Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Author's Note: The idea for a Groundhog Day-style time loop centered on the Chuunin Exam originates with Perfect Lionheart's story "Chuunin Exam Day" (at least, that's the first place I'd ever seen the idea). But as will quickly become apparent, that plot device is about the only thing this story and that one have in common.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but despite all my claims of being a strong, independent kunoichi I'd looped a half-dozen times before it ever occurred to me that this was one problem I'd have to solve for myself.
My first time was especially embarrassing, though at least I had the excuse of ignorance. I started awake with a scream, my head still full of the disastrous fight with that snake-wielding ninja who'd attacked my team in the Forest of Death. I'd died slowly, drowning in my own blood while poor, brave Naruto went down trying to defend me. He called out more of that strange red chakra than I'd ever seen before, so much that it formed a solid aura around his body, but it didn't make any difference.
Sasuke had long since run away.
Mother burst in to see what was wrong, and I realized I was in my own bed at home. My arms were no longer broken, and I could feel my legs again, but it was several long minutes before I could get my sobbing under control enough to realize I was completely unhurt. I dragged myself to the bathroom with my poor, confused mother in tow, and stared into the mirror in shock.
"Sakura, honey, it's ok. Whatever it was, it was just a dream."
"No, mother. That was a genjutsu." Nightmares can be vivid, but my memories of the first two days of the chuunin exam had way to much detail to be just a dream. But why would a genjutsu master spend half the night inflicting such an elaborate nightmare on me? I'm not anyone important.
"Sakura, if this is what comes of being a ninja maybe it's time to consider a safer career."
I tuned out that old argument, already mentally preparing my report on the incident. I needed to make it to the testing center in time to take the written test that was the first stage of the chuunin exam, then I could track down Kakashi-sensei and tell him about my night. Maybe he'd have some idea what was going on.
With all distractions I barely made it to the testing center in time. Maybe someone wanted to make me miss the exam? I gave Sasuke and Naruto a nod as we hurried inside and found our seats, still too distracted to pay much attention.
The exam questions were the same as the ones I remembered. That was weird. Even weirder, I recognized almost everyone in the room from my 'dream'. Then the examiner laid out the same strange rules as in my dream, and even pulled the same trick with the 10th question!
I was a nervous wreck by the time I got the chance to corner Kakashi-sensei and explain the situation. He listened gravely to my report, then took me to see Kurenai-sensei for an evaluation. But she reported no sign that that any genjutsu had been used on me recently, and something this elaborate should definitely leave traces.
Kakashi just nodded. "That's what I thought. You know, Sakura, there's no need for elaborate conspiracy theories. If you don't feel ready for this test, you can just bow out."
"What? No way! I could never do that to Sasuke! Besides, I'm not making this up. I don't know how it happened, but I can't have just dreamed the right test questions! Someone who knew what was on the test did this to me."
They shared a knowing look, and Kurenai said, "I'm sorry, Kakashi, but I'm going to have to recommend a medical disqualification."
"I agree." He replied.
So they sent me to the hospital, and disqualified my team. That asshole! I spent the rest of the day being poked and prodded by half the specialists in Konoha, and one of them even had the nerve to tell me I had "cognitive dissonance bordering on full-blown multiple personality disorder", but none of it explained anything.
I woke the next day as depressed as I'd been in years. Since I was on medical leave I went for a long walk to get my head together, but it didn't really help. Eventually I found myself down at the training grounds, where the boys were going at it harder than usual.
Sasuke scowled when he saw me, and even Naruto gave me a dirty look. But then the blond idiot shook his head, and came over to talk to me.
"Hey, Sakura. Are you ok?"
"Yeah. Just really confused."
"Well, hey, it'll work out. I mean, yeah, of course I wish you'd shown up for the test. But if you don't think you're ready yet we'll just have to wait. Hey, if we spend the next six months training together I bet you'll be really strong when we take the next exam!"
"What? But Naruto, we took the exam yesterday…didn't we?"
Sasuke snorted. "Pretending you're crazy won't help. Useless weakling."
"But…but…my God, what's happening to me!"
Once again, Kakashi was no help. He insisted that today was the day of the written exam, and acted like I was crazy for thinking I'd already taken it. I spent the rest of the day at the hospital, but all they found was stress and my little inner secret.
The next day I checked the calendar when I got up, and made my way to the testing center full of nervous dread. Sure enough, everyone was there to take the written exam.
This time I went straight to the Hokage, and ended up spending the afternoon in ANBU custody. They couldn't quite decide if I was a victim, a nut, or an enemy plant, but the room they put me in had no windows and the locks were on the outside of the door.
I woke up in my own bed the next morning, and it was July 1st again.
Tired of spending my time in interrogation rooms, I kept my mouth shut and played along. I took the written test, filling in the same answers as before, and passed along with my team. Then I spent the afternoon in the library researching genjutsu, mind control, time travel and anything else I could think of that might be relevant.
The next morning my clock said it was July 2nd.
With a rising thread of hope I confirmed the date with mom and dad, verified that the testing center was deserted, and met Sasuke and Naruto at the entrance to the Forest of Death. This time when we met the freaky snake ninja I stayed the heck out of the way while the boys tried to fight him, and he left after beating them both unconscious. After that it was hell just trying to survive the rest of our trip through the forest, but somehow we made it. I even held my own against Ino in our one-on-one fight, something I'd never managed to do before. But when we knocked each other out they counted it as a double loss.
I woke up back in my bed, on July 1st.
I kind of lost it then.
I cried. I screamed. I begged for help, for an explanation, for sympathy at least. I marched into the exam room and accused Ibiki of torturing me. I tried to convince Anko I'd seen through her mind games. I skipped the test and stayed up all night. I left town, running as far as my legs could take me to escape this curse. I even tried to kill myself, although I was careful not to try too hard.
None of it mattered. No matter what I did, I found myself waking up in my own bed at 6:45 AM on July 1st.
I sat looking out over the city from Naruto's favorite spot atop the Hokage monument, knowing no one would look for me there. I needed to figure this out, or I'd go crazy for real.
"I'm on my own." It was a bitter realization, but I had to face it. No matter what I did, asking for help just got me kicked out of the exam and restarted the loop.
"This is too big for any casual genjutsu. Maybe a kage-level specialist could do this to me, but why would they bother? I don't have any rare bloodlines or important relatives, and there are easier ways to drive someone crazy."
But the alternative was insane. A time loop? Things like that only happen in stories.
"But then again, who knows what strange techniques some S-rank ninja might have? I might not even be the target. Maybe that snake ninja has some kind of massive time jutsu going, and I'm just caught in an eddy."
There was no way to tell. But the loop wasn't always the same, so maybe there was a way out.
"What patterns have I seen? When I flunk out of the exam I get reset. The same thing happens if I die. But as long as I'm not disqualified time keeps moving forward. So maybe I just need to pass the exam?"
Fat chance of that happening. Let's face it, as a ninja I suck. Of all the people who made it through the Forest of Death, Ino was probably the only one who would even have to work to beat me. If I wanted to actually make chuunin I'd have to not only beat her, but at least one other real ninja. People like Neji, or Sasuke, or Gaara. How was I going to do that? I'd never worked very hard at my physical skills in the academy, and they were all years ahead of me.
"But time is the one thing I've got plenty of." I suddenly realized. "Even if it takes years, all I have to do is keep improving until I can beat them."
I quickly discovered it wasn't going to be that easy. I could pass the written exam any day, but only sheer luck could get me through the second test in the Forest of Death. No matter what I talked the boys into trying that snake ninja always attacked us, and after that it was incredible how many things had to go right.
If Naruto didn't push Sasuke into giving the snake ninja a good fight, we all died.
If I did anything but nurse Sasuke all night that strange mark our attacker left on his neck would kill him, and I'd restart at the end of the week.
If the Sound ninja found us too soon, or the other Konoha teams weren't nearby, we all died.
If I made one wrong move in any on our fights I'd be crippled or dead, which would trigger a restart.
Then I finally made it through the forest to the preliminary matches at the arena, and found myself matched up against Kiba instead of Ino. As he casually pinned me down and demanded my surrender, I was bitterly aware that I hadn't even made him break a sweat.
Ok, fine. I still had the time between the written exam and the Forest of Death to work with. Between that and the fights in the forest I could get in at least a little bit of training with each loop. Heck, I could blow off the exam and spend the whole day practicing if I wanted to. I figured I'd start with something easy, like a counter for that 'walk in circles forever' illusion we kept blundering into, and then work my way up.
"Kakashi-sensei, I'm a little concerned about this next phase of the exam. Will you show me how to dispel illusions?"
"If you're concerned you should spend the day resting, not training. You don't want to be low on chakra at the start of the next test."
"Kakashi-sensei, how does the Dispel technique work?"
He chuckled. "You'll have plenty of time to train later, Sakura. For now you need to concentrate on using what you already know."
"Well, if we can't take the exam because of the idiot here I'd at least like to get some training done. Maybe you could show me how to do the Dispel technique, sensei?"
"Training. Yes. Naruto, if you're so tired all the time I think you could use some serious stamina training. Thirty laps around Konoha sounds about right."
I winced. Apparently I'd sabotaged poor Naruto's alarm clock for nothing.
No matter what I did, Kakashi wouldn't train me. Oh, he had lots of reasonable-sounding excuses, and sometimes he'd have us work on physical conditioning or teamwork if we failed out of the exam, but he wouldn't teach me any techniques. Why was my teacher so dead-set against training me?
"He thinks I'm incompetent, or too immature to be trusted with anything. That, or he's just too lazy to bother. Either way, he's not going to be any help."
That worried me. If my jounin-sensei wasn't going to bother teaching me, where was I going to get the techniques I'd need to pass this test?
Well, for the basics I could always go back to the source…
"Iruka-sensei, can you spare me a few minutes? Kakashi-sensei is busy giving the boys some last minute training, and I'm trying to find out how to do that technique that dispels illusions."
"Well, I can show you but I doubt you'll have time to master it before tomorrow."
"Maybe not, but you never know. I learned tree climbing in about five minutes."
"Really? That's pretty impressive. Well, it goes like this…"
I got it right on the first try.
"Kakashi-sensei, will you teach me that genjutsu you used on me in the bell test?"
"You mean the Hell Viewing Technique? You'll have to build up your chakra a bit more first."
"Iruka-sensei, can you show me the Hell Viewing Technique?"
"That's an ugly technique for such a pretty girl, don't you think? Besides, I'm not exactly a genjutsu master myself."
I ground my teeth. "Fine. Who is?"
"Kurenai-san, I know you have your own students to train, but would you be willing to show me a little genjutsu?"
"I'm sorry, Sakura, but it wouldn't be appropriate for me to train another jounin's student without permission."
"Fat chance of that ever happening. I suppose you guys have some secret permission slip code or something to keep students from lying about that, too?"
She laughed. "That's hardly necessary, considering how often we see each other. If he isn't giving you the training you want, perhaps you should ask him why."
Sure, why not.
"Ok, fine. But why not, Kakashi-sensei? Is there something else I need to make progress in first? Do you think I'd do better with something besides genjutsu? Give me a clue here."
"You shouldn't worry so much, Sakura. I'm sure you'll grow into a fine kunoichi one day. But for now you need to concentrate on your basics, and learn to trust your teammates to do their jobs."
In other words, you think I'm a silly little girl pretending to be a ninja, and you're not going to bother training me. Bastard. Fine, I'll find someone who will.
"Naruto, can you teach me Shadow Clone?"
"Sure, Sakura-chan! Only, isn't that supposed to take a lot of chakra? Are you sure you'll have enough?"
"There's only one way to find out."
He stared at me for a second, before giving me that stupid grin of his. "Yeah! That's the spirit, Sakura-chan! Ok, the seals go like this…"
I was expecting the technique to be easy, since even an idiot like Naruto had mastered it. But it was a lot more complicated than I'd thought, and the amount of chakra the technique drained when I tried to activate it was just insane. I saw a hazy image of myself begin to form, but then it popped like a soap bubble and I collapsed, exhausted. Why was it getting so dark?
I woke up in my bed on the morning of July 1st.
"Damn!" So much for my quick road to power. When Kakashi called Shadow Clone a chakra-intensive technique, I thought it might take two or three times as much power as tree climbing. Instead I'd actually died of chakra exhaustion from trying to make a single clone.
I suddenly remembered one of our better fights against the mysterious snake ninja. Naruto had made hundreds of clones, and kept pumping out more as fast as our enemy could kill them. Well, until he blew up half the forest with a giant fire technique.
"Damn! Naruto must have, what, a hundred times more chakra than a jounin? Good god, I didn't even know that was possible. If he had a good area-effect jutsu he'd be unstoppable. Wait, why doesn't he have something like that?"
The answer was obvious once I thought about it. Kakashi had never taught him any jutsu either, and he certainly didn't have a clan to train him.
"Damn it, what does Kakashi think he's doing? Is he trying to get us killed?"
But my bedroom ceiling had no answers for me, and mother was calling me down to breakfast.
"Hey Naruto, would you show me how that perverted jutsu of yours works?" Maybe I was developing a bit of respect for the little clown. After my failure with the Shadow Clone, I wanted to know what other surprises he had in his arsenal.
"Umm, why would you want me to do that?" He answered nervously. "You're already a girl."
"Idiot." I rolled my eyes. "Of course that's not what I want it for. I was just thinking about it, and I realized that it was a lot more convincing than a regular Henge. I'm working on getting better at illusions, so I wanted to see how you do it."
He hung his head an muttered something indecipherable.
"I can't hear you, Naruto. Spit it out already."
"It's not an illusion." He said, looking at his feet. "When I change, I'm really a girl."
"What? But that's…well, I guess not impossible, but at least A-rank, and the chakra requirements would be…oh. Yeah, that's nothing compared to your Shadow Clone armies. Damn, I had no idea."
Then a rather perverted thought struck me. "Wait, if it's a real transformation, that means you could…" I blushed, unable to finish the sentence. I could just see the little pervert drawing the shades and calling up a couple of girl-clones for a little fun.
Hey, wouldn't they be virgins? I'm pretty sure you can't pop a virgin clone without dispelling her. Maybe he uses guy clones and goes girl himself…
Fortunately Naruto's cringing protestations of innocence distracted me from my inner pervert's speculations before they went any further. "No! It's not like that! It really was supposed to be just a distraction technique, but my girl-self is crazy. That's why I never use it for more than a few seconds."
Ok, this sounded interesting. "Fine. Teach me the technique, and I won't beat you for being perverted enough to invent something like that."
"But I don't know what it would do to a girl!" He whined.
Sexy Technique was at least as complex as Shadow Clone, which made me wonder how Naruto had stumbled on it. It also took a lot more chakra than a normal Henge. I could only hold it for a minute or so before I ran low.
But oh, what a glorious minute! I've joked to myself about 'Inner Sakura' before, and those shrinks at the hospital had made me worry that my internal monologue might be a little too close to a dialog for my health. But when I did Naruto's Sexy Technique, I became 'Inner Sakura'. A sleek, sexy kunoichi ass-kicking machine, utterly fearless and achingly gorgeous. I felt like I could do anything.
To be honest I was a little scared of what I might do in that state, but I still wanted more. The sheer freedom was too much to pass up. Besides, 'Sexy' Sakura was closer to 16 than 13, and she had boobs! Not to mention incredible hair, legs to die for, and enough slinky curves to give half the men in the village heart attacks.
Must have more!
"Sakura, why are you walking on the ceiling?"
I looked down at my teammates from the ceiling of the testing center, conscious of the odd looks I was drawing.
"Building up my chakra. I'm sick of not having enough to do any kind of real technique."
Somehow I'd figure out how to control myself, or modify the technique to minimize the mental effect. The ability to turn into the kunoichi I dreamed of being on demand wasn't something I was going to pass up.
Meanwhile, I was slowly solving the Forest of Death. It wasn't easy, but dying a painful death every few days was a hell of a motivator. So I learned which teams we could fight, and which ones to avoid. I learned how to spot traps and imposters. Through painful trial and error I figured out that Naruto was the only one who could get Sasuke to go all-out against the snake ninja, and what to say and do to ensure he did the job.
One loop I was close enough to hear our attacker introduce himself to Sasuke as Orochimaru, a name that was easy enough to find in the library. My blood ran cold as I realized we were up against the most dangerous of the Sanin, an S-rank ninja who was considered a credible threat to an entire hidden village.
But he wasn't here to kill us. I didn't know what that seal he always put on Sasuke was for, but I'd have plenty of time to find out later. Once I figured out the pattern we could usually get past him, and there was a spot nearby where the Sound ninja who always came after us the next day would usually be driven off by other teams from Konoha. After that the only serious threat was that genjutsu trap, which I now had the means to break. By my thirtieth reset we usually made it through with a few hours to spare, which gave us a chance to rest up a little before the pre-finals.
The first few times I drew bad opponents and got my butt kicked, but once we started making it through consistently it didn't take long for me to get Ino as my opponent again. This time I skipped the grandstanding speeches and concentrated on winning.
The first time I'd fought Ino in the forest arena we were evenly matched, but this time I knew all her tricks and had a couple of months more practice on my side. It was still a close fight, but I won. I was walking on air as I returned to the spectator's balcony to watch Naruto eke out a victory against Kiba with a lucky fart. God, only Naruto.
I had a bad moment when I woke up in my own bed the next day, but then I checked my clock and cheered. It was June 9th! My plan was working!
Now I had a month to train for the finals, if only Kakashi would bother to make the effort. I spent half the morning trying to figure out how to prod him into giving me some real training, but I needn't have bothered. When Kakashi finally turned up, only two hours late for our team meeting, he had another older ninja with him.
"I'm very proud of all of you for making it to the finals. Congratulations. The last time this happened in Konoha was when the Sanin took the exam."
"That's great, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto enthused. "So what kind of training are we going to do for the finals? Are you going to teach us some cool jutsu? Huh? Huh?"
"I'm afraid I won't be training you this time, Naruto. Sasuke is up against a very serious opponent in Gaara, and his training is going to require my full attention. But Ebisu here is one of Konoha's most elite instructors, and he's agreed to train you and Sakura."
Apparently Naruto knew Ebisu from somewhere, and wasn't impressed. He bitched and moaned and whined until I just couldn't take it anymore.
"Naruto!" I shouted while smacking him upside the head. "Shut up! You know Kakashi never teaches us anything, what made you think that would change now? Besides, I'd think you'd be happy about training with me."
That shut him up. Not that I actually liked him, you understand, but it's hard to keep thinking of a guy as an annoying pest after he dies for you five or six times. Besides, he'd never call me a useless weakling.
Then I noticed the sudden silence, and realized what I'd just said. Kakashi didn't look happy.
"Ahem. Anyway, don't mind us sensei, I'm sure we'll be fine. You're right, you need to get Sasuke powered up as fast as possible so he can beat Gaara." I gave him an exaggerated smile, and turned to Ebisu.
"So, let me guess. We're supposed to work really hard on our taijutsu, and I'll build up my chakra reserves while Naruto works on his control, and if we do really well we might learn a basic utility technique like Body Flicker or Water Walking. Right?"
Ebisu nodded cautiously
"Super!" I chirped. "Let's get started!"
Ebisu wisely refrained from commenting, while Kakashi slunk away with Sasuke in tow. Asshole. Just because I can't do anything about it doesn't mean I'll pretend I don't see it. Making us concentrate on our weaknesses instead of our strengths was the perfect way to give us the illusion of progress, without actually letting us get any stronger. Taking my taijutsu and chakra capacity from utterly pathetic to just really bad wouldn't do me much good in a fight, which is why if they actually wanted us to win they'd concentrate on our strengths instead. But with a few years of work you can turn a weakness into a strength, and I found I rather liked the idea of becoming a taijutsu expert. There are just so many people in the world who need a good ass-kicking.
Sure enough, we spent most of the day reviewing basic moves we should have learned at the academy. But towards the end of the day Ebisu took us out to one of the small lakes that dot the training grounds and showed us the Water Walking technique.
Ok, so maybe he didn't have anything personal against us. Kakashi does outrank him, so he probably couldn't just blow off our jounin-sensei's instructions on what to teach us. At least he was doing what he could.
Ebisu walked out onto the lake and gave us a short explanation of the technique, and invited us to give it a try. Naruto immediately called up enough chakra to level a mountain and tried to step out onto the lake. He actually floated for a few seconds, but then he started to wobble and fell in with a splash.
"Jeez, this water is freezing!" He complained as he climbed out.
"You have to keep the flow of chakra steady, Naruto." Ebisu explained. "Otherwise you'll bob up and down too much and disrupt the technique."
I gingerly held one foot over the water and projected a little chakra, trying to feel the surface without actually touching it. There. Yes, it was easy enough to press against it with my chakra, but there were a lot of details to consider…
"Well, Sakura?" Ebisu prompted. "Are you going to give it a try, or not?"
I smiled sweetly. "Sensei, Naruto and I are different kinds of ninja. He's got terrible control, but he'll stay out here all night practicing until he finally learns this out of sheer stubbornness." The interaction between my chakra and the water was odd, but not that hard to understand. I could do this.
"Well, then, what kind of ninja are you, Sakura? Not the kind that's too timid to try, I hope."
"No, sensei." I said with a wide-eyed smile of fake innocence. "I'm the kind with perfect control."
I stepped out onto the lake supported by nothing but the chakra beneath my feet, adjusting the flow minutely to compensate for the little waves that danced across its surface. I strolled out to where Ebisu stood without so much as getting my toes wet, smiling the whole way.
"Woah. Sakura, that's awesome!" Naruto exclaimed.
I waved. "Come join me, then."
He laughed and gave it a try, falling in almost instantly.
"Idiot!" I called. "Concentrate on your chakra, not me!"
"Not bad." Ebisu observed. "But how long can you maintain it?"
I grimaced. "About ten minutes. Maybe fifteen in an emergency, but then I'd be down with chakra exhaustion for a week. How do I fix that?"
"Practice." He replied.
It was a surprisingly good month. Naruto was annoyingly hyperactive, but he's so good-natured that it's hard to stay irritated for long. My taijutsu improved by leaps and bounds, my chakra pool expanded until I could water walk for nearly an hour at a time, and towards the end of the month he even showed us Body Flicker. That was another chakra-intensive technique, but there were lots of times in the Forest of Death when the ability to flit a hundred yards in an instant would have saved my life.
So I went into the tournament with a smile on my face, even though I knew I was going to lose. My match against Temari was as brutal as expected, but I actually managed to flicker in close and get in a couple of hits before she took me down. After all those fights with Orochimaru I was pretty pleased to come away with just a broken arm and a couple of cracked ribs.
The invasion caught me totally off guard. I managed to resist the sleep genjutsu that took down most of the crowd in the arena, but I couldn't even do a Dispel with one arm in a sling. Kakashi ended up sending me to a shelter with the civilians, with the result that I got a nice look at the giant three-headed snake and the even bigger sand monster tearing up the city. Then we finally got into the shelter, and discovered the hard way that it was booby trapped to collapse on us.
I started awake, and found myself back in my room on the day of the written exam.
"Good god." I muttered, running my fingers through my hair. "It was like the whole city was destroyed. No city means no grades, which means no graduations. Shit. Don't tell me I have to stop an entire invasion to get out of this thing."