Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Naruto stared at the door. Terrified. On the other side of the entrance was a room full of strangers. People whom he'd never met, but had no doubt would hate him. As a young child he'd watched other children meet and make new friends, and it had seemed a simple enough process: walk up, smile, tell them your name, and ask if they wanted to play with you.
But what had seemed a simple task for other kids never worked for Naruto. They hated him. Every time. And he could never understand why. He was never rude in how he approached them. Quite the opposite. He plotted out exactly what he would say to them to make himself appear nice, fun, and cool; overall, everything a good companion should be. He would offer some of his lunch to a boy who'd forgotten his. He would offer to let them play with his toys… the few he had. He tried every conceivable way but all he ever got in return was rejection, or a mother swarming in to pull their child away from him. He eventually just accepted that he would be friendless. If they wouldn't be his friends, it wouldn't matter to him. In fact, it was they who weren't worthy of being his friends.
From that point on, the world became his enemy. No longer would he go before people and beg for their friendship. He would become great. Powerful. Worthy. Then, they would come to him and beg him to be their friend. Occasionally, in his fantasies, he turned them away, out of spite for the pain they'd caused him. Usually, though, he gave them his friendship, his love, his soul, because no matter how they'd wronged him, if he turned them away, he would be alone again. Naruto, if he had a choice, would never choose to be alone.
That Iruka-sensei was willing to care about him was something Naruto still couldn't comprehend. It didn't fit with his world view at all. People didn't care about him with out ulterior motives. Iruka gained nothing in treating Naruto with generosity. And after the revelation of the Kyubbi sealed in his body, Iruka was the only reassurance that the other people of the village weren't right about him being a monster.
Naruto had been surprised at being let back in the academy. As he understood it, he'd already failed the exam too many times. Iruka-sensei had had a loud argument with the head of the school last week in the school office. Naruto had been waiting just outside the door, trying to make sense of the muffled voices drifting under the door when the Hokage approached. With a small grunted greeting towards Naruto, the Third opened the door and walked in. The heated discussion abruptly stopped.
Naruto would be Hokage someday.
Only another minute passed before the Third and Iruka stepped back out, Iruka looking mildly embarrassed but pleased, and the Hokage looking, as usual, serene, composed, and, in Naruto's opinion, unlawfully smug.
"You will be attending the academy again this year, Naruto," was all the elderly man said before strolling off, humming to himself.
Naruto would be Hokage someday.
So Naruto found himself outside the door to his new class, steeling himself to face his new classmates. Naruto found his courage and pushed through the door. He was met by a hushed silence.
Naruto uncomfortably cast his eyes about the room, taking in faces. He recognized none. The silence was getting thicker. Naruto felt at every moment that it couldn't logically go on any longer, and every moment he was proven wrong.
It broke like a wave hitting a rock, hissing whispers accumulating into a near roar; so it seemed to Naruto.
"Didn't he fail?"
"He looks too old to be here. Is he too old?"
"My parents have talked about him. He's trouble."
Naruto shut them out. More of the same. More mockers and doubters. All the same, everyone of them so sure they already knew all they needed to know about him. Naruto decided it was their lose.
Or so he tried to. When Naruto was honest with himself, it hurt. He'd hoped that his new classmates would be of a different sort then his last. He'd hoped to form close ties to some of his peers… some of them would, after all, be his future teammates. His hopes were dashed as he saw the cold, sneering faces that greeted him.
"Naruto have a seat." Naruto turned to see Iruka-sensei standing at the front of the class. The man gave Naruto an encouraging look. Naruto took a deep breath and gathered his courage.
He chose a seat next to a smiling, friendly looking kid. As he sat, Naruto noticed the boy was studying him. Naruto returned a tentative grin.
"Hello. What's your name? I'm Uzumaki Naruto."
The boy didn't answer, just shook his head, grinning all the while. Naruto realized it suddenly. The smile wasn't a friendly grin. There was… something cold in that gaze. A look of carefully veiled disgust, directed at Naruto, but also, a little bit, to the world.
"I'm Kumasaka Taro. Let's be friends." It wasn't a sarcastic tone. Rather, it was said in a tone so overly sincere, it could be nothing but false.
Naruto flinched. He knew Taro's false sincerity was a mirror mocking his own desperation for friendship. Naruto would have snapped back in anger, but the manner in which the boy spoke caught Naruto off guard. He found it hard to resist an urge grin back, and pretend that he didn't realize he was being mocked.
Naruto turned his head back to the front of the class, suddenly wishing the boy would leave him alone.
"I hear about you a lot. Everybody's always talking about you. They say lots of bad stuff, but I think you're cool. You pull pranks and jokes on everyone. You're really funny." The boy slung an arm over Naruto's shoulder. "Let's hang out sometime."
Naruto clenched his hands. The boy knew what he was doing. This wasn't the careless, thoughtless scorn he'd met so often. The boy could see Naruto's pain, could read his loneliness like an open book. And he mocked it.
Thankfully, Iruka began class right then, saving Naruto from removing Taro's arm from Naruto's shoulder, then removing Taro's arm from Taro's shoulder.
After school let out Naruto made his way onto a training field. Once there, he began going over what he'd learned in class that day. It wasn't too difficult, mostly concepts and mental conditioning rather than practical. Once Naruto finished up what they'd gone over in that days lesson, he began working on bunshin, the hated genjitsu. He had no luck.
Naruto was almost ready to give it up for the day when he heard a noise. To Naruto's ears, it sounded like a scream of anger mixed with grief, and tinted with a bit of self hate. Naruto had made that noise himself many times.
Naruto followed the source. What greeted his eyes was a sight he would remember for the rest of his life. It was Sasuke. His arms were covered in abrasions, and he was breathing had. Naruto had never seen Sasuke breath hard. He was standing in front of a training pole, working the thing over viciously with his elbows. Then his knees. Then he would skip backwards throw shuriken into it. Then he would leap forward, high this time, and deliver high kicks on it where a persons head would be.
He was crying. Naruto hadn't known he knew how.
It also took him awhile to register Naruto's presence, something very unSasuke like. Naruto saw the moment he did. His body went rigid and his forearm went up to wipe his face.
"Uzumaki." he said, instantly Sasuke again.
"Uchiha." Naruto returned the greeting with a nod, then added. "You look like shit."
Sasuke didn't answer, instead shouldering past.
"You want to talk about it?" Naruto asked.
Sasuke gave him a look. There's nothing to talk about and if there was, I wouldn't talk to you.
Naruto shrugged. "Suit yourself." He began to walk off.
"My first mission went… poorly." Naruto froze. For real? Sasuke was actually going to…
The somber boy crouched on a rock, his face turned away from Naruto in obvious discomfort.
"Sakura's pretty messed up. It was probably my fault. I knew she wasn't as capable as Masato and me, but I was so ready to test myself. To see what I could do. I didn't stop to consider…" he shook his head, and continued on in a more professional tone, as if reporting to a superior. "Our client was severely injured, though not mortally. His grandson died. From my own team, Sakura is in critical care right now… they say she'll probably pull through. Masato received minor injuries, but nothing that required hospitalization. He was amazing out there… I can't even describe…" He seemed to realize he was getting emotional and reverted back to reporting. "Two missing nin died pointless deaths. The situation dissolved into a blood bath between civilians fighting for their country, and thugs fighting for their lives. Primary objective was successful." He said this last part bitterly. "Tzuna the bridge builder lives, and the Bridge of Sorrow has been fully completed."
Naruto studied him for a moment, then shook his head.
"Did you think it would be easy?"
Sasuke gave him a look of surprise, and a look of realization swept across his face. "I guess… I guess I did. How stupid of me."
"Over confidence. A hotheaded desire to prove yourself." Naruto mentally cringed as he realized how much this last applied to him. "It's no wonder you feel you screwed up. You did."
Sasuke studied a tree next to him. "So now what?"
"So learn from it." Naruto cringed again. He wasn't good at that either, learning from mistakes. "When it's job time, be in the job. Remove thoughts of proving how good you are and work with your team. Be paranoid, and think through every situation." I should take my own advise.
Sasuke looked at him with an odd look. "Since when have you been a source of wisdom?"
Naruto laughed. "I'm telling you what I get told ten times a day. I never do any of it. Useless shit, the lot of it."
Sasuke had the beginnings of a grin forming on his mouth. It vanished quickly, but it was there.
"I should see how Sakura's doing." he rose to his, and Naruto followed suit.
Sasuke glanced at him, suddenly seeming uncomfortable again.
He wants to say thank you, but has no idea how, Naruto realized, amused.
Sasuke finally came to a mental decision and extended his hand. Naruto grinned and took it, shaking it firmly. It wasn't friendship, but it was acceptance. That was enough.
It's still a pathetically short list, but it will grow.
Sasuke was turning to leave when a voice spoke.
"There you are, Naruto-san. I've been looking for you."
It was Taro. He was smiling brightly, and leaning on a tree.
Sasuke saved Naruto from answering. "Who are you?"
"I will overlook your discourtesy and introduce myself. I am Kumasaka Taro. I have heard much of you, Uchiha Sasuke. No doubt you have as much potential and promise as rumors say."
"You don't mean that." Sasuke said blandly.
"I do, though." Taro insisted. "Don't let your confidence falter. I'm sure your next mission will be a success."
Sasuke turned to Naruto. "Who is this?"
Naruto grinned. "He's my lackey. He's always following me around, and I mostly tolerate his presence. He's all right, I suppose."
Taro's eyes flashed, but his smile never faltered. "Yes. I highly regard Naruto-sempai. When faced with a problem, I ask myself, 'What would Naruto-sempai do?' I always wish I could be like him."
Sasuke looked from Naruto, to Taro, then back to Naruto. "This is confusing. I'm going to see Sakura now. Join me if you wish, Naruto."
"Sure." Naruto hopped at the chance.
"I'll come too." Taro started.
"I wish you wouldn't." Sasuke spoke bluntly.
"I will respect your wish, Sasuke-san." He turned to Naruto. "Konbanwa, Naruto-sempai." He vanished back into the trees.
Sasuke turned to Naruto, and looked like he wanted to ask something, but wasn't sure what. Finally, he settled for, "Let's go see Sakura."
Then he darted off through the trees. Naruto followed.
AN: I'll use this opportunity to answer reviewers, because people seem to review fics that answer back their reviews more often. So…
NekoRaven: Thank you. Your support is appreciated.
Nitwittie: I'll try to give a better sum.
Vegeta the 3rd: Thank you for your review. It helped me fix some holes in the story as well as some errors. So I explained sort of how Naruto got back into the academy , but I'll give my reason here. I don't think the Hokage would leave Naruto lying around. It's to much a risk. He wont kill him, but he also has to assure his loyalty to Konoha to prevent Naruto being used against them. He also has Naruto's interests at heart, and his motives aren't bad, but… It's his job to make Konoha safe.
HidingDusk: Thank you. Hope you keep reading.