Author's Notes: Written for Numena. Team Gai at the beach. Light NejiTen.
The Starfish Significance
"Neji, make him stand still!"
Hyuuga Neji glanced over at one scantily-clad, hair-in-braids, mildly annoyed Tenten… and Lee, who was dancing in place as their female teammate attempted to slather him with sunscreen. She had managed to slap some on his shoulders and cheeks but hadn't yet managed to rub it in, Lee's focus instead diverted to the crashing surf, his eyes wide with happiness.
Neji shrugged. "He'll be sorry later."
Tenten grumbled under her breath at his lack of help, frustrated that her two-piece bathing suit didn't offer kunai holsters so she could pin Lee to the nearest palm tree. With one final squirm, Lee managed to wriggle out of her grasp, skipping towards the waves, his skinny little body dwarfed by the bright green swimming trunks he was wearing.
"The ocean!" he cried, throwing his arms wide in a dramatic gesture. "This is surely the best idea ever, Gai-sensei!"
"Of course it is, Lee!" Gai beamed, teeth sparkling more than the sunlight off the waves. "Our team is sure to become stronger after a day of TEAM BONDING!"
Happy tears trickled down Lee's face and he clasped his hands together. "YOU'RE THE BEST, GAI-SENSEI!"
Tenten sighed and hefted up a volleyball, setting it spinning idly on one finger. "I really don't see how a day at the beach is considered training," she said absently. She was feeling rather exposed in her swimsuit and she didn't like the way she felt her cheeks redden every time Neji glanced her way. Really, this whole idea was nonsense.
Lee looked scandalized. "Of course it is, Tenten! The beach is the ultimate survival test! We shall be exposed to the very nature of our weaknesses! We could drown, or be eaten by sharks, or be beaten down by the harsh rays of the sun!" His eyes widened to the size of saucers. "And there are CRABS." His voice held a note of awe. "It will be the experience of a lifetime!"
Tenten blinked and her jaw dropped, the white ball plopping into the sand at her feet. For a moment she was completely speechless, and then Neji calmly leaned down to scoop up the volleyball and she suddenly realized she looked like some kind of demented flounder. Shaking her head, she shut her mouth and pulled herself together.
"Lee! Who have you been talking to! Most people go to the beach to relax, not to test their survival skills!"
Lee was staring at her quizzically and she had to sigh at her own reasoning. Of course Lee and Gai-sensei were not "most people" and she should have expected them to turn their free day into some sort of training exercise. Well, at least Neji wouldn't be too disappointed. He would have trained every moment if he could do away with those pesky activities called "eating" and "sleeping".
"Alright, my students!" Gai said cheerfully. He, too, was wearing bright green swimming trunks and Tenten had to refrain from shuddering as he flashed her gleaming, white teeth. "Who wants to fight who?"
"Fight?" Tenten repeated dumbly. She felt as if Gai and Lee were having a conversation in some other language. If they expected her to fight in a bathing suit…
Thankfully, Gai's idea of a fight turned out to be a volleyball match and she and Neji immediately formed a team of their own under the belief that if they were paired with either Gai or Lee they'd end up killing their teammates and have to forfeit. And Neji really hated losing.
The game itself turned out to be very…enthusiastic, and Tenten and Lee were soon staring each other down across the net. With her amazing accuracy, Tenten was almost lethal with her spikes, the ball descending like a screaming missile. In a move that Neji privately found very intelligent, Lee would just get out of the way when that happened. Even he wasn't prepared to take one of those balls in the face. Lee did, however, get his revenge by accidentally smacking Tenten with the ball, earning him a glare that spoke of impending doom.
"Lee," she growled, rubbing the side of her head. He smiled at her sheepishly and Gai slapped him on the back.
"Lee! See how you have awakened the fires of Tenten's youth! MAGNIFICENT!"
Tenten rolled her eyes and glanced over at Neji, finding him watching the scene with his usual stoic, almost bored expression. She wondered if he was having any fun at all. Even she was starting to get into the spirit of things, but it looked like the sooner they ended the game, the better.
So Tenten turned it up a notch and she and Neji won after Lee and Gai exchanged smiles and momentarily blinded each other, allowing Tenten to make the final points. The two proud beasts consoled each other and vowed to get stronger. Tenten blithely ignored them and started down the beach.
"I'm going to look for sea shells. I'll be back."
Neji watched her go mutely and felt massive relief when Gai and Lee decided to go for a swim, giving him a little quiet time. The Hyuuga sat down in a likely spot, smoothing the sand a little, and watched the waves come in, the sound of the water soothing him. He had never liked the beach, really. It made him restless, as if he should be doing something else, something more important. That Gai had made the day some sort of test was the only thing keeping him there.
Still, after a few minutes, he had to admit it was… nice …there. The open sky, the calls of the seagulls, Tenten running down the beach towards him with a smile on her face…
Neji choked and ruthlessly crushed that thought as his female teammate sank to her knees beside him and held out something pink and pointy.
"Look, Neji! A conk shell!" Her eyes were sparkling. "Listen to it!"
He looked at her carefully. "Tenten, shells can't speak." Obviously the heat was affecting her.
She tilted her head at him. "Don't tell me you've never listened to one before."
He continued to look at her, mentally wondering if he should call Gai-sensei before more symptoms manifested. She exhaled in that put-upon way she sometimes used around Lee and, before he could be annoyed, put her hand on his cheek and the shell up to his ear.
"See?" she said gently, "The ocean."
And, amazingly enough, it was. Well, sort of. The air rushing through the shell made a sound like waves crashing. He had to admit, it was interesting, and Tenten must have sensed that for her smile came back and she dropped her hand, letting him keep the shell.
"I knew you would like it," she said.
How she understood what he was thinking when he didn't say a word was also interesting, although he didn't usually think about it too often. It seemed a given that Tenten was the one who would know him best. It was only at times like these, when she surprised him, that he wondered how.
He held on to the conk shell as she got up to check on Lee who was shouting excitedly about a jellyfish he had found and could he prod it just a little bit? She, too, seemed relaxed now despite her earlier misgivings and he couldn't help but be thankful for her presence. Without her balancing force, he would have killed Lee long ago.
And if he thought she looked particularly fetching in her two-piece, well, it was only natural. He was a male, after all. Nothing more than hormones. Yes, perfectly normal.
Neji coughed quietly.
After Tenten pulled Lee bodily from the water and scrubbed sand on the burns he had gotten from "playing" with the jellyfish, the three of them left Gai-sensei to investigate the tide pools. Neji had never seen so many fish before. They were all colors and they darted like pieces of quicksilver beneath the surface. It was almost hypnotizing, watching them, and the Hyuuga wondered if following them with the Byakugan would be good practice.
His plans were interrupted though when he caught sight of what he knew must be a sea star. He had seen pictures of them back in the Academy but had never spotted a real one. Kneeling down for a better look, his movement caught Tenten's attention and she joined him, her shoulder brushing his.
"A starfish," she said, and he nodded.
"I've never seen one."
She gave him a half-smile. "I had to do a report on one for Iruka-sensei once." She glanced at him then and there was something in her eyes he couldn't identify. "Starfish are really amazing creatures. Did you know they can regenerate their arms? They also have no front or back, so they can move in any direction without turning." She laughed suddenly. "You know, they remind me of you." He looked at her askance and she continued, "You can see anything you wish without turning your head, and it doesn't matter which direction - you can go there." Her voice quieted. "Even if you just have a little of yourself left, you always find a way to come back."
A small silence fell and he watched the starfish but thought of Tenten. After a moment, he cleared his throat and stood, still not looking at her.
"I'm not a starfish," he told her. "They can regrow all by themselves. I had help."
He knew she was watching him and when he finally met her gaze, she grinned. "Well, you don't breathe through your feet either, but work with me."
He had to keep himself from smiling then and covered it by offering a hand to help her up. She took it promptly and they headed back, forgetting about Lee for the moment and walking together as if they were alone.
Gai-sensei was waiting for them and sent them out for one last quick swim before packing up. When they came back, breathless and covered with salt, Gai and Lee raced to the sand dunes, leaving Neji and Tenten to grab most of their things. Carrying a folding chair under one arm, she looked over to see if Neji had their volleyball and paused, lifting a hand towards his face.
"Oh, Neji," she said sympathetically. Her fingers brushed his temple. "You're going to have a burn."
He was so surprised at her touch that he caught her hand reflexively, startling her as well. She blinked at him, completely still, her fingers interlocked with his.
His expression softened a little, just for her. "I'll be alright." I'll have help.
She seemed to understand his meaning, her lips curving as she tugged on his hand. "Come on then. Lee and Gai-sensei have been out of sight too long."
Following her, Neji looked back at the beach only once and thought of the twisted shell he had put in his bag. He was bringing the ocean back with him but he had left the starfish. He, too, was growing.
And, feeling Tenten's hand in his, he thought it wouldn't be so bad.
He didn't have to do it alone.