Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

Naruto swam through a dark miasma. He saw nothing. He felt nothing. Despite it all, he continued pushing in what he believed to be a forward direction, not knowing what was front, back, up, down, left, or right. It was like he was floating through an endless cloud of pure darkness, yet, what he was moving through was so tangible, feeling almost like cotton that had been soaked in tar.

'Where am I?' he thought to himself, feeling weightless in both body and mind.

Voices whispered from the darkness, saying all manner of things. Some of them sounded afraid, while others were promising violence. He paid them little mind, however, as he felt oddly disconnected from everything that was going on around him.

This wasn't something that was completely unfamiliar to him. It was the very same voices that were always whispering in his mind whenever he tried to sleep. They would taunt and torment him, and in very extreme cases, were even capable of wracking his body with immense waves of pain.

Suddenly, the darkness split open in front of him, and a vile, crimson color glowed through. Out from the opening walked a man, cloaked entirely in black with his only discernible feature being a porcelain mask with a single opening for his right eye. Then, there was the eye itself, gleaming in the dark through the mask, as red as the light he had emerged from, with three black tomoe arranged in a way that resembled a pinwheel.

"Who are you?" Naruto asked with an edge to his voice.

The red opening in the darkness that the masked man had emerged from suddenly closed, leaving the area engulfed in darkness once more. Still, Naruto saw the man before him as clear as he would have in broad daylight. His presence wasn't seeming to be acknowledged, though, with the masked man looking forward at nothing in particular.

"This is the man who took everything from you. Kill him."

The random voice the echoed over everything caused Naruto's eyes to widen immensely. It sounded like a multitude of voices speaking all at once, with various high and low pitches. The more he thought about it though, the more he felt as if it was something attempting to mimic human speech. On instinct, his knees bent as he entered a combat-ready stance. A razor-sharp kunai was also in his hand, poised to plunge itself into anyone that would attempt to do him harm.

He glared, "Explain yourself. What are you?!"

Rather than receiving a verbal response, Naruto was assaulted with a multitude of visions that he couldn't quite fathom. He could hardly understand what exactly was going on, as he was only seeing snippets that were succeeding one another in rapid succession, but there was some kind of story being laid out before him.

A child. A man with striking blue eyes and a mop of spiky blonde hair. A woman, as beautiful as any he had ever seen, with straight red locks that flowed down the length of her back like a river. The very same masked man he had been face-to-face with mere moments ago also made an appearance. There was a battle, a towering beast with nine tails, and copious amounts of bloodshed.

Naruto collapsed to his knees. Much of what he had just been exposed to was a mystery to him, but he was no fool. He recognized the birthmarks on the face of the infant he had seen and was able to connect the dots.

'My parents,' he thought to himself in awe. They resembled him too much not to be.

"Kill him," the voice repeated again, reminding Naruto of the masked man what was still standing before him.

Looking up toward the masked man once more, he was shocked to see a significant change. At his feet, were the bodies of his parents, with dead eyes and large puncture wounds in their chests. Rage filled Naruto's body like water pouring into a cup, but as he attempted to lunge forward to attack, he found that he was no longer able to move.

Then, between himself in the masked man, another figure emerged from the shadowy ground. This one, he recognized clear as day, and seeing her nearly made his eyes fill with tears. She was a rather plain-looking girl, with brown hair and black eyes. However, to Naruto, she was perfect.

"What happened to me wasn't your fault, Naruto. It was his!" she said, before turning around to point at the masked man, who still had yet to move. "If he didn't do what he did, that monster would have never been put in your belly. I wouldn't have died! It's all his fault!"

Naruto felt his calmness faltering, "W-Wait. Don't go near him!" he shouted, trying to reach out to her, but to no avail.

The girl then faded away, as did the masked man. Now once again left alone in the dark haze, Naruto found himself distraught, and more confused than he had been before entering whatever this place was. He allowed himself to fall forward, but he hit no ground surface of any kind and entered a free fall through the darkness.

"Kill him."

And with that, he woke up.

~Confronting the Shadow: Chapter One~

"A Genesis"

"...and Team Seven, under the leadership of Kakashi Hatake, will consist of Sayuri Uchiha, Sakura Haruno, and Naruto Uzumaki."

The announcement was drowned out in a sea of noisy children, but the three students in question were able to hear it clear as day. The configuration was odd, seeing as their team was made up of the best male student, and the two highest-rated female students. Most of the other teams had a ratio of one girl for every two boys, so this new 'Team Seven' was somewhat unique in that regard.

"How troublesome," a lazy voice near the back of the class chimed in. "Naruto has to be on a team with two girls. I feel bad for him."

The boy's comment earned him quite an earful from the blonde, Ino Yamanaka, sitting at his side, "Shut up, Shikamaru!" she growled with a fury that didn't quite look right on her rather pretty face. "If anything, we girls should be the ones complaining about always having to be on teams with two boys!"

"Yeah!" another girl in the classroom shouted. She was soon followed by other shouts of agreement from the female portion of their class, minus, of course, Sayuri and Sakura, with the latter being too shy to get involved and the former not caring at all in the first place.

The entire affair quickly sparked a heated argument between most of the boys and the girls in their class, with Kiba Inuzuka and Ino being the de facto leaders of both sides. Funny enough, the boy who had unintentionally started the conflict, Shikamaru Nara, had his head rested on his desk in a deep slumber as the utter chaos unfolded around him. It made Sayuri wonder if he had stirred up trouble on purpose.

Over the loud arguing, as well as the sound of Iruka-sensei attempting to play the mediator, Sayuri noticed a hushed voice nearby trying to get her attention. It was her new teammate, Sakura, a somewhat intelligent girl with long, flowing pink hair and emerald green eyes. She wasn't the most exceptional fighter in the class, but her academic scores were by far the highest, which was what put her as the second-ranked kunoichi in the class.

"I hope we can work well together, Sayuri," the pink-haired girl addressed, evidently carefully considering her every word in a showing of respect.

Sayuri nodded in acknowledgment before returning to her thoughts. She supposed she could have done worse than Sakura. Had she been forced onto a team with Kiba or Ino – or god forbid both – she would have quickly lost her mind. Sakura's shyness was advantageous in that way.

"Um, do you think maybe we should begin talking with Naruto soon? You know, to develop good teamwork?" Sakura continued, for some reason, thinking Sayuri was interested in getting along. Did the pink-haired girl know that she was an Uchiha? Being friends wasn't her thing.

Still, the mention of Naruto's name was enough to cause Sayuri to glance her shoulder to the back-right corner of the room. There sat the blonde in question, at his usual spot, far back and adjacent to the window. His cheek was rested in his palm, and he gazed out the window with seemingly little care for the conflict in the classroom. It made it difficult to tell whether he was aloof or simply a daydreamer.

Sayuri's eyes narrowed in scrutiny as she continued to observe her new teammate. It was tough to gauge just how strong he actually was just through his appearance alone. The only reason he stood out from the other students in the class was his spiky blonde hair, and the strange whisker-like markings on his face. He also wore an orange sleeveless jacket with a blue short-sleeved t-shirt underneath, and matching orange pants that extended to his mid-calf, along with blue shinobi sandals. Uniquely, he also wore white wristbands on each wrist with a red swirl symbol — the same symbol on the back of chūnin and jōnin vests. Outside of that, he looked like an ordinary kid.

Despite being the number one male student in class, Naruto didn't receive much of any attention from the girls. Most were wary of him for unexplained reasons, and opted to keep their distance. This apparently suited him fine, as he seemed comfortable just being by himself. Sayuri supposed he was similar to her in that regard. Yet, unlike her, he didn't radiate a dark aura that naturally pushed people away. Therefore, it was difficult to pinpoint why he was avoided by so many people.

One thing she did know about him, however, was that he was strong. Throughout all of her years in the Academy, she witnessed him mow through the other boys in class with no effort whatsoever. His taijutsu was impeccable, augmented even further by his incredible strength, precision, and, most of all, speed. Shamed as she was to admit it, she had trouble keeping up with his movements at times.

"Well, either way, I'd say we're lucky to have a teammate like him," Sakura concluded, unaware that Sayuri's attention was elsewhere.

Sayuri scoffed as Iruka-sensei announced to the class that they were all being released for lunch. Sakura was talking about Naruto as if he was some kind of lucky charm – like his presence was something that should make them grateful. He wasn't all that special. She, more so than perhaps anyone, knew what a true genius was, after all. Naruto couldn't even begin to hold a candle to him.

Once the rest of the class started leaving for lunch, Sayuri took it as her cue to do the same. Just as she began to descend the steps, she felt something press against the back of her neck. Her eyes widened, and faster than most could blink, she spun around and grabbed the offender's arm. Much to her surprise, she immediately found herself staring into two icy-blue eyes.

"Sayuri Uchiha," Naruto greeted with a grin. Sayuri gripped his hand with a surprising amount of force for someone her age, and yet, he showed no visible reaction to the pain. "I got you there, didn't I? Come on, admit it. You didn't even feel me behind you."

Sayuri glared. She was angry with her new teammate, yes, but she was mostly upset at herself, "Well, you've got my full attention now," she responded, her voice as chilly as the blue eyes that she stared into so intensely.

Naruto's smile widened slightly, and while the slight curling of his lip was small – almost unnoticeable – there was an apparent arrogance to it that Sayuri immediately found to be rather familiar. It was clear that he didn't register her as a threat, and that he was apparently attempting to establish some kind of pecking order now that they were on the same team.

"That could have easily been the edge of a kunai against the back of your neck, rather than the tip of my fingers," Naruto commented, nodding toward the hand the Sayuri currently had in her grasp. "In other words, it would have been game over for you."

The tension between them increased tenfold, to the point where anyone that was still in the classroom decided that now was the time to make a hasty exit. Sayuri gripped Naruto's wrist even harder, to the point where she could actually feel his bones start to creak. Still, he continued to just smile like an asshole.

"N-Naruto, Sayuri, please don't fight," Sakura intervened, sounding predictably timid. "We've only been teammates for five minutes, and this isn't exactly the best start."

As if acknowledging her presence for the first time, Naruto glanced in Sakura's direction. He gave her an appraising look, and it was clear that he did not view her as a person that had any business telling him what to do. His attention just as quickly returned to Sayuri.

"I'm not like the others you've fought," Sayuri coldly declared, ignoring Sakura entirely. "And you'll find out personally if you ever touch me again."

Naruto didn't seem to be all that intimidated by her threat, as it was clear that he didn't take her very seriously. Once that was all said and done, Sayuri released his wrist from her grasp and left the classroom without so much as another word. Now, only Naruto and Sakura remained, with the latter of the two looking as if she were a rabbit in the presence of fox.

"So, do you want to get lunch or something?" Sakura asked Naruto with a nervous chuckle, causing Naruto to sigh, almost comically. He supposed not all girls could be like Sayuri.

After finishing their lunches, the students returned to the classroom where they would finally be meeting their jōnin leaders. As fifteen minutes passed, various jōnin entered the room, calling out to their teams before they and their new students left soon after. Most looked as uninteresting as the students they were picking up, almost as if they were background characters in someone else's story.

With each group that was allowed to leave, Sayuri became more and more frustrated as she was beginning to get the sneaking suspicion that her team would be the last to be picked up. Her teammates seemed to pick up on this as well. Sakura seemed more nervous than upset, and Naruto didn't seem to mind at all, more content to simply stare out of the window.

Eventually, as she predicted, they were the last group of students in the room. In fact, they had been waiting so long that Iruka-sensei actually left to go home, leaving them completely alone in the classroom. It was the quietest Sayuri had ever recalled the room being, and quite frankly, it felt odd. She would have assumed that the silence would have made her feel comfortable, but it only served to make her uneasy.

Finally, after well over an hour of waiting, the sliding doors at the right of the room opened, and the man that they could only assume to be their sensei revealed himself. He was a rather odd-looking fellow with spiky gray, almost silver, hair, a mask covering the entire lower portion of his face, and a Hidden Leaf headband that was tilted down to cover up the entirety of his left eye.

Naruto and Sakura looked him up and down, whereas Sayuri glanced toward him through his peripheral vision. While initially, the jōnin didn't look all that impressive, both Sayuri and Naruto seemed to tense up when they noticed something distinct about him. This man's presence was the kind only developed after years of training and countless battles. He felt so different than any of the Academy instructors, who by the looks of thing weren't all that far away from him in age.

"Hmm, how odd," their new sensei muttered, just loudly enough for them to hear. "I think I may actually like you guys. Nice and quiet."

The statement seemed to put a smile on Sakura's face, who was clearly happy to have made an excellent first impression. Sayuri couldn't really bring herself to care and was about to ask him why he was so late, but paused, realizing that there was likely no point in doing so anyway. He had the look of a layabout. That was all the explanation that she required.

Naruto was the first to stand up, and he descended the steps with his hands resting behind his head. As he did, Kakashi's lone eye seemed to follow him intently. This was done with a level of intrigue that Sayuri couldn't quite pin. Maybe he was just particularly interested in the number one ranked student? It wouldn't really come as a surprise to her, especially because Naruto was a boy. Society tended to view male shinobi as having more potential than kunoichi, so they were usually taken more seriously.

"Alright, let's get this show on the road," Naruto remarked in a rather laidback manner. "You're pretty late, ya know?"

The gray-haired jōnin tilted his head as he stared down at the much shorter boy, "Was I?" he asked. "I had to wrap up all of my daily errands before coming here. You know? Buying groceries, watering the plants, that kind of stuff."

Naruto smiled at the comment, clearly seeing what his sensei was trying to do, "Ah. So, you're saying that we're less important than grocery shopping?"

"Not really outright saying...more like implying."

The corner of Naruto's mouth seemed to twitch in what appeared to be a brief crack in his facade. Sakura was quick to stand up as well and change the subject with a polite greeting. Sayuri watched as the developing tension died almost immediately and couldn't help but make a mental note of the fact that Sakura seemed to be a natural mediator. That would be useful, since Naruto appeared to have a habit of seeking conflict with others.

"Well, I think it's about time we do introductions," Kakashi mumbled, more to himself. "All right, team! Meet me on the roof in a minute flat."

Then, before their very eyes, he disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

"A body flicker!" Sakura observed in awe, clearly having never seen one in person before. "That's an advanced level transportation jutsu."

Naruto seemed mildly interested as well, and Sayuri would be lying if she said it wasn't something she'd love to have in her arsenal. But, remembering their new sensei's instructions, they each got up from their seats and began the trek up to the roof. They had to go up many flights of stairs, and it was clear that the time frame he had given them to make it to the top was actually impossible.

What an asshole.

Eventually, though, they did make it to the top, only to find their new sensei leaning against the rails, looking both amused and bored at the same time (how that was possible, she'd never know). After they all sat down, he introduced himself as Kakashi Hatake, and asked everyone to give their own introductions, including their likes, dislikes, and dreams for the future. Though, when prompted to go first by Sakura, he revealed next to nothing about himself.

Naruto was chosen first. He rested his chin on his palm and hummed in apparent thought, "Well, as you all already know, I'm Naruto Uzumaki. I like fighting and training, and what I hate isn't really any of your business. I don't think about dreams or goals all that much, but I guess mine would be to surpass the Fourth Hokage."

Sayuri noticed Kakashi's eye linger on Naruto a bit before he then shifted his attention to Sakura. This was the second time since meeting him that she was able to notice that he had a particular interest in Naruto. At first she figured it was just due to his Academy scores, but now she was beginning to think that it was something more.

As Sakura began with her introduction, Sayuri's eyes wandered as she felt herself losing interest. As she did, she noticed Naruto glancing at her from the corner of his eye. The two stared at one another for a few moments before Naruto did something that made Sayuri's blood boil. He winked at her. It was a simple gesture but based on his smile it was obvious that he was doing it to get under her skin – and despite herself, it worked as she felt the need to take his head off then and there.

"And your turn...that is, if you can actually talk?" Kakashi said to Sayuri, interrupting her thoughts and causing her scowl to deepen.

"My name is Sayuri Uchiha," she introduced with a tone that belayed little enthusiasm. "I hate a lot of things, and I don't particularly like anything. What I have is not a dream, because I will make it a reality. I'm going to restore my clan, and kill a certain man."

The immediate reaction to her introduction was silence. Only Sakura appeared surprised, whereas Naruto stared at her intently, and Kakashi showed no apparent reaction. It was essentially what she had expected, but she paid it no mind. None of them could understand her motivations, even if they wanted to.

There wasn't much more to their first team meeting other than that, well, unless you counted the revelation that they weren't actually genin yet. Kakashi explained that there was a second test, a survival exercise, that would decide whether or not they would be sent back to the Academy. He then warned them not to eat breakfast, before vanishing in another body flicker.

Sayuri narrowed her eyes in determination. There was no way she was being sent back. She had far too much to do.

They had been told to arrive at the training ground just after dawn, but even after four hours of waiting, Kakashi had yet to arrive. As usual, Naruto was lazing about, minding his own business. Unlike her seemingly unperturbed teammate, Sayuri was beginning to get frustrated with their new jōnin sensei's tardiness...and surprisingly, Sakura was as well.

"Four...hours," Sakura muttered to herself, clearly exhausted after waking up so early. "He's made us wait for four hours."

Naruto, who was casually relaxing up on one of the tree branch, decided to chime in, "Loosen up a bit, ladies," he remarked without opening his eyes. "It could be a part of his test, ya know?"

The thought actually made Sayuri narrow her eyes. Could he be right? Could Kakashi have been watching them this whole time, wondering if they'd be capable of sensing his presence? If that were the case, he was completely hidden from view. Sayuri was no expert sensor or tracker by any means, so if there was any weakness she had, even if it were small, it was that.

"How do you manage it, Naruto?" Sakura asked, her head resting in her arms. "You don't seem tired at all."

Yes, Sayuri found that a bit odd as well. Naruto didn't seem like the early-bird type, and yet, he was the only one who seemed unaffected by the lack of sleep. Naruto flinched almost unnoticeably at the question. Almost. Sayuri had keen eyes and could notice such things instantly.

"The secret is finding time to relax throughout the day. I can't recommend the hot springs enough. They do a lot for relieving stress and helping you unwind," Naruto replied with a wink, which told Sayuri that he was probably bullshitting. He then shifted onto his elbow and turned to face them. "You hear that, Sayuri? Take the hint."

Sayuri felt her brow twitch in anger and was about to respond, but was interrupted as Kakashi appeared out of nowhere before them. His sudden appearance shocked the group of genin, who instantly prepared for the possibility of an ambush by the much more experienced jōnin.

"Sorry I'm late," Kakashi said, scratching the back of his head. "A black cat crossed my path, so I had to take the long way."

Naruto, Sakura...and yes, even Sayuri...slumped forward in a mixture of shock and exasperation. This guy was unreal, and thus far had done an excellent job at subverting all of their expectations at seemingly every turn. Expect him to be on time? He's late twice in a row. Think you have his personality pegged? He'll go from serious to ridiculous at the flip of a switch.

Oh...and he was also a dick too.

"Alright, alright," the masked jōnin said. "It seems that it's time to get started." He had been watching them for the past 20 minutes. He wanted to see how they acted when nobody was watching. He was unsurprised to see that Sakura was pleasant enough on her own, but it seemed that Naruto and Sayuri would be the problems in when it came to teamwork.

He pulled a pair of bells from his pouch, reveling in the looks of confusion on the young academy student's faces. "As you can see, I have two bells in my hand. They're kind of cool, right?"

His students were unimpressed.

"Tough crowd," Kakashi mumbled under his breath. "Alright! The goal of this exercise is for each of you to take one of these bells from me."

His three students perked up at hearing that. However, after hearing his declaration, they were all confused.

"Sensei?" Sakura asked in trepidation. "There are only two bells, and yet, there are three of us."

"Very impressive, Sakura, you can count," Kakashi said. "However, as complicated as that might have been, it wasn't part of the test, so no points for you."

He found a disturbing amount of pleasure at seeing the pink-haired girl's angry expression. It seemed that even polite, little Sakura could become enraged after an early morning with no food in her belly.

"Alright, as stimulating as this conversation has been, let's move on," the gray-haired jōnin said. "Since there are two bells, it means that only two of you will pass, and the other will be going back to the Academy."

The eyes of each of his three students widened in shock...even Sayuri's. What a creepily dull kid.

"You'll need to come at me with the intent to kill if you wish to succeed," Kakashi added. "You have until noon. Oh! I almost forgot. The one who fails will be tied to one of those three stumps. And they'll have to watch everyone else eat. However, if you all fail, you'll all be tied to the stumps. And you'll have to watch me eat."

As their sensei said this, their stomachs growled. So that was why he'd asked them to skip breakfast? What an asshole.

"Your time begins now. Start!" the jōnin said. As soon as he said this, his students jumped from the clearing, into the trees. Well...all but one.

Kakashi nearly felt the need to scratch his head when Naruto simply remained standing across from him. Admittedly, he already knew that the kid was a bit...different, but still, he expected him to use his opportunity to hide. This was either confidence or stupidity, which were often confused for one another because they were essentially the same thing.

"You could...I don't know...hide if you want," Kakashi casually advised. "In fact, I'd recommend it."

"I hear what you're saying, but then I'd just have to find you later," was the casual response he received from the blonde genin. "I'd rather just get this over with now and on my terms."

For a brief moment, Kakashi felt as if he was standing before a younger version of himself. Funny enough, when first given the bell test by his own sensei years ago, Kakashi had arrogantly challenged him as well. This Naruto kid was smart and talented, and based on his demeanor, he knew that better than anyone. Yep, it was like looking through a window to the past.

Kakashi then easily dodged the barrage of shuriken that came his way, weaving through them with the skill of a virtuoso. Right behind them came Naruto, who attempted a strike that would have hit Kakashi directly in his solar plexus. With relative ease, Kakashi was able to catch the closed fist in his palm but felt his hand erupt in pain as he did so. Jeez, the kid hit like a sledgehammer.

'And here I thought I'd be able to get some reading in today,' he thought to himself before ducking back to avoid a head-kick.

After having top scores in all fields of shinobi combat back at the Academy, it was no surprise really that his new student was turning out to be such a gem. If not for the fact that the Hokage raised the Academy graduation age to twelve, Kakashi was confident that this boy, as well as the Uchiha girl, could have both qualified for early promotions based on scores alone. Now it was time to put them to the test.

'Hm, what an impressive kid,' Kakashi thought to himself. 'Guess I'll need to crank it up a bit.'

Suddenly, Naruto vanished in a flash of speed, causing Kakashi's single eye to widen in surprise. In the nick of time, he managed to turn around and block a kick that would have struck him in the temple. Brutal strength, remarkable speed, and the skill to use it all effectively. This kid was definitely top of his class for a reason...but it still wouldn't be enough.

Naruto's eyes widened when his ankle was gripped tightly, preventing him from getting out of striking range. Kakashi reared back his right hand and prepared to deal a devastating blow to the now immobilized genin. If the kid wanted to be taken seriously, then Kakashi would up the pressure a bit.

With his hands still free, in the brief moment that he had, Naruto seemed to realize that continuing hand-to-hand combat in his current predicament would be pointless, so he went through a string of hand seals that made Kakashi's lone eye widen with shock.

"Tora → Mi → Ne → Mi → Tora," the boy muttered, accentuating each of the five head seals with their individual name. "Water Style: Water Wall!"

Immediately after, a stream of water was expelled from Naruto's mouth, forming a wall that forced Kakashi to release his leg, stopping the punch in its tracks. Using Kakashi's surprise to his advantage, Naruto quickly reached for the bells. His fingers just managed to graze the metal of the bells before Kakashi jumped back, creating distance.

Kakashi, other than getting slightly wet, didn't appear to be winded at all, "Hmm, who taught you an elemental jutsu? Genin aren't supposed to be able to use those," he said, casually, as if unimpressed. Though, deep down, he was shocked by the display.

"That's a secret," Naruto replied with a cheeky smile. "Maybe I'll tell you if you show me what you're hiding behind that mask?"

His lone eye then scrunched up in amusement at the boy's bravado, "There's a reason that confidence and stupidity are often interchangeable, you know?"

Naruto quickly flashed through another set of hand seals. This time, it was the sign of the tiger, ox, tiger, and rat. Well aware of the particular jutsu, Kakashi slammed his hands onto the surface of the ground. Just as he did, another torrent of water was expelled from Naruto's mouth; though, in this case, its shape resembled that of a cannonball.

Before Naruto's attack could make contact, however, a wall of earth rose from the ground in front of Kakashi, ultimately protecting him from any damage whatsoever. Naruto's eyes narrowed at the display. Water style jutsu were weakest against earth style. Kakashi appeared to be well versed in the elemental form which perfectly opposed his. What poor luck.

As much as he hated to admit it, he had few options left, 'Time to retreat and plan my next move,' he thought to himself. Just thinking about it made his skin crawl, but this was a jōnin, after all, not some academy loser like all of his other opponents.

He crouched in preparation to jump back into the trees but was shocked when he felt his instincts alerting him to danger. Immediately on edge, he surveyed the area but saw nothing. Then, out of nowhere, two hands burst from the ground below him, before gripping his ankles tightly and pulling him underground, leaving only his head above the surface.

A few feet away, Kakashi casually popped out from the ground before slowly making his way toward Naruto. He crouched before the blonde genin and gave him an almost taunting smile.

"That was Earth Style: Headhunter Jutsu," he explained in a matter of fact tone.

Kakashi's expression then grew a bit more serious, "You might be a bit different than most genin," he said in acknowledgement of the boy's skills. "But in all the wrong ways. At this rate, you won't achieve much of anything as a shinobi – even with all of your talent."

All he received in response was a look of frustration. Hmm, apparently Naruto wasn't in the mood for jests anymore? Who would have thought?

Sighing with apparent boredom, Kakashi simply walked past Naruto's incapacitated body and into the woods, seemingly in search of the other two genin prospects. As he did, Naruto attempted with all of his might to wrench himself from the ground but found that even with his incredible strength, he was trapped with seemingly no way out.

Deciding that he was left with no real options, he gritted his teeth in frustration.

"It seems that I've found you," Kakashi teased, his book still in his hand as he landed in front of Sayuri.

They were in a small clearing in the woods, a decent distance away from where the training exercise had begun. Despite her best efforts, she had failed to evade the much more experienced jōnin. The fact that he didn't even seem to be trying made her grit her teeth in irritation.

"I'm not like the others," Sayuri explained, calm despite her circumstances. "I'll be talking one of those bells now."

Kakashi chuckled a bit to himself, clearly reminded of his previous opponent, "Feel free to try, it is the point of the exercise, after all."

Not unlike Naruto early, she darted forward with an agility that was impressive considering her age and rank. If Kakashi were honest, it was clear that she was arguably just as skilled as Naruto when it came to taijutsu, with the only thing separating them being the blond's insane physical gifts.

'It seems she won't let me read either,' Kakashi thought to himself as he was once again not even given a chance to enjoy his favorite novel. He then quickly had to block an ax kick that would have hit the top of his head. 'And she's fierce as well.'

Shock overtook him for the second time today when she also managed to touch one of the bells. He then grabbed hold of her wrists before tossing her away rather easily. Waiting for her to make the next move, he wasn't surprised when she landed on her feet with cat-like grace. He was, however, surprised when she began weaving through a familiar set of hand signs.

"Fire Style: Fireball Jutsu," she uttered before launching a torrent of flames from her mouth.

The jutsu appeared to hit him head-on, and Sayuri could not keep herself from smirking. A nagging voice in the back of her mind asked why he chose not to dodge when he was clearly capable of doing so, but for the most part, she was just proud of landing a blow.

Her eyes widened though when a familiar voice spoke up from behind her.

"Isn't it odd? I just had a very similar encounter with your teammate just a few minutes ago," Kakashi commented matter of factly, though there was a bit of amusement lacing his tone. "Which is funny considering you just said that you're not like the others. You all seem about the same so far."

It took a moment before she was able to break out of her shocked stupor, but before she could turn to attack him, she felt a strike make contact with the back of her neck, and everything went black. After delivering the lighting-fast neck chop, Kakashi looked down at the unconscious genin below before his lone visible eye crinkled up in amusement as he admired his handiwork.

"I enjoy this far more than I should."

"I have a feeling he enjoyed doing that," Naruto complained before attempting to rip himself free from his earthly prison for the umpteenth time.

The idea that he had actually been defeated was humiliating enough, but how it occurred made it much worse. Defeat against a jōnin was to be expected, but it seemed as if Kakashi was taking extra measures to ensure that his loss was more demeaning than necessary.

Just as he prepared for yet another fruitless attempt to escape, he heard a familiar voice in the distance. It was Sakura, shouting and seemingly trying to find him and Sayuri. Initially, he was a bit disheartened to hear her voice, and he nearly remained silent so she wouldn't find him in such an embarrassing position. Then, he realized that the only other person who could possibly help him was Sayuri, so he decided to settle for what he was getting.

"I'm over here!" Naruto shouted. He almost immediately heard her delighted response as she signaled that she was on her way.

Contrary to what she might think, Naruto had always been aware of her, even before the foundation of their team. While most considered him to be distant and aloof, he was actually quite observant of his peers. Sakura wasn't really a part of any particular social circle, and much like he did, she kept to herself; however, her secluded nature was due more to her shyness than anything else.

Outside of her academics, Sakura was painfully average in just about everything. Ninjutsu, genjutsu, taijutsu, shurikenjutsu, all no better or no worse than most of the students in their class. It was this well-roundedness that earned her some of the highest marks in their class. Only he and Sayuri were above her in the rankings.

When he heard he finally saw Sakura burst out of the treeline he smiled and prepared to say something clever, but paused when he noticed the completely stupefied look on her face, "Sakura?" he inquired, which made her take a shaky step back.

"N-Naruto, is this one of Kakashi-sensei's genjutsu?" she asked through shaky breaths. "Where's your body?"

He simply blinked as a drop of sweat dripped down his brow.

"There is no genjutsu. I'm stuck underground," he explained, internally rolling his eyes. "How about you help me out?"

Sakura blushed in embarrassment, "Of course. I totally didn't think that you were a talking severed head or something like that," she said before laughing nervously.

"Of course you didn't," Naruto responded, his voice riddled with sarcasm. "Now, are you going to get me out of here or what?"

Sakura nodded like an obedient child and quickly hustled over to him. For a few moments, she observed his predicament, clearly in some attempt to figure out what to do. Then, there was a glint in her eyes, one that made Naruto somewhat nervous. She then reached behind her back and dug around her weapons pouch before smiling when she apparently found what she was looking for.

Naruto's eyes widened to astronomical proportions when she pulled out an explosive tag.

"Hey, hey, hey, what are you going to do with that?" he asked, his voice hurried and clearly nervous.

Surprisingly, she ignored him in favor of surveying the surrounding area. Then, with her tongue slightly sticking out in concentration, she began taking slow, measured steps in his opposite direction. He could hear her softly counting her steps under her breath. Naruto then began to sweat profusely as he realized what she was trying to do.

"How much experience do you have with paper bombs?" he asked.

Sakura kneeled to the ground and carefully place the explosive, "Not much," she admitted. "But in class, we did learn about the average blast radius of an explosion produced by a paper bomb, so from this distance at worst you shouldn't be harmed all that badly."

Shouldn't be harmed all that badly? What the hell was that supposed to mean?!

At this point, Naruto was left speechless as Sakura gave him a wave before jogging back into the woods, where she could detonate the paper bomb without risking her own safety. Now, he couldn't see Sakura whatsoever, which only made things worse since now he wouldn't even be given the courtesy of knowing when the damned explosive tag was going to literally blow up in his face.

"So are you going to count down from three or-"

Before he could finish, the paper bomb exploded, practically blinding him and ringing his ears in the process. What surprised him the most was the degree of heat that he felt on his face, which was to the point where he could swear that he smelled burning hair. Other than that, all of his other senses seemed to abandon him in the flash of heat.

The first thing he heard as the ringing in his ears subsided was his own involuntary coughing. Then, his eyes were eventually able to focus back on his surroundings, though he was keenly aware of the fact that his eyes were now susceptible to the brightness of the sun. Annoyingly enough, one of the first things he saw was Sakura practically skipping toward him.

"Did it work?" she shouted inquisitively.

Naruto glared at her approaching form, "Thankfully, no," he snapped, rather uncharacteristically. Though looking back, it was honestly an appropriate reaction to nearly being blown up. "Your obvious plan to murder me didn't work at all."

Sakura scratched the back of her head in obvious embarrassment before leaning forward and grabbing Naruto's shoulder. Due to the explosion, much of the ground surrounding him was destroyed, essentially leaving him in a pile of rubble. With a soft grunt of effort, she pulled with all over her might, and Naruto was finally freed.

Now that he was finally able to move his body, Naruto was quick to shrug Sakura's hand off of his shoulder before standing to his feet. Remembering that he was currently working on a deadline, he looked to the sun and narrowed his eyes when he realized that there wasn't that much time until noon.

"Um, so should we try to find Sayuri now?" Sakura asked, a bit tentatively. Now that Naruto was free and no longer in need of her help, she felt her usual shyness begin to kick in.

For a moment, she thought that he hadn't heard what she said, but when she made to ask the question again, Naruto leaped into the trees without a word. Taking that as his answer, Sakura was quick to follow.

The moment Sayuri's eyes snapped back open, she was back up to her feet, immediately assuming a defensive position. She ignored the dull pain in the back of her neck as her eyes scanned the surrounding area. Surprisingly, Kakashi now appeared to be gone, and she quickly realized that she had been defeated, and easily at that. The very thought humiliated her.

'You're weak...Your hate's not strong enough...You're not strong enough,' a familiar voice echoed inside of her mind. Izumi was quick to shake her head in an attempt to clear her thoughts. The last thing she needed to be thinking about at a time like this was him.

"Sayuri! Sayuri, are you out there?!"

It was the voice of Sakura that eventually succeeded in breaking Sayuri out of her self-loathing trance. It was distant, to the point where she couldn't accurately pinpoint where it was coming from, yet close enough to where she could tell that her teammate was growing ever closer. Sayuri weighed the option of merely leaving, but in the end, she decided that there wouldn't be any harm in humoring Sakura.

She regretted her decision the moment she saw that HE was with her as well.

"Finally, we found you!" Sakura exclaimed with a smile as she and Naruto emerged from the trees.

Sayuri took note of Naruto's condition and was able to see that he was pretty roughed up. She very nearly smirked at the news that he had clearly gotten his ass handed to him, but at that moment, she was reminded of her own defeat. So, in the end, her face contorted into a scowl – an expression that looked a though it fit perfectly on her face. She was an Uchiha, after all. They probably invented scowling.

"What are you two doing here?" she demanded. "Where's Kakashi?"

Naruto gave both Sayuri and the clearing a quick look over before responding, "Not sure, but after looking at you, it's obvious that he was just here."

Unable to tell if the comment was an insult or merely an observation, Sayuri chose to view it as the former rather than the latter, since that fell more in line with what she had observed from Naruto's personality thus far. She took a step forward and prepared to levy an insult his way, but was stopped when Sakura brought herself between the two of them in a surprising gesture.

"Alright, you two, now I get that you don't like each other all that much, but we have more important things to worry about right now," she exclaimed. "This is the test that will decide whether or not we become genin. We've been working our whole lives to reach this goal, so now isn't the time for your silly arguments."

Both Naruto and Sayuri were likely too astounded by the outburst to respond right away. Sakura was demonstrating a level of confidence that she had never revealed during her time in the Academy. A day ago, if someone told Sayuri that Sakura Haruno was going to stand up to the top two students in the class, she'd think they were crazy.

Surprisingly, it was Naruto who responded first, "She's right," he admitted. "But what's even the point? There are only two bells anyway. If we work together, only two of us will pass."

He raised a fair point. What was the point of working together if one of them was going to end up failing anyway? No matter how you sliced it, one of them would be getting the short end of the stick. They all had dreams, and while they were all undoubtedly different from one another, becoming genin was step one for all of them. So what would they do?

"We'll sort it out after we get the bells," Sakura spoke up. "There's no point in worrying about who gets a bell when we haven't even stolen them yet."

Neither Naruto or Sayuri spoke, but it was clear that they were in agreement. Seeing everyone finally willing to cooperate with one another made Sakura smile. Admittedly, she hadn't expected Naruto and Sayuri to agree to work together, seeing as they were both so stubborn – and, quite frankly, arrogant as hell.

"We'll need a plan then," Naruto said before glancing at Sakura. "Well? Any ideas, brainiac?"

Sakura smirked, choosing to interpret the "brainiac" remark as a compliment.

Kakashi leaned against a rather large tree at the center of the training ground as he read from his favorite book. Make-Out Paradise was a gripping tale where the main character and heroine, both new to love, begin dating, and their eyes gradually open to grown-up love. It was a classic coming of age story that could appeal to almost anyone. It also had some rather juicy moments that kept the blood flowing and provided a sense of primal enjoyment.

"Master Jiraiya, you truly outdid yourself with this masterpiece," he murmured. "Hopefully the sequel will hold a candle to the original."

He continued to read, even as he narrowly avoided a shuriken aimed for his head. In the corner of his eye, he could see Naruto charging out of the treeline, and when he saw that the boy was alone, he sighed. He'd hoped that they would have decided to work together by this point. In the history of him giving out this test, none of the candidates seemed to figure that out for themselves, unfortunately.

"Seems like someone managed to drag themselves out of the ground," Kakashi remarked with an eye-smile. "How was that, by the way? Personally, I've never gotten caught in such a humiliating jutsu. Was it humbling?"

Kakashi was immediately forced to avoid a spinning kick that then transitioned into a punch, which he efficiently managed to block. The kid was good, but after being surprised by his skill the first time, fighting him again was child's play. Subtly slipping the book into his pocket, Kakashi used his now free hand to grab Naruto's ankle and slam the boy into the ground. With a groan, Naruto quickly recovered and rolled away, creating distance.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, Sayuri stormed out from the forest as well and immediately attacked him. This was it, he thought. Finally a team discovered the real purpose behind the test and decided to work together. Kakashi defended against Sayuri's taijutsu and quickly was forced to multi-task as he began avoiding being hit by Naruto as well. Together they stood a much better chance.

Naruto landed next to Sayuri after yet another failed attack, but before he could engage once more, she gripped his arm and scowled.

"Get lost, loser," she snapped. "This is my fight."

Naruto scowled back before shrugging out of her grip, "I attacked him first. You think I'll just sit back and watch you take the bells for yourself?"

All the pride and satisfaction immediately abandoned Kakashi as he realized that the two genin hopefuls hadn't actually attempted a coordinated attack. He glanced over at the clock and noticed that there were only a few moments until noon, and he shook his head in disappointment. Just when he had thought that someone had figured it out, reality had reared its ugly head. It made him wonder if it was even possible for kids to put aside their differences and strive toward a common goal with selfless vigor?

Just as the thought crossed his mind, he felt a presence directly behind him. Shit! He'd allowed himself to get distracted! Over his shoulder, he was able to see Sakura diving behind him, reaching for the bells. At his front, Naruto and Sayuri had stopped fighting and both simultaneously charged toward him, obviously in an attempt to prevent him from stopping Sakura from taking the bells.

'I'd completely forgotten about you, Sakura,' Kakashi chastised to himself.

Being attacked from both sides, and with Sakura's hand inching closer and closer to the bells, Kakashi pulled a stunning maneuver and shifted just enough to the right so that Sakura's hand missed her target. He then pushed down on the back of her head, forcing her to fall to the ground before grabbing both Naruto and Sayuri's wrists and slamming them into one another. The three genin ended up as a heap on the ground, and he was confident that they'd be returning home with bruises.

Then the alarm finally went off, signaling that it was noon and that the test had concluded. The harsh sound seemed enough to make the three genin forget about their pain. Looks of shock passed over their faces as they realized that their gambit failed and that the time to steal the bells had run out.

"Well, that was anti-climactic," Kakashi remarked with a shrug, looking mostly unimpressed. Deep down, however, he was incredibly pleased with their performance. Now was the final test of their teamwork.

He turned to Sakura, which caused her to look as though she were a rabbit in the line of sight of a wolf, "That plan was yours, right Sakura?" he inquired, when she nodded, he sighed. "Well, it could have been better."

"Your comrades placed their faith in you to lead them to victory, but all you did was lead them to failure," Kakashi criticized harshly. "In the shinobi world, failure means death, and you, Sakura Haruno, a failure who would lead your comrades into death, are clearly not fit to be a shinobi."

Sakura looked down at the grass below her, a look of sadness violating her otherwise pleasant face. Naruto and Sayuri were too shocked to say anything as Kakashi turned to address them.

"You two, on the other hand, I suppose I can work with, seeing as you actually managed to touch the bells," he said, surprising them. "In truth, I was ordered to chose two of you three to take on as my team regardless of whether or not you guys passed. And you two are the shiniest of the three turds. So, congratulations, you pass."

Kakashi then held out the two bells for them to take. Sayuri supposed she should simply take one and be happy that she passed; however, she wasn't. She looked to her left and saw Sakura, who was staring at the ground, her face now void of any real emotion, as if he was resigned to her fate. Her hands then clenched in anger. Dammit. Why was she choosing today of all days to play the hero?


Kakashi raised his single visible eyebrow in confusion at Sayuri's response, "Excuse me?" he asked.

"I refuse to accept a bell from you," Sayuri explained tersely, with a cold stare.

After a few moments of apparent thought, Naruto nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I'm out too," he said. "If not for Sakura, I'd probably still be neck-deep in the ground right now, so I guess I can't just leave her behind."

Sayuri looked toward Sakura once more and saw her looking at them with pure shock. She quickly looked away, a bit embarrassed by her gaze. The last thing she wanted was for Sakura to think that she ACTUALLY cared about her – which she definitely didn't.

Silence reigned as Kakashi stared at the three Academy students. If he was surprised by Sayuri and Naruto's rejection, he didn't really show it.

"I see," Kakashi responded casually. "Then I suppose I'll have to pass all three of you."

His words were not at all what the three genin hopefuls had been expecting, and they each looked up at Kakashi as if he had grown a second head. Sakura, in particular, couldn't really fathom what was going on, with her mouth opening and closing as she tried to formulate words. Sayuri absentmindedly thought that Sakura resembled a fish that had been snatched out of the water.

"B-But, you said..," Sakura stuttered out.

Kakashi smiled, a gesture which was made evident by the crinkling of his exposed eye, "What? That only two of you could pass? Well, I lied."

After getting no response from his team, Kakashi continued, "Today, the three of you did something nobody in the history of me giving this test has ever managed. You figured out its purpose."

"It's purpose?" Sakura asked. "I thought the point of the test was to get the bells."

Kakashi sighed, "The bells were simply a ploy to divide you all and make you look out for yourselves," he explained before looking toward Sayuri and Naruto specifically. "And my words to Sakura were to see if you two would abandon a comrade."

"So you didn't mean it...what you said to me, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked, looking a bit hopeful.

"Of course not," Kakashi confirmed with a smile. "Today, you helped Sayuri and Naruto both, and you were prepared to let them get the bells for themselves, even if it meant you would fail. That is the marking of a true shinobi – one I'd be honored to call my comrade."

Sakura lowered her head once more, but this time it was to hide the tears that were prickling up in her eyes. Sayuri was able to notice, but refused to make any comments about it. If Kakashi's words were enough to bring Sakura to tears of joy, it would be cruel of her to ruin the moment. It was rather clear that Sakura wasn't used to being praised for his skills as a shinobi.

"You see that stone over there?" Kakashi suddenly asked, pointing at an odd, black kunai like structure that sat adjacent to the river. It was clearly a statue of some kind. "That's the Memorial Stone. On it are the names of some of the greatest shinobi in the history of this village."

"Really?" Sakura asked after wiping her eyes with his arm. "What does a person need to do to get their name put on that stone?"

"Everyone on the stone has one thing in common," the masked jōnin explained. "They have all died in the service of this village."

Kakashi observed the reactions of his three genin, and noticed that Naruto was the only one who didn't appear as though his umbrella had blown away in a rainstorm. It was clear that he was already familiar with the stone.

"If there is one thing you should remember from your time with me, let it be this," Kakashi advised. "In the shinobi world, those who break the rules are trash – that's true – but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash."

The three genin looked toward their sensei in a new light. Perhaps he was better than they had thought?

"This marks the end of your examination," Kakashi announced before giving the team a thumbs up. "Tomorrow, we will officially meet for the first time as Team 7, and we will begin your training."


I hope you guys enjoyed the first chapter of my new story! If this is your first time reading one of my stories, I appreciate your interest. To those of you who have already read "Naruto: The Second Coming", I'm grateful for your continued support. I don't intend to follow up every chapter with such a lengthy author's note, as I feel like a lot of people on this site use them to make their word counts higher; however, seeing as this is the first chapter I've posted in a while, I wanted to address some of the questions/concerns I've been getting in my PMs and also those that I expect to receive after this chapter is posted.

On that note, I'll address one of the more common messages I receive. No, "Naruto: The Second Coming" isn't canceled. It will be updated again eventually. Truthfully, I've found it a bit more challenging to write/come up with ideas for that story then I had initially anticipated. It wasn't the first story that I've ever written, so I won't use that excuse, but I definitely didn't plan it out as well as I would have liked. This story, however, is much more organized, and I already know exactly what direction I'll be taking it in.

I've been working on this story for a few months now and already have three chapters completed as of this moment. You can expect most chapters to be between 9,000 and 11,000 words, which is a lot more than my previous story, which was about 5,000 or so words per chapter. Sometimes I may go well over 10,000 words, but I will NEVER write less than 8,000. You guys deserve better.

Also, let me know if you guys would like to do a sort of Q & A section at the end of every chapter where I address any questions, comments, and concerns. Usually, I reserve this kind of interaction for PMs, but if a Q & A is something you guys would be interested in, let me know. I'll only really choose questions that pertain to the story itself, so keep that in mind. I also won't address any questions where my answer might spoil the plot in any way. If you meet these requirements, you can expect to have your questions addressed in the author's note of the next chapter. I plan on also mentioning the reviewers by name, so if you're reviewing without an account, make sure you provide some form of PenName so I can address you specifically. If, for whatever reason, you prefer not to be mentioned by name in the Q & A, make sure to let me know in the review that you post.

Alright, that seems like everything I needed to discuss. Once again, I appreciate you guys and the support that you give. I write because I enjoy it, but I'd be lying if I said that it doesn't make me happy to know that there are people out there enjoying my work.