I've stated before that I'm not the biggest fan of Neji. But the challenge I've set before myself in this fic is to explore my interpretation of each of the character's canon personality through the eyes of Lee. In other words, I'm trying very hard NOT to distort their persona's for my own whims. This serves as a particular challenge for characters I'm not fond of, but one that I feel needs to be handled appropriately. I have been known to place Neji in antagonizing or even somewhat deprecating roles in some of my other fics for the sake of amusement, but this is NOT my goal here. I hope very much that his role and point of view is clear, as this story progresses.
In truth, the point of this chapter as a whole is to recognize the complexity of friendships/relationships. We've all been there—where we feel we've been wronged by our friends, and they feel wronged by us, but in the end, the blame is spread indeterminably amongst everyone. Friendships are a complex balance of give and take…and representing them as such isn't always as easy as it sounds. It is my wish to represent a longstanding companionship between the members of Team Gai in as realistic way as possible, and I hope that this chapter takes a step in achieving that.
Chapter 2: Training with Neji-kun
Characters: Lee, Neji (Tenten, Shino—mentioned)
Genre: Friendship, Drama
"Where were you two yesterday."
Lee deftly dodged his opponent's well aimed jab, and took the brief fraction of a second before the next onslaught to contemplate the inquiry. Although…it was rather less an inquiry and more of a demand…and he knew he would need to be very careful with the wording of his response. He did not wish for himself or especially Tenten-san to end up in Neji-kun's 'doghouse!'
However…he feared they might already be permanent residents there…
Even still, Neji-kun was making his displeasure at being left to train alone the previous day quite clear. Their ongoing spar had been more than making up for the lost day! Lee imagined that if it continued this way, he would soon break into a profuse sweat!
And his honored rival was taking advantage of every opening Lee happened to leave! He knew that a day off had been unwise…
Neji-kun slid into a lower stance, directing a well aimed attack at the hollow of his neck. A momentary panic gripped him as he leaned back (Neji-kun's attack just passing in front of his face, barely brushing his bangs) and desperately flipped away! Neji-kun…seemed a great deal more upset than even Lee had predicted of him!
"Neji-kun! It was a lovely day yesterday! Tenten-san needed to complete some shopping and required my assistance!"
The distance Lee had created from his opponent disappeared as quickly as he had created it, once Neji-kun had regained his balance and continued his assault. "That does not excuse you both from training. There would've been plenty of time to do that after you fulfilled your obligations to the team."
Had Lee not been fending off another attack, he would have hung his head! He knew that Neji-kun's assessment was right, of course, but… He had not been entirely honest with his teammate, and if there was anything Lee prided in his friends and teammates (besides dedication and loyalty), it was honesty.
He deflected Neji-kun's blow and answered with a kick of his own. "I am sure you have noticed, Neji-kun, that Tenten-san has not been…herself…as of late." Neji-kun assented with a soft grunt as he twisted for a new angle at Lee. "She…was not in the correct frame of mind to be training yesterday! You know as well as I that if one is not completely focused in training, severe injuries are bound to follow!"
Lee had not seen it coming! His opponent neatly twirled in the air, connected elbow with Lee's jaw and followed not moments later with a palm thrust to the chest, effectively winding him. Now sprawled unceremoniously on the ground, Lee recognized the coincidence of his words and looked up at his teammate. Rubbing his jaw, he said pleasantly, "Good hit, Neji-kun! I did not anticipa—"
"Just because one is having an off day doesn't excuse them from their responsibilities. If I recall—and I do—neither of you felt bothered to tell me I would be training solo yesterday." It really was quite extraordinary how Neji-kun could express his displeasure without raising his tone even a decibel! If Lee had been anyone else, his honored rival's looming form might have been quite intimidating!
Brushing himself off, Lee stood to face Neji-kun, a truly apologetic look on his face. "I am very sorry to have wronged you Neji-kun. But I do not believe you have completely understood my meaning."
Neji-kun's neutral expression did not waiver in the least, and Lee took this as invitation to continue. "Tenten-san was not herself yesterday. Her mind was not with us here in Konoha…" He trailed off, tentative to approach this subject with Neji-kun. He was not sure if he was prepared for what it might bring!
"I could tell that training would not have aided in easing her thoughts. In fact, I believe very strongly that she would only have become even more distraught. What she needed was a distraction, Neji-kun."
Silence stretched for a moment, then, "And you were to be the distraction."
He fell back into a sparring stance and awaited Lee to do the same. Neji-kun was still upset at them. But, Lee could not shake the feeling that something had changed in his honored rival's behavior… He no longer seemed to glare at Lee, yet, even though the direction of his eyes would indicate otherwise, his sight never seemed to reach Lee at all!
And that was disconcerting.
Neji-kun prided his keen eyesight, so whenever it did not have the same sharp quality, it meant one of two things: he had fallen quite ill, or something of great significance was bothering him. This did not bode well for Lee.
He did not have much time to contemplate it, however, as a fresh barrage of high-speed punches flew his way.
And, just like that, everything had returned to normal routine…with one exception, Lee noted.
Neji-kun's movements did not seem quite as sharp as usual.
Normally, Neji-kun's hits would be directed with pinpoint accuracy—intentionally placed just off the mark to prevent inflicting horrifying wounds to his sparring partner (an act for which Lee was quite grateful!), but when utilized as intended for battle, had the potential to be deadly. It was this pinpoint accuracy that made the Hyuuga clan—and indeed, Neji-kun in particular—such a threat to their enemies, and an asset to their allies.
But now, despite the fact that the hits were still just slightly off the mark of causing significant damage, Neji-kun's signature control did not seem as fluid as usual. If Lee were to describe it, he would say it was almost…sloppy. Lee's eyes widened slightly at his revelation, as "sloppy" was not a term he had ever in his life associated with Neji-kun!
A flurry of blows and blocks were exchanged at rapid pace. Lee parried Neji-kun's oncoming palm with his forearm and extended lithely into a punch aimed at his opponent's side. His fist contacted only with open air, just under the left arm. It was the opening that Lee needed, however, and catching the wrist attached to the right palm flying towards his sternum, Lee grasped from underneath Neji-kun's shoulder, and spun! Using the speed and leverage to his advantage, he flipped his teammate directly over his shoulder.
How unusual for Neji-kun to have failed in blocking his attack…and one Lee was often chastised for even considering useful! To think that just minutes before, Neji-kun had been all but sending Lee down the road to utter exhaustion…and was now so out of sorts that he was unsuccessful in, what was for Neji-kun, a simple defensive move… Lee would have never imagined missing a single training would upset his friend so very much.
He watched his honored rival brush himself off, carefully avoiding his eyes. Years of sparring had attuned his eyes to see the signs indicating when Neji-kun was not far from losing his well practiced control. And while, to many, such gestures would seem insignificant, Lee knew they were motions which his teammate almost never allowed to occur, let alone be seen.
It seemed that the proverbial elephant in the room really should not be ignored any longer…
"Neji-kun," he said in a tone so uncharacteristically serious that Neji-kun halted a fraction of a second. "I know that you are upset with me. And I believe that you have every right to be. For that I am truly sorry." Neji-kun stilled his actions in his usual regal manner, bringing his hands to his sides before turning his head a fraction towards Lee.
"But, Neji-kun, please do not be upset with Tenten-san… She did not intend to anger you. In truth, every day, she strives to do the opposite! You are our closest friend!"
"Closest friend," he said, his brows furrowing. "I highly doubt Tenten would call either of us her 'closest friend' anymore, Lee. Despite what she might tell you, that Aburame has commandeered that position."
Lee's face took on a puzzled expression. "I do not know why you would say that Neji-kun. I do not believe Shino-kun has invaded any such position. He has just filled a new one." He had been dreading this moment since the topic had arisen. Lee knew that what he had to say would likely not improve Neji-kun's current disposition, but sometimes it is the duty of a friend to say what needs to be said, and not hide behind what is easily left unsaid.
"I must be completely honest with you, Neji-kun. You are both my honored rival, and my best friend. It would go against all that those stand for in my heart if I were to be anything else." Unlike Neji-kun, Lee was not the most eloquent of people, a flaw which had caused him much suffering in the past—and it was of the greatest importance that what he was about to say was worded most tactfully!
"Tenten-san and I hold the greatest respect for our friends. We care for their welfare, value their opinions, and strive for the same in return. And we are both similar in that it pains us greatly when we fail in their eyes; when our efforts and feelings go unacknowledged. I do not know of your history with Shino-kun, or why you refuse to approve of Tenten-san's relationship with him… But I am certain that part of the reason Tenten-san has not been herself is because she cannot talk to one of her dearest friends about one of the happiest occurrences she has been the subject of in a great while!"
He paused for a moment to let his words absorb. He watched his rival's unchanging expression, willing the eyes he knew were already watching him, to meet his. "You do not have to like him—I am most certain that she does not expect you to, although I cannot reason why you would not approve. But I would hope that, for her sake, you would make an effort to respect her choices as much as she respects yours… Recognize her for her worth as a teammate, and at least appreciate that she has found something that has made her the happiest I have ever seen her!"
His teammate remained silent. When he finally turned is stark white eyes to Lee's, he said in a tone that was very near venomous, "So this is what yesterday was about. The both of you conspiring on how unappreciated you feel?" His scowl deepened, "Do not presume to tell me whom to respect and how. Such respect is earned, not bestowed."
Lee was shocked! Did years being teammates mean nothing? He had known Neji-kun long enough to know that this was not the truth. "I would have thought that, after all these years, Tenten-san would have earned your—"
"I don't mean for Tenten," he spat. "If she expects me to approve right away, then she's wrong." He turned, and began to depart. Pausing, almost as in afterthought, he added, "Thank you for actually showing up. And for the spar," in an icy manner which belied the true gratitude Lee recognized behind them.
Lee watched his teammate go, holding himself quite tense. He was not used to confrontations between friends, and this was likely one of the most difficult he had ever experienced. He was more than aware that the subject was not over, but for now they had both said what was needed.
Neji-kun had not said Lee's words were not worth considering. He had also not said he was incorrect. If anything, these two glorious facts would, in some way, appease him.
Lee stood unmoving until Neji-kun had turned the corner, feeling almost as if he were being punished for more than just skipping a day of training. He sighed as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
...Well, it would seem Neji-kun finally got him to sweat. Gai-sensei would be proud of his honored rival!
…But not of Lee! This was had to be the worst punishment of all!