One afternoon, Hyuuga Neji was on his way to the large clearing in the forest where he trained with his teammates, Lee and Tenten, and teacher, Gai. By Neji's standards, he was in quite a good mood. Training was his favorite activity, and he was looking forward to a satisfyingly difficult session.
Although he would never say it aloud, Neji had to admit to himself that he was quite satisfied with his team overall. Even though Gai looked and behaved somewhat ridiculously, he was as hard-driving a teacher as one could possibly have. And Lee...well, there was no question that Lee had no talent whatsoever in ninjutsu, but no one could deny that he worked hard at his taijutsu. Neji, feeling generous, even conceded that the guy was getting better everyday. As for Tenten...well, the good thing about Tenten was that she wasn't like most of the other girls her age in Konoha. She seemed to really care about becoming a great ninja and trained hard for it. And she played peacemaker when Lee and Neji got on each other's nerves—which was often. All in all, it was a pretty good arrangement.
As he walked through the forest, he decided to activate his Byakugan. He liked to observe the number of birds he could see through the trees for practice. "One...two...three..." he counted to himself as he approached the clearing. With his Byakugan activated, he could see everything clearly within a distance of fifty meters from almost every angle.
When his teammates entered into his field of vision, he stopped and noticed that they were behaving rather oddly. Lee was pacing back and forth at the far edge of the clearing, gesturing earnestly with an intense expression on his face. Tenten sat on a tree stump nearby, her chin resting on her hands, watching him with an expression that Neji could only describe as...tenderness.
He stood where they could not see him from their position in the clearing and wondered what this was all about.
Lee ceased pacing and suddenly turned towards Tenten with an expression of longing on his face. After a moment of hesitation, she stood up, approached him, and hugged him tightly around the waist.
Neji felt a slight shock of surprise and dismay. What was going on between his teammates?
Tenten held him for awhile, until a slight smile appeared on Lee's face. Then she reached up and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Neji stared at them in disbelief. Were his teammates...? No, that was impossible. Or was it? His brain swirled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Lee and Tenten, of all people! Hard-working Lee and reliable Tenten! He had always been under the impression that they were all simply good comrades. All right, to be frank, he ever so slightly suspected that Tenten had a crush on him. He had no idea that Lee and Tenten had feelings for each other all along. And he expected even less that they would be so stupid as to act on their feelings.
He felt a rush of indignation and narrowed his eyes. On the other side of the clearing, Tenten had stepped back and was smiling affectionately at Lee. Neji felt betrayed and, although he would never admit it to anyone, a twinge of jealousy as well. He insisted to himself that he was simply angry because his teammates' newly-revealed relationship was going to completely change their team chemistry. The weak-minded fools had gone and ruined everything. He could never work with them in the same way again. He had been reduced to some sort of third wheel. And to think he had even started to think of them as friends.
Neji felt especially betrayed by Tenten. It was all her fault. After all, it was her job to preserve the balance in the team dynamic and hold things together. She wasn't supposed to be taking sides and gallivanting off with one person or another.
Neji clenched his fists, entered the clearing, and walked towards his teammates. They didn't even notice him approach, he thought bitterly.
He cleared his throat when he was some distance away. "Hello," he said loudly. His teammates broke apart and looked over at him as he came closer.
"Oh, hello Neji," Lee said, sounding disappointed to see him.
"Hi, Neji," said Tenten neutrally. "You're early."
Neji glared at her. "Not as early as you two, apparently."
"Lee and I needed to meet up before training today," she said, unabashed. So there definitely was something going on between them, he thought. And she was shamelessly admitting it to him!
Before he could say anything else, Gai-sensei appeared in the clearing with his trademark grin.
"Good afternoon, young ones! I hope you're ready for a workout today! Young bodies need to be toned by regular and rigorous exercise! Enjoy the springtime of your youth while you can!" he cried cheerfully, punctuating his speech with a wide smile that revealed two rows of very white teeth. Lee grinned and flashed a thumbs-up, but Neji thought he looked a little less enthusiastic than usual.
Gai looked around at the three of them. "Well, what are you waiting for? Two hundred laps around the clearing! GO!"
As they progressed through their training session, Neji sensed that something was definitely different about Lee and Tenten that day. As usual, laps were followed by an hour of striking exercises on wooden dummies. Neji noticed that his teammates kept shooting furtive glances at each other, although he could not discern what they meant by it.
After striking exercises, as the routine went, they had another hour of target practice. During target practice, however, Tenten's throws repeatedly landed slightly off-center, which for her was definitely erratic. Neji narrowed his eyes at her. She had sunk even lower in his esteem.
"Come on, Tenten, get your act together," Gai barked. Tenten looked confused and frustrated with herself.
When target practice finally ended, they had a final hour of sparring. Neji dispatched Tenten fairly quickly and Lee in an even shorter amount of time. After a punch from Neji landed squarely on Lee's chest and sent him flying backwards into a tree trunk, Gai shook his head from the sidelines, but did not say anything.
After his turns, Neji sat down on the grass to watch Lee and Tenten as their fight dragged on. Was it his imagination, or were they going easy on each other? Inwardly, he seethed with fury. He had hardly had to break a sweat with those two. They had completely wasted his time, and now they were wasting it even more. Nothing put Neji in a worse mood than a bad training session, and they had not had one this bad in a long time. Someone was going to pay for ruining his day.
After what seemed like an eternity to Neji, Tenten had an exhausted Lee pinned to the ground with a kunai at the back of his neck.
"Enough!" Gai said loudly. Tenten let go of Lee and extended a hand to help him up. Gai looked at his three subordinates with a stern expression. "Frankly, that was less than inspiring. I don't know what's wrong with all of you today. Except you, Neji."
Neji only scowled.
"I hope you will not continue to waste the springtime of your youth by completing your training exercises so poorly. I expect all of you here tomorrow morning at 7:00am to run an extra 500 laps for your abominable performance today," Gai said, his bushy eyebrows furrowed with anger. "And Lee, I want a word with you," Gai added, sharply.
"Roger!" Lee said, saluting, but still panting from the workout.
"Off you go, you two," Gai said to Neji and Tenten.
Neji and Tenten gathered their scattered weapons and began walking in the direction of the village. As they crossed the clearing, they could hear Gai start to berate Lee in a loud voice while Lee stood by, hanging his head.
As he walked alongside Tenten in silence, Neji decided that he needed to confront her about the new team situation. Just because she and Lee had selfishly decided to pursue their stupid relationship didn't mean that he was going to let them get away with it. After all, he was the one who suffered. There was no way Neji was going to put up with another training session like today if he could help it. He cast a sideways glance at her. She was walking with her eyes focused straight ahead, paying no attention to him.
"I thought today's training session was rather unfocused," he said by way of bringing up the subject.
"I suppose Lee was distracted," she said, noncommittally.
His insides burned with anger at her feeble attempt to hide the truth from him. "'Lee was distracted,' indeed," he thought darkly. "Blaming it all on him, I see. As if you had nothing to do with it."
Aloud, he said, "It wasn't just Lee. Your mind was clearly on something else as well. Or someone else, I should say," he added, fighting to keep his voice at his usual stony monotone.
She stared at him briefly, then turned away, blushing slightly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Ah ha! His worst suspicions were confirmed.
"You could have let me in on your little secret, you know," he said, struggling to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "I am your teammate after all. And this is going to completely change the way we work together. You have completely destabilized the team equilibrium."
She kept walking and said nothing.
Her silence only annoyed Neji further. Why wasn't she saying anything, damn it! Why didn't she defend herself or deny it or...something! Neji felt an irrational desire to provoke her.
"You know something? I thought you were different from other girls," Neji said, continuing to walk beside her, his voice getting heated despite himself. "But I was wrong. You're just like all the other stupid little girls around here—more interested in your pathetic love life than in making something of yourself. You don't care at all about training hard for our team or about becoming a great ninja. I wonder why I didn't see that before." The words were out of his mouth before he realized it.
She stopped in her tracks. He saw her hand jerk instinctively toward the pouch on her right leg and had a sneaking suspicion that she wanted to throw a kunai at his chest. Instead, she clenched her fists and glared at him, her expression a mixture of shock, hurt, and fury. "Hyuuga Neji, you..." she said, sputtering with anger. "I hope you know that I give everything I have in training, and...not only that, I go out of my way to help you train when Gai-sensei is giving individual attention to Lee. How...dare you say that I don't think about our team or care about becoming a great ninja, you...you presumptuous, arrogant, self-absorbed bastard."
With that, she turned and started to walk more quickly towards the village.
Neji, feeling his self-control slip away, refused to let her have the last word. "Yeah, that's right, go cry into Lee's shoulders," he said spitefully from where he stood.
She whirled around and glared at him. "What?"
"Yeah, in fact, I wonder what he has to say about all this. Maybe I should go and talk to him myself."
She gritted her teeth. "I'll save you the trouble. He thinks I'm the biggest fool ever for liking you, and frankly, I think he's right." She closed her eyes and sucked in her breath. "Well, at least you've finally made me realize how stupid I've been. Outside of training, I don't ever want to see or speak to you again!"
And then she took off at a run towards the village.
Neji stood with his mouth open and a blank look on his face, watching her retreating figure and unsure if he had heard her last words correctly. She....liked him? Where did that come from? And Lee...knew about this? All along, she thought he was talking about himself and her, not her and Lee?
To his surprise, the first thing Neji felt was relief. Lee and Tenten weren't a couple after all. The team equilibrium was not irreparably destabilized. It was just some sort of misunderstanding on his part. But, if that was the case, what was the explanation for the way they were behaving before training?
Perhaps it was simply because he was feeling grateful that he would not have to put up with any more sloppy training sessions, but suddenly Neji couldn't muster up all the anger he had been feeling anymore. His curiosity got the better of him. If Tenten hadn't been lying to him about Lee just now—and her reaction seemed genuine enough to him—then all Neji needed was an explanation. Then everything would be cleared up. And he wouldn't have to be angry anymore. And...he had to admit that Tenten looked sort of cute when she got worked up about something.
Then he remembered everything he had just said to her and slapped his forehead. "Neji," he said to himself. "You really are a bastard."
When Tenten finally reached the edge of the forest, she slowed to a walk. Neji's spiteful words played themselves over in her mind. What had he said, exactly? "You're just like all the other stupid little girls around here—more interested in your pathetic love life than in making something of yourself."
She clenched her teeth and, to her dismay, felt a lump rise in her throat. She swallowed and blinked back tears. "I hate you, Hyuuga Neji," she said aloud. Oh, she was going to beat him senseless and prove that she was serious about becoming a great ninja. Who did he think he was, anyway, the ingrate? And...how in the world did he find out about how she felt towards him?
Neji was a smart person, but he was completely blind about some things. Or so she thought.
"Lee wouldn't have told him," she muttered to herself, walking quickly and keeping her eyes on the ground, lost in her own thoughts. Her feet walked the familiar path towards her house instinctively. "At least, he better not have. I'll kill him if he did," she vowed. Then she thought for a moment. "No, who cares? It's not as if it will make any difference. And at least I've seen Neji for who he really is now. An ungrateful, incorrigible jerk." Her heart seemed to twist uncomfortably. "Jerk," she muttered again. "Bastard."
Just as Tenten rounded the corner at the street on which her house was located, she ran straight into someone in her path. Someone wearing familiar black shorts and a white jacket. She looked up to see Neji looking at her with an inscrutable expression on his face.
"It's you again," she said coldly. She tried to think of something hateful to say and imagined herself ripping out his beating heart and stomping on it. She opened her mouth, but nothing came immediately to mind. So she stepped around him and continued walking towards her house.
"Wait, Tenten," Neji said. She walked up to her front gate, opened and closed it, and started walking up to her front door. As she put her hand on the door knob and prepared to go inside, she heard the gate open and close again.
"Just...wait a second," Neji said. "I need to talk to you."
Tenten opened the door, stepped inside, and got ready to slam it in his face.
He put his hands on the door and looked at her with an urgent expression. "I made a mistake just now."
In spite of her anger, Tenten was momentarily taken aback by his ready confession of wrongdoing. Neji never made mistakes, and he certainly never admitted to them. So she lessened the pressure on the door and looked at him, warily.
Neji sighed. "Can we...talk for a minute?" he said, gesturing to the steps leading up to her door.
This had better be good, she thought. She stepped outside, closed the door, and sat down on one side of the steps, keeping her eyes focused straight ahead.
Neji walked over and sat down on the opposite side of the steps, clasping his hands together. He cleared his throat, but didn't say anything. She heard him shift uncomfortably, but he still didn't say anything. The awkward silence continued.
"Five seconds," she thought to herself. "If he doesn't say anything in five seconds, I'm going to—"
"So..." Neji began. "So, this afternoon I was walking to our training session. And I activated my Byakugan along the way so that I could count the birds. Because I like to make sure that I can see all of them through the trees. Just for practice."
Tenten rolled her eyes. This was what he wanted to tell her? That he had counted the wrong number of birds or something?
Evidently, he could sense her impatience because he said quickly, "But that's not the point. The point is that I had my Byakugan activated so that I could see quite a distance ahead. And it was activated as I was approaching our training area. And..." For some reason he was finding it hard to continue. She heard him suck in his breath. "And so I saw you and Lee, um...talking. And then you sort of...I saw you...I mean, it looked like..."
She finally turned towards him and glared at him to hurry it up. He avoided her glare and said, "I saw that you were sort of...hugging him and also...you sort of, uh..." He clenched his teeth. "Maybe kissed him."
Tenten stared at him. He was watching them the whole time?
"So based on these observations, I thought...well, I thought that you and Lee were..." he struggled to get it out of his throat, "...romantically attached."
She continued to stare at him, speechless. Neji shifted uncomfortably under her gaze.
"And that's why I...verbally attacked you after training. Because I thought there was... something going on between you and Lee that was going to mess up our team," he finished, looking at his feet.
Tenten was flabbergasted. He had lashed out at her because of that? All of his remarks about her pathetic love life were about Lee? And to make things worse, she had unwittingly revealed her feelings about him because of this?
She cleared her throat. "So all that...destabilizing the team equilibrium stuff was because you thought...that me and Lee...?" she trailed off.
Neji fidgeted. "Well, it did look pretty suspicious from where I was standing. And...you two did so badly in training today that it just...seemed obvious to me." He glanced at her expression, then looked away again. "But judging by what you said, I...I guess I was wrong. I mean, you said...well, it's not Lee that you like, but..."
Despite herself, Tenten blushed. He had the nerve to bring that up now?
"So I wanted to ask you," Neji continued. "What was going on with you and Lee?"
Tenten glared at him. "I think I'm the one who deserves an explanation, Neji. You have the nerve to insult me just because you thought Lee and I were 'romantically attached'? What's it to you, anyway?"
Neji looked at her and narrowed his eyes. "It has everything to do with me! Look at the way you two trained today. Do you think I want to waste my time with you like that from now on? Clearly you weren't able to concentrate on anything!"
Tenten felt a rush of anger. She couldn't believe this guy. He obviously thought that the world revolved around him. Had she ever met anybody so conceited in her life?
She opened her mouth to make a cutting remark, but before she could get a word out, he said, "And also..." He hesitated. "And also...I guess...on some level, maybe...I was jealous, too."
Tenten was completely taken aback. Did he say...what she thought she heard him say?
"Look," Neji said hurriedly, to cover up the silence. "Just tell me what was going on, will you?"
Her mind still reeling from his last comment, she said, distractedly, "Lee was just...he was just feeling a little depressed because of...Sakura-chan." She took a deep breath to clear her mind. "They're pretty good friends now, so he thought he had a chance with her, but...well, she still doesn't feel that way about him because of, you know, Sasuke-kun...I was just trying to make him feel better."
Neji just looked at her, bemused. "That's it?" he finally said. "That was it? Our training session was ruined because of that? Why didn't he just tell me!"
Tenten stared at him as if he were stupid.
Neji had the grace to look abashed. "Okay, so maybe I'm not a very...sympathetic person about these things. But..." He sighed and looked confused. "I didn't mean what I said to you."
Tenten was still thinking about his earlier comment about being jealous.
"You know..." Neji continued. "You said some pretty mean things back there, too..."
He seemed to be expecting her to apologize. She considered that for a moment and decided that there was no chance he was getting an apology from her. "Well," she said frankly. "You were being a bastard."
For a moment he looked like he was going to get angry again, but then he relaxed. "Yeah...okay," he said. "Maybe I was." Finally, he took a deep breath and stood up. "Well, I better go home now."
The sun was disappearing behind the rooftops of the neighboring houses across the road.
As she made to stand as well, he held out his hand to help her up. She took it, and he lifted her to her feet. To her surprise, he kept his hold on her hand even after she had stood. He studied her face for a moment, looking like he was trying to overcome some sort of painful internal struggle.
"Listen, Tenten," he said at last, looking down at the ground. "Lee's right, you know. You are the biggest fool ever for liking me. But..." He glanced up hesitantly, then swiftly leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Thanks," he muttered.
Then, quickly as if to hide his embarrassment, he turned and headed down the road toward the home of the Hyuuga clan.
Surprised, Tenten touched the spot where he had kissed her. She could feel her heart beating in her ears.
Neji could be a real jerk sometimes, but...he could be really sweet, too. Sometimes.
She smiled to herself and finally went into the house.