Hope hurts more than hate.

Haruno Sakura stared at her rice.

Of course – of course, that idiotic orange-clad boy had gotten himself tied up. Still, privately, she felt that she had done worse. Like always, even in the academy, no matter who did the worst, Naruto was always the one made an example of.

And this time, she really felt guilty about it.

After all, Naruto had actually fought Kakashi. Heck, Naruto had actually touched Kakashi-sensei. She hadn't lifted a finger. She hadn't even seen the (annoying-late-obnoxious-masked) teacher. She'd just fallen for some pitiful genjutsu. Sasuke would never look at her at this rate! She sneaked a glance at Sasuke, but her eyes were drawn instead to the orange form of her other teammate. Cha! That stupid Naruto. Even in her mind, he interrupted her thoughts of her one true love.

If only Kakashi-sensei had tied her to the stump. Then she wouldn't feel so bad.

Haruno Sakura glared at her rice. She was on a diet. That chicken didn't look so appealing, either. The vegetables were simply covered with oil. That Naruto – she looked again, orange-blond-idiot-stupid-nice-wait, what? – He sure looked like he could use the food.

It was in times like these that Sakura realized, most harshly, that she was a follower, not a leader. She did not dare initiate. Even in her one most defining pastime, that of loving Sasuke, she had only been part of a crowd of girls who'd done the same.

That is not to say she was unkind. That is not to say she did not feel guilty.

If Sasuke offers Naruto his food, I will too, she decided resolutely, and only then. She didn't want to ruin any chances she had. So Haruno Sakura forced the guilt back down and glared at her rice.

Say something, Sasuke.

Naruto was hungry.

It wasn't, in all actuality, for the food. He was hungry for attention. He was hungry for the normalcy that the food represented. In all his life, he had been set apart. This one time, he wanted to be normal, like everybody else. But what was the point? He was stupid, he was loud, and he wasn't even a really good ninja. Sakura would never like him – not that he had thought she would in the first place. She had been nice before, sweet, even, but she wasn't anymore. Sasuke would never think of him as a rival, much less a friend. The teacher would never accept him, nor teach him.

Instruction and kindness and friendship and love – all those things were reserved for others. All good things were reserved for other people. It was a simple to him as a fact of life.

He lifted his head to look up at the clouds.

For a short while, Naruto entertained the idea that perhaps – maybe, just maybe – they would offer him some food. He even imagined the scenario: Sasuke would hold out his food and say "I'm not hungry," and Sakura, like always, would follow. Then he'd take it (even though he wasn't particularly hungry himself) and thank them and eat fervently. And for some reason, Kakashi-sensei would pass them and they'd be the best team ever.

Of course, something like that would never happen.

But – but, if it did happen…!

He made a promise to himself, right then and there. Should these two people (whom he had always wanted to befriend, for he had always wanted to befriend everybody) show him any kindness, he would give them all he had. He would follow them to the ends of the earth. He would really, truly love Sakura and not just distract her. He would try his best to become a suitable rival for Sasuke.

But when, no, if they didn't accept him – what would he do then? What would he become?

In the end, it all came down to Sasuke.

The avenger, too, was looking down at his food. He was well aware of Naruto's struggles beside him – perhaps too aware. Why should he care about the idiot, anyway? He couldn't make friends – Itachi had said so. 'Despise me,' his brother had said. 'Live a miserable life,' he'd commanded. And though a part of him hated following anything Itachi had said, another part of him agreed with it. He didn't have the time to waste on trivial matters like relationships. He had to grow strong and avenge his family.

He had to rid himself of the ghosts of his past, and the only way to do that was to surpass the insurmountable wall that was his brother - the genius, Itachi.

Still, he glanced at Naruto. The blonde was the closest thing he had to a friend – the one person who neither pitied him nor idolized him. Sasuke was also aware of Naruto's living conditions. Who wouldn't be? It was so glaringly obvious. When Academy classes ended and children were picked up by their parents, only he and Naruto left alone, silently, in the middle of the crowd.

For a second, Sasuke teetered on the edge of indecision. His hand trembled as it held his bento, as if his arm rebelled against him. It would be so easy, so easy to accept Naruto, to befriend him. They were two birds of a feather.

But he didn't need friends.

Naruto was weak, and he was strong. They were completely different. He had to be strong, and Naruto was just another fool who was going to get killed someday.

His fingers twitched again. But he wanted a friend. So help him, he wanted somebody to smile at him with no strings attached. He wanted somebody to train with, somebody to laugh with, and somebody to be with. Who cared what Itachi – Itachi.

He had friends, before – before that.

In a spur of motion, Sasuke moved, before he could change his mind. He took the bento in his left hand, his chopsticks in his right… and began to eat. Beside him, from the corner of his eye, he saw Sakura startle, frown, and then tentatively eat her meal, as well.

He finished in five minutes, the food uncomfortably heavy in his stomach. It wasn't that it was bad food; to the contrary, it was rather appetizing. But for some reason, the sight of Naruto made his stomach churn. So Sasuke forced it down and closed the bento box.

And in that moment, the course of destiny changed.

Kakashi frowned as he watched the backs of his ex-genin disappear. For a moment there, he'd thought that they might pass. The way that the Uchiha had hesitated, the looks that the Pinky gave the Idiot … For a minute, he'd resigned himself to taking the team. No – that wasn't it.

No, he had never not cared about this group - not when the last legacy of Obito's family sat brooding and his Sensei's son stood desolately there. And for a moment, he had even seen the former Team 7 in them, and had felt something akin to gratitude for what seemed like a second chance.

But then the Uchiha had dug into his meal. He'd seen the emotions dance across the Pinky's face: shock, relief, and then guilt. The guilt lasted the longest. It was surprising; from the reports he'd read, he had thought she would be a heartless Kunoichi with a voice reminiscent of a banshee.

Most surprising, however, was Naruto.

Kakashi liked to think himself a reader of the unguarded mind. Genin-level Academy graduates' thoughts, no matter how powerful the Genin were (with the singular exception of some Hyuuga branch members, but they were stuck-up and probably had a toddler's class named 'Losing Your Facial Muscles') could be read like an Icha Icha book: painless, effortless, and entertaining.

So he'd seen the brief moment of hope on Naruto's face as he look up at the sky. This, he wisely labeled, was the moment when Naruto considered that his teammates help him. Then he'd seen a surprising look of determination on the young blonde's face, a look that reminded him of his sensei. It was Naruto's reaction to his teammates' snubbing that bothered Kakashi the most, however.

It just didn't match up.

Leaf ninja were taught, from the very beginning of the Academy careers, that their comrades would help them in any and every situation. That was why, inevitably, in this situation, the person tied to the stump would automatically turn to their teammates with hope of help. However, Naruto immediately turned to the notion that his teammates would not help.

It was like this. The normal response to his simulation was: My teammates will help me! …But what if they don't…? However, the way Naruto reacted indicated this: My teammates won't help me. …But what if they do…?

It was unsettling. He was so used to that shine of hope – he knew exactly how it would go. The trussed up child would look around with hope – would falter, slightly, at the doubtful thought – but would cling to that hope, and, when refused help, would become angry.

Naruto, on the other hand, smiled.

It was not his blindingly bright smile. That smile was one that Kakashi had unraveled (only from his memories of Obito) and declared fake. It was not his smirk, a smile which Kakashi had seen (and nearly shivered at) once after Naruto had finished that village-wide prank of painting the main streets neon pink. It was not even the tired, lazy smile, nor the (also fake) 'pleading' smile he wore when he bothered Sakura. It was a small, strange smile.

At least, it looked strange on his face. It was more of the corners of the lips tugging themselves upward in response to some inner 'I-told-you-so'. Then, with a pang, Kakashi recognized it. And he realized why it looked so strange. He'd seen it many times on the faces of old, veteran shinobi right before a battle. He'd seen it many times etched into the Sandaime's face.

It was a smile of resignation.

For a moment, he wondered. How was it that a little, happy-seeming blond boy (Sensei's son, a little part of his brain said, but he forced that though back) would have expected his teammates to abandon him? It was, after all, something unheard of in Konoha, where teamwork was promoted to dizzying heights and even skill resided below it. How – no, why, why would a twelve-year-old kid even be entertaining thoughts of betrayal?

And, if he had read that sigh right, the boy did not just think briefly of it; he expected it, and only entertained thoughts of getting help. My teammates won't help me. …But what if they do…?

Kakashi began the walk home at a slow, leisurely pace. He even forgot to tell the team they'd failed. All that was on his mind was that boy… The blonde was still such a mystery, even after all the years Kakashi had known of him, and even watched over him in ANBU. And, with any luck, the Hokage wouldn't ask him something silly to appease the Merchants' Guild, even if they'd been getting restless lately.

Then again, he didn't have much luck anymore.

What will I do now?

Naruto meandered through the streets. The late-afternoon shoppers regarded him with disdain, but it was something he'd long since learned to put up with. He thought back to the events of the strange genin test. They had failed in capturing the bells, he had gotten tied up, he didn't eat anything, and then Kakashi-sensei – no, Kakashi, had shown up and declared that they had failed the test.

He lingered a while on the short moment of hope he'd had. It had been so blindingly obvious to him, in that second, that no matter what, he would give the world for those two. If only they had… If only, then he would go to the ends of the earth for them. But they hadn't – those two, both people with whom he had wanted to befriend for a long time – those two had turned their faces away like everybody else. Was it because he was the Kyuubi jinchuuriki? Was that why he was different? If only…

Oh, but hope was such a fickle thing!

He could go back to the Academy.

…No, he couldn't. He couldn't handle the look on Iruka's face if he failed again. He couldn't…

What would he become? What could he do? What about his dream?

But – maybe, he could still become strong. Maybe, despite not becoming a genin, he could still rise and make everybody look at him. Naruto could still be respected!

…A foolish thought, he decided, very foolish indeed. He thought back to his test. Sasuke did so much better than I did. I don't like admitting it, but it's true. Even Sakura must have done better than me, because she wasn't tied up. I was horrible. I didn't even touch a bell. If not for Kage Bunshin, I wouldn't even have touched Kakashi.

He seized upon the thought: Kage Bunshin. He'd learned it a fortnight ago, but it was already his trump card, his best move. Naruto stopped in the middle of the dusty road and thought, long and hard. He weighed the pros and cons; he looked at it from every angle. Finally, he decided.

It was time to seize the day – carpe diem. If fate didn't want to give him a path to respect and the love of others – well, then.

He'd forge one for himself.

Dedicated to a White Angel: Shiro-Tenshi, my soul sister. I hope you haven't forgotten our promise to take over the world together with chocolate chips…

Author's Notes: 10.26.2012: Minor grammar/idea edits

Liffae ^-~