Title: Metronome.

Author: Lell.

Summary: Of time and the havoc it wreaks on the members of Team Gai. Herein lies the journey. Team Gai love.

oOo

Neji is four when he sees the girl who will, in his eyes, be responsible for the rest of his life. Shame and blame all start at a tender age when branding irons and chakra course through his veins, tying him intrinsically into that metaphorical cage, the one he will resent, yet never fight. Fate deals Neji Her hand and leaves him to draw his own conclusions as he sinks into the white light of the curse.

Then all goes dark.

A slave at four years old: trapped and bitter – such is the life of a Hyuuga.

oOo

The age for entrance to the academy is six years old and it's at this stage that a grim-faced chuunin teacher tells a pair of anxious parents, one a special jounin and the other a civilian, that their son's under-developed chakra coils are capable of producing the substance, but not of releasing it externally.

Lee is never told that he's a cripple, but he sees it in his father's eyes and his mother's hands on his head. He sees it in the curiosity of the students when he can't use a chakra-sticky hand to pick apples from trees, curiosity that turns to scorn and then ridicule.

Even at such a young age, Lee is stubborn enough in a desperate manner to fight the claims that he'll never be a ninja. It's why he refuses his father's offer to train him in the courier business and attends the academy day after day after endless day.

oOo

When Tenten is nine, she first catches sight of the boy she will ultimately end up fighting for with heart, soul and spirit. Of course, at this time, boys are still icky and shiny new shuriken are far more interesting. So she only grins when she passes the dark haired child who has pale eyes and a nonexistent smile with little more than a passing thought, in favour of finding their long suffering teacher and convincing him to instruct her in how to throw senbon around corners.

He does have nice hair, however.

Until now, she's kept her own hair neat and short, out of the way for taijutsu practice - maybe she'll grow it long instead…

oOo

At thirteen, Lee falls madly, passionately and enthusiastically in love with a pretty face (albeit screwed into a not-so-pretty expression of shock) framed by hair of an oh-so-delightful shade. Of course, he's ignorant of the fact that he isn't the first to adore his Sakura-san and neither is he the object of her affections, but optimism and perseverance will always pay out, right?

It doesn't matter that she shies away from his advances – perhaps she's just being coy.

Faith can shake the foundations of their tremulous world.

oOo

By fifteen, Tenten and Lee are chuunin while Neji is fast on his way for being ready to achieve jounin status. Having grown out of regarding boys as dirtier, rougher versions of girls with a lot less tact and sense, Tenten takes the time to privately sigh over her Hyuuga comrade, but remains discrete about it because she isn't that Haruno girl and the strength of the team always comes first.

Predictably, Lee's still head over heels for said Haruno, while Neji is still in all probability asexual.

Besides…the thought of Gai catching onto a whiff of romance and giving them all The Talk convinces Tenten that she wants to remain a virgin for the rest of her life and she wonders if there's a nunnery she could join that would let her run around in trousers and play with sharp, pointy objects.

oOo

After the final clash between Oto and Konoha when all three are sixteen, Tenten is very firmly not in love with Neji anymore. Physical rehabilitation has dulled her passion for life and what would a disgustingly handsome Hyuuga want with a damaged girl? Too many deaths, too many close calls have only reaffirmed why shinobi do not live and love because it's all too painful when death is such a prominent feature in their hazardous lives.

Watching Chouji break down over a pale and bleeding Ino on the battlefield at the time does that to a girl.

The thought of losing her boys was enough to make her falter in battle for a split second. And a split second is all it takes…

oOo

Not long after his seventeenth birthday, Lee gives away the woman he loves. With Sakura's father dead in the Oto-Konoha battle, the bride asks her close friend and confidante (but never lover) to fill his shoes and Lee complies – as if he could have ever refused his Sakura-san anything she wished.

There are those who mutter about the popular medic-nin marrying one who deserted the Leaf, but Neji and Tenten are not among them. Neji leaves his genin team squabbling over the cake to come and stand beside his once comrade while Sasuke and Sakura have their first dance and it isn't long before Tenten joins the quiet group of sympathy, picking her way gingerly through the crowd because she still isn't quite used to only seeing the world through her right eye yet.

The music plays on and Lee sighs, making Neji and Tenten share a look, but their friend just smiles and shakes his head before he offers a hand to his female once-teammate (because they all know that the war splintered them and that Team Gai doesn't exist anymore) asking her if she'd like to dance. She says yes, of course, but the glance she sends Neji is wistful. Still, he's being accosted by a gleeful Ino and Tenten isn't sure that he saw or not.

She's wrong. Neji sees everything.

oOo

It isn't until Neji is halfway through his nineteenth year that he realises just how long it has been since he's seen either Lee or Tenten. He knows that Tenten's busy with her academy classes, proving feverishly that the loss of vision in one eye isn't enough to make her useless. He also knows that the last time they actually shared words is just over a year now.

Since when had she become such a recluse?

He feels slightly less guilty over Lee since it's only been a few months since they conversed last, their interaction in the mission room rife with oblique throwbacks to their old teammate's worrying state of living (I haven't seen her, I don't know her, does she look thin to you?) before Iruka called Lee's name and Neji's charges nearly started a scuffle.

He half resolves to do something about it, but a B-ranked mission turned A distracts him suitably.

oOo

In the end, it's Gai-sensei who finally drags Tenten out of her supposed solitude (though really, it's just avoiding certain people because how can a teacher be a hermit?) for her twentieth birthday.

She's grudgingly happy. And shy. And awkward, and a thousand other adjectives that die on her tongue when she sees just how pleased Lee is to know that she's actually alive and kicking.

Even Neji's less stiff than usual and they celebrate by getting two out of the three rip-roaringly, mind-screamingly, roll-me-over-in-the-clover drunk. Lee just gets happy on orange juice.

Maybe it's the sudden pseudo-reunion, maybe it's the alcohol in her bloodstream, but the years just seem to melt away. All the excuses of 'too busy to come out' or 'we can meet up next time' fade into never-were.

So, because it makes perfect sense, Tenten kisses Lee. And just to make it fair, she kisses Neji as well because he was looking uncharacteristically shocked when she pulled back from an equally surprised Lee.

Neither seem to mind unduly.

oOo

Lee has had twenty-two years of life and by now he's used to being taken as second best.

He doesn't doubt Tenten's kisses, not in the least, but he is aware that, sometime in the last year, something happened between her and Neji that's resulted in an icy, angry silence between the two. Not anything in particular, just something. He wonders, if that something hadn't happened, whether Tenten would still be in his bed, but such thoughts are uncharacteristic of him and he casts them aside.

Every now and then he catches Tenten staring off with a wistful gaze, one eye misted and the other unseeing and he always makes the effort to run his fingers over her knuckles, to pull her back against his chest.

He misses Neji.

With Tenten and Neji not speaking, and Tenten pretty much living in his cramped little apartment, contact has predictably faded between himself and his supposed eternal rival.

The empty space is unbelievably lonely.

oOo

Change doesn't come easily to a Hyuuga and at twenty-four, Neji is firmly convinced that he's too old to learn new and unnecessary tricks. The radio silence between him and that woman has gone on too long for him to willingly breach it and ease the static.

It's why he is so unbelievably and irrevocably pissed off when that damned blond excuse for a Rokudaime finds it funny to renew Team Gai.

The bastard.

He tries to argue that, with only one good eye and a good five years of not taking any serious missions on, Tenten isn't suitable, but Naruto only gives that irritating grin of his and informs his jounin subordinate that it is then his and Lee's job to keep her safe. Besides, it's the lean season and Konoha even needs schoolteachers to pull their weight every now and then. As he points out with unholy glee, he now outranks Neji and what he says goes. So there.

The ends result is the three of them sitting around a smokeless campfire in a painfully awkward silence. Tenten tosses a kunai restlessly from hand to hand, the hank of hair she grew out to cover her useless eye sodden from the rain that only adds to the dismal air of it all. Neji sits across from her, eyes closed in the semblance of ignoring them both even if he can see them through shuttered lids. The quiet is deafening, the loss of what they once held excruciating.

And it takes Lee to break through the towering walls built up over the last few years. Tenten, he says vehemently, isn't broken. Neji isn't self-sufficient. And Team Gai isn't there when they can't even look each other in the eye anymore.

His anger is apparent to both Neji and Tenten, the former blank looking, the latter shocked. This isn't…usual. At all.

Neither are the tears that slip from Tenten's one good eye as the other remains clouded and unseeing when she finally lets those steel-crafted, time-worn walls down in the face of such earnest passion.

When did things get as bad as this, she wants to know, when did the three of them stop working as a whole?

As Lee assures her, with his eyes and voice and lips, the whole was just waiting for them to stop being pig headed and, ahem, give in to their youth.

Neji doesn't point out that, at twenty-four, they're really not that youthful in ninja years. He does, however, spread those broken wings of his and wrap the three of them up in his own protection.

Mending may take a while, but they're taking those first, tremulous steps.

oOo

Tenten is now thirty and time has worked its way on all three of them. Her eye from the one kunai she hadn't been able to block. Lee's hearing from sound attacks all those years ago at the chuunin exams. The numbness in Neji's hands from over use of chakra.

Things haven't reached the perfection she'd always assumed came with age and wisdom. No, not even close, but what her boys do bring her is peace at odd little moments. In their presence, her scars lose their ugliness and the ache of old injuries fade that little bit more. In their arms, the memory of that laughing girl with steel and death in her hands from all those years ago seems not so far away.

She has lived three decades. She has lived through war and survived. She was there when the Sandaime died and when the Godaime passed on in that legendary, fatal battle between all three Sannin. She saw the Kyuubi's host ascend from the bottom of the pile, right to the top and she watched as his team achieved greatness with him.

Her team isn't legendary. Her team is efficient and deadly, but their days are numbered. As a rule, ninja don't reach forty and it's surprising that they've lasted this long without losing at least one of them.

She is blessed in that she hasn't.

They are elite now and work is everything. But, in those quiet little moments when they lie in the dark on a sheet strewn bed, with only their quiet breathing breaking the still air, Tenten fancies that this might be what happiness is. Words are no longer necessary, affirmations of just what lies between them irrelevant. They are at the stage where contentment lies in knowing that the two people flanking her will be there when the sun rises tomorrow.

Team Gai has exceeded the sum of its parts and they have taken what time has given, for good or for ill.

oOo

Lell Says…

More Team Gai stories. This is actually a story that was posted once, but has been re-released with added material and some fun Neji-metaphors. This narration style works for him because it allows introspection without him actually expressing himself verbally. We all know how much he'd dislike that.

Again, if you have thirty seconds to spare, the poll in my profile needs some love now that Secondhand Faith is winding to a close. Thank you if you can, don't worry if you can't.