score mark across its bark. The first was almost a third up the trunk, with each new one barely a few centimetres above it. There was progress on display there.
But not enough.
He had to grow stronger. There was no better proof than that tree. Days, and the progress had only extended another third of the way up. He glanced to the side. It hurt to move his neck. It hurt to move everything.
The tree across the clearing was also scored with kunai marks. Unlike Sasuke’s tree, this one did not start a third of the way up and proceed upward steadily but inexorably. The first mark was barely above head-level. The rest made a haphazard ladder. There were spaces at least three strides long that had no marks at all, and some places where the individual marks had overlapped so much the tree was bleeding sap. As he watched, Naruto charged up the trunk, screaming at the top of his lungs, and managed to score a mark two strides over his highest one to date.
Barely two centimetres beneath Sasuke’s highest record.
Naruto pushed off and flipped, but landed badly on one leg. He collapsed on his side with a cry. He clutched his knee and fouled the air with curses. Then, slowly, he rose to his feet. His left leg was unsteady, but he gripped his kunai in a tight fist. “Don’t fuck with me!” he shouted at the tree.
His next try was almost a full stride lower. But he was still trying. Where did he get that energy?
Where did he get that talent?
Sasuke’s neck strained as he looked back to a third tree. At the peak of the tree, a single kunai stood embedded into the highest limb; planted like a flag. He clutched his hands.
He needed to get stronger.
At first, this had been a good trip. The ambush along the road had only shown how far above his so-called peers he really was. Two chunin enemies, striking from ambush, and he had held his own with aplomb. Naruto had frozen, and Sakura had focused on protecting the client, just as she had at that battle of the lake.
His scowl deepened as he remembered that battle. That had been a different story. Sasuke’s body had frozen, paralysed by the killing intent of a single ninja. How pathetic was that? Sasuke had confronted That Man over the corpses of his own parents, and yet he had not felt any killing intent from the murderer of his entire clan.
“You are not filled with enough hate, little brother.”
He had not been worth actual intent. When given the chance to fight a true enemy, he had frozen. Frozen until Naruto, of all people, had come up with the crazy plan that had freed Kakashi.
And now, in the seemingly simple training Kakashi had set him to in preparation for the return of the Mist ninja and the supposed Hunter Nin that was his ally, he was struggling to achieve second place.
He struggled to his feet, wincing as his muscles protested. Naruto was already trying again. Sasuke would not allow himself to be dead last. He made a seal of concentration as he concentrated chakra in the soles of his feet. Just enough to bond to the chakra of the tree, not enough to damage it, and held there in a steady stream.
With a wordless cry, he raced to the tree again.
Sasuke found Sakura on top of the humble house that Tazuna the bridge builder lived in. His muscles were strained to their limits and his eyes felt thick, the lids like lead weights. Yet he climbed the wall nonetheless. Sakura was sitting lotus-style on the peak of the roof. Her eyes seemed unfocused, but he ignored that. He could tell from the way her body-concealing red cloak shifted that she had sensed him.
“Do you even sleep?” Sasuke asked her. “You’ve been up here every night guarding against the return of those ninja.” He paused. “I haven’t even seen you join us at our meals.”
“I’m not hungry or tired,” she said, almost wistfully. Her hand flashed up and she caught a silver glint out of the air. There was a soft tinkle as the bell descended from her fingers. Sasuke kept his hand extended in mid throw. Pride would not allow his limbs to shake from the fatigue.
“Do you think I’m an idiot like Naruto?” Sasuke asked.
She brought the bell up to her face and looked into it. “Curiosity finally got the better of you?” She smiled oddly.
“I’ve been thinking about this mission since this afternoon,” Sasuke said. “You are no genin.” She raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t deny it. “Putting aside the matter of how you got the bells from Kakashi and into my pouch without either of us noticing, this entire trip has been a set up.”
She turned her body to face him. “What makes you say that?”
“You weren’t surprised once by any of the things that happened on this mission.” Sasuke held up his splayed fingers and slowly curled them down. “You didn’t react at all when Tazuna was introduced to us by the Hokage. Not even when he insulted us.” Another finger. “Then on the path back to the Lands of Waves, we were attacked by two ninja who seemed to kill Kakashi. You didn’t even seem to react to that… except you did. When the attack came, you were standing in front of Tazuna. When the demon brothers attacked him, you and he had swapped places. Then you returned to your original positions after Kakashi returned.” He curled down another finger. “At the lake, you were completely unaffected by Zabuza’s killing intent. Plus when Kakashi looked at you with his Sharingan while captured… his expression…” Sasuke frowned and lowered the final finger. “Then you master the art of tree walking instantly, and even give Naruto some advice on how to do it better.
“So…” He pointed accusingly at her. “Who are you? Some sort of ringer put in to keep an eye on me?”
Sakura had an amused smirk on her face. “You really are a genius.” She stood up, her cloak draping around her body. “I’m not a ringer, Sasuke. I could have just mastered tree walking because of excellent chakra control. It has been known to happen.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. You’re right.” She tilted her head to the side. “I didn’t master tree walking today. I’ve been able to walk up walls for… four of your years now.”
“Stop with the cryptic bullshit!” Sasuke crossed his arms defiantly.
She stared at him for a long moment. “Sasuke, I’ve done something horrible.” She stood up, her black body stocking briefly visible under the shifting weight of her large red cloak. “I blamed you for things you haven’t done-” she cut herself off abruptly. She stepped closer to him. “But I don’t want us to be enemies, or even rivals.” She looked into his eyes. Her eyes were large and green, with an almost unnatural cuteness about them. There was an artificial, nearly sculpted, quality to her entire face. He couldn’t smell her breath, but a slight tang was in the air.
“Sasuke… I wish I could tell you that things aren’t as bad as you think they are. You aren’t as alone as you believe. There are people who love you, and when you really need it, they will be there for you.” She sighed. “But I don’t think you’ll believe me until you see it for yourself.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I want to prove to you I’m here to help. So tomorrow, I’m going to help you.” She smiled. “After all, by the end of this mission, I won’t be able to hide the big secret from you, either.”
She walked past him towards the other end of the roof. “Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
Sasuke stared after her. He snorted and climbed down. Was he satisfied?
No. He needed to beat Naruto. He walked away, but not into the house.
“Honestly, where has Naruto gotten off to this time?” Kakashi walked through the woods, Sakura at his side. She was covered head to toe in her red cloak, clutching it tight in front of her so it resembled a poncho.
“You know Naruto. He probably spent all night training.” She chuckled. “And considering Sasuke walked into the woods last night as well, I guess he is out here somewhere, too.”
“You just let them go out and train by themselves?” Kakashi shook his head in mild exasperation. “You keep this up and I’ll stop letting you play lookout all night.”
“Insomnia has to be useful for something,” she said in a sing-song voice, skipping slightly ahead.
She came to a halt as a kunai drove into the ground with a wet thunk. Kakashi had already glanced up at the source of the attack, and was not really surprised to see Naruto grinning down at them. He was seated on the highest branch of the tallest tree, feet dangling.
“Heh heh.” Using the trunk for support, he rose to his feet. “Look at you two staring at me as if you didn’t believe Uzumaki Naruto could do it!” He wobbled on the branch. “Well, I showed everyone!” He gestured violently-
Kakashi raised his visible eyebrow. Sakura smiled.
Naruto had caught himself on the underside of the branch, clinging to it with nothing but chakra. He smirked. “Ninja art; tree walking!” He clenched his fist at them. “You can bet I mastered it!” He laughed-
-and fell off the branch.
Kakashi dropped his crutch. He crouched, preparing to launch himself at the falling boy, but a whir of displaced air made him pause. Naruto jerked to the side as a kunai pinned him to a tree trunk through the back of his jacket. He flailed and shouted as he tried to both free himself and see where the knife had come from.
Kakashi looked over to see Sasuke standing on the side of the second tallest tree in the forest. A glance up showed a kunai knife buried in the very highest branch. Like a flag.
“You’re such an idiot, Naruto.” Sasuke smirked and crossed his arms, his hair flopping to the side at the pull of gravity. “If you can’t maintain your chakra, the technique is useless.”
“I see both of you have mastered the tree walking exercise,” Kakashi said. As he spoke, Sasuke leaped rapidly downward from tree to tree before landing. Naruto managed to lever himself out and clamber down his own tree like a monkey. “Remember this experience. Mastering this technique is hard even for professional ninja. Hypothetically, pushing chakra to your feet and keeping it precisely regulated shows you are ready to learn any jutsu.”
Sakura clapped and stepped forward. “Man, you guys are impressive. Mastering tree walking in less than seven days.” She grinned and walked into the center of the clearing. “The truth is… it took me two hundred hours to master my version of the wall walking technique.”
“No way!” Naruto shouted. “You mean you learned the jutsu from someone else before Kakashi taught us? No fair!”
Kakashi had wondered what “outlaw” trick Sakura had used to easily master a technique that, by rights, she should never have been able to do. On the other hand, it hardly seemed worth asking when it wasn’t in the top five most mysterious feats she’d accomplished. He certainly wouldn’t object to hearing an explanation of… anything she did, though, however unlikely it was to be straightforward (or comprehensible).
Sakura ducked her head and rubbed her hair with one glove-covered hand. “Ah well, I don’t think the technique I learned would have worked for you, Naruto. If I did, I would have taught you.”
Sasuke was giving her a suspicious stare. “Two hundred hours?” He frowned. “Where did you find the time to do that?”
“Ah!” Sakura held up her hands in a conciliatory gesture, then bowed slightly in apology. “Well the thing is, I have done a lot of training and I wanted to help you guys out.”
“A lot of training?” Kakashi tilted his head to one side. He wouldn’t have minded an answer to Sasuke’s question himself, but waited to see what she would say.
“One million hours.” She grinned at them all. “That is how I learned everything I know and adapted to my own body.”
“W-what!” Naruto gasped. “One- one million hours?! No way!”
“That’s impossible!” Sasuke snarled.
“I think Sakura is exaggerating, Naruto,” Kakashi said with some amusement. “Like saying ten thousand is a traditional way of saying ‘too many to count.’ It’s an affectation.”
“Nope.” Sakura smirked at him. “I am one hundred percent serious. In fact, I’m going to show you all the secret of my training.” She unlimbered her arms, allowing her cloak to fall open. Under it, she was wearing a black body stocking with what looked like molded ceramic plates attached at key points.
“I guess you could call this technique… mahoujutsu?” She spread her arms. “Ars magica: Conatus est disciplanum restrictione porta mittur tempore ex.”
As she spoke those strange, alien words, Sakura began to gesture again. Her fingers danced through the air less like she was forming hand signs, and more like she was playing some omnipresent musical instrument. She plucked at the air like the world was full of shamisen strings or tapping piano keys. Like the other day, every gesture created a glyph in the air. The mandala she created this time was considerably more complex than before, with circles within circles and elaborate geometric patterns formed of interlaced mathematical formulas.
Naruto gaped. Sasuke froze, uncertain what he was seeing. Kakashi tensed – but trusting your team was paramount. That bitterly-taught lesson was one he would never give up on. Whatever Sakura was doing, he’d trust her… as long as she didn’t betray that trust.
When Sakura finished the first mandala, she started a new one. The first mandala seemed to unfold like some origami flower, settling out a meter from her in all directions. Then she repeated the process again.
Kakashi grabbed Sasuke by the shoulder and Naruto by the collar to keep them from leaping away as the unfolding layers of geometric mandalas flowed outward in all directions and eventually passed through their legs. Naruto danced in place, staring bug-eyed as his limbs broke through the symbols and formulae without causing any effect. Sasuke was stiff, holding a trio of shuriken. Kakashi had to resist the urge to uncover his Sharingan.
When the mandala had spread out nine times, covering the entire clearing and a small pond nearby, Sakura made a sharp gesture.
Kakashi felt himself involuntarily flinch. The sudden silence was deafening, so to speak. He glanced around. Just beyond the clearing in all directions, everywhere the mandala had not reached, was a wall of utter darkness. No, not simply darkness. It was a chilling blackness. Like he was looking at the edge of existence. There was no sound other than what was in the clearing, no distant lapping of the many lakes, rivers and beaches of the Land of Waves. The wind had halted; even the leaves on the trees no longer shifted. There was no sound of animals, no hum of insects. He looked up and found the wall curved overhead in a dome of perfect inscrutable blackness.
Then Sakura collapsed.
“Sakura!” Naruto cried, pulling free and rushing over to her. She was gasping and panting, clutching her chest. Sweat dripped down her face. Naruto knelt beside her. “Sakura, are you okay?”
“I’ll be… fine…” she hissed. She gave them all a shaky smile. “I’m just not used to building such a large exclusion zone.” She waved off Naruto’s help and rose unsteadily to her feet. “Welcome to my secret training ground. Welcome to No Time.”
“No Time?” Sasuke’s voice was sharp.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like, and like Kakashi has probably already guessed.” She gestured around. “This area is a zone of exclusion from normal reality. In this zone, you are detached from normal time. While you experience the flow of time second to second, in this place everything outside of this time is effectively frozen. The moment we all leave this zone, no time at all would have passed for the outside world. The sun will not have shifted, the wind will pick up exactly where it left off.
“In other words, you can spend all the time you want to train in here you want.”
“One million hours…” Kakashi looked around, trying not to let his instinct to escape this hellish place disturb him. “What a frightening power.”
Sakura sat down against a tree, the top of which vanished into the darkness above. “Heh, you’d think so. But it’s not as useful for me as you would think.” She wiped some sweat from her brow. “It drains a lot from me to conjure this place. And for me…” She looked around. “For me, this place is worse than it is for you.” She smiled. “For you, chakra still exists. I don’t know why, but you can still breathe chakra and replenish your reserves. For me, this place is an empty void. The power that I draw upon to create it only exists in time. Without it, I can’t recover my energy. I can’t practice most of my powerful skills. I can’t… prepare my most useful tools.”
She gestured vaguely. “Typically, I use a much weaker version of this. Six times normal speed at best.” She leaned her head back against the trunk. “But for you, this is a gift. Train and recover and train some more. So long as you can stand it, you can live here.”
“We won’t run out of air or food?” Kakashi ran some fingers along the scrolls hidden in his vest pockets.
Sakura shook her head. “I can supply those as you need them.” She grinned weakly. “Though it won’t be the best-tasting food.”
“This is amazing!” Naruto jumped in place. “Hey, hey! Isn’t this amazing, sensei!?” He ran around the clearing. “With this, we can leap ahead and learn all sorts of super cool jutsu.”
“Now wait just a moment, Naruto, I haven’t decided to let us do this.” Sasuke looked at him sharply, but Kakashi just stared back. “Sakura, are you sure this is safe?” She nodded. He rubbed his chin. “I’m not certain if I want to spend too much time here. It takes a lot out of you to maintain this, I take it?”
“No.” She frowned. “Once conjured, it exists until I get rid of it. I just… can’t recover energy while I’m inside.”
“Can you leave us inside?” Sasuke asked. Sakura stared at him for a long moment. Then she smiled mysteriously.
“Not with this technique. I can step outside of time, but if I push others out without stepping with them, the opposite happens. The world’s time goes on, and theirs stops.” She gestured. “When I cease to maintain it, they return as if nothing had happened. Like time capsules, preserved until needed.”
“Come on, sensei!” Naruto was bouncing in place, his fists shaking in anticipation. “You said yourself we have to prepare because that crazy sword wielding-guy and the creepy mask kid are going to attack us eventually! Why have we been training for the last week if not for that?” He grinned, his canines standing out hungrily. “Won’t it be even better if we learn all the jutsu we can?”
Kakashi considered his response but Sakura interrupted him. “How about a deal, sensei? You teach them each two jutsu, however long it takes.”
“Two jutsu?” Kakashi looked at her.
She gestured to the nearby pond of water. “Well, they already mastered tree walking…” She shrugged. “And I have an idea for a jutsu that each of them are per-fect-ly suited to.” She smirked through her fatigue. “What do you say, sensei? How about we cheat together?”
Kakashi sighed and shook his head. “Okay.” He held up two fingers. “Two jutsu. That’s it. We don’t want to burn our entire lives in this non-place.”
“All right!” Naruto hopped and smacked his fist into his palm. Sasuke crossed his arms, his expression enigmatic but intrigued.