Written for the The Naruto: Real Life Issues and Abused Plot Devices challenge. Vague spoilers up to around chapter 217 or episode 124, has become officially AU as of more recent ones. All and any feedback much appreciated.

It was a little while after Shikamaru was promoted to chuunin that Ino first realised she'd be taking her next exam without him. It came as a bit of a start, not that she'd have admitted it; and compared to the rather larger shock that had been associated with finding out he'd passed in the first place after that performance it barely even ranked, but it threw her, even just for a moment. It was not, she told herself firmly, attached to any sort of fear that she'd never make it through her next exam without him; in fact a break from all his complaining might've made a nice change, but, well, they were a team, weren't they? Had been ever since they graduated, and for all that she'd have given a lot to leave the both of her teammates back at the academy all those months ago, working with anyone else now would just seem... sorta wrong.

Not that she was going to let something like that spoil the novelty of the situation, particularly given that none of them had honestly expected to pass the exam in the first place. Having the only graduating chuunin on her team had been more than any of them could have hoped for (though how they could have neglected to pass Sasuke-kun as well she'd never understand, even allowing for how messy things had gotten at the end of his match). And she'd heard it was pretty normal for genin to work in different teams for the exam - Asuma-sensei made it sound like some sort of extra test - and for an entire team to pass in one go was very unusual. She had wondered a bit who they'd get to replace him, whether it'd be one of the older genin or maybe even a new one from the next academy class, but there was no need to rush it. They wasn't even any real need for them to take the next exam.

In short, a little thing like future Chuunin Exams wasn't something she was going to let herself worry over. It was far from the first thought that crossed her mind when they told her Shikamaru passed (the afore-mentioned shock), or the second (this had involved congratulating him and a sudden rush of team pride) or even the third (Sasuke) or the forth (further disbelief). Really, on the scale of things, she hardly thought about it at all.

She was, at least, aware of it, and had had some time to get used to the idea.

She'd never imagined she'd be taking her next exam without Chouji too.

Mind you, Lee and Tenten had never imagined they'd be taking it without their teammate either. Even children who grow up in a ninja village don't imagine surprises like that.

What is certain is that when they caught their first sight of the Sand Siblings bringing the few survivors of that doomed mission limping home, something so far off as their next chance at promotion could scarcely have been further from their minds. It's only later on, once you start to pull it all back together that harsh practicalities like that have to be dealt with, before you can move on.

It was a little awkward, showing up for practice that first morning. Also absolutely essential, of course; they'd have to get to know each other inside out within the next few months if they were going to have any hope of making it through. Given that she'd never worked with them before, hardly even spoken to either, they'd need all the time they could get. It's never easy to replace comrades, harder still to know what you can say that won't somehow remind you all of what brought you there; rather a lot of the first day passed in uncomfortable silence. There was, however, an unspoken sense of shared experience and loss there somewhere underneath it all; and that took the edge off any resentment they might have felt at this so casual attempt to replace lost comrades. In the end they just focused on training. Chatter could come later.

As it was, Ino quickly realised she'd have to focus pretty solidly on training anyway. The reality of just what sort of hours Gai's team habitually kept sank in somewhere around the mid point of their usual schedule and proved a little much for a not-overly-fit first year kunoichi on her first day. Even the schedule Tenten kept was levels above anything she'd ever maintained; the schedule Lee kept was all but inhuman. Compared to Shikamaru's laziness and Chouji's constant snack breaks it was worlds away, and that, of course, was the worst possible train of thought she could of wound up on. They were understanding about it at least, which may have saved the situation; told her to go home once they could see her wearing out. They could work their way up from there.

Really, Tenten reflected later, Ino had done well for her first day. Gai's team had become legendary for it's training schedule so early in their first year (the fact it's least enthusiastic member was its strongest notwithstanding) that the rumour was that several teams had declined to enter the first exam after learning they were in it. That Ino had made it even so far as she did before she started flagging (somewhere around a third of the way through, approaching near collapse by half way, finally giving up with an with an all but comical expression on her face around the point when she finally thought to ask just how long they planned to keep going), was not bad at all. She'd even dealt with one of Gai's motivational speeches without twitching very much.

She did need to work on her weapons techniques though. Tenten made a mental note to sort this out with her at some stage.

Things had changed a lot for them, far, far too quickly for any of them to keep up with. It was a little embarrassing to remember what she'd thought about the rookies before the first exam. It had been so obvious to her that Neji was going to pass back then, even if she and Lee didn't make it, and she'd been pretty sure they would too. The reality of the exam had put them all in their places. Recent events even more so. Ino may not have been the star of her year, but none of them had ever been the children she'd imagined them to be; and even Ino had some surprises up her sleeve.

Asuma took his turn at working with them on the second day - nothing worse than supervising the simplest of D rank missions - but it served its purpose. With no further excuse of mind-numbing training, they started to talk a bit more; trivial stuff (and focused primarily around the mystery just what their client could have been thinking by storing an important bunch of keys in a torn pocket on a breakneck run through such spectacularly long, thick grass), but it was a start. It wasn't all forward though. Somehow working with Ino's teacher managed to drive home Neji's absence infinitely more than merely working with Ino herself, or maybe the second day was what really proved he wasn't coming back. Conversation died a little past lunch time. No sense risking getting on to subjects they'd best avoid.

They'd agreed at the funeral. No more tears.

Everything changed the morning they got back. It's so far from unusual for a few of the new genin to fail to make it through their first two years that the village is - almost - accustomed to it, but this assault cut too close to the bone. The reminder that the enemy the Sandaime gave his life to defeat still has teeth was more than enough to ensure whispers of the tale were known throughout the ranks before the day was out. Far more was lost that day than the lives of two of their most promising youngsters; far more portended than their surviving fellows have yet come to understand. In a village where everyone is still trying to pick up the pieces from the last assault, one more thing has just fallen apart.

It is them, however - those who went and those who stayed - who inevitably bore the worst of the fallout. Despite all but collapsing from bloodloss two steps through the gate, Kiba was out of hospital within a couple of weeks; but it took much longer than that for even half his usual exuberance to return. Hinata didn't known what to think or even who to speak to. Even Shino seemed uncharacteristically unnerved.

Their newly promoted leader may have had it worst of all. Whatever those two may or may not have convinced him they could take care of unassisted doesn't matter; ultimately it was his decision to leave them behind. Those are choices that will haunt him for a long time yet (and an outcome like this from your first attempt at leadership is more than even a genius can justify away). For a week he hardly left his room, stretched on his bed or crammed into the corner with his head in his hands, running through his every decision over an over until they all ran together, but all it could tell him was what he'd known all along. None of them knew what they were up against. Without the interference of the Sand there might have been no-one left at all.

He didn't say much at the funeral, just watched as they buried his best friend. He hasn't said much since either.

Ino doesn't properly remember the sight of the survivors coming home; just that first burst of relief when the call went out they were back and a quick dash down to the gate to be in time to meet them; after that everything is blank.

Lee remembers the day they told him he'd never be well enough to fight again, to give up on his dream, and finds even that falls somewhere short of shock of what he found against a tree truck on his way back from Kimimaro's graveyard.

Tenten remembers it being absolutely crucial that she scold Lee (at considerable length) the very moment he got back for running off to fight while recovering from life threatening surgery, remembers the sight of Neji's body in his arms, remembers every thought draining from her head. It's really not like any of them are ever going to forget.

It's been months now, it doesn't feel that long, but it's time they got back on their feet again.

They've all felt useless long enough.

Shikamaru came past yesterday, on his way off on some mission or other. He can't be bothered telling them the details, manages to make it sound like the most mundane thing they've had him do since promotion (in a few years, Shikamaru will be making high risk, high priority, top secret jounin rank missions sound like a bit of a bother, which should keep intelligence happy if nothing else), and he won't be leading it. He's turned down leadership of so many missions since then it's a wonder they're still trying, but shorthanded as they are they probably can't afford to let an intellect like his go to waste.

Attempts to convince him that that first mission's failure wasn't his fault have been steadfastly ignored. Probably, when all is said and done, that's because he already knows, but it doesn't make any difference. Didn't make any difference then, in the week he spent analysing his every move; doesn't make any difference now. Half the people they know seem convinced it's in some way their fault, why should he be the exception?

Anyway, it's not going to take him anywhere near Grass Country, where they're holding the next exam, it's expected to take a while and they're leaving the day after tomorrow, so this is his last chance to say goodbye, don't screw up, try not to do anything dumb. He'll be there for the finals though (still comfortably over a month away), even if he has to let them convince him to lead his next mission in exchange for the time off.

Tenten is quite impressed by how few words it took him to get all that across, Ino finds herself wondering whether he'd have been leading missions weeks ago if he hadn't wanted to save that bargaining chip, Lee salutes him brightly and they all pretend not to see that faint smile as he walks off complaining that they've got too much enthusiasm for their own good.

It goes unspoken that they're all going to be in those finals. They've practically promised him now, haven't they? A vote of confidence from Shikamaru - however carefully disguised - is not to be wasted.

It's been uphill all the way, but it's finally starting to feel like they're getting there. Ino found herself needling Lee about Sakura last week, even Tenten joined in after a bit, and though poor Lee had looked quite heartbroken for a while he was well aware by the end of the day it had all been in fun. Somehow, she later wound up promising that if they made it through the exam she'd find a way to set them up together, and the way his face lit up was almost worth the extra hours he insisted they keep training that night.

She's really catching up on the training routine too (she still moans about the hours, though more by habit). She's even been able to return some of Tenten's help with hints on some of her chakra tricks lately; and they're already planning to make the only two-girl genin team in the village one that'll be remembered. Their third team member, naturally, has no qualms about helping.

Lee wonders sometimes whether Neji can see them from where he is now. He's sure he heard someone say that about those who'd passed on once. When he brought it up with Tenten she told him it was nonsense, but as he figures it, if there's anyone who could see them from wherever they go, it's Neji. After all, there's never been anything much he can't see. He's even started using it as an extra motivator on those rare occasions when he starts to feel like he can't quite make those extra two hundred push ups - wouldn't want to look slack if his rival might be watching. Wouldn't want to look anything short of the absolute best he can be.

Even for a guy who uses everything as a reason to train harder, this one has proven an unusually convincing.

A little after he told her their plans, Sakura quietly asked him to take care of Ino, and that's a promise he's going to keep. Not that he hasn't devoted himself fully to every promise he's ever made, but when Sakura-san asks him, that means extra effort is going into it. Gai-sensei told him after the funeral that the only way to properly honour another's death is to go on living - for them too. Lee has always taken Gai-sensei's advice.

It's still good to have something like the exam to focus on too though. On the day they left for Grass Country, Lee almost managed to smile as he commented he was going to out do Neji at last.

Because they're going to pass this year no matter what.