I hate my muse sometimes.

So, yeah, my recent silence has been because I've been working on this story. I'm not entirely sure when, but it occurred to me that, accounting for all the background information, Naruto should've been a lot smarter than he was at the start of canon, for reasons mentioned within the chapter itself.

Here's a brief summary of the core premise:
The story is based around a handful of key changes. First and most obviously, Naruto is a lot smarter. Second, the characters are actually
ninja and not just superpowered "ninja-in-name-only" fighters. Third is that the tailed beasts will be more like they were shown in early canon, meaning none of them will ever be "good guys". Fourth is a background change with massive, far-reaching ramifications, but you'll have to wait to learn just what it is.

Moving on, outside of places where it makes sense—non-canon missions, the Chunin Exams, potential replacement Akatsuki members, and so on—I'm going to avoid OCs almost entirely; there will be a few background ones who pop in occasionally, but only one important OC who will sort of teeter between supporting and main character (like Shikamaru does in canon); that OC is Uchiha Mai, and yes, she's pretty much Kazekaika Mai from Naruto: Bloodlines, but with a significant power reduction.

Also, something I want to get out right now: I am not going to use the shadow clone training method. Why? Because it's a story-breaking power, and frankly, that isn't fun to use. Related, I've established a set of "hard rules" to play by regarding things such as the workings of techniques and their limitations and the exact mechanics behind certain techniques (such as the Mangekyo Sharingan). They'll get elaborated on as appropriate in the story proper, with a potential glossary entry to help explain if I couldn't do so without disrupting chapter flow.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of the associated characters. I claim ownership of the OC Uchiha Mai.

Never let it be said that Uzumaki Naruto was unintelligent.

Yes, he acted like a loudmouth idiot and attention whore—right up until he did the most attention grabbing things possible. Everybody knew that he was responsible for some of the grandest pranks in the history of Konohagakure no Sato, but not because there was any proof—the boy had never been caught in the act, though he was found cleaning up after himself even though no one could force him without proof.

The reason people knew it was him mostly stemmed from the simple fact that no one else would have the sheer audacity to pull some of the stunts he did, and because he did take enough responsibility to clean up after himself. Most of the children, and those uninvolved in ninja work, found it irritating, and wondered why it was tolerated.

Most of the ninja, even those who disliked Naruto, were too busy being impressed to bother seeking punishment on the boy without any proof. After all, even for an experienced shinobi, the idea of successfully painting the ANBU Headquarters bright, neon orange right under everyone's noses seemed to be an impossible feat. Then there was the question of how he managed to deface the Hokage Monument right in plain view of the entire village and not only avoid getting caught, but without even any eyewitness testimony that he was responsible.

Then there were his scores on written tests in his academy classes—he had a habit of getting a near top score every time, his performance on that front matched only by Haruno Sakura.

Everyone knew that Naruto was good at avoiding detection when he wanted to be, despite his moving target of a jumpsuit. And they knew he was a lot smarter than he let on. It was, sometimes, easy to forget from the way he acted, but if he wanted to be serious, everyone would bet that he could be dead serious.

Furthermore, Naruto just did not know how to quit. The words "give up" did not exist in the vocabulary of the spiky-headed blond, and he translated "impossible" to "I'm a whiny little loser who gives up at the first sign of trouble". The boy had the raw determination to have stared down the Kyūbi no Yōko, and people would not have been surprised to see the monster fox back down first.

Opinions about the boy were mixed, and he knew that—the adults were divided between those who simply tried to ignore his existence (primarily ninja), those who looked on him with distaste at best (mostly civilians), and a handful who seemed to respect him for whatever reason and treated him kindly (he had eventually determined that these were primarily the higher-ranked shinobi).

The village children were likewise divided into three distinct groups—those who thought he was an annoying no-talent lout (mostly Uchiha Sasuke and his fangirl horde), those who were neutral about him (most of the boys in his academy class and some of the girls) and those who looked on him like some mythical figure shrouded in legend (any kid who'd never met Naruto personally).

There were precisely five people whose opinions Naruto actually cared about: the Third Hokage Sarutobi Hiruzen, the Ichirakus Teuchi and Ayame, his teacher Umino Iruka, and finally his classmate Haruno Sakura, upon whom he had a crush and who, to his sorrow, was part of Sasuke's fangirl horde.

With all of that said, for all his ability to ignore the negative opinions of most others, his clever mind and skill when it came to stealth, there was one thing Naruto was bad at, which did hamper a number of other skills.

Specifically, he had terrible chakra control; he actually had more chakra control training than most (if not all) of his classmates, but he had so much raw chakra at a given moment—even before he really started to create chakra by mixing physical and spiritual energy—that it was difficult to control, and anything that required too little chakra was basically impossible for him.

That, more than anything, was why he hadn't graduated already.

"Bunshin no Jutsu!"

A puff of smoke and a sickly looking Naruto lay on the ground. Naruto glared down at his paltry double as his teachers, Iruka and Mizuki, let out sighs of disappointment.

"Sorry Naruto," said Iruka. "You fail."


"Iruka…" said Mizuki, glancing at his friend, "I think that's a bit of a hasty declaration. Naruto has performed very well in all his other tests except genjutsu, has better chakra control than most of those we passed, and he's perfectly capable with the other two basic ninjutsu."

"I know, but the Bunshin is an essential ninjutsu for a genin," said Iruka. "I can't, in good conscious, pass Naruto and allow him into dangerous situations without that technique."

Well, it at least reassured Naruto that the reason it was always that technique was concern for the students.

"Well, perhaps we should look into the matter," said Mizuki. "Don't you think it's odd that Naruto can't seem to perform this one technique?"

Iruka grunted, while Mizuki turned to face Naruto and smiled at the blond.

"Naruto, why don't you come back here tomorrow for a possible make-up test? We'll try to talk to Hokage-sama and see if a solution can be found."

Naruto grinned.

"Thanks, Mizuki-sensei!"

With that, the blond left. Iruka let out a sigh.

"I hope we can figure something out," he said. "Naruto's been here for years now; by all rights, he should've graduated a long time ago."

"Do you think his problem with the technique could be… that?"

"I… I'd never really thought of it," said Iruka. "I try to ignore that when I can. Maybe Hokage-sama will know more."

When Naruto arrived at the classroom the next day, he was shocked to find the Hokage there with Iruka, Mizuki and a member of the ANBU.

"Hokage-jiji?" questioned Naruto.

"Hello Naruto," said Hiruzen, chewing idly on the end of his pipe—he refused to light it on the academy grounds. "Iruka and Mizuki have come to me about your difficulties. Naruto, I would like to see you attempt to perform the Bunshin please."

"Okay," said Naruto slowly. The ANBU shifted just slightly as Naruto performed the requisite hand seals. "Bunshin no Jutsu!"

And… two sickly clones of Naruto appeared. The blond let out a groan of frustration.

"Thank you Naruto," said the Hokage, glancing at the ANBU.

"It would appear that your suspicions are correct, Hokage-sama," said the ANBU. "His chakra overloads the jutsu."

"Huh?" For the first time in quite awhile, Naruto was confused—he'd thought it was just a control issue brought on by his abnormally large chakra reserves.

"Very well," said Hiruzen. "In that case, my alternative is now approved. Naruto, please accompany Boar—he will teach you a form of the jutsu that requires more chakra and will work better for you as a result. If you can learn the technique in three days time, then you will be passed."

All too eager to finally pass, Naruto leapt into the air with a small whoop of excitement.

"You wanted to see me, Hokage-sama?"

"Yes Kakashi. Three hours ago," said Hiruzen, not looking up from the papers in front of him. "Fortunately, I had anticipated your tardiness, and planned our meeting for only an hour ago."

To his credit, Hatake Kakashi had the decency to look sheepish.

"Two days ago, after the graduation exam, two of the teachers approached me," said Hiruzen. "They wanted me to look into a problem they'd encountered—namely, one of their students failed an essential part of the exam, as he has already done twice before, but he is brilliant in nearly all other fields."

"Naruto, right?" asked Kakashi.

"Yes," said Hiruzen, finally looking up from his work. "Yesterday, I investigated with an ANBU from the Hyūga Clan. He confirmed for me that Naruto's chakra is overloading the technique, and it is unlikely he can achieve the necessary control to overcome his large reserves without years of training. Therefore, I approved for Naruto to be taught Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, and that he would graduate if he could learn it in three days time."

"Let me guess: he did it in one night?"

Hiruzen chuckled.

"He did more than that—he effectively mastered the technique. And more, he wound up taking it to the next level."

"Tajū Kage Bunshin?" questioned Kakashi. "His reserves are that great?"

"Naruto's stamina surpasses yours Kakashi," said Hiruzen. "In fact, the only shinobi we have with stamina greater than Naruto's are Jiraiya and Gai."

"Is that so? And he can properly mold his chakra to use it all?"

"Yes; he's been practicing chakra control in an effort to overcome his difficulties. It hasn't worked, but he is quite capable. And I would like for you to take on the task of teaching him."

"Oh good; that means I don't have to ask."

Hiruzen chuckled.

"So, who will his teammates be?"

The Hokage smiled at him.

"I looked it over, and I think you'll like what I'm giving you to work with…"

About five days later, Iruka was going over team assignments for the recent graduates while Mizuki worked on the student orientation for a new class.

"Team 7 will consist of Uzumaki Naruto…" Naruto perked up at this.

Please let Sakura-chan be my teammate! And anyone else except that Uchiha prick!

"… Haruno Sakura…"

Yes! thought Naruto. Now anyone but Sasuke!

No… whined Sakura internally. Why Naruto? Well maybe I'll get Sasuke-kun… I could live with that…

"… and Hyūga Hinata."

Sakura slumped over, looking thoroughly depressed, though she felt Hinata was better than most of the other possibilities. Naruto barely refrained from jumping up and cheering at getting Sakura without Sasuke. Hinata had blushed a bright, cherry red.

"Team 8 will consist of Uchiha Sasuke…" The two remaining female graduates perked up at that, hoping to hear their name called out. "… Aburame Shino…" And suddenly, the two girls were less enthusiastic, given the sheer creepiness that was Shino. "… and Inuzuka Kiba."

Two of the three unassigned girls, Yamanaka Ino and Taka Yuriko, groaned in disappointment.

"Team 9 will consist of Aoki Kimie, Sayuki Norio and Taka Yuriko. And finally, Team 10 will consist of Nara Shikamaru, Akimichi Chōji and Yamanaka Ino."

Ino's head thunked into her desk.

"Iruka-sensei, can I–"

"No, Ino," said Iruka, knowing exactly what she was going to ask. "All teams were assigned with balance and ability to work together in mind. Your team's abilities mesh well with each other."

"What about my team?" asked Sakura, hoping there would be a slip up.

"Well, Hinata is a taijutsu specialist, you have great potential as a genjutsu specialist, and Naruto has tremendous potential as a ninjutsu specialist; taken together, it might even make your team the best one here, so you shouldn't complain." He swept his eyes over the graduates. "Anyone else want me to elaborate?"

Everyone wisely decided to quit while they were ahead.

"Very good; now, your jōnin senseis will be coming to pick you up after lunch. And everyone? As your sensei up to now, let me just say good luck with your futures."

After Iruka left, the graduates stood to leave themselves, Sasuke moving faster than the others, intent on evading the horde of girls that chased after him. Most of the boys just let out sighs of frustration. Shaking his head, Naruto stood up, wondering if he should go after Sakura, "save" Sasuke (or ambush him and lock him away until lunch was over, either way), or just head up to the roof to eat lunch alone.

Now, Naruto may not have been an idiot, but he really could be very dense sometimes, so he failed to notice his other teammate staring at him with a faint blush. Ultimately deciding to just let Sakura chase after Sasuke this time and knowing she wouldn't be able to for awhile after this, Naruto headed for the roof.

Sakura sat down on a bench, eating alone after Sasuke managed to give her and all the other girls the slip.

She just couldn't believe she'd been stuck on a team with Naruto of all people. He was the biggest loser she'd ever seen, failing the graduation exam three times before apparently passing a make-up test of some sort. He was a loud, obnoxious, talentless goofball who went out of his way to annoy her. Heck, she couldn't even be flattered by his crush on her because it was him who was doing it—that Naruto was the only one to express interest actually made her feel inferior. It wasn't a good feeling.

The only saving grace really was that she had Hinata on her team, and while that wasn't as good as having Sasuke, it was better than… well, anyone else who she could've gotten.

"H-hello, Sakura-san," came Hinata's voice suddenly. Sakura looked up to see the Hyūga heiress standing in front of her, looking a little nervous. The rosette smiled at her.

"Hi, Hinata-chan," she said lightly. "You wanna eat with me? I suppose if we're going to be teammates, we should maybe hang out a little…"

Hinata nodded slightly before sitting down next to Sakura.

"H-have you seen N-Naruto-kun?" asked Hinata.

"No… and now that I think about it, that's actually kind of surprising," said Sakura. "I would've expected him to try and use us being on a team as an excuse to spend time with me. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad he didn't, but it's still a surprise."

"Um, Sakura-san… w-why do you dislike Naruto-kun?" asked Hinata.

"He's a loud, irritating, obnoxious loser," said Sakura simply. "I mean, how can you fail the graduation exam twice? It's pathetically easy; Sasuke-kun graduated on his first try."

Hinata fidgeted; she had mixed feelings about Sakura. On the one hand, she knew the rosette was really a nice person deep down, but on the other, Sakura was the object of Naruto's affections and was always being really stuck up and bullying Naruto. The Hyūga heiress couldn't help but feel the need to defend him.

So, that's just what she did.

"But he only failed to graduate because he couldn't use Bunshin no Jutsu," said Hinata softly. "He's actually probably more talented than anyone in our class."

"Oh please."

"No, really… the standard academy term is six years because of everything they're teaching us, unless you prove yourself really capable and get accelerated through… Kiba-kun and Chōji-san have been attending for the full term, and Uchiha-san started four years ago along with me, Ino-san, Shikamaru-san and Shino-san. N-Naruto-kun only started attending three years ago, a year before Sakura-san, but he's nearly graduated twice before, while this is the first time for the rest of us."

Sakura blinked. She'd… never actually thought of that.

Most of the graduating class had been at the academy for the full six-year-term, but Sakura had only decided to be a ninja two years ago, and had quickly accelerated through the lower levels to join the current class. She'd been dismissive of Naruto when he joined their class a year ago after being held back, both because he's failed the exam and because he'd been beaten by Sasuke in a taijutsu spar early on. Come to think of it, though, Sakura had no idea how Naruto did in any of the other fields.

"No way… but then, why did he get beaten by Sasuke-kun so easily?" asked Sakura.

"How many people can you beat in a taijutsu spar even though you're possibly the smartest in class?" asked Hinata softly.

That brought Sakura up short, because the answer was… well, practically no one. She had some of the worst taijutsu in their class. The rosette looked at the ground, suddenly feeling ashamed of herself.

"Naruto-kun isn't a loser," said Hinata softly.

"Maybe not… I still think he's annoying," said Sakura. "But… well, I guess I should try to get along with him."

"Please do," said Hinata, smiling at Sakura sweetly.

"Yeah… just as long as he doesn't get the wrong idea, we should be good."

Naruto was the first one to return to the classroom, taking a seat in the same spot he had earlier, at the three-person desk he'd shared with Sakura and Sasuke at the time of team announcements.

The blond let out a sigh, shaking his head. He really didn't get why it was that girls seemed to obsess over Sasuke—granted, even Naruto could admit that Sasuke was smart, talented and probably good looking, though Naruto did not consider himself a good judge of appearances.

However, Sasuke was also a stuck-up, anti-social jerk who seemed to lord his superiority over others. He ignored everyone at best, and was a cold bully at worst. The only people he seemed to treat with any respect were the other survivors of the Uchiha Clan from that night four years ago, most of them children even younger than Sasuke, though a few were older than him.

The door to the classroom opened and, to Naruto's surprise, his teammates walked in. He smiled faintly, waving to them to get their attention.

"Hey, Sakura-chan, Hinata-san," he called. Hinata smiled shyly while Sakura frowned, the two walking over with Hinata slightly ahead.

"H-hi, Naruto-kun," said Hinata. "W-we were w-wondering where you w-were during l-lunch."

"Ah, I was on the roof," said Naruto, glancing at Sakura. "I didn't think anyone would want to be bothered by me during lunch."

"That's… considerate," said Sakura slowly. "Thanks, I guess."

Naruto nodded, and the three fell into an awkward silence.

Why can't someone else show up already? thought Naruto desperately before deciding to try and end the silence.

"A-anyways, why don't you two sit down… we might as well all sit together since we're on a team, that is, if you two don't mind…"

Hinata nodded, a small smile on her face

"S-sure, Naruto-kun."

As Hinata moved to take the seat next to Naruto, Sakura nodded slightly.

"Yeah… hey, listen Naruto," she said, "we're going to be a team, so we have to get along. So I want to get this out now: please don't keep pestering me for dates or anything, okay?"

"Fine," grumbled Naruto. Sakura nodded again, just as the other graduates began to return, and quickly rushed to the seat next to Hinata, opposite Naruto. More graduates poured in, grouping up by teams, though Ino paused long enough to flash a superior smirk at Sakura (though, after the talk with Hinata, Sakura definitely felt Ino had gotten the short end of the stick with regards to teams).

Sasuke showed up last, taking a seat next to Shino and opposite of Kiba at the desk right above the one Team 7 sat at. Sakura glanced up at him briefly before letting out a soft sigh and looking forward again.

Kakashi stood in front of the Memorial Stone, staring at the names carved there, his eye flickering occasionally between three names in particular.

Uchiha Obito. Akane Rin. Namikaze Minato.

His teammates and his sensei had all died fighting for the village, and at least one of them was his fault. He didn't just have Obito's eye, but his blood coated Kakashi's hands as surely as if he had rammed his fist through Obito's heart.

He'd messed up a lot of things back then, and while there was no way he could change anything now, and no guarantee things would've been different if he'd been smarter back then, he could never keep himself from regretting it.

"I promise… I won't let any of them make my mistakes," said Kakashi softly. "And not just mine; I'll do what I can to keep them from making any of the mistakes we made, whatever those might've been…"

"You're too hard on yourself at times, you know that, right?" interjected a new voice. Kakashi looked pack to see a girl in her mid-teens standing there. He let out a small chuckle.

"Its odd hearing something like that from you, Mai," he said. "After all, aren't you the same?"

"I guess so," said Uchiha Mai softly, walking up to stand next to him, brushing a loose strand of black hair from her eyes as she eyed her twin sister's name on the stone before them.

Mai was the daughter of the current head of the Uchiha Clan, Masaru, and one of Konoha's youngest and strongest jōnin, achieving the rank at an even earlier age than Kakashi despite being a very poor ninja early on in her career. She was the one who'd driven Uchiha Itachi off the night he massacred most of the clan, and was one of the only people Kakashi considered a friend, despite there being a decade of difference in their ages.

"Shouldn't you be getting to the academy soon? Your new students are waiting."

"They'll need to get used to my habits eventually…"

"Yeah, but shouldn't you try and make a good first impression?"

Kakashi shrugged, and the two slipped into silence for a few minutes.

"How much are you going to tell him?" asked Mai softly. Kakashi sighed.

"I don't know; I guess I'll just have to wait and see."

Naruto possessed a decidedly cunning intelligence that made him a lot more dangerous than he ever really let on.

This did not necessarily make him patient though, and while one of his teammates was very patient due to her upbringing, the other one was just as impatient as Naruto, not that Sakura would ever admit to it, or to a lot of other things she had in common with Naruto personality-wise.

Regardless, it was sort of inevitable that Naruto eventually got fed up and lodged an eraser in the door to drop on the next person to step through, who should be their tardy sensei. Equally inevitable was that Sakura only put in a token effort to stop him, and Hinata merely expressed concern that he'd get in trouble for it (very quietly, such that Sakura had to convey it to Naruto instead).

A few minutes later, the door slowly opened and the eraser fell down on a head of spiky silver hair.

Naruto chuckled slightly, Hinata barely suppressed a giggle, and Sakura was torn between apologizing and cheering, so she settled on a third option.

"How does a jōnin fall for something like that?" she asked incredulously.

"You'd be amazed what kinds of pranks ninja will fall for," said Naruto.

"It's probably the lack of real danger," muttered the jōnin, picking up the eraser. He scratched his chin. "Well, that was interesting… I have to say that my first impression is… I hate you guys."

The dark cloud of depression that descended nearly caused him to chuckle, but he managed to refrain.

"So, let's see…" said their sensei after leading them to the roof of the academy, "why don't you introduce yourselves?"

"Introduce ourselves?" questioned Sakura. "What do you expect us to say?"

He shrugged. "Your likes, your dislikes, your hobbies, your dreams…"

"Why don't you go first?" asked Naruto.

"Yeah, the three of us are at least acquainted with each other," said Sakura.

"Fair enough… my name is Hatake Kakashi… I have no intention of telling you my likes and dislikes… as for my dreams, well… hmm; I have lots of hobbies…"

"Jerk," muttered Naruto.

"Yeah, all you told us was your name," said Sakura.

"Now it's your turn," said Kakashi, ignoring the two. "Ladies first."

Sakura glanced at Hinata briefly before deciding to go first and give her shy teammate a bit more time.

"I'm Haruno Sakura," she began, "my likes are books and sweets. My dislikes… spicy stuff and Yamanaka Ino. My hobby is playing trivia games and my dream…" a mental image of herself marrying Sasuke popped into her mind at this point and she nearly blushed the color of her hair. Shaking her head to try and clear it, she continued, "I never really thought about it."

"Well enough I suppose," said Kakashi, eye drifting to Hinata, who shifted uncomfortably.

"Um… well, my name's Hyūga Hinata," she said, twiddling her fingers. "My likes… well…" she blushed slightly, eyes shifting for the briefest second to Naruto before she tried to refocus herself, "um… music I guess… I don't really dislike anything… I like to do pressed flowers crafts… and I don't really have a dream…"

Kakashi wondered if he should introduce the girl to Mai, who'd been just as shy when she was younger. Shrugging slightly, he turned his attention to Naruto.

"Your turn," he said lightly.

"My name's Uzumaki Naruto," said the blond. "I like ramen and people who are nice to me. I hate the way people ignore me even in situations where they shouldn't. As for hobbies, well, those pranks didn't play themselves. For my dream, I want to surpass the Hokage and have everyone in the village acknowledge me."

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Kakashi spoke up.

"Well, I have to say that you're an interesting group," he said lightly. "Anyways, tomorrow, we'll be meeting for our first duty."

"What is it?" asked Naruto.

"Survival training," said Kakashi.


"But sensei, we've done a lot of that in the academy already," said Sakura.

"That's kiddy stuff, and this isn't ordinary training anyways," said Kakashi.

"W-what's d-different?" questioned Hinata.

To their surprise, Kakashi started to visibly shake with suppressed laughter.

"Hey, what's so funny, sensei?" asked Sakura, visibly irritated.

"Well, it's just, when I tell you this, you three are going to flip," said Kakashi, bringing up a hand to cup his chin. "You see, out of the twenty-seven graduates, only nine are going to become genin—the other eighteen will be sent back to the academy. This training is actually a final exam with a sixty-six percent failure rate."

Sakura scowled, Naruto looked horror-struck and Hinata visibly stiffened.

"Then what the hell was that final exam all about?!" demanded Naruto.

"Oh that? Just to see who we'd be giving this final exam too—policy is to only graduate a handful from the academy each year outside of special circumstances, and yes, this is nicer than it tends to be in other countries. So, anyways, we'll be meeting at five tomorrow morning at the Third Training Ground."

Kakashi turned to leave, but paused and looked back over his shoulder.

"Oh and don't eat breakfast. You'll throw up if you do."

"Yo! Good morning," called Kakashi lightly when he finally showed up… at just past eleven o' clock.

"You're late!" cried Naruto, Sakura and even Hinata, though her voice was barely audible over her much louder teammates.

"A black cat crossed my path, so…" started Kakashi sheepishly, but the look of disbelief from all three genin caused him to stop. He coughed slightly, walking over to one of the posts and setting some bento boxes and a timer on it. He pressed the switch on top of it. "Alright, timer set to twelve o' clock."

Kakashi turned to face his students and held up a pair of silver bells.

"Your objective in this exercise is relatively simple: you just need to take these bells from me. When the timer goes off, anyone who doesn't have a bell will be tied to one of those posts and gets no lunch."

"Eh?!" gasped Sakura. All of their stomachs rumbled slightly, and Kakashi smirked under his mask.

"You bastard," groaned Naruto.

"Wait, why are there only two bells?" asked Sakura.

Kakashi's eye shut as his unseen smile grew.

"Since there are only two bells, at least one of you will be tied to a log," he said. "Those who don't get the bells will fail since they failed to complete the mission." The three all stiffened slightly, Naruto squaring his shoulders. A look of determination crossed his and Sakura's faces, while Hinata shifted slightly in nervousness. "It might just be one or all three. Feel free to use whatever you can manage—you won't succeed unless you come at me with the intent to kill."

"But that's too dangerous sensei!" objected Sakura.

"I don't know," said Naruto, tilting his head slightly. "I've seen some of the things higher-level ninja can do."

Kakashi chuckled.

"He's right," said Kakashi, "though I don't like being as over-the-top as some of my less restrained acquaintances are, it is true that the gap between us is so great that you'll have to come at me as though you really do intend to kill me just to stand a chance of stealing the bells—though I assure you, you won't actually kill me, even if I hold back enough to keep this sporting."

"Anyways," continued Kakashi, tying the bells to the waist of his flak jacket, "we're going to start when I say 'ready start', understood?"

He heard the three affirmatives, though one was barely audible; if they passed, he really hoped Hinata would be able to move past her extreme shyness.

Kakashi nodded slightly.

"Ready… start!"

The three all leapt away into the trees.

Kakashi glanced around, quickly determining that they'd concealed themselves well enough to evade his cursory scan. If he'd really tried to, of course, he could've easily located them, but then, he'd been a ninja since he was less than half their age—that was kind of inevitable.

"It looks like they've taken to the academy's lessons on stealth alright," muttered Kakashi. "I was a little worried about Naruto in that field, but he seems to have taken to the academy curriculum better than it he makes it look."

The academy only taught the most basic of things—its curriculum was based around a mix of accelerated education in so-called civilian fields and the essential know-how for a ninja, like stealth and chakra usage. Combat training beyond basic civilian-level taijutsu didn't start until they'd become actual genin, nor did a lot of other advanced lessons.

"Hmm?" Kakashi turned slightly to find Naruto standing in front of him.

"Alright, let's not beat around the bush: I'm just gonna beat the crap out of you and take one of the bells fair and square," said Naruto brightly.

"You know, this isn't how a shinobi should be going about things," said Kakashi, reaching into his belt pouch for his book. "We don't call ourselves ninja for nothing."

"Ah, shut up!" shouted Naruto, charging straight at Kakashi, only to pause when the jōnin whipped out Icha Icha Paradise instead of a weapon. "Huh? Why did you grab that book?"

"Hmm? Oh, it's because I want to see what happens next; don't worry, at the current difference in level, it shouldn't make a difference, and if it does, then hey, you got the bell!"

Naruto twitched before shooting forward again.

"You didn't have to say it like that you bastard!" he shouted, throwing a punch at Kakashi, who blocked it with one hand while he continued to read. The next twenty or so seconds consisted of Kakashi easily dodging Naruto's attacks before ending up behind him, hands held over his book in a manner similar to the Tiger hand seal.

"Naruto, run!" cried Sakura, revealing her position. Kakashi smirked under his mask. "You're gonna die!"


"Too late," said Kakashi. "A Thousand Years of Pain!"

Kakashi's fingers rammed into Naruto's ass and sent him flying… only to suddenly puff out of existence.

A shadow clone, thought Kakashi, good, he's not as bull-headed as I'd feared.

What was that?! cried Sakura in her own mind as she tried to move to a new hiding place.

Naruto-kun… amazing…

Naruto, concealed quite a distance away, winced slightly as he received the memories of the shadow clone.

Ooh, you're gonna pay for that one Kakashi-sensei… I feel like I've been violated for life…

The blond stood up, pacing back and forth as he considered his options, running through strategies and discarding them.

He had an arsenal of three techniques (four counting the two versions of shadow clone), no genjutsu to speak of, and only average skill in taijutsu. His clones were soft targets—Naruto could take a beating and keep going, but the average shadow clone would be destroyed by any blow damaging enough to disrupt the chakra composition of their bodies.

Alright, so his own abilities were limited to spamming clones at Kakashi and trying to find a way to trick him, but what kind of trick would work on a jōnin putting some effort into it? Maybe if he had Hinata's taijutsu skills or Sakura's genjutsu skills, he could pull it off, but come to think of it, did Sakura even know any genjutsu, or was Iruka simply talking about potential back in class?

Crap, thought Naruto.

The line of thinking had led him to another realization—his teammates were mutually exclusive. He couldn't get both Sakura and Hinata past the test without forfeiting his own chance and he didn't want to do that, not after finally graduating, and who knew what his next sensei could be like if that happened?

At the same time, how could he even ask one of them to go back to the academy?

A sudden scream of terror in what sounded like Sakura's voice broke his revelry. Creating a trio of shadow clones, Naruto rushed through the trees in search of his teammates.

"Maybe I overdid it," murmured Kakashi, looking down at Sakura's unconscious form on the ground below. "But then, I didn't think Sakura would fall for the genjutsu that easily. Although, I do find it reassuring that she cares enough about her teammates to react like that to what I showed her…"

Kakashi turned to leave, deciding it was time to find Hinata and see what she could do. But he figured he wouldn't work at it too hard—after all, if he put real effort into this, it would take a team of well-coordinated chūnin at least just to get one bell.

He was, after all, one of the three most powerful ninja under the Hokage's command right now, given that no one had heard from Jiraiya or Tsunade in years and Shimura Danzō wasn't so much under Hiruzen's command as he was caged by the far more reasonable Third Hokage.

As soon as she'd lost track of Kakashi just after Naruto's disappearance, Hinata had activated her Byakugan, using it to quickly locate everyone in the area. She'd found Naruto pacing, and spotted Kakashi tracking down Sakura.

Hinata had been torn over whether or not to warn Sakura—she didn't really dislike the girl, but for her own part, Hinata didn't want to pass up the chance to be on a team with Naruto. Her indecisiveness took the matter out of her hands when Kakashi placed the rosette in a genjutsu.

The Hyūga heiress had winced when she saw and heard Sakura's scream and the look of horror on her face before she collapsed, and couldn't help but berate herself for not warning Sakura. Then, she saw several Narutos rushing through the forest, and quickly guessed that they were looking for Sakura. Shifting uncertainly—and soon spotting Kakashi on the prowl once again—Hinata made her decision, and began moving as stealthily as possible towards Sakura's position.

As she did so, she took a few seconds to closely scan the timer and determine they had half an hour left before time was up.

When Sakura regained consciousness, it was with a small groan of frustration at herself for falling for an obvious genjutsu.

Granted, maybe Kakashi could do whatever the hell he wanted to them in this test, but really, it wasn't like he actually would do what she'd seen, at least, to Hinata. Herself or Naruto sure, but she couldn't see anyone defending Kakashi from the Hyūga Clan if he turned Hinata into a human pincushion.

"… ura-chan…"

Huh… that was Naruto's voice, right? With another groan, she forced her eyes open to see Naruto leaning over her, a look of concern on his face.

"Sakura-chan! You're alright!"

"Of course I am idiot," said Sakura, sitting up with a bit of help from the blond. "It was just a genjutsu; I doubt sensei will go out and do any serious damage at this point."

"Yeah, well… it doesn't stop me from worrying," said Naruto softly.

Sakura couldn't help it—her features softened ever so slightly.

"Yeah… I guess it didn't stop me from worrying earlier," she said.

"Oh, right, you shouted for me to run before Kakashi-sensei poked the clone in the ass," said Naruto. "Man, I'm gonna have to find some way to pay him back for that."

"How'd you get away though? You just seemed to poof out of existence…"

"Yeah… my make up test was learning a different clone technique that creates a solid body duplicate… but that's not important right now! I don't know how much time we have left, and we're not any closer to getting the bells! Do you think maybe Hinata-san's had more luck?"

"I haven't," came Hinata's soft voice behind them. The two turned to see her walking into the clearing, veins bulging around her eyes. "We have another twenty minutes left."

"So, more than half our time is gone," muttered Naruto. He stood up and began pacing again, only partially taking notice of the memories of a clone destroyed by Kakashi. "Damn it, how the hell are any of us supposed to get a bell in that time? There's no time to plan, no way to attack with how outmatched we are…"

"Um…" Hinata was twiddling her fingers when the two looked at her. "Well… I can help you… so at least you two can pass…"

Her teammates stared at her in shock, Sakura's much more evident.

But the truth was that, even though Hinata was jealous of Sakura for having Naruto's attention, even though she desperately wanted this chance to be on a team with Naruto… she thought of Sakura as a friend… and if Naruto was happy, she could live with that.

"No…" whispered Sakura, shaking her head, "how can you expect us to do that?"

Kakashi hadn't found Hinata yet, which didn't really surprise him since she had the Byakugan and Naruto had loosed several clones into the forest.

He was now back in the main clearing, reading his book. He glanced at the timer and saw that there were ten minutes left.

Hmm, I wonder what they're up to…

At that moment, a trio of shuriken came flying at him. Not looking up from his book at first, he prepared to snatch them out of the air… and then suddenly, in a puff of chakra smoke, it was no longer three shuriken flying at him, but a trio of shadow clones instead.

Wait, he can do that?!

Caught unprepared, Kakashi wasn't able to bring any defense into play before the three clones crashed into him, grabbing hold of his stomach, neck and right arm.

Well shoot.

Kakashi sensed an attack coming from behind and twisted to avoid, but was surprised when his assailant immediately compensated and landed an open-palm blow to his right thigh, making his eyes go wide with realization as his right leg nearly buckled and pain fired up from the point of impact.

Hinata's helping him… well then, let's see what Sakura does.

Kakashi ignored the damage to his leg, leaping through the air despite the added weight of the clones in order to gain distance. Several kunai came flying at him, and Kakashi made to dodge, but then the clones all suddenly transformed into weight and chain combinations, and Kakashi found himself getting choked by the one around his neck. Unable to dodge, Kakashi instead performed a substitution, which proved wise as the kunai all suddenly detonated.

Well… they're taking this seriously. But where's Sakura?

It was then that he spotted a trio of Sakuras charging at him. A quick glance confirmed that Hinata and Naruto were nowhere to be seen, and Kakashi tossed a shuriken at Sakura and her clones, all of them dodging in different manners.

Well, well, that's impressive… she's able to control the movements of the clones independently of her own body rather than just shadowing her… even for a jōnin, that's quite a feat…

Kakashi went on the offensive when they were close enough, his swift attacks passing through the middle and right Sakuras despite their attempt to dodge, but the one on the left managed to evade and threw a punch at him. He raised his hand to block… but then her fist opened up for a palm strike, and Kakashi's eyes went wide as he realized he'd been tricked, the transformation disappearing to reveal Hinata.

The jōnin managed to throw himself back, avoiding the attack that would've potentially rendered his right hand useless, only to have Sakura appear and throw a punch at him. He dodged this too, and the two girls were suddenly replaced by a pair of Naruto clones wearing grim expressions… and armed with a hell of a lot of shuriken that they tossed at Kakashi full force.

That's a bit much for me to dodge… oh well.

Kakashi used substitution, targeting one of the clones. But right afterwards, the ground beneath him seemed to erupt with more clones.

How many of these things can he make?!

The clones grabbed hold of Kakashi. Anticipating another attack, Kakashi prepared to use another substitution when he suddenly felt a tugging at the waist. His eye went wide with shock, and he wasn't entirely clear on just what happened next, but the timer suddenly went off. The clones began to dispel, revealing a single panting Naruto on the ground in front of him without either bell. Checking his waist and the ground around him, there were no signs of the bells either.

"Damn it Naruto!" came Sakura's voice.

Kakashi turned, wincing slightly from the pain in his leg, and saw a seething Sakura and an uncomfortable-looking Hinata walking into the clearing, each of them holding a bell.

To the jōnin's surprise, Sakura immediately stalked up to Naruto with Hinata trailing in her wake and slapped him.

"I told you to take a bell with Hinata-chan, not give me yours!"

"And I told you that I've failed twice before, I can live with failing again!"

"That's exactly why you should've taken the chance to actually graduate!"

"B-but I was w-willing to go without a b-bell," said Hinata softly.

"Unbelievable," muttered Kakashi, too quietly for them to hear.

They'd all tried to sacrifice their chance at graduation for their teammates… he'd been assigned over twenty students before now, and failed them every time.

But this group was different.

"Well," said Kakashi, dragging their attention away from the argument (mostly between Naruto and Sakura), "it seems things are already settled. The time is up, and it seems that while Hinata and Sakura each have a bell, Naruto does not. Therefore, Naruto, if you would be so kind…"

Letting out a small sigh, Naruto walked over to meet Kakashi next to the stump, and didn't struggle as Kakashi tied him up.

"Now, the three of us will eat lunch here with Naruto tied up, and then he'll be sent back to the academy afterwards," said Kakashi, picking up the bentos and walking away from Naruto. "But on the bright side, you'll be able to get lunch yourself as soon as we're done."

"But sensei, this isn't fair!" said Sakura as Kakashi held the bentos out to her and Hinata. Meekly, the Hyūga heiress accepted, but the more defiant Sakura didn't. "You know that Naruto's the only reason we got the bells at all!"

"That doesn't matter," said Kakashi, holding the bento a little closer to Sakura. "He didn't have a bell when the timer went off. That's the only thing that matters."

Sakura pushed the bento away.

"I refuse," she said simply. Kakashi quirked an eyebrow as Naruto suddenly struggled against the ropes.

"Damn it Sakura-chan, just take the thing and eat it, I'll be fine!"

Sakura glanced at Naruto, an uncertain look in her eyes… and then, suddenly, with a scream, Hinata chucked her bento at Kakashi, catching everyone by surprise—including Hinata herself, judging from the look on her face.

However, Sakura felt she understood. Pulling out a kunai, she threw a glare at Kakashi before walking over to Naruto.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" asked Kakashi, pulling out a napkin and using it to clean himself as Hinata followed Sakura. "If you do, then Naruto's little sacrifice was pointless."

"Come on you two, don't do this!" said Naruto.

"Naruto, shut up," said Sakura as she began cutting the ropes. "I'll just wait till next time; no way in hell do I want to be on a team under a complete and utter bastard like this guy."

"Yes… we'll try again next year… together," said Hinata softly.

"Ugh… damn it, don't look at me like that you two…" groaned Naruto.

"Well…" drawled Kakashi, drawing their attention, "seeing as you won't be persuaded otherwise, I guess you leave me with no choice…" Suddenly, Kakashi smiled. "I'll just have to pass all three of you!"

Sakura's kunai fell to the ground. The way the three were gaping, their jaws probably would've too if that were physically possible.

Kakashi couldn't help but laugh.

"Sorry for the cruel deception," he said, "this was actually my own personal twist on the test, to see whether or not you valued your teammates enough to defy my orders, though I admit, I never expected Hinata to toss her food at me." Hinata blushed a bright cherry red, as though her mind only just caught up to what she'd done.

"So what, all of this was just to see if we cared?!" shouted Naruto, breaking the few bindings left uncut.

"Sort of," said Kakashi. "The first part of the test to get the bells was a test of teamwork—which I'm pleased to say you seem to have adequately passed, though there's room for improvement. The food and sending you back to the academy was to push you to compete, and then to see if those who'd gotten the bells could make the sort of sacrifice their teammate had. Honestly, when I realized you'd all been trying to get the bells to your teammates, I suspected we could skip this part, but I wanted to be certain."

"So all of this was just to see how far we'd go to help each other?" questioned Sakura as Hinata continued to grow redder from embarrassment.

"That's right," said Kakashi cheerfully. "There's something important you must understand: in the world of ninja, those who break the rules are scum. But… those who abandon their friends… are worse than scum. That's a lesson I learned a long time ago…" Kakashi walked over to the large stone in the clearing, resting a hand on it. "This stone has the names of all the heroes who gave their lives for the village carved on here. While they may be heroes… they're also no longer here. Because I learned that lesson too late, because there was a time that I was worse than scum… my best friend's name is carved on here."

Kakashi turned to face them again.

"So that's the reason," he said. "I won't accept anyone as my students… if I believe they could become like me. But you three have proven yourselves better than I was at your age, so… you pass. You're all real ninja now… and I want you to promise that you'll never forget this lesson. We'll start on missions and real shinobi training tomorrow!"

"Yes sir!" called Naruto, Sakura and, in a spike of confidence, Hinata.

Beneath the mask, Kakashi smiled.

Author's Notes: I'm really not sure how well this came out; I think I did okay, but Hinata's character can be hard to nail down, and about the only people who tend to have as much presence as Naruto and Sakura at this point would be Kiba and Shikamaru-the other characters fade into the background a lot with regards to interacting with Kakashi at this stage.

Though, even if it was very OOC, it was fun having Hinata snap and toss her bento at Kakashi while screaming.

The usual formula is either to follow canon or have the characters figure it out and execute a plan perfectly. I decided I didn't want them to figure out, but instead have them succeed because each was willing to go back to the academy to let the others pass, which fits with each of them except possibly Sakura (though even assuming the flanderized anime-version of Sakura, she'd probably make that sacrifice just for the hopes that Naruto would shift interest to Hinata).

I had a lot of fun with this, and look forward to writing this story, even though it is another mess added to my plate.

Unrelated note, I'm pissed off with the current canon, primarily because everything about Uchiha Madara screams "self-contradictory bullshit!". Just going for the two most obvious: if he were even a quarter this strong when he fought Hashirama, then the revived First Hokage, under Orochimaru's control as he was, should've basically flicked his fingers and turned the entirety of Konoha to dust. Second, if breaking free of the original Edo Tensei summoner's will is really that easy, shouldn't Tobirama, the guy who created the technique, have known that and simply used that to summon himself free of Orochimaru immediately, had Hashirama do the same, the three kill Orochimaru, fend off the invasion, then the two can release themselves and everything is better off?

As much as it pisses me off, I loathe the anime canon even more, since the anime staff has apparently had Naruto get over his feelings for Sakura when he still loves her in the manga (which is a major factor in helping Sakura realize how much she and Sasuke are hurting Naruto). This, no doubt, stems from them all being "Hinata puppy fans". Not that I hate Hinata, but it pisses me off. Though, recently, I decided that despite wanting the story to have Naruto get together with Sakura, I think it would be absolutely hilarious if the girl to win Naruto were Ino instead. For no other reason than that the notion is hilarious.

I got off-track; I should probably end it here and rant next chapter instead.

Please leave reviews! I'm really eager about this story, so I want to know if I'm doing alright with it!