stones taught me to fly
love taught me to lie
so come on courage, teach me to be shy

-Cannonball, Damien Rice

She was a goddess.

A goddess of blades, dancing silver in the air around her, with all the colors of an autumn sunset caught in her hair and eyes. Her skin was the color of honey, sweet and exotic amongst the lighter skin-tones of Konoha. Her hands were like…

Lee sighed happily to himself as he watched his team-mate train, dancing alone in the middle of a forest-clearing. His hand tightened around the bundle of sweet-smelling wildflowers he'd picked for her on the way here. They were simple, but Lee knew that his unpretentious Tenten would love them for their color and fragrance, just as much as any expensive bouquet. He would give them to her, and then she would sweetly thank him, then he would tell her that it was the least he could do for the one he…

"What are you doing?"

Lee half-jumped as a cool, familiar voice inserted itself into his imaginings. He looked up to see his other team-mate standing over him, arms crossed and one eyebrow lifted in half-mocking inquiry.

"Neji! Shh!" he hissed, pulling the other boy down hurriedly. "She'll see us!"

Neji, scowling as he brushed Lee's hand from off his white jacket, hissed back, "Who, Tenten?"

"Of course, Tenten!" Lee glanced anxiously in the girl's direction to make sure she hadn't noticed them. Thankfully, it seemed she hadn't – she was busy concentrating on a pair of katanas she had just hurled into the air, leaping after them and catching them by their hilt-tassels. Lee heaved a sigh of relief.

Neji was staring at the flowers clutched in Lee's hand. "Lee…" he began slowly, eyes fixed on the small bright-colored blossoms as if on a nest of disturbed cobras. "Are you…"

"I am going to tell Tenten that I like her," Lee said, firmly, his voice decided and measured as it only ever got when he was really very serious about something. There was something of a difference in how he said this and how he had proclaimed his love for other girls – two, to Neji's knowledge, in the year since they'd been put on the same team – and it was this dangerous shade of intent that made the Hyuuga hurriedly reach out and catch his team-mate by the fabric of his green jumpsuit.

"You can't!"

Lee turned to regard Neji with honestly curious eyes. Most people, watching the two boys fight and argue and interact, would have supposed that they were bitter rivals and not at all friendly – or, that one was a bitter rival and the other a howling annoyance.

It might have been that way, at least on one side, at the beginning. But months of working and traveling and training together - cooperating on missions and growing respect for each other, not only for skills but for their person - had really made the two of them friends. Maybe they wouldn't have used that word; but they trusted each other. So Lee paused and asked, "Why?" and waited for Neji to answer.

Then his wide dark eyes widened even further as he thought of something – something that his by-the-book, proper, controlled friend would protest against. "Is it because we're on the same team, Neji? But we work together well already, and I don't think we'd change if I told her that I…I don't think she'd let things change," he said with a soft laugh. "She…"

"It's not that," Neji said in a very odd voice – a voice that silenced Lee and made him look more sharply at the other boy, at the tense, almost pained expression in his face and eyes.

Neji swallowed hard, his throat visibly working as he tried to speak. His mouth opened and closed a few times without any audible sound, until finally he repeated, "You can't." His pale eyes were uncharacteristically nervous. "You can't…because I like her."

Lee's jaw actually dropped open at this extraordinary proclamation. He knew that Neji was much less closed-off, at least to his team, than he had been a year ago; he knew the other boy, contrary to village opinion, was capable of human emotion. But that he could feel that way towards Tenten…

Then his thought processes – never as lacking as his classmates presumed – cut through the shock with a burst of clear, hard reasoning. If he, Rock Lee, could feel affection for the ambitious, blade-happy kunoichi of their little cell, what was to stop Hyuuga Neji from the same? In fact – he realized – considering the way Tenten and Neji relied on each other for companionship when he and Gai-sensei were training together, the way that she managed to soothe the Hyuuga when he was angry and the way Neji could coolly silence her when she was in one of her ranting moods – if anything…

Swallowing hard himself, Lee met Neji's eyes. "You can't," Neji said again, his hands fisting, and Lee realized that it wasn't a command Neji was saying. It was a plea.

Taking a huge gulp of air, Rock Lee then displayed the spirit that he would later be known for throughout Konoha. "Of course not," he said, and his voice trembled only a little bit. "I mean…what kind of unyouthful behavior is that, to poach on another's claim? That's…that's betrayal. That's cheating. That's dishonorable. It's like those horribly unyouthful villains in the plays who would attempt to…"

"Thank you," Neji interrupted him, his voice quiet. He looked down at his feet, quickly, then looked back up at Lee. "I…thank you, Lee. You're…you're a better friend than I deserve."

Lee smiled at him.

Neji, surprisingly, smiled back a little. Then, quickly, he turned away and walked into the training-grounds, his back very stiff, and deliberately rustling the leaves of the bushes so Tenten heard them and looked at him. Lee watched her call to Neji, a grin on her sun-tanned face, and wondered a little bitterly if it really was as noble as it seemed on first blush, this stepping aside in Neji's favor. After all, would he have had a chance anyway, if Neji was seriously pursuing her, Neji the Rookie of the Year, Neji who Tenten always defended…

…Neji who hadn't known any love since his father had been killed. Neji who watched silently whenever Tenten and Lee squabbled affectionately or traded jokes or just shot the breeze. Neji who flinched whenever someone touched him in a non-combative manner. Neji who didn't dream like Lee and Tenten did.

Lee watched as Neji talked quietly with Tenten, their heads inclining in a surprisingly similar manner as they spoke, and he felt a little better about it all. He closed his eyes and shook himself all over, like a dog flinging water off a soaked coat, then bounded out of the bushes in a loud, happy burst of energy.

He left the wildflowers behind.

A ficlet inspired by a discussion on Neji started by wildcatt on the NejiTen LJ, especially the part discussing how close Team Gai are really. Honestly they're awesome at teamwork. Comments and reviews as usual much appreciated.

Re: Lee's love confessions; anyone else think that when he confesses to Sakura, the expression on Neji and Tenten's face is sort of "Aw man, not again." And I bet Lee is the best of all the genin at poetry. For some reason, I also think that Shino might be good at it.

Set just a little before the Chuunin exams.

Also, " poach on another's claim?" Oh Lee. If Tenten heard you say that...