Summary: What does it mean to be a ninja? This is the question that guides Uzumaki Naruto through his life as a shinobi of Konoha. Along that path, witness as he meets friends, fights evil, and keeps his eyes fixed on the ultimate dream…

Rating Warning (T): This story will include fairly intense violence, occasional suggestive themes, and occasional strong language. Please use your judgment.

Disclaimer: "Naruto" and associated material belongs to Masashi Kishimoto and TV Tokyo.

Date: August 8, 2014 (Updated September 8)

Naruto: Birth of a Ninja

Chapter 1: Strength in Unity

Wherein a teacher learns a lesson

Those who make history are blind to its passage. Its course is too quick for even a great man to take notice of the great moments that will guide everything to follow.

At Konoha's Training Ground 21 on the morning of Hatake Kakashi's bell test, one such moment was in its incipiency. On a tree stump sat a simple white egg timer, bought that morning for this very test; and a pair of brightly colored bento boxes.

Next to the stump stood a lackadaisical man, grey haired, tall, and thin with a facemask over his nose and mouth and his forehead protector slanted over one eye. On his hip rode a pair of tiny silvery bells that tinkled in the wind. Hatake Kakashi, sensei-to-be of Team 7 stood across from his three tense prospects – two boys and a girl. One boy was bright and full of fire, golden hair aglow and cerulean eyes bursting with challenge. The other was pale and cold, with inky-black hair and dark eyes with a glint of purpose. Between them was a rose-haired girl trembling, whether with fear or anticipation was unclear, her emerald eyes full of a nervous energy.

"Begin!" Kakashi's voice began their test like a thunderclap. The elite jounin's voice wasn't particularly loud, but the three genin reacted like he'd shouted, hurling themselves away, into the thick copse of trees that covered most of Training Ground 21. Within moments, the three were invisible to the average observer – but Kakashi was no average man. He could sense Naruto in a nearby bush, brimming with determination. Sasuke was further off, kneeling and running through plans. Finally, Sakura had made her post behind a tree, still shivering, but with adrenaline coursing through her veins, watching Kakashi's every move.

And move Kakashi did – to pull an orange-covered book from his pouch. He could practically hear his students' groans as he did so, and grinned under his mask.

'Let the games begin…'

Naruto, having overcome his first impulse to remain in the open and fight, was caught in a dilemma.

'That asshole! He's just reading! He doesn't take us seriously at all! After he told us to try and KILL him! But he's a jounin… Maybe he's just that good?'

Though planning had never been Naruto's strong suite, he was an excellent improviser – yet how to begin? Kakashi was in the middle of the field, and though there was any number of ways to ambush him, all would take Naruto over the width of the open ground, where Kakashi could use any number of means to stop him.

'I need a distraction.' Naruto flashed through a familiar set of seals and incanted, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu." In a puff of smoke, a pair of clones of Naruto, identical to the last grass stain and patch on their eye-searing orange pants, appeared. Naruto grit his teeth, having been trying to create only one clone – but it was irrelevant, he supposed. One clone immediately slipped through the brush towards the other side of the clearing, while the other remained patiently with Naruto.

A minute later, a slight rustling on the other side of the clearing seemed to pique Kakashi's interest as he looked up from his book for a half-moment – and Naruto struck. Leaping out across the open ground, he roared a challenge. "Time to take this seriously, you one-eyed bastard!"

Kakashi chuckled quietly, still reading. "You're a little strange. Didn't the Academy teach you not to just charge a superior foe without back-up?" Kakashi dipped his head, allowing Naruto's devastating flying kick to go straight over him. Naruto landed and spun with a vicious hammer fist which Kakashi merely leaned away from, then followed with a sweep – which Kakashi hopped over.

"Stop hopping around and fight back, damn it!" Naruto grit his teeth, knowing how stupid he sounded even as he spoke – why should Kakashi stand around and be hit, after all, if he could just dodge? Naruto drew back and moved in with a flurry of light blows aimed to at least force Kakashi to take his attention away from the book – but Kakashi moved out of the way of every one with hardly a hair out of place.

Naruto roared and drew a fist back to try once more to land a heavy blow to Kakashi's face, but the cyclopean jounin seemed to flicker for a moment before vanishing just as Naruto's punch would have struck. Naruto froze for a moment.

'Where'd he go?' But Sakura's scream from the brush nearby interrupted his thoughts.

"Naruto! Behind you – tiger seal!" Naruto's mind burst into action – Iruka had gone over the meaning of seals with him many times.

'Tiger, tiger, burning bright – fire!' Naruto leapt forward, away from the potential attack, while at the same time, his two clones burst from the bushes towards Kakashi, who was kneeling behind him. Kakashi was forced to abort whatever technique he'd been about to attack with, instead hopping away from Naruto's two clones – one of whom landed his kick straight into the other's face. The struck clone vanished in a burst, and Naruto felt the clone's shock and pain for a half-moment before he leapt towards Kakashi again – he had to take the jounin seriously now. No matter how foolishly he behaved, it was clear the elite ninja barely needed his notice to take Naruto on.

In midair, Naruto again flashed through the seals to his only real combat technique. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" This time, he allowed more chakra to flow into the technique, trying to stop the flow before it became too much – and nearly a dozen clones of himself burst into view, smoke flaring around them. Kakashi froze for a moment, and Naruto grinned at the jounin's shock – Iruka-sensei had informed him that the technique he used ate up an absurd amount of energy, and that Naruto could use it as liberally as he did was incomprehensible to most ninja.

Even as Naruto's clones landed on Kakashi, Naruto heard the whisper and pop of smoke that signaled that he'd lost the jounin again and he tried to control his temper as he pushed out of the pile of clones, shouting, "Dispel yourselves! He's either flickered away or turned into one of us!"

As the clones all vanished, Naruto was left alone with only his dread. He was in way over his head. The jounin was too much for him, even with his new technique, and he had to admit something he had never had to before.

He needed help.

After warning Naruto, Sakura had dashed away from her position, knowing that once Kakashi found some way to deal with Naruto and his bizarre solid-clone technique, he'd be after her. And Kakashi WOULD deal with Naruto, she knew, because he was a JOUNIN, and no matter what Naruto could do now, he was still just a genin.

'I need to find Sasuke-kun. Maybe I could team up with him and work together to get the bells – there're two bells, we might be able to -" Sakura heard a rustling in the nearby bushes, and slid to a halt; a kunai raised and eyes narrowed. She hadn't noticed before how dark it was this deep into the trees. Around her was a peaceful silence.

'Or the silence of the dead…' her mind whispered maliciously. Sakura spoke warily, "Er… Sasuke-kun? Is that you? Are you all right? Or… Naruto?" She hoped dearly it was one of them and not Kakashi; the jounin had more than proven his ability to crush his prospective students, and had nearly used a fire technique on Naruto at point-blank range!

Instead, through the bushes tumbled Sasuke – but a beaten, battered Sasuke with several nicks and bruises. Worst was a kunai thrust deep into his chest, which Sakura could tell without a further glance was undoubtedly fatal.

"Sakura… help… please…" Sasuke collapsed, first to his knees then onto his face. Sakura began to step forward before freezing. Numbly, she raced through her first-aid training in her head, but knew there was nothing she could do. Her heart thumped and blood pounded in her ears.

"Sasuke-kun?" Her voice sounded shrill and reedy, and she felt faint. She felt screaming laughter about to bubble out of her chest, but her mind, always independent, snapped to attention.

'Stop! Think! Teammate down, what do we do? Take cover!' She heard her voice echoing Iruka-sensei's lesson and followed through, hurling herself into a nearby bush, even as she continued to wonder. 'Kakashi… killed one of us? One of his students? I mean… he was about to roast Naruto, but Sasuke-kun was the last Uchiha? How…'

'Look for the enemy.' Sakura glanced around even as her breath grew shorter and her vision began to tunnel, but she didn't see the murderous jounin anywhere.

'Don't let emotions affect your thinking; come up with a plan.' Sakura began to think, but a thought flashed into her head – Sasuke couldn't have gone down so quickly – his body showed signs of a long battle, but Sakura had just seen Kakashi fighting Naruto! And she hadn't heard any fighting elsewhere – the woods had been quiet. So if what she'd seen wasn't possible…

"Kai!" Sakura drew her chakra together in a tight cluster within herself, and felt the warm energy pulse out once, then again, disrupting any hostile fields around her – and Sasuke's body flickered and disappeared, even as the darkness of the woods lightened, birds' annoyed twitters filling the air. Sakura's heart lightened for a moment before reality overtook her.

Kakashi had incapacitated her for over a minute with a single, apparently simple genjutsu. He might as well have been a god to her ant, for all that she could take him on.

She needed to get some help.

Sasuke had watched patiently as Kakashi toyed with Naruto, and had tried to track Kakashi as he'd vanished somewhere into the trees – probably to go after Sakura. It was only when Naruto vanished into the trees himself to search for their target that Kakashi reemerged, humming brightly as he continued reading. Though there was no distraction, Sasuke knew he had to act soon, or risk losing the best chance he'd seen so far.

'Miss the chance, fail the test. Fail, and never become a ninja. And lose my shot to hunt HIM down.' Sasuke let his anxiety fade away, wrapping himself in a cold shroud of focus, and hurled a pair of kunai at Kakashi. The weapons slammed into the jounin and Sasuke felt his heart stop for a moment – had he killed his instructor?

But instead, a puff of smoke revealed that the kunai had only embedded themselves in a training log that Kakashi had swapped places with in the split second before they'd landed. Instead, the tall man stood at the other end of the pasture, looking directly at Sasuke's hiding place with a raised eyebrow. Sasuke growled, his cover blown, though he suspected the jounin had already known where he was. He leapt out.

"Put your book away. I'm not like the others." Kakashi grinned in reply.

"I suppose you're right. They didn't go right for the kill." Sasuke charged forward, leaning low as he moved. His mind raced through Naruto's previous attack – a daring move riddled with small errors. Sasuke could do the same and see if it would work – after all, if nothing else, Sasuke knew he was better, more skilled than Naruto was.

Not skilled enough, however, he realized immediately, as his powerful sliding kick was easily dodged. A swipe with his kunai was leaned away from, and his next kick didn't even come close. Scowling, Sasuke leapt up after the next kick and flashed through several seals to the last technique his father had taught him before…

Sasuke's eyes locked onto Kakashi as his hands ended in the tiger seal. Kakashi's visible eye stared back, sharpened into surprised focus as Sasuke raised a hand to his lips.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!" A thin jet of flames raced between his open fingers, striking where Kakashi had been and flaring into a dome of fire that Sasuke kept going for a moment – before realizing that there was no way the jounin would have been caught by the technique so utterly. Sasuke had hoped to at least singe Kakashi, but luck wasn't with him. As the fire died down, only the same training log – which Sasuke was beginning to hate – sat in the smoldering circle. Kakashi stood again, across the training field – with no book in sight. Sasuke smirked.

"I told you. I'm better than the others." Sasuke charged again, engaging Kakashi in a flurry of blows – but he immediately realized that he was well-out of his depth. Kakashi's blocks were bored at best, and his dodging often left nearly a meter of space between Sasuke's attacks and where Kakashi was.

"Hmm… maybe I should get my book out again?" Kakashi pondered out loud. Sasuke felt anger overtake him for a moment and he slammed a foot forward in fury, crying out.

"Don't underestimate me!" Sasuke immediately regretted his rashness, but followed through as Kakashi dodged to the side. He let his hand slide down and felt the metal of one of Kakashi's tiny silver bells, and the jounin's eye widened. Sasuke almost crowed in triumph – but a quick jerk of Kakashi's hips turned the victory to ashes in Sasuke's mouth as Kakashi wrapped an arm around Sasuke's leg and with a twist sent him flying over the jounin's back.

As Sasuke rose from the ground, the vertigo spinning his head, he looked towards where Kakashi had been – but he was already gone. Sasuke half-expected to see the damned log again, but instead, there was only emptiness. Sasuke frowned slightly.

'So where'd he go? Left, right, behind… up?'

"Down! Doton: Shinjuu Zanshu!" Hands erupted from the earth below Sasuke and grasped his ankles, beginning to drag him into the ground. Sasuke was knee-deep in the soft dirt and going deeper, but a kunai whizzed from the forest and almost struck Kakashi in the wrist. The Jounin's hands disappeared below the ground again and Sasuke toppled forward. Hardly able to catch himself, Sasuke instead landing in Sakura's arms as she emerged from the other side of the clearing.

'But if she didn't throw the kunai…?' Sasuke's unspoken question was answered as Naruto leapt from the bushes where the attack had originated, cursing quietly. Kakashi, in the meanwhile, was gone again.

The three genin had pulled away to another, smaller clearing in the woods, discouraged. Naruto gritted his teeth. He didn't like asking for help from anyone, even Iruka-sensei or Sakura-chan. Asking for help from Sasuke nearly made him want to quit being a ninja rather than setting aside his pride. Still…

"All right… all we've proven so far is that we can't do anything to him apart – Kakashi-sensei is a jounin. If we try to beat him alone, all we get is a lot of humiliation and some wasted time. Instead, we need to work together." Naruto finished his mini-speech. Sasuke frowned slightly, but Sakura nodded.

"… You're right, Naruto. Our time's running out – it's past eleven already and we only have until noon. Even Sasuke-kun couldn't… couldn't…" Sakura had a hard time spitting out the bitter truth, and Sasuke's annoyed look quelled her. An objection seemed to rise to his mouth as he opened it, but instead, a strange look took over his eyes.

"He is a jounin…" Naruto took Sasuke's reflection as a chance to continue.

"Yeah! He's really good – like, really, really good. If we just jump him like we have been, we're not going to get anywhere. But… If we work together, we could distract him enough to maybe get the bells!" Sakura seemed enthused as well.

"Right! A genin can't beat a jounin in a fight, but that's why the regulations always put people together as teams! As a team, a group of lower-ranking ninjas can take on a more skilled opponent!" Her voice almost took on a lecturing tone as she recited words Iruka-sensei had repeated to them often. While Naruto seemed thrilled to have his teammates' support, Sasuke wasn't as convinced. If he couldn't beat Kakashi, how was he supposed to…? That man was far more powerful than a mere lazy jounin – and even still…

"… There are only two bells."

"What was that, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura was the one to ask the question, but both of Sasuke's potential teammates looked at him. Sasuke frowned.

"Two bells. Meaning two of us will pass. One of us will have to go back to the Academy – or, for Naruto, the Fire Lord's army." Sakura looked ill. Sasuke was right, of course – and she couldn't hold either of them back – what should she do? Should she decline and allow the others to achieve their dreams? Perhaps she and Sasuke could continue – but no, that would consign Naruto to the rank-and file, a fate she would never press on the boy. However, Naruto seemed unimpressed.

"We can work that out AFTER we get those bells – didn't Iruka-sensei always say to cross bridges when you got to them? Maybe once we have the bells we can tell him to make us all pass because we worked together! Or we could tell Oji-san, and have him MAKE Kakashi-sensei pass us all! All I know is, what we can't do apart, we may be able to do if we work together!" Sakura seemed inspired and even Sasuke nodded slowly. A comfortable silence fell over the glade, until Sasuke nodded.

"Very well. What is the plan then?" Sakura looked surprised.

"Aren't you going to come up with something, Sasuke-kun?" Sasuke scowled. He would have liked to come up with the plan, but Kakashi was an experienced shinobi – anything Sasuke would think of, Kakashi would think of first. But perhaps something more unorthodox…

"No. Kakashi will expect anything I think of. That's why Naruto should plan our attack."

"Hell yes I… wait what?" Naruto froze as Sakura gave him a shocked look. Sasuke's expectant gaze fell on him as well, and he didn't know what to do – Sasuke, throughout the Academy, had never, ever admitted that someone else would be better at or for anything than Sasuke himself. He was the most arrogant, self-absorbed prick in Konoha! Wasn't he? Naruto bit his lip, and Sakura nodded decisively.

"Naruto! Sasuke-kun and I are putting our trust in you! So come on and think of something – no matter how stupid it might be!"

Naruto stared back, his face serious, and Sakura felt the very slightest beginnings of hope.

"All right, guys. Let's DO this!"

Kakashi was beginning to get bored, standing in the middle of the clearing. Only Icha Icha provided him any stimulation as his prospective students, likely to go no further, continued to hide wherever they'd gotten to. He'd wondered upon reading the mission report affixed to Naruto's file whether there was something new about this team, but instead he'd just gotten more of the same – inexperienced arrogance, foolish selfishness. He'd be glad to send Sakura and Sasuke back to the academy where they could grow a little. They had the spark of something special, and maybe nurtured, they would grow.

Naruto, though… Perhaps his... special condition would keep him from being sent to the Fire Lord's army, to die a battered wreck; but there was no telling what his fate would be, even left in Konoha. Surely he wouldn't be able to remain an ordinary shinobi - and Kakashi's stomach twisted at the thought of his sensei's son, blank and full of hate, like some other demon vessels he'd heard of.

With just ten minutes left before his timer ran out, Kakashi spied movement in a tree at the edge of the clearing and swayed to the left to avoid a brace of shuriken that whizzed past his ear. Sasuke leapt from the tree, a kunai in either hand, already on the move. Kakashi decided to prod at the prideful boy.

"This again? I feel like I'm having déjà vu…" Sasuke didn't respond, instead launching an uncontrolled spinning kick through the air. Kakashi didn't even have to move to dodge it, and he shook his head.

"You're clumsy, Sasuke, reckless. Your anger isn't helping." Sasuke grit his teeth and moved in with another volley of swipes.

"Stop treating me like those other weaklings!" Kakashi dodged every blow, though again he had to put dear Icha Icha away – couldn't risk having a page perforated by Sasuke's wild swings, after all. Out of the bushes behind him leapt a figure, and Kakashi almost froze in confused amusement at Sasuke – again.

"Hey, sensei! I'm Sasuke and I'm here to… oh damn it, he's here already." Kakashi almost laughed out loud.

"Hello again, Naruto. I see that you're pretending to be Sasuke – but unfortunately, there's one too many of him already." The Sasuke Kakashi had been fighting had frozen to look at the newcomer, and now shouted in outrage.

"You buffoon, stop acting like me!" The other Sasuke, who Kakashi had pegged in his mind as Naruto, replied.

"Shut up and stop ruining my plan!" Kakashi stared at both in bewilderment.

"I think your plan is beginning to fall apart a bit." As if to punctuate Kakashi's statement, several Naruto clones appeared from behind the fake Sasuke and attacked. The two Sasukes attacked each other instead of Kakashi, and as the pair scuffled, Kakashi could only shake his head in amazement.

"Whatever's going on; both your plans have gone awry." The Naruto clones had reached Kakashi at this point and began leaping at him like a swarm of orange piranhas, trying to get at his arms or legs. Kakashi decided to fight back, lashing out to pop one clone, then deflecting a shuriken from the Sasuke-vs.-Sasuke fight to the ground. Two more clones were on him in that very instant, and he was force to step back. At the same time, both Sasukes came to a sudden rapprochement and spun to face him – the first one who had attacked him leapt up into the air and flashed through the seals for a basic fire technique.

"Katon: Hinotama no Jutsu!" A streak of fire, thinner and more precise than the Grand Fireball Sasuke had used earlier shot towards Kakashi, clearly in an attempt to avoid popping any clones. Kakashi marveled at the two boys working together – this was more than he'd ever seen from any of the other groups he'd tested. The fake Sasuke took the distraction to draw a kunai and leap at Kakashi's lower body. Kakashi shoved the two clones he was fighting aside and hopped away from the streak of flames, but the fake Sasuke hurled a kunai towards his head. Even as the kunai flew, a shower of kunai and shuriken from the remaining clones and another flaming jet from Sasuke flew at Kakashi.

Kakashi began to dodge the attacks, but even as he did so, the fake Sasuke reached him, lashing out with a kick as the real one landed behind him. Kakashi decided to sweep the fake's legs so he could flicker away. However, rather than an outraged cry as appropriate from the loud blonde ninja, Kakashi's sweep instead caused a small cloud of smoke to erupt around the fake – revealing a shorter, slighter pink-haired form. Kakashi froze in surprise – and Sasuke cried out.

"Now!" Kakashi spun unbelievably fast – but nothing happened at all. Instead, Sasuke began flashing through the seals for another technique. Kakashi hopped back to escape, but one of the shuriken thrown at him earlier transformed into another Naruto – the real one, Kakashi realized. Kakashi yelped and nearly tripped away as Naruto reached for his belt unimpeded…

But for the sound of a timer ringing on the innocent stump several meters away. The sound of the end of the game.

Naruto slumped, dejected, on the ground in front of Kakashi. His two would-be-teammates stood on either side of him, faces full of their own abject turmoil, while Kakashi's was totally blank. The noontide sun hovered overhead as the three genin ignored their empty stomachs in favor of their plunging moods.

"Why did you do that?" Kakashi spoke quietly, and Naruto could feel the intensity in the air. He'd expected to be told that he'd failed – that they'd all failed. Kakashi's strange expression, from what could be seen of it, spoke differently – but how differently Naruto didn't know. Sakura was the one to reply.

"Do what, sensei?"

"Work together. You knew there were only two bells, two lunches – yet all three of you came together. Why?" Sakura swallowed. Sasuke's eyes glinted with something unidentifiable, and Naruto felt his plummeting stomach begin to climb back into his abdomen. Maybe there was a chance?

"We… we figured that there was no way we could beat you working apart, Sensei… So we thought, maybe if we worked TOGETHER…" Sakura stopped, biting her lip. Naruto picked up, his voice full of fervor. He didn't know what was happening, but knew Kakashi wasn't just going to fail them. He wasn't going to let it happen.

"We worked together as a team, Sensei. You might be a jounin, and we're just… we're not even genin yet – but there's no way we were going to let that hold us back! We have dreams, Sensei! Dreams we told you about, and you weren't going to stand in our way!" Sasuke spoke up at last, quieter even than Sakura.

"… Iruka-sensei always said it in classes. The heart of Konoha is its teamwork. So we worked together." Kakashi's face had gone totally blank.

"Perhaps I could give you another chance… Let you try again, since you seem so fervent?" The three looked up, their hearts in their eyes, and Naruto grinned.

"You'd do that, Sensei? We won't let you down! We'll -"

"After lunch. Naruto, for being such a loudmouth, you don't get to eat. The other two will eat, and you -"

"No." It was Sasuke, standing now, with an implacable look on his face. "No, we aren't going to do that. Naruto tried just as hard as we did – harder, since he came up with the plan." Sakura scrambled to her feet as well.

"Yeah! If you say there are only two lunches, that's OK – we'll split them, Sensei. But he's just as hungry as us." Naruto's eyes, filled with tears, stared in awe at the two, and Kakashi felt something pulse inside of him. He'd only picked Naruto because he'd thought if Sakura or Sasuke were left hungry, Naruto or Sakura respectively would have fed them in a heartbeat. But it seemed roots ran deeper than he'd thought.

"Is that your final decision?" Sakura quavered but didn't move, while Sasuke's turmoil only showed in his eyes. Naruto spoke, his voice quaking slightly.

"Guys… it's ok… this way we'll have another chance…" Sasuke shook his head.

"No. If you're hungry, it won't really be a chance – you'll be dead weight, and the two of us can't beat Kakashi on our own." Sakura nodded, and the clearing was still as a portrait for a moment.

Those who make history are usually blind, but Kakashi felt the fingers of fate on his shoulder just then, As if in a trance, with the weight of the ages on his shoulders, he smiled.

"Fine then. You pass." His students remained in place, totally frozen for a moment. Naruto, predictably, was the first to react.

"Wait, what?! Pass?!" Naruto's mouth had dropped open, while Sakura didn't look much better. Sasuke's eyes were as wide as could be, and his face had gone paler even than usual. Kakashi grinned.

"Yup. Team 7 – pass." Naruto shook his head in shock.

"But… But we failed! We failed the test!" Kakashi nodded.

"You did. Come with me." Kakashi led the three to the edge of the Training Ground, where a pretty red bridge crossed the stream that made up the western border. Across the stream was a clearing, then the grove around the Hokage Mountain. Before the mountain stood a huge stone monument with unclear markings on it, which the three students' eyes fixed on.

"Do you see that monument? It's covered in the names of the greatest heroes of the village. The greatest ninja we of the Leaf have ever produced. Many of my best friends are there – my mentor, my father, my teammates…" Naruto, full of uncontrollable excitement, whispered loudly enough that Kakashi could easily hear him.

"I wanna be on the rock then! I wanna be the GREATEST hero!" Kakashi spun around, feeling the grip of old pains on his heart. His face, he knew, was hard.

"Be careful what you wish for, Naruto – for that stone is the Great Leaf Memorial." His students' faces dropped suddenly. Everyone in Konoha knew of the memorial. Kakashi continued. "Every ninja on that stone gave their life for Konoha. They gave their lives so that we might have ours. In war, in peace, in defense of this village and its ideals… That stone epitomizes the meaning of 'ninja.'"

"Every ninja is part of a team, and a part of a mission. Those teams are part of who we are, and to die in their service – in the village's service – is an honor. The only thing, we're told, that is more important is the mission itself. Those who fail the village, it's said, are nothing but trash."

Sakura was the one to spot the discrepancy. "But Sensei… we failed the mission. We failed to retrieve the bells." Kakashi nodded, turning to face them all again.

"You did. But that's not what Konoha is REALLY about. The truth is that the heart of Konoha is the fiery will to protect our teammates and what is important to us. The true meaning of the forehead protectors we all wear is that they link us to the ninja of Konoha as a whole – the truth is that though failing or abandoning a mission may mean you are trash… abandoning a teammate means you are worse still. You need to look underneath what I said before to the real meaning, and underneath even that to the meaning of being a ninja altogether. There are many layers to the world, and you must pay attention to it all, if you want to answer this question: What does it mean to you to be a ninja?"

After his speech, Kakashi had instructed his team to meet the following morning at the bridge to discuss Team 7's future, but had given them all the day off. Despite his satisfaction at passing, Sasuke had remained annoyed at his inability to face Kakashi alone, and had decided to make his way back to the Uchiha compound to train.

Sakura, much happier with her performance and with the team's passage, had decided to return home and report her success to her parents – knowing that she'd be busy for the next several weeks, she had opted to spend the evening with them. While she'd contemplated asking Sasuke on a date, she had decided that his mood didn't seem particularly inviting, and had thought better of it.

Naruto, on the other hand, had at first thought of asking Sakura to go to his favorite ramen stand with him, but remembering her harsh words earlier, when he'd taken on Sasuke's form, he had decided that it might be better to give the girl some space. Instead, he'd made his way to the Ichiraku ramen stand alone.

The stand was operated by Ichiraku Teuchi, a cheerful chef of Water Country extraction, and his pretty daughter Ayame. Teuchi, tall and burly, had immigrated into Konoha before being married to a native, and was always ready with a kind word for Naruto, despite his first stand having been destroyed in the Kyuubi attack years before. The chef was mostly bald with a fuzz of black and grey, and his apron lay over a bit of a pot belly.

Ayame, on the other hand, must have taken after her mother, looking nothing like her father at all – several years older than Naruto, the girl had a petite frame and cheerful attitude that Naruto was certain were at least some of the draw Ichiraku held to the populace of Konoha. The brown-haired-and-eyed Ayame was always a good listener – a trait being put to good use that evening.

"… And then Kakashi-sensei told us we passed, and talked about heroes and how betraying your team is worse than trash, and how the world was like a cake – and so I'm a genin now! For real!" Ayame, sitting next to Naruto, applauded – she'd gasped at all the right parts, cheered when Naruto's gambles had worked, and Naruto felt his spirits soaring. Teuchi, wiping a bowl clean, grinned over the counter.

"So you've got a real job now, Naruto – does that mean you won't make your poor teacher pay for all the ramen you eat?" Naruto grinned in reply, shaking his head.

"Nah, probably just going to make sure to get Kakashi-sensei pay for some bills too! If I paid for all the ramen I ate, I'd be broke in a month!" As another bowl of pork ramen, Naruto's fourth, slid before him, Ayame added her own thoughts.

"I don't know if you should be so callous with Iruka-san and your other teacher's money, you know – I mean, you're going to go on missions too now, yeah?" Naruto waited until he'd swallowed his current mouthful – manners Ayame herself had drilled into him – before answering.

"Yeah! I'm gonna have to ask Sensei tomorrow what kinds of missions we'll be doing – gotta be great ones, because I'm gonna be a great ninja! Maybe battling evil spirits, rescuing princesses, saving villages!" Naruto waved his hands to illustrate, and Ayame chuckled in response.

"I'm sure that whatever missions you're on, you'll do great, Naruto-kun. You've got what it takes to be a great ninja in my book." Inexplicably, though, this led Naruto to frown slightly. Teuchi noticed immediately.

"Something wrong?"

"No… I mean… Kakashi-sensei said something similar at the end of his speech too. About being a great ninja. He asked 'what does it mean to you to be a ninja?'" Naruto sipped his broth contemplatively as the Ichirakus exchanged glances. Naruto wasn't really a deep thinker at the best of times – and this was new in their reckoning. Ayame spoke carefully.

"Naruto-kun… I know you're really determined to do your best, but… you're just starting. I'm sure you'll have a chance to answer that question as you go, right?" Naruto smiled slightly.

"Yeah, I guess. Still I just have to wonder. What DOES it mean to be a ninja?"

Technique Library: Kage Bunshin no Jutsu (Shadow Clone Technique): A non-elemental B-ranked ninjutsu which creates solid clones of the user. These clones have equivalent strength and speed to the user, though they divide the user's chakra proportionally – summoning a clone halves the user's chakra; summoning four quarters it, etc. Upon dismissal, the user gains all the memories of the clone.

Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu (Hell Viewing Technique): A D-ranked Fear-based genjutsu that forces the subject to view something they are deeply afraid of and hold deep within their heart. The vision is typically gruesome – but since it may not be particularly likely or realistic, the illusion is fairly easy to realize.

Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu (Grand Fireball Technique): A C-ranked Fire ninjutsu which expels a jet of fire from the user's mouth which blossoms into a larger globe upon reaching its target. Skilled users can select where the flame erupts, while less skilled users typically use the technique as a continuous flamethrower.

Doton: Shinjuu Zanshuu no Jutsu (Double Suicide Decapitation Technique): A C-ranked Earth ninjutsu which extends the use of "Doton: Dochuu Eigyo (Underground Projection Fish)" to others – while travelling through the ground, the user drags the object of their technique underground, trapping them.

Katon: Hinotama no Jutsu (Fireball Technique): A D-ranked Fire ninjutsu which expels a thin streak of flame from the user's mouth. The fire moves quickly in a direction and acts much like an arrow or other projectile – skilled users can make the fiery arrow larger or more explosive in nature.

Author's Note: Hello, and welcome to Naruto: Birth of a Ninja!

This author's note is just a little insight into what this story is about and all – I've put it at the end rather than the beginning so those who just want to read the story don't have to dig through my rambling. What guided me to this story is that question in the summary – what does it mean to be a ninja?

I think the path towards that answer is a lot more interesting than the answer itself, which is why that's what the story will be about – Naruto's attempt to answer that question by living his life with the goal of becoming the greatest ninja of all time.

I know a reasonable amount of this chapter was pretty close to the original, but the differences here are what drive changes beginning in the next chapter, so I hope you're willing to continue.

Anyways, though I'm just getting started, I hope you'll enjoy this story. Please comment/review if you have suggestions, feedback, comments, or criticism. Thank you for reading!

- The Captain