Author's Notes: For the NejiTen community's 12 Themes challenge for the NejiTen Festival 2008. I didn't have time to do 12 separate pieces so here's twelve vignettes in one fic instead.
I. One of the earliest chakra-building exercises Gai has his team perform is, not a copy, but a variation of the one Kakashi uses on Team 7. Running in a vertical path up a tree is too simplistic for his three buds of youth, he later brags to his rival. He instructs them to run around the tree in an upward direction, to that they actually ascend in a spiral.
Lee thinks the notion is inspiring. Tenten thinks her sensei is insane. Neji intends to just ignore him and go about it in his own fashion, but the competition is too alluring and so he also rises to the bait.
Lee is worst at it, and Neji is the best. Tenten finds, however, that her jumping ability far surpasses the pale-eyed Hyuuga's. And when he stumbles over a wide branch halfway up the thick oak they are racing on, she reaches out and grabs his wrist before he can lose his balance. He wouldn't be nearly as attractive with his powerful arms in a pair of slings.
"Gonna make it, Neji?" Her gaze shines mischievously, as though she knows something he doesn't.
He jerks out of her grasp. Tenten does not feel hurt, exactly, but she's a little annoyed that he must act so superiorly even to her.
"Naturally," he says in a terse manner, and continues on without a word of thanks.
II. Tenten's kunai comes close to slicing off Lee's ear in a sparring match when they train together for the Chuunin Exams, but Lee's speed is such that he can avoid her assault. Neji watches with silent admiration, tuning out Gai's overly loud praise toward her youthful talent. He disagrees with his teacher.
Her talent will not dissipate as she develops in age. She will be impressive until the day she dies.
In the distance, he spots a pair of carrier doves, the two reserved at the rookery for such fanciful events as wedding announcements and invitations to frivolous parties. He is not a fan of them.
III. The first time she visits the Hyuuga compound, it is to attend a dinner to which Neji invites her. Tenten realizes that it is a maneuver to withdraw himself – if Neji has a guest, he will be expected to pay her due attention, and the relatives will respect that – and behaves accordingly. She restrains her wish that he could have truly wanted her there because of another reason.
She is offered a glass of cold wine and takes it out of courtesy. She does not see Neji's eyebrows lift in mild surprise when she drinks it rather quickly (Hyuugas have always made her feel nervous). Afterward, Tenten cannot help but appreciate that warmth inside her and staggers only once when Neji walks her home.
"I didn't know you liked sake," he tells her prosaically.
"I don't know why you ever hated them," she says stupidly, forgetting, in her haze, his early trials. "They seemed nice enough to me."
He steadies her and proceeds to unlock the door for her since she has apparently lost her ability with a key. "You are ceaselessly baffling, Tenten."
She is too tipsy to invent a witty remark, so instead she says goodnight. In the morning, she desperately tries to figure out if his kiss to her forehead was a dream or shocking reality, but she cannot manage it.
VI. A battle in the Land of Fire's north forests is fought against Rain-nin, and they summon a torrent to use as a shield. Neji's Byakugan is weakened by the chakra-charged droplets, and he loses Tenten in the fray.
"Lee! Where is Tenten?"
The green-clad man shouts that he thought she had been fighting near him, and something grabs at Neji's ribcage to yank in a crushing grip. He fights feverishly, foolishly, searching for her as well as a victory.
He calls out, feeling blind for the first time in his life. "Tenten!"
Where did she go? Was she led into isolated combat? Did they kill her all alone, away from him, so that her blood could run unwatched in the soaked night? "TENTEN!"
"Neji!" Then her back is to his, and he can smell her scent enhanced by the rain, her hair falling from her buns to stick to his skin. "Calm down," she tells him, "or you're going to be dead."
She had thought the same for him, then. His heart slows.
"I'm right here," she adds more softly. "With you, Neji."
His strength increases tenfold, and the morning shines on a newly triumphant Team Gai.
V. Her scrolls embrace her, forming rings around her body as she works out a new technique with Neji there to inform her of adjustments needed to her chakra patterns. Tenten smiles down at him from midair, uttering down monosyllabic questions ("Now?" "This?") in search of a perfected jutsu.
Tenten realized a long time ago that there was no point in feeling seriously competitive toward Neji. Sure, she might occasionally challenge him to a sparring match that she wanted to be more intense than usual, but overall she had accepted that, due to their individual progression, he would arrive at greatness sooner more efficiently than she could ever hope to do. Instead, she put him to work and made use of his talents in a way that supplemented her own. Satisfyingly, it was the far healthier and more rewarding of the options.
At sunset, her rings of paper and ink slow their whirling and fall to the ground, their trailing ends like wind-caught ribbons as she also touches down. She is the master of something new, and excitement thrums in her blood as a smile hovers around Neji's mouth, never quite landing.
Tenten thinks it's nice that they can share personal wins as well as team ones.
VI. "This must be a terrible idea" is the first thing Tenten says to him not five minutes after they first make love. She certainly never was one for walking on eggshells. They are twenty-two, and she had trembled beforehand, but now Neji is the one shaking from unfamiliar muscle strain and adrenaline.
Half-ignoring her, the Hyuuga turns on his side to face her and bodily pulls her closer. His pallid gaze drifts shut as his lips move to her earlobe, inducing an shiver. "You're only saying that because worrying makes you feel more responsible."
"An adult has to be responsible," she contends.
Neji would like to tell her that despite her opinion, he's feeling pretty adult right now. Rather, "I've already decided on this, so there's no use in trying to scare me," he murmurs.
Her jawbone shifts beneath his mouth so that he can actually feel her smile. "You mean it wasn't fate?"
Changing tactics, Neji swiftly rolls over so that she is beneath him, grinning broadly. "Not this time." He likes how she rises to meet his hungry mouth with hers. No eggshells at all.
VII. Neji always had this lousy thing against swimming in public, something the kunoichi on his team always finds ridiculous as he is, to her, absolutely perfect from head to toe. So when Tenten suggests they go skinnydipping in the river at midnight on the evening of a Konoha festival, Neji stands visibly unsure of whether to scold her for the suggestion or agreeing right away. She can see the cogs turning behind his eyes as he reasons that everyone will be in the heart of the village, and they deserved the recreation after a month-long mission they had recently returned from.
But when Lee, in his concern, comes looking for them accidentally sees just how much fun they're having, Tenten is mortified. She is sure the incident will be hilarious in a year or so. She just has trouble believing it while clutching at herself underwater while Lee blushes furiously on the shore and Neji shouts at him to leave.
VIII. Tenten isn't sure if Neji just likes living in sin or she is destined to die an old maid. As much as she loves him, she doesn't exactly mind that he hasn't yet proposed marriage, but the curious looks she receives from people who know of their "arrangement" get to her sometimes. It isn't unusual or even unbecoming for ninja to never marry. Lifelong affairs are to be expected. It is Neji's status within the Hyuuga clan, or Tenten's status as a valuable component of the Konoha reserves without a family, that forges public encouragement for a wedding between them.
And anyway, Neji comes through in his own good time. Before long, those doves he use to dislike go winging through the village, delivering invitations to an autumn ceremony.
IX. She is royalty to him. Tenten has no lineage, no surname until she accepts his, and that in itself empowers Neji's heart. But watching her adapt to compound life, bonding with his cousins, winning great favor with his uncle, mastering protocol and tradition wrought over decades within weeks – it all gives him a completely new perspective toward her. She is not merely Tenten, a generally impressive kunoichi.
She is his wife, and she's the best thing that has ever happened to Hyuuga Neji.
X. After a routine medical checkup conducted by Sakura, Tenten is ludicrously nervous about finding Neji. When she does, she's somewhat surprised. Neji's nature rarely permits him to sit still for something other than meditation, but today he sits playing a drawn-out game of chess with Shikamaru.
It figures, she determines. This is by no means a normal day.
The Nara son has just captured her husband's king when she reveals her news, and the checkered board is upset by Neji's shot up from the chair, plastic pieces scattering to the ground and grass. Shikamaru's whiny irritation goes unheeded from the couple as Tenten can barely hold back tears while Neji launches into inquiries about her health and condition bordering on frantic.
In the end, she is laughing, Neji is smiling, and Shikamaru's fist hides a smile.
XI. There is a hired musician at the birth of his son – Neji wonders whose idea that was. It's excessive, certainly, and even a little annoying as the melody is overly perky and the flute is quite possibly out of tune. Then again, Neji knows next to nothing about music.
Tenten's damp hair is plastered around her face, having just come out of a battle the type with which she was entirely inexperienced. Neji can't help but hope she will be willing to engage in one or two more. He loves the sight of a tiny, fragile body in his wife's strong arms. He loves the feeling of his miniature hand in his, Tenten's fingers closed over his wrist, the connection between the nearly palpable.
He takes a moment to remember a bun-haired girl in pink but failed to recall a time when he had been without her.
Under his breath, he sends someone to pay the flutist and make them go away.
XII. The war with Akatsuki arrives, as all of them had known from the start that it would. Unknown enemies away the group of Konoha ninja assigned to the opening gambit, Neji and Tenten among them. Reverent civilians see them off, some of the drumming out a farewell beat.
In the seconds it takes for the gate to open, Tenten touches her fingers to the back of Neji's hand. Their eyes meet, unnoticed by those around them. It is not the time for words, but his message reaches her clearly enough.
They will be fine. They have a family to be here.