AN: The extended version of "Strength," my SakuLee ficlet. The story will not be exactly the same, and there's actually….wait for it…dialogue. Shocking. Also, at the moment this story is clean. However, this whole concept has been an experiment for me since the beginning, so I might later try my hand at lime or lemon. We'll see. And for those who worry, it's going to be way shorter than "A Change In the Wind."

Chapter 1


The wind threw dust up into her eyes. She did not move. She did not speak. Leaves caught in the cool breeze were already piling up against the grave marker. She did not reach to brush them away. Outwardly, she was stone herself, still and silent and calm. Inside, her heart was pounding and her stomach churned with the tension that had budded that morning, when they had put her mother's ashes into the ground and cemented forever the final, frightening truth.

Sakura was alone.

She stood in the graveyard until the strain building in her stomach became too great, and she could no longer stay still. She walked down the street, pace quickening until she was flat out running, but still the tension would not settle or dissipate. It stayed with her, building and building, as she ran through the gates of her village, as she leaped through the trees of her childhood home. It had built to such a peak that by the time she reached one of the many training areas deep in the woods, she could feel the pressure on the inside of her chest pushing outward, threatening to burst her heart once and for all.

She slammed her fist into a tree, and the trunk splintered. The skin of her hands stung, her knuckles ached with the impact. This outer pain was good – it took her mind away from the mounting tension writhing in her belly. Again, she slammed the tree. It broke in a shower of splinters, falling heavily into the dirt. Gaining momentum, Sakura turned to another tree, employing all her strength. That tree crashed to the forest floor too, as blood trickled down her hand.

Not enough. She spotted a tall outcropping of rock, and focused her ire on it. In a few seconds, her world became nothing but flesh on stone, the cracking of rock and the cracking of bone mixing in together as the pain inside exploded outwards.

She didn't notice immediately when the hard rock became something else, something green and moving that dodged her fists. Eyes blurring with rage and tears, she swung harder, aiming to destroy it too.

Bandaged hands clamped down in her wrists, pinning them. Something strong latched itself around her legs, knocking her to her knees and holding her there, too.

"Sakura, stop!" the voice filtered into her consciousness, and she suddenly realized that she was half-screaming and sobbing all at once. She stopped thrashing, her body going rigid.

"You must not hurt yourself like this," the voice said again, and through the haze she saw large black eyes staring down at her, close to her face. "It's alright," Rock Lee soothed, though he did not let go of her wrists and his leg stayed firmly around her knees. "I'm here for you now," he murmured.

Sakura felt the rage fall out abruptly from under her, leaving her weak and unsupported. She crumpled, trying to wind herself into a ball around the core of her pain. Lee shifted from holding her still to just holding her, letting her cry into his chest as he rocked her gently and murmuring whatever calming words he could think of into her sweat-damp hair.

The shadows were long and deep by the time she ran out of tears. She lay there against him, feeling empty, drained.

"How did you know?" she rasped at last around dry throat.

He sighed, making her head rise and fall with his chest. "I saw you running," he told her, carefully sliding an arm from around her back and reaching for his water canteen. He handed it to her, holding it steady when her hands proved too shaky to support it herself. "I didn't follow you at first, but then I met Ino, who told me about your mother. I tracked you here."

"Why did you stop me?" She demanded, hating the bitter accusation in her voice but unable to stop herself nonetheless.

"You were hurting yourself," he said mildly, not offended.

"It's not your business," she shot back, and struggled to sit up, to push away from him. She teetered precariously as a wave of dizziness hit her. He put a hand on her shoulder, waiting until he saw from her pale face that she was steady.

"I know."

She turned her head to look at him, eyes red and swollen, face streaked with tears and sweat. "I'm sorry," she managed, adding guilt and self-loathing to the mess of emotions in her chest.

"It's alright," Lee answered quickly, smiling at her. His smile was slightly subdued, though, and he winced when he moved to stand, offering his hand to her. "I'll take you home, if you permit."

She let him pull her to her feet, but didn't relinquish his hand. He blinked in surprise as she stepped in towards him, narrowing her eyes. "Where did I hit you?" She demanded, putting a hand on his chest.

He shook his head, his free hand coming up to ward her off. "No, it's fine."

But she didn't back away. She owed him this much, at least. "Where?"

He looked down almost ruefully, and touched the left side of his rib cage. "Here."

Sakura placed her hand flat on the spot, focusing her chakra. Her hand glowed green briefly, and when it faded Lee straightened. "It's gone!" he exclaimed in surprise. A sudden grin transfigured his face. "Sakura, you're amazing!"

The kuniochi gave a clipped, bitter laugh. "No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are," he countered firmly. "Even when your mind was clearly elsewhere, you still managed to get in a solid hit."

"You had to let me hit you in order to get me in that lock," she retorted. "And don't try to lie about it. Your face gives it away."

He laughed remorsefully, and reached up to scratch his head. "I never was any good at hiding things from you."

"You're too honest," she agreed, taking a cautious step. Her limbs all felt like lead, but she could walk.

"Then allow me to be honest with you," he walked beside her, keeping his longer stride in check with her slow pace. "I know you concentrate more in the genjutsu area, but you have excellent taijutsu reflexes, even if you lack the training to use them. A little hard work and you could be a master in taijutsu too."

She couldn't help but smile a little at the earnestness in his tone. "Would you teach me?"

He was so surprised that he stopped dead in his tracks for several seconds. Sakura kept moving, afraid to stop lest she somehow allow the tension, the pain to build up inside again. Movement was good. After a moment, he caught up to her again, and if he was still shocked at her request, his face showed none of it. "Of course!" He told her enthusiastically. "You're already well into the basics and intermediate levels, naturally, but I can help you develop what you know further. Whenever you wish, just tell me. I am always prepared to train!" He pumped a fist in the air. "After all, we're in the springtime - Sakura?" Lee's voice turned instantly to concern as he reached out to steady her.

Sakura grabbed his hand until the dizziness passed again, before straightening. "I'm alright," she murmured. "I used up too much chakra smashing things."

"I'll carry you home," Lee offered, eyeing her worriedly. "If you will permit."

"No," she told him firmly, frowning at her weakness. "I'm not helpless."

His hand closed over hers gently. Distracted from the ugliness inside, she looked up to one of the most serious expressions on his face she had ever seen.

"I know."