Disclaimer: All characters portrayed (thus far) are creations and property of Kishimoto Masashi. I claim no legal right to use them, and I am making no money off of this piece of fanfiction.
Spoiler Warning: This story begins during the intermission between the second and third stages of the Chuunin Exam.
Non-Yaoi Warning:
^_^; Sorry folks! This is a Sakura-centric fic. Most of the guys are off training on their own at the moment, anyhow, so there will be no yaoi/shounen-ai content in this fic for the foreseeable future.

Now that that's all out of the way, please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show! C&C is always welcome, so please review or reply privately if you like the fic, hate the fic, or have any other burning notions that you feel the need to express after reading this. Reader response is the bread and butter of fanfiction authors!



"Welcome to Yamanaka Flowers- oh, hello Sakura." Leaning over the counter and propping her chin in her hand, Ino dropped the perpetually cheerful mask she wore for the customers and waved lazily as the pink-haired kunoichi of team seven walked in. "What'cha here for today," she said in a more relaxed tone.

"Just another daffodil for Lee," Sakura replied companionably, pausing to admire the botanical feast for the eyes that surrounded her. She still couldn't understand why Ino sometimes complained about working in her parents' shop; she certainly wouldn't mind working here. Walking slowly down the aisle, she stooped to examine the half-dozen daffodils they had in stock, looking for the prettiest one.

The blonde nodded in understanding. "How is he doing?" she asked after a moment, her voice dropping slightly. Sakura could tell that she was remembering their visit to the hospital a week ago, when Lee had collapsed while trying to do pushups.

The memory brought a sad smile to Sakura's lips. "He's getting better; he's walking around a bit now. They got him some crutches." They were also watching him like a hawk, to make sure he didn't hurt himself. Every time Sakura saw him she could see how it weighed on Lee's morale, not even being allowed to train.

"Oh... well, that's good," Ino said without feeling. After an uncomfortable pause, she piped up with another, more hopeful question that was surely never far from her mind. "Any word from Sasuke?"

"Ah- no," she answered quickly, grateful for the change in subject, but wishing that she had something more to report. "But Kakashi-sensei said he knew where he was, and then he left too. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about..." Was a simple heads up too much to ask though, after a week missing? God damn insensitive bastards, the lot of them! Even that moron Naruto!

The blond boy was still in the village, but she'd barely seen him the entire week. He was apparently training with some dirty old man that he'd met somewhere, like he needed any help becoming a pervert. But it still stung; she was the only one who'd failed, and she couldn't help with her teammates' training, so she was left all alone with nothing to do. Useless...

If only she'd really defeated Ino. Then she'd... what? Train by herself? Would Kakashi have found someone to help her prepare for the third exam? He complimented her often enough about how sharp she was, but he never really took any interest in her otherwise. He was always watching Sasuke and Naruto though, giving them appraising looks that he never cast her way. They were strong, and they would only become stronger, while she seemed doomed to mediocrity.

Not feeling like sinking back into her own personal pit of self-loathing right before she went to visit Lee, Sakura shook her head and tried to think of something else. Glancing up at the girl who had raised the painful subject, she gave Ino a disparaging look. "Shouldn't you be helping Shikamaru train or something? He's got an extra match; he'll be eaten alive if he isn't ready."

"That lazy bum?" Ino replied incredulously. "Yeah, right. I don't think he's training at all, or at least not more than normal." She looked back down to the fashion magazine in front of her. "Last time I asked, he said it was too much of a hassle to get all worked up about it. I don't think Asuma-sensei knows what to do with him."

"That sounds like Shikamaru all right," Sakura replied, deciding on a flower and standing up. "Could you cut this one for me?"


As Ino rounded the counter with a pair of shears, Sakura thought about the slick-haired boy. She wondered how calm she'd be, if she were in his place; she'd probably be a nervous wreck. Lazy or not, Shikamaru was no fool, which meant that he either knew something she didn't, he was a brilliant actor, or else he had more guts than anyone gave him credit for.

She, on the other hand, couldn't even defeat her own rival properly. It was more luck than anything else that had saved her from Ino's Shintenshin. If Naruto hadn't shouted at that very moment...

She still wasn't entirely clear on what had transpired next, but she was somehow sure that it wouldn't have worked if Naruto had never opened his big mouth. Ino's technique was powerful, and she'd heard that even the Jounin had been surprised when she threw it off. But since she had no clue how she did it, other than Ino's bizarre comment about her having 'two minds,' she didn't think she could rely on that the next time they fought.

Staring over her one-time friend's shoulder, Sakura realized with a jolt that she wanted to fight her again. She didn't want to settle for 'not losing' to Ino anymore. She wanted- she needed to prove that she could win. She needed it so much that it ached, like a gaping hole in the bottom of her stomach. Is this how they feel...? she wondered detachedly, images of Lee, Sasuke, and Naruto flashing before her mind's eye.

"Here you go," Ino said as she finished wrapping the flower, turning to her. "What? Do you need something else?"

"I- yes- no. It's..." Sakura mumbled, paying for and accepting the flower in a daze. Ino was giving her a funny look; she realized she was staring, and hastily averted her eyes. "It's nothing."

"If you say so, crazy forehead girl," the other girl drawled, not sounding convinced.

DAMMIT, I'LL SHOW YOU CRAZY! But she couldn't just challenge Ino right there in the shop; She hadn't had any time to prepare. She'd lose for sure, and she'd sworn to herself that she wouldn't lose anymore. What she needed was a plan...

Ino's expression grew slightly worried when Sakura didn't rise to he barb. "Hey, are you okay?" she asked.

"I'm fine!" the pink-haired kunoichi squeaked, thoughts shooting through her head at a mile a minute. "Um... I'd better get going, then. See you later!"

"Yeah, later..." Ino replied, waving as Sakura hurried toward the door. "Say hello to Lee for me."

A parting cry of "I will!" slipped through the crack of the closing door as it jingled shut.

Slamming the bedroom door behind her, Sakura tossed her bulging shoulder bag onto the bed and began clearing some space on her desk. After visiting Lee she'd gone to the academy and borrowed every scroll they would give her on mind control and mind defense jutsu. She'd even convinced Iruka-sensei to lend her some advanced scrolls that a Gennin normally wouldn't have access to.

It wouldn't be the first time she'd come to him looking for study material. Back in the academy she had memorized every text they'd assigned her, and then often did extra research to impress the professors. She was willing to bet that she was the only Gennin who'd known all the answers to the first exam, and she hadn't even done any special preparation for it. Even if she'd never won against Ino at anything else, Haruno Sakura never lost to anyone when it came to studying.

And that was what she was counting on now. Talking with Lee about his training - it was a subject they kept drifting back to, since he was so anxious to return to it - Sakura had realized that in some ways they were a lot alike. Despite the fact that she could figure things out faster than most, Sakura was no more a 'Sasuke' or a 'Neji' than he was. They were both 'hard working' types, as Lee put it, he with his body and she with her brain.

Once she became a Gennin, however, it'd felt like all the studying she'd done had been pointless; the real world seemed so vastly different the classroom. When the Demon Brothers had ambushed them on the way to the Wave Country, Sasuke was the only one of them that had kept his head. She and Naruto had been paralyzed with fear at the first sign of a real fight, and while Naruto had recovered with a vengeance, she had only fallen further behind with time. Always hiding in their shadows just as she had been sheltered by Ino's shadow before, she had lost herself.

Orochimaru's attack had been a rude awakening for her. Caught in the open, unprotected, it had taken harsh words and painful choices to make her remember who she was. She was not Ino's sidekick, always trailing half a step behind, not Sasuke and Naruto's delicate princess, basking in their triumphs and weeping at their defeats. She was Haruno Sakura, and she was a ninja of the Hidden Leaf. A sharp mind filled with knowledge beyond her years was her weapon of choice, and it was about time that she started using it.

Whipping open the first scroll on her list, 'Genjutsu and the Mind,' Sakura unrolled a blank scroll beside it and began plowing through theory-heavy descriptions of the various ways that the mind could be attacked, taking notes as she went. Genjutsu techniques and their corresponding defensive strategies weren't covered heavily in the academy, and while she was more knowledgeable than most Gennin, that still wouldn't protect her from the Shintenshin.

Despite the risks, Ino had shown her once that it was indeed possible to use the Shintenshin in an actual fight, and Sakura was willing to bet that her rival hadn't stopped refining her technique just because neither of them had passed the exam. She was probably already figuring out ways around the surprising resistance that Sakura had shown before. She would face a stronger opponent when she fought Ino again, and this time she was determined to be ready or it.

If that meant locking herself up in her room and spending every waking moment poring over cryptic tomes, then so be it; she didn't have anything better to do. Until the exam was finished there were no missions, and she didn't have a day-job to worry about, unlike Ino. Maybe that was why Ino complained. Could it be that she didn't have enough time to train?

No, she probably just wanted to go and do something fun instead, like hang out with her friends or- STAY FOCUSED, DAMMIT! Slapping her cheeks, Sakura took a deep breath and continued reading. The lamp on her desk was still burning when the first rays of sunlight broke through the window the next morning, and it would remain so for many nights to come...

If you lack Heaven, seek wisdom and be prepared. 
If you lack Earth, run in the fields and seek advantages.
If you have both Heaven and Earth, 
you will have success in even the most dangerous times. 
These rules will guide a person though the extremes... 
 'Motto of the Chuunin' 
 -The Third Hokage 

 %%,, ,%%, ,,,,%%%%%%%%%%, 
 %%%%%%%%%%%%%%% ,,,,%%%%%%%%"""""" 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% ,%, 
 %%%% %%%% "%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% 
 %%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% ,%, 
 %%%% %%%%"%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%
 %%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%% "%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% 
 %%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%% 
 "%%" "%%" %%%% 
 %%%% ,%%, 
S • U • I • R • E • N
 %%,, %%,, 
 %%%%" %%%%" ,%%, 
 %%%% %%%% 
 "%%" "%%" 
 "%%,,, %%%% ,, 
 "%%%%%, ,,,,,,,,,,,,,%%%%,,,,,,,,%%%%, 
 %%%%%%, """"""""""""%%%%""""""""""""" 
 %%%%%% %%,, %%%% ,%%, 
 """" %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 ,%%, %%%%,,,,,,%%%%,,,,,,%%%% 
"%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%%""""""%%%%""""""%%%% 
 %%%% %%%% %%%% %%%% 
 %%%% %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% 
 %%%% "%%" %%%% "%%",, 
 %%%% ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,%%%%,,,,,,,,,%%%%, 
 %%%% """""""""""""%%%%"""""""""""""" 
 ,%%%%, %%%% 
 ,,%%%% "%%,, "" 
,,%%%%%%" "%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%
"%%%%%" ""%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%