A/N: Hello everyone! I haven't written in a very long time. Previously on here, I'd only written Harry Potter stories and while I still adore the series, this Naruto fic was what helped me get back into writing. Apologies to anyone if that disappoints them, but there you have it. A couple things before you start. First, I'm probably going to get some Japanese things wrong, maybe some Naruto things wrong. Feel free to correct me. It is an AU story however, so be polite, because some of those changes may be intentional, LOL. I make no promises on update speed, but I'm pretty hyped about this story, so let me know what you think and we'll see what I can do. Second, the main character in this story is Sakura... I have a love-hate relationship with this character. I love her potential, but I hate what the manga/anime did with her, I feel like she could've been so much more. That's what this story is about, me making this girl what I think she could've been if given half a chance. Plus, as a bonus, I fix a couple other things along the way, haha. So if you hate canon Sakura, give mine a try. And if you love canon Sakura, mine's a little different but it's still a Sakura story, so I hope you like it. Future A/Ns should be a lot shorter, but that's all for now, aside from this pretty little disclaimer.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or anything related to it, all rights are the proper owners'. The cover art is also not mine, all credit goes to 'Somber Tortuga' whom posted the base artwork. The only things I own are the idea, plot, and writing itself. I am not receiving any monetary compensation for this, it is purely for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment. Thank you.

The Lotus Flower I: Murky Waters

"The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one."
― Goldie Hawn

The night felt heavy as if an oppressive force was attempting to suffocate her. The rays of moonlight that typically shone from her window were absent, and even though she was huddled under a mountain of warm blankets, she still felt cold. She shivered, pressing her palms against her ears, but nothing she did could drown out the screaming – the thunderous voices of her parents battling back and forth. It happened all the time now and she wasn't sure when things had changed. There had been a time years ago when her parents were happy and in love. Slowly, and then all at once, that had disappeared. It was replaced by so much hostility and avoidance that she felt like a ghost in her own home. She tiptoed around her parents, navigated the minefields that were their new tempers, and felt everything she thought she knew fall from her fingertips.

She was no longer Haruno Sakura – the loud, hotheaded, and brash kunoichi-in-training that only cared about showing off her intelligence to impress Uchiha Sasuke. She hadn't converted back to who she was before she'd met Ino, her ex-best friend, either. She wasn't too shy to speak or self-conscious about her forehead. None of that even mattered to her now.

Somehow, she'd been transformed into something – someone – else. Her perspective on life had warped when her parents' marriage had fallen apart. Little things no longer meant anything. Sakura had no time to dwell on whether Sasuke-kun would ever like her or what people thought about her appearance. Instead, she found herself diving headfirst into ninja training, surprisingly enough. She'd discovered her thoughts couldn't torment her when she was hyper-focused on devouring material. Nightmares didn't haunt her when she was so exhausted from physical training that she came home only to fall into a deep sleep. Sleeping was almost all she really did at home now. Her new schedule consisted of waking up before her parents and training to become a shinobi. It'd taken her a while to figure out a way to not have to eat at home, but she managed by packing enough food for three meals and a couple snacks every night before bed and then grabbing it in the morning on her way out.

As far as she could tell, her parents neither noticed nor cared that she was never home. Considering how they'd been acting the past few years, she figured it was for the best. Being able to focus on herself and her training had even given her several revelations and improved her standings in the class. The first time "bookworm Sakura" had knocked out Inuzuka Kiba in a fight had the whole class rioting. Sakura smiled at the memory, her jade green eyes peeking out from her blankets to gaze up at the ceiling.

It was one of few good memories that she'd had lately and it had spiraled from there. Her teachers were impressed with her improvement and the boys in her class respected her a bit more than the other kunoichi. Ino, as much as Sakura missed her, was still too focused on Sasuke for their friendship to rekindle. Ino was adamant that Sakura was just pretending not to like Sasuke, only to swoop in later when she'd let her guard down. It was silly, but Sakura used to act the same way so she couldn't blame her. It was more that she just felt even further ashamed of how she used to act, but she'd put the past behind her and was working to move forward now. Hinata was similar to Ino, but in a vastly different way. They both had massive potential but Ino wasted it chasing Sasuke, and Hinata was crippled by her shy and insecure personality. Sakura suspected, having met several other Hyuuga, that her home life was not the best. It was something Sakura could relate to, at least a little, and so she tended to stick by the quiet girl most days in class.

The other civilian kunoichi-in-training weren't worth mentioning. They didn't have the resources, the practice, or the dedication to really be respected by the clan children. It wasn't fair, because they might've had potential if they'd had early training or a reason to try harder like Sakura did, but she didn't like to dwell on those thoughts much. A few civilian boys usually managed to make it into the ninja ranks; they were more concerned with fighting than girls were at a young age. After some research, Sakura had found out that kunoichi were more likely to bloom post-graduation than in the academy, once they were faced with what being a shinobi was really like. Notable exceptions tended to be well-known – Tsunade of the Sannin was one of them – but a few others were kunoichi that Sakura had seen briefly around Konoha. The two most prominent, regularly gossiped about by civilians and shinobi alike, were Mitarashi Anko and Yuuhi Kurenai. Mitarashi-san was feared and avoided by most of Konoha's population, whereas Yuuhi-san was widely accepted by the females as a pervert deterrent, if not a friend. From what Sakura had heard around town, the women were desired by the men of the village but were also terrifying.

The three aforementioned kunoichi were inspirations to Sakura, and she'd long since decided that she would join their ranks or even surpass them. It was one of the largest differences between who Sakura had used to be and who she was now. She wasn't just a little girl who had never experienced strife anymore. Others had worse lives by far but her situation had been enough of a tipping point. She knew she had a lot to learn and would need to get much stronger before she was ready to earn the title of kunoichi, but there was a fire burning in her now. She had a desire, a dream. In another world, where her parents' marriage had never fallen apart, the only thing she would want was the attention of a boy for many more years. But here in this place, Haruno Sakura was different. The trivialities she'd chased were gone from her mind, replaced by her ultimate goal: to become the strongest kunoichi in the village, and make sure no one would be able to hurt her again – at least, not without a fight. This passion had been ignited in her, refusing to go out, and those around her would take notice for years to come. It wouldn't be until much later that she learned what had grown within her… the famed Will of Fire.

The day had finally come for the graduation test. The last several months had passed in a blur of training for Sakura. Her stamina, speed, and strength had increased by leaps and bounds compared to when she first started at the academy and wasn't taking her training seriously. She was the undisputed top kunoichi of her year, much to Ino's fury. It was kind of funny that despite her outrage, the blonde hadn't gained the motivation to try and improve. Aside from being the top kunoichi, Sakura was below only Sasuke in the overall class standings. The Uchiha was a genius and was acknowledged as such, excelling in both the academic shinobi classes and the physical.

Sakura actually had better grades than him academically by a small margin due to her near eidetic memory and bookworm habits, but despite all her progress in training her body, Sasuke still trashed her in the true shinobi arts. When she landed five out five shuriken on a target, he landed all five in the bull's eye. When she took down an opponent in thirty seconds, he did it in ten. It was mildly frustrating for her, but she knew it was actually a good thing. She'd come a long way from fantasizing over the dark haired boy and she now saw him as a goal to be surpassed, or at least matched, even though it would be extremely difficult. Much to her surprise, he'd started to treat her a bit better recently. It amused her, because she'd have freaked out over it in the past, but she knew it was because she'd changed that he had adapted how he acted.

It wasn't a major change, he was still rather quiet and standoffish, but he no longer looked at her like he wished he could squash her like a bug. More often than not they were paired together by the academy teachers, and when they sparred, he seemed to try harder than he did against the others. She had yet to beat him, but each time they fought, she learned a little more. When she wasn't paired with Sasuke, she was either paired with Naruto or Hinata. Umino Iruka, their homeroom teacher, had a lot to do with that, Sakura thought. Naruto was the only boy in the class outside of Sasuke that Sakura couldn't always beat. Her technique was far better than the blonde's brawler style, but he had an unpredictability that surprised her often. Not to mention his stamina was outright freakish. He could sometimes win a spar with her by just refusing to stay down until she was exhausted. He'd annoyed her for years, but she thought she understood him a bit more each time their fists met in battle. Sure, he was still a knucklehead. There was something about him, though…

The reason she thought Iruka paired her with Hinata was a different story. Even after working on the poor girl for months, she still remained shy and timid. Sakura figured that it was partly just her personality – Hinata was a natural caregiver, always kind and reassuring, but the pink-haired kunoichi sometimes saw glimpses of something buried in the nervous Hyuuga, waiting to come out with the right type of stimuli. That's where their sparring came into play. When they first started, Hinata was too petrified over the thought of hurting Sakura to truly fight her, but as the months passed and Hinata was reassured, her potential started to shine. The girl remained apprehensive around other sparring partners, but with Sakura at least she had started to seriously try. It ended up being good practice for both of them, with the added bonus of bringing Hinata a little out of her shell. She was quick on her feet and graceful, but Hinata's hidden gem hadn't been revealed until about a month ago.

Sakura panted as she held up a hand to indicate the spar was over. She'd invited Hinata to train with her outside of the academy once a week. It had taken some convincing, but eventually the other girl had agreed. It had done wonders and Hinata opened up immensely when they were fighting alone. The other girl was a genuine speed demon when she wanted to be and while Sakura had yet to lose to her, Hinata could still tire her out. Having taken a moment to catch her breath, Sakura was startled when Hinata suddenly darted to her side, pale lavender eyes staring over her shoulder in fear. The other girl's reaction made Sakura twist to face whatever was coming, her hand darting to her weapons pouch almost instinctually… only to pause as she saw a group of four boys heading their way. Civilian boys by the look of it, but she thought she recognized a few of their faces from the academy in previous years. A knot formed in her stomach. Why did she have a bad feeling that they failed to graduate and were now holding a grudge? Her suspicion was confirmed as soon as the tallest boy spoke, a sneer on his face.

"What're two girlies like you doing out here, pretending to be ninja?" He looked them up and down, before dark, beady eyes came to rest on Hinata, making Sakura tense. "I can understand the Hyuuga bitch, her whole clan is filled with arrogant snobs who think they run the place, but shouldn't they keep their precious damsel locked up before she gets hurt?"

Sakura's fists clenched, although she reluctantly moved her hands away from her weapons. No Konoha shinobi could be seen fighting with one of the village's civilians, prior training or not, and while Sakura wasn't a shinobi yet, she wanted to make sure she didn't do anything to jeopardize her chances. That didn't mean she was going to let this scumbag talk about her friend like that.

"You don't know what you're talking about, but that's to be expected. Sometimes failure breeds progress, other times it breeds ignorance. Let's go, Hinata," stated Sakura firmly, turning her back on the group and motioning deeper into the forest. Hinata hesitated only a moment before scurrying after her – civilians rarely went near shinobi training grounds in case of stray jutsu or kunai, and Sakura happened to know that there was one close by. Unfortunately, the group behind them didn't seem to have much intelligence, for it wasn't but a moment later that Sakura felt a prick of pain against her back. Hinata let out a squeak at her side, both girls turning to see two rocks on the ground and a few more in the hands of the other three guys that they'd largely ignored.

The boy who'd spoken before stepped forward with anger in his eyes, likely thinking he came across as intimidating. News flash, he didn't. Sakura just barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes, almost wishing Hinata wasn't with her. It'd be easier to just take off and leave the boys behind if she was alone, but instead she had to let this overconfident idiot invade her personal space. He stopped when their noses were mere inches from touching and he made sure to look down into her eyes as if his height advantage meant anything to a kunoichi in training.

"Did I say you could walk away from me? I wasn't done talking to you, busaiku," mocked the boy, raising a hand to brush her hair back behind her ear. Sakura slapped his hand away, heat boiling in her veins. She stopped herself from impaling him with pure willpower and forced herself to take a step back.

"Don't touch me," she spit, eyeing the boys carefully. She was tempted to just grab Hinata and leap away at this point, angling her body to do just that when the bakayarou caught her wrist in his hand, squeezing tightly. It didn't hurt, but the action shocked her enough that she froze.

The boy's grip tightened further as he leered at her. "You should know your place. You don't have a shinobi clan backing you and your parents aren't that well off, Haruno. You're just a civilian playing at being special, when in reality you'd be lucky to lick my boots." It was as these arrogant words left his mouth that Sakura finally realized where she recognized this boy from. She knew him only as Akiyama-san, the son and heir of reputed civilian councilor, Akiyama Amara. The woman owned several businesses, being both respected and liked by the majority of Konoha. Rumor had it, she'd taken over her husband's businesses and role as head of the family when he died during the attack of the Kyuubi no Kitsune. If her son told her that Sakura had done something to him, she'd be lynched by the village.

Unease settling in her stomach, Sakura backed up a foot or so. It was better that she got away from this psycho as quickly and painlessly as possible. Her arm twisted in a maneuver she knew would break his grip when suddenly everything started moving so quickly it was hard to register. The boy reached for his pocket, pulling out something that glinted in the sun at the same time as he yanked her wrist, her body propelling toward him. An intake of breath at her side was the only indicator that something else was about to happen before a blur of flesh made everything… stop.

Sakura stared, wide-eyed at the shard of glass glinting right in front of her right eye, the hand holding it held in place by familiar, slender digits. She gasped, tilting away from the glass and turning to meet Hinata's pale, furious gaze. The usually timid Hyuuga gave her a cursory glance, as if to make sure the glass hadn't touched her, before gently nudging Sakura out of the way and performing a fast disarming tactic that the other girl had only pulled off in slow motion practice before. The hand grabbing the boy's wrist yanked his arm to the side and twisted, earning a pained yelp as his fingers opened involuntarily. The glass dropped to the ground as Hinata maneuvered the boy's wrist above his head, forcing him into a half-kneeling position. Even a young kunoichi was stronger than an older civilian male, but Sakura had never seen Hinata overpower someone like that before – she couldn't help the chills that went down her spine as the shy girl addressed the arrogant bully.

"Haruno may not be a name to be feared yet, but no matter how influential your mother is, Konohagakure is a shinobi village and the Hyuuga clan holds more clout than any other after the decimation of the Uchiha clan. You might want to keep that in mind," said Hinata coldly, sounding unlike anything Sakura had ever heard from her before. Despite the chilly tone, however, the girl's words sent warmth through the pink haired kunoichi. Somehow, she doubted the Hyuuga clan would be willing to get involved if the Akiyamas went after her, but the threat itself was probably enough to hold the boy's tongue.

"It's four against two! Our word against yours, we're all from good families. You're just a rejected heiress and a nobody pretending to be ninjas. You aren't allowed to hurt civilians!" One of the other boys piped up from the background, his brown eyes managing to look both unsure and angry at the same time. The other two boys nodded their agreement nervously. Akiyama sneered up at Hinata from his position, appearing almost triumphant. Hinata, while still clearly angry, was hesitant. The boys technically weren't wrong, she'd just hoped her bluff would work. Although, a shinobi clan was worth a lot more than the word of a civilian's, she wasn't treated well by her clan and couldn't rely on them to help her. Just as Akiyama pulled himself free of Hinata's slackened grip with a wince, the wind whistled and something whizzed past his face.

Everyone froze, the boys' faces all bone white at the sight of someone standing behind the girls. Sakura turned her head, catching sight of someone she would never have expected to see. Walking steadily toward them with an animalistic grace was none other than Mitarashi Anko, in all her fishnet glory. She was chewing on some type of treat, lazily viewing the clearing as if she'd stumbled upon it empty.

"Whatcha doin', boys? Having a little fun with some girls? Only… they don't seem to be very happy with you, why's that?" Mitarashi grinned at the civilian boys, before walking over and crouching next to Akiyama who was staring at her in horror. "Ya know, Akiyama-chan… your mother and I are pretty good friends, she's very supportive of shinobi. She's also one of very few civilians who don't tolerate prejudiced attitudes. I wonder what she'll think when I tell her I found you bullying a couple of young kunoichi-in-training?"

"N-no!" Akiyama stuttered. "Please don't tell her, she'll be so mad!" The boy was genuinely shaking now, his eyes watering. Clearly his mother was as terrifying as Sakura had thought she could be, except she was more a threat to her own son than to Sakura herself, thank goodness. As it was, Sakura had to stifle her amusement and awe at how easily Mitarashi was handling the bakarayou. In no time at all, she had them all apologizing to Sakura and Hinata profusely and running off back home. Sakura had a feeling that they wouldn't bother them again. It was difficult dealing with civilians sometimes, when they couldn't really even defend themselves without having a mark against them as a shinobi. It got easier when a shinobi was more well-known and powerful, she figured, seeing as how Mitarashi didn't have to do anything but threaten them politely.

"Thank you for helping us, Mitarashi-san!" Sakura bowed in the older kunoichi's direction, trying not to squeal too much at being right next to her. Hinata followed her lead, pressing her fingertips together as she bent her head. "T-thank you, Mitarashi-san."

As the girls straightened again, Mitarashi was staring at them almost curiously, before she smiled widely around the treat in her mouth. "Don't need help next time and we'll call it even. See ya around, brats."

The older kunoichi was gone before they even had time to blink, leaving them looking around mildly bewildered. A few second later, Hinata was pointing to something in the grass. "L-look, it's what she threw at Akiyama-san." Curious, Sakura glanced down and smiled.

It was a dango stick.

That memory was one of Sakura's favorites, despite the sour taste it left in her mouth. Not only had she met one of her idols, but she'd learned that Hinata had a fierce protective streak about a mile wide when someone was threatening one of the people she cared about. Sakura was honored to be in those ranks and was hopeful that with time, she could help Hinata cultivate that streak and apply it to all her shinobi skills. As it was, Sakura was confident that they would both graduate today as she walked into her academy homeroom and sat in her usual seat beside the girl she was just thinking of.

"Morning, Hinata-chan," chirped Sakura cheerfully. Pale eyes turned toward her, a soft, happy glint within them. "Morning, Sakura-chan."

"You nervous at all?" Sakura asked idly, already knowing the answer to her question. Hinata was nervous in general despite her efforts to encourage the girl.

"Ano… maybe a little," Hinata admitted while poking her fingertips together. "A-are you nervous?"

Sakura hid her smile as she turned to Hinata with a determined look on her face. "Not at all, I know we're both going to pass with no problem." The hint of pink that flooded Hinata's cheeks and the gratefulness in her pale eyes made the little white lie worth it. Sakura was confident they'd both pass the graduation exam, but… she couldn't help being a little nervous. This day was what she'd been working toward for years as she tried to prove to herself that she could be more than just a vapid fangirl. The negative voice in her head wouldn't stop whispering in her ear that she'd never be anything more than a failure. Her own parents didn't bother with her anymore – why would anyone else?

Shaking her head, Sakura exhaled quietly as to not alert Hinata. The Hyuuga dealt with enough anxiety, she didn't need to worry about Sakura as well. They'd both be fine – she had to believe that. She did believe that.

Deciding she could use a distraction, the hopeful kunoichi leaned back in her chair and observed the rest of her academy classmates. It seemed that everyone had arrived while she'd been talking to Hinata. It was a decent class size of roughly twenty-seven students. At least a handful would likely fail the graduation exam, mainly the civilians that lacked the resources to become ninja at such a young age. It was especially difficult for them this year because her class was filled with the various heirs of prominent shinobi clans that would've at bare minimum made sure their children would pass.

Three of these heirs included Sakura's old best friend, Yamanaka Ino; the prodigy, Uchiha Sasuke; and Sakura's new best friend, Hyuuga Hinata herself. The class was littered with other heirs from direct family lines – another reason Sakura had been quite nervous at trying to make a name for herself but she'd long since decided their surnames and clan histories were unimportant. Sakura would claw her way to strength if she had to. It helped that she was at the top of the class behind only Sasuke. Children from shinobi clans had distinct advantages over civilians, but they also lived rather pleasant and opulent lives.

Akimichi Choji was a good example of this phenomenon. He was a rather large boy who was constantly eating, and who represented the very image of his clan. He had strength enough to knock out any civilian, but he was more likely to snore in class and buy snacks than train. Inuzuka Kiba might as well have been his twin if not for his darker skin, brash personality, and carrying a small white dog named Akamaru around instead of a plethora of snacks. Their academic focus was identical. Sakura often lamented as she watched them excel in taijutsu and stare dumbly during any sort of mental pursuit. They were the kind of boys that didn't see the point in learning things like geography or history when all they wanted to do was be a "badass ninja". Their words, not hers. She knew that they'd grow up in time, but it was still frustrating to see them wasting time they could've spent getting better. It was possible her perception was skewed – twelve year olds were normally still considered children, after all.

There were two other boys in her class that were from highly regarded shinobi clans. They confused her but intrigued her at the same time. It was frustrating. Aburame Shino was quiet and intelligent, someone she appreciated among the likes of Kiba and Naruto, Konoha's resident loudmouths. However, although Shino was near the top of the class academically, he relied extensively on his clan's insect techniques. He was proficient in shurikenjutsu and he was decent at taijutsu, but he did not put in half the effort that she would expect from someone whose main source of attacking could be eliminated by a well-timed fire jutsu. Sakura hoped he was merely waiting until after the academy to further hone his skills or she could see his shinobi career ending badly. Still, Shino had a better chance than her last, infuriating classmate. Nara Shikamaru was the most confounding person Sakura had ever had the misfortune of meeting. He was also a budding genius. If Sakura didn't know any better, she would've assumed he and Sasuke were competing for who could piss her off the fastest. Neither boy cared enough to do something like that. She was resigned to the fact that they were simply aggravating: Sasuke with his ability to outdo her at every turn and Shikamaru with a strategic intellect that made hers seem like child's play. The thing that annoyed her most about Shikamaru in particular was not his brain, no – Nara Shikamaru was the smartest person she knew which was acceptable… if he was not the absolute laziest. He skipped classes often, never paid attention, and did the bare minimum work required to pass.

The teachers tried to encourage or threaten him into doing work, calling him out in class only to be humiliated as he answered all their questions perfectly. The only thing that seemed to affect him was a mention of his mother, after which he'd behave for a good week or so before returning to snoozing in the middle of mathematics. He passed without trying; excelled without caring, and Sakura could only despair as she imagined how great of a shinobi he'd be if he cared just a smidgen.

"Listen up!" yelled a voice from the front of the room, startling Sakura so badly she almost fell out of her chair. She might've gotten a bit too lost in her thoughts, she mused, as she righted herself and gave her attention to her homeroom teacher. It seemed the graduation exam was about to begin. Taking a slow, deep breath as Iruka-sensei shouted at the more rowdy boys in the class, she felt something brush against her palm and she looked down to see Hinata's slender fingers entwine with hers. Sakura smiled. Maybe Hinata was more perceptive than she'd thought. Squeezing gently, Sakura turned back to Iruka.

"For your final exam, you must each perform a simple clone technique. Wait here until your name is called and then come next door," Iruka explained before looking down at his clipboard and reading out the name of the first examinee. "Aburame Shino!"

The time slipped away faster than Sakura had imagined it could and before she knew it, she was standing outside with a red hitai-ate in her hand. The test had been easy to pass. The clone technique had never given her much trouble. She'd been informed by Iruka that she had succeeded in her goal of Kunoichi of the Year, though she remained below Sasuke in the overall class rankings. Ever since she left the classroom she'd been in a daze. It was as if she were trapped in a genjutsu or floating above the ground. She was a shinobi of Konoha now – more than that, she'd beaten out several clan heirs in both academic and physical shinobi pursuits. The weight of her achievement was a breath of fresh air and yet merely a stepping stone. She still had a long way to go before she was where she wanted to be.

"Sakura-chan! I made it!" chimed a soft voice before a small blur slammed into her torso. Laughing, Sakura wrapped her arms around Hinata tightly and spun her around.

"I knew you would, Hinata-chan. You're going to be a great kunoichi," said Sakura, gently setting Hinata back on her feet and smiling down at the slightly shorter girl. It was rare to see Hinata so expressive, but the current moment had her smiling tearfully in pure, astonished joy. Sakura's heart swelled at the sight, squeezing the shy Hyuuga once more before letting her go. Hinata likely would've passed without Sakura's intervention; there was no way her clan would suffer a failure of an heiress, but she was still glad she'd decided to help her. Sakura made a mental note to get strong enough to give the Hyuuga clan a piece of her mind one day, before gazing at the families around them. It seemed that most of their class had passed, which confused Sakura greatly because usually a good number of potential graduates returned to the academy. The majority were celebrating with their parents, siblings, or even extended family. The exceptions were small: Sakura herself, who had never expected her parents to show up; Hinata, whose family would likely send a branch member to pick her up after the crowd cleared a bit; Sasuke, who had no family left; and …


Her heart ached as she caught sight of the boy sitting alone and dejected on the academy swing. There was no forehead protector on his person, but she didn't need to look for it to know he hadn't passed. The look in his cerulean blue eyes was raw, pain and anger leaking from the depths to substitute the tears he refused to spill in public. Thinking back, Naruto had never been able to perform a proper bunshin. He managed kawarimi and henge, but the clone technique had long since been a source of frustration for the blonde. Rumor had it, this was the third time he'd taken the graduation exam and he'd failed each time. Naruto was different from a clan civilian, no one knew exactly who his parents were or where he came from but he'd been an odd member of Konoha for as long as she could recall. He had no family to speak of, no support system, and was avoided or outright scorned by most of the village. He and Sasuke were both orphans, but Naruto had never known a family unlike Sasuke who could still remember his. She didn't know which was worse. Sakura had a feeling the pain of their lives couldn't be measured.

A small intake of breath beside her let her know that Hinata had followed her gaze and caught sight of the disappointed figure of Naruto. Sakura sighed, sensing Hinata's distress without needing to look at her. She knew the other girl cared about Naruto more than almost anyone else in the village, although she panicked and fainted whenever Sakura tried to encourage her to speak to him. She would be upset that Naruto hadn't passed, but she doubted it would come close to how badly the boy himself felt.

"Maybe we should go talk to him?" suggested Sakura, knowing Hinata would be more likely to agree because of how devastated the blonde seemed. Not to mention he was completely alone while almost everyone else chatted and cheered with their families. Sakura was surprised he hadn't left already. If it weren't for Hinata, Sakura would've escaped the chaos a long time ago. She didn't need to be reminded that her parents barely gave her a thought nowadays, she doubted Naruto wanted to be confronted with the fact that he didn't have a family. Wincing at her own thoughts, Sakura felt a new determination enter her. She remembered her mother's hushed warnings to avoid the "demon child" years ago, back before her parents' marriage fell apart. She'd known Naruto a long time and he'd never done anything to deserve scorn like that. Being an annoying little prankster wouldn't make a village hate someone, she didn't think. So what could be the reason? She wondered if there was one or if it was just adults being stupid, her own parents being shining examples.

"I-I don't …" stuttered Hinata nervously, which was rare. The girl was prone to anxiety, but she'd gotten a lot more comfortable around Sakura in recent months and only stuttered when it was severe. Then again, Sakura thought wryly, this was Naruto they were talking about. Shaking her head, the pink haired kunoichi grabbed her friend's hand and began tugging her along.

"Come on, he looks all lonely, he could do with some –" Sakura halted, her voice trailing off as she watched one of their other teachers approach the blonde boy. Mizuki was nice enough but Sakura had never warmed up to him like she had Iruka. He was a bit rude and very odd; he'd certainly never showed Naruto any affection before. Maybe the sad sight had touched something in him like it had her? Crinkling her brow, Sakura watched alongside Hinata as Mizuki said something that had Naruto lighting up. It wasn't but a few moments later that the two were leaving the academy together, heading who knows where. Now that was…

"Odd," intoned Hinata quietly. Sakura nodded. Yeah, that was definitely odd. They watched Naruto and Mizuki until they had disappeared from view before turning to each other. Sakura shrugged, grimacing even though she knew there was nothing to do about the situation. It may have been odd but Mizuki was an academy instructor and a shinobi of Konoha. Not to mention Naruto had looked excited when he'd left with the man. He could've easily had a change of heart. Still... Sakura resolved to check in with Naruto in a few days to see how he was. There was no use checking on him tonight. Anyone would feel like garbage after failing the academy for the third time in a row.

A flicker in her peripheral caught her eye and she turned her head to see an unfamiliar Hyuuga standing at the edge of the academy grounds. She scoffed quietly, unsurprised that her suspicion had been correct. The pale eyed man was staring intently at Hinata but he didn't come closer or say anything. They never did unless it was urgent.

"You're being summoned," Sakura muttered, rolling her eyes. Hinata followed her gaze and squeaked a bit before pressing her fingertips together. Sakura frowned at the nervous habit, knowing Hinata was probably worried that her father would manage to be disappointed with her in spite of her graduating successfully. She resisted the urge to glare at the Hyuuga waiting to collect Hinata. It wasn't his fault that the Hyuuga clan was severely screwed up – being a branch member, he likely suffered from it as well. It was times like these that Sakura thought of the people she cared about and knew that she wasn't only fighting to get stronger for herself. She didn't want Hinata to be squashed under the expectations of her family; she didn't want Naruto to suffer alone, believing he was hated by an entire village. Sakura wasn't able to do much about any of it yet but one day she would. For now, she'd do what she could; so she wrapped her arms around Hinata in a tight hug and whispered the words that Hinata needed to hear but did not have the luxury of receiving.

"I'm proud of you, Hinata-chan."

The strength of the arms around her and the hitch of Hinata's breath let her know that while you couldn't always help as much as you wanted, sometimes just the little you could give… was enough.


Well there you have it. I wrote a lot more than I thought I would for a first chapter, but I'm a bit wordy. That might happen a lot or it might not, we'll see. Let me know what you liked or disliked. If you aren't sure what something Japanese or Naruto related means, Google works wonders. I debated adding a jutsu list after each chapter, but I feel like that would be cumbersome and it would skew the word count even more than the A/N stuff already does. Until next time!


Titania Faith