A/N: Hey there, folks. This little piece was written for the Fireplace Alliance's Song Interpretation challenge, wherein we had to pick lyrics from a certain song and consequently write a story about it. I chose the song "Kanashimi wo Yasashisa Ni", the Naruto anime's third opening theme, which was sang by "little by little". This fanfiction was drawn from the lyrics of the chorus. Please enjoy!
Disclaimer: Naruto and other related characters are the masterpieces of Masashi Kishimoto. No profit whatsoever has been made from this piece of fiction. The lyrics below belong to the song "Kanashimi wo Yasashisa Ni" by "little by little".
Keep On Smiling
Sousa kanashimi wo yasashisa ni
Jibun rashisa wo chikara ni
(Turn your sadness into kindness, your uniqueness into strength.)
Rock Lee never felt so nervous in his life.
The appointed time of judgment finally came once again, washing him with an unnerving sense of foreboding. Only mere seconds separated him from his turn to take this year's Genin exam. It was strange, really. The novelty of it all should have worn out by now. How many times had he taken this test? Three? Four?
Lee lost count. He couldn't remember; he would rather forget the shame they had brought time and time again, anyway.
With an audible creak, the wooden doors of the exam room opened with a flourish. As the beams of bright sunlight began to permeate the dark room's depths, a young boy emerged, lips curled in a victorious smirk. Nimble fingers were running delicately over his new Konoha forehead protector, his thumb tracing over the intricate, metallic swirls of the plated village insignia.
Lee felt his heart twitch with a searing pang of jealousy. It was the same sight every time those doors opened- the bright, pleased grins, the jubilant cheering with friends and parents, the reveling in the sweet, tangible taste of success after months of hard work.
He had yet to experience that.
He only had simple dreams. Pass the test. Be an official shinobi. Work his way up from then on. Maybe, just maybe, people would treat him better in the process. Was it really supposed to be this hard? He wasn't supposed to be struggling and writhing like a pathetic animal for recognition at square one.
The prize he had always been yearning for always remained tantalizingly close. He had been in the Academy for as long as he can remember. Months? Years, perhaps? He never really counted the time that had passed. Time seemed to fly when you're learning and perfecting something that was impossible in the first place.
Lee could see his classmate Goro beaming with pride. From a distance, he could hear him bragging with that loud, obnoxious voice of his to his own little circle of friends that the exam was "as easy as taking a snooze".
It wasn't fair, really. Goro and Lee were the epitomes of polar opposites; Lee had worked and trained hard after every single day with no apparent and tangible fruition in return. Meanwhile, Goro had slept and slacked through the lazy, summer afternoons as if there was no tomorrow. The real clincher was he just happened to breeze through the exam that Lee shamefully flunked who knows how many times.
Lee could only stare at him at the injustice of it all. After a few passing moments, Goro must have noticed. He stared daggers right back at him.
He began to approach Lee with prosaic strides, gargantuan feet kicking up dust on the ashen concrete. Lee's gaze never wavered as they stood face to face.
"Quit looking at me, loser," he snarled.
Lee was beyond livid at this point. The ugly, boiling mix of stress, anxiety, and frustration began to pound furiously in his head. A hot, burning feeling started to bloom in his chest. Before he knew it, his hands were already clenched into fists. Each nerve within him was already raring to fight back.
"Oh, I'm guessing that you want one of these?" Goro continued smugly, fingering his new forehead protector, which was slung and tied around his forearm.
Lee remained silent with gritted teeth. He couldn't deny that that was the truth.
"You'll never get one, and you know why?"
Lee already knew what he was going to say before he said it.
"Because you're just a dropout that'll never amount to anything."
It was a long-standing mantra that remained painfully fresh every time it was said. Lee heard it all the time in varying degrees; most people brazenly said it to his face without fear of retaliation. They saw him as a feeble, clumsy travesty of a fool who wanted to be a shinobi that couldn't even throw a punch or use a ninja technique even if his life depended on it. Some people were deceitfully kind enough; they said it in hushed whispers and laughed about it among themselves.
Somehow, Lee could always tell. The demeaning stares were always a dead giveaway. Lee wished he could have numbed himself from this brand of torment. The words always managed to sear through his chest, no matter how much he willed himself to ignore it.
Lee found himself training even harder than usual after the wanton verbal lashing. It was the only way to drive his attention away from the cruel laughter.
He just couldn't help but curse his frailty. His only resolve was to brace himself and flinch from the impact resonating inside his chest every time. He tried fighting back once; they just said his flimsy attempts to throw a punch were a hilarious joke that would "embarrass a full-fledged shinobi into submission within a ten-mile radius".
Lee could only remember waking up bloody and bruised in the Academy clinic much later, then.
"Lee, stop bickering already. Come inside the room to take the test," said his sensei, a hectoring finger already pointed at the imposing, wooden doors of the examination room.
Upon hearing those stern words, the rage that wreaked havoc in his head started to shrivel and wilt like a dying flame. Anxiety and nervousness began to gnaw at his insides. As if mesmerized, the intense grip of his clenched fists began to slacken; his heavy feet began to trudge forward automatically towards the place that would already spell his future. Or the lack of it.
"Good luck, loser," Goro said. Malice dripped from every word. "You'll need it."
Goro's perverse remarks still rang poignantly in Lee's ears as he entered and stood inside the examination room. It was surprisingly bare. A glamorous marble desk adorned the far end of the room. It was covered with a magnificent, green satin tablecloth that displayed the Konoha symbol in bold red.
A displeased Chuunin proctor stood behind it, foot tapping on the floor incessantly. Another person sat on the far left side. Lee could tell that this person hailed from the Jounin rank; despite his entire attire that flashed an eye-catching shade of green, he radiated a far superior and powerful aura than the Chuunin in front of him. Lee guessed the Jounin was just there to observe; he guessed that he was just doing an evaluation of sorts.
Lee's heart kept hammering in his chest; his arms and legs were becoming numb as he kept himself rooted on the floor. He felt his skin crawl as the gaze of the exam proctor lingered on his pale, stiff form as he stood there at his mercy. He felt the crinkled dark eyes scrutinizing him, ready to nitpick for any possible inconsistency that would send him reeling back again to the Academy doors for another tortuous year of shame and failure.
Horrible scenarios flicked through his mind, each mental picture more embarrassing than the last. If he failed this test one more time, he would be under the hawk-eyed surveillance of his Academy teacher again; he would have to endure looking, staring, at the disappointed face of his sensei everyday until the next Genin test came by.
Lee was petrified and sick at the prospect of another moment of failure.
"So you're the one the other students call the hot-blooded dropout," the proctor said. A subtle smirk was beginning to tug the corners of his pursed lips, contorting his apathetic expression into an oddly sinister look.
Lee noticed the condescending tone of the proctor's voice. It was exactly the same to the one his classmates used; it was coated with an unhealthy undertone of contempt, ridicule and disbelief. He was perfectly used to the perpetual teasing; there was really no use denying the harsh truth, really. Lee reconciled long ago the fact that he cannot even perform the simplest of ninjutsu, and his taijutsu was horrendously below par. As time passed by, he had not even resorted to blaming his classmates for continually putting him down and grinding him mercilessly to the ground.
He only blamed himself.
The expectations for him were not exactly stellar. Others said that he ought to remain as an ordinary civilian, blissfully safe and comfortable in the confines of a normal, conflict-free existence. They were also careful to rub in the fact that his inability to perform the most fundamental and basic of ninja arts were sure to incapacitate and kill him the first mission around.
They said that he was weak, pathetically so.
With that look that heavily resembled his classmates' sneers, Lee instantly knew that the proctor also expected him to fail dismally. Just like everyone else did.
He was careful not to elicit any form of pachydermic response; his reputation as a hot-blooded dropout appeared to precede him. However, before he knew it, he felt his mouth open soundlessly. Heated, livid words to defend himself, his dignity, already itched in his parched throat, threatening to blurt out on how he was not a failure, that he was trying his very best to diligently conform to their standards.
It took much of his willpower to control that overwhelming impulse. Lee did not really want to diminish his slim chances of passing the exam by acting like the defiant loser they expected him to be.
Lee vaguely wondered what he was doing wrong every time they jeered at him. Nothing never really seemed to work; fights would only earn him unwarranted bodily pains and utter embarrassment. Verbal banter wasn't much of a feasible choice, either. He wasn't particularly witty when it comes to comebacks or wickedly nitpicky when pinpointing and emphasizing another person's faults. Remaining silent and enduring it would just egg them on. Plus, it was doubly painful when he knew that he deliberately gave his consent for someone to stomp all over his already bruised ego.
He surmised that it was probably on the account of his overly kind nature, in general. He despised having conflict; fights would only leave a lingering feeling of unease settling in his chest that always begged to be released. It was rather ironic; despite the fact that he always made the effort to shrug off conflict, it always seemed to seek him instead.
Perhaps that was the answer. Lee had been looking at the whole thing the wrong way; all this time, he had been forcefully shoving himself into the way they think. He had been trying to play their game. A game that picked on his inherent kindness.
There was actually one more other thing he hadn't tried. It hadn't crossed his mind before because to him, it looked rather absurd and foolish to do so in the faces of the many people who picked on him. He had to give it a shot. He still had a full mouth of teeth to lose anyway if he ever received a gratuitous sucker punch for attempting this.
After a deep cleansing breath, Lee, strangely enough, found himself doing one of the most illogical things a person would ever do in that situation. A situation that would sink him knee-deep in humiliation if he ever committed one more blunder. A situation that involved another person that possessed the power to hand said humiliation, who wasn't even keen on having friendly terms with him.
He just merely smiled back to the proctor.
The sight of Lee's deviant reaction earned a raised, inquisitive eyebrow.
Well, that was definitely new. Lee's half-baked attempts to retaliate would have already earned a generous peal of laughter by now.
"You seem pretty confident," the Chuunin remarked. "I got to hand it to you. You're the first one who smiled in my face the whole day."
It was Lee's turn to be surprised.
He wondered if he heard that right. He was the first one to do such a thing? He was the first to actually smile back at the examiner, despite his authority? Lee could imagine Goro doing the same; he left the examination room grinning ear to ear, after all. He practically oozed confidence and superiority. But apparently, Goro didn't. Perhaps he was only a human after all, also capable of feeling fear, just like Lee.
He couldn't really explain it. Suddenly, all the anxiety that was having a heyday in his chest started to evaporate. The feeling to have actually beaten someone in something was a fine, fine break from the monotony of disappointment; even it was just from a measly show of faux confidence.
Lee was actually better than someone at something.
He could feel his smile morph and unfurl into a genuine grin.
He was now ready to prove himself now more than ever.
"Okay, let's get this over with," continued the proctor blithely, bringing out a sheet of paper and a pen. "The theory portion…"
The numbness on Lee's legs and arms somewhat receded. If the test consisted mainly of questions regarding the textbook material, he still stood at a respectable chance of passing. It was an unorthodox test, he concluded. There were no theory exams on his previous attempts.
"… Elaborate on the differences between the Strong Fist, Gentle Fist, and the Drunken Fist style of combat."
The cogs and wheels in Lee's brain suddenly went into overdrive. He could have laughed on the spot with relief. The question was definitely a no-brainer for him; the three combat styles were all forms of taijutsu, something he devoutly spent his time studying. With his inability to perform any other ninja art, he knew that taijutsu was definitely the only path for him to tread. He exerted more effort in learning it than any other form of ninja arts.
Lee was perfectly aware that his memory wasn't exactly top-notch, not that it would help him in his pursuits in taijutsu, anyway. Hand-to-hand combat was not something a person could learn and master by heart through solely digging through a book. Lee mustered his thoughts and remembered what he could on the subject. Much to his surprise, the words spilled forth automatically.
"The Strong Fist style deals with external damage. It uses only brute force to overpower and defeat opponents. The Gentle Fist is different. It uses chakra to infiltrate the opponent's chakra system in order to cause internal damage. It is said to be the most deadliest of all combat styles because a single tap can even kill a person."
The proctor looked very much surprised at this point. The once smug face was now torn between incredulity and mild surprise. It was a good omen; Lee guessed he pretty much nailed the answer on his first try. Confidence stirring his chest, he continued on; his words appeared to mesmerize and stun the proctor into an eerie, uncomfortable silence.
"The Drunken Fist style is a deviant combat style. It relies heavily on unpredictability and extreme flexibility of movement. Not many people practice this style because the user is required to be drunk for it to be performed effectively."
After Lee finished with a sigh of relief, the proctor jotted down some brief notes. The scritching and scratching of black pen echoed through the silence. With a benign smile, the proctor's eyes scanned the next sheet of paper.
"Well, I didn't expect that from you. That's good enough. At least you got the gist of it correct."
Lee hastily casted away the elation that ran amok in his chest. That test was too simple, too easy. There must be more than a simple test of verbatim knowledge.
"Okay, let's move on to the application part," he continued. Lee listened with bated breath. Here it comes.
"Now, perform the foundation form of the Strong Fist style, please."
That… wasn't too bad. To his relief, it was definitely a task that was more suited to his capabilities.
With a twinge of remorse, he remembered a mortifying test wherein he was supposed to perform a simple Substitution Jutsu. Needless to say, the unforgiving steel kunai that he was supposed to avoid left very deep wounds back then.
It was going to be different this time around. After a deep breath, Lee began to execute the routine.
The task was less than daunting. The foundation form was just a series of punches and kicks that had to be performed in flawless form. It incorporated all of the basic stances and movements in that martial arts style, a mere fundamental rubric that had to be memorized by beginners.
Step forward. Punch forward with the left hand. Roundhouse kick with the right foot. Turn sideways to the left…
Lee recited the steps in his head repeatedly with unusually heightened accuracy. The makeshift chant seemed to amplify and echo inside his head. Every fiber of him prayed to get this routine right; chances like these didn't come very often. This could well be his last.
He performed one last courteous bow, the very last step that indicated the end of the routine. Lee's focused gaze never left the examiner's face to check for any body language that might drop a hint or two regarding his performance. There was no such luck. The proctor's face was as impassive and stony as ever.
He then smiled; his voice seemed to be magnified a thousand times in the deathly silent room.
Lee couldn't believe he heard those last words correctly. Those sweet, sweet words sounded so foreign, so new. No one said that to him before. He wasn't really sure how to react. His body wanted to move, to jump, and to celebrate at the same. Anything!
The proctor probably saw Lee's ecstatic reaction.
"Slow down there, little man," he said. "There's still one last test for you to take."
Lee felt his heart sink to the pit of his stomach. What else was there?
He motioned to the Jounin seated on the benches to come over. Lee forgot all about him; apparently, he had a role to play in this exam as well.
"He's all yours, Gai-san."
The Jounin named Gai began to approach them. Lee thought that his person was definitely not one to cross. His eyes were forever alert and concentrated, his gaze steely. Lee noticed those overwhelmingly large eyebrows that mirrored his own so much; however, his rank pretty much told everyone that he wasn't to be messed with, whatever he looked like.
Lee inwardly hoped to become like him one day. At foresight, this person looked very strong, determined. Their uncanny resemblance in appearance would probably mean that he was also picked on when he was still a young boy; but apparently, that didn't stop him from tearing through the ranks.
"Thank you, Kotetsu. I will take it from here," Gai said.
Lee was intimidated with the way he spoke. He seemed to be a formal and direct person, someone who maintained an air of professionalism that didn't beat around the bush when it came to important matters.
The Jounin faced Lee. The older man practically towered over him. Lee's gaze traveled upward. He had the distinct impression that he was in the presence of a predator that had just locked its sights on some unsuspecting prey.
"So, this is it. I only have one question to ask before we begin the last test."
Lee could only gape at the proposal. What could it be? And there was still a follow-up test afterwards? He inwardly hoped that it was another verbatim question; but something in his gut told him that it wouldn't be that easy this time. He began to recount all the knowledge stockpiled in his head, hoping that some of them will be of help.
Gai spoke, his words ringing with a nuance of irrevocable finality.
"But before that, let me tell you something about the final test. I will have to ask you to perform one ninja technique. If you manage to do it, I will award you with this."
Lee saw the gleaming metal Konoha headband resting on the palm of Gai's hand. It looked absolutely breathtaking for such a simple object; the platinum plate was just as shiny as Lee dreamed it would be. It was different from the rest though; the glistening metal was tethered to a crimson red cloth, as opposed to the traditional prussian blue that was worn by almost everyone else.
"If you fail…"
Lee visibly flinched upon hearing those words. He nearly forgot that possibility.
"… Then your performance on your previous tests will be disregarded and you can't graduate to become a shinobi for the rest of your life."
Millions of questions exploded like a box of fireworks in Lee's head. He didn't even know where to begin. The last statement was the fatal blow; Lee staggered to comprehend those words. After an eternity of stunned silence, he managed to speak.
"But… but why, Gai-san?" Lee asked. He couldn't even manage to disguise the obvious quavering of his voice.
Gai's expression softened somewhat.
"Well, you simply failed too many times," he said. "Successive failures will lead us to question your innate capabilities in general."
Lee kept denying to himself that Gai's reasoning was perfectly sound. A tiny part of him remained in denial that there would always be an opportunity to rebound right back whatever the situation he's in. However, there didn't appear to be such a chance this time around.
Lee suddenly lost his ability to talk.
Gai's next few words snapped Lee out of his reverie.
"Do you still believe in yourself now? Do you still want to go through with this?"
It was the question that Lee didn't have an automatic answer for. His life practically hinged on this decision alone. He had to perform a ninja technique? Deep inside, Lee knew that he had a bizarre, miniscule chance of accomplishing that. If he plunged in, he would just be fighting a losing battle; there was ultimately a small window of opportunity. If he didn't pass, he would truly live up to his title of a failure; Goro and the others would have enough justification to label him as such.
But what was the alternative then? If he let his apprehensions drag him down now, he would technically end up in the same situation anyway. The humiliation it accompanied would be unendurable.
At that moment, Lee knew what he had to say.
Lee was a lot of things, by all means. He was considered a failure, a dropout, a bushy-browed freak. But at least he could never be called a quitter and a coward. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves and smiled.
"Yes, Gai-san, I still do. And that will never change," Lee said firmly.
Gai beamed at his response.
Lee closed his eyes in preparation for the task and began to clear his mind. Without warning, he felt what he assumed to be Gai's hand clasping his own clammy ones. He then inserted something into Lee's outstretched fingers.
He opened his eyes to find the Konoha forehead protector resting on his hands. He could see his own speechless reflection on the surface of the gleaming metal that bore the Konoha insignia.
Gai then began to tap his shoulder in acknowledgement, his right hand bearing a flamboyant thumbs-up. He smiled warmly at him.
Lee began to mouth and babble incoherent words. A pleasant turmoil of feelings threatened to burst inside him; he could practically feel the euphoria tingling at his fingertips, but confusion reigned at the same time.
"Gai-san, why did you give me this?" he stammered.
Gai's smile couldn't have possibly stretched any wider. He winked playfully.
"Ah yes, Lee, I was waiting for you to ask that question."
Lee could only listen in rapt attention.
"Your actions today just proved you had more courage and guts than all of your classmates' combined. At the face of a life-changing decision, you stood your ground and smiled at the prospect of the challenge. When you got knocked down, you did your best to get back up right away. In my book, that's more than enough for you to earn that reward. "
Lee was at a loss for words. Once the feeling in his legs came back, he caught Gai with his tiny arms in a tight, tight, hug. He never experienced such happiness before. In the midst of it all, he thought he even heard Kotetsu clapping behind him.
"Thank you, Gai-san!" Lee could feel the tears coming, but he didn't really care. "You… you don't know how much this means to me."
"I think I do," he answered. He seemed perfectly fine with the gratuitous display of affection.
Lee was never this thankful for anything in his life. So this was the feeling of victory! He never thought it would be this satisfying; every part of him wanted to scream and rejoice and proclaim to the heavens above that he finally did it. Lee found it even more gratifying when all that bitter work had come to a realization at last.
In the end, it was all worth it.
"So, prepare yourself for training," Gai continued.
Lee paid no heed to that caveat. He will be ready. He will always be ready. In the excitement that got the better of him, more and more questions poured out. Lee was mostly curious on what was to come. Thinking of the newfound possibilities made his head spin with delight.
"Will you be my Jounin instructor? Will someone teach me techniques? Will I have teammates like everybody else?"
"Yes to all of your questions," Gai answered. Lee felt his heart jump. "I will see you on Monday."
"Do I have to bring anything, sensei?"
That last word had a profound effect on Lee. The fact that Gai would be his sensei had just dawned on him. He wondered what kind of teacher would Gai be like. Lee was quite sure that he was an excellent and fierce teacher; he looked like he had high standards when it came to his students.
Lee didn't care. He would just do his best to fulfill Gai's expectations of him.
"No. Be at the training fields at the crack of dawn and just keep on smiling like you always do."
And Lee did.
A/N: Don't we just love it when Lee and Gai smile with that pinging sound? It's magical, I tell you.
Reviews and constructive criticism will be much appreciated! Thank you for reading!