Author's Note: Hello all! Welcome to something that has been on my mind for a while. I just wanted to write it down so it would stop rattling around in my brain.
I'm not sure if this is something I'll be continuing immediately. I'm currently working on my other story that I want to eventually finish called A Bet of a Lifetime (check it out if you haven't). So, let me know if this is something you'd be interested in seeing continued. Even though I want to focus on ABoaL, if the for this support is overwhelming I might be forced to give it some attention.
Thanks for checking out the story! Feel free to leave a review or PM me!
Chapter 1: Favors Bind the Soul
The three of them were just waiting there… sitting. Well, actually, that wasn't correct. Sakura and Sasuke were standing, while Naruto was seated. Not of his own free will, though. Hunger had gotten the best of him. So much so that the blond tried to sneak one a bento boxes his new Sensei had teased them with. It was a ploy Kakakahi had used before the beginning of their Genin test. The ropes that bound him to the wooden stump told you all that you needed to know.
He had been caught in the act.
Anyway, back to the matter of hand. This wasn't Naruto's fault! Or, at least, that was what he told himself to make it sting a little less. Blaming his anger and frustrations on others helped him feel better. For example, all of the nasty stares and harsh words thrown his way. He had done nothing to deserve any of that. Those villagers, and even a lot of shinobi, it was their fault! They had treated him like he didn't exist for as long as he could remember. Even as a toddler. That's why he pulled his pranks to get back at them. Well, that wasn't entirely true. It was also pretty fun.
Okay, we're getting seriously off-track here. For real this time.
That masked guy. What was his name? Kakashi? Yeah, that guy! Surprisingly, he didn't seem to hate Naruto. Though, the members of Team 7 seemed to annoy him. After all, he had nearly failed the lot of them. Not because they were weak, but because they lacked what the scarecrow deemed the most crucial aspect of being a shinobi.
If Naruto was honest with himself, he agreed with everything that the Jonin had said to them. How would they operate as a three-man cell when they refused to work together? He was pretty dumb, and even he could see that. Yet, at the same time, it was much more complicated than that. He and Sasuke didn't get along at all. Not in the slightest. Not even a little bit. No chance in hell.
I think you get the point, right?
Then there was Sakura. All she did was follow around the Uchiha like a kicked, but still loyal, puppy. It frustrated him to no end! I mean, she's so beautiful and smart! Why did a girl like that have to idolize someone like Sasuke? The guy has about as much personality as a piece of wet cardboard. Ninety-percent of the time, he responds to people with sounds. Yes, sounds! Whether it be a grunt or a 'hn.' God, how Naruto despised the 'hn.' It was so demeaning.
If you combine Sakura and Sasuke, they almost created an actual human being. An insufferable one, but a human, nonetheless.
They all had a part to play in their failings. However, there was a silver lining. Their Sensei had given the three of them another chance. Hell, he even gifted them the answer to the bell test on a silver platter. If they worked together effectively to retrieve the bells, they could pass. All they needed was teamwork.
So, the silver-haired Jonin had gone off somewhere, leaving the team to their own devices. If the blond had to guess, it was to allow them to coordinate as a team. Something that they had yet to do.
And that leads us to the current state of affairs.
The loud rumblings of Naruto's stomach backed that up. Since he had been caught by Kakashi, he would have to sit tied to the stump while he watched his two new teammates eat. And boy, did their food look delicious. Well, that wasn't really a fair assessment. The blond was so hungry that nearly any food sounded appealing.
"Here." Sasuke was the first to break the silence. He was holding out his arms, his prized lunch delicately cradled in his hands like a valuable gem.
Naruto blinked, unsure of what to make of the Uchiha's gesture. Sure, the raven-haired boy presented the food to Naruto, but that couldn't possibly mean he was going to give him some. Right?
"Sasuke, what are you doing?" Sakura asked. She had already started eating her lunch. "Kakashi-sensei told us that we can't give him any food. Do you want us to fail?" It was rare to see her disagree with anything her crush said, but she had always been a by-the-book type of student. She followed directions and instructions to a T. A perfectionist, if you will.
"Huh?" The orange-clad Uzumaki asked dumbly. "The hell are you talking about?" That came off a bit ruder than he intended. That was only because he was wary that it could be a mean joke. Not that Sasuke was much of a jokester, but Naruto could certainly see him being cruel.
Sasuke's eye twitched in annoyance. "I'm saying you can have some of my lunch, you idiot!" A part of him wanted to rescind his offer. "You're not going to be at full strength if you don't eat anything. If you slack you'll bring the whole team down, loser."
Naruto's eyes widened. A feeling of elation filled his being. He was just so hungry. His nose picked up the succulent aroma of food, causing his mouth to water slightly. Yet, at the same time, something didn't feel right. Yeah, that was it, his mind was being influenced by his stomach. Could he really accept something from the Uchiha?
"I don't need anything from you." The blond stated.
Sasuke's eyebrow rose at the statement. "What are you talking about?"
"Yeah… I second that." Sakura added in, confusion evident on her face. "What do you mean, Naruto? Don't you want to become a Genin?"
Naruto grit his teeth. All the memories he had of Sasuke; they were all unpleasant. Whether it be the condescending glare directed at him or the explicit disrespectful comments tossed his way. Sasuke always acted like he was superior, especially to the blond.
The famed Uchiha prodigy. Everything came easy to him. Academics, Taijutsu, Ninjutsu, and even girls. On the flip side, Naruto had nothing going for him. No talent, no future, no admiration. With all of the effort he put in to better himself when Sasuke walked around with an air of superiority, it just rubbed him the wrong way.
And now, he expected Naruto to believe that this simple gesture came without strings attached to it? Yeah, right. That seemed impossible for someone like the Uchiha boy. Sometime in the future, somewhere down the road, he was going to bring it back up just to spite his teammate.
He wouldn't allow himself to fall into that trap.
"We'll be fine without it." The Uzumaki finally said. "You guys eat, don't worry about me. I'll make sure to pull my own weight."
Sakura was about to say something, but after seeing her teammates' faces, she decided to just be an observer. This appeared to be something that was solely between the two of them.
"Are you a complete moron?" The prodigy said with a sneer. "Kakashi is a Jonin, an elite ninja. If we want to have a chance, all of us need to be one-hundred-percent. Stop being a loser and take the damn food!"
"There you go again…" The host of the Nine-Tails muttered under his breath.
"What?!" Tensions were starting to flair.
"You always look down on me like I'm some sort of failure!" The blond finally yelled. "No matter what I try to do, no matter how hard I try to do it, it'll never be good enough for you. Even now, after Kakashi told you that you shouldn't view your comrades as beneath you, you still do it!" His face was red as he struggled against the tension from the ropes wrapped around his midsection. "I don't need your approval, but I won't sit here and let you treat me like a second-rate ninja."
Sasuke was dumbfounded. How could the idiot misconstrue his actions? "I'm trying to do something nice for you. Something that will benefit not only me but you and Sakura. What the hell is your problem?!"
"That's rich." The blond said sarcastically. "Only Sasuke Uchiha could take an act of 'kindness' and make it feel humiliating. You can tell what a person really thinks by their eyes. I get a lot of dirty looks, so I can understand what you're feeling right now."
Sasuke's eyes widened.
"I know that you still don't respect me. And after this is all over, you'll be looking for the next time to put me down. Because that's what Sasuke Uchiha does."
Naruto had no idea what had just come over him. As awful as it was to say, he felt liberated. This had been something that had weighed heavily on his mind for a long time. He knew that, just like him, Sasuke understood what it meant to be lonely. Again, he could understand the boy through his eyes. They were similar eyes to when he saw his own reflection in the mirror.
And yet, despite their similarities, they went about life in entirely different ways. Whether he realized it or not, Sasuke walked around with the mindset that everyone was beneath him. The only thing Naruto wanted to have was the approval of the people around him. That's why Sasuke got him so riled up. The genius pushed people away, and they still want to make bonds with him, while Naruto welcomes people with open arms and gets ignored.
If his reaction were any indication, those words seemed to affect Sasuke quite a bit. Even more than the speech they had received from Kakashi. Was there truth to what Naruto was saying? Of course. Would Sasuke ever admit that to anyone? Not a chance. Therein lay the problem. Even though he knew himself to be in the wrong, he could never admit it. His pride wouldn't allow him to.
Sasuke grit his teeth, Uchiha pride welling up in his chest. "Whatever, idiot." He seethed, as he pulled the boxed lunch back into his chest. "It's not like we need the help of the guy with the lowest scores in the class. You'll probably just slow us down anyway."
Loneliness wasn't the only thing the two boys had in common. Naruto, too, was incredibly stubborn and prideful. He had come to the realization early in his life that nothing was going to be handed to him. Everyone around him seemed to treat him with contempt. In his time of need, could he rely on people like that to help him out? No, he couldn't. That was why he always felt the need to do everything by himself. Up until this point, he did not know any other way. In his eyes, that was all life was.
That sense of pride only amplified when around Sasuke. Neither boy could help it. The brought the worst out in each other.
With an audible 'hmph!' Naruto turned away from his rival. He had been right. The true feelings of the Uchiha began to surface again.
Sakura watched on as her two teammates devolved back into what they were during the bell test. Two supposed comrades that could not get past their personal differences for the betterment of the team. The longer it went on, the bleaker their chances of becoming Genin were. She wanted to say something, anything, to make them both see how idiotic they were being.
Yes, you heard that right. Both.
As much as her feelings wanted her to side with her crush, she just couldn't. They were both being childish fools. Naruto was right, Sasuke had treated the two of them as a burden. She couldn't really blame him at first. After all, he was several more times skilled than both herself and Naruto. Yet, after seeing Kakashi-sensei's strength, it became clear that not even the Uchiha's genius alone would be enough. At that point, the only option was to work together. That was when the raven-haired boy offered up some of his lunch, not something she agreed with. And yet, even though he claimed it to be an act of kindness, he was still rude to Naruto. It wasn't a surprise when he reacted the way he did.
Any self-respecting person would feel the same way.
After what seemed like moments of silence, Sakura decided that she would offer her teammate some lunch. This wasn't just a continuation of Sasuke's plan to increase their chances of success. No, it was a way to show Naruto that he wasn't as alone as he thought he was. 'I never realized that he felt that way. Maybe I was too mean to him in the academy. I honestly feel bad for how I treated him.'
Despite the tension in the air, the girl managed a smile. Turning to her tied up teammate, she began to extend her bento box similarly to what Sasuke had done. "Nar-"
Just as she was about to offer the boy some nourishment, a thud caught the attention of all three members of Team 7. Kakashi had landed just a few feet in front of them. Sakura's face went pale with fright. Had she been found out? She knew that it was a mistake to offer Naruto food even when she was explicitly told not to! If only she had followed the rules!
"Sorry, Sakura. It's a little too late for that." The Jonin's facial expressions couldn't be clearly seen due to the mask he wears. If his eye was any indication, though, he was not very pleased.
"Huh?" Was all she had managed to say. Wasn't she supposed to be getting yelled at?
Kakashi walked up to the group, gaze shifting between the two boys. "You know, I really thought you guys were going to take my advice. I can't help but be disappointed with you two."
"Me?! It was him!" Naruto and Sasuke shouted simultaneously. Upon realizing what the other had said, they shot a glare over in that direction.
"No." Kakashi said harshly, which deflated their attempt to redirect the blame. "It was both of you." He turned to the last Uchiha. "Sasuke, just like I said before, you consider yourself so far above Naruto that even when you try and do something nice, it comes off as condescending and disrespectful. Had you gone through with your plan to feed him, I would have passed all three of you on the spot. Yet, you still made Naruto feel like he was beneath you. A team can't function if you don't value your comrades. You're all Genin that should be treating each other as equals. Your pride wouldn't let you do that."
Naruto's smug smirk and sly grin directed the wrath of Kakashi. "What are you smiling about?" His harsh tone and hard stare caused the blond to shrink. "You're just as much to blame. You acted similarly. You always want to do everything yourself. So much so that you refuse help even when you desperately need it. Even if Sasuke didn't treat you correctly, you couldn't put it aside for the good of the mission. He offered you some of his lunch, and you refused to accept it. In the end, he put his differences aside and was willing to work with you. You wouldn't meet him halfway."
Both boys in question couldn't meet the Jonin's gaze, opting instead to stare at the floor in shame.
'Last, but not least.' The masked man turned his attention to the last of the group. "And Sakura, you watched these two argue and didn't do anything to stop them. Not even a single word. If two members of a three-man squad disagree, it is up to the final member to play the role of mediator. Didn't the academy teach you that? For someone so proud of her book knowledge, you failed when it came to the real deal. You were going to offer Naruto some of your lunch, but you did it too late. The damage had already been done."
Now even Sakura could only stare at the ground in a mix of embarrassment and shame. What Kakashi had said was true. When it came right down to it, she froze up. All of the book knowledge in the world is useless when you cant apply it in the correct scenarios.
'Sakura… was going to give me some of her lunch?' Naruto couldn't help but think to himself.
The Copy Ninja rubbed the back of his head, a frown beneath his mask. "I really thought you guys were going to be the first team that I passed. Oh well, there's always the next one." He finished with a shrug.
"Does that mean…" Sakura said softly, unwilling to finish the sentence.
"People like you three have no right to call yourselves ninja." His words were harsh, but not something any of them could argue with. "Team 7… you fail!"
The 'thud' from the Third Hokage's pipe hitting his desk was mildly amusing, but Kakashi Hatake did his best to retain his air of indifference.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi." The old man began. "But are you sure about this? Team 7 has a great deal of promise. I truly believe that they are ready to become a three-man squad."
"With all due respect, Lord Hokage, this was not a decision that I made lightly." The Copy Ninja said as he put away his favorite orange book. "After all, the team failed the very bell test that you devised. Their teamwork was some of the most dysfunctional that I have ever seen. Even after I gave them a second chance, they continued to disappoint me by turning on each other. They may have the skill to become shinobi, but they were by no means ready. Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha were especially problematic."
Picking up his precious pipe filled with rich tobacco, the once-retired village leader took a long drag. He blew the smoke off to the side, all while looking over the Team 7 report that had been written up. "I see." Was what he finally said.
Kakashi cocked his head to the side. "Is that is, sir?"
"Well, I can't say that I'm a fan of your decision. And yet, I can't force you to do something when I left it to your own discretion." He managed a sincere smile. "I'll just have to fill out the paperwork to enroll them back into the academy, and have them retake your test next year."
"Sorry if this is out of place, but is there a reason that you're so insistent that I teach these three?" The motives of The Professor were unclear to the former ANBU Captain. "I'm sure they aren't the only potential Genin that have a lot of promise." Sasuke Uchiha made sense. He was an Uchiha, and there was no one else in the village that possessed the Sharingan. And sure, Naruto was the son of his late Sensei. Despite all of that, it felt like something else was going on here.
Sarutobi managed a chuckle. "It isn't obvious to you?" To which Kakashi simply shook his head. "Ah, well, this group reminds me very much of you, Rin, and Obito. I believe that you would be the perfect Sensei to mentor these three into fine shinobi."
Upon hearing that, Kakashi's demeanor changed. His sullen expression and sad eyes told the story of old and unhealed wounds. "If they really remind you of my old team, then why would you want them to become ninja?"
Didn't he remember what happened to them? They had all died.
"Kakashi." The Hokage's tone was very gentle. He knew that the man had still not fully recovered from what happened to his team. "These three have talent, drive, and great potential. As much potential as Team Minato had. All they need is someone to push them in the right direction and teach them what it means to be a Leaf shinobi. Who better to do that than you?"
Kakashi's visible eye widened.
"You have a wealth of experience to fall back on and pass along to the next generation. I know that you wouldn't let these three make the same mistakes that you did in the past."
Unless they magically learned to tolerate each other, Kakashi didn't see how Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke could become a functional team. It took Rin's capture in the heart of enemy territory during the Great War for him to finally agree with Obito on something. Even that was like pulling teeth. God, he was so stubborn back then.
Still, he would follow the orders of his Hokage. "Just so you know, if they still can't effectively work as I team, I'll be forced to fail them again next year."
"Hahaha, I wouldn't have it any other way!"
Kakashi managed a smile, though you could only see it through his visible eye. "Lord Hokage." He finished with a half-hearted bow. Taking that as the conclusion of their conference, the Copy Ninja took his leave. The infamous Icha-Icha book already out in front of him.
Once the door closed behind one of the Leaf's elite Jonin, the Hokage let out a weary sigh. He had been trying so long to get Minato's student a Genin team of his own. It was clear that even after so many years, the deaths of his father and squad weighed heavy on his soul. No one could blame him for feeling that way. In a world full of death and misfortune, Hatake was high up on the list of tragic experiences.
That was why his standards for Genin were so high. He didn't want his team to make the same mistakes that he did in the past. In Kakashi's mind, if he had embraced the idea of teamwork and put his comrades first, Obito and Rin would still be alive. While it wasn't definitive to say that, it was hard to argue that things could have gone any worse than they actually did.
'Those three… I have a feeling that Kakashi needs them just as much as they need him.' He took another drag from his pipe.
The door to his office opened up once again. Looking up, he recognized the person immediately. It was his secretary. "You have a visitor. They're insistent that they see you now."
"Oh?" He asked, absentmindedly waving around his pipe. "Who is it?" He hoped with all he had that it was that old war hawk Danzo. Sarutobi wasn't in the mood to deal with him.
"Iruka Umino, sir."
Hiruzen sighed heavily once more. This was not going to be fun.
"Hey, Obito." Kakashi, who was now in front of the stone memorial he had shown Team 7 earlier that day. "Sorry that I wasn't here earlier. I had to fail another team. They just couldn't grasp what you taught me all of those years ago." His visible eye was partially closed, which showed his downcast expression. "If I had allowed them to become ninja, they wouldn't have lived very long. If Minato-sensei couldn't save you guys… what would a failure like me be able to accomplish?"
As long as he was in the village, there was a good chance that one would find Kakashi Hatake standing in front of the Leaf's Memorial Stone. In his mind, it was a way to atone for his sins and failures. He was there so often, and for such extended periods, that he had to make up half-hearted excuses as to why he was always late to everything. Unconsciously, his reasons emulated the many that his comrade, Obito Uchiha, gave to Team Minato all those years ago.
He allowed himself a small smile thinking back to the good times they shared together. How he wished that he understood the importance of teamwork back then. If only he could have enjoyed and appreciated their moments together at the time. That would leave him with a few fewer regrets in a sea of many.
Footsteps alerted him that he was no longer alone. Kakashi shifted uncomfortably but did not move from this spot. By his recollection, no one came to visit the stone on this day of the week, at this time, in the last 73 times he'd been here. How he hated when other people came. While he understood that more than just his loved ones were etched into the memorial, it made it difficult to mourn in peace.
Whoever the person was, they were still several paces behind him. He sighed. They were here for him, not the stone. Looking over his left shoulder, he immediately recognized the individual. Another sigh escaped the Jonin's lips.
"Now isn't really a good time. Could we discuss this later?" He asked with as much kindness as he could.
The request fell on deaf ears.
"Why did you fail Team 7?" Iruka Umino asked. You could tell that he was doing his best to contain his anger. "They're great kids! And they would be ever better shinobi if you gave them a chance!"
"No." Was the Copy Ninja's simple reply.
"That's it? No?!" The academy instructor was fuming. That was all this guy had to say on the matter?! "Naru-" He caught himself. "All three of them have worked so hard for this! You can't take that away!"
A third sigh. Kakashi turned around, now fully facing the Chunin. "Yes, I can." He didn't intend for his words to come off harshly, they just did. "Lord Hokage left the decision up to me, not you. They're not ready. It's as simple as that."
"On what grounds do you believe they're not prepared?"
"You're being serious?" The Jonin asked dubiously.
"Yes, I am."
"Those three have no semblance of what teamwork is. They're each in it for their own selfish desires. I gave them several chances to show me they could operate as a three-man squad." He shook his head as he remembered the results of his efforts. "They got worse with each chance that I gave them. Next time, why don't you teach them a little bit about teamwork? They'll be in your hands again soon." He shot the instructor a hard glare. "Don't redirect your failings as a teacher onto me."
Iruka was speechless. He hadn't expected that kind outburst from the usually reserved Kakashi. Could the man be right?
"I'll leave you to think about it." Kakashi formed a hand sign, intent on leaving. He could always come back later tonight to finish his talk with his former teammate. The Jonin wanted nothing more to do with this conversation. "See ya."
A puff of smoke later and Iruka Umino was alone. He, too, had much to think about.
Naruto needed to take a walk to clear his mind. As far as days go, this one was pretty bad. He had been supremely confident that he was going to pass his Sensei's test and become a Genin. The thought of failure didn't even cross his mind. And maybe, that mindset was a part of the problem.
"Maybe I do have an issue accepting help from other people." The blond mumbled to himself. He couldn't shift all of the blame on to the villagers. In the end, if he wanted to become the Hokage, he would have to work with other people. At least, that was what the Old Man would tell him whenever he asked about what a Hokage does. Sure, the Fire Shadow is the strongest ninja in the entire village, but that doesn't mean he does everything by himself.
Naruto grimaced. His ideal vision of what a Hokage was had taken a substantial hit. All he wanted to be was a super-strong ninja, so the people in the village would start treating him like somebody important.
Someone who mattered.
Then, there was the matter of him and Sasuke.
Guilt had been weighing him down ever since Team 7 failed. It was true what Kakashi had said. Sasuke had been willing to put their differences aside to work together. And yet, he just wasn't able to bring himself to reciprocate.
"Because of me, we all failed." The boy was so focused on his own dreams, that he hadn't been thinking about the desires of his own team. "I ruined it for them, too…" He gripped his chest as if he could feel the pain he inflicted on them due to his own selfishness. "Dammit, I'm such a screwup. I wish I knew how to make it up to them…"
His unconscious journey through the village led him to a familiar road. To his left was a steep hill, at the bottom a large lake. A memory from when he was younger flashed before his eyes. 'This is where Sasuke…'
He trailed off, his eyes running along the surface of the water. His gaze kept going and going, until it stopped. The dock at the bottom of the hill came into view. And, sure enough, someone was sitting at the edge of the wooden structure, legs dangling loosely over the water.
It was him. Sasuke, his near-partner.
Another grimace. They would already be partners, and Genin, if the blond hadn't been such an idiot. He continued to walk. The closer Naruto got to the raven-haired boy, the more he wanted to turn back around and go home. Despite the tension building up in his chest, he continued forward.
Before he knew it, he was standing at the top of the steep slope right beside the dock. Sasuke hadn't turned around to look at him. He either didn't care about whoever was there or was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to even notice Naruto's approach.
'Why did I stop moving?' The Jinchuriki thought to himself. He looked down at his feet, they refused to move from that spot. He sighed loudly, which seemed to alert the Uchiha to his presence.
They looked at one another, their expressions simultaneously soured, and they turned away from one another. Sasuke looked out into the horizon, Naruto wasn't looking at anything in particular. He just wanted to look in the opposite direction of where his rival was.
Once the moment was over, Naruto realized the absurdity of his actions. 'Didn't I just say I wanted to make it up to him?' He wanted to beat his own head in for his childishness. 'Why am I so bad at this!?'
Maybe it was time to stop being so closed-off? Could he really allow himself to be vulnerable? To put his wellbeing in the hands of another person? Naruto wasn't sure if he was making the correct choice, but he would give it a try.
That was it, the boy had made his decision. It was time for a change. His feet finally responded to him as he turned to his left. He took that first step down the hill. And, at that moment, he knew.
Nothing was going to be the same ever again.
Author's Note: The way it ends makes it feel like it could be a One-Shot. I'm content leaving it this way if the interest for it is low. I don't know if I could even handle 2 epic-length fanfictions at the same time.
Still, I think a premise like this has a lot of potential for significant, and interesting, change. I have a few ideas but it isn't really fleshed out to the point where I could update it regularly.
Was it interesting? Good? Bad? Please let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts about it!