Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. If I did you can bet his training trip woulda been shown to be a lot more impressive than it seems now. Oh Naruto! When will you bust out the kick-ass jutsus I know you're hiding? Please!
Team Gai – as they were still known, four years and several promotions since they'd been Gai's cell of genin – came in wearily through the Konoha gates, bearing upon their weary selves unmistakable evidence of a difficult mission.
Lee was noticeably limping, his ubiquitous weights actually taken off (and added to his annoyed but resigned teammates' baggage) to allow him to walk under his own power. His clothes were scuffed and dirty, as was Hyuuga Neji's outfit – which, being composed largely of white, showed the dirt more clearly. Lee had spent a significant amount of the trip pointing out the merits of easy-to-dry-and-therefore-wash green spandex over thick white linen hakamas to his rival, with the effect that Lee's limp was more pronounced than it had been previously.
Their kunoichi teammate looked less injured but her clothing was in worse disarray – her pink blouse bearing smears of blood and gunpowder and a few, thankfully unscandalous rents about the hem. Her black, hip-cut pants were in similar state; the right leg had been completely torn off at the mid-thigh, leaving her with an asymmetrical, strangely stylish outfit. (A few weeks' time would see a new fashion-trend in Konoha known as Ten-cut pants – much to the originator's dismay) Closer inspection showed that the cloth of the missing leg had been used in a makeshift splint for Lee.
Team Gai was well-known in Konoha for its members' impressive combat prowess – well-known in a Village that had produced some of the most capable fighters in centuries. Gai's insane training methods, which had driven others into twitching horror when described, had been embraced and faithfully kept to by his three ambitious, hard-working students, producing young shinobi whose reputations were already beginning to spread across the Hidden Villages.
It also meant that they got nothing but the hardest, most dangerous missions. This meant for a really impressive-looking record but also for regular trips to the hospital. Sakura kept a couple of beds ready and extra amounts of their blood-types on hand whenever they were due back from a mission, just as SOP.
And the hospital was where they were headed now, knowing from experience that a quick dose of healing chakra and a fast, efficient shower – easier than going to their respective homes first – awaited them. Tenten was already daydreaming of hot water on her skin, wondering if Sakura would let her borrow that bottle of bodywash she knew the other girl kept in her office, when her team was hailed by a familiar-yet-not voice.
"Hey guys!" Naruto called, waving his arm at them. The three of them stopped and looked at him, an easy thing to do. Naruto had grown taller, enough so that his bright blond hair – unique in Konoha – was easily visible in the daily crowds. Tenten noticed the younger boy wasn't in his usual bright orange shinobi-wear, but in a simpler black t-shirt and dark-green shorts; apparently Naruto was civving today.
And he had someone unfamiliar beside him.
Tenten and Lee unabashedly stared at the stranger, Neji doing the same but hiding behind his Byakugan's multi-directional vision. The other boy looked around Naruto's age, slender, with the dark hair and pale skin characteristic of Konohans. His clothing was tight and black, exposing his midriff; his movement patterns were those that skilled shinobi could use to spot other skilled shinobi.
And he looked like Sasuke.
Naruto yanked at his sleeve, tugging the other boy over in Team Gai's direction – the boy glanced at Naruto, and smiled, and his eyes closed and curved in a manner that was a bit like Naruto's fox-eyed grin; and suddenly Team Gai didn't feel so tense.
"Hiya geji-mayuu, white-eyes, Tenten!" Naruto chirped. He slipped easily underneath Lee's arm, automatically lending his aid to the taller boy. "I guess your mission was a doozy?"
"That it was, Naruto-kun; but with the power of YOUTH burning BRIGHTLY within US ALL, we prevailed and thwarted the EVIL MACHINATIONS of the…"
Tenten interrupted before Lee turned their routine capture mission into a saga – Naruto's bright blue eyes showing that he would eagerly drink it up. "Naruto-kun, why don't you introduce us to your friend?" she suggested, motioning with her chin towards the stranger-boy standing a little distance away, watching them through curious, half-shut eyes.
"Oh yeah!" Naruto said, excitedly. "This is Sai!" The boy waved at them. "He's a new member of our cell…"
Neji and Tenten looked askance at the blond boy; was this the first break in his determination to bring back the Uchiha, that he was allowing another to take his place? They hadn't seen the younger genin since that mission to the Sand, where Naruto's emotions about the Kazekage had shown raw and powerful; and they could assume that his reluctance to give up on Gaara would be matched, if not dwarfed, by his reluctance to give up on Sasuke.
But Naruto's eyes were as bright and clear as ever, and if anything he looked more upbeat than before. "Sai, these are some of the friends I was telling you about! That's Tenten, she's the one with all the weapons, you should show her that sword o' yours – that's Neji, he's a Hyuuga, he's a jounin, he's nice really if you stick to him long enough – " Tenten and Lee sniggered a little, " – and this is Rock Lee! Taijutsu master!" Naruto announced triumphantly.
Sai nodded to each teen as they were introduced, dark eyes glancing quickly at each new face. "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance," he said politely, each word carefully pronounced.
Neji nodded back, while Lee and Tenten murmured their own greetings. Sai turned back to his blond friend, expression slightly easing as he concentrated on a familiar face.
"I heard you call them – geji-mayuu? White-eyes?" He said questioningly. "Those are…nicknames, yes?"
Naruto nodded, his blond head bobbing up and down so that his hair fell into his face. "Yes, exactly, Sai! See, I call Lee geji-mayuu because he's a fuzzy-brows. And Neji is white-eyes 'cos of his Byakugan. D'you see? Nicknames 'cos of what they're known for – and," he added somewhat anxiously, "and, what they don't mind being known for. It's not good to call them something that they don't like, it makes them angry."
Naruto and Sai both shivered at that, and Team Gai could only guess at the horrific experience they were reliving.
Sai looked at Tenten. "Tenten-san," he said quietly. "May I…may I attempt to give you a nickname? For practice?"
Tenten, somewhat bemused, stuttered out her permission. Neji and Lee, equally at a loss, turned to Naruto for an explanation.
"Sai's a little…well, he's trying to be more sociable, but he's been alone for so long that he needs to…practice being with other people. He's trying, really he is. And he read a book in the library, and it said stuff about addressing people with those, you know, those things like –san and –kun and all…"
"You mean honorifics?" Neji asked dryly, thinking to himself that Sai wasn't the only one who needed practice with social customs.
"Yeah, whatever. And it said something about nicknames too, and so Sai is trying it out…"
Lee chuckled, causing the other two boys to look at him. "I never…I never thought I'd meet someone more in need of…people-skills than Neji…but I did!" he chortled, Naruto joining in happily. Neji glared at his two laughing companions.
In the meantime, Tenten was feeling increasingly nervous as Sai unabashedly studied her, eyeing her up and down as he circled her in smooth, unhurried steps. She shifted on her feet, and fought the urge to duck her head.
"I've got it," Sai murmured, hand on chin. "I shall call you…"
Neji, Naruto and Lee were watching curiously, Naruto's eyes holding a smidgen of fear.
Naruto relaxed visibly, sighing in relief. "Oh thank god. That's a good one, Sai," he said encouragingly, as Lee and Neji smiled – well, Neji smirked – a little. "Yeah, we all know Tenten pretty well for her hairdo…as well as her skill with weapons of course," he added hurriedly, glancing at Tenten from the corner of his eye.
Tenten, one hand going up to her hair-buns reflexively at yet another reference to her characteristic, unusual hairstyle, half-smiled at Naruto. Apparently the kid had learned a little tact – or had it beaten it into him by an angry kunoichi somewhere.
"Her hair?" Sai said quizzically, cocking his head to one side. "I wasn't referring to her hair. Tenten-san's got a really tight—"
"AAAAH!" Naruto yelped, springing on Sai and clapping a hand over the other boy's mouth, moving with the hair-trigger quickness of someone for whom this was becoming reflex. "Sai, for the love of all that's holy, please don't finish that."
All three members of Team Gai had turned bright red, though in Neji that redness was rapidly receding into the jaw-clenched paleness of extreme anger. Lee had fallen over, his injured ankle unable to support both him and the weight of his shock. Tenten was just gaping.
Sai squirmed from under Naruto's hand, looking honestly confused. "But why, Naruto-kun? I thought you said to nickname them for their good features…and Tenten-san's is a really nice feature, isn't it?"
Naruto refused to say anything, long experience with ero-sennin, Sakura, Tsunade, and drinking bouts having taught him that there was no correct answer to such a question. Anyway, he was busy leaping out of the way of a rampaging Neji, whose Byakugan-pale eyes seemed ready to pop from his skull.
Sai had been pulled along in Naruto's thirty-foot leap to the top of a building, but the two boys separated as Neji came barreling at them. He immediately swerved to follow Sai back down to the ground, where the two began to engage in a rapid-fire exchange of blows and dodges.
"I take it this is one of those things that are socially unacceptable?" Sai called to Naruto as he bent nearly parallel to the ground to escape a palm-strike. "What about…" His eyes darted to Tenten's long, tanned leg, left bare by her torn pants. "Legs. Can I call her Legs? Is that better?"
Again Naruto refused to answer, and Neji only seemed to get angrier. Poor Sai was very confused.
"Alright." The sound of Tenten's voice, quiet though it was, froze every participant in the fracas. She lifted her head, which had been bowed between suspiciously shaking shoulders, and gifted them all with a mischievous grin – Naruto could recognize mischief when he saw it – and something in her eyes gleamed as she looked at Neji and Sai (who were standing close to each other, as is necessary when one is strangling the other by the throat).
"But only if I can call you Abs."