The Forest knows all.

This is all Lee can think as he dodges and swipes, dashes and flees from an enemy that embodies the very leaves; the Forest knows that he does not belong here, and the sinking weight of this manifests as faces in every dark shade of a single leaf; grotesque, demonized expressions contorting with the calm sashay of shadows as an icy chill rents the dark bowels of this killing-field. Being a Shinobi is no longer a game, and it's more than vests on the line in the Konoha Chuunin Exams. It feels like an entirely different atmosphere, pressing down on him; the weight of another, binding sky. Lee lands in a neat tangle of limbs, silent and swift with all the ardor of his youth, onto the Forest floor.

When he looks up, he is staring straight into the gray eyes of a purple-haired young girl, who seems as shocked to see him as he her. In her lap are about fiteen large Forest mice, their compliant button-eyes shining as they follow the riceball she is feeding them.

And the rest is history...

"They're wrong," she whispers.

There isn't much to do in this situation; Lee has awoken from the dread-tide of the medications, his limbs aching, hollow and hungry for drugs and solace; he will not find the latter, of course, in this hospital or anywhere else. This is an apathetic world, that isn't supposed to produce girls like Rie, who catch his head before it hits the ground and shout, shout at Sakura for being too shallow to deserve the affection that he has to give as they all sit in the courtyard, doomed. She didn't know Lee was conscious; doesn't now, and he can't very well twitch to interrupt what could be a seriously awkward moment. The tinge of Rie's breath against his broad back, her weeping as it flows through his pajamas and into his skin, soul, makes him want to, though. And yet he can't; he's frozen by what her small, strained voice says to his sleeping form:

"They're wrong, Lee-kun. I've never been this sure of anything in my life… You were meant to be great. No one has helped you earn this- nobody could. It takes a separate heart to have the strength you do, and… and I know you won't falter. You'll become an even more Splendid Shinobi… and I'll do whatever I can to help you. I promise. On my life. I owe you it…because you're the best friend I've ever had."

"What were you thinking?" she asks, in the absent fashion she adopts when she's trying to keep from crying. Her hair is a billow of aubergine, splaying with her T-shirt in the breeze; the herd of mice at her feet are crouched low to the ground, but do not retreat to hiding places because of the dumpling that Rie is slowly shredding and feeding to them. She just loves mice.

"I had to," he explains, even though she knows. He doesn't have to ask for her approval; he's glad to know he already has it. Lee smiles ruefully, twiddles his thumbs on his knees as he watches her turned back. He might have been outmatched back there, drunk as a skunk- but he would have killed Kimimaro to save her, he knows. He would have come through for her.

He's like a mouse, but not drawn to her for the food.

She shakes her shoulders; the trees shudder, their leaves preparing for the long Autumn of death; it leads to the Spring of new birth, as always, in timeless cycles that never betray us. Their friendship seems as tangible as the earth's seasonal tilt; simply sunshine, unshakable.

"Good," Rie murmurs, her head still turned. "I'm going to Mizugakure," she announces after a few moments of silence; child-style, their lives are so malleable right now.

"But, why? You have to help me train for-"

"I don't have to help you do anything," she retorts, a playful smile gracing her thin lips as she finally gazes over her shoulder at him. "I have to go and train as hard as I can, and hope that I'll find the bravery and strength of heart that you have, Lee-kun… I want to get stronger… to have the kind of strength that you do, so someday, maybe I'll get to protect you for a change."

A few nights later, a mouse comes to his window, as if God knew.

Lee gives him a bit of his riceball; he watches the little male, black and grey spotted, infalliable in his small corner of the universe, take the crumb and lumber off for parts unknown. The mouse never stops; it hoards what it needs and faces cat claws without an iota of fear-born paralysis or apathy. Its the master of the dark places and the smallest paths; its an ignoble and forgotten animal, just like all the most admirable things in the world.

He waves a few bandaged fingers after the creature in farewell, and promises to ask Rie if that's why she likes mice so much, when she comes back.

AN: ... And that's it. The mystery of the mice, solved. ^o^

The truth of application to our lives is that this is what love is supposed to be: fleeting moments cemented together by a regard that's bigger than our own selves; abstract moments of dedication and truth that come together to form a beautiful story. This is we all should strive for: a love that lasts six chapters and sixty years, and that we look back on if we're blessed enough to grow old with nothing but appreciativeness for our good fortune.

Yeah, kind of foppish for a fanfiction, I know... but I've loved every minute of this story, and I hope you have, too. Thanks for reading.