First off, I'd like to apologize for taking so unbelievably long to post this, especially after talking about how eager I was to write it. It's just that this was really, really hard to write, because I'm completely obliterating canon where possible, and the last year was hell for me between the massive flooding in Colorado, my mom's wedding, and college, on top of the fact that I was focusing a lot on The White Queen.

I can't promise that updates will be any faster on this; I can't really go off of canon material for most of this story, which makes it more difficult. On that subject, I know a lot of what I'm writing in all of this can end up running contrary to canon, and I really, really don't care, because screw canon. It's become a haphazard mess, and I honestly stopped reading before I wrote the first chapter because I'd just become so unbelievably frustrated with the entire ordeal, and that's part of why I wound up starting this story in the first place.

So please, don't whine to me over things like completely replacing Sakura's parents or the other shifts I've made. Also, this doesn't mean I won't use some parts of canon (even the later canon), but it will be a huge case of "as it suits me" or "as best serves the story."

Also, I apologize in advance for Mai; due to the nature of this chapter, she played a much larger role in it than I intended, but I don't think that will be a concern again until I reach the Exam arc, simply because that's where the side characters should be coming back in.

Disclaimer: Standard disclaimers apply. I claim ownership over Uchiha Mai.

"So you actually passed a team huh?"

"Realistically, I couldn't have turned them away… but I was pleased when they managed to pass without that."

"Well, they were picked for more than just suitable capabilities; I did some psychological profiling on them before I made my recommendations to Hokage-sama."

Kakashi, Mai and the last member of their trio, Maito Gai, were gathered on top of the Hokage Monument, staring out over the village.

In the public eye, Kakashi and Gai were rivals, with the former ignoring the over-excitable latter; Mai, meanwhile, was a mere associate of the two, who hardly saw them outside of when her duties as the Hokage's aide brought her into contact with two of the village's top jōnin.

Privately, they were the people closest to each other. Kakashi and Gai had no other friends or family, and Mai had become detached from her clan over the years. They each put up a façade to the rest of the world, but at times like these, they all felt they could let their guards down and really be themselves.

"You didn't do so well with your last psychological profiling," remarked Kakashi, glancing at Mai briefly.

"I wasn't doing the profiling last year, remember? I was still doing regular missions until Hokage-sama dragged me out to teach one of the teams that year."

"Still, you did good work; it sounds like things have turned out well," said Gai. "After everything he's been through in life, Naruto needs friends."

"Yes… what about the Kyūbi though? Is he going to be told about that?" asked Mai.

"He needs to be told at some point," said Kakashi softly. "Still… I'm reluctant. His life's starting to improve… it would be terrible to break this kind of news to him now."

"Then wait until things are more stable and settled," said Gai. "The boy will be ready soon; his determination makes it impossible for it to be otherwise." He put a hand on Kakashi's shoulder. "Good luck Kakashi; I know you'll do well, but this will probably be the hardest mission of your life."

Early the next morning, Kakashi picked up several D-rank missions for his team, apparently set aside by Mai specifically for them—two similar piles were waiting for the senseis of the other teams.

Being only D-rank missions, they were naturally pretty damn dull—it started with picking vegetables out of a large garden in the agriculture district, for which Kakashi had expressly forbidden Naruto from using his clones, as he would need his energy for later.

Their next mission was to carry supplies from that district and distribute it to the appropriate restaurants, at which point Naruto and Sakura had finally complained, prompting Kakashi to give a quick summary of their missions for the day, and explain why they were doing such missions.

"You're not qualified to be sent into real danger fresh out of the Academy," he'd said. "That's where training from me comes in later; for the moment, these missions—chores, really—are just to help introduce you to routine and following orders, as well as the tedium of day-to-day life for a ninja. There will be times that you'll look back on these missions as happier days, and you'll actually enjoy them as a break when you get to higher levels."

He hadn't heard a single objection out of any of them since, and the rest of the "missions" proceeded smoothly. Kakashi sent them off to their training grounds while he turned in the missions, then dawdled for a little while before finally showing up.

"Sorry I'm late," said Kakashi before anyone had a chance to shout at him—he figured, at this stage, it would be best to keep things a bit more civil. "There were some things I'd needed to clear up, and it took a bit longer than I'd originally expected."

"Well, it's a better excuse than yesterday," said Naruto lightly. He grinned up at Kakashi. "So, what are we gonna do for training?"

"Well, for starters, we're going to address a few fundamentals and make sure you all understand what it is you're going to be doing from now on," said Kakashi. "Up until now, you've been kept safe from the realities of our world, so I'm afraid it's my job to… disabuse you of those notions."

"You mean… killing?" murmured Sakura.

"Killing? It's much worse than that," said Kakashi grimly. "When you kill an enemy who you're fighting for your life against… that's easy. When you kill an enemy to protect someone from them, that can be pretty hard. But that's not what a ninja is supposed to experience; what a ninja is supposed to experience is the act of murder. Assassination; it's by far the most unpleasant side of our careers, even more than losing the people around us. They haven't done anything to you; they aren't a threat to you, they're not even supposed to have a chance to fight for their lives. And you kill them anyways. I'm going to be blunt with you three: my first and most important task is to break you so that you can survive what comes later in your careers. The realities are still far away, but the sooner you get a taste for it, the sooner you can learn to cope with it."

As he'd spoken, Kakashi had watched each of his students become steadily paler, just as he'd expected; the academy did nothing to prepare them for this sort of thing.

"I know it's harsh," said Kakashi, "but that's also how things have to be. You've stepped into a brutal life, and it's not going to be easy, but I'm confident you can do it. For now, we'll simply be using genjutsu—I'll create an illusionary target for each of you to kill. Later, we'll move up to shadow clones, increasing the… sensation, if you will." Kakashi sighed. "I really am sorry about this."

"Its fine," said Naruto, though Kakashi noticed him gulping just slightly. "The Academy never stopped talking about what sort of thing we were stepping into even if… even if…"

"Even if it did nothing to prepare you for it," supplied Kakashi softly. He shook his head. "Well, let's get to work. We'll be doing this kind of 'training' for the foreseeable future, until I'm satisfied you're at least prepared enough to handle real danger. Once we get to that point, we'll also move on to some more direct training."


It had been an hour since their training session with Kakashi had ended, and Naruto, who only had an empty apartment waiting for him, had headed to Ichiraku's, not just because he was hungry, but also because he needed the slight comfort they could provide as the only people in his makeshift family who he could see at almost any time.

"Tough first day on the job?" asked Teuchi, putting a large bowl in front of Naruto before he'd even placed an order; Ayame was out making deliveries. "Here, on the house."

"Thanks… and yeah, it was," said Naruto. "The missions were easy, but very boring. It's the training that got to me." Naruto's shoulders slumped slightly. "I had thought it would be physical exercises or something; I could've handled that. But instead…" Naruto shuddered slightly.

"Yeah, I know," said Teuchi softly. "You're not the first kid to come here after their first day of post-graduation training; I know what that entails. I can tell you right now that you're going to be on it for awhile, and it will get easier, but… as I understand it, nothing can quite prepare you for the first time."

Naruto groaned slightly, resting his head on his shoulders. He still hadn't touched his ramen.

"It's the life you chose," continued Teuchi. "But it's because of people like you that people like me can have our peaceful lives. So chin up; the Uzumaki Naruto I know wouldn't be beaten by something like this. Not this easily."

When Sakura trudged into her house, it was with her head down and her shoulders stooped; her entire posture radiated weariness, both mental and physical. Her mother, Haruno Yuko, took immediate notice of this, setting aside the book she'd been reading.

"Sakura? What's wrong?" asked Yuko.

"It's… it's nothing," said Sakura, trying to brush it off and head to her room, but her mother intercepted her.

"It is not 'nothing', Sakura," said Yuko sternly. "I swear, you're just like your father, never willing to talk. Today was your first day performing real ninja duties, so I know that has something to do with it."

"I'm just tired."

"No, you're not," said Yuko. "Something's bothering you; Sakura, please, talk to me, while you still can. Eventually you won't be able to tell me about what's bothering you anymore; that nearly tore me and your father apart. We pulled through that, but he would always tell me what he could. It helped him."

"I… mom…" Sakura finally stopped trying to hold it in, her whole body beginning to shake. "Sensei… he told us… he told us that we'd have to be able to kill before we could do anything where that could really happen… so he's been forcing us to feel the sensation… what it's like to kill… and I just…"

Sakura fell to her knees, her body wracked with sobs. Yuko knelt down, and wrapped her daughter in a tight embrace.

"Shh… it'll be okay Sakura… just let it all out…"

Yuko didn't know how long they stayed like that, but eventually, Sakura fell asleep. Yuko wasn't a strong woman, but she was more than strong enough to carry her daughter's slight form to her bedroom.

"Sweet dreams baby," whispered Yuko after she'd pulled the covers over her daughter. She kissed Sakura's forehead lightly, and then quietly crept out of the room and closed the door as softly as she could.

"How was training?" asked Hyūga Hiashi when Hinata arrived home.

"It was fine father," said Hinata stiffly, walking past him, barely even acknowledging him.

This very nearly caused a heart attack in most of those discreetly watching—Hinata had not stumbled, stuttered, shrunk in fear or any of her other normal traits. She'd spoken to her father in a tone as stiff as his own without a hint of fear and had been very nearly dismissive of him. Hinata's younger sister Hanabi was completely dumbfounded, staring after her older sister as Hinata walked to her room.

Hiashi himself merely quirked an eyebrow and discreetly activated his Byakugan, observing Hinata as she walked through the halls of the Hyūga Main House Estate.

Hinata headed straight to her room, ignoring everyone and everything around her. Even when she actually entered her room, she simply dropped her bag next to her dresser and dropped down on the bed, burying her head in the pillows slightly.

Only then did she finally allow herself to release the sobs she'd been holding back. And unlike her teammates, there was no one to comfort Hinata after the brutal day of experiencing just the phantom sensation of killing at the tender age of twelve.

And that was how it was; days turned into weeks as Kakashi fulfilled the absolute worst duty for any jōnin and mentally tortured his students with the task of killing again and again and again. But, eventually, he felt they were ready to move on.

"Missions beyond the border huh?" murmured Mai when Kakashi approached her with his request about three weeks after the training began. "That's some impressive progress, Kakashi. It took Gai two months before his students were desensitized enough for real training, and Sarutobi-san and Yūhi-san are still working at it."

"How long did it take you?" asked Kakashi as she searched through the D-rank mission list.

"Seventeen days," she answered idly.

Mai had already had her turn as a jōnin sensei, taking her students from the same class as Gai had taken his. Her team had performed remarkably, and they were nominated for the second Chūnin Selection Exams after their graduation. They'd made it to the final exam, where one of them was killed. Of the remaining two, one got promoted, and the other was cycled onto a new team that had gotten wiped out only a month later during a run-in with several high-level nūkenin. Mai's last surviving student was, as far as Kakashi could recall, currently being trained to join the ANBU.

She'd refused the chance to become a teacher again, originally intending to return to performing her solo missions, preferring the solitude of them, but the Hokage had instead appointed her as his assistant, probably so that he could train her to serve as his replacement if something happened to him before he'd found someone else.

"So I haven't performed as well as you," said Kakashi. Mai shrugged as she pulled out several mission scrolls to study more closely.

"I have better genjutsu than you or Gai," she said, "and better chakra reserves than you to boot, plus some particular gifts. Also, I don't think it's much of an achievement to turn children into unhesitant killers in a short period of time."

"True," agreed Kakashi softly as Mai handed him one of the scrolls. He studied it closely. "Okay… a delivery to and from one of the nearby villages… should take most of the day… looks good."

"I figured it would be," she said. "But take a look at the client."

Kakashi did so.

"Ah… Professor Yana…"

As Team 7 traveled down the road to Sera, Kakashi closely observed his students, even if it seemed like he was completely absorbed in his book.

Their movements were somewhat sluggish, which was especially noticeable with Hinata. Their shoulders were drooped, and their eyes were downcast.

He'd been expecting this, though; it was why he'd wanted a mission like this, to give them a bit of a break; just some simple, easy walking really. They needed time to recover before they could do any real training, and then Kakashi would need to be satisfied with their progress in that area before he'd accept a C-rank mission.

Naruto seemed to be handling it best, which came as little surprise to Kakashi—with the way he'd grown up, Kakashi suspected Naruto might have at least fantasized about killing before, but he wouldn't have been accepted into the Academy if he hadn't managed to get over that, since Yamanaka Ao had been given the task of scanning each potential student's mental state and health before they were allowed in.

Hinata was having the hardest time, which was also not surprising to Kakashi; the girl was the most gentle-natured of them, and her noble upbringing, despite including some rather brutal training in her youth, had been the most sheltered by far. Plus, there were no sympathetic ears at home she could turn to.

Finally, Sakura cut a middle ground between her two teammates, probably because she was able to turn to her mother for comfort. Although Haruno Yuko was a civilian who'd never known combat, her husband had been a high-level ninja, so Yuko did have some familiarity with matters of ninja life. In some respects, that would probably leave Sakura better off than her teammates as time passed, at least for the next few months.

The earliest stages of a ninja's career were always the hardest. The safest, to be sure, but it was difficult to acclimate to this sort of career. Some people were trained to be ninja practically from the day they were born, raised to be acclimated, but Kakashi had pretty consistently found such individuals to never perform quite so well as those who had received the training later on, but most villages didn't practice things that way.

It was one of the many reasons Konoha had always stood at the top—they'd been the first ninja village, and the others that had followed in their wake had done their best to try to find a better way than Konoha's, and never succeeded. These days, the two villages that had begun to emulate Konoha, Kirigakure and Takigakure, were on the rise.

Well, such trivial things were of little concern to Kakashi at this point. His students, while not ready for the greater challenges, had taken their second step into the world of shinobi.

He'd observe them today, and tomorrow… the real training would begin. But there were a few other orders of business to attend to.

Professor Yana was a former Konoha jōnin, having retired after an injury in the Kyūbi attack twelve years ago and instead begun to pursue his interest in feudal history—the period from the time of the Sage of the Six Paths to the founding of the ninja villages.

However, before retirement, Yana had also been the ninja equivalent of a therapist—which was to say someone who, rather than helping you get through mental and emotional issues, assessed your mental and emotional state and decided whether or not to send you to a cleared professional. This policy was enacted on account of how few actual therapists were given the sort of clearance that would allow them to help ninja through the baggage they'd pick up in their careers.

Yana was very good at the task of assessing others, and had been an excellent teacher to several teams of genin who had grown marvelously—in fact, he'd been the jōnin sensei for both Gai and Asuma.

Kakashi didn't know it, but Yana had taken to posting several missions of the sort Team 7 was now on each year; he'd become a sort of judge who assessed rookie genin shortly after their sensei had decided they'd gotten through the first, traumatizing stage of training.

Team 7 arrived in Sera about four hours after leaving Konoha; at full sustained pace, Kakashi could've made it in under an hour, but his students weren't that fast, nor did he want to rush through the mission. Part of the point of it was to do something relatively relaxing, after all.

They arrived at Yana's home, and Kakashi knocked on the door several times, then waited. It was only a minute or two before the door opened, and a tall, large man stood before them, his eyes filled with warmth and his bearing full of an energy that belied his age, even though his hair had gone gray and he was steadily balding.

"Ah, Kakashi," said Yana pleasantly, "come in; I haven't seen you since I retired." Yana glanced past Kakashi. "Ah… are these your students?"

"Yes, they are," said Kakashi, walking inside as Yana stepped out of the way, his students following. "These three performed remarkably in my test; this is Sakura, this is Hinata, and this is Naruto."

"Ah yes; the Hyūga Princess, I've heard much about you," said Yana, looking at Hinata, who blushed slightly and looked down as Yana shifted his attention to Naruto and Sakura. "Naruto and Sakura? You two must be very kind for Kakashi to have accepted you." The two smiled at that, and Kakashi smiled behind his own mask—yes, meeting Yana was definitely good for his students.

"Now, I'm sure you're all very busy with your duties, but please, relax and take it easy," said Yana, leading them to the study. "The return delivery doesn't need to be there that soon. Let me take those boxes off your backs though…"

Two minutes later, Yana was entertaining the kids with stories of his post-retirement years studying the feudal era, while Kakashi was once again off to the side studying them.

He had to admit, Yana was even more impressive than he'd realized—in just three minutes, he seemed to have momentarily alleviated all of the emotional baggage the three had been carrying. For the first time in weeks, they looked almost back to normal.

Deciding to leave them to it, Kakashi pulled out his book… only to have it suddenly snatched out of his hand by Yana, who promptly swatted him on the head with it.

"There will be no reading of such… depravities in my home, Kakashi," said Yana sternly. "And if I catch you reading it in front of your students…"

"Okay, I understand," said Kakashi with a weak chuckle.

It was more than an hour later that Yana finally decided Team 7 should be getting on with their duties, and directed the genin to the packages he needed delivered to Konoha. He took that opportunity to talk to Kakashi in private.

"Remarkable children," he said once the three were out of earshot. "You got all three of them this far in only twenty-two days?" Kakashi quirked an eyebrow at that.

"How did you know?"

"I gleaned it from them," said Yana. "Remember boy, information was always my biggest specialty." Kakashi nodded slightly.

"What do you think of their emotional state?"

"Well now, that is always the most important question," murmured Yana. He seemed to turn it over before looking directly at Kakashi. "Naruto and Sakura are about equally healthy. I'm especially surprised that Naruto has turned out to be so well-adjusted in spite of what he is. Now, both of them have much to learn, and Naruto is quite eager. Sakura needs work in that area. As for Hinata, her state isn't so good; if you want my advice, try to make a family out of this team. Being what he is, Naruto needs one, and as the Hyūga Princess, I don't imagine Hinata really has one. They'll need your experience, and they'll need each other to lean on. Perhaps push to get Naruto and Hinata introduced to Sakura's mother. They will need a great deal of emotional support in the coming months."

Kakashi nodded.

"Thank you for this Professor," he said softly. Yana waved it off.

"No need for that; I'm more than happy to help, especially with children such as these. Two of them have come to you broken, and you have broken them all over again, along with the last. Now, they must be made whole, and there is nothing that warms my heart quite like helping to make someone whole once again."

Kakashi smiled faintly at that.

The next morning, Team 7 had mostly fallen back to their weighted emotional state, though it was immediate obvious that they were doing better. After the routine missions, Kakashi had done something decidedly not routine: laid out a blanket at the training grounds and brought a stack of bentos.

"Um, Kakashi-sensei, what's all this?" asked Sakura uncertainly.

"Well, I thought you should have the opportunity to relax a little," said Kakashi, gesturing for them to sit down. Hinata meekly obeyed, but Naruto and Sakura both continued to eye Kakashi curiously, and he let out a faint sigh. "Alright, alright; the first phase of your training is done. You're hardly ready to be sent out to kill, but I'm now confident you won't hesitate if you have to defend yourselves or others, which is as far as a genin really needs to take it. So now, we're gonna simply enjoy ourselves a bit, and I know that this is a scary concept, but we're gonna talk. Think of it like this: in times of turmoil, you won't have your normal family and friends to turn to, so you'll need your team to be your family. That's what we're gonna do here: become friends and family rather than teammates, students and teachers."

As Kakashi had spoken, Naruto had started to grin more and more, and he seemed just about ready to explode. Fortunately, he instead simply rushed over to sit down on the blanket with Hinata. Shaking her head slightly with a faint smile pulling at her lips, Sakura walked over and joined them. Kakashi set the bentos down before sitting himself.

"It's been three weeks now," said Kakashi. "You've all done remarkably; most students take over a month to be ready. Of course, some of those who are ready sooner are simply more easily broken, or just a bit unhinged on their own and… and I'm really, really bad at this."

"Gee, y'think?"

"Naruto, if you lay the sarcasm on any thicker, it's gonna warp gravity," said Sakura admonishingly.

"Yes, well…" said Kakashi. "Hmm, now what would they do…?"

Kakashi thought about it; what would his friends do in his position?

"Yosh! Release the power of the flames of youth and you can overcome even despair!"

Yes, but only if Gai were being his crazy mask. In the situation where the mask needed to slip…

"It won't get any easier. Trust me, I know."

… not helpful either. What about Mai…?

"Don't worry! I'm an expert at breaking people; in fact, my whole career is based on it! Sure, it's usually physically… in half… but I'm sure I must've learned something about how things are supposed to be put back together!"

… and without the mask?

"It's tough, this life, but you've got to draw strength from the people around you. That may be tough, but it's our bonds that give us real strength. So if it helps, let me give you one more bond…"

Yes… that was good advice.

"It isn't easy," said Kakashi slowly. "You know, I started out when I was less than half your age."

"What? Really?" asked Naruto in surprise. Kakashi nodded slightly.

"I became a ninja when I was only five," he said softly. "Of course, for me, it all seemed so easy—my father had been shamed not too long before and took his own life, so I'd become obsessed with trying to detach myself, trying to the be the 'ideal ninja'." Kakashi barely suppressed a snort. "Even with all that, it was difficult to desensitize myself to the harder parts of this life. Kiri used to pit its graduates against one another in battles to the death, the most brutal graduation ever practiced by a ninja village, and even they would often still need time before they were ready. During times of war, it's a lot worse than what you've gone through."

Kakashi paused for a moment, staring at the Hokage Monument.

"But…" he continued, "look at your homes. Look around the village. The children, the regular villagers… just take a look at how bright and cheerful they can be, and know that what you subject yourself to helps keep it that way. Make that the solid foundation of your duty, of your resolve, and make your bonds with others the ladder that lets you climb out of the pit of despair. There are some people I'd like to introduce you to eventually, but for now, we'll settle for bonding with one another. Today, we relax. Tomorrow, the real training begins."

When Kakashi went in to pick up some new missions early the next morning, he discovered Team Gai apparently turning in a successful C-rank mission, though the look on Mai's face—she was always handling this duty alone without even the Hokage to help at this hour—suggested something had gone wrong.

"You should've returned immediately and informed us that the client lied," said Mai sternly. "Honestly, the only reason I'm not going to have the Hokage send a massive extra charge is because the bounty on Momochi more than makes up for it."

"Momochi?" muttered Kakashi, drawing everyone's attention. "You fought Momochi Zabuza?"

"Not that I'm aware of," said Gai. "I recall killing Momochi Zabuza, and killing his apprentice. I do not, however, recall fighting either of them."

"That's because they barely had time to blink before you broke every bone in their bodies," muttered the girl with her hair in twin buns—Tenten, if Kakashi recalled right. The other two students, Hinata's cousin Hyūga Neji and an orphan named Lee, who was looking more like a clone of Gai every day, nodded in agreement, Lee's eyes sparkling with excitement.

"They tried to put a fight?" questioned Gai, sounding genuinely surprised. The Hokage's Assistant growled in irritation.

"Not the point!" said Mai. "The point is that you shouldn't have continued on the mission with genin as your only support! Or if you wanted to show your students what an open fight between high-class ninja looks like in preparation for the exams, you could've simply asked me! I'd have been happy to beat the ever-living crap out of you to show it off to them!"

Mai huffed, finally pulling out some ryo.

"Here's your pay. You are all off for the rest of the day; train, relax, sleep, go on a date, I don't care, but you have no more missions today, understood?"

"Yosh, I understand Joshu-sama," said Gai. The kunoichi growled in annoyance, and Gai quickly pulled his students out of there. Kakashi chuckled slightly.

"Is that concern or envy?" he asked now that they were alone.

"Both," admitted Mai. "Concern for his students, envy for him getting out there. I haven't even gotten to do village chores since I sent my team off to the exams, and I haven't been on a real mission in over a year."

"To be entirely fair, that's mostly because you were taking care of them so fast that we ran out of available missions."

Mai groaned.

"That was a bad joke, Kakashi," she said, "… even if there's a grain of truth to it. Sometimes, I think cultivating the reputation I did has made it too easy to handle other missions. I want a challenge again so that I can stay sharp—maybe something impossible, like convince Tsunade-sama to come home." She shook her head. "Sorry, I shouldn't be bothering you with that. Anyways, what sorts of missions would you like for today?"

"Nothing too exhausting," said Kakashi. "Today we start on the physical training."

"Is it just me, or were the chores a little different today?" asked Naruto when they arrived at the training grounds to meet Kakashi, who had abandoned them halfway through to who knows where.

"Yeah, they were," agreed Sakura softly, her tone drawing Naruto's attention. The blond frowned slightly.

He knew what was wrong with her and Hinata of course; after all, it wasn't like he was over the training they'd faced up to now himself.

He'd always envisioned ninja as warriors and heroes, always seeing them through a filtered lens that projected them more like samurai than what they actually were. He knew that it was through that lens that most everyone saw the ninja, or at least pretty much everyone in his age group or lower.

Being smacked upside the head with reality was not easy on any of them, but Naruto had spent his life forcing himself to be bright and cheerful—while he was still struggling internally, the last few days had helped him to cope, and he could at least feign being entirely okay well enough to fool most, though he was sure Kakashi saw right through him.

And Naruto needed that—he needed to be happy, because that was part of how he coped. He couldn't change his lot in life by being depressed and mopey all the time, he'd learned that years ago, so he brightened himself up by thinking of his hopes, dreams, his heroes and how he could become a hero himself.

But neither of the girls had that; Sakura's life had been easy, but she had her mother, something Naruto envied a little. Hinata, however, had also had a hard life. Naruto knew enough about the Hyūga stuffiness to be certain that she hadn't really had it easy either, and that her parents probably weren't that close.

Their condition showed in how much he heard their voices as well; Hinata had always been quiet, especially around him, but she hardly ever spoke a word these days. Sakura, normally very vocal like Naruto himself, was generally quiet, withdrawn, and when he did hear her speak, her tone was always very soft, as though she were only half there.

Shaking his head, Naruto turned his brightest smile on the girls.

"Hey, cheer up you two!" he said. "You're never gonna accomplish anything moping like that constantly! Kakashi-sensei said we've finished that part of our training, so now maybe we can do something a little less horrible."

"That's exactly right," said Kakashi, suddenly appearing and putting a hand on Naruto's shoulder.

"Gah!" Still not used to the suddenness of his sensei's appearances, Naruto jumped slightly, rushing out from under Kakashi and back over to his teammates. The jōnin smiled beneath his mask.

"You're conditioning is done for now," said Kakashi, pulling out three kunai. "So we're now going to look into improving your skill set. We'll start with a chakra control exercise with which you may already be familiar, but I'm gonna review it with you anyways."

"What exercise?" asked Sakura curiously.

"Tree climbing… without your hands," said Kakashi simply.

"Huh? How do we do that?" questioned Sakura, caught off-guard by the statement. Hinata looked only a little surprised, while Naruto shook his head slightly, his body language conveying a complete lack of surprise.

"It's actually quite simple," said Kakashi. "In fact, I imagine you'll all be able to grasp it immediately—assuming you aren't already familiar with it." Kakashi turned and walked over to a tree, then put his foot against it, gathering chakra in that foot before lifting his other foot off the ground and proceeding to walk up the tree.

He glanced back at his students to see Sakura's surprised look, but Hinata was unfazed and Naruto looked thoroughly unimpressed. Kakashi continued up the tree, then began walking upside down on a sturdy branch.

"This is a simple chakra control exercise," said Kakashi. "You gather chakra in your feet and use it to effectively glue your foot to the tree. Use too little, you won't stick properly, use too much and you'll probably launch yourself off the tree. Of course, you still have to obey physical and biological laws—for instance, don't hang upside down like I'm doing now for very long or the blood rushing to your head will become a problem. Also, just because I can stick to a branch doesn't mean that branch can hold my added weight. Understand?"

"Yes sensei," said Sakura, finally beginning to sound confident. Kakashi smiled, threw the kunai at the ground a few feet in front of each of his students, and then allowed himself to drop, flipping over to land on his feet and channeling chakra to his legs for use absorbing the impact of his landing.

"I'll eventually teach you to use your chakra for things like landing from great heights unharmed," said Kakashi, "but for now, just pick a tall tree and try to walk to the top, using the kunai to mark your progress. If you think it'll help, go ahead and try to do it with a running start."

Twirling the kunai thrown to him slightly, Naruto shrugged, then caught both girls by surprise when he walked up to one tree and simply started walking up it at a calm, sedate pace.

"You've gotta be kidding me," muttered Sakura. Glancing back, Naruto shrugged slightly.

"I did a lot of exercises like this while I was in the Academy," said Naruto. "Thought it might help me with the Bunshin, but no, I've still got too much chakra to handle it."

"Now girls, stop gawking," said Kakashi. "It's your turn now, so get to work."

Hinata was the first to move, picking up the kunai thrown to her and walking up a tree at a steady pace, leaving Sakura stumped.

She'd always thought of herself as smart and one of the best in class, receiving praise from the teachers for her scores. But she was this far behind both of her teammates?

With a glint of determination in her eyes, Sakura grabbed the last kunai, took a moment centering herself and gathering chakra, then went running at another tree.

She nearly lost her concentration when she waltzed up it without difficulty.

On the ground, Kakashi chuckled as he looked up at his students standing horizontally on the trees.

"Well, can't say I'm surprised," he said, "after all, the three of you have the best chakra control in the class. Alright then, you've already passed your first assignment of the day, so here's the second: I want you all to walk up and down the trees you're on for a full half hour. If you start to feel exhausted, take a five minute break, but for every five minutes you rest, I'll want you to walk for another ten minutes… and if one of you is taking a break, I want all of you to rest. The objective of this exercise is to improve both your physical and spiritual stamina, and your chakra reserves with them, while also steadily improving your control. Now, I know you've already done this before Naruto—do it again anyways. This is a team exercise. Now get to work."

They were at it for the rest of the day, as Sakura and Hinata found themselves needing to rest more and more frequently as the day wore on and only Naruto never being the one to call for a break.

That was actually true to Kakashi's expectations—while five minutes of rest to more than ten minutes of walking wouldn't have been a problem, walking up and down trees as they were made it significantly more difficult, and the time they needed to go for just gradually built up. It was the start to a new routine; while they did manage to achieve the "time objective" as early as the next day, it wouldn't be until the fourth day of the tree climbing training that they made it through without any break.

Actually, Kakashi had to admit that he was impressed by that.

Of course, Kakashi had then upped the ante some by having them practice water walking. This one had actually given Sakura and Hinata a bit of difficulty, with Naruto plowing through it no problem.

That said, it was a week before they wrapped up the water walking training, during which the true objective of this period of training was achieved, and Kakashi moved on to proper combat training.

It was only a few days later that Team 7 stood in the mission assignment room for the first time. It was late in the morning, so the room was fully staffed with the Hokage sitting at the center of the table with Mai standing dutifully by his side. She shared a tiny, almost imperceptible nod with Kakashi when he led his students in, something only Hiruzen himself noticed.

"Hokage-sama," said Kakashi with a slight nod. Behind him, Naruto grinned broadly at the sight of the Hokage, and perhaps it was a little infectious, since both girls had small smiles of their own.

"Kakashi," replied Hiruzen with a small nod. "This is a first; you usually pick up your missions before I get in."

"We were wrapping up a few exercises," said Kakashi with a tiny shrug. "Besides… I think they're ready."

Pretty much the entire room grew quiet at that, the chūnin working the desks all looking at Kakashi like he was nuts, and even Hiruzen caught slightly off-guard. But Mai, who'd been paying closer attention to the progress of the graduate teams, was unfazed and reached forward to pick up a few scrolls.

"I'd been wondering when you were finally going to ask," she said lightly, glancing at the scrolls and then handing them to Hiruzen, who was quick to recover from his shock. "Hokage-sama, I've been looking over missions that might be appropriate; I think these are the ones that will best meet the parameters."

"Not even six weeks," said Hiruzen with a barely detectable note of disbelief in his voice as he looked at each of the C-rank mission scrolls. "Kakashi, I am impressed." The masked jōnin shrugged.

"My students learn quickly," he said lightly, "though of course, there's no better test than a live one."

"Yes…" said Hiruzen, pausing on one particular scroll, eyes widening ever so slightly. "Hmm…" He glanced at Mai, the flicker of a question in his eyes. She responded by looking at the scroll and nodding slightly. Hiruzen returned his attention to Kakashi. "Well, we have several potential missions; how does a hunt sound Kakashi?"

At least one chūnin started choking at that.

"A hunt?" questioned Kakashi lightly, though his eye narrowed the slightest bit at Mai. "I suppose that depends on the details, like the prey and whether or not it's for sport."

Hiruzen chuckled.

"It seems there may be a bandit camp out somewhere near Sera," he said, "which has been conducting small raids on merchants. It's well outside of Konoha's usual security zone, and they've evaded Sera's own guards. The objective is to locate the bandit camp and determine the threat level; if you can manage it, take out the camp, killing or capturing all of the bandits—not a single one must escape. If you assess it as too much for your team to handle, which is exceedingly unlikely, return here with the camp location, and we'll determine what to do from there. Sound fair?"

To their credit, none of the genin had shown any heavy reaction to the possibility of having to kill; Kakashi considered that as he turned over the mission parameters before nodding and stepping forward.

"It sounds like a good choice for cutting our teeth on," he said, accepting the scroll from Hiruzen, "we'll attend to this and see what happens." He turned back to his students. "Get together everything you'll need to travel and for combat; this should only take us a few days, but pack for a week anyways, but pack light. We'll meet at the main gate in two hours. Understood?"

"Yes sir," said all three in unison, again catching most in the room off-guard as Kakashi dismissed the three of them before glancing back at Mai, pointedly staring into her eyes. Her eyes shifted, turning from green-blue to red with three black mitsu tomoe around her pupil.

"I've kept a close eye on things Kakashi," said Mai, using her Sharingan to put a mild genjutsu on Kakashi and make him hear an illusory voice. "I'm sure they can handle it; besides, it's an appropriate mission—they can apply their skills in the search, they don't have to kill but if they do, the actual danger to them shouldn't be anything you can't handle."

Kakashi nodded just slightly to show his acknowledgement and as a show of trust before turning and leaving himself.

Author's Notes: I hope everyone enjoyed that; I struggled with this chapter all over due to the fact that I couldn't even use canon as a vague guideline; on some level, that makes this story a significant learning experience for me if I want to write original fiction (admittedly, with original fiction, I can write a lot more freely).

Anyways, yes, I skipped the Wave Arc and removed Zabuza and Haku from this story altogether and reduce them to a throwaway gag about Gai's crazy mask persona.

The rest of this was training and desensitizing the kids, and looking at their emotional state. In some respects, I want this story to really get into each of the four main characters, and it really looks at the ninja villages as ninja villages; that means it's going to get very dark at times and yes, it means that our adorable main cast will find themselves having to do some downright vile things like assassinating innocents, and that assassination will take all forms, from the Naruto-verse equivalent of a sniper round to simple poison.

As I said in the A/Ns of the last chapter, the characters will be actual ninja, and so you shouldn't expect a great deal of open combat, which might be another thing that makes this tough, because fight scenes are easy for me.

Anyways, I can't really think of anything more to say, other than to apologize again for taking so long and for how prominent Mai became in this chapter interacting with Kakashi; future chapters probably won't show them getting or turning in missions, so Mai probably won't really show again until Kakashi decides to introduce his team to her and Gai.

Which I want you all to remind me to kick myself if that ends up being next chapter. :P

Please leave a review; after more than a year away from it, I'd like to know that people still hope to see more of this story and that they find what I've written enjoyable. Hope to see you all soon.

Ja ne!