Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto (either the story or the character) or any of its component parts or associated bits of intellectual property. I do think it's pretty cool, and enjoy examining it through the looking glass of "What If". The originator, Masashi Kishimoto, is a creative guy and deserves credit for his work.

"All three of you…PASS!"

"What!" Sakura and Naruto shouted. Even Sasuke's impassive mask had cracked, although he didn't say anything out loud.

"You are the first," Kakashi told them. "Every other team I tested would just do as they were told, even when it harmed their teammates and the team itself. I told you that this test is designed to set you against each other, and that the point is to see if you overcome the circumstances and pull together as a group…even after having the answer explained to them, most teams get it wrong. In the ninja world, many say that those who break the rules are trash…but I say that people who don't look out for their teammates are worse."

Naruto's opinion of his sensei improved dramatically in a few seconds. This may have been more because of the good news than any objective assessment, but the spirit of Kakashi's comments agreed with his own way of thinking enough that it was almost instantly incorporated into his own beliefs.

"Of course, the test is also meant to let me see your stealth and combat abilities firsthand, but the most important part is teamwork. It's been said that any given team is only as strong as its weakest member, but that's not exactly right. It is more accurate to say that the strength of a team is determined by their ability to cooperate rather than by individual talents and skills. Now, before I let you go for the day, we'll be discussing the most basic responsibility that ninjas have, so listen up."

The three were still riding their emotional high, but managed to give something vaguely resembling their full attention.

"Now that you are officially genin of the village, the first thing to do is to clarify your duties in the event the village comes under a surprise attack," Kakashi began, striking a more serious tone. "Every ninja of any rank has an assigned post and place in the command structure in case that happens. If you are training with me at the time, I'll give you orders, but you could also be asleep at home, out grocery shopping, or anywhere else in the village. If you're near other ninjas, report in to the closest chuunin or jounin. In an emergency situation, getting help quickly is often the most important thing. So if you see team eight's sensei down the street, for example, go to her immediately, report any relevant information you have, and she'll give you orders. If you don't see a command-level ninja, report to the closest rally point-you'll need to memorize where they all are. I'll give you a list at the end of this discussion."

"The first priority, if an attack occurs, is to ensure that the alarm is sounded. We have people on the walls and there are patrols around the perimeter, but any security can be bypassed. No wall is indestructible or impenetrable. If Sasuke and I are near the wall and there's a small breach, it's possible no one else will see it. In that case, I would likely order Sasuke to immediately proceed to the closest alarm station and report in to spread the word as fast as possible. Hesitating in a situation like that can cost lives, so you have to obey quickly."

"If you're on your own, with no one senior around, the same basic rules apply. Get a warning out. Do not try to stop an attack all by yourself. If you see a way to slow the enemy down, or make them hesitate, then you have to weigh the chance of success against the risk of being spotted. But above all, warn the village. ANBU and others are ready for an attack at a moment's notice, but they can't act until they find out it's time. Telling them ten seconds sooner, or even one, could save many lives."

"If the enemy corners you, it may be difficult to get free and spread word. In that case, setting off an explosive tag may be the best choice. That will draw attention. If the enemy hasn't spotted you, attention is bad, but if they already know you're there, there's no downside, and it could bring reinforcements quickly."

"The last part of these orders is the most difficult one of all. As ninja, you are expected to be more than a simple tool. You must also think and analyze. You must use your own judgment and abilities, and if it is appropriate you should ignore general orders to deal with a specific situation. You may have to do this if you have information a superior does not. In combat, there is not always time to explain things and ask for help, or orders, so you may end up on your own. Can any of you give me an example of when you might need to do this?" He looked at his students for a moment. "Sakura?"

Sakura thought for a moment before responding. "Well…if we are alone and we see enemy ninjas on the way out of the village instead of the way in, and there is no alarm, we probably shouldn't make noise. Because then they'll know that we saw them. If it's too late to stop them already, then we should probably spot their trail instead, and either follow it or report in quietly, so they can be tracked down later. If any of them drops something, we could pick it up to use for scent-tracking once they move on."

"An excellent example, Sakura," Kakashi said approvingly. "Remember, to ninjas information is often the most valuable commodity. It would be much better for our forces to be able to track escaping enemies, and if they know they've been detected they may obscure their trail more thoroughly, or kill you - or both."

"Sasuke, what about you?" Kakashi asked his next pupil. "Can you think of another time when it might be best not to report an enemy intrusion or attack?"

"If the enemy were taking captives, and thought one of us was a civilian, then it might be wise for us to play along," Sasuke answered. "Against numerous experienced enemies, we would likely die, while a captive can obtain information or freedom with time. In the event of a counter-attack, we might also be well-placed to disrupt the enemy from behind their lines, creating an opening for other allies ninjas to exploit."

"Good," said Kakashi, "although it is unlikely any of you could fool an enemy of chuunin level or above into thinking you a total civilian. Your training shows in the way you move and observe. In time, you will learn to hide those cues, especially if you show talent for undercover or infiltration missions." He turned to his last student. "What about you, Naruto? Can you think of another occasion when reporting in might not be the highest priority?"

"Of course, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto responded enthusiastically. "I know it's important for ninjas to do our duty, but if an attack is obvious, then our report won't be needed. In that case, we should protect the people who live here, not waste time! After all, that's why we're learning in the first place."

From there, the discussion covered a variety of other points concerning what would be expected of fresh genin. None were nearly as interesting as the prospect of fending off a surprise attack by enemy ninjas, and Kakashi could feel the interest of his three pupils waning. In fairness, they were likely quite tired and hungry at this point, so he soon wrapped up and let them go.

"Meet me here at the same time tomorrow. You are allowed to eat breakfast, and I won't keep you waiting so long this time," he said, dismissing them. "You're all truly ninja now, which means you'll be facing growing responsibilities, but for tonight you can celebrate."

The three teammates spent their nights in different ways. Sakura was wildly enthusiastic, and celebrated with her family. Her parents had some second thoughts about their daughter's career now that it was more of a present concern and less of a future possibility, but silenced their worries to avoid spoiling her night, instead telling her of their genuine pride. While neither of Sakura's parents were ninja, she was not the first in the family tree, and her grandmother told the story of how she met her now-deceased husband, a then-young ninja of the Leaf whose squad was employed by her own father, a merchant. Sakura was quite pleased when the woman said that she thought her husband would be proud to have her following in his footsteps.

Naruto had similar feelings, but celebrated with ramen, as anyone who knew even a little about him might have expected. He was aided and abetted by Umino Iruka, who was relieved that his former students (and especially Naruto) had passed Hatake Kakashi's test, and paid for the meal.

Uchiha Sasuke went back to his apartment, cooked simply and ate a quiet dinner alone. He wasn't precisely happy, but he did feel satisfaction after overcoming a hurdle that stood between him and his goals. After dinner, he felt an impulse and looked toward his bed, his thoughts turning – as they often did – to the box in a concealed compartment underneath. He delayed himself for over an hour by studying declassified versions of after-action reports from missions, but soon gave in, retrieving the box from under his bed and opening it to remove a single photograph.

It was unique, in that he no longer had any other pictures of the subject. He stared at the young face which looked much like his own, until he finally whispered, "I'm one step closer, brother. I'm coming." An outside observer would have found it difficult to guess if he even knew he spoke. Unraveling the emotions behind the words would be more difficult still.

It was long minutes later that he returned the photo to its accustomed place, and hours before he slept.

The next day, Naruto's sense of excitement was an early casualty of his first mission. It didn't even last through the mercifully-short briefing. After pointing out that the mission, if it was so easy, shouldn't take long, Kakashi managed to get his team moving with minimal scolding. Soon, the trio had successfully caught Tora, one of the pets belonging to Madam Shijimi, wife of the feudal lord of the Fire Country.

The woman often seemed to be missing one or another of her many pet animals. The Hokage had long since determined that this was a part of the persona she wore. Among other things, it gave her an excuse to interact with the new genin teams who were invariably sent to retrieve her pets, if only briefly. Most kages did not die peacefully, and while Sarutobi Hiruzen's age was a sign of his skill in combat, he considered the woman before him an excellent example of political acuity and strove to stay at her level at times, despite his many years of experience.

The way she smothered her pet, the carelessness with which she paid the accountant sitting next to him…every action she took reinforced the appearance that she was an unintelligent but affectionate woman, and Sarutobi suspected that of those in the room, only Kakashi and himself noticed her eyes marking the three young genin and lingering a second longer on both Naruto and Sasuke than their female comrade.

The woman was not only intelligent but clever enough to conceal the fact effectively, even from many ninja. She was known as a social butterfly and for being fond of her sake, though not to a scandalous extent. Sarutobi had noticed, over the years, that while she was merry on many occasions she rarely seemed truly drunk even when those around her were…and those in her company often found her a ready, willing and discrete confidant. He sometimes wondered if more of the country's political and economic challenges were dealt with unofficially at her parties and social engagements than in the room where the fire lord received his guests and petitioners.

Keeping his thoughts to himself, he exchanged the customary courtesies with her before she departed, then turned back to Kakashi and his genin. The jounin had kept Naruto quiet to avoid a scene while a guest was present, but the boy refused to be silenced any longer.

"That was ridiculous! We're ninjas, anyone can catch a cat! You've gotta give us a better mission this time!" The yellow-haired boy shouted.

"Naruto, I've already explained how missions are divided among ninja twice…you know these aren't just simple errands, they're also about building teamwork and other things-" Kakashi began, a note of fatigued tolerance in his voice.

"Oh come on!" Naruto interrupted. "What can we possibly learn from catching a cat?"

The Hokage cleared his throat, and the two were instantly silent as they turned toward him. "A good question, Naruto. Answer it."

"…What?" the boy asked in confusion.

"If you are to be a ninja, you must see underneath the underneath. What can you and your teammates learn from catching a runaway cat?"

The boy's face grew more serious, as he began to analyze the matter despite himself. His irritation at the mission and eagerness to be doing more interesting things came up against his desire to avoid looking stupid and his respect for the Hokage (who was a pretty nice guy in Naruto's estimation, even if he was an old geezer).

"Well…I guess we have to practice stealth, to sneak up on it. And we had to avoid hurting it, which adds to the challenge…"

"I want all three of you to answer something for me," The Hokage said, addressing the genin. "You all thought the capture was easy, I imagine…but was it as easy as you would expect?"

"No," Sasuke answered after a moment's deliberation. "While the task was accomplished quickly, the cat seemed surprisingly adept at sensing our approach."

"In fact," Sakura followed up on his answer, "I think it would have taken a lot longer for any one of us to catch it alone, even Sasuke, which is weird. I mean, it's just a cat, but we only grabbed it so soon by coordinating our movements."

"Good reasoning," the Hokage complimented them. "As it happens, that particular cat has run away multiple times in the past, and been brought back by other genin teams. Over time, it has become more difficult, as its senses are now better at detecting ninja. Now, let us return briefly to my first question. In the last few moments, this mission has allowed you all to practice your analysis skills, which are vital for a ninja. And while in progress, it forced you to create a plan while in motion and coordinate your movements, as you said. Before this discussion, had any of you thought about these lessons?"

They all shook their heads. Iruka smiled in fondness, but also noted how easily the Hokage – sometimes called "The Professor" for his knowledge of techniques and ability to teach – took up the role of teacher and guided the thinking of three young people. This, he often suspected, was one of the reasons the village's leader oversaw handing out missions to new genin. He certainly could have had someone else do it if he wished. The chuunin also reflected that he would have to be careful; he had almost said something when Naruto interrupted Kakashi, but doing so would be inappropriate, since he was no longer the boy's teacher.

"In the future," the Hokage continued, "I expect each of you to spend some time thinking about what you have learned from each mission. We don't train you because it amuses us. We do it so that, when the harder missions come, you will survive. What you three learned about planning and collaborating in a hurry could easily save your lives if you come under attack."

They were sufficiently chastened and thoughtful after that discussion that even Naruto didn't complain when they received their next mission assignment to help a farming family that was temporarily short a few hands. He complained later, of course, but by then they were already halfway done. Kakashi was thankful for the reprieve, and thoughts of what the missions ahead would be like nearly drove him to despair for a moment when Sakura also voiced some dissatisfaction. He was grateful for Sasuke's quiet nature, since it meant that at least all three of his students were not complaining at the same time.


Kakashi's notes: Team 7 preliminary assessment

Uchiha Sasuke shows all the signs of becoming a ninjutsu specialist with significant taijutsu capability. He already knows one of his elemental affinities (the clan as a whole has historically been adept at fire techniques, so it is likely his primary one). This should make him the easiest for me to train overall, since his strengths are mostly the same as mine. If he awakens his bloodline limit, our styles will likely grow even more similar. I will have to ensure he does not overestimate its capabilities or remain ignorant of its weaknesses. He may also be prepared to discover a secondary elemental affinity fairly soon, since he seems to have a good grasp of fire techniques already. I need to drive home that variety is key for a ninjutsu specialist.

Uzumaki Naruto has extremely high chakra reserves, as expected, and displays talent with the shadow clone technique. He also has an ability to devise relatively simple, but effective tactical deceptions on the fly, particularly by combining shadow clones with the basic transformation and substitution techniques. Needs some help with his basics, particularly taijutsu form and chakra molding and use. Beyond that, the main challenge will be teaching him to exploit his chakra reserves effectively without relying too much on them. Instruction at the academy may have been sub-par at times, so further evaluation is warranted before settling on a long-term training plan.

Haruno Sakura has an excellent analytical mind, better at depth if a bit slower to develop tactics in the heat of the moment. Her chakra molding and control are superbly efficient and precise. She may need help ensuring she has a sufficiently broad store of techniques, so it could be prudent to work on discovering her elemental affinity as soon as possible. This is particularly true in light of the fact that she is not part of a clan, and so does not have family techniques to learn. Fine control is an asset for anyone, but can be especially key for genjutsu users. This could mesh favorably with her less blunt approach and aptitude for setting traps. In the short term, could also help her teammates practice recognizing and breaking genjutsu, even if she does not end up specializing in that field. Also, genjutsu specialists are uncommon enough that fewer ninjas have experience facing them. Still, I may have to wait a bit before trying that out; genjutsu are extremely difficult to manage.

Note: There seem to be some emotional ties between the trio, but I doubt they will cause significant problems. As long as these feelings are channeled properly they should not interfere with training. If anything, they may help motivate all three students.

Note to Readers (on continuity and the relationship to canon)

This is basically an alternate universe, though there is no single point of divergence from canon. The main plot will diverge in pretty significant ways, even drastically once I get far enough in. People may survive who didn't, or die at different times, and even major plot elements (such as what the villains are after) may be changed in some ways. With that said, most of the backstory is the same, at least in broad strokes. The attack of the Nine-tails and the Uchiha Massacre still took place, and Orochimaru's origins are unchanged, for example. I'll get to all the differences at some point down the line, and they should be explained clearly in-story, with one exception: in this universe, the younger characters are all a bit older when they graduate from the academy. This is partly because I think they'd mostly get slaughtered if they left they academy as young as they did in canon, and partly because I wanted them to start out a bit more mentally and emotionally mature. Assume they're two or three years older; not a lot, but those particular years can make a big difference.

Basically, I'm saying that the history textbooks of this alternate universe would be mostly the same as those of Naruto canon. The public versions of events are mostly unchanged. As we all know, however, the public version is often different from what actually happened.

The first major difference you're likely to notice is that Konoha will make an effort to train its genin.

As far as the starting point I chose, I basically picked it because everything before it is roughly the same, as I said. Any relevant changes will be addressed, but I didn't want to waste my time (or yours) retelling a very similar piece of the story (such as Naruto's encounter with Mizuki, or meeting Konohamaru). And as far as romantic relationships- they are not the main focus of the story, but may develop over time, since relationships of different kinds largely define characters. You'll have to be patient if you want to find out.

Other than that, I hope you enjoy the show. I'm mixing serious, funny, and action, stirring gently and seasoning to taste. We'll see about the results.