The Groundhog Exam
Chapter Fifteen

by Lionheart

I I I

Ebisu had been right, drawing was a perfect method for meditating on the beauty of nature.

Naruto had almost forgotten about that suggestion. It had been so long since he'd seen the special jonin, as the teaching specialist only gave him advice he had already heard. And, since he couldn't adequately fake walking on walls, water or leaf floating, until he could do them up to Ebisu's standards he could forget about any other training from the man.

And, once he did, he could look forward to more focusing on the basic three ninja techniques.

So, the one teacher who'd probably taught him more than all of the others combined was presently unavailable to him.

That sucked.

It honestly surprised him how much he'd needed this relief from all of his ninja training and duties, although it shouldn't have. He knew that he had been having a great deal of stress trying to break through his present barricades and get back, even to the level he'd been at before, but until he'd had some amount of relief from that anxiety he hadn't realized how much it had been hurting or eating at him.

He didn't even have to draw well, just looking at a thing, examining it and so on allowed him to see it in ways he'd never thought of before. It was both a marvelous change and a desperately needed outlet, bringing relief so fast he could even forget sometimes what his worries were.

This habit was a lifesaver, and so he did it, and as he did it he accumulated skill and got rapidly better at it. There really was no substitute for practice in this thing, but the same rules applied to this as had with his blacksmithing, namely, he had infinite time to try everything out, get it right, explore it and he'd never run out of materials to work with as a drawing pad was always empty the next day, also meaning that he never hit that 'good enough' point.

It was a good counterpoint to a major frustration he was having.

So far he had been totally unable to convince the Hokage of the truth of what was going on. Even when he tried to less than fully explain the situation, telling him only parts, he'd either get frustrated out of getting no useful response, or bound to a table getting tested by Sarutobi and some of Konoha's best seal experts.

Still, it was not as though that latter case was entirely useless, as Naruto merely spent the time listening to their dialog, memorizing what he could of it, only to look up those words later.

It was providing a spotty and haphazard education on the nature of the art of sealing, but he'd gone far with even less complete starts. It got even better when he had the idea, and figured out how to manage, just walking in to the Hokage's office, grabbing a book seemingly at random, opening it also seemingly at random, and 'pretending' to study while he was actually pouting.

In truth, what he was doing was actually studying, but pretending to pout, and in the short amount of time that it took Sarutobi to pry him out of his shell to find out what was wrong, Naruto had had a few minutes to pick up some information out of those very high level books.

Too high level, as it turned out. You couldn't build a structure from the top down, and he needed more of a base than he already had, so he'd begged and pleaded a few times and finally found out about the existence of a shinobi library of sorts.

Really, he should have found out about it before. After all, he'd been to the special ANBU classrooms where they taught anatomy toward the aim of having better take-downs of target ninja, and it was all in that same building.

It wasn't all that much of a library, either, just a collection of teacher resources for the ANBU classes, and even so it had been carefully vetted to make sure that nothing above a certain security limit was in there to prevent theft or infiltration attempts from having too easy a target. And there were no real techniques in there for that reason.

But what it was far outweighed what it wasn't. And to Naruto it was a find even greater than coming upon Sasuke's disused scroll collection, because it was basically the ninja academy, only the next level up.

There they taught the basics of pressure points, stealth and infiltration beyond what the academy touched on, and, yes, the basics of the sealing arts, which was EXACTLY what Naruto needed for this situation. Devouring those, he was able to get a MUCH better understanding of the sealing scrolls and exploding tags he already theoretically knew how to use (although they were presently inaccessible to him by reasons of way too uncertain chakra control), but also learn some of the hows and whys and basic rules of the art as a whole rather than its individual techniques.

That gave him some of the grounding he'd needed to start to understand some of the higher level stuff the Hokage and his experts talked about when they began discussing his seal. Not enough, unfortunately, but something.

However, something they DID have was advanced chakra control theory, and a handful of exercises for training!

That was more priceless than gold to the otherwise frustrated young boy. It didn't come in the form of otherwise useful techniques like wall walking or the same for water, being more mysterious and esoteric like sitting under waterfalls and feeling your flows of energy spread out through the water, how the currents could dissipate them and carry them away, then trying to follow those threads as they vanished.

For an ordinary chunin or jonin, such an exercise would be hard. For a genin, impossible. But for Naruto he'd never done an easier chakra drill. Why? Well think on the scale! For an average chunin, allowing their chakra to flow out in the currents of the river was akin to dumping in a bottle of ink then watching the patterns it made as it got swirled away. For a typical jonin, they might have a bucket instead of a bottle of ink to use to do the same.

Naruto, to use that same analogy, was capable of dying the river black. He didn't want to do that, of course, as part of the point was to watch your chakra flows, learning some part of its nature as it got swirled away and dispersed in the natural flow of water, and you couldn't see any patterns if you turned the entire river into ink.

Nevertheless, he was perfectly capable of creating large, easy to read patterns and then sustaining those all day.

ANBU, as they trained to do this, performed the exercise a few times a week if they were really good and serious about their training. But not even the best did more than that as they'd risk serious chakra exhaustion. So they learned as best they could from a few times and called it good.

Naruto, who could not only turn the river black but keep it that way for hours on end, had nothing to fear about chakra exhaustion and could study that way all day every day. And he did so, for a time, gaining back loads of lost ground on his precious control, finally getting back to where he could use a few of the more tolerant and less control oriented techniques, which brought him back the ability to use his unique Transformation in all its various forms.

That was a godsend, as it enabled him to do so much, besides getting rid of the hated ears and tail. Although, as he did so he discovered something else. He'd never even tried to sustain any of his shapeshifts long term before, but that was exactly what he had to do if he was going to go all day long without sprouting fox ears or suffering other furry embarrassments.

Naruto wanted to hold the technique all day, so he'd not ever need to explain the changes, but that was almost the same for him as drinking way too much water and then avoiding going to the bathroom.

At first things seemed ok, then not so much, then the pressure built and built until it got released in spite of his best intentions.

Suddenly sprouting foxy accouterments during the middle of a written exam was even worse than walking in with them on! Particularly since the first few times it happened he'd had a guilty expression as they broke out, so he got to spend a few highly unpleasant sessions with Ibiki, who was also the head of Konoha's ANBU Interrogation Unit, about the extent of his foxiness and if the Kyubi was breaking out (and they never believed that it wasn't).

This was probably something extra chakra control could fix, but he set about pushing his mastery of the technique up a bit in hopes that could also help him prolong his tremendously useful changes.

Sadly, although the catalog of the ANBU teaching materials collection had a good five books on chakra control, all but two of them were checked out, and one was an old thing in a language Naruto did not know.

So, of course, he set about trying to learn it.

And that was not all that Naruto was finding to do. He was drawing all over town, everything he could see, always amazed at where he could find beauty, and becoming quite skilled at portraits, landscapes and object studies. Some things, like Hinata, he'd drawn so many times he no longer needed to even see her to put her face, in all of its various expressions, down on paper.

But this was also the time that the refinements he was able to make on his blacksmithy were growing so intricate and minor that he was having trouble sustaining his interest on the subject.

So, figuring that since one craft trade had been useful for a tremendous amount of diversion, he might as well try another, he took some of Kurenai's long ago lessons on impressing females requiring a better wardrobe to heart and began to take up tailoring.

He needed new clothes, and the villagers, on the whole, did not want to sell him any, charging him outrageous prices for ordinary articles, so he figured this was the best way around their reluctance.

He was thinking that, like his dingy apartment, he could turn his 'does not impress females' wardrobe into something far more worthy of their notice. And in a way he was lucky he'd made that choice, as it presented as much of a body of study material as blacksmithing did, so provided a great amount of relief and distraction from his ordinary ninja woes.

Although, not unlike metalworking, he could put some of those skills to use on creating ninja equipment for himself and, later on, his friends. Konoha had some good standard uniforms, but they were just that, standard. So long as you were making outfits yourself anyway there was no reason not to include cargo pockets exactly where and how you wanted them, hidden pockets for things an enemy might not know to search for, and get the comfort, fit and materials the way you liked them instead of going for off-the-rack garbage.

Having begun to make his own gear in other areas, Naruto had rapidly learned to prefer doing it that way, as he didn't have to 'settle' for anything, and could make it exactly the way he wanted it every time. Then should he learn that it needed reinforcement at the knees, or whatever, he could do it rather than protest uselessly to an uncaring clerk who sold everything generic.

Since having trained with Tenten, he figured he would be using a lot of scrolls after he got his abilities back, so he could include more places to carry those conveniently, and where he could more easily get at them, than the standard outfit that only had room for roughly ten or so.

It was like metalworking. Everything could be made exactly how he wanted it to precisely match his own unique needs, improving how much use he could easily get out of his equipment.

And, like with metalworking, there were useful side additions to that skill, like how to properly embroider or make lace, that were not necessarily central to the trade, but did have a ton of things that he could learn and so add to the volume of how much he could usefully distract himself by studying.

Lace patterns were like puzzles, too, in that some had fairly simple patterns with a small number of bobbins, around a dozen or so for medium complex designs, all the way up to specialized, highly complex, two-hundred bobbin patterns that were simply gorgeous, and breathtakingly rare, as so few had mastered the skill of how to do them, not to mention how time consuming they were.

Then there was knitting, which could be used to adapt just about any fiber into thread. So, if he wanted to hang around the Inuzuka clan kennel for a day, he could make himself a dog fur sweater while out in the forest.

That was another good aspect to sewing, it was portable. When he made things out of metal he'd needed a forge with loads of tools to do it in, but he could sew practically anything with tools he could hold in his lap. So he could pursue his knitting even while out in the Forest of Death.

Embroidery was like drawing, in that just about any pattern could be created. And that made it flexible, too. Unlike drawing, it had special techniques you had to master in order to be able to do this instead of that, but those merely presented a new body of material to learn, and thus a distraction from his misery at having pathetic ninja skills.

Although, he was no longer trailing nearly so badly behind in that department anymore. Having access to his own unique shapeshift technique had enabled him to go through the route of relearning his martial arts. So, while he was once more hitting that same upper limit again soon, at least he had the skills of a top rookie genin instead of a dead-last.

That was comforting. Not super, but comforting. And this time he had a wee bit more utility out of it, as his strength and speed were superior to before. Not enough to beat Kiba superior (he tried, and failed, to do so many times), but the 'this doesn't suck so much as it did anymore' superior.

He still lagged way behind the actual martial arts specialists, but he could do more damage than someone with only average body conditioning. That was helpful, as previously... well, he wasn't a dead last, as there were still people like Sakura out in the ninja world, but he had sucked pretty badly.

And, by sneaking any old scroll out of Sasuke's apartment, he could do the whole thing with meeting and training alongside Tenten, too! That quickly brought up his throwing weapon skills once again, despite his longer reach and changed body having thrown him off before.

So, having two departments in which he was no longer quite so sucky made him feel much less of a low-grade academy student, and at least more of a competent genin once more.

Not the chunin he felt he'd been, but still better than before.

Anyway, having access to his ability to shapeshift again gave him options that he didn't have recently, like the ability to follow through on some of the plans he'd made for the Great Girl Decode.

Still, it wasn't like that went fast, as even once he'd steered one of those conversations onto Sasuke, the fangirls would squeal, "Oh, he lost his family. He's been through so much suffering. He must be so tender!"

In a moment of carelessness, Sexy Naruto blurted out, "BAH! He wouldn't know tenderness if it bashed him upside the head."

All of the other girls glared at him/her.

Okay, more tact was called for.

I I I

Very early on Naruto had tried, not long after Ebisu had told him about how unique and strong his Transformation technique was, approaching Kakashi as his favored student and demanding training (Sasuke never asked). But all the lazy jonin would do would be to agree, and then say, "Use your Sharingan to copy this."

Which pretty much sucked, because without the Sharingan all Naruto could do was memorize the handseals, and that wasn't half of knowing how to actually perform it. He'd need more data than that to even invent his own form of it.

That was the reason why he didn't already have every ninja technique in Konoha, or at least the thousand or so Kakashi had copied.

However, now he was able to wear his sullen teammate's face once more, the trickster of Konoha had another idea on that regard that just might work.

So, he approached Kakashi while both looking and acting like the Uchiha and grumbled, "Teach me seals."

Kakashi looked at him a moment, then nodded and took him off to a teacher on that subject, one of the ANBU who'd first taught him.

Naruto wasn't able to hold up the shapeshift for very long, but even so the fragmentary lessons he began to pick up that way made a big difference in his understanding of that art.

And, to his most happy delight, it turned out to be one where chakra control was almost meaningless. Okay, the art required a great deal of precision and control to get it right, but those were demanded as part of the scribing down of the seals, choosing the correct ones, and selecting the right diagram for your purpose, the actual activation required only a surge of chakra, no more complicated in most cases than activating an explosive tag, which was something Naruto could do.

No, once he'd learned that much he was immediately back to using storage scrolls and explosive tags again, as he hadn't previously dared, not wanting to mess up space time any more than it already was, or potentially destroy Konoha with an overpowered tag.

Now that he didn't have that worry he could use them again, and more! This looked like an art he could have a great deal of fun with!

So, he began to learn it at an increased pace, pressing for more time with those seal teachers by really cranking down hard on the impulse to revert to his true face and recent foxy form, he began to experiment on his own in ways on how he might make it easier to sustain.

I I I

"Oy! Ino! Shikamaru! Wait up!"

"What do you want?" The team whose members he'd named turned around to face the boy, with Ino putting a hand on her hip to confront him and act as spokesperson.

"You've heard the news of the Sand and Sound teams, right?" Naruto didn't pause for confirmation, only stopping before them to take out a scroll and unseal a pair of tidy stacks of equipment. Holding one of something up to Ino, he told her, "Here, you're going to need this."

"Armor?" She gaped at it disbelievingly, then shook her head. "Sorry, Naruto but it's not my style. I'm not a close combat type."

"Exactly!" He shot her a huge grin. "That's exactly my point! You're NOT a close combat type! But we're ninja, right? So, the whole point is deception, right? So, if you show up to our Forest test today decked out in combat armor and with a couple of swords strapped on your back, people are going to THINK you are a combat type, right?"

Shikamaru blinked a couple of times, processing this idea. Grudgingly, he gave it approval. "By dressing this way, ninja from other villages are going to think our greatest weakness is our strength. So instead of attacking us directly in head-on fights, where Ino and I are at our worst, they will try other options. This could give us a much better chance at passing this test."

Naruto continued to grin widely. "Not just other villages. We are the youngest group of genins taking the test, and none of the older students know much about us. Mostly they don't care about younger kids enough to learn about our abilities. Here, put that on." He tossed a bundle of clothes to Choji, who unfolded the top item to find a robe patterned in an elaborate flame style.

"There are matching shirt and pants to go with it," Naruto told him.

Shikamaru was thinking, rubbing his chin. "So, Ino and I dress up as close combat experts, while Choji, who is our combat expert, dresses up as a fire technique specialist who is boasting about his abilities in his art. That way, if we are attacked, most ninja would avoid Ino and me, while rushing in to hit Choji, believing that he would be our weak point. How did you think of this?"

The entire team blinked at Naruto, who shrugged and grinned. "Like I said, the entire point of being a ninja is deception. You know I don't have any close friends. What did you think I did with all of my time? I spent it studying to learn how to do things. I just played the fool because I didn't care to give away my abilities. But now that it's a matter of life or death for us, I figured I could show you a few things to your advantage. And with this stuff, even if it doesn't fool anyone, there is still a much reduced chance of a stray kunai or senbon taking you out."

Shikamaru was nodding, it was a very sensible strategy. "I would like to play a game of shogi with you later."

Naruto's grin widened. "I look forward to it." Then he stood up. "Here, let me help you guys put this gear on, some of the joints and fasteners are a wee bit tricky."

"I've never worn anything like this before," Ino confessed.

"Don't worry. You'll find that it fits you like a glove. Here, you go slip into the undersuit, and after you have that on I'll show you how to don the rest of it. After I show you, I'll also leave you with a set of instructions for putting it on and taking it off so you don't have trouble camping tonight."

Meanwhile, not far away, another group of Konoha genin was being stopped by another clone of Naruto.

"Oy! Shino! Hinata-chan! Wait up!"

I I I

"Gaara, wait." Naruto calmly walked into the threat zone and held up a hand, so nonthreatening and unafraid that the demon container from Sand paused in the act, just before crushing Sasuke to death.

Naruto turned to face Sakura, who was trembling. "Sakura, Sasuke is in the grasp of Gaara's sand, which is unescapable and can crush stones, only you can save him now."

Giving a disbelieving glance to her blond teammate, the pink haired girl none the less sucked in her lower lip and nervously drew a kunai, looking over to the implacable face of the boy from Sand.

Naruto rolled his eyes and swatted the kunai out of her hands. "Not like that!" he scolded her. "You can't beat him in a fight, don't even try. In fact, Gaara, would you mind if I threw a kunai at your shoulder, just to show her?"

Taking the hostile, flat, unfriendly stare as a yes, Naruto drew his own and tossed it gently and underhand toward the demon of Sand. The expected shield stopped it cold, and Naruto nodded. "You see? His defenses are automatic, and nearly invulnerable. If you approached him with hostile intent he could grind you into a thin red paste without really trying. Gaara, would you mind bending that to ruin, just to show her you can?"

In seconds, without Gaara even having to move a muscle, the sands had twisted the kunai into an unrecognizable mass of metal.

Sakura's eyes were wide and she was trembling in fear, realizing now the extent of their danger, or some of it at any rate.

"As I said, Sasuke is already dead, unless you save him," Naruto told his female teammate, playing on an idea that making out with Temari had given him earlier, just to see if it worked.

"But how!" the kunoichi objected. "I can't fight that guy!"

"I never thought you could." Naruto returned. "I don't expect you to try. No, you are going to save Sasuke's life by paying for it in a way that Gaara may willingly take in return for letting him go."

She looked fearfully between him and the demon from Sand, nervously touching her chin with one hand. "But... I haven't any money on me."

The blond boy shook his head. "No, and I wouldn't expect him to take it, even if you did."

"Then what!" she demanded, getting upset at all these riddles.

"Demon containers need their lovin'," he told her in direct, no nonsense tones, acting on the suspicion that people often do for others what they'd most want to get themselves.

Gaara's eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and the sand he'd been sending out to grasp those two paused in its forward creep.

"Think of it this way, only your love can save Sasuke now. But to save him you have to give up on him and give that love to Gaara instead. I imagine that can be a temporary thing, but don't expect more than you pay for. If you give the boy a nervous peck on one cheek I imagine he might let Sasuke go after having only pulverized his legs and arms into useless, mangled flesh, pulled out his eyes and crushed his balls into liquid - a maimed and useless cripple but not dead. A serious kiss on the lips might save Sasuke's legs. A complete make out session with hugs might be worth those plus his arms, while I imagine that if you really impress Gaara, you might actually be able to get Sasuke free unharmed. Don't hold back, though, if that is your aim. The best a half-hearted effort is going to get you is a blind future member of a soprano boy's choir."

Sakura stared at her teammate in shock, before nervously licking her lips and looking towards Gaara. She hesitatingly took a step forward, then turned back to Naruto, objecting, "But! It's my first kiss!"

Naruto sighed, shrugged, rolled his eyes and spread his hands. "Okay, look, I know those are valuable, but let me put it this way, would you trade that in return for Sasuke's life?"

Thinking about it only a second, Sakura nodded. Naruto put his arms behind his head but regarded her kindly. "If it helps, close your eyes and imagine it as Sasuke. Picturing it as someone I like helps me sometimes get over the initial awkwardness."

"When did you ever kiss?" Sakura shot back at him.

Naruto rather pointedly did not answer, just pointing a finger towards Gaara, as if to say she had other business she'd best be considering now.

At first sighing, then stiffening her resolve, Sakura nodded and marched off to do her duty for Sasuke and her village by smooching the enemy. Yes, if those infiltration agents could bear to do it, so could she!

Seeing Sakura approach him, Gaara turned to his sister, glaring at her. "Temari."

"Right." She rolled her eyes, careful he couldn't see it, and went over on her own to make out with the demon container for Konoha. As she thought of how good a kisser he was, though, the duty suddenly seemed much less terrible and she licked her lips in anticipation.

Both teams got directly to the tower without serious interruption. Gaara was more than capable of getting scrolls for each of them, and wasn't about to give up on Sakura's company, fumbling and hesitant though her makeout was.

She never did put any heat into her kisses, though, so the Sasuke she got back as they entered the tower doors was due for a change of career to that blind boy's choir Naruto had mentioned.

Sakura spent the rest of that week nurturing the grieving, maimed Uchiha, and Naruto spent it practicing his chakra control and hanging out with the Sand siblings, who, as he'd known before, were surprisingly good company.

Then the prelim match put him up against Gaara, and he had to bow out, as there was just no way he could beat him without access to more techniques than his presently miserable chakra control allowed him.

And getting crushed like a grape was a miserable way to end a day.

I I I
Author's Notes:

You know, I love how this story is flowing. I've never missed a day that the submission software at this site hasn't cost me.

Thanks for all of your wonderful reviews. It never ceases to surprise me that you guys actually like this stuff.