Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ Just Go My Way ❯ The Blessing Way ( Chapter 1 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Author's Note: This story is set ten years after the start of the series. That means all the characters are ten years older than they were when first introduced (well, with exception of the characters introduced after the Time-Skip---but you get the picture). Since the canon story is far from concluded, I'm basing this particular story on canon as it stands right now, which is about Chapter 350. From there, I've made my own conclusions and advanced the story forward. Therefore, there are likely to be some things I will mention here that Kishimoto-sensei's future chapters of the manga will render untrue, so this may turn out to be somewhat AU.

I'm also taking some artistic license and liberty with Sakura's family. Kishimoto-sensei never really went into any detail as to what her parents do for a living, so I made some decisions myself... including names for them that I felt were suitable.

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of "Naruto" or its characters. It all belongs to Kishimoto-sensei. I'm just playing in the sandbox of this amazing world. And what a fun sandbox it is! I should thank Kishimoto-sensei for creating it, it's even more fun than Takahashi-sensei's Sengoku Jidai!

Also, this entire story was completed before I actually read Maldoror's phenomenal slashfic "Diplomatic Relations" which deals with Rock Lee as an ambassador in Sunagakure. Any similarities you find between that fic and mine are in fact strictly coincidental. I have been known to "ship" Lee with Gaara before, and that remains my favorite slash pairing in this fandom, which is why there are allusions and hints of that flavoring mentioned in this one. My favorite "ship" is Lee with Sakura, however, hence this fic. But I want it to be clear that I did not read "Diplomatic Relations" until after I'd already finished this story.



"Just Go My Way"
Part One: The Blessing Way


"Nice weather we're having, eh?" Umino Iruka said congenially as he placed a pair of flowers on the memorial stone.

Hatake Kakashi didn't bother to respond to that. He simply watched as Iruka clapped his hands together and bowed his head in respect to the names engraved on the stone. The jounin throttled down a spiral of rage that Iruka had interrupted his vigil. Occasionally, when his emotions were raw like this, he had to remind himself that he wasn't the only one in the village who mourned names inscribed here.

He didn't have anything personal against Iruka -- truthfully, he rather enjoyed the chuunin's company under most circumstances. Iruka was easy-going and likeable, and he had enough cheek to carry a conversation on his own if necessary. It was quite easy to see why Naruto revered this former sensei of his.

Nevertheless, Kakashi was not in the mood for Iruka's geniality. This memorial stone was his big weakness, the place that brought out his most unstable side and made him weak at heart. When he was here, he relived that horrible day some twenty-five years ago when everything had gone wrong. He felt it was the only way he could atone for the fact that he had lived, when the real hero there had died a horrible death, crushed under countless tons of fallen rock. It had been his first mission as a jounin, and he had ultimately failed, because in the end, he hadn't gone through with his part of the mission. His sensei had had to do it himself.

When he felt this vulnerable, he didn't like to be around anyone. He didn't like feeling vulnerable, and especially not around someone else.

"The exam finals will be starting soon," Iruka said as he turned to leave. "I know you have a tendency to be late, but this one promises to be interesting."

"Just go on," Kakashi growled, his fists clenching. "I'm not finished here."

Iruka gave him an indescribable look and then shrugged as he walked off.

I shouldn't yell at Iruka. It isn't his fault I'm a mess. Hell, I'd probably even yell at Jiraiya-sama if he was here. I'm really falling apart. He forced his hands to relax and looked up to the distant mountainside, where five stone faces looked out over Konohagakure. There, second from the right, was the carven countenance of one of the people he'd admired most, all that remained of the Yondaime Hokage. You'd scold me, wouldn't you, Sensei, for being such an asshole to lower-ranked ninjas. And Obito would lecture me on my ego. And Rin would just smile and sympathize. His right eye, the eye that still had functioning tear-ducts, burned with tears that threatened to form. They've been gone for so long, and I still miss them. You'd think I'd get over them by now.

"What, still here, Kakashi? You're going to be late again, you know."

A spear of annoyance lanced up his spine at that voice. Oh, dammit, Gai, couldn't this wait ten more minutes? This was probably the last person he really wanted to see right now, with his emotions in such disarray. It was embarrassing enough as it was to have these moments when he came completely unhinged, without the one jounin who fancied himself Kakashi's rival butting in and making things worse.

That wasn't to say that he couldn't stand this so-called rival of his. Maito Gai was likeable enough, and arguably the most impressive jounin in all of the five nations, simply because he had made himself into one. His arrogance made him difficult to deal with if you didn't know him very well, but he was a genuine person who rarely ever spoke ill about anyone. He was an inspiration to anyone who aspired to be a shinobi, even if he annoyed those of equal rank. Because of his almost complete lack of innate talent, Gai relied entirely on his own carefully-honed skills, in all three disciplines. No one else in all of the five countries, as far as anyone knew, was as skilled at converting chakra into raw energy for use in taijutsu.

That didn't stop him from being annoying to Kakashi, especially when the stoic jounin's constitution was in dramatic flux. Gai was the polar opposite of Kakashi in nearly every way. Gai was open with emotions, wearing his heart on his sleeve. His mood was easily detected just by looking at him. Kakashi was private about his feelings, utilizing the mask to help hide his expressions and give him the indifferent appearance he preferred. Gai was a workaholic who spent every spare moment toning and conditioning himself, improving his abilities. Kakashi, on the other hand, tended to be lazy about training, relying on his inborn abilities to get him through scrapes. As a teacher, Gai tended to emphasize individual abilities, honing each student's abilities accordingly to best benefit the team, believing that eventually things would fall into place amongst the students. Kakashi, on the other hand, felt that teamwork and camaraderie needed to be constantly reinforced and practiced. To him, individual talents were secondary to teamwork.

"Come on, Kakashi, you have to be done by now," Gai said, clapping him energetically on the shoulders. "Now come along, I'm not letting you weasel out of this."

"Leave me alone, Gai," Kakashi snarled, uncharacteristically hostile. He felt like he'd been caught in Uchiha Itachi's Tsukiyomi genjutsu, having forcibly relived the horrific final moments of his teammate Obito... how Obito had pushed him aside from the falling rocks, and had ended up fatally crushed beneath those same rocks. Only this time, Kakashi had relived it in slow motion, watching as Obito disappeared beneath a cascade of earth and stone... The guilt was like a thousand kunai in his abdomen. If he'd trusted Obito's gut feelings, they would have probably gotten away, all three of them, alive and unharmed. Instead, because of his own ego, he had emerged from the rubble badly beaten up, with a scar across the left side of his face, and an eye in his left eye socket that was all that remained of Obito. He'd had to leave Obito behind in the earthen cave-in.

"Alright, that's enough sulking out of you, Kakashi," Gai said sternly, dropping the happy-go-lucky act. He didn't do it often, but when he had to be, Gai could be frighteningly serious. "You're not acting like yourself at all. Come on, what the hell is wrong with you? You've been surly as hell. You just about took Iruka's head off, for daring to trespass on this ground. If you want to fight someone, don't pick on a chuunin."

"I don't want to fight anyone," Kakashi said wearily as the trance finally let go, enabling him to step back away from the stone. If his left eye had had functioning tear-ducts, he was sure it would have wept. "Least of all you, Gai."

"Then stop being such an ass," Gai snapped. "This isn't like you at all. I know you don't like the summer Chuunin Selection Exams, but this is ridiculous. You've been beyond intolerable since they started. Do I have to knock some sense into you?"

Kakashi chuckled tiredly. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt."

Gai froze, his jaw slightly unhinged. "Huh? Wait, are you saying I should beat you up? Because I will, you'd better believe it."

Kakashi felt his chuckle evolve into a full laugh. "Now you're starting to sound like Naruto, Gai. That's rather frightening."

The next thing Kakashi knew, he was on his knees, gasping for air. Gai had delivered a sequence of blows to his abdomen.

"There," Gai said with a definitive nod of his head. "I feel better. How about you?"

"Never better," Kakashi wheezed.

"That's the spirit, Kakashi! Let's go find the other jounin. This exam final promises to be interesting. I hear that puppeteer from Suna has been getting a lot of attention from the other villages' jounin. The last puppeteer we had in one of these turned out to be a genius, so this should be entertaining."

Kakashi protested loudly as Gai hoisted him up, and then slung him over his shoulder. "Oh shut it, Kakashi, I'm going to make sure you're not late this time."

"This is embarrassing," Kakashi complained bitterly. "You're really outrageous, Gai."

"By the way, Kakashi," Gai said, merrily ignoring Kakashi's complaints. "Did you hear the news?"

"What news?"

"Lee proposed to his girlfriend this morning, and she said yes."

"Well good for him. I hope he's happy with her."

Gai deliberately scraped against an awning, garnering a protesting yelp from Kakashi.

"You do know who his girlfriend is, don't you?"

"Yes, yes I do. I just wonder if they realize what they're in for."

"What do you mean?"

"I just hope Sakura isn't settling for something less than what she wants, just because it's been ten years now since Sasuke left. Come on, Gai. Put me down!" Kakashi tried to use a move he'd seen Hyuuga Neji use on Gai before in sparring matches, stabbing directly in the center of the small of the back. There was apparently a chakra point there that affected taijutsu, and every time Neji would hit it, Gai would buckle.

Unfortunately for Kakashi, Gai was wise to that point, and Kakashi didn't have the Hyuuga kekkei genkai of the Byakugan to pinpoint the chakra point, nor the other part of that kekkei genkai that allowed for chakra emissions to interrupt the flow of a connecting chakra point. Being that Gai had fallen victim to that move from his former student Neji, he knew about it, and when he felt Kakashi shift his weight, he instinctively swung his arm back to block that point.

"Not bad for my arch-rival. You pay attention, I see. But not good enough! Sorry, but I'm under strict orders to make sure you're not late this time!"

"You're really starting to piss me off," Kakashi snapped, swatting Gai's head of glossy black hair.

"Good, that was one of my goals." Gai crouched down and launched higher on the next leap, taking them higher up and landing on the balcony of the administrative building, where the Hokage's office was. Another leap, and they were on the roof, where several other jounin were gathered.

"Wow, what a sight!" Yuuhi Kurenai chuckled as Gai landed and dumped Kakashi into an undignified and unceremonious heap.

"I'd pay to see that again!" laughed Hyuuga Neji. "I know Lee always goes on about how superior Gai-sensei is, but I finally get to see it for myself!"

"Pitiful, Kakashi," Mitarashi Anko said with a disgusted shake of her head. "I had expected a better showing out of you. You lost me a bet with Shikaku, I'll have you know!"

"Indeed," Nara Shikaku said, scratching his chin idly as he stood up from where he had been sitting, playing an impromptu game of shougi with his son Shikamaru. "Now pay up."

As Kakashi stood up, dusted off and took in his surroundings, he noted three specific people were missing, two of them his former students.

"Right, so, where are Sakura, Naruto and Lee?"

"Naruto went looking for you," Shikamaru said lazily, gathering up the shougi pieces. "Guess he didn't trust Gai to be able to find you. Dunno why, we know how Gai is. Anyway, as for the other two.... I imagine they'll be along shortly."

"Oi! Kakashi-sensei! There you are!" The high-energy voice belonged to Kakashi's most accomplished student, Uzumaki Naruto, the hand-chosen successor to the current Hokage and the second most important shinobi in all of Konoha, behind the Hokage herself. The young jounin landed on the edge of the roof with a gusty sigh, his forceful chakra and personality swirling around him like a tiny whirlwind. At 22 years of age, he was a far cry from his clumsy pre-teen self. He had grown tall and limber, moving with the grace of a cat, with broad shoulders and a wild mane of unruly yellow hair. His voice had deepened considerably with puberty, though he still spoke with the same country-bumpkin cadence as always, finishing all his statements with a verbal tic.

"Of course," Kakashi said, rubbing the back of his neck stiffly. "Gai caught me off guard."

"Off guard my ass," Gai said. "You were being a jackass and a wuss. Those traits don't become my archrival, so I'm not going to let you continue with them."

"Eh? Geji-mayu isn't here yet? And neither is Sakura-chan."

"Actually, we are right behind you, Naruto-kun," came the distinctive voice of Rock Lee, Konoha's other taijutsu expert and Gai's personal favorite student. The green-clothed jounin had curiously taken the stairs, unlike most of the other jounin. Right behind Lee was Haruno Sakura, Kakashi's other former student, a disciple of Tsunade-sama and a high-ranking healer-nin. She was still a chuunin because she hadn't gotten around to applying for jounin status, as well as because Tsunade had advised her against it. Jounin were assigned the leaders of A-rank and S-rank missions, which were the missions that usually had fatalities. If Sakura became a jounin, sooner or later she would get assigned to lead one of those dangerous missions, rather than going as support. Medic-nins didn't usually make good leaders on dangerous missions. It was better for them to remain under command of another ranking officer.

Sakura and Lee had both grown and matured considerably in the ten or more years since becoming genin. Sakura was not rail-thin like some kunoichi, but her figure was still toned and lean. She was probably the most athletic kunoichi in the village, her body curving with muscles. She was not busty like Tsunade, but she had all the right curves in the right places, and her self-confidence made her almost irresistible to some men. She had many admirers throughout Konoha. The general consensus was that Rock Lee was indeed One Very Lucky Man (some said One Lucky Bastard, though in an affectionate way, since few people disliked Lee).

For his part, Lee was the spitting image of his sensei, to the point that it was easy to mistake the two as father and son, which was an adequate description of their relationship interactions, even if Gai was too young to be Lee's father in reality. The main difference was height -- Lee's growth was stunted to some degree by the life-threatening injuries he'd received in his first chuunin examination, at the hands of Sabaku no Gaara from Sunagakure. Thus, Lee was shorter than most of the jounin, and definitely shorter than Gai.

The two jounin were startlingly similar in many ways besides appearance, though. Both were open with their emotions and dedicated to working hard to overcome obstacles. Gai had considerably more ingrained self-confidence (most called it arrogance, but Gai called it self-confidence) than Lee, but that also stemmed from the fact that Gai at least could perform basic, fundamental jutsus besides taijutsu. Try as he might, Lee couldn't master genjutsu or ninjutsu at all. Gai preferred taijutsu because it put the least amount of strain on chakra reserves, which for him were slow to replenish. Lee, on the other hand, couldn't use his chakra for anything other than taijutsu.

Despite all of this, Lee was a highly-respected jounin, and a well-liked shinobi over all. He was polite and deferential to people he respected, and his speech patterns reflected his gentle nature. This ability of his made him a particularly useful diplomat. He'd spent a few years as an ambassador in the allied village of Sunagakure, working relatively closely with the Kazekage (and for a while rumors of him having an affair with the Kazekage had circulated, though Lee adamantly denied those rumors, and the Kazekage himself refused to even acknowledge such questions).

"Sakura-chan, long time no see!" Naruto hugged his long-time friend and teammate.

"It's not like you to be late, Lee," Neji teased gently. He and Lee had been teammates for almost twelve years now, engaging in a friendly rivalry for Gai-sensei's attention.

"It is not my fault," Lee said sheepishly.

"Naah," Sakura said, also looking slightly sheepish. "I took too long of a shower."

"And that accounts for Geji-mayu being late.... how?" Naruto tilted his head. He was still a very naive, slightly immature kid in some ways, and downright dense in some matters. Anyone with a clear head and any knowledge of human desires could tell that there was something between Sakura and Lee. Most of Konoha knew that the two were essentially living together. Sakura still listed her parents' home as her home address, but she spent far more time in Lee's apartment than she did in her childhood home.

"Um..." Lee blushed. "Because of her, I was late getting my shower. I had to wait for her; it would not have been very nice of me to barge in on her."

"I imagine not," Kakashi said with a chuckle. "She has a pretty lethal right-cross punch. You startle her, and she'll blow you away -- literally."

"Like you would know, Kakashi-sensei!" The kunoichi retorted playfully.

"Lee-kun, allow me to warn you not to make her too angry. It isn't pretty. I think that she forgets that not everyone has Naruto's accelerated healing capacities. You'll live a lot longer if you keep in mind that she's got a temper to rival Hokage-sama." The jounin arched his visible eyebrow. "Speaking of which, I believe congratulations are in order for you both."

Sakura started at that. "Oh, uh, that reminds me. Naruto, can I talk to you in private a moment?"

"Oh sure, Sakura, make everyone wait even longer," said the buxom Hokage, Tsunade, appearing in a puff of smoke in the middle of the roof.

"It won't take long, Tsunade-shishou," Sakura said with a smile to her mentor, "and you all can go on ahead. I just wanted to tell Naruto something important. We'll catch you up at the arena."

"We're not going directly to the arena, baka," Tsunade said with a derisive snort. Despite her harsh words, she smiled at her pupil. Sakura made her proud. It was youngsters like Sakura and Naruto that made her proud to be Hokage. Pity, she thought to herself, that it never worked out romantically between them. But, at least they're friends. I suppose it's not so unlike Jiraiya and myself, except that I was never romantically inclined towards him, and I don't think he had anything but a passing young-boy's crush on me, if even that much. "We'll be meeting up with the contingent from Sunagakure before we go to the arena. They should be here any time, at the front gates."

"This is boring," Anko complained. "Come on, Shibi, isn't there any word yet about Suna? They should be near the gates by now!"

Crouched on a pole, Aburame Shibi, a jounin bug-user from the mysterious Aburame clan, adjusted his dark glasses and looked up toward the sun. "Patience. They are coming from a long distance away."

Anko crossed her arms moodily. "Mou, this sucks. Hokage-sama, can't we go wait by the gates?"

Shibi raised his arm suddenly, and disappeared.

"That must be the signal," Kurenai said. She turned to Neji. "Can you see them?"

The jounin activated his Byakugan and faced the direction of the front gates. After several heartbeats, he spoke. "I can just barely see them, they're right at the boundary of my sight. Which means they're about ten or fifteen minutes, at that pace, from the gates."

"Very well then," Tsunade said. "No point in dawdling now. Sakura, don't take too long, I'm sure Naruto will want to be one of the ones to greet the Kazekage. Everyone else, let's go."

Lee hesitated, looking over at Sakura. "Hokage-sama, if you do not mind, I would like to wait here. I will accompany Sakura and Naruto-kun."

"She did say she wanted to speak with him privately," Tsunade said. "But it's your call."

"If that's the case," Neji said, "I'll stay with you, if you like. I did want to ask you something, after all. That way, too, I can warn you if we run out of time before the visitors show."



"So, what did you want to talk to me about, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked as the last of the other jounin left the roof of the administrative building. Neji and Lee dropped down to the balcony below, to give them some privacy.

Sakura chewed her lip in contemplation, unsure how to start. "Naruto, we haven't been keeping in touch as much lately, I don't think. So I'm guessing you aren't aware of how... well... serious... I guess you could say... oh dammit!" She clenched her hands in her hair and stamped her foot in frustration. "I don't know how to tell you this, Naruto!"

Naruto was completely silent, watching her with his intense ultramarine eyes. "Did something happen to you, Sakura-chan? Did something bad happen?"

"No, not at all, or I wouldn't have this much trouble telling you. You see... oh hell." She clenched her eyes shut and plunged in. "Lee and I are engaged, Naruto. He asked me this morning to marry him, and I said yes."

Naruto remained silent, adding to her discomfort. Whether he was stunned, annoyed or confused, she wasn't sure yet.

"Are you angry with me?" She asked finally, opening her eyes and looking at him questioningly. He didn't look angry. In fact, his expression really hadn't changed. "That's why I wanted to tell you myself. Ever since Kakashi-sensei was pulled from active duty, Hokage-sama's had to send you on a lot of the S-rank missions, so I haven't seen much of you, which is why I'm guessing you didn't realize things were this serious between Lee and I."

"I'm not angry, Sakura-chan. I'm just concerned. What about Sasuke?" Naruto said gently. "You've devoted so many years to him; can you so easily abandon him? I promised you I'd bring him back, and I will, I just have to find him. Next time I see him, I will definitely bring him home, if I have to beat him within an inch of his life to do it."

"I've thought this through, Naruto." She heaved a sigh, glad that he wasn't angry with her. She knew that he'd harbored a long-time crush for her; they had briefly dated about six or seven years ago. In the end, she'd come to the conclusion that she could never love Naruto as anything more than a brother and best friend. She just wasn't able to stir any romantic feelings for him.

"Can you please tell me more? I'm afraid I don't understand."

"I've thought about it really hard. I talked with Tsunade-shishou and Shizune-san, and had them cast a few genjutsus on me to help me sort through my feelings, and I came to the conclusion that, where Sasuke is concerned, what I love isn't real. What I say I'm in love with is an ideal. In reality, Sasuke doesn't love me, not the way I say I've loved him. If he did, he'd have come back home long ago. But he doesn't, and he never will. And really, I don't think that I can be okay with that, with loving someone who doesn't love me. I thought I could, but..." She sighed. "You're right, I've devoted so many years in pursuit of Sasuke, and I said to myself it was because I was in love with him, but really, I don't know. I mean, I can't ignore him, he's a Konoha ninja. But... I just don't see him ever feeling the same for me that I've felt for him. And really, I can't keep clinging to the hope that he will."

She paused, looking out over Konoha. "When I realized that, it wasn't as hard on me as I thought it might be to admit that I'd been wrong. In fact, it was kind of a relief. It was like the chains had been taken off. I still love Sasuke, and I always will; nothing will change that. But I'm not going to wait in vain for him anymore. And when I finally realized that, that's when..." tears pooled on her eyelashes, and she stubbornly willed them away, "...that's when I realized who I really do love. Do you remember that one mission, the one to Kirigakure? It started out an A-rank, but became an S-rank very quickly. I remember how Kiba got really badly hurt, and while I was trying to save him, we got ambushed, and Lee just... pulled out all the stops. I don't know how he did what he did, but he protected me long enough that I was able to fix Kiba's injury. But he nearly died right then and there. Gai-sensei said later he thinks Lee managed to force open the Seventh Gate, which would account for how badly he came out of it, since he was just one Gate away from the Gate of Death. It was all I could do to keep his heart beating while we rushed him home so Tsunade-shishou could try and save him. And even she could barely do it. He still hasn't fully recovered from that, and it's been nearly a year since that happened." Sakura brushed her fingers through her hair. "I guess that's when I realized that I'd fallen in love with him. You know that Lee and I dated off and on these past several years, but... when he nearly died beneath my hands, that's when I realized how dear to me he really is, how much I really do love him. He's been so good to me all these years, I really don't deserve him... but..."

She shrugged, suddenly at a loss for words and embarrassed at how much she'd blurted out. "I guess to make a short story long, I do love him."

Naruto nodded in acceptance of this. "So, you won't regret giving up on Sasuke?" Interesting. I wonder how long ago she stopped using the honorifics with Geji-mayu and Sasuke? She always called Geji-mayu "Lee-san" and Sasuke "Sasuke-kun" -- I wonder if she stopped a long time ago and I just never noticed before now.

"No. I think I would regret it if I were to cling to the hope of Sasuke and shun what's right in front of me now. Lee and I have practically been living together for the past six months, after all. He has a really nice apartment now, and my parents have been trying to encourage me to move out on my own. I pretty much just stay with my parents when Lee's out on a mission, but when he's home, I live with him." She blushed when she saw him raise a questioning eyebrow at her. "Yes, I can see the question in your eyes, and the answer is indeed yes. Please don't think badly of me for it. You know it's common."

"I don't think any less of you, Sakura-chan, I'm just surprised. I had no idea you were that intimate with him. I thought you two were just good friends. I guess I should have figured it out myself, but you know how dense I am. You must have put a lot of thought into this decision."

"I have. Lee and I talk about the future a lot in the evenings." She blushed a bit. "We've even talked about having children; he wants them, you know. And I kind of do too. I never thought about the future with Sasuke. The thought of having children with him never crossed my mind. But with Lee, it's different. I can't help but start looking toward the future. I'm just so comfortable with him, Naruto. I can't really explain it. When I'm with him now, I feel at peace, like I don't have to keep proving myself. He loves me for who I am. That's something I can't say about Sasuke."

"So, you can be happy with him? Even if I do manage to bring Sasuke home soon?"

"Lee told me that he'd do anything to make me happy, and I know he means it. In fact, he said the same basic thing I said when Sasuke left: 'I'll do everything in my power to make sure that you're happy, every single day.' Except, I know that Lee means it, whereas I guess I didn't really mean it, because I didn't understand what I was saying then. He's been through so much for my sake. When he asked me to become his wife, I answered from my heart. So, yes, I can be happy with him, Naruto, because I am happy with him. I love him so much."

Naruto grinned. "Then that's all that matters! Congratulations, Sakura-chan!" He threw his arms around her and hugged her fiercely. Relieved beyond words, Sakura spontaneously burst into tears. "There's no need to cry, you know! Geez, you women and the water-works!" His tone of voice was tender and affectionate, taking the sting out of his words.

"Thank you so much, Naruto," she sobbed. "I was so afraid you wouldn't approve, that you'd be either jealous or skeptical, or just upset. You're my best friend, and I want you to be happy for me. I don't know what I'd do if you were unhappy with this."

"I couldn't be happier for you, Sakura-chan. I was afraid you were trying to replace Sasuke, or doing this out of fear of being alone, and Geji-mayu deserves better than that. He deserves for you to love him for who he is, with your whole heart. That doesn't mean you can't also love Sasuke, like you said, but as long as you aren't trying to substitute for him, then I think you're making the best decision. You couldn't have picked a better guy, either. Geji-mayu won't ever, ever hurt you. So, can I call first dibs on training your first kid?"

Sakura laughed weakly at the sudden change in subject; "You might have to fight with Gai-sensei over that honor."

"Bah! I'd never lose to the likes of him!"

"Besides, you'll probably be Hokage by that time."

"So what? Tsunade-obaachan trained you after she'd become Hokage."

"Are you two done yet?" Neji called from below. "They're almost to the gate. We need to leave now if we're going to make it there in time to greet the escort!"



Sprinting as they were, they still only just barely got there in time to fall into formation as the escort of the Kazekage reached the gates. Sakura noticed that Naruto was trembling with excitement. He hadn't seen Gaara in several years, and he was looking forward to seeing with his own eyes how this unlikely friend of theirs was doing.

One of the first people through the gates was the Konoha escort, who had met up with the Suna procession at the edge of the Fire Country's borders. This was Aburame Shino, a recently-promoted jounin hailing from the Aburame clan, and the son of Shibi. He was the same age as Sakura and Naruto and had been in their Academy classes with them. Shino had been using his bugs to keep in contact with his father to allow the Leaf village enough time to prepare for the Sand's arrival.

Close on Shino's heels followed the Kazekage himself, surrounded by a half-dozen of his highest ranking jounin, including his two siblings.

"Oi, Gaara!" Naruto bellowed excitedly. "Long time no see!"

"Mou," grumbled the black-hooded jounin puppetmaster immediately to the Kazekage's left. "Uzumaki Naruto, you're as noisy as ever!"

"Ah, shut up, no one asked your opinion, Kankurou!" Naruto retorted with a grin. While the Kazekage's older brother was somewhat annoying, Naruto had learned that Kankurou was a very admirable person, completely devoted to his brother's cause and life.

On the other side of the Kazekage was a blonde woman with her hair tied up in four small ponytails. This was Temari, the eldest of the three siblings. Naruto was used to seeing her carrying her giant fan folded up on her back, but she didn't have it this time. Instead, she wore across her torso a sash that some jounin used to hold summoning scrolls. Likewise, Kankurou no longer had the puppets strapped to his back that he used to. Nor did Gaara have the large sand-gourd he used to always carry.

Gaara shrugged off the formal outer traveling robe as his escort gathered around him. Sakura took a moment to appreciate what the Sand village's kage had become. She could still remember the strange, freaky 12-year-old war machine that he had been when they first met him. She involuntarily shuddered at the memory of what Gaara had done to Lee in a fit of rage after being nearly defeated. He had later gone temporarily insane when Uchiha Sasuke had wounded him in battle, and had transformed into a horrific sand-demon.

But now? Ten years removed from that unstable, walking-time-bomb persona, Gaara had become something else entirely. He had once been a self-contained misanthrope, convinced that the only way to affirm his existence was to kill any who opposed him. However, for the past eight years he had served his village proudly and selflessly as Kazekage. He no longer saw people as potential assassins that needed to be killed to preserve his own existence. He guarded his village with all his extraordinary powers -- which was good, since Sunagakure was at present on the verge of all-out war with Kirigakure -- and did so without hesitation. Furthermore, as the Kazekage he was also the head of the village, and by all accounts he was an exceptional one. He had single-handedly pulled Sunagakure back from the brink of financial ruin, reestablishing it as a powerful shinobi nation. Perhaps it had been this rebirth of Suna that had caused Kirigakure to renege on its treaties and begin harassing the Wind Country's primary hidden village. Things had escalated in the past year and a half, with Suna and Kiri both on the verge of declaring war on each other, putting strains on diplomatic relations with Konoha.

Surprisingly, Gaara was a good diplomat, though the Mizukage of Kirigakure was certainly trying his patience, or so Lee had told Sakura. And Sakura could definitely believe it. She remembered how Tsunade hated dealing with the Mizukage, and even Naruto had half-joked about making up an S-rank mission with some ANBU members and going in to assassinate the Mizukage. Even Jiraiya refused to deal much with the Mizukage unless ordered to by the Hokage (which had only happened once, and had devolved into a near-catastrophe, thanks to the paranoid Mizukage assuming that one of Konoha's sannin coming meant that Konoha was going to invade, that had ultimately resulted in Lee and Kiba incurring life-threatening injuries, Sakura exhausting her medical skills and Naruto unleashing his dangerous Four-Tailed form). So, really, it was no surprise that diplomatic relations between Kirigakure and the two allied villages were very strained.

"I trust your journey was a safe and uneventful one, Kazekage-dono?" Tsunade said in greeting to the Kazekage.

"Indeed. The Water Country has been quiet lately, so with any hope nothing will happen while we are here."

Fundamentally, Gaara looked much the same as he always had. He had the same unruly dark red hair clipped short out of expedience, same jade-green eyes that seemed to unnerve even the most fearsome opponent, same blood-red "ai" kanji brand just over where his left eyebrow would be (if he had eyebrows), and the same black rings around his eyes, marking him as the host -- or in his case, former host -- of the tanuki tailed beast, Shukaku. He hadn't grown in height much over the past ten years, and was now rather dwarfed by his brother Kankurou and by Naruto.

His physique hadn't changed much; he'd always had a balanced, standard build. He was primarily a ninjutsu shinobi, though from what Lee had told Sakura, the kage of Sunagakure was highly skilled in taijutsu as well. As the ambassador in Suna, Lee had worked very closely with Gaara, and had sparred numerous times with the Kazekage to keep in form. He had seen for  himself that Gaara was every bit as skilled in the various disciplines as one would expect a village's kage to be. Lee had never seen Gaara perform a genuine genjutsu, and was of the belief that he likely wasn't very good at casting them, though he was most likely skilled enough at recognizing and dispelling them. Lee had experienced firsthand that Gaara was no pushover even without his gourd of chakra-infused sand. The former Jinchuuriki knew how to defend himself with taijutsu, and he was remarkably good with shuriken and kunai. He was also good with evasive ninjutsu, and transformation and replacement techniques as well.

After greeting Tsunade formally, Gaara turned to Naruto. "Good to see you again, Uzumaki Naruto. I hope you have been well?"

"I've been just fine, and it looks to me like you're doing well yourself."

"Well enough," Gaara tipped his head slightly. "Have you had any luck in locating your comrade Uchiha?"

"Not lately. Haven't had time to search for him. S-rank missions left and right."

"You've been well then, Gaara-sama?" Lee asked. "I know you were having some climate problems when I was transferred back to Konoha."

"Sunagakure is in a desert," Gaara replied. "Deserts are hard on villages, but we are able to weather the sandstorm. Our village is old, after all." The kage turned his unnerving gaze to Lee, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly in a smile, such as Gaara ever did smile. "You appear to be well, Lee-san."

"Oh look who's here!" Temari said pompously, grinning and elbowing Shikamaru good-naturedly. "Good morning, Nakimushi-kun!"

"Eh?" Shikamaru tilted his head. "Aren't you over that yet?"

"As you can tell," another Suna jounin kunoichi said saucily, leaning against Kankurou like he was a tree, "Temari-oneesan has been working on her insults. With predictable results."

Gaara eyed the kunoichi blandly. "Kankurou," he said mildly, but with a pointed glint in his eye.

The puppetmaster dutifully clapped his hands over the kunoichi's mouth. "Quiet, Sanami. We're on official diplomatic business, you idiot. Talking like that makes us all look bad."

Gaara smirked. "Actually, that wasn't what I had in mind, Kankurou. I was rather thinking perhaps you should introduce her."

"Oh!" Kankurou looked abashed as he let go of the kunoichi, who promptly stomped on his foot and kicked him in the shins.

"You big stupid beast, how dare you!" she raged. "In front of Konoha's Hokage-sama, too!"

"Gah, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I misunderstood Gaara, alright? Geez, woman!"

"Right," Shikamaru said slowly to Temari. "So, who is she?"

Temari grinned. "Believe it or not, that's Kankurou's new wife, Sanami. She's an expert scroll-sealer. She's developed scrolls that are easily carried almost anywhere that can teleport large objects, like Kankurou's puppets, or my fan." She reached into her sash and pulled out a small scroll. "See? Like this. With this scroll and just a few hand-seals, I can summon my fan anywhere. Handy for when you're on a diplomatic mission where having visible weapons is a disadvantage."

"Now that we're all gathered, let us head to the arena," Tsunade said imperiously. "We have an hour until the finals are to begin, so let's get ourselves there and settled before the opening ceremonies."

Abruptly, Gaara's eyes grew wide and he flailed his arms, as though he'd been tripped. Kankurou swore and tried to catch the Kazekage with his chakra strings that he used to control his puppets, but due to the distance between them and the proximity of other people, he wasn't able to latch them on in time. However, Lee reacted instantly and darted forward, catching Gaara in his arms before the kage could fall to the ground.

"Tch! Suna!" Gaara snapped peevishly, hiking his robes up and revealing a small ring-tailed creature scurrying around his feet.

"Are you alright, Gaara-sama?" Sanami said urgently as Kankurou used his chakra strings to pin the animal to the ground.

"He's fine, Sanami," Temari said. "Though that was rather silly of Suna-chan." She picked up the creature and held it like a cat. "Right, Gaara?"

"My thanks, Lee-san," Gaara said stiffly, pulling away from Lee and dusting off as he rearranged his robes. "That was rather unexpected. I apologize for it."

"There is nothing to apologize for, Gaara-sama," Lee said hastily, trying to quell a fierce blush that crept up his cheeks. He and Gaara were both fully aware of the rumors about them, and it bothered him immensely, simply because he wasn't that frivolous. His heart had belonged to Sakura long before he'd ever met Gaara. "These things happen."

"Is that a tanuki?" Naruto asked incredulously. The creature had a ringed tail and black markings around its eyes, making it look like it had a strange mask on.

"No," Temari said, petting the animal. "It's a distant relative of the tanuki, called a raccoon. This is Gaara's familiar, Suna-chan. She doesn't like being separated from him for any length of time, so she travels with us when we leave the village."

As if to punctuate that point, Suna leaped out of her arms and landed on Gaara's shoulder, chittering rapidly and scolding the Kazekage.

"Why are you yelling at me, Suna?" Gaara said to the creature as he reached up to smooth down its ruffled fur. "I didn't step on you; you tripped me."

"Tch," Kankurou hissed. "That little pest! If she weren't so useful for you, Gaara, I'd say you should just seal her in a scroll and be done with it. Make her a summon."

Gaara looked over at his brother expressionlessly. Kankurou's eyes widened slightly and he hastily looked away, like a dog submitting to its alpha.

As the group began to walk toward the arena, Lee and Sakura fell in with Naruto, Tsunade and Gaara. Shikamaru paced alongside Temari, who was looking around with great interest.

"This place is livelier than I remember!" she said with a big smile. She elbowed Shikamaru energetically. "So, how have you been, Nakimushi-kun?"

"I wish you wouldn't call me that," Shikamaru complained. "Talk about a pain in the ass -- that was a long time ago!"

Temari laughed merrily. "Still as whiny as ever!"

"I wonder," Nara Shikaku said under his breath as he walked beside his long-time friends and teammates Akimichi Chouza and Yamanaka Inoichi. "Does he realize he's exactly the same with her as I was with his mother when I was that age?"

"Probably not!" laughed Inoichi, his long blond ponytail swinging in the breeze. "And he wouldn't believe it, even if you told him as much! He's really exactly like you, Shikaku, so much so that it's scary!"

"That's what I was afraid of," Shikaku grumbled, rubbing his hand idly across the scar on his jaw. "Troublesome brat, he'll show me up, won't he?"

"I'm guessing so," Chouza said genially. "But that's what children are supposed to do -- outdo their parents."

"Mou, mendokuse," Shikaku sighed, garnering hearty laughs from his friends. "What a pain in the ass."

As they walked, Tsunade looked over at Gaara. "So, Kazekage-dono..." she started to say, but Gaara held up a hand to forestall her.

"Please, Hokage-sama. Call me Gaara. I am too young to be considered your equal."

Tsunade smiled at him. "Nevertheless, you are my equal, in title at least. But if you are more comfortable this way, then I will abide by your wishes." She looked over at where the arena rose out of the ground like a giant stone bubble. "Word has reached me that you have been studying a form of medical genjutsu."

"I have, yes. Mind-soothing, some call it," the Kazekage looked straight ahead as he walked and spoke. "In a way, it's a form of doujutsu. It involves hypnotism and the use of chakra to calm a distraught mind. Temari was the one who suggested I look into studying it, because of my eyes, and my experience with mental instability, such as it is." He scratched the baby raccoon's chin idly. "Why do you ask, Hokage-sama? Surely you have some skill in this practice."

Tsunade sighed. "I do not. I am primarily a medical healer. I can heal wounds and counter poisons, but when it comes to damage to the spirit, I am as powerless as anyone. And the reason that I ask is this: We have a jounin here, a very useful and skilled one, who has been suffering from some mysterious mental instabilities these past couple of years. It's gotten so bad that I've had to stop sending him on S-rank missions, and I'm hesitant to send him on A-rank. He's normally a very easy-going person to work with, and a very capable shinobi, but lately he's had random fugues of incapacitating depression or rage. We can only begin to speculate what has caused this, given his long history as a jounin. I have reason to believe that there is significant damage in his mind from run-ins several years ago with one of the Akatsuki."

Gaara visibly bristled at the mention of the organization that had caused him so much anguish, even if in the end they'd done him a favor. Naruto sympathized; he could only imagine the pain Gaara had been put through having Shukaku forcibly extracted from every fiber of his being. Having grown up with Kyuubi inside him, and knowing how far the nine-tailed fox's essence was enmeshed within every muscle, every bone, every drop of blood and every tissue, lending its enormous reserve of chakra when needed, and healing wounds in effort to keep its prison from dying, Naruto couldn't even begin to fathom what kind of pain it must have been to Gaara to have Shukaku forcibly drawn out of him.

Just thinking about it, even though everything had turned out fine in the end, made his stomach feel sick and his blood run hot with anger.

"I see," Gaara said finally. "I can only recall the one member that I dealt with, the one who made exploding clay. But there were more, I do recall hearing that."

"Indeed. The one I speak of was capable of casting extremely powerful genjutsu, the kind that are almost impossible to pull yourself out of alone, with his eyes alone. This jounin of ours has tangled with Itachi several times, and I fear that that genjutsu has had a long-term effect on him."

Sakura and Lee walked silently beside Naruto, lending their friend wordless moral support. It was hard on Naruto to see Kakashi slowly unraveling at the seams, but the hardest of all was being unable to help. The last time he'd tried to confront Kakashi over these strange occurrences, trying to break the trance, Kakashi's Sharingan had triggered the searing rage of the Kyuubi within Naruto, to an uncontrollable degree . Had not former ANBU-captain Yamato been nearby to put a seal on the leaking chakra and control the raging kitsune's spirit, there's no telling what might have happened. Whatever it was that happened to Kakashi, it affected the Sharingan, and that change infuriated the Kyuubi.

Gaara looked over at the three of them, silently watching their reactions.

"You can hardly expect me to make a diagnosis based on this information," the Kazekage said finally.

"Most of the shinobi are too afraid to be around him when he shows signs of whatever this ailment is," Lee said. "Gai-sensei is one of the few who is not intimidated by him. He has said that Kakashi is like a man possessed when in the throes of those violent trances. Like he has been infested by a demon. Other times, he says, Kakashi is almost catatonic."

"Kakashi?" Gaara faltered a step. "Hatake Kakashi, the Copy-nin?"


"That is... unexpected." He looked over at Naruto pointedly. "He was your sensei, was he not?"

"Yes," Naruto answered. "It's hard to believe this is the same Kakashi-sensei... No matter what the situation, Kakashi-sensei was always logical and straight-forward about it. He never showed any kind of vulnerable emotion, especially not anger."

"Does he intimidate you?" Gaara asked, almost glossing over what Naruto had just said.

"No, not at all!" Naruto retorted. "The only shinobi in this village stronger than me are the Ero-sennin and Tsunade-obaachan."

"However," Sakura interjected, "somehow the Kyuubi within Naruto gets riled up when Kakashi-sensei goes into one of those trances. I think that's why people are saying that he's got a demon in him -- because the demon in Naruto reacts to it."

Gaara was silent for several paces. "It's not a demon. Whatever it is, it is not a demon. The only way to seal a demon into a human is to seal it into a newborn baby, one that has only just taken its first breath. It has to do with the severing of the umbilical cord. A demon cannot be sealed into the body of an adult human, not without dire consequences and significant physical changes. Thus, I can tell you now that it is not a demon that plagues your sensei. There is no way it could be fully sealed within him." There was a long, heavy pause as the kage of Sunagakure pondered. "However, a malicious doujutsu or genjutsu could have a very similar effect to that of a demonic possession. If it is a doujutsu or genjutsu, then mind-soothing could probably work, for a time anyway. It is a temporary measure, however, not a cure-all. It suppresses symptoms and reactions, but it does not heal the mental damage. The only thing that can heal that sort of thing is time and personal dedication to healing such an injury."

Tsunade's brows knitted contemplatively. "So, this doujutsu of yours is more like bandaging a wound, rather than healing it?"

Gaara gave a small, wan smile. "There are wounds that cannot be healed by traditional means. Wounds to the heart, and to the mind, cannot be healed with medicine or medical ninjutsu. My caretaker when I was young taught me that." He tilted his head slightly, as if rubbing his temple against the fur of the creature that clung to his shoulder. "Believing medicine is the cure to everything is naive. Medicine is a tool, just as a kunai is a tool. The true healing occurs within the individual. Just as there are some things a kunai cannot cut, so are there things that medicine cannot cure."

They turned a corner, turning onto a main street, which was lined with people, particularly children, who cheered the two kages. Tsunade smiled at the people of her village and waved to some of them, though Gaara stiffly ignored the whole ordeal, clearly uncomfortable.

"Loosen up, Gaara," Temari said to her brother. "You look arrogant like that."

"Shove off," the Kazekage hissed between clenched jaws. "You know I don't like to be made into a spectacle."

"Just relax your shoulders," Tsunade advised. "And don't look so stiff. If you're not comfortable interacting with them, at least don't look so intimidated by them. Most of the children are looking at your pet anyway."

Sakura could sort of sympathize with Gaara, though. She felt like all the eyes were on her, boring into her, as if a million thoughts were saying "Who does she think she is, walking with the kages like that in procession? She's just a lowly chuunin. She hasn't earned the right to walk with them." She wanted to back away from the group, or hide between Naruto and Lee, or something. Anything to get those eyes off her.

Surreptitiously, Lee reached over and clasped her left hand with his right, lacing his fingers with hers. He then gave her hand a gentle, tender squeeze of support. Though he didn't even look at her as he did this, keeping his gaze firmly focused ahead and his head held high, she could see a faint blush accumulating on his sinuses.

Bless him, she thought, fighting down a blush. He's always thinking of me. I really don't know what I did to deserve him -- or that I even deserve him at all.

Naruto altered his course, bringing himself alongside her on the right. Subtly, he reached down and gripped her right hand in a less intimate gesture. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and darted her an encouraging smile.

"It's alright, Sakura-chan. No one's judging you. I don't think anyone is even looking at you. They're more interested in Gaara."

I don't deserve him either, Sakura thought. He's always thinking of me too. How on earth did I ever get to be so lucky, to have two such wonderful guys care so much for me?

Tsunade glanced back over her shoulder at her pupil, and smiled. "By the way, Sakura, I am of the understanding that congratulations are in order for you. Are you planning to change your name?"

Sakura blinked in astonishment. "What? You heard too, shishou?"

"The village has ears," Tsunade said with a conspiratorial smirk.

"No," Lee said. "I think it is easier explained by saying that Gai-sensei has a big mouth."

Sakura heaved a sigh; "I knew it. He can't keep something like that to himself. I swear, Lee, if I didn't know better, I'd think he really was your father, the way he struts over any accomplishment of yours. It goes beyond a sensei's pride!"

"Well, his totem animal is the peacock," Lee chuckled at that, a bit nervously. "You can't blame him, can you?"

"I was hoping to be a little more discreet," Sakura complained. "I bet half of Konoha knows by now!"

"Knows what?" Gaara inquired, his attention seized by the conversation. He shortened his strides until he was walking beside Lee, almost stride for stride. His intense jade-green eyes unnerved Sakura to the point where she couldn't get words past her throat.

"Sakura has agreed to become my wife," Lee said finally, ducking his head as if embarrassed.

"Is that so?" Gaara's face was expressionless as always, but his tone was particularly flat, and for a moment Sakura wondered if there was some truth to those old rumors after all. Perhaps Lee hadn't felt anything for Gaara, but there was no guarantee that the Kazekage hadn't harbored some affections, or jealousy, for him.

"Is that right?" Kankurou said with a laugh from behind. "Well then, Lee-san, congratulations! I can say from personal experience that it is quite an event, getting married."

Temari also laughed; "I'd say Kankurou is quite pleased with his choice, though I do wonder if that particular choice is so pleased with him."

"Bah," Sanami said peevishly, "needling me again, Temari-oneesan? I'm perfectly content and you know it."

"Well," Shikamaru said, "it looks to me like he's whipped, so of course she's perfectly content. What a pain in the ass."

"Whipped?" Kankurou's jaw dropped. "Oi, you little whelp!"

Sanami smacked her husband upside the head. "Let it go, Kankurou."

Sakura kept watch on Gaara out of the corner of her eye, feeling more and more nonplussed the longer the Kazekage remained silent. Naruto and Lee also watched the redhead with growing consternation.

"Oi! Gaara!" Naruto said finally. "You're supposed to say something like 'Congratulations' to them. It's a good thing, this getting engaged thing. Whether you approve or not!"

Gaara's mouth quirked; "I apologize. I did not mean to offend. Relationships still bewilder me." He resumed petting his raccoon. "Congratulations, Lee-san and Sakura-san."

Mercifully, they had reached the arena by this point. Sakura silently thanked whatever fates or lucks had brought this about, since Gaara was starting to really unnerve her. She stuck close to her fiancé while Tsunade started giving directions to the surrounding jounin. Lee put an arm around her shoulders, offering silent comfort to her. In a moment of emotional uncertainty, she wrapped her arms around his waist and clung to him.

What is wrong with me? Gaara shouldn't scare me like that, it's not like he's that dangerous to me. Even if Gaara doesn't like me, he holds Naruto in far too high esteem to ever hurt me. She shivered slightly. All the same, those eyes are just so... empty... sometimes.

Lee didn't say anything -- he didn't have to -- as he dropped a kiss onto her forehead and gently massaged her shoulders. She gratefully leaned into his embrace, taking comfort in his immutable strength. Nothing ever phased him. Of course, she considered, that could change once they had children. She almost chuckled as she remembered her father telling her how no amount of ninja training had prepared him for diapers and midnight feedings and teething and colic and all the not-so-joyous joys of parenting. She amused herself with visions of Lee freaking out over something mundane with a baby in hand... The thoughts helped drive the fear, discomfort and trepidation from the forefront of her thoughts.

"Sakura!" a familiar voice called. Sakura perked up instantly. "There you are!"

"Mom! Dad!" Sakura called back. She disentangled herself from Lee, who chuckled as he released her. "I'll be right back, Lee."

"Take your time," he said easily. "I am going to go find Neji and his family."

"Alright. I know where the Hyuugas usually sit, so I'll look for you there then." Sakura pecked a kiss on his cheek as she turned toward her parents, who were approaching. She felt rather than saw or heard as Lee launched himself into motion using a taijutsu equivalent of the body-flicker technique.

"There you are, honey!" Her mother opened her arms to hug her daughter, and Sakura flung herself excitedly into her mother's embrace. "Whoa! You're in good spirits today!"

Sakura's father was a retired genin, who had suffered career-ending and life-threatening injuries during his attempt at the Chuunin Selection Exams. Her mother had never managed to pass the final exams to even become a genin before tragedy had struck her family and forced her to quit as a shinobi. Sakura was their only child and was certainly their pride and joy. Mrs. Haruno ran a small bakery while her husband worked as a merchant.

Sakura hugged her mother joyously. "Dad, Mom, I have the best news in the world to share with you!"

"Did you get promoted?" Her father asked.

"No," Sakura shook her head, laughing. That was her father's response to anyone who expressed having great news to share; he already knew she hadn't applied for a jounin promotion and had no intentions of doing so any time soon. "You know that's not what it is, Dad!"

"Then what is it?"

"Lee proposed to me this morni--" she didn't even get a chance to finish the word before she was virtually crushed by her father's ferocious bear hug, effectively squeezing the breath out of her. Although he hadn't been a ninja for thirty years now, Haruno Noboru could still surprise his daughter with how fast he could move when he wanted to. It was also a measure of how well her parents knew her that she didn't even have to tell them her answer to Lee; they already knew.

Haruno Tsubaki likewise hugged her daughter enthusiastically. "I'm so happy for you, Sakura! Oh, congratulations, my dear!"

"This is wonderful, wonderful news, sweetheart!" Noboru swung his daughter around in his eagerness. "We should celebrate!"

"Dad, come on, you're going to crush my ribs!" Sakura gasped. Her father put her down with a sheepish apology and she grinned. She'd known her parents would react this way, because she knew that they really, really liked Lee. Her father saw Lee as the success story he himself had not been, because Lee had likewise incurred grave injuries in his first Chuunin Selection Exam, and had managed to overcome his injuries and return to being a shinobi, and had ascended up the ranks through sheer willpower alone to stake his claim as a jounin. Tsubaki thought the world of the young jounin because he was polite, well-mannered (if a bit eccentric) and openhearted, and his continued, unwavering devotion to Sakura had really touched her. She wanted her daughter to be as cherished by her life mate as she had been by her family, which was something Sasuke likely could never have done for her.

Sakura also knew that neither of her parents had liked Sasuke very well. However, they hadn't really told her why until about a month or so after she'd begun living together with Lee. It turned out that the Uchiha clan had long been respected and admired, but not particularly liked. Much like the Hyuuga clan, the Uchihas were arrogant and elitist, and most people in Konoha didn't like to deal with them extensively. Combined with the tragedy of the clan and Sasuke's dark, foreboding views and vows, his kamikaze behavior of forsaking his own village for the sake of gaining power, and it was easy to see now, in retrospect, why Sakura's parents had hoped and prayed desperately that their daughter would outgrow her childhood crush on the calamitous young scion of the star-crossed Uchiha clan.

"So, why don't the two of you come over tonight for dinner?" Mrs. Haruno said brightly. "I'll fix something extra special. You don't have any plans, right?"

"Not to my knowledge, but I'll have to ask Lee. He usually tells me about any plans well in advance, so I'm assuming not, but I'll let you know if he does. What time?"

"How about between five and six?"

"Okay, great -- I need to go, I'm sure they're all waiting for me now. We'll stop by tonight, whatever his plans might be. I'll be in touch!" In her excitement, she decided haphazardly to use the body flicker technique, but forgot to scout the area before transferring. She realized her error a few heartbeats too late when she opened her eyes to find herself staring at someone's jounin vest, her nose literally less than a centimeter from the green material. A pair of pale gloved hands came to rest on her shoulders.

"You lucky girl," a wry, familiar voice quipped evenly. "Good thing you chose the Hyuuga box to carelessly teleport into, since the Hyuugas are used to seeing and reacting to strange things like this. Otherwise, you could have been in a world of pain."

"K-Kakashi-sensei--I'm sorry--"

"Ow, dammit, Neji, what the hell was that for?" She heard Lee's voice, thick with annoyance, behind her, and she turned to see him prone on the ground, rubbing his shoulder gingerly.

"Oh, put a cork in it," Neji said peevishly, straightening his tunic. "I just saved your dumb ass, Lee."

"From what?"

"From your careless fiancée, is what! Two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; that's one of the first laws of physics. In case you didn't notice, she flickered in right where you were just standing, and you wouldn't move when I told you to! Your lack of ninjutsu means you don't sense when a body-flicker is coming in, so you would never have gotten out of the way. If you had stayed there, one of you would've gotten pretty badly hurt, and I'm guessing it wouldn't be her."

Lee blinked slowly and his eyes shifted over to Sakura, who was blushing by now with embarrassment.

"Sorry, Lee," she said with a sheepish grin. "I kinda lost my head." She illustrated the point with a gesture by knocking herself lightly in the temple.

"Almost literally," Kakashi added dryly. "I hope that this was a solitary incident, Sakura. You're not usually this careless."

Lee silently gathered himself up, dusted off, and came to Sakura's side without a word. At first Sakura thought he was mad at her, but the way he was looking at Neji out of the corner of his eye betrayed who he was actually angry with.

"In the future, Neji," he said evenly, with only a hint of anger, "if you must shove me aside, please take care that you do not hit one of my Gates with your jyuuken."

"I didn't," Neji retorted. "I was close, but I didn't hit any of them. I know where they are better than you do."

Sakura put an arm around Lee's waist, privately enjoying (somewhat guiltily) this reversion on both jounin's part. Neji and Lee had been teammates for well over a decade, but they were still in some ways rivals deep down inside, and whenever Lee felt like Neji was patronizing him or belittling him, he tended to snap and say something. With most other people, Lee was capable of pausing and considering consequences; Neji brought out the slightly-bratty child in him.

As she leaned against him, Sakura felt him shift a bit and relax, almost like a horse being reassured. The mental image of Lee as a horse made her giggle, considering one of the things he'd told her a while ago in confidence.

"What's so funny?" Neji raised an eyebrow at her.

"None of your business, Neji-kun," she retorted happily. "Private joke between Lee and myself."

"Which means," another voice sang merrily as an ANBU member dropped onto the railing, "that you shouldn't inquire too much, if you don't want to learn Too Much Information."

Lee outright laughed at that. "Tenten! I have not seen you in months, and this is how you greet me?"

The ANBU member removed her distinctive mask and hood, revealing herself to be Neji and Lee's long-time teammate Tenten.

"Well, I've been busy, you know! These Chuunin Selection Exams are huge security risks, after all." the kunoichi retorted. "And since when have I ever stood on small talk?"

"Good point."

There was a puff of smoke and the distinctive sound of a body-flicker -- or a clone-release -- from nearby as Kakashi quietly removed himself from the box. Three heartbeats later, in his place puffed another cloud of smoke as a red tortoise appeared. It seemed almost orchestrated.

"Ah!" was all Lee was able to get out as the smoke cleared to reveal someone that he and his teammates knew very well: the ninkame of their sensei, Gai.

The lazy eyes of the tortoise closed dreamily as it settled itself down on the ground, as if to take a nap.

"Oh...kay," Hyuuga Hinata, Neji's younger cousin, said softly. "Why is there a turtle here, Neji-oniisan?"

"It means Gai-sensei is coming," Tenten said with a grin. "He's smart enough to use Ninkame-san to clear the space where he intends to teleport in, so that he doesn't risk colliding with anyone."

"Unlike a certain kunoichi," Neji added with an unreadable look as he glanced at Sakura.

"Let it go, Neji," Lee said flatly.

Gai-sensei's impeccable timing prevented further argument as he appeared on top of the ninkame's shell in a puff of smoke.

"Good morning everyone!" the jounin said brightly, raising his hand in greeting. "Lovely day for a Chuunin Selection Exam finale, eh?"

The response Gai got wasn't exactly what he'd expected, apparently, though he was experienced enough as a ninja that he wasn't caught completely off guard. He snatched the thrown kunai out of the air before it could sheer off his left ear, and gave Sakura a bewildered look. "What was that for?"

"For having a big mouth!" Sakura snapped peevishly. "Geez! Do I really need to spell it out for you?"

"What are you talking about?"

While Sakura glared at the older jounin, Ninkame yawned hugely and noisily. "She's right though, Gai-sensei," it said. "You do have a big mouth."

Gai punched the turtle's shell. "Quiet, you." He looked up at Sakura. "Look, if this is about your news, I only told two people -- Yumiya and Kakashi. And Yumiya's already out on a mission. I can't help it if Tsunade-sama already knew."

Narita Yumiya, a former ANBU jounin, was Gai's friend and currently a roommate of his, due to some financial troubles on her part. There were rumors of an affair going on between the two -- and Lee had said that he suspected that Gai was at least to some degree attracted to Yumiya -- but Yumiya flatly denied anything. She had a lesbian history, having been involved romantically with two other kunoichi from ANBU, though one of her former lovers had later quit being a shinobi altogether, and the other had died in the line of duty. Yumiya was currently training with Gai to improve her taijutsu so that she could fully integrate her high-level genjutsu with taijutsu, creating something wholly new. Of course, she had to sandwich those training sessions in between her missions.

Sakura hesitated. "You mean, you didn't tell Tsunade-sama?"

"No, she said something to me about it. So, yeah, I suppose you could say Shizune-san found out about it through me, but not directly, and through no fault of mine."

"Oh." Sakura felt her face grow red with embarrassment. She'd just assumed that Gai had blabbed. "I... I'm sorry."

"Wow, Gai-sensei," Lee quipped. "You actually restrained yourself? I am quite impressed!"

"If you weren't so close to the rail, Lee, I'd punch you for that," Gai retorted spiritedly. "But I don't want to hurt you. You're still my cutest prize student."

Lee groaned as Neji and Tenten laughed. "Cutest, you say."

"Of course!"

"Great. That is my claim to fame with Gai-sensei: that I am his cutest student."

"Well, look at it this way, Lee," Tenten punched Lee's shoulder in a very sisterly manner, "you spent a hell of a lot more time with Gai-sensei in one year than Neji and I combined ever did. So yeah, he considers you his cutest, since you're the one he's seen the most of. That, and you used to mimic everything he did."

"I did not!" Lee retorted vehemently, and to no avail. Even Sakura knew that what Tenten said was true.

"Ooh, looks like it's about to begin!" exclaimed Hyuuga Hanabi, Hinata's younger sister and a chuunin who had been working with Nara Shikamaru's team for the past two years. "I hear that that puppeteer from Suna is up first!"

"Kurenai-sensei has been observing that one in his training. She said he's really good," Hinata added, turning to look out over the arena. "She said he might even be better than the last one we had at one of these."

"Nee-san, do you mean Kankurou-san?"

Hinata nodded.

"Given what I know of Kankurou-san," Lee said with a slight frown, "I find that hard to swallow. Kankurou-san is ridiculously strong and can control up to a dozen full-sized puppets at a time."

"He's also an adult, Lee," Sakura nudged her fiancé in the ribs, "and related to Gaara."

"Right. So to say that this punk kid is better than Kankurou-san is quite a statement."

"Better than Kankurou-san was during his first attempt at the Chuunin Selection Exams," Sakura corrected gently. "But we only saw him perform once, you remember. He forfeited his final round. So all Kurenai-sensei has to go on is that one brief example. I don't think she's ever seen Kankurou-san really fight."

"Come on, you lazy bum," Gai said peevishly, prodding the turtle. "A little closer to the railing so I can actually see what's going on down there."

"That's what you get for using me as a chair," Ninkame retorted, but complied with the request, trundling forward until he was right in front of the railing. Then the tortoise plopped himself down again.

"Best seat in the house," Gai proclaimed, patting the summoning creature affectionately. "Kakashi can't beat that -- he can't sit on any of his summoning pets."

"Well, there is that large dog, the one that is about the size of Ninkame-san," Lee pointed out

"Bull doesn't like to be sat on, and Kakashi's too heavy to sit on him anyway. Nope, I got Kakashi beat there."

"As if that were the only reason you signed my contract," Ninkame said lazily. "If it were, I'd bite you right now."

Lee glanced up at the deck where the two kages were seated. "Sakura, did you want to go up there with your shishou and Naruto-kun? I am perfectly fine here with my teammates if you do."

Sakura shook her head. "I'd rather stay with you. I don't know that I'd be welcome up there anyway. The security where the kages sit is pretty tight."

Lee smiled at her and gave her a tender, loving kiss. "I love you, Sakura. I do not deserve you, but I love you."

You're wrong there, Lee, she thought as she leaned against him. I'm the one who doesn't deserve you.



Coming soon: "Part Two: The Family Way" wherein Gaara evaluates Kakashi, Kankurou learns a startling fact he's too simple to notice himself, and a bunch of other fluffy random stuff happen.



END NOTES: Terminology, for those who are a bit rusty:
"Geji-mayu" is what Naruto calls Rock Lee. It translates as "fuzzy eyebrows" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Bushy Brow" and is Naruto's nickname for Lee. He doesn't mean anything rude by it, and Lee doesn't seem to mind.
"Ero-sennin" is what Naruto calls Jiraiya. It means "perverted hermit" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Pervy Sage" and is Naruto's nickname for Jiraiya. Jiraiya doesn't particularly like the nickname, but he seems to get used to it.
"Nakimushi-kun" means "Mr. Crybaby" and is what Temari calls Shikamaru, much to his chagrin.
A tanuki isn't a raccoon -- it's actually a relative of the dog, fox and wolf, called a "raccoon dog" -- and in reality isn't related to the raccoon at all, but I thought it would help if Temari and the others believed that Suna, a raccoon, is of a species that is a relative of the tanuki. For more information, go to Wikipedia and search for "tanuki" -- that'll give you all the information you could want.
Hitai-ate are the "forehead protectors" (headbands) worn by all shinobi with symbols of their home village. Because they can be worn anywhere, or not worn at all, I have chosen to use the untranslated word rather than the term "forehead protector" or "headband"
Doujutsu is performing a jutsu with the eyes, such as with the Sharingan or Byakugan, though there appears to be other forms of doujutsu that aren't kekkei genkai.
A kunoichi is a female ninja. It is often used in the series as a synonym for ninja or shinobi, when talking about a female. Thus it's used here sporadically much as it is in the series.
A kekkei genkai is, basically, a "bloodline limit" -- refering to a talent or trait that is passed down genetically. The Sharingan and the Byakugan are the two most well-known kekkei genkai in this series.
The Hyuuga clan use the jyuuken (Gentle Fist) style of taijutsu, which requires the Byakugan to execute properly The jyuuken style targets the chakra network and internal organs.
A Jinchuuriki is a human host of one of the nine different tailed demons (called "bijuu"). Gaara was the Jinchuuriki for Shukaku, the Ichibi (One-Tailed) and Naruto is the Jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi (Nine-Tailed)
"mou" generally translates to "geez" or "Ah man!"
"mendokuse" means "troublesome" and is Shikamaru's favorite word; I generally translate it here by having him say "What a pain in the ass," but I have Nara Shikaku say "mendokuse" to help illustrate just how similar father and son are.

Honorific suffixes, for those who are rusty:
-chan is used mostly towards females, and indicates a long-term, close friendship. Generally one only uses it for someone one has known since childhood. From the outset in the story, Naruto has always referred to Sakura as Sakura-chan.
-dono is an antiquated suffix that is less formal than -sama but more formal than -san. It is often used to express either submission (when used in place of -san) or equality (when used in place of -sama). In this story, Tsunade uses -dono toward Gaara to indicate their equality in ranks.
-kun is used mostly towards males that are younger. It is a more informal, if you will, form of -san, but less intimate than -chan. It can be used towards girls, but is not usually. Rock Lee is well known for using -kun and -san for nearly everyone he meets, though I have him referring to Gaara with the -sama suffix out of respect for Gaara's office as Kazekage.
-obaachan is used to address someone who is much older. In this context, "baa" essentially means "Honorable old woman." It's sometimes translated as "granny" but is actually very respectful, as long as the addressee doesn't mind being referred to as an old woman. The male equivalent is "-ojiichan"
-oneesan is used to address a woman who is older than you and with whom you have a relatively close, familial bond, though blood relations aren't necessary. The word "nee" means older sister, "san" is a respectful suffix, and "o" is a modifier that adds respect to the word. Thus, saying "Temari-oneesan" is like saying "Big Sister Temari-san." The male equivalent is "-oniisan." Sanami uses -oneesan to express that she is a member -- by way of marriage -- of Temari's family and that she views Temari as a sister.
-sama is used to express great respect and humility. It's often translated as "Lord" or "Lady" though royalty or nobility have nothing to do with it.
-san is the most generic and safest suffix to use.
-sempai is used to address a superior within an organization. Rather like "brothers" or "sisters" within a cult or coven. This is the "big brother/big sister" term. Its counterpart is "-kohai" but isn't used nearly as much, because calling someone "-kohai" can be taken as offensive or demeaning if you're not careful.
-sensei is used to address a teacher, instructor, or an expert in a particular art. Also, -sensei is used to address doctors.
-shishou is used to address one's master in a particular art, such as martial arts, or in the case of Sakura, in the healing arts.
(paraphrased and interpreted from source: Wikipedia's entry on "Japanese Titles"