Okay, I truly apologize for how long this took to get updated. So many things hit with RL it wasn't funny, both for myself and for my beta. Then I had computer problems and on one occasion, had to reformat without the ability to save anything, so any drafts I had made for upcoming chapters had been lost (including my outline!). The next chapter's already halfway written so hopefully it won't take too long for an update this time.

This sort of mutated a bit from what I had originally planned, but I guess that's okay. I'm still having a lot of fun with this fic, and no, I haven't forgot about the Sasuke thing. That'll crop up soon, promise. ;)

I'm not sure if I like this chapter or not. This was written admist lots of frustration thanks to the aforementioned troubles, and i'm not sure if it flows well. It's also my first time writing Lee. Ugh. I can only hope that gets better in the future.


Sakura settled onto the bench with a heavy sigh.

Finally, after all of the preparations, the first chuunin exam of the year was about to start. After this was over, she could relax and get back to training. The last month or so Sakura's done nothing but be Tsunade's gopher exclusively. With the tournament it meant that things would go back to normal after it was all over.

She cupped her hands at her knees and leaned forward to look at the stadium rounds. It was rockier than Konoha's and didn't have the grass that theirs did. It made sense, considering it was Suna, but still, Sakura wasn't sure how the terrain would be used to the shinobi's advantage if there was nothing there.

She simply sighed and was thankful that her own exam was held at Konoha. It had made a lot of difference, being able to use the terrain to corner her opponent, and with the training that Tsunade had given to her, she managed to strike a balance between raw power and strategic strength.

But she wasn't sure how this was going to work. She sat there eyeing the grounds. She tilted this way and that, going over what she knew of each and every person who was in the tournament this time, and how they would get around to winning or losing their match.

"It isn't going to work out that way."

She should've known that someone else had already figured everything out. "Oh, Shikamaru?" She turned to look up and found that he was standing with Neji and Lee. Neji was glancing around with a look of concentration and she figured he was trying to figure out where his family were seated. She would have assumed that they'd be in the 'nobles' section or something, but then, she recalled, the Hyuuga never sat anywhere special even at home. Lee seemed to be trying to help him and it was him that eventually pointed things out to his former teammate. She caught a slightly bashful look that was tossed at her, but it disappeared.

"I should go," Neji said quietly. "I'm not sure if my uncle is in a mood to tolerate tardiness today."

"Neji, you shouldn't think like that," Lee had responded eagerly, but his tone held a note of respect. He had calmed down in the last couple of years. Neji probably found it a blessing that the other wasn't running around as if he were a squirrel on some of Tsunade's special medications. "You and your uncle have formed a great bond in the last two years; he will not be at all upset for your being late."

Neji lifted his right hand to rest on his left shoulder, his brow knitted slightly. Sakura felt a twinge of sympathy for him. Tsunade and her medics weren't able to completely heal Neji and while he could likely still defeat any other shinobi in a fight, he was granted retirement at his request because he couldn't utilize his abilities to their fullest extent. His days of learning the succession techniques were done; they stopped merely at what he had known upon that fateful mission.

"Yes, but today is different," he said quietly, his eyes turning to Shikamaru first, then to Sakura. "He's going to need someone there. I think he finally developed the 'nervous father' trait the other day." His lips quirked into an odd smile and he turned away to descend the stairs further.

"Hyuugas and their inability to socially develop on time," Shikamaru commented with a snort.

There was a small round of chuckles at the comment before Lee turned and clasped Shikamaru's shoulder, "I will join you soon, my friend." He stopped when he saw Sakura, and she thought she saw a blush, but he hid it well. He gave her a slight bow, "Good bye, Sakura-san. It's good to see you again. Please take care."

He followed after Neji and Sakura watched as the two disappeared within rows upon rows of benches. She just shook her head and sighed. "It's amazing how much they've grown. Sometimes I kind of wish Neji'd go back to being a complete ass, instead of a half one, and Lee would get all excitable."

"Things have changed," Shikamaru offered. He was distracted, so his tone was quiet and thoughtful.

"Yeah."

"The last match will be between Kiba and Tenten," he said after a moment. "Hinata will lose in the second tier, and Ino will lose in the first."

She blinked and glanced up. "What?"

Shikamaru just turned and began to walk up the stairs. "And knowing Ino, she'll be in the hospital for at least a week.. I need to go. I need to go find my father and Ino's father. They wanted me to sit with them for this. Temari'll probably show up so I need to get prepared to get grilled."

Sakura mulled over what he said for a moment, and determined he was right. He had a good guess about things, but then, she blinked as the word 'Temari' sunk in. "Wait, you guys are really... You mean Ino just wasn't..."

Shikamaru glanced over his shoulder at her, beady eyes looking momentarily intense, before he shrugged and continued on his way.

She swallowed and shook her head. Poor Ino, she thought. After she had gotten over her crush on Sasuke, Ino had kept her feelings about Shikamaru bottled up and only those that knew her well were able to garner even the faintest traces of evidence of it. In fact, despite the fact they had gotten close again, Sakura still had to be told about it and it came as a total shock.

With a sigh she leaned back and simply waited. The stadium filled up all around her and she wondered if anyone was going to join her to watch this or if she was going to end up sitting alone. After some time though, a slight clearing of a throat caught her attention. She glanced up and saw that Lee was standing at the end of the row.

"Sakura-san!" he greeted, a bit of his enthusiasm and eagerness finally leaking into his tone of voice. He paused, looking as if he wanted to ask her something, but the words didn't quite come out. She watched a profuse blush appear on his cheeks and he took a deep breath as if he finally had made a decision in what he was there for.

She had already figured it out. "You can sit here if you want." She had to stifle a laugh as he all but deflated and moved to take the seat she had offered.

"Thank you, Sakura-san," he said, sitting stiffly and trying very carefully that no part accidentally touched her. At his overly stiff expression of concentration, Sakura giggled out loud. He blinked at her.

"Relax, okay?" she offered with a light smile.

He nodded and tried to take her command, failing horribly at it. Sakura simply shook her head and pulled a leg up for her to rest her arms on. "It'll be starting soon," she said.

Lee gave a stiff nod in response. "Yes. There are many Leaf genin in this tournament, as well."

She nodded. "Shikamaru says that it'll be a showdown between Kiba and Tenten. Ino'll lose in the first and Hinata in the second."

Lee was thoughtful for a moment, then said quietly, "I would trust Shikamaru-san's judgement. He can anticipate things several steps in advance. I trust very little might change if he said how it was going to end." Again, he was thoughtful, then seemed to straighten his posture even more. "However, all are strong shinobi, and if they put their hearts to it, I'm certain they will prove even Shikamaru wrong." He turned and flashed a dazzling smile at her. "Don't worry, Sakura-san. Your friends will be fine! This isn't their first time in the finals."

Sakura nodded her agreement, but she was still worried. "I know, but... Oh well." She shrugged it off and smiled a bit. "I hope one of Ino's team makes it. They've all been working really hard this time around. I think that if just one of them got promoted, they'd be happy as a whole."

"They have a good dynamic. They have managed to work very well together."

Again, Sakura nodded, then fell silent because she simply had nothing else to talk about. Lee also seemed to be content with this arrangement and didn't try to initiate any further conversation Some time passed before the doors of the stadium opened, and this year's contestants for this chuunin tournament were marched in. Sakura made a mental note of each of her friends and had to chuckle.

Tenten looked as ready as she ever did, while Hinata was trying not to nervously fidget. Ino was just quiet and she was looking towards the ground. Sakura wondered about that, but she figured considering what was coming up, Ino had a lot on her mind.

As the Kazekage stood up and welcomed everyone, Lee coughed to get Sakura's attention. She turned her head, and arched her brows a little. He was trying to figure out something to say, and Sakura was patient.

"After this day is done, the Hyuuga are planning to... dine at a restaurant and... I was invited by Neji to come along and he said that I could bring someone if I wanted to and..." It was the most quiet Sakura had ever seen him.

She smiled and looked down as the first tournament, between a couple of foreign ninja whose names Sakura failed to catch, began. Her answer was quiet, but Lee was able to hear it. "Sure. I'd like that."