Author's Notes: This was written for the June challenge at Ten Squared, with the theme "I Smell Team Spirit." I wanted to try chronicling the development of Team Gai at Tenten's point of view. Most of these moments are fictional, but I have some canon thrown in there too. Enjoy!
Warning: Spoilers up to episode 14 of Naruto: Shippuuden, character death.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
I. – Tenten is sick the day teams are assigned and upon returning the next day, she is told only where she is to go to meet her teacher and the other two parts of her three-man cell. She is breathing hard by the time she makes it to the top of the lookout tower, and her only reward for achieving Genin status is a very loud man in outlandish green, a wide-eyed boy who appears to be on a permanent adrenaline high, and a Hyuuga branch house member who looks at her as though she is the last thing in the world he would have accepted as punishment for any wrongdoing he was accused of.
She feels very alone. And everything is changing.
II. – But she is determined to persevere, though those are Gai's words, not hers. To Tenten, she feels more incensed to do well than anything else. And she trains alone every morning, with the team in the afternoon, and the nights are hers to do with as she pleases; and that is always to dream that one day she won't need them anymore, because she will surpass.
III. – Lee says she faces more challenge because she is a girl. She takes out a scroll and lets weapons rain down, demanding to know who has the challenge while he scurries to fend off flying blades. Neji watches from a safe distance, and she doesn't dare to think she saw him smile for the most fractional of seconds.
IV. – Gai singles her out one fall day and asks why she admires the Sannin Tsunade so much. Tenten gives in a little, admitting that she wants to be a great kunoichi even in a world dominated by and dependent on the power of men. The Beautiful Green Beast merely grins – not in such an intrusive way for once – and tells her he finds it a fine idea.
Tenten stops thinking Gai plays favorites.
V. – Neji finds her in the clearing and discovers she has been training on her own each morning for nearly ten months. He says he did not expect that from her. She invites him to stay. They begin to meet like this daily. And it becomes their clearing.
VI. – They practice walking on water. Neji gets the hang of it soon enough, but poor Lee can never seem to stay afloat. Tenten's chakra tends to not go any lower than her knees, and half the time Gai has to grab her so that she doesn't fall backward and hit her head on any of the hidden river rocks.
In a particularly strong surge of frustration, Tenten shoots to her feet on the water. Startled, Gai loses his concentration and drops through the surface with a spectacular splash. He comes up sputtering, but Tenten stares down at him, wide-eyed. In the next instant, she is giggling. Neji half-snorts. Lee clutches his sides, and finally Gai throws his head back and laughs so loud that all of Konoha can hear him.
And she secretly hopes they can all laugh like this for years to come.
VII. – The Chuunin Exams make Tenten realize all over again that their team has a long way to go. Despite hundreds of hours spent together, they are still divided, disconnected. She hopes it isn't her fault.
VIII. – Lee and Neji go after Uchiha Sasuke with Naruto and the other Rookie Nine shinobi. She is bitter about being left behind, but Lee assures her it is not for lack of talent. "Your skills are better used protecting the village."
What he doesn't understand is that Tenten doesn't scorn the fact she was not chosen to go. She is terrified that she will never see them again.
And when she hears of their return, an hour passes before she arrives at the hospital because she has to express her relief with the repetitive stab of kunai in wooden posts.
IX. – Her weakness in the Sand nearly gives her a nervous breakdown. Sparring with Neji, she tirades, demanding to know why he grows so strong with the passing years while she can only plateau.
The answer he gives is astonishingly simple. "You're restricting yourself," he says. In her temper, she lets fly a small cracker bomb. It explodes and burns up the edge of Neji's sleeve. Neji's.
He does something strange. He smiles at Tenten.
"He was waiting for you to hit him," Lee explains later. "He's been hoping you would."
Tenten excels at incredible speed after that.
X. – Once Team Gai talks about Uchiha Sasuke. Gai mentions that men will do crazy things for their ambitions. Tenten spots him looking at Neji and knows her teacher worries that the Hyuuga will meet his goals in the same way he worries that Lee won't.
Part of her wishes that Gai would worry just a little about her.
XI. – Lee turns eighteen and she gives him a brand new pair of leg weights painted a shimmering green. She finds him by himself in the middle of the party Gai has thrown and does her best to comfort him in his sudden depression about Sakura and how he loved her even without the returned emotion.
At the end of the night Lee declares that his favorite present is from Tenten, and she knows it isn't the leg weights.
XII. – Years of repressed hormones catch up to Team Gai's notably more sane members, and during a sweaty summer training session, Neji drops out of his Jyuuken stance and kisses her in the middle of the clearing. She cannot help but kiss him back. Tenten tries to tell herself it was just something that was bound to happen and nothing more – Neji acts like it is, anyway.
XIII. – As though to make up for a moment of weakness, Neji purposely distances himself from her and begins to train with Lee. The two men finally reach an understanding because of it, but Tenten feels the way she did in the team's early days…cast out and not belonging.
XIV. – Six months of incessant loneliness later, Gai finally stops pretending not to notice and starts worrying. He comes to her house personally, humongous smile in place.
"Tenten," he greets merrily, "I have missed your youthful, feminine cheer!"
At first she simply stares, but his wisdom slides out from behind his idiocy. And she simply sobs and lets herself be held by the only man she could think of as her father, the man responsible for her power, who now makes her feel powerless without ever mentioning Neji.
XV. – He returns to train with her on a morning in winter, eyes blending with the snow. The world around them is gray with a late dawn. Her breath comes out in clouds as she pants from exertion and the way her heart races as he watches her. When she pauses, standing still to calm herself, Neji comes up behind her and wraps her in his arms. The cold is banished, the tension seeps out. Tenten lets her head fall back again his shoulder, eyes shutting as his cheek brushes hers. One of his hands finds its way into her hair.
Neither needs to say a word.
XVI. – Even after they have all become Jounin and know better than to be rash, Lee is always the first to get hurt in battle. Tenten could kill him for it. He's strapped to a hospital bed for two weeks and begs her to spring him, exclaiming that he must train. Instead, she brings Sakura to the room to keep him company – much safer than fifty laps around Konoha, she figures – and only grins when Neji shakes his head.
XVII. – "I told you I didn't want a birthday present." Tenten glares at Neji with stubbornly-crossed arms.
He only smirks in that infuriating way she loves. "I would have given you this tomorrow," he replies calmly, though she sees his jaw is clenched more tightly than usual. "But I didn't want to wait anymore." Because she refuses to, he opens the little wrapped box himself.
The ring glistening from inside both elates and scares her. In the end, elation wins out as she throws herself at him.
XVIII. – He wants a very simple life with her, and she is happy to give him that. Lee loves someone else but stays married to his dedication for shinobi duties, much like Gai. Their team is stronger than ever until they receive some news that sends a thick crack streaking through:
Gai is dead.
IXX. – Lee refuses to believe it for weeks, and even Tenten has a hard time adhering herself to the reality of it. Neji is the first of them to understand the truth…that Maito Gai's eyes, in his age, had been faulty and he misjudged the distance of an enemy blade. Perhaps it is because Gai was the one who taught Tenten how to best utilize a weapon that she struggles with the fact that he has left them.
XX. – The Hokage gives them time off, and they spend a month training together as they did at twelve years old. Tenten feels unsure of whether or not they have truly grown. But then, distracted, she lets Lee slip through her defenses, and he kicks her in the side. Her closest friend and her husband both sit with her as she catches her breath, Lee's hand on her shoulder, Neji's around her waist.
She can't contain it, she has to ask. "You two will keep being here, won't you?" Her phrasing is different, but her meaning gets through.
You two will always love me, won't you?
Neji's forehead falls against the curve of her neck, his eyelashes fluttering over her skin. Lee smiles for the first time since their teacher passed away. "Of course," he answers for the both of them.
For the first time, Tenten is comfortable with change; because she knows one thing, at least, never will.