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Crushing the Strength Test

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   She's dressed in a gown the first time he sees her.

   Always eager to be of service to the community, Gai had entrusted Rock Lee with one of the most important volunteer opportunities at the park: running a booth for the annual Renaissance Faire . I get to be at the Faire, I get to see so many people having fun dressing up and playing games, I get to hang out with Tenten just next door at the archery booth and Neji playing the Dark Knight for the kids to defeat, and I get to hear Gai-sensei's youthful energy as he announces the jousting over there… Lee smiles brightly, watching a young boy tug his parents' arms toward him with a gleam in his eyes. It's so nice! What a great way to spend the weekend…!


   It certainly helps that he has been assigned to his own favorite game: the Strength Test. The premise is simple- just slam the hammer down on the pad and ring the bell to win a prize- but the real skill is in knowing just how hard to hit it to win. Sure, one could technically brute force their way to a win, but it's much better strategy to hit precisely in the middle and follow it through to the end of the stroke, not just to the pad. Strength of body isn't what's being tested, it's strength of follow through. It's the strength of mind to not give up. 

   "You know how to play baseball, right?” The little boy at his feet nods. “I can tell, you're wearing a really cool jersey! Just think of it like keeping your eye on the ball. The swing still needs to keep going even after your bat hits the ball, right?" He nods, and Lee can tell he's coming down from the brink of tears already. "It's just the same with this! Pretend the pad is the ball and make sure you finish the swing!"


   The boy's father tries to offer another ticket, but Lee just shakes a dismissive hand. 

   "Are you sure?" The father's voice lowers. "He's had his three turns already."

   "Don't worry, this try is on me! Go ahead, little buddy, do your best!"


   The boy nods again, a serious set to his shoulders, and Lee can't help but feel warm inside. Little kids have the best game faces. It's so cute! This time the boy swings all the way through, missing the bell by only a few inches.

   "Oh, look how much better! I knew you could do it!" The boy grins at Lee's praise, unperturbed now by the fact that he doesn't ring the bell. "Listen, you did such a good job, I'm going to give you a little prize anyway. Do you like dragons, or unicorns?"

   "Dragons!" he cries, eyes sparkling, smiling so wide it reveals some missing baby teeth. 

   "Alright! Dragons are so cool, just like you!" he says, pulling a little stuffed dragon from the wall of the booth. "Make sure you take good care of her, okay?"


   "What do you say, Yasuhiro?" his mother urges fondly, nudging him forward.

   "Thank you very much!"


 Lee swears these kids will be the death of him, and it's a beautiful way to go.

   "You're welcome!" He at last notices the line starting to form behind them. Oh no! I'll have to hurry it along! "And you're welcome to come back whenever you want. But I really think you should go see my friend Tenten next," he suggests, pointing to the nearly empty archery booth beside him. "She can teach you how to shoot a bow and arrow!" The boy's eyes go wide.


   "Yes! Have lots of fun and be extra safe!"

   "Okay, thank you, Strength Man!"


    Strength Man, huh? He waves to the little girl who approaches him next. Yeah, I could definitely get used to a nickname like that...


   His line moves along. Some of the adults and teens even take a shot, but Lee doesn't give them the same advice as the kids. It's fun to watch grown men lose to little girls in tutus and tough-looking teens be outdone by little boys in dinosaur shirts. But everyone who visits Lee leaves with a prize, ranging from a little gumball machine pod with Renaissance Faire themed temporary tattoos, to the dragon and unicorn plushies he'd given Yasuhiro earlier. The grand prizes, though, still hang from the rafters of the booth, untouched save for when Lee bumps into them on his way to grab different prizes. Four kinds of huge stuffed bears, each in a different costume: princesses, knights, rogues, and fairies. Maybe I need to recalibrate this. Even with the tips and some people coming back for multiple turns, nobody's won a grand prize. The day is nearly over. I tested it on my break earlier, but maybe I should stop the game and test it again just to be sure…


   He puts out his electronic sign- "Closed in 5 Minutes," it reads- and quickly gets through the rest of his customers, the numbers flipping automatically in a countdown. Still, he makes sure every participant gets praise and encouragement, and most importantly, a moment of his time. People love being paid attention to, and Lee is all too happy to give that to them even if only for as long as it takes to swing a hammer a few times.


   The timer goes off when his last customer parts, a pre-teen girl clutching both a unicorn and a dragon she and her older sister had won together as she chatters animatedly. Lee shutters his booth and guzzles some water, pulling his shirt up to wipe the sweat from his face. It's a hot, sunny day, and he's been out in it non-stop, his only breaks being to step inside for a prize. Even his lunch break was spent in the sun, talking to Naruto at the food stand he was running with Teuchi. Lee's starting to feel the heat wearing on him, just in time for the sun to start going down. Well, I am in the park, after all. Surely no one would mind if I...


   He turns and removes his shirt, leaving it draped over a railing on the side of the stall. He scratches at the scars on his chest as he ambles to the strength tester, smiling to himself at their faded silver hue, and lifts the faux war hammer. It's off-balance in his hand, but it's supposed to be so it doesn't bother him. He gives it a test swing, aiming for the midway point. The metal pin rises and falls easily into the yellow-coded section. He nods to himself. So far so good, then…


   He hauls the hammer over his shoulder, aims, and swings. This time it lands squarely in the orange section, just as he'd intended. Looking good … He adjusts his grip and takes one last shot, hoping to hear the telltale ding.


   It rings loud and clear, the machine barking out a garbled congratulations beneath Gai-sensei's next announcement in the jousting ring. Lee smiles. Alright, it's working just like it should. Now I just need someone to win one of-

    "Very impressive, good sir. Are you closed for the day?" 


   He startles for only a moment, snapping at attention toward the voice.


    She's beautiful .


   It's his first, and thus far only , thought when he sees her. She's in a magenta gown with familiar silver and teal embroidery.

   "Oh, that's one of Hinata's dresses, isn't it!" he blurts out before he can stop himself. That doesn't answer the question at all ! She giggles behind a white-gloved hand

   "How could you tell? Is it because it's so pretty? She makes the best dresses." Lee nods his emphatic agreement, and she giggles again at the display. I probably look like a chicken bobbing my head like this! What am I doing?! “I'm sorry I surprised you. Normally I wouldn't have bothered you at all, but this is my favorite game and I just had to know if I’d missed it.”


   Green eyes soften as she glances up at the machine, as if the Strength Tester is an old friend she's glad to see again. Maybe she's one of the people who comes back every year. There are plenty of others. People love Renaissance Faires.. . The expectant look she turns on Lee makes him flush brighter than the sun itself has all day. I probably should close down for the day, seeing as Neji and Tenten have both shut down their stations already, but...  

   “I surely have time for a few more tries! Step right up!” He resists the urge to clamp his mouth shut. Too loud! I’m going to scare her away! “Please feel free to take a look at our prizes before you begin. If you ring the bell, you win one of these lovely grand prize bears!” He pitches it like he's trying to sell her the entire game. She’s already decided she wants to play, stop selling it! Ahh!!!


   She smiles. It's radiant, and it makes her cheeks dimple. Dimples, my ultimate weakness! So cute! 

   “I'd be so lucky to win one of those bears,” she says wistfully, handing the ticket over. Lee notices that she glances at his scars, and then lower to his abs. Oh no, I'm not wearing a shirt still! I gotta fix that, so unprofessional!

   “Ah, but the game isn't luck, fair maiden!” he explains jovially, groping around for his shirt and quickly donning it. “It's a test of strength, and of skill!”


   Painted lips rise into a grin. There's determination in her eyes. Her game face is much different from the kids’; it's electric, sending currents firing off from his heart and through the rest of his body. Oh, this feeling…! Could it be…?


   She takes the hammer from his hand. He doesn't even remember retrieving it for her. The fabric of her gloves is soft, yet it feels as if they've burned him. He wants to cradle his hands to his chest and nurse the invisible wounds. Instead, he watches with rapt attention as she weighs the large hammer in her hands. Oh, her arms are… very strong... 

   “Then may the gods bless both body and mind, and guide this hammer true.”


   Her words command attention despite their lack of volume, as if she truly is summoning gods and goddesses with her voice. Lee can see the muscles in her forearms and knows from experience the biceps beneath her puffy sleeves must be built to match. Her legs are similarly sculpted as she gathers the skirt aside and fastens it to hidden hooks on the side seams of her dress. She must like some sort of sport, or at least to work out. It would be nice to have a new workout buddy…


   She heaves the hammer up over her shoulder. Her form is impeccable. She's certainly done this many times before. I wonder if she’ll be the one to win…!


   Lee swears he can feel the impact himself when the hammer hits the pad. She swings with practiced ease, leaving Lee wondering what job or hobbies she could possibly have to lead her toward such finesse and strength.


   The bell doesn't just ring. The metal pin shoots up so far, it lodges inside the bell itself. The machine’s words go slurry and distorted, in too much pain to congratulate her properly.

   “Ah… I've broken it again…”


   She seems upset by this information, but not surprised. Lee, meanwhile, is having trouble remembering how to close his mouth. She really broke it! She bows deeply to him, hands prim and proper against her thighs, as if she hasn't just destroyed a game that should technically be able to take as much force as she can hand it.

   “I’ll have to speak with Gai-san about paying the damages, if you would be so kind as to take me to him,” she requests, and when she asks so politely and so humbly, Lee can't possibly find it in himself to say no. Her next words only sweeten the deal: “And of course, take you to lunch some time as an apology. If you’re interested, that is…”


   There is a bashful blush on her face as she begins to straighten back up, handing him Hinata's business card with her own name and number written on the back. Haruno Sakura, huh? What an incredible woman… She might just be… the one… Lee's smile is irrepressible, stretching so widely across his face it's starting to hurt.

   “First order of business, though: your prize! Which bear would you like?”


   Her eyes widen a moment, as if she were expecting a scolding and rejection instead of her well-earned reward and ecstatic acceptance. She grins coyly, tapping her chin with one finger.

   “The knight, please.” 

   “The knight it is!” he agrees, grabbing a pole to knock it down with and catching it easily in one arm. He brings it to her, feeling warm inside again as she hugs the bear to her body. So so cute! “May I ask though, why not the princess? It looks just like you!”

   She laughs out loud at that. It’s a bubbly sound that reminds him of the champagne at Gai-sensei’s wedding that he wasn’t old enough to drink, of bubblegum and twinkling lights.

   “You’re right, it does! But I thought… I’d choose the one that reminds me most of you, so I never forget how I got him.” She holds the bear up. “See? His fur is the same color as your hair.”


   Lee’s heart thuds inside his chest. He worries for just a moment it might leap out altogether.

   “Well, whattya know? You’re right, it is!” he agrees. He’s aware his tone is just shy of hysterical. Keep it together! She likes you!  


   She glances back down, nodding and petting the bear’s head. Lee would kill for her to pet his hair like that, too, but he can’t think those treacherous thoughts right now.

   “A-as for the meal: you needn’t waste your coin! I'll treat you instead, fair maiden, for allowing me to witness such a splendid display of strength and grace!”


   Her eyes light up, and her smile makes the warmth inside him spread and boil over, nearly too much happiness to contain.

   “Well, if you insist… then I happily accept. I’ll meet you on the benches by the south end of the jousting ring to find Gai-san.” She turns to go, but stops and looks back over her shoulder. Pink hair swishes across the nape of her neck. The bear's legs waggle. “Can you do me one favor, though, fair knight?” Lee nearly squirms in excitement. I’m so used to people addressing Neji that way. But to her, I’m as good as a knight…! 

   “Of course, Haruno-hime! I’m here to do your bidding!” he promises. She giggles again.

   “Please, be sure your garments are all right-side-in whence I see you next.”

   “Of course, I- huh?”


   He looks down, and finally realizes he put his shirt back on inside out. Oh no! I’ve looked like this the entire time! She doesn’t seem to mind, though, laughing and waving the bear’s paw at him before she walks away.

   “See you soon!”


   Sakura disappears into the crowd, and he hurries to right himself and shut down shop before racing after her.