A/N: It's been a while... For anyone that might have read "Angels and Office Workers," I plan to finish it, but a black cat crossed my path, you see...

Rating: M for language, violence, and sexual themes.

Genre: Primarily action/adventure, with some smatterings of romance that will become heavier as the story progresses. It's going to take time, though, so if you're here to get a quick fix, you'll be waiting a while.

Pairing: InoSaku.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

This story starts at the Academy and will end before the Shippuden era, following the timeline closely and including most major events. A lot will change, but that's my warning to you that this is very, very long. ...So, we'd better get started!


Prologue

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." - Marcel Proust

...

They say a pebble can ripple the surface of still water and cause a tsunami on the other side of the world. They're wrong, of course, because that's physically impossible. Tsunamis are created by geographical disturbances like earthquakes or landslides, not by somebody kicking gravel into a pond, but Ino isn't thinking about that, and neither is Kakashi.

Rather, Kakashi is deciding whether to take the long or the short way to the memorial stone. It's a difference of five minutes, and the glow of the sunset's golden rays diffusing through the leaves of the ancient oaks and elms rooted in Konoha's fertile soil are a sight to behold. Then again, the short way is shorter. Kakashi slows his walk. He's approaching the road diverging between the wide dirt path that will lead him to the outskirts of the village, the small shrines dotting the bordering land, and the memorial stone – or the stone pathway that cuts through the park.

He picks the short way, then abruptly changes his mind. Why not? It's a nice day…

He pivots on his heel and passes underneath the ivy laden wooden arch marking the entrance of the park. Less than a quarter of a mile in, he hears someone sobbing loudly and promptly regrets his decision. This must be why not, he thinks. In front of him, a small child crouches in the center of the path, her clothes dirtied and half of her face bruised. To his left he feels the weak presence of another youngster.

Six-year-old Ino stands behind the tangled branches of a large fern and, like Kakashi, waffles between two seemingly benign decisions.

On the one-hand, she had nearly committed herself to helping her poor classmate crying inconsolably in the road because, really, it's the right thing to do and she knows it. On the other hand, Ino is a creature of pragmatism, and although helping her classmate might boost her own self-image as a benevolent and empathetic human, and might similarly increase her classmate's pitiable self-esteem, there is the issue of whether or not the social ladder is greased and, if so, how sturdy her grip is. Either she hauls her classmate up, or her classmate hauls her down. Ino isn't sure which will happen.

Now, however, that there's someone older present, someone in the prestigious position of jounin, Ino is relieved to pass that duty on to someone else. Surely this adult will help the poor girl, as any responsible adult would offer comfort to such a distraught young person so obviously in need of guidance and one of those long lectures about the Will of Fire!

(For the sake of simplicity and to assuage her guilty conscience, Ino purposely does not think about the fact that none of her sensei at the Academy have stepped up to do so yet, even though they had infinitely more opportunities than this stranger.)

Reassured, Ino quietly slips away, leaving this wise and considerate adult to handle the situation.

And she's partially right. Kakashi is an adult, at least by shinobi standards, but by that conceptualization he's been one since he was seven-years-old. This addled child now blinking tearfully up at him has him questioning all that, though.

"Ah…" Kakashi rubs the back of his neck and tries to smile widely enough that she might be able to tell through his mask. He crouches down – you're supposed to do that with kids, right? – and offers her a hand up. "Are you alright?"

Sakura nods once. Her fingers tremble in his hand and his smile fades. She's obviously terrified and too shy to talk about it.

"You seem awfully upset," he presses, awkwardly standing to his full height. The difference in size is dramatic and she shrinks into herself, her shoulders hunched and her eyes flitting from his nose to the path behind him as if in search of escape.

She whispers something in a quivering voice that he doesn't catch.

"What was that?" He asks, leaning down with his ear cupped and feeling foolish for it.

"Kids at school," she mumbles. Every muscle in her tiny legs is cramped with fear. "Picking on me," she finishes quietly.

Kakashi sighs discreetly behind his mask. What does one do in this situation, he wonders. He has few ties to the Academy and isn't sure if it's his place to get involved – or if he even wants to. Most of the other teachers would probably argue that it's all part of the process, anyway, that bullying toughens children and weeds out the ones unsuited for shinobi life. Kakashi doesn't know if that's true, having been rather untouchable in his youth, but he remembers Obito and concedes that in some cases, constant criticisms and obstacles do teach people how to believe in themselves when there's no one else to rely on. Or maybe that's just hard-headedness…?

Either way, it'd worked for Obito, and by comparison, Kakashi as a prodigal child was an asshole at his own admission, so perhaps he'd best leave this little girl to figure it out on her own.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he says softly, putting a hand on her head in a comforting gesture. The physical expression sends a palpable wave of panic through her small body and Kakashi's frown deepens. In this case, a child like her will likely be better off getting bullied out of the academy than needlessly losing her life when she freezes in battle. "I hope you feel better," he offers half-heartedly before continuing down the path. He doesn't dwell too much on whether he made the right decision or not. If she quits and saves her life, or gains some strength and perseveres, either result would benefit her. Or so he hopes.

#

But Sakura does not quit. She also does not persevere.

Rather, she wavers unsteadily on a third option – surviving. She persists because her parents and her sensei insist that her fears and her kowtowing are futile cowardice.

"You're crying from a few bullies?" They admonish her when they find her hiding, bruised and scratched and red-eyed from fright and agony. "That's nothing, Sakura!"

They must be right, she thinks. These are adults that have faced battle, that have come nose-to-nose with death and survived, and she, meanwhile, is launched into pits of fear and the gaping maws of depression from something that, according to them, means nothing.

She's scared of nothing.

The girls pulling her hair and punching her supposedly gigantic forehead are nothing. Getting tripped down the stairs on her way to present her Bunshin no Jutsu is nothing. The notes slipped into her desk that she unfolds with trembling fingers, the ones that tell her to die, that she's going to die, that she should die, are nothing.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

What right does Sakura have to complain about nothing?

(But it hurts!) Something in her mind whines loudly.

She has no right and no reason to push back against something that means nothing – not the bullying, not the constant fear, not the aching void of loneliness swelling and bruising her heart in some empty cavity in her chest, and not failure, either. If her pain means nothing, then she has no reason to fail as a result of it, so at the very least, Sakura works hard. What would the adults say, after all, if her assignments were insufficient because the physical torment and the emotional distress that rampage her fragile mind make her head hurt, and her hands shake when they form seals, and her thoughts scatter like sand in the wind – they would say, "You're failing because of that? That's nothing!"

So Sakura studies and trains because it's her responsibility to do so, when there is nothing stopping her.

(I'll show them!) The voice shouts.

Mostly, she reads books. No one takes an interest in her, and even if they did, she could not collect herself enough to speak to them, so Sakura learns from the musty texts tucked into the shelves of the library. She tries to apply that knowledge alone on the training grounds when she knows they will be empty, when everyone else is having dinner with their friends and family or still asleep before the sun has risen. She doesn't succeed in most things without instructive aid. The taijutu isn't so difficult, but she can't tell how good she is without an opponent to practice against. Her clones prove ineffective for real sparring when they disappear after the first punch. She makes the most of the situation by learning to dodge instead. Her clones poof into smoke at the slightest impact, but Sakura will not, so she focuses on trying not to get struck.

Sakura arms the images with kunai and bounds between the trees at training ground 4, dodging punches and kicks and blades. She gets okay at it, after a while.

(Okay? Did you see that backflip? We kick ass!)

We?

Sakura does not question it. She avidly, fervently, constantly wishes she could be someone else, someone better, and she's often imagining what someone like that would be like in real life. They'd be assertive, for sure, and confident, but skilled enough to back up that confidence. They would be fierce and steady and brimming with conviction.

If Sakura could be like that – there's no limit to what she would do! The fantasies are vivid. She'd jump into class and put down all the threats and cruelties of her classmates, show them one by one what she was worth and that there's nothing they can do to frighten her. She'd punch with the force of a truck, she'd cast jutsu at the flick of her finger, and she'd stand up for herself without hesitation. Sakura often imagines it on her way to class, and while training, and lying in bed at night, and every time in between – what would she do, if she were that person? What would she say?

She thinks of it so often that she can easily conjure the person and her words, the ideal Sakura, in her mind. The personality is so lifelike, in fact, that she can sometimes hear her voice.

The ninjutsu training is harder. She learns from one of her borrowed scrolls that shinobi have elemental affinities that can be tested for by the use of special paper, but she's far too subdued to request such a thing from her parents. They would ask her what it's for, and she wouldn't know how to respond.

The genjutsu, though, is Sakura's favorite. There is one in particular she learns with the utmost of ease, and it suits her.

In the brightest of sunlight, in the most open of spaces, in the most crowded of schoolyards, Sakura makes herself disappear to the eyes of others.

It's a lovely trick. It keeps her safe and hidden from her classmates – not even her teachers seem to notice when she vanishes, although that may be because they don't notice when she's present, either. Sometimes the bullies will walk right by her, especially when she figures out the simple task of climbing walls and branches by channeling chakra to her feet, just as the book taught her, which is a skill that gives her infinitely more hiding places. Each time they pass by just under her nose, Sakura breathes a sigh of relief and –

(You could take 'em out by surprise! Teach them a lesson, why don't you!)

It wouldn't be that hard, Sakura concedes. She uses the jutsu as constantly as her chakra reserves will let her, and she's fairly certain that if she chose to do so, she could in fact ghost between those bullies in a flurry of punches and bruising kicks without breaking the illusion. It helps that her classmates don't seem to have grasped the basic concepts of chakra control yet – not that Sakura is special in that way, she reminds herself. She just has a lot more free time to work on it than they do.

But she doesn't want to ruin a good thing by incurring their wrath, so she doesn't, even though she could

(Do it! Come on, they deserve if after what they put us through! Just let me at 'em, I'll give 'em the one-two, the three and the four!)

Sakura stifles a giggle at that, earning her some odd looks in the middle of Iruka-sensei's lecture, but it's hard not to laugh at the voice in her head. Sometimes she wishes she could be that person, whoever it is, residing in the recesses of her mind and gliding easily along on the coattails of Sakura's more corporeal form.

The Sakura in her head is brave, and smart, and confident, and she could kick some serious ass! – but Sakura is not that girl.

(You are,) the voice whispers consolingly. (Or, at least, we are.)

Sakura clings to that comfort, a desperately needed lifeline in a sea of lonely nothingness. She clutches it so stubbornly in her fist that she refuses to ask herself what it is, exactly, that she's holding.