Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
AN: No. I am not dead. I've just been dealing with a crashed computer (fixed now by my dad getting pissed enough to bye me my own ) a new school schedule (can we say 'hectic'?) and severe writers block. This chapter was so hard to write.
I'm sorry everyone, and I thank you for your patience.
In other news, I've been catching up to all the manga I missed in China, and all I can say is, "I'm so freakin' relieved!"
Man Neji…you really had me worrying there…
Spoilers: until about manga chapter…um 180 something…the one where Sasuke goes bye bye.
By: Poison Ivy
The four of them headed, surprisingly, to Hinata's room.
The girl answered Sakura's unspoken question with a small smile.
"I didn't really want to eat out in public," she said, "since tonight is not really formal."
Hinata stepped aside and made her way to the table, in which a meal was already laid out, with Ino's exclamations of how cute the table setting was. Neji followed them, arriving out of nowhere.
Sakura glanced at Lee apprehensively, only to watch him turn away and stare at a piece of the wall pointedly.
"Hinata-san!" Ino squealed, "You have to tell me where you bought your china! If I had known that so many of us would show, I would have invited Shikamaru!"
Hinata blushed and mumbled apologies.
"Sakura-chan!" Ino called to her, "Come and see this!"
She reluctantly stepped away from the door. "Lee-san…"
But he was already moving, taking a seat at the table.
She sat down too, in between Hinata and Ino.
After the meal was served, and everyone had started to eat, Ino broke the uncomfortable silence that stretched through the room. "So, Lee," she began, "I heard that you were thinking of becoming a Jounin."
He swallowed his bite and answered her with a grin, seeming at ease though the silence had mainly come from him. "That's right! I want to be on the same level as Gai-sensei!"
"But…" Hinata intruded, "I heard that you can't do ninjutsu…"
Lee nodded gravely, "It was a struggle of epic proportions to make it to chuunin, and I have no doubt it would have been harder to make it to jounin, but…"
"But?" Ino prodded.
"But it's been said that the Hokage is the one to choose who will become jounin. So there is really nothing I can do but continue to work hard!"
He flashed a thumbs-up at them.
Sakura smiled weakly, remembering the last time she had seen him use that pose. Her mind swam back, and Lee's voice, describing his training regimen, faded.
She balanced the load of groceries in her arm, trying not to drop anything. She was more weighed down than she had thought she would be, and even though she had supposedly figured out the perfect place to put each item so it would balance…well, everything looked better on paper.
She sighed, looking into the sky. It was getting dark already, the bright day giving way to somber clouds, and she hoped desperately that it wouldn't rain before she got home.
She was already tired from training that day, and she couldn't help but worry as she trudged home about Sasuke.
It was only a week after his trial, and though he was declared innocent, she noticed that his silences were longer and more frequent, and there was often a distant look in his eyes.
She wished she could be like Naruto and pretend that nothing had happened.
An orange slipped from its already precarious position in her bag, and she watched it fall helplessly, her arms full.
An arm swam into her field of vision, and caught the orange neatly.
"Lee-san." She said in surprise, looking up into his grinning face. "Arigatou."
"Here." He said, placing it carefully back on top.
She set down her bags carefully, and swiped the hair from her eyes. "How are you? It's been awhile."
"I've been training pretty hard, but I think I've recovered fully, he said, still grinning his infectious grin."
"That's great," she said, smiling back. He bent over and picked up the bags, ignoring her protests, waving them off with a, "It's the gentleman-ly thing to do."
"At least let me take one." She protested, hovering, "I should do something."
He grinned, "Then go out to dinner with me, Sakura-san."
She found herself accepting, wanting to spend talk more with him, and to learn what his operation was like.
"-Of course I was scared." He said, "But Gai-sensei promised me that it would be alright, and I needed to do it, you know?"
She nodded. They were waiting for their ramen to arrive; (Lee had explained sheepishly that he hadn't brought enough money for a restaurant, not knowing he was going to run into her. He also ignored her offers to pay for half, saying instead that he would make it up to her next time. Sakura silently let this pass) and he was giving her the blow-by-blow.
"But Lee-san," she said quietly, "so many people said you should quit. Why didn't you believe them?"
He looked thoughtful for a moment before speaking, his voice quieter than usual. "I guess it's because there were always so many people in the way, that I just stopped listening to them so much." He smiled, a trifle sadly. "So many people calling Thick-Brows, and talent less…and I didn't want to succeed for them anymore. I wanted to succeed for me."
She smiled, and shifted in her seat, enough to get a view at the night sky. "If it were me…" she said quietly, "I probably would have given up…" Sadness filled her eyes.
"No!" Lee said passionately, "I don't believe that Sakura-san!"
She looked over at him, surprised.
"You're one of the strongest people I know! You have inner strength! You waited for Naruto and the others to come back, even though everybody said that they wouldn't!"
Her eyes softened. "I guess. But waiting isn't a strength that—"
"Gai-sensei!" he said fervently, "Gai-sensei told me that there are many different types of genius! Strength can't be just measured by talent! Sakura-san's the genius of being patient!"
She smiled back at him, the first real smile since Sasuke had returned. "Thank you Lee-san."
"Sakura-san! I promised that I would protect you no matter what!" he flashed his thumbs-up at her. "Please, go out with me!"
She froze, not expecting that. They had been having such a great time, and she didn't want to spoil it by turning him down. What to do…
"I fell in love with you at first sight because I saw your inner beauty as well as your outer one!"
But she was barely listening any more, her eyes drawn past his shoulder, and at the figure standing in the dark.
He was watching them with his dark gaze, and she felt her chest constrict when she saw him.
Something flashed through his eyes, something that could have been the reflected light of Ichiraku but probably wasn't, and she was over come by fear.
He's probably misunderstanding this! She thought wildly, seeing her situation, sitting with Lee, in a different light. I said that I would love him no matter what, and he probably thinks that I'm lying!
Before she realized what she was doing, she was already out of her seat and dashing towards the figure of Sasuke, only to find out that he had already left.
She stood at the spot where he was a moment before, feeling sadness and pain tighten around her heart.
"Sakura-san…?" She glanced back guiltily towards the bright glow of the ramen stand, and towards Lee, now out of his seat.
"Was someone there?"
She didn't know what to say, and could only shrug.
His gaze hardened. "Was it Sasuke?"
She realized how it must have looked. He was right in the middle of his confession, and she had run away, seemingly right into the arms of another man.
"Was it?" the hard look was still in his eyes.
Her silence was all the answer he needed, sadness swirling in his eyes. "Why?" he asked, "He always hurts you, yet you go back to him. Why?"
She suddenly became conscious of the fact that he had never really forgiven Sasuke for leaving her.
She opened her mouth, not even knowing what to say.
But he was already gone, and the last thing she saw in his eyes was anger.
Neji watched her across the table. Her eyes had a faraway look in them, and she could tell by the direction of her pupils told him that she was remembering something.
She looked so incredibly sad, that his heart gave a great lurch and he had to look away before his watching became obvious.
He wondered what had happened between her and Lee.
He wondered even more why he cared so much.
OK it's done. Now I can go speculate some more about Kakashi's past. I worship him, in case you haven't noticed by now.
Also, I've been thinking about Neji and Tenten, and I really admire her. I hope I haven't bastardized her too much.