He saw her before he noticed her, which he blames on distance and distraction. When he considers it now, it seems impossible that his eyes had ever passed her over. He mentions this to Gai-sensei, who laughs and tells him it’s because his heart knew he wasn’t ready–how could he declare himself to his most important person, if he lacked all the skills to protect her?
“The youthful heart is the most patient and the most impatient,” Gai-sensei had said, with one foot on a rock and staring with straight back and shoulders into the sunset. “It simply waited until you were ready to meet her, and then revealed itself, and now you can’t think of anything else.” He had smiled then, with the dying sunlight pinging off his teeth.
Because Gai-sensei says so, it must be true. He does not question himself after that, how he could have missed the brightness of her eyes and the kindness of her smile. His heart has always noticed, he tells himself, but it bided its time until he could introduce himself face-to-face, his newly-mastered lessons under his belt.
Now that seems like a crumbled kind of pipe dream. His arms hurt from the push ups he’s been forcing himself through; sweat stings his eyes and makes the thin hospital-issued clothes stick to his body. The breath in his lungs wheezes, but her image floats before his half-closed eyes, and he can’t stop. He will do a thousand push ups, or else he will have to run one hundred laps around the hospital yard. He has to become strong again.
This is not for Konoha, not on the most base level; this is not even for himself and Gai-sensei, to prove he can still be a ninja. This is for her, because as he is now, he’s not worthy enough to even offer his life as her protector. His heart aches, but it’s not because of exertion, but because he knows how close he is to failing her a second time, a third time.
“Lee-kun!” the nurse says, with exasperation in her voice. This is the third time today he has snuck from his rooms to go train, and she is getting fed up. He feels sorry that he worries her like this, but she doesn’t understand how important this is. “You have a guest.”
He glances at her briefly, wants to tell her that he’s busy, and please can his guest wait?–and then he sees red edged with white, and looks up to see large green eyes staring down at him. His arms tremble and give up, so that he lands heavily in the dust. The nurse exclaims his name again and hurries forward, and Sakura-san follows quickly. She tries to smile for him, and he thinks he hates that look, because it’s a travesty. Her smiles are too precious to be used as disguises.
The nurse helps him sit up, and lets him lean against her arm as a back rest. He is acutely aware of how he looks, sweaty and dirty, his arms and legs trembling a little with spent effort. Still, he smiles back at her, because he’s always truly happy to see her, and he wants her to think he’s fine, so that she’ll stop looking like some wounded thing–because she’s strong, stronger than she’ll believe. His heart would not pick someone unworthy of protecting.
“Lee-san,” she says. In her hands, she holds a single yellow daffodil, just on the cusp of its fullest bloom. The tender green stem is wrapped in a wet cloth. He thinks it must be for Sasuke-kun, and pretends he is not stung to see it. “I thought–”
The nurse cuts her off, instructs Sakura-san to help bring him inside. She comes immediately, and at first he thinks to protest–she smells newly-cleaned, and there is traces of dampness in her hair–but then she slings his arm firmly around her shoulders, and helps walk him inside. Her soap smells surprisingly plain; he’s heard Tenten mutter a few times about the silly frivolities Sakura-san and Ino-san are too fond of, but there are no traces of those things on her now.
Slowly, they make it back to his room. He is mortifyingly grateful when he can sit down, because now his legs ache, slow and grinding, and the world swims at the edges of his vision. The nurse’s hand is first icy, then wonderfully cool against his forehead. He hears her say something in an annoyed voice, something about taking better care of himself, but all he can do is watch Sakura-san go to his bedside table and take out the daffodil already in the single-flower vase there, and replace it with the one she brought in.
This time, when she looks at him, her smile is much stronger, closer to as it should be. He can’t help but smile back. Gai-sensei would say it is because the youthful flower of his heart has bloomed, and turned to her as his sun–but as much as he admires his teacher, he privately thinks it’s simply because she is Sakura-san, and when she smiles, she should have everyone smile back. The nurse is fussing at him, pulling off his dirty slippers and saying something about having him change and getting some rest, but that doesn’t sink in until she gets between them and asks Sakura-san to leave.
She is surprised by the request, and he doesn’t dare hope that it’s disappointment that lurks on the edge of her apology. He is perversely pleased by that disappointment–she doesn’t want to leave, she wants to stay close to him.
“Thank you for the flower,” he says, “Sakura-san.”
Her green eyes widen; she seems almost surprised. But then she gives him the truest smile she’s seen yet, brilliant and wide–and, he always thought, not reserved for him. It’s how she smiles at Sasuke-kun, and, once in a rare while, Naruto-kun. And it’s amazing, how one smile can warm him through, absurdly pleased with himself and the world.
“I’ll come back later,” she offers. “You should rest, Lee-san, so you’ll recover faster.”
He watches her go, slipping easily through the door. Rather than turn the hallway to head to Sasuke-kun’s room, she takes the turn that will eventually lead her to the front desk, and outside. Perhaps it’s selfish to wish, but he will pretend that she did not likely go see Sasuke-kun first, that she only brought one flower, and that was for him.
The nurse clucks her tongue as she gives him a fresh change of clothes. “She’s a nice girl, that Haruno Sakura,” she says. The look she gives him is understanding–and maybe he’s still wishing so hard he’s imagining things, but–it seems there’s no pity in her smile.
“She is,” he agrees–and oh, there are more things he could say, but the only person that should hear them has already left. He fumbles with the buttons of his shirt, and waits until the nurse closes the door behind her before he takes it off. It’s dirty, and he remembers to be embarrassed again, staring at the dirt and sweat stains. He does not need doctors to tell him how badly the fight has damaged him; Gai-sensei has taught him well, and he recognizes that there is much of his body that no longer responds as it should.
But on the bedside table is a small yellow daffodil, bright in its vase, and that makes the aches, the exhaustion, the uneasy loss, nearly worth it. Lee smiles at it when he puts on the clean shirt, and the fresh pants, and as he lies down and pulls the blanket to his chin. When he wakes, it will remind him she was here, and how she smiled just for him when she left.
He closes his eyes, and dreams of spring and blooming cherry trees.