Chapter 18: Lee Enters The Fray!
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The Hidden Sand found some reliable allies in their time of poverty. As warriors and mercenaries born to fight, an empty stomach only made those of the Sand Village more colder and pragmatic.

The Leader of the village was also the type of man who believed ends justified the means, a clear example of that manifested in the form of fear even those of the nation had for him, the Kazekage.

When villagers referred to him, they would rarely bring up what generation of secession he was before his title, as the Kazekage of the Hidden was THE Kazekage who had absolute authority.

In the past as he was considering Orochimaru's offer and preparing for war, he considered other villages a nuisance. This was despite the economy of the Hidden Sand revolving around war.

It took encountering the crisis brought about by peace that warmongers started appearing in the upper echelons of the nation. As the Kazekage who held everyone's fate, he was stressed by the flow of his village's destiny being inseparable from war.

As a village that was adept in warfare using puppetry and their environment, was going to war the only option? He had accepted this to be so the longer time went on the people was responsible for started to starve. The alliance between them and the Hidden Leaf became more of a chain than a life-rope there to held them out if needed.

However, everything had changed once the Chinoike Clan entered their ranks. He had expected exorbitant demands and an unreasonable attitude from these 'Demons', but they seemed strangely friendly as they worked with villagers.

Those strange 'Blood Fruits' and other methods of started up the economy again brought about a change in destiny for the Hidden Sand and a new future even HE could look forward to. He was happy... yet also suspicious of their intentions.

"We will have to see who this 'Pink Hair' is..." He spoke towards the old woman that had the most distrust towards the other villages. He needed someone to do reconnaissance, and she was perfect for the agenda. She put his heart at ease.

———————————————————

Meanwhile, at Gai-sensei's training ground, Rock Lee once again left with injuries all over him... The reason was the same as last time. He picked a fight with Neji and got his butt cleanly handed to him.

"I will beat you!" He roared as he trained as if he would die without a week's worth of training in one day. Gai responded to his will, but Lee knew willpower could only get one so far in life.

He wanted validation that the strength he achieved right now wasn't for nothing. There were many things he had given up to become a Shinobi like the others... He wanted to be recognised by the village as not only competent, but a 'strong' Ninja!

As he was going the rooftops to train, he spotted a masked girl with pink hair running about.

"Sakura!" He called out unconsciously which caused the girl to stand still where she was.

"...How did you know it's me?" Although pink hair was a little rare, it wasn't exactly a deciding factor for one's identity. Naturally, she didn't know that Lee was good at remembering physical qualities. A person seen once by him wouldn't be forgotten.

However, rather than saying this. He thought of what his Gai-sensei would say and spoke:

"The power of love!"

"...Don't make me punch you..." She was really speechless by how he could shamelessly say that.

Although she had her reasons to not take her temper out on Naruto, Lee wasn't the same. It was at that moment that she realised that Lee was injured internally despite looking okay outwardly.

"Did Neji beat you?"

"HOW DID YOU KNOW?! Who told you that? Was it Tenten or Gai-sensei?" He inquired with a blush.

Losing was so uncool! There was no way Sakura would even look at him if she knew their record...!

"Err... It was an educated guess."

"How?"

"I have enough medical training to see your injured and already know Neji is of the Hyuga Clan."

"..." He hung his head in shame as he felt like there was no way he'd be able to show his cool sides anymore. He fantasised so hard about being the one to save her if she was to become a damsel-in-distress, yet now all those fantasies were ruined!

"The springtime of youth never runs dry, I will defeat my great rival and earn back my pride!"

"Yeah. Sure. Okay. I'll be going then." She turned around and was about to leave this place quietly.

"Wait. Why don't we hang out?"

"And why would I do that?"

"Please give me a chance. I really DO like you!" Her eyebrow trembled as she had a lot to retort to that.

"How long have you known me for?"

"Since we trained together once."

"Yet you still go on and one about 'liking' me?!" A vein popped on her forehead as she lifted him off the ground by his collar and looked at him with an angry face that resembled that of a demon's.

"It was love at first sight!" He seemed confused as to why she would be angry as his declaration.

Did he do something bad? Or does it have to do with this 'atmosphere' Gai-sensei talked about.

"Is Gai-sensei the one who reached these lines?"

"...No." He finally started avoiding her eyes as he now felt a little embarrassed by her inquiry.

"He teaches you that 'springtime' thing as well."

"The springtime of youth-"

"That's it!" She snapped and pushed him away.

"Wait. I'll stop saying it if you don't like it." He showed a rare sign of compromise in his tone.

"...That isn't the point." She sighed as she had already got used to 'weirdness' thanks to Naruto's Sexy Jutsu. Compared to pulling that trick on Kaguya of all people, Lee was cute in comparison.

She scanned him from head to toe and considered her options for a bit. As to uphold the promise she had with Ino, she would pursue Sasuke in any way as of now. Rather, she wanted to see if there were other options for bit... Try seeing a different future.

When she looked at Lee's current appearance in his youthful days, she ultimately couldn't help but think of the time he had fought to save her when Sound Ninja attacked in the Chunin Exams.

If Naruto was a knucklehead, then Lee was a muscle dork who was a lot more serious than his usual ridiculous antics let on. He truly believed in all the 'youth' stuff Gai had told him and was the kind of guy who could go the extra mile for others.

A plus for his personality, a plus for strength, a plus for his idealism, but there was just one negative:

"Can't you change your style a little?"

"Gai-sensei gifted me this outfit. Green looks cool as well!" He tried to persuade her on its finesse.

"I'm not saying have a makeover. I'm asking why you don't add accessories to it. Even Gai-sensei has better taste since his blade-proof vest actually complements the green jumpsuit." Lee looked at her in confusion as she was saying these words.

"...Fine. I'll help you out." Sakura then lead the way to a clothing store not far from their location.

Once he got there, he still had question marks above his head as she was picking out some accessories and other things that could be added to improve his style. She put his natural style into consideration as well as some things just didn't suit this bushy-browed dork. She kinda enjoyed doing this as it had been a long time since she acted 'girly' rather that scheming, training, or fighting.

The store might have doubled as a low-scale weapon shop for Shinobi, but she didn't mind at all.

Unknown to her though, Lee had different thoughts as he was being pulled along. Inwardly, he cried:

'This is definitely a date!'

"Do you want a bandana?"

"Yes, my love." A flower appeared between his teeth as he put what he read might attract girls to the test. If he had more friends, he probably would die of embarrassment by how cringe-y this was.

*Pah* "You say something to me?"

"Nothing..." He held the bump on his head. The other people who were watching this duo at the side couldn't hold in their smiles. For some odd reason, they seemed suitable for each other.

"Anyway, what do you think of Knuckle Dusters?"

"Please don't hit me..."

"I mean for you."

"That's what I mean."

"No, wait." She realised that he was misunderstanding something as she spoke.

"Do you know why you keep losing to Neji?"

"You know my record?!" He paled like a ghost.

"That's not the point. What I'm saying is why don't you challenge him with weapons?" She finally got to the point as she realised NOT talking straightforwardly will end badly if it's with him.

"I won't be able to beat him if we use weapons."

"Not necessarily." As he was already someone who specialises in Taijutsu, she didn't hold back:

"The Gentle Fist can't increase the attack potency of weapons. Conversely, the Strong Fist Gai-sensei taught you can swing weapons faster and more powerfully than your 'rival'." She explained, and he understood her idea immediately afterwards.

It made so much sense that he wondered why didn't he think of this before. Perhaps it was because of Tenten not being able to touch Neji no matter how many throwing weapons she threw at him... She lost, but for him it will be different!

"I don't need stronger punches." A switch seemed to be turned on as he got onto her wavelength.

"Than what about batons or a staff?" As Sakura spoke these words, he imagined a scenario of fighting against Neji and couldn't help but shake his head. The Gentle Fist wouldn't be so powerful if mere 'longer weapons' could work against them.

"I can't win with petty tricks."

"You should try though, and I don't like how you call them 'petty'. Tricks are a Ninja's specialty."

"I still don't see me winning like this... Maybe if I open the Fourth Gate I might be- Oh, Sakura! Just forget what I said. It's a secret so I can't explain anything." He just remembered Gai-sensei made him promise to tell no one he's training Eight Gates.

"I read a lot of medical books. You think I don't know what the Eight Gates are?" She got a little angry after remembering how he shattered and messed up his spine when he opened the Fourth Gate against Gaara in her original timeline.

"I can't use Ninjutsu. This is the only way..." She could see that she wouldn't be able to persuade him due to the firmness of his will. He was a guy who wanted to show the world that there are those who can become Ninjas with Taijutsu alone!

"I know a little trick about the Eight Gates, but you have to keep this from Gai-sensei if I tell you." She made a decision in her heart quickly as she couldn't just watch as history repeats itself.

"Why not?" He didn't quite understand.

"The technique I'm about to teach you can only be used by a Medical Ninja. This isn't quite a technique but more of a procedure to improve a person's Taijutsu using the Eight Inner Gates Technique." She lord through her teeth.

In truth, Gai-sensei had actually regained his title as a great Grandmaster in Taijutsu when he was able to 'Reverse Open' his Inner Gates. This was created in the midst of the Fifth Great Ninja War and was different from the regular opening method Strong Fist practitioners usually used. You could also call it something that needed years to master.

As someone who has survived opening the Gate of Death, Gai-sensei had an epiphany in the future as he was able to form a new path in the Strong Fist not even Lee of that time could master. The only bad sides were too things: Time and Requirements.

Might Gai was already quite old when he mastered this technique and couldn't bring out its true potential. He didn't have the time needed to fully master it. As for the requirements, this wasn't something merely training oneself could do.

Like her own Destructive Rebirth technique, it could allow a person's body to permanently open an Inner Gate. In fact, this technique she was going to pass on was what she drew inspiration from.

However, there was a good reason why she chose Destructive Rebirth over the Reverse Gate Opening Method, and that was because of the amount of relentless training on par with torture and the years of preparation it would take to open Eight Gates.

The nature of the technique was different. While Destructive Rebirth altered her body, it did not make her muscles grow. After all, most of the energy from the Eight Gates was being used to slowly nurture her body into an eternal one.

The more time passed, the closer her natural healing will improve to the point she would essentially become un-killable. But on the other hand, as the Reverse Gate Opening Method focused solely on combat, it allowed the energy brought forth from the Eight Gates to create a body that would never gain any sort of injuries.

She thought of this as a gift to him for saving her back then. If he hadn't done so, who knows what could have happened? She also realised that this was a great chance to ask Lee for a favour.

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