Author's Notes: Part of a group contest entry on Livejournal. Flashes of Neji & Tenten's life from age nine to thirteen. Some liberties were taken with their childhood because I am just stubborn that way. To view the other contest entries in my group, please visit the NejiTen Livejournal Community. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Still own nothin'.
LIFE, AN INTRODUCTION
Tenten is a cheerful child. She likes warm noodles and wind chimes and running. She reads books about anything, everything, and confounds her parents with statements about countries they've never seen, people they've never heard of. She watches the stars and finds their patterns reflected in crisp decks of cards with glossy symbols. She enjoys the outdoors and doesn't mind getting wet in the rain.
She is nine years old and an Academy student.
She doesn't remember choosing to become a kunoichi. It's always been there, the knowledge as natural as breathing. She goes to class because it's what's expected and her mother smiles proudly and her father pats her on her head. Her parents sleep with knives under their pillow and there are painted masks in the hallway closet – one tiger, one leopard.
Tenten doesn't ask about them. She knows a secret when she sees one.
Neji is a serious child. He likes cool tea and misty mornings and clean clothes. He meditates every day, his mind clear and ordered, and his family forgets he's a child. He's a small adult who walks silently, eyes straight ahead, and trains with the fluidity of a dancer. He stays out late and rises early and his room is economically bare.
He is nine years old and an Academy student.
To become a shinobi is the destiny of his bloodline. To choose any other life would have been a disgrace. He goes to class and ties a leather band around his forehead to hide his curse and no one knows that he's a servant.
Neji thinks it's nice not to be labeled.
They meet on the playground.
"Give it back," she demands angrily, hands clenched. The chubby, pug-nosed bully across from her grins and dangles one of her hair ties in front of her, whipping it out of reach when she grabs for it. Her mother had given her two braids that morning, each tied with a pale yellow ribbon that matched her shirt. Tenten's left braid is unraveling now and she feels a prickle in the back of her eyes as her temper rises.
Tenten's mother had given those ribbons to her and, even though she is something of a tomboy and yellow is a girly color, she wants it back.
"What'cha gonna give me for it?" the boy taunts, waving her ribbon above his head. She grits her teeth.
"This," she replies, and punches him right in the nose.
His head jolts back and he screams as he clasps both hands over his face, blood dripping between his fingers. Great tears run down his cheeks and he glares at her as their classmates crowd closer, drawn by the commotion.
Their sensei escorts the boy to a medic, sparing a few stern words to Tenten before they leave. She takes them, knowing she warrents the embarrassment but she does not apologize.
"He deserved it," she answers, unrepentant.
Sensei tells her he will be speaking with her parents.
The crowd clears, leaving her alone but for one boy with long hair and strange eyes.
He holds out a slightly dirty, yellow ribbon.
"Here," Neji says, "This is yours."
It's a start.
Neji is very smart, a genius some would say. At ten years of age he's the first in his class and already starting to get popular with the girls. The fact that he firmly rebukes them seems not to discourage them whatsoever.
They eat lunch out under the old willow and Tenten offers him a plum.
"You've very mean to them," she observes, leaning back on her elbows. It's never occurred to her that, as a girl, she should have been included in the gaggle of females he avoids like the plague. She is just different. And, of course, she doesn't like him like that.
Boys are pretty weird, in her opinion.
Neji gives her a cool look. He's been perfecting that one lately. "They're wasting my time."
She quirks an eyebrow at him but doesn't ask why it is that she isn't wasting his time. She knows it has something to do with breaking a boy's nose last year. She'd earned a certain sort of respect from the boys, but the girls weren't quite sure what to do with her.
She's okay with that.
Girls could be pretty weird, too.
Neji is the first to meet Rock Lee.
The boy spends half an hour adamantly proclaiming that hard work is enough to overcome the natural advantage of being a genius. Apparently, Lee thinks that his taijutsu can win against a clan bloodlimit.
Neji scoffs at the idea but Tenten doesn't agree.
"You have to admire his passion," she says, watching the argument between Lee and a ring of their other classmates. She seems mildly sympathetic towards the rather odd boy and Neji remembers that she has no bloodlimit either, just a rather strange tendency towards sharp objects.
It's the first time he feels what it's like not to be the focus of Tenten's admiration.
He decides he doesn't like Rock Lee very much.
"Let go," he says.
She shakes her head stiffly, fingers clenched on the top of the book case, the tips of her feet balanced on one of the shelves. One of the boys has played a trick on her and run off with the ladder, leaving her stranded on a wall of books. She's not afraid of heights, it's just... It's so high. And their teacher is going to scold her for being late, even if she does come back with a history on sword folding.
"Let go," he repeats and she can tell he's getting impatient, his white eyes narrowing just a bit.
She gets annoyed right back. "You don't even have your arms out," she says pointedly over her shoulder. Neji huffs quietly, a very put-upon eleven-year-old.
"Why should I if you're not going to jump?"
She wrinkles her nose at him but he can't see it as she's facing the book case. (Years from now, there won't be anything she can hide from him.)
"I am so going to jump. I just..." She shifts her feet a little. "I just..."
Below her, Neji lifts his arms.
"Let go," he says again, quietly.
And she does.
It's their last summer in the Academy.
They learn how to duplicate themselves. Neji picks it up instantly, of course, and Tenten follows him, with a bit more hesitancy. Lee fails at the beginning but by the fifth or sixth try he gets the hang of it. They spend three weeks confusing their teacher and their parents. (Tenten leaves a shadow clone in her bed and gleefully breaks her curfew. She is caught, of course, but her father is almost too proud of her to punish her.)
To celebrate their success, their sensei takes the class on a picnic and they spend an afternoon eating sandwiches and flying kites. Neji is grumpy about it but Tenten ignores him and runs through the grass, letting a flimsy dragon take off from the ground. It's blue and gold scales glitter as it rises into the sky, wings rippling in the strong breeze. Tenten laughs and shields her eyes against the bright sun to watch it soar.
Neji watches it too.
And he'll remember it when, in a few years time, she makes dragons from smoke and doesn't bother to stay on the ground while they fly.
Neji replaces the leather band over his scar with a forehead protector.
"Now," he says, "it's real."
Tenten likes Maito Gai. He's exasperating, but she likes him. She likes Lee, too, but she's not afraid to take him by the shoulders and shake him until he sees sense. Neji stands by and watches it happen. She can't read his expression but she thinks he finds their new team acceptable.
Tenten agrees until she's made to run a hundred laps around the village. She finishes fifty before deciding to plot murder.
That night she collapses into bed, wearied and exhausted, every muscle aching.
It's clear from the beginning that Gai dotes on Lee. It seems only natural then that Neji and Tenten begin to work together, balancing out their little group. Tenten starts experimenting with calligraphy and hand seals and Neji starts blindfolding himself and counting blackbirds.
He also starts dancing.
At least, that's what it looks like at first. A quick pivot, arms tucked in, long hair flaring out. Tenten wants to tease him but the look of concentration on his face stops her. He's figuring something out and so she stays quiet.
A month goes by and Neji's does several rotations in a row, enough for Tenten to see chakra whirling around him in green and silver. When he comes to a stop, she smiles, proud of him because she knows whatever he's doing is an accomplishment.
Breathing hard, Neji looks back at her, his mouth curving slightly in victory.
"Soon," he says.
They don't take the chuunin exam that year.
"It's not because you aren't ready, my glorious team," Gai sparkles. "I just don't like to rush brilliance."
Neji scoffs quietly. He's irritated at being held back, but the prospect of more time to develop his new technique curbs his annoyance.
Besides, they all knew the real reason Gai didn't want them to take the test was because Kakashi's team wouldn't be ready for another year as well. The competition between the two jounin was a legendary one-sided relationship.
"But Gai-sensei," Tenten says, and she's frowning, "Is it really alright? If we wait a whole other year…"
"Never fear, my little sunflower," Gai chirps, giving her a bone-cracking hug. "When my youthful students do take the test, you will be unstoppable."
Tenten spends another year learning how to dance among knives while Neji makes craters in the earth and sends all her weapons back to her. They train in the forest, away from the other teams, and by the time the chuunin exam rolls around again Team Gai has an air of mystery. They're older than the others, stronger, their bonds thicker.
In the Forest of Death, Neji becomes their leader and Lee their wildcard. Tenten, as always, remains the glue between them. Neji and Lee are rivals as well as teammates. Tenten sometimes wonders if Gai had planned it that way to begin with.
"You're an idiot," Tenten says scathingly, as she mends Lee's wounds as best she can. He'd taken on the Sound ninja for nothing more than a pretty girl's attention. She wants to wring his neck.
Lee smiles weakly. "I know," he says.
They're growing up.
"I'm out of ideas," Tenten announces, collapsing into a nearby chair. Tendrils of dark hair have come loose from her buns, framing a rosy face. She's thirteen now and a Chuunin and she's never really liked winter. "Tell Lee I'm not helping him anymore."
Neji looks up from the book he's reading in front of the fireplace, marking his place with a finger. "I warned you from the beginning," he says mildly, ignoring his teammate's exasperated look. "He's obsessed."
Tenten waves a dismissive hand. "I knew that." Neji's eyebrow twitches. "I just didn't think he'd be so
difficult. If he had his way, nothing would be good enough for this girl."
"Are we talking about Sakura-san?" a voice exclaims from the doorway. Tenten drops her face into her hands as Lee bounds into her parent's living room, spraying an irritated Neji with melting snow as he passes. "You are completely right, Tenten, so far I have found no Christmas gift worthy of the lovely Sakura!"
"I know," Tenten replies monotonously. Neji coughs delicately.
Lee is oblivious. "She is like a fragile snowflake!" he goes on, dreamily. "I must find her a present that shows her all my love and devotion!"
"What about those hair ribbons?" Tenten demands, lifting her head. "Those were nice. Or the snow globe? Or the beaded necklace with the little stars?"
Lee is wearing a pained expression. "But, Tenten, all the girls will have those things. Sakura deserves something unique!"
Tenten slouchs in her seat, defeated. "Of course, what was I thinking?"
"You could always make her something." This from Neji who is flipping a page in his book and misses Tenten's horrified expression. Really, he would say anything to get Lee to shut up. All the noise was very distracting. He'd read that last paragraph twice.
"Neji!" Lee beams. "What a youthful idea!" His gaze shifts towards the window where snow is falling whimsically. "I could build her a snow castle, no, a snow palace, and Tenten can help me decorate it and—"
"What?" Tenten's jaw drops. "Who said I was helping? This is your gift! And Lee, it's just going to melt in a few days. You know the snow never stays here long. Are you sure you don't want to just…?" She trails off as Lee shakes his head. He practically skips over to her, grasping both of her hands in his as his eyes sparkle at her.
"Don't you see? That's why it's so perfect for Sakura-san! I'm sure no one else will think to give her such a thing! And the fact that it is so fleeting is what makes it special!" He leans forward suddenly, invading her personal space with his happiness. "And you must help me! You know what Sakura would like, you're a girl!"
"Oh, thank you," Tenten replies, her voice full of sarcasm. It bounces right off Lee who only grins harder and jerks her to her feet, already pulling her across the room.
"Get your coat, Tenten! I don't want you to catch a cold as we build the beautiful Sakura's Christmas present!"
"Neji," she complains as Lee drags her body into the hallway and puts on her boots, "you are in so much trouble."
The Hyuuga only smirks and turns another page.
That year Neji gives her yellow ribbons, twin strands of sunshine, and she winds them into her hair with practiced fingers. Neither of them say a word.
They both know what the other is thinking.
"Do you think it will always be like this?" Tenten askes one afternoon in the spring. Flowers are blooming, dew still clinging to their petals as Lee jogs in place a few feet away. It's very early, the sky is barely lit by the hidden sun, but the air is fresh and the birds are singing.
"Like what?" Lee asks, barely pausing as he drops to do a set of sit-ups.
Tenten casually flings a kunai at a target to her left and watches it hit the bulleye's just above Neji's head. The Hyuuga opens silver eyes from his morning meditation and regards her evenly, nonplussed by the fact that she could have killed him had she been anyone less than herself.
"This," she repeats inanely. She doesn't want to describe it, it's too personal, too precious. Trapped inside words, it would lose its meaning.
Lee frowns, confused, but Neji's voice is smooth, comforting in it's familiar hollowness.
"Not always," he answers, "but long enough."