[ A few things to note:

First: Kakashi's age. There seem to be some inconsistencies in the databooks and manga with all the recent flashbacks, but I always considered that big group shot of everyone at the Entrance Ceremony to be those who were entering the Academy for the first day of classes in general, whether it was their first year being there or their fourth. Plus, it was a rare opportunity for Kishimoto to show ALL the prominent characters from that generation as kids in one shot. Heck, I basked in that fanservice like a giddy pre-teen cause they're all so CUUUUUUUUTE! XD

So, in an effort to make things "logical", I took the ages of graduation as my base for a timeline. According to Narutopedia Kakashi graduated at 5, and became Chuunin at 6. Obito and Rin graduated at 9, which makes them 3 or 4 years older than Kakashi since they were all in the Chuunin exam together. Obito was 13 in Kakashi Gaiden, which makes Kakashi 9 or 10 when he becomes a Jounin and gets the sharingan. I went with the idea that Kakashi was 10, and Obito was nearly 14.

Following that line, the Third War grinds to an eventual halt and there's no way to tell how long Obito was unconscious while Madara kept him prisoner. His montage of healing and getting stronger was paced to suggest several months to a year, so all together it might have been nearly a year and a half. This means that Kakashi was probably 11 (nearing 12) when Rin died, and she and Obito would have been around 15. Minato becomes Hokage soon after that since he had been "out on a mission" when Rin was kidnapped/killed, implying he wasn't Hokage at that time.

Second: I have not yet watched the "Kakashi: Shadow of ANBU" anime arc, I've only read a few spoilers. This story was already half formulated before I read those spoilers, so all I really did was tweak it a bit and add a few things to sort of follow what little I've read. It's not entirely accurate because this story is first and foremost a part of the universe I've already created, but I did try to write it in a way that you can enjoy this piece without needing to read anything else I've written. =)

However, for anyone who wants to know: The date of Sakumo's death is from my story "Out Flew the Web and Floated Wide". My headcanon regarding ANBU code names is from the first part of Chapter 9: Onigawara in "Certain Things Rearrange...". ( don't worry, it's very short, and you honestly don't have to read any farther than the obvious exposition at the beginning. The rest of the chapter is an alternate POV on another story, so feel free to ignore it if you haven't read "Things Just Ain't The Same...". ) Kakashi's first glimpse of Naruto is a reference from "Don't Cry". How he received his first copy of Icha Icha, as well as his circumstances for being a Jounin Sensei candidate, are from "Notes". The reason he left ANBU is from "The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side". Again, these have nothing to do with the anime arc, and they were all either planned out or written before it was even aired on TV.

Third: This is the third installment of my Kakashi-centric series where the titles all come from the poem "Lady of Shalott" by Tennyson.

Fourth: I apologize for the lengthy author's note, but I did feel it was better for you to know this information now instead of reading in total confusion. Please enjoy the story! =D ]

The Curse is Come Upon Me

Kakashi didn't accept the fact that he was cursed until Rin died, impaled on his arm while he felt the last shuddering convulsions of her heart and lungs against his skin, choking out his name with blood on her lips as she looked at him with haunted apology for tricking him into carrying out her suicide. It wasn't until he pulled his arm free of her warm corpse - the world spinning and drowning in a deafening rain that burned his eyes and heaved his stomach up to his throat to keep him from screaming - that some dark bitter little voice in the back of his mind reminded him of the date.

It mocked him with paralleling coincidences, slashing through a calendar in his head with vicious accuracy. Today was the anniversary of their Genin test. It was the day Obito and Rin had become his first teammates. And now it was also the day that Kakashi had eliminated the last member of that team with his own hands. Agony spiked and twisted in his left eye, drilling through his skull as if Obito's sharingan - not his...NEVER HIS - had finally had enough of the unworthy caretaker it had been saddled with. Everything after that was swallowed up in a hazy blur of pain and fractured memories that meshed with nightmares until he woke up in the hospital.

When he joined ANBU at Minato's request, he spent that night staring at his ceiling and trying to breathe through the dead panic shrieking under his skin. Every inch of him trembled in a cold sweat beneath his blanket, howling with the need to sprint across the village and hover outside Minato's house like a creepy stalker. He gripped his sheets hard enough to tear them to shreds in order to keep himself from racing out of his small apartment to reassure himself that the man was still alive.

He counted the minutes in an attempt to trick his brain into compliance, substituting the time on the clock for the dates in his head until the first pale light of dawn filtered through his window. After a quick shower he shoved his uniform on to count more minutes in front of a pair of empty graves, because he didn't want to think about how he'd killed Rin the same date he'd made Genin when he was 5, or how his father had died the day he'd made Chuunin when he was 6, or how Obito had died a few days after he'd made Jounin when he was 10, or how something was going to happen now that he'd made ANBU just shy of his 12th birthday.

When he stood in front of the Yondaime Hokage - still alive...STILL ALIVE - to receive his first assignment as an ANBU, he was in control enough not to let a glimmer of emotion slip past his mask. Not that Minato made the situation the slightest bit easy by giving Kakashi that damn code name. He could feel his stomach churning rebelliously as Minato didn't even bother trying to hide the gentle fond smile while he gave his reasoning for the name. He had never hated the man so much for spewing the sentimental lies, or been so grateful to him for not just coming out and saying the truth.

The truth was Minato understood Kakashi. Minato knew Kakashi wasn't capable of saving lives, he could only end them. He found a blessed release in redefining his code name with a thousand birds screeching in his ears to cover the sound of ripping flesh and shattering bones. If he could kill the enemy, then the enemy wouldn't be able to kill the other people - not teammates...NEVER TEAMMATES - in his squad. That was the rule, and it was the only hope that kept him going when the nightmares made his hands tremble in the mornings.

It was the only thing that pushed him past his limits again and again to get stronger. He had to kill them, therefore he had to be strong. The more strength he gained, the more he killed. He didn't have to think about the calendar. He didn't have to think about saving anyone. He just had to focus on completing the mission and killing everything that threatened him...or threatened his squad...or threatened Konoha.

Of course, it would have been a lot simpler if his acquaintances - not friends...NEVER FRIENDS - could have refrained from hunting him down and pestering the shit out of him at every opportunity. But they didn't stop, they wouldn't leave him alone no matter what he said or did, and they didn't die. They were always alive and determined to be a thorn in his side, and after a while he got used to the pain. He truly hated them the first time he felt a bit out of sorts after having spent the entire day walking through the village waiting for someone to bother him because he'd become so accustomed to it.

Kakashi hated them so much that he spent the entire night stalking every last one of them down so he could perch outside their windows at a very discreet distance and glare at them properly while they slept. He tried not to think about the relief that washed over him by the time he finished his rounds. It was a familiar sensation that turned his stomach sour and nagged at him to start running through the calendar in his head. And as much as he didn't want to face that skeleton in his closet, his brain refused to let it be locked away.

Too soon after that - not enough time...NEED MORE TIME - he stood in the Hokage's office and swallowed the acid burning the back of his throat as the calendar in his head flipped through page after page. He couldn't have heard Minato right. There was no way this was happening!

"Guard Kushina."

Guard pregnant Kushina. Guard the baby. Guard the family. Guard the future. Protect them all. HOW THE FUCK WAS HE SUPPOSED TO DO THAT?! He didn't know how to guard people! He didn't know how to protect people! He only knew how to kill them!

Kakashi lost a lot of weight in the first few weeks. He couldn't keep food down, he couldn't sleep, and he was on a constant razor's edge of wary tension and jumpy concentration around Kushina. She was always trying to get him to eat something or talk to her, bulldozing her way into his personal space and assaulting him with the torrential maelstrom of her emotional personality. Every attempt he made of reminding the stubborn woman that he was there on a mission, and their interactions should reflect the important professional nature of that mission, was rebuffed and flippantly waved off.

It didn't help that the red-headed bane of his existence would often come out of nowhere to grapple him into an absurdly rough semblance of a hug as she laughed or cried or worried or cooed or raged. It was all he could do to suppress a panic attack and keep his reflexes rigidly in control while remaining completely motionless. He had to protect Kushina, she was pregnant, and regardless of the fact that she was also obviously completely insane, he couldn't break out of the woman's death-grip because that might hurt her!

After a while he was able to calm the irrational fears that kept him from eating and sleeping. He was also getting better at anticipating Kushina's random "attacks" so he could occasionally evade the situation before it escalated into unwanted smothering. The months slowly passed, and he discovered a kind of solace in being able to visit Rin's grave and the Memorial Stone nearly every day now that he was constantly stuck in the village. Kushina remained excessively alive and much too quick for someone so heavily encumbered, and Kakashi started wondering if maybe everything would be okay this time. Maybe he could stop looking at the calendar like a paranoid psycho.

October 10th rolled around, and he felt ill the moment he woke up that morning because it was the same day he'd entered the Academy. He skipped breakfast, and couldn't decide if he was relieved or terrified that he wasn't one of the guards watching over Kushina's hiding place. For the sake of his sanity he settled on being relieved, because if she was far enough away from him, then she would be safe for the next few days.

But she wasn't, and the kyuubi was burning Konoha down while Kakashi slowly died inside as he was ordered not to fight...ordered because he wasn't where he SHOULD be...ordered because Kushina was dead or dying and HE HADN'T BEEN THERE TO PROTECT HER...ordered because he could see the giant fox and Minato's toad disappear to a place beyond reach, beyond sight, beyond his ability to stop the world from caving in on him and ripping away the last thing that mattered to him on the same day he'd taken that first step to protect it as a Konoha shinobi.

The sharingan boiled behind his closed lid, Obito's words echoing and rattling in his head with mocking disgust. "I can become your eye...and from now on I will see the future."

It didn't feel right that the world didn't end that night. He wanted to hate Minato for being a teammate and leaving him. He wanted to hate Kushina for being a friend and leaving him. He wanted to hate the squalling creature in the crib for being the one who took them both away, and he came close...so very horrifyingly close to hating the brat with every fiber of his dead soul. But there were big fat tears spilling out of the baby's - Naruto...HIS NAME IS NARUTO - little blue eyes, and Kakashi hesitated.

He never questioned his Hokage's decision to hide Naruto in one of the rooms within Hiruzen's private living quarters for those first few months, because grieving could make a person do things in a haze of madness that they would NEVER do if they were thinking clearly. He knew that all too well.

He never questioned the gag order placed on all the citizens and shinobi of Konoha, silencing them so they wouldn't speak of who the new jinchuuriki of the kyuubi was or risk being arrested for treason.

The Biju were hated and feared as unholy destructive powers, but that power maintained a balance between the Hidden Villages. The Third Shinobi War was still a painful wound, and no one wanted to suffer through another war because the enemy had kidnapped the dangerous weapon that secured Konoha's place in the top ranks of the Hidden Village hierarchy. It was infinitely better to have that weapon safe within the walls where it could be watched and contained, rather than in the hands of an enemy that would only use it against them. The kyuubi's attack had made that fear dreadfully real, because no one stopped the rumors that someone had done something to break the monster from its cage and set it rampaging on the village.

He never questioned the Sandaime's choice to raise Naruto like any other Konoha orphan. The orphanage that resided on the very outer edge of the village's territory was not for children that were born in Konoha. It was for strays rescued from the battlefield, children who had no village, or children who came from obscure villages that couldn't - or wouldn't - care for them when they showed signs of developing chakra systems which may make them viable for becoming shinobi.

Kids who were citizens of Konoha and were orphaned in Konoha, were kept in Konoha and were raised by Konoha. If they had no Clan or distant family, then appointed nannies and baby-sitters watched over the littlest ones until they could watch over themselves. They were given small apartments as soon as possible, and a living allowance until they were old enough to work and earn their own money.

However, he did question the law to never mention Naruto's heritage on pain of immediate death for exactly 2 hours and 19 minutes. 2 hours and 20 minutes into his night patrol he had to enforce that law on a man walking down the street who was speaking too loudly and cursing the foul brat for living while their hero, the Yondaime, had to die. Kakashi missed the man's heart by a quarter of a centimeter, the back of his katana resting against an artery so he wouldn't slice through it.

Hiruzen had given all his shinobi the order to show mercy for the first transgression they came across. But only the first. Kakashi informed the man and his companions of their "luck", then dumped the wounded bastard off in the hospital lobby. None of the nurses or doctors questioned him. After all, ANBU were tools that answered to the Hokage, and he hadn't been the first to bring in a severely injured person without any explanation.

It wasn't fair that time kept forcing him to walk on and try to gather up the jagged fragments of his spirit. His heart screamed at him to simply leave the pieces there on the ground and walk away, replacing the "There are still people out there I can call 'friend'." with the unbelievably tempting mantra of "NEVER AGAIN!". But every time he visited the Memorial Stone he could still feel the crushing warmth of Kushina's arms, he could still see the gentle understanding in Minato's smile, and he could still hear Naruto's lonely wail. In a devastatingly painful way he always felt a tiny bit better because he missed it...and that meant he might still be human somewhere inside.

'Teammate' and 'friend' were no longer forbidden words, they were vital foundations for his own continued existence. He fortified the walls around himself to keep from falling apart and tried to save others the only way he knew how; by not killing them. Eventually he tried to improve his methods by also warning them of the mistakes he'd made. But he couldn't save everyone, and it cut a little deeper every time he failed. It didn't improve his psyche any that for a three month span of stumbling into Konoha after exhausting missions, he would occasionally wake up in a room that was not his.

Thankfully, the place where Minato and Kushina had lived was still empty, and Naruto's early morning fussing made enough noise to wake him in time to escape without the nanny seeing him. Whether the Sandaime chose to ignore the handful of incidents, or the ANBU on night watch chose to look the other way, Kakashi never found out and never wanted to find out. He was just glad that the disconcerting episodes stopped.

Gaining a summoning contract and training his ninken was probably the greatest help in figuring out how to act like a semi-normal human. Sort of. Okay, maybe not. He truly couldn't help the fact that he was crap at socializing, it was just how he was. He didn't like chatting or small talk because he really had nothing to say, and more often than not he simply wanted to be left alone. He didn't like people getting close to him, it made his skin itch. And while the analogy was accurate, it took Kakashi almost two months to get it through Gai's thick head that he did not need the various creams and salves the dark-haired teen concocted under the idiotic assumption that Kakashi literally had some kind of bizarre rash that flared up whenever he was around people.

The first time he was late for a meeting it was completely by accident, he'd lost track of time at the Memorial Stone. Oddly enough, not only was the Sandaime the only person who didn't have stiff shoulders and gritted teeth due to the late arrival, but Hiruzen seemed to chew on his pipe in a tolerantly amused fashion. On a whim he tried his hand at coming up with a lousy excuse, and unlike Obito, Kakashi's excuse was a complete lie. He found the ensuing burst of ruffled feathers secretly hilarious as he shrugged and made it look like an apology while not actually apologizing.

It took a while for his Icha Icha to make a public appearance. Kakashi had not found the joke funny when he woke up in a hospital room with nothing but the smutty novel to relieve his boredom and distract him from scrolling through the calendar in his head so he could mark down another failure. The worst part was he didn't know who to blame for the prank because he didn't even remember making it to the hospital, much less having a visitor ballsy enough to give him porn. Admitting to himself that he enjoyed the book was a tough hurdle to overcome, but three weeks trapped in the same room with his leg in a cast, and another two weeks hobbling through the village on crutches gave him plenty of time to work through the mortification.

A year and a half later, when the second volume of Icha Icha Paradise came out, he was there before the bookstore opened. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd had such a thoroughly delightful time walking through the village as he made his way home with his nose buried in the pages of the book and his ears soaking up all the scandalous gasping around him. Hiruzen called him into his office only once to remind the ANBU that he needed to avoid reading adult books in public during his free time when there were toddlers in the immediate vicinity. Or to at least avoid being seen by the parents.

The ensuing years weren't kind to him, so he slowed himself down to accommodate the weight of it all and took pleasure in what he could. Making it a deliberate habit instead of an honest mistake to be late to meetings fast became one pleasure. He would never admit it to anyone, but watching the resulting kerfuffle of Naruto's antics was also one of his guilty pleasures. As much of a pain in the ass as the brat was, his vandalism and temper made for a damn entertaining afternoon of watching all the Chuunin scurry about like a nest of ants after it had been kicked.

Except that one time Naruto almost got himself killed when he ventured into the far hills on a dare or a bet or something Kakashi didn't bother remembering because it would just give him nightmares. That was TERRIFYING. Thank god Iruka had pulled his head out of his ass after their little chat the previous day.

Something seemed to light a fire in Naruto after that, though it wasn't exactly manifesting in a very law-abiding direction. While Kakashi was kept busy and out of the village fairly often with ANBU missions and the occasional Jounin assignment, he was not deaf or blind to the shifting animosity within Konoha. Naruto was getting on the entire village's last fucking nerve.

To be honest, Kakashi was concerned at first. Instead of being mulishly satisfied with throwing Naruto dirty looks and making sure to keep their children away from him, people were starting to get angry again. That kind of anger could make people say things in a thoughtless bout of frustrated rage. Things that would get them killed or locked in an interrogation room with Ibiki. Things that Naruto was old enough to remember, question, and understand or jump to conclusions if he ever heard them.

When Naruto had been a toddler, all anyone could see was blond hair and blue eyes. It didn't matter that they weren't quite the exact shade of Minato's hair and eyes. The colors were close enough, and everyone who hated and grieved and knew the truth couldn't look past it. That thing was the Yondaime's son, a mockery and a mask of cruel irony that dared to resemble the beloved man that had been killed by the thing's very birth. None of them saw Naruto.

If it wasn't for the saving grace of the legendary Bloody Habanero, Naruto might have been forced to endure that silent condemnation as he grew into a little boy. But thanks to Kushina, Minato fell away bit by bit, replaced with a face that looked nothing like the Yondaime, a voice that sounded nothing like the Yondaime, and above all a personality that was as far from the Yondaime as was humanly possible because he was "UZUMAKI NARUTO, DAMN IT, AND DON'T YOU EVER FORGET IT!".

He had a small body that stumbled and stomped and lacked any shred of the swift grace that the Yondaime had commanded. He was gullible and stubborn in his simple-minded ways, and unlike the Yondaime, he lacked the patience and desire for higher learning, much less the innate brilliance to grasp complex concepts, remember details, or logically fill in the gaps between the two. You had to cover your ears and squint your eyes as you watched the child from a distance if you wanted to see the Yondaime.

Unfortunately, he was still the kyuubi's vessel, the container for the monster that had brought Konoha to its knees and slaughtered countless loved ones. He was dangerous and feared and loathed for the power he had locked within him. He was avoided and watched with hostile wariness by many of the villagers, because there was no telling what might trigger a violent reaction and disrupt the seal. He was still a thing. But he was a thing that would not stop shouting his name defiantly at the top of his lungs, refusing to back down when challenged, refusing to stay down when he was caught and forced to fix the damage from his petty crimes.

Naruto had always had the confidence and temperament to pull off the antics he was steadily getting far too good at, he'd just never had the necessary skills and physical strength to do anything on a relatively grand scale. But now he was learning how to be a ninja, he was getting stronger and faster, he had more control over his clumsy body, and what little he grasped in class he used to his advantage in cunning and unpredictable ways. He was a monster. He was a menace. He was a punk-ass, foul-mouthed, dead-last little hoodlum. He was human.

He was safe.

Kakashi moved on, following his feet and completing his missions until he removed his ANBU mask for the last time. It took him several months to fully reintegrate himself into the rhythms and patterns of working as an ordinary Jounin again. And after a while, just when he thought he had finally gotten the hang of living as a regular person again, a messenger bird tapped on his window and blew it all to hell. He did not allow himself to believe that it was fear that made his hands shake when he read the summons, because fury was so much safer.

"Jounin Sensei Candidate" his ass! It was BULLSHIT! Complete and utter bullshit! He was not going to be promoted again! He was not going to be responsible for the lives of a bunch of kids! He didn't want this! He had NEVER wanted this!

He darted to Archives and quickly researched the conditions for the ridiculous promotion HE WAS NEVER GOING TO ACCEPT. Five minutes later he was seriously pissed, unbelievably baffled, and downright scared. To submit the form, the Hokage had to interview the applicant in person. WHEN THE FUCK HAD THAT EVER HAPPENED?! Kakashi was absolutely certain he would have remembered that interview, and he would have taken the proper precautions by burning the application himself.

He couldn't exactly walk up to Hiruzen and accuse the Sandaime Hokage of fraud, so he planted himself in Archives and refused to leave until he could find a way around the bureaucracy and red tape that held the confidential personnel records hostage. Did he know the filing number of the form? No. Did he know the date that the form was submitted? No. Did he know which Hokage had approved the application? No. Did he know who had performed the genjutsu test, because that might narrow down the time frame? No. Did he know his way out the door? NO!

When a pair of ANBU came to remove him from the premises he eyed them balefully, weighing the pros and cons against putting up a fight. On one hand, the irrational fit of violence would surely disqualify him as a candidate and get him off the hook. But on the other hand, it would also surely have him spending way too much time in the company of Yamanaka Inoichi to assess his mental stability. It was a tough call, and a full 15 seconds ticked by as the ANBU started to subtly show signs of nervousness.

Feeling wrathfully defeated, Kakashi grimaced and used a burst of chakra to carry him to the Hokage's office so he could tartly answer his summons by informing the man that he was going to fail any Genin hopeful thrown his way. Hiruzen simply gave him a flat look that failed to hide his amusement, handed him a folder containing the protocol and regulations pertaining to the status of Jounin Sensei, and told him the files for the team he would be testing would be given to him in two weeks.

Two and a half weeks later he sat at the small desk in his apartment with a swarming mixture of relief, disappointment, and ire. The team had failed his test with unquestioning finality, and he was genuinely concerned about the level of standards that the Academy was using to "pass" those little losers. They hadn't been ready for the field AT ALL, and Kakashi's pride started to question Hiruzen's decision to foist what had to have been the worst of the lot on him. He shook his head and turned back to the task of filling out a detailed report and assessment on the youngsters, bypassing the section for suggestions on testing an individual for their potential for becoming an apprentice in a specialized field instead of being put on a team again. All three of them had been pretty spectacularly unimpressive.

The next time he trudged into the Sandaime's office to sullenly receive a new set of files was barely two months later, and he had to test a group that had been failed the previous year. He failed them, too, but at least he was able to suggest some apprenticing for two of them. The third was a casualty waiting to happen. Again and again he was given scrapings from the bottom of the barrel. They were all boring little dunces with no personality, and didn't have the creativity or human decency to think outside the box when he confronted them with a problem that required a simple act of unified defiance in the face of his unreasonable "rules".

He began worrying that maybe he was being too hard on the kids. Maybe his expectations were too high. Maybe he was hoping for too much of a change in this unfamiliar era of peace. He honestly didn't know. Minato had seen to it in his short tenure of being the Yondaime that no one graduated the Academy until they were at least 10. Kakashi had graduated at half that age, and he'd been promoted to Jounin at 10. He couldn't parallel his own past with the Genin he was stuck testing, and he couldn't accept them if they didn't have the heart to accept his carefully hidden teachings.

And then he woke up one morning and noted that it was the same day he had been promoted to ANBU. If that hadn't been enough to put him in a less than pleasant mood, he had just returned from a grueling three week mission late that night, he found out about the whole "Mizuki" incident when he turned in his report later that day, and when Hiruzen handed him his next batch of Genin files instead of answering his questions, he had never wanted to punch his Hokage in the face so badly in his entire life.

That sly old bastard had set him up!

Breaking and entering with Hiruzen was certainly a new experience, but the fact that the Sandaime was accompanying him on his standard tour of gathering information only reinforced the idea that Hiruzen was actually serious about the Genin this time around.

Naruto lived like a slob. A slob with a bad sense of smell if the spoiled milk he found was any indication. Still, the place was oddly...homey. Granted, there were dirty clothes strewn all over the floor amongst the empty instant ramen cups and junk food wrappers, but there were colorful posters on the walls, a few well-read manga scattered in with low-level teaching scrolls and books that had barely been touched, and the plants that took up the majority of shelving space were vibrantly healthy.

Sasuke, on the other hand, lived disturbingly like a guest at an inn; no personal items, everything was spotless, and there was very little food in his refrigerator that could spoil. The boy left his apartment as if he was anticipating the idea that he wouldn't be back. It wasn't a home, it was just a place for him to sleep until he could leave. The contradictions between the two left him feeling unsettled, and he was still trying to figure out how to fit the whole puzzle together while Sakura's parents led them up to her room.

Fighting back the uncomfortable sensation of feeling really creepy standing in a 12 year-old girl's room while her parents stood in the doorway looking relieved at his presence - GOD HE HATED THIS PART - he settled into an ANBU mindset and gazed around with clinical detachment. He didn't know what half the shit on the vanity table was, but the place didn't smell nearly as overpoweringly of manufactured scented...stuff...as he had expected. It was tidy, the surprisingly advanced books and scrolls were well-worn and organized, and the room had the same homey feel as Naruto's apartment. Sakura and Naruto were the stable ones, with homes to return to. Sasuke was the wildcard.

Kakashi gave the Haruno's a polite smile as he and the Sandaime left the house, his stomach quickly turning sour at the expressions on the couple's faces. He didn't like being looked at with that kind of trusting confidence, especially from people who were convinced he was capable of protecting their most precious person. This was why being a sensei sucked. The families. They trusted him with the lives of their children, and he had to not do something stupid like offer an opinion. It didn't help that he only had one family to deal with this time, because this time he was saddled with the added weight of knowing Sakura's parents were trusting him to protect their daughter from her teammates as well as her enemies.

Thankfully Hiruzen left him to go prowl around and spy on his wayward Genin for the rest of the morning. He needed to burn off the tension building up between his shoulder blades. Damn that old man to hell! He'd stuck Kakashi with two village pariahs and a brainiac in the guise of what he assumed to be an ordinary girl. While Naruto's status with most of the villagers was rudely obvious, Sasuke's situation was a bit more subtle. He wasn't necessarily avoided and hated, but he was feared.

Sasuke was an Uchiha, the last of his dangerously powerful clan. He was Itachi's brother, the only relative to a traitor who had gone insane and committed genocide. There was always an undercurrent of wary unease from most of the adults around him, and the aloof genius didn't help things any by deliberately ostracizing himself. He pushed people away as if he didn't need them, as if he didn't care about anyone but himself. And the stronger he got at the Academy, the more uneasy the villagers felt. If Sasuke had no connection to Konoha, what was to stop him from going on a murderous rampage just like Itachi?

Kakashi gave a weary sigh and perched in a tree to watch the trio head off to eat their lunches separately. Though it wasn't for lack of trying on Sakura's and Naruto's parts. Well, that convoluted disdain/love/hate triangle was going to make team dynamics as smooth as a cheese grater. He fully anticipated the next few hours to be fairly boring, but Naruto was having none of it and Kakashi found himself being downright entertained by the most unpredictable game of cat-and-mouse he'd ever seen. It irked him that he was feeling disappointed about how badly they were going to fail his test, and he tossed a withering look at the Hokage Tower.

But then Sasuke lashed out at Sakura for her ignorance of how painful it was to be orphaned, and Sakura turned around and tried to swallow her pride for the sake of Naruto's feelings...and Naruto accused her of being an imposter before sprinting off to the nearest bathroom because the spoiled milk had caught up with him. Okay, so it wasn't a perfect ending to a potentially team-ish moment, but it did give Kakashi an irritating thread of hope. And he found it strangely easy telling them he hated them...because they were the first to have the impertinence to pull a prank on him for being late...because they were the first he kind of wanted to pass his test...and because that was frightening.

He didn't sleep that night, fidgety and restless with irrational worries that kept creeping up on him as soon as he closed his eyes. Giving up slumber as a lost cause, he camped out in the branches of a tree where he would have a good view of Training Ground 3. As soon as the three arrived, he created a shadow clone to keep an eye on the sleepy Genin, and then slipped away to watch Asuma and Kurenai test their teams. Asuma was going to have to be creative with his group, and Kakashi was curious as to how he was going to test them.

Shikamaru was too lazy to be reckless, he had the carelessly brilliant intellect of Shikaku in his eyes, and his long-standing friendship with Chouji was too close to use the standard tactic of pitting them all against each other. He arched an eyebrow as the stocky bearded man told his trio that if one of them could take a bell from him, then they would all pass. As expected, Ino and Chouji took the conditions literally and each of them tried to confront Asuma alone. The Sarutobi did not go easy on them, and even Kakashi had to wince at the rough treatment.

Then again, that was the point of the lesson. If Shikamaru wanted his teammates to remain in one piece, he was going to have to get off his lazy ass and tell them that they didn't have to fight separately in order for "one of them" to take a bell. However, knowing you need to work as a team is not the same as being able to work as a team, and it took them several tries before Asuma let them almost trap him with Ino's Mind-Transfer Jutsu. He broke out of Shikamaru's and Chouji's hold on him before Ino's technique could take effect, and the young Yamanaka crumpled to the ground unconscious.

The test was over, and the dawning shock on the boy's faces as Ino failed to respond to their attempts at waking her was another lesson learned in teamwork. Knowing your teammate's weakness was just as important, if not more so, than knowing their strengths. The members of Team 10 had not been chosen so they could be a typical front-line assault squad. They were tricksters and ambush specialists, information-gatherers and a last line of defense. Their cohesion and ability to work together was vital for their effectiveness in the field. They were the new generation of Ino-Shika-Cho.

Kurenai had scheduled her test for mid-morning, and when Kakashi arrived at the training field he made sure to keep his distance, suppress his chakra, and stay downwind. Team 8 was a search and seizure team, and he didn't want to interfere by being too close or obvious enough to throw the youngsters off. Her test was kind, but it wasn't gentle. The two bells had been buried separately in the wide field, and in order to pass they had to retrieve both of them. Kiba's overconfident laugh was silenced when Akamaru swiftly dug up a bell that didn't have the required red string attached to it, and all of the kids scattered with shouts of surprise when Kurenai activated an elaborate genjutsu.

She attacked them constantly with dulled shuriken that stung their pride more than their bodies, and never gave them enough time to fully concentrate on trying to find the correct bells buried amongst the hundreds of fakes she had planted. It didn't take them long to figure out that they would never find the bells if they didn't take her out first, but it took them - meaning Kiba - quite a while longer to accept the fact that they would all have to work together to track her through the genjutsu in order to fend her off long enough for Hinata to get the location of the bells.

They were clumsy and constantly at odds with each other because their personalities were so strikingly different, but they tried and tried and tried and tried, and finally Kurenai found whatever it was she had been looking for and allowed the boys to "fend her off". Kakashi didn't know much about Hinata other than her "secret" infatuation with Naruto. She was such a quiet shy little thing that he sometimes forgot she was the heiress to the Hyuuga Clan. But what he did know was that he had never seen the girl smile with such pride and accomplishment as when she called out the locations of the two bells.

Kurenai was kind, but she was not gentle. The instant Kiba whirled around to voice his complaints about Hinata taking so damn long, Kurenai cracked him over the head hard enough to send him flying away and told him never to turn his back on an opponent. Team 8 had officially passed and Kakashi darted back to his apartment to whip up a pair of lunches. He chuckled to himself as he set the bento by the Memorial Stone, knowing all three of the Genin were going to be riled up enough to give him a decent show. Well, hopefully all of them.

Team 7 was designed for front-line assault. There was no other reason to put Naruto and Sasuke together in terms of raw strength, and both of them were highly suited for being on that first line of close combat attack in a battle. Sakura, unfortunately, was an unknown factor in that skill set. He had seen the shadow of a gleam in her eyes when she had meekly apologized for Naruto's prank, though she had hid it well. The question was: just how much was the girl hiding, and was that inner imp bold enough to give her the strength she would need when they passed.



Two voices furiously informed him at high volume and in no uncertain terms that he was LATE. And for that brief moment he saw a wealth of untapped fire in Sakura's eyes, he saw Sasuke's unflappable cold reserve crumbling with the force of his anger, and he saw Naruto standing between them and half a step ahead of them both with his feet planted like a little bulldog. They were a united front against him for exactly 3.8 seconds.

Damn it...

IF they passed...IF they passed...IF...

Unlike the other Jounin Sensei, Kakashi never gave any of the teams he tested the option of using real teamwork. Not that any of them had ever tried since he flat out told them that only two would be passing, if they passed at all. He didn't use double-speak or semantics to lure them into thinking their way into teamwork, and he hunted them down individually to defeat them all without allowing them the time to properly regroup. He tested their abilities separately to get a feel for their skill levels, but that was all he was doing in the first half of the test.

Naruto proved to be just as brazen, spontaneous and unpredictable in a fight as he was with his pranks around the village, and he was just as easily caught as soon as he was distracted. He needed teammates that would watch his back until he learned to control his desire to simply charge forward without considering a danger that could come from behind him. Sakura put up a startlingly fierce resistance to his genjutsu as he carefully raised the power to test her self-awareness and chakra control. But she eventually fell prey to it, and he cringed at how tender her heart was.

Sasuke even turned out to be better than he'd expected, and he made a mental note to tell the Sandaime that the field-ready aptitude testing in the Academy needed a good overhaul. He could understand the miss on Naruto's file since he hadn't learned the Shadow Clone Jutsu until after the tests. However, either the instructors had failed to notice that Sasuke and Sakura had been holding back, or the test wasn't challenging enough to truly gauge their current abilities and potential.

He grumbled inwardly, feeling nervous and hopeful and scared and irritated as he plucked Naruto away from the lunches to tie him to one of the training posts. The alarm sounded, and he issued the conditions for the actual test. No one had ever passed, and he had never once told his failed teams the precise reason why they had failed, other than it had been a lack of teamwork. Only the Hokage knew that his Genin test was to see whether or not they would break the rules and willingly become trash, if they would risk losing it all for a single moment of compassion and loyalty.

Team 7 passed.