A/N - Inspired by the recent omake in Naruto Shippuuden, where Neji grumbles about not having enough screen-time and says he wants a one-hour special about him, called 'Neji Gaiden'.
Well, if Neji-kun wants one, Neji-kun will certainly get one =)
So here I give you part 1 of Neji Gaiden – that is, Neji's story. It follows the storyline of our darling Hyuuga Neji-kun from his days at the academy... I've tried to keep this as in character as possible. So the romance will be slow. This entire story shouldn't be more than five chapters. Please tell me what you think and review!
Disclaimer – If I owned Naruto, then NejiTen would SO be canon... but I don't...
Neji Gaiden – Part 1
– X –
"Alright, class," the brown-haired man announced, "I'm going to be reading out your genin teams now!"
A murmur of excitement rippled through the crowd of rambunctious children, before they fell silent, gazing at their sensei with wide-eyes, in rapt attention. They had been waiting for this moment for hours, and it filled them with anxiety, apprehension, trepidation...
Who would be paired with whom? Who'd get the coolest sensei? Who would have the misfortune of getting the dead-last, miserable flunker on their team? Who'd get the toppers?
For many starry-eyed girls, this was actually more of a matter of who would get the years Number One Rookie, the handsome and stoic Neji Hyuuga on their genin squad. They gazed unabashedly at the eleven year old, white-eyed prodigy, who was slouched alone in a corner, his face as unreadable as always. His arms were crossed and he stared monotonously at the desk in front of him, treating their simpering glances and giggles with his usual frigid indifference.
Of course, Neji Hyuuga never spoke to them. He'd never spoken to anyone really, preferring to sit by himself and stalk off somewhere during breaks, probably to train. He only spoke when civil necessity demanded it, and even that was a rare occasion. He had the top grades though, and his excellence in ninjutsu as well as his calm demeanour and good looks (especially for a prepubescent academy-goer) garnered him quite a lot of unwanted admiration.
Neji couldn't care less, as he continued to stare relentlessly at the polished wood in front of him. He personally preferred working solo, and harboured a slight aversion towards the idea of a three-man squad; they'd probably just hamper his progress. He didn't particularly care who he got teamed with either. It was a matter of fate, really, and as long as he wasn't stuck with one of those ludicrous fangirls, it really didn't matter to him.
Neji had surmised though, that since he was Top Shinobi of the year, he'd probably get the Top Kunoichi on his team; it was an obvious pattern followed every year. That meant he'd have the bun-haired girl, the one with the disturbing fascination for weapons with him... Tenten. Though Neji didn't really care about Tenten either way, he'd be slightly relieved if he got her; she was one of the scarce girls who didn't dote after him like he was some kind of an adorable puppy, and though she was, along with the rest of his pathetic class, was far below his calibre, she'd be better than any of the other so-called 'kunoichi'.
Though Neji, harbouring the same chauvinistic outlook as his patriarchal clan, would have preferred not having any kunoichi at all; after all, his rather derogatory impression of a kunoichi was that whimpering, good-for-nothing mass of flesh also known as Hinata Hyuuga, whom he abhorred whole-heartedly.
The downside to being Number One Rookie, Neji realized, also meant that he'd get the student with the lowest grades. In this case, it was Rock Lee, a glossy-haired, overly enthusiastic boy, who in Neji's opinion was an abysmal failure. He couldn't even do ninjutsu or genjutsu! There was something wrong with the development of his chakra coils, and in Neji's opinion, he was destined to be a failure. It was stupid of him to fight it, really, since it was all pre-decided. Neji pressed his lips together, in slight annoyance; if his predictions about the rather blatant formation of teams over the years proved correct, he'd be stuck with a failure and a weapon-obsessed girl. Not the worst team he could ask for, but then again, he didn't want a team in the first place.
– X –
"Team Nine," Iruka announced, "Will consist of Neji Hyuuga..."
There was a series of gasps at this, as the unpicked kunoichi straightened up, casting their glances towards the prodigy, hoping that they'd be lucky enough to be on precious Neji-kun's team.
The boy in question said nothing, his expression identical to what it had been before.
"Tenten," Iruka continued, despite the lachrymose wails and moans of the heartbroken girls, who soon redirected their melancholy into fury, glaring with utmost antipathy at Tenten, the little bun-haired wretch who had stolen their Neji.
Tenten herself did nothing, ignoring the antagonistic looks she was receiving, and continued to twirl a gleaming kunai idly around her index finger. Like Neji, she'd suspected that she'd be paired with him, since she was Top Kunoichi.
"And Rock Lee!" Iruka finished, and Lee immediately jumped up, round eyes shining, and punched the air enthusiastically.
"Yosh!" he cried, looking around the room and beaming at his new teammates. He hadn't really interacted with either one of them much, but he was thrilled at the prospect of getting to do so in the future.
Tenten gave him a small smile, looking slightly taken aback, and Neji continued to stare ahead resolutely; his only response to Lee's outburst was a barely discernable tightening of his already rigidly set jaw.
"Lee, sit back down," Iruka scolded exasperatedly, as he continued with his list.
– X –
Neji walked slowly towards the tower where they'd been directed by Iruka to meet their sensei after lunch. He'd slipped into the Hyuuga compound, grabbed some food, and then quickly escaped before his damned uncle Hiashi could find him. He'd bumped into his younger cousin Hinata on the way. She'd stuttered a 'C-congratulations, N-Neji-nii-san' at him, probably for being assigned to his new genin team, but he'd ignored this, instead shooting the poor girl a chakra-curdling glare, before quickly leaving.
Neji climbed up the stairs, wondering slightly who he'd get as his genin instructor. He knew that personally, the Hyuugas were in favour of Kakashi Hatake, the son of the White Fang, though personally he didn't give a damn. Kakashi was supposed to be good, though apparently he'd refused to take a genin team that year. Neji had heard some of the Hyuuga elders whispering about it; Kakashi was waiting a year, and had his eyes on his sensei's kid, the son of the legendary Yellow Flash.
Neji didn't even know the Fourth Hokage had a son, and though he'd been curious for a moment as to who the child was, he soon discarded the thought. It didn't matter to him anyway.
Though Neji supposed Kakashi would be beneficial as a Jounin sensei due to his incredible talent, if the Hyuuga wanted him (probably not for him though, probably for their precious Hinata) he'd rather not have someone they favoured.
Neji broke out of his reverie as he reached the top, a balcony that jutted out, overlooking the academy grounds. There were cushioned seats inside the circumference of the balcony, and Tenten, one of his new teammates was seated on one.
Her back was to him, as she leaned over the balcony, probably looking for signs of their sensei, who was late.
She seemed to sense his presence though, and whirled around, kunai in hand. She relaxed when she noticed it was him, smiling slightly.
"Um... hi, Neji..." she said, rather awkwardly, as she fidgeted with the weapon in her fingers. "So you're – one of my teammates – now..."
She was stating the obvious, and her rather pathetic attempt at conversation didn't escape Neji's notice. He'd never really spoken to her before, except on the rare occasions that they were paired together for class demonstrations. Even then, he'd never really spoken.
However, considering she was his new teammate, and she was being polite and not overly friendly, he shrugged and decided he would deem her with a response.
"...yeah," he muttered, settling down on the couch, a good meter away from Tenten.
He didn't dislike her, but Neji needed his rather large personal space.
Tenten didn't seem fazed though, and she spoke again, still playing with the kunai.
"I – wonder who our new sensei is... don't you?"
She fell silent after that, as did he. They had never spoken before, and neither of them knew what to say to each other.
– X –
"YOSH! Here – at – last!"
A loud voice interrupted Neji and Tenten from their respective activities of attempted meditation and daydreaming-while-juggling-three-kunai, which they had engaged in during their wait.
They turned towards the latest arrival, a sweating, slightly breathless Rock Lee, who proceeded to plop himself down on the space between Neji and Tenten.
Neji, almost instinctively, shifted slightly away. Lee didn't seem to notice, as he caught his breath.
"Sorry, I was – taking laps! Completely – forgot! Where's – our – sensei?" Lee panted, wiping his hands on his cotton robe.
"He hasn't come yet," Tenten replied, "We've been waiting for –"
"AHA! SORRY TO KEEP YOU WAITING, OH YOUTHFUL NEW STUDENTS OF MINE!"
Neji, Tenten and Lee all visibly flinched at this sudden, deafening introduction, as a muscular young man clad in green spandex made his appearance. He had shining black bowl-cut hair, bushy eyebrows, tan skin, and was currently sporting a dazzling grin, which made Neji's eyes hurt from its sheer incandescence.
"Allow me to introduce myself," the man said dramatically, flourishing his arms, "I am MAITO GAI, number shinobi and Taijutsu master! And from today onwards, I'm going to be your JOUNIN SENSEI!"
He finished this proclamation with a pose, puffing his (thankfully muscular) chest out, shooting a thumbs up at the slightly astonished genin.
They took a few seconds to recover, and Tenten hastily arranged her shocked features into a smile. Neji clenched his fist, gritted his teeth, white eyes narrow – of all possible people, he just had to get this freak show as his sensei.
Lee on the other hand, looked positively thrilled, a flash of recognition crossing his eyes, until he blurted out excitedly, "Gai-sensei! It's you!"
– X –
"So," Gai boomed, a few minutes later as he surveyed his new team. "I want each of you to tell me your likes, dislikes, ambitions, goals for the future," he said, looking expectantly at Neji, the first genin seated to his left.
Tenten and Lee turned to Neji as well.
"I'd rather not say," Neji said dismissively, turning to the side. His tone was hard, laced with tones of superiority and condescension.
Contrary to how he may have presented himself, Neji wasn't really trying to be rude. It's just that most of his ambitions revolved around his clan and surpassing that blasphemous Main House and he really wasn't ready to spill out his woes and bitter desires to his newly formed team.
If Gai wanted to reprimand him, he couldn't, for at that moment, Lee's hand had shot up like a bolt of lightning, causing poor Tenten to jerk her head away so that she wasn't hit.
"Sensei!" Lee shouted, nearly bubbling with his poorly-constrained excitement.
Gai nodded at him, and Lee leapt to his feet, arm still raised.
"I want to be a splendid ninja! Even if I can't use ninjutsu or genjutsu, I want to prove that I can be a great shinobi! That is everything to me!" Lee recited fervently, and Gai looked impressed.
Neji, on the other hand, was smirking slightly, his aristocratic features set into an expression of utmost superiority. He let out a disbelieving cough, and Lee spun to face him, pouncing on this immediately.
"You!" Lee cried, pointing an accusatory finger at Neji, "What's so funny?"
The scorn was evident in Neji's voice when he spoke.
"If you can't use genjutsu or ninjutsu, then at that point, you're not a ninja, are you?" Neji scoffed, his words painfully blunt. "What does that make you?"
"WHAT?" Lee screeched, eyes bugging out, "I CAN be a ninja, even if with just taijutsu! I will prove it!"
"The only reason they let you pass out of the academy wasn't because you were special," Neji continued relentlessly, "It's because they felt sorry for you."
Lee flinched, and even Tenten looked taken aback by his harsh words.
Lee stared at Neji before a moment, before he looked down, his shoulders drooping.
"No, Lee!" Gai suddenly spoke, breaking the tense atmosphere, "I can see the fire of youth burning within you! If you work hard enough, you will achieve your dream!"
Lee brightened immediately, and Neji rolled his eyes.
He didn't understand the point of giving Lee false hopes, when it was obvious that he would be a failure. He was fated to be one, after all, at least in Neji's opinion.
Gai then moved onto Tenten, who spoke, a little timidly at first
"I – want to be a skilled kunoichi like – Tsunade-sama," she admitted, her voice soon growing confident, "And I want to prove that females can be just as strong as males on the battlefield! That's my goal!"
"A noble quest indeed," Gai agreed, nodding his head approvingly. "Well then, it's getting late. I'll see you three at training field number twenty-four tomorrow morning, six-o-clock sharp! Our training begins then!"
"Yes, Gai-sensei!" Lee saluted, and Tenten nodded, as Gai struck another flamboyant pose before leaving.
The three genin sat in silence for a few moments, before Neji stood up, and left without a backward glance to Lee and Tenten.
– X –
The morning sky was a dull blue, tinged with orange as the sun began to rise, its rays peeking over the Hokage mountain and casting the noble faces chiselled into the rock into the early daylight. Neji leapt through the trees, deftly landing on the damp grass, at precisely two minutes before six.
Lee was already there, and was doing push-ups, sweat pouring in torrents from his flushed face.
"Hello, Neji!" Lee called, though Neji didn't bother to acknowledge him as he surveyed the place that would become their new training ground.
It was amidst a forest, quite far from the bustle of the village, and relatively peaceful as well. They were currently in a large clearing, amidst the firs, and Neji chose to sit down under the shade of one of these trees and close his eyes, meditating.
A few moments later he could detect another chakra presence, and soft footfalls on the dew-studded grass; Tenten had arrived as well, and from the abrasive clinking sound that filled the air, Neji assumed she'd drawn out her weapons, as usual.
"Forty-seven! Forty-eight! Forty-nine!" Lee was grunting, and Neji cracked open a white eye, scanning over his teammates.
Lee was assiduously continuing his push-ups, and Tenten was juggling a pair of shuriken. It was a dangerous task, and required utmost delicacy and precision – the girl could easily lacerate her fingers off with the weapon. But she managed it easily, her eyebrows scrunched together in concentration, and Neji observed her for a while before closing his eyes again. That girl had some kind of an inexplicable fascination with weaponry – hopefully, it would prove to be useful to the team in battle.
At exactly six-o-clock, Gai announced his arrival, greeting his new genin with yet another pose and refulgent grin. Neji wondered if that was going to become a habit of his, and found it rather irritating, not to mention inappropriately puerile.
"Right," Gai declared, his face growing serious. "I have a little – test for you three.
Neji narrowed his eyes, Tenten pocketed her weapons with a flash, and Lee rolled to his feet, perking up.
"What kind of test, sensei?" he asked excitedly, barely fatigued by his work-out.
"Well, let's just say... if you succeed, you pass! If you don't, I'm sending the whole lot of you back to the academy!" Gai's tone was menacing, and Neji wondered whether he should take the man seriously.
After all, he grinned like a moron and wore hideous, green spandex, and displayed the most meretricious poses.
"But – haven't we already passed out of the academy?" Tenten asked the very question that Neji had wanted to but didn't. She sounded bemused.
"You have," Gai agreed, "But that doesn't mean all ten teams who we graduated become shinobi! In fact, only those with the skills required will make it to that level. It's a dangerous profession, you know, and the academy isn't like the real world!"
"...oh," was all Tenten said, and Lee was beaming.
"I cannot wait to show you my skills, sensei! I will make you proud!" he promised.
Neji just smirked, feeling confident in his abilities.
He was the Number One Rookie, and a Hyuuga at that. There was no way this clown was sending him back to the academy.
"I have hidden nine flags in this forest, within a one kilometre radius," Gai told his team. "There are three for each of you – green for Lee, blue for Neji and red for Tenten. You must get your three flags and come back here with all of them intact."
"... that's all?" Tenten asked, narrowing her eyes. It seemed a bit too basic.
"No, of course not," Gai said. "You can only get your own flags. If you get one of your teammates' you're automatically disqualified. You also have a time limit of – thirty minutes."
Despite the rather tight time limit, it certainly wasn't an impossible task. Neji reasoned he could finish well within thirty minutes, possibly even twenty. Though he supposed it would be harder for Lee and Tenten, considering they'd waste most of their time looking for the flags, a problem that he wouldn't face.
"One more thing... if any one of you fails to come within the allotted time limit with all your flags, all three of you fail."
"Wait - what?" Tenten sputtered, and even Neji rose up in indignation.
Why should he suffer if his teammates were incompetent? It made no sense.
"Your time starts now," Gai said, before swiftly disappearing with a puff of smoke.
Without further ado, Neji made a few hand seals.
"Byakugan!" he called, activating his dojutsu, and veins pulsed around his pearly eyes.
Lee looked slightly awed.
Neji quickly scanned the surrounding area with his all-seeing eyes, noting the location of all nine flags. He then crouched down, meaning to leap off into the trees, but Tenten called out to him, stopping him.
"Neji – could you – tell us where our flags are as well?" she asked.
Neji was initially surprised she knew the extent of his powers; but then again, they'd studied dojutsu at the academy, and she's wasn't Top Kunoichi for nothing.
He intended to rebuke her request, still appalled that she'd had the nerve to even ask him, but Tenten, apparently reading his line of thought, spoke again before he could say anything.
"We have to do this as a team, you know. I'm pretty sure that's Gai-sensei's motive. Even if you do get all the flags well in advance, if Lee and I don't in time, we all still fail," she pointed out. "And they're pretty spread out; it won't be easy looking for them. At least for us."
Neji considered this for a moment, before realizing she was correct. He ground his teeth together, before answering her.
"Four hundred meters, three o clock. Eight hundred meters, seven o clock. Fifty meters, two o clock," he said curtly, and Tenten nodded at him.
"Thanks. And Lee?" she pressed.
"Three hundred meters, twelve o clock. Nine hundred meters, nine o clock. Two hundred meters, six o clock," Neji replied, before disappearing into the trees.
– X –
Neji reached his first flag in less than two minutes. With his Byakugan, he noticed that Tenten had reached hers as well. Lee was moving through the forest at an inhuman speed, aiming for the furthest flag first, instead of Neji and Tenten who both headed for the closest one.
The blue piece of cloth was nestled amongst the branches of a rather tall tree. However, what caught Neji's attention was the thin, barely discernable wire of chakra extending from the flag, and twisted around one of the higher, gnarled tree branches.
A trap, Neji realized, smirking slightly.
He wasn't foolish enough to fall for that kind of inferior trick, though a muffled yell from another part of the forest told him that Tenten had.
Neji walked forwards calmly, assessing the trap, before sending out a few chakra threads. They intertwined themselves around the wire, not quite touching it enough to activate it, and Neji sent a flow of chakra through the threads.
Thanks to his Byakugan and Hyuuga training, he had relatively advanced chakra control, even for a newly-promoted genin.
His chakra cancelled out that in the wire, rendering the trap useless, and Neji swiftly leapt onto the tree, grabbing his first flag and heading towards the second.
He scanned the area again with his Byakugan. Tenten was moving, in his direction. She seemed to have freed herself from the trap, and was now running towards her second flag too.
Lee, on the other hand, was stationary, and didn't seem to be making any progress.
Neji cursed mentally.
After retrieving his own two flags, he'd probably have to help the moron. Unless Tenten reached him first.
– X –
Neji was intercepted by Tenten on his way to his second flag, as their paths crossed.
He noticed that she looked a bit ruffled, and there were a few minor scratched on her arms. She wasn't badly injured though; yet Neji had escaped completely unscathed.
The trap, (which Neji deduced consisted of chakra wires wrapping themselves around their victim) had obviously done that to her, though she'd managed to procure her flag, and a red piece of cloth now poked out of the cloth weapon pouch fastened at her hip.
"Neji," Tenten greeted, leaping down from the tree branch.
"Trap got you?" he couldn't help but ask, feeling slightly smug.
"Yeah, I had to hack it away with my kunai," she said. "How's Lee doing?"
"He's – stuck," Neji replied, unable to keep the derision out of his voice.
"Well he can't do ninjutsu! What'd you expect?" Tenten asked, though her tone was more matter-of-fact than denigrating.
"We'll have to – help him," Neji told her grudgingly, indicating that he fully expected her to do this task.
"You're right. I think we should stick together though, now," she said, ignoring the way he stiffened at this. "I don't know what kinds of traps there are, and how many more. Just in case something happens... after all, if you're heading the same way I am, we can just pick up our flags, and then rescue Lee."
"It will waste more time if we don't split up," Neji said immediately.
"It'll waste much more time if one of us get caught alone in a trap," she retorted.
He gave her a look, a look which clearly stated that 'I, the great Neji Hyuuga do not get caught in traps', but Tenten ignored this as well, rolling her eyes slightly.
"Come on, Neji! I know you're good and all, but – even you could get tricked! And Lee and I certainly can't notice the traps, since we don't have eyes like yours!" she protested.
Neji looked slightly affronted at the first part, but then sighed, nodding his head.
"Let's go," he said, jumping up without waiting to see if she was even following him.
A few minutes later, they reached Tenten's second flag. It was on the opposite side of the rushing waters of a rather deep, wide river, fluttering merrily in the breeze, a burst of red amidst all the greenery.
Tenten surveyed it for a moment, before pulling out a kunai and some razor wire.
Neji watched her, slightly interested to see what she'd do. She didn't have the chakra control for water-walking yet, and the river was too wide to be leapt over.
"I don't really want to get wet," Tenten told him, deftly looping one end of the razor wire around the kunai. "Do you see a trap?"
Neji shook his head, and she hurled the kunai at the flag, with an alarming speed and accuracy. The sharp point sank into the cloth, and Tenten gave a tug on her razor wire, sending the kunai, flag attached, whizzing back towards her.
"Tenten watch out-" Neji barely had time to utter his warning, as large ropes shot out from under the ground, curling themselves around where Tenten's ankles would have been if Neji hadn't swiftly yanked her away by the collar of her pink shirt.
The ropes coiled uselessly to the floor, and Neji immediately let go of Tenten, who rubbed her neck with her hand (Neji wasn't exactly gentle) before looking at him.
"Um – thanks," she offered, smiling slightly at him. "That was too fast for me to notice..."
"Pay more attention," he reprimanded, before bounding into the trees. Tenten sighed, and followed him.
Less than a minute later, they were at the location of Neji's second flag, which was a few meters downstream from Tenten's, and in a similar position.
Neji looked distastefully at the water for a moment – the current was too strong for him to even attempt walking on the surface, and he couldn't try Tenten's stunt due to the fact that his flag was almost lying flat amidst the blades of grass.
"I could – try getting it for you?" Tenten offered, but Neji shook his head.
"No. Gai-sensei said we would get disqualified if we took each other's flags. I know this doesn't amount to that, but somehow, I still think it would still count as the same."
"Ok-ay... but then what do you propose to do, if you don't want to get wet?" she asked him.
"Send two wires across to that tree trunk there," Neji ordered, pointing. "I'll walk across them."
Tenten complied, pulling out two more kunai and attaching them to her handy razor wires. Seconds later and the weapons were lodged firmly into the tree trunk, stretching the wire across the river like a make-shift bridge. It wasn't very sturdy, but it would do, and Neji quickly made his way across, balancing himself on the wires with chakra, as Tenten pulled them to keep them taut. He quickly found, and deactivated the trap, and a large net fell out of the tree, pooling at his feet. Neji then pulled out his flag, and wordlessly walked back across to Tenten, who immediately retracted her weapons.
"Twenty minutes left," she informed him, and Neji realized that she was actually proving rather useful to have as a teammate.
"Hn. Now we must find Lee."
– X –
They found Lee, in quite a compromising position. The boy was completely drenched, and was dangling upside down, his ankle suspended to the branch of a tree, his long braid hanging comically from his head. His face was red from all the blood that had rushed there, and he seemed ready to pass out. Since he couldn't use chakra like Neji, and didn't keep weapons with him like Tenten, he was quite badly stuck. His speed, strength and thunderous taijutsu couldn't help him out of his current predicament, though he had tried, as was evident from the broken tree branches scattered below his form.
"Tenten! Neji!" Lee almost screamed with palpable relief, "I was wondering when you two would get here!"
"Idiot," Tenten muttered, shaking her head as she flicked a shuriken towards the thick rope. It snapped cleanly, and Lee tumbled to the ground. He sat up, his hair dishevelled, and smiled feebly.
"Thank you Tenten," he said. "I tried cutting it with my bare hands. It did not work."
"You should always keep weapons with you," Tenten scolded. "Never know when they'll come in handy!"
"Yes, and you've wasted your time as well as ours!" Neji snapped, scowling at Lee, who looked utterly woebegone.
"I – I'm so sorry!" Lee cried miserably. "I will – I will find my remaining two flags at once!"
"Wait up Lee!" Tenten cried, grabbing his arm. "You'll just get caught in another trap! Neji and I have only one flag to go each – how about you come with us now, and we'll join you later to find your two flags!"
"Not enough time," Neji grunted. "Lee's flags are too far. Lee go get your second flag. For god's sake, don't fall into another trap, be a little more alert. Tenten and I will join you once we get ours."
"Alright!" Lee nodded, before speeding off.
"Neji, he's just going to get trapped again!" Tenten exclaimed.
"He may not," Neji told her, though he doubted this himself. "And if he doesn't, it will save our time."
– X –
Neji's flag wasn't too hard to find, and was easily accessible as well, merely wedged within two large boulders. Neji cautiously reached out towards it – he couldn't see a trap with his Byakugan, but this was rather simplistic.
His fears proved correct; the moment he wrenched out the piece of light blue cloth, the boulder exploded outwards, more hidden wires whipping towards him.
"Damnit," Neji cursed, battering away two with his arms. There were too many, and it would unnecessarily waste time if he had to break himself free with chakra.
There was a whizzing sound then, and the noise of metal scraping against metal. Neji looked up, and noticed that Tenten had unleashed a flurry of shuriken, and had managed to deflect the remaining three wires that were springing towards him. Though they zipped back up, there was a couple seconds delay in which Neji rolled out of the way and jumped up, before retreating to a safe distance.
Tenten smiled, looking rather proud of herself.
"Let's go," Neji grunted, stuffing his final flag into his pocket. He didn't bother thanking her. Tenten's smile faded, though she didn't comment on this. Asking Neji Hyuuga for gratitude, even if she had helped him, was expecting a bit too much.
– X –
"Ten more minutes," Tenten noted, stowing away her third and final flag. It had been relatively easy to find, especially with Neji there to pinpoint the location with his Byakugan. He'd deactivated the trap as well, cleverly using his chakra. Tenten had easily snagged the third flag with her last reserves of razor wire, and they were now heading in Lee's direction.
They were silent the entire time, jumping mechanically from branch to branch. Neji didn't seem like the conversationalist; in fact, he ignored Tenten almost completely, except for when they'd been getting the flags, something which required speaking. Tenten idly wondered if he would always be like this. He'd always been reserved, and almost arrogant in the academy, turning his prim Hyuuga nose up at anyone who attempted to ingratiate him. But Tenten thought that maybe, since she and Lee were his teammates, and would be for the next few years... that he'd warm up to them, even slightly? Of course, this was still only their first official day as teammates, and he had spoken to her and even agreed to work with her, when it was absolutely necessary, albeit rather unwillingly, so Tenten supposed this indicated some sort of – comradeship. On a very, very low level.
Who am I kidding? Tenten thought to herself, glancing at the dark-haired boy as he leapt slightly in front of her, his long strands of hair trailing behind him. Neji had only spoken to her when it was required, and his words were always measured, calculated, precise. The only reason he was with her right now, was because if she failed, he did automatically as well. Tenten couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed; she hadn't been expecting special treatment, but at least some sort of acknowledgment for her deeds. Though she didn't particularly like Neji, she had admired him for his prowess in ninjutsu and taijutsu in the academy, and would have appreciated his recognition.
But then again, to Neji, she was nobody. He probably didn't care about her. Or about Lee, or Gai-sensei, or any of them for that matter.
They soon crossed paths with Lee, who was for some inexplicable reason covered with splotches of mud, but yet beaming. He shoved a grungy flag in Tenten's face, obviously very pleased with himself.
"I dodged the trap with my speed!" he informed Neji and Tenten cheerfully.
"That's great," Tenten complimented, though Neji, as usual, said nothing.
He just changed direction, obviously heading towards Lee's final flag. He glanced at Tenten before, nodding slightly, a silent indication that she and Lee were to follow him. Tenten sighed, and followed, though she soon found herself chattering with Lee. Unlike Neji, Lee was a very talkative and bright boy, and though he was slightly silly, Tenten enjoyed conversing with him.
Neji on the other hand was slightly peeved with his teammates' incessant, asinine babble. They were ninja, and though this wasn't a serious mission, they shouldn't be talking during a test! And if it was a mission, they were supposed to be silent and stealthy. Nothing would give them away to enemy ninja better than pointless causerie.
They reached Lee's final flag, with seven minutes to spare. There was no trap here, only a flag that had been deliberately placed where Lee had no chance of reaching it. It was atop a tall pine tree, with rather slick slides and no hand holds or foot holds, or conveniently placed branches with which Lee could shimmy himself up. The green flag, half camouflaged amidst all the pines, fluttered mockingly at the trio from above. The height was too great for him to leap up to, and chakra-climbing was the only technique that would work, though Lee was still incapable of this. Tenten was as well, and though Neji hadn't tried it, he probably could due to his earlier training with the Hyuuga. However, he couldn't retrieve Lee's flag for him, and instead turned expectantly to Tenten, who was searching her pockets frantically.
"Damnit!" she moaned, "I used up all my chakra wires!"
"Excellent," Neji muttered sarcastically, as if it were all her fault.
"I can't climb it!" Lee wailed, "So – what do I do?"
"If you can't go up, get the damn flag down," Tenten said testily. "And hurry, we need to leave in five minutes, if we want to reach Gai-sensei's meeting spot on time..."
At her comments, however, Lee seemed to be struck by inspiration, and began pummelling the tree with gusto.
"What – the hell are you doing?" Neji asked after a minute, as Tenten looked on disbelievingly.
Lee continued to attack the tree with a fury, sending powerful kicks at the tough bark. If the collisions pained him, Lee didn't show it on his face, and continued the process inexorably.
"I'm – trying – to – break – it!" Lee gasped between kicks, "So – that – it – will – fall!"
"That's never going to work!" Tenten shrieked, "And we only have four more minutes!"
Neji, however, scanned the tree carefully with his Byakugan, and noticed that Lee's reckless technique was actually more effective than it looked. In fact, due to the force of his kicks, there were now numerous cracks within the tree bark, not visible to a non-Byakugan user's eye. Though it would take at least ten more minutes of pounding before the tree gave away, one precisely placed chakra strike would easily broaden the cracks, and bifurcate the tree entirely.
"Move," Neji commanded, and Lee looked at him incredulously. Neji was staring ahead in concentration, his palm glowing slightly.
"Neji, what-" Lee began, but Neji didn't reply, dashing towards the tree, and jabbing at it with a glowing palm. A few seconds later, a resounding crack filled the air, and Neji, Lee and Tenten just managed to leap back in time, as the enormous tree gradually toppled over.
"I – wow..." Tenten managed after a moment, and Lee was gaping openly at Neji. Neji smirked slightly and dusted his hands casually, before he turned away, back to his teammates.
Lee leapt forwards and snatched the green flag from between the prickly pines of the fallen tree, and the trio headed towards the clearing where Gai-sensei had told them to meet him.
They were three minutes early, and needless to say, Gai was thrilled.
"The springtime of youth burns within your souls!" he proclaimed emotionally after heartily congratulating his team. "I never actually expected you to complete the task within the time limit! In fact, you would have passed even if you hadn't, for the real key was teamwork, which you three have so youthfully displayed!"
"Wait – so we pass, right?" Tenten asked, just to clarify, and Gai nodded.
"Of course you do, my beautiful flower!"
"YES!" shouted Lee, punching the air. "I am now officially a NINJA! One step closer to my dream!"
Tenten winced slightly, at the new name Gai had bestowed upon her, but didn't comment on it.
"Can we do some real training now?" Neji asked, crossing his arms.
"Right – now?" Tenten looked at him in surprise. "We just – finished a test!"
Neji just stared at her for a moment, before looking away again.
"Don't tell me you're already tired!" Gai bemoaned, and Tenten hastily shook her head.
"I'm not, of course I'm not! I just thought – we could take a break..." she trailed off.
"No breaks!" Gai yelled, almost maniacally. "You will do one-hundred laps around Konoha each! Right now!"
"Yes sir!" Lee saluted, and had dashed off, leaving a trail of dust behind him. Both Neji and Tenten stared after him incredulously before turning to Gai.
"One – hundred?" Tenten protested faintly, "Isn't that a – bit – um..."
"Ridiculous," Neji finished for her, shaking his head. "That's physically impossible. And a sheer waste of time right now. We should be doing chakra control first, and then improving our speed and stamina."
"You'll soon find that old-fashioned endurance exercises does a lot more to boost your chakra reserves," Gai told them, "Now of you go, both of you!"
Neji glanced over at Tenten for a moment, and she looked at him as well. They had identical looks of exasperation on their faces, and for a moment, Tenten thought they may just have 'bonded' over something, even if it was as trivial as Gai-sensei's crazy exercise regime. But then he looked away, almost at once, and sped along the track Lee's pounding feet had created, leaving Tenten to run in his wake.
– X –
Neji sprinted ahead furiously, pumping chakra to his legs to keep him going. His heart was thudding painfully against his chest, and his muscles were starting to burn from over-exertion. He was on his thirtieth lap, and though he hadn't managed to catch up with Lee, who was quite a long way ahead of him, he was still continuing at an alarming pace, for quite a long time. Neji knew that shinobi required great stamina and speed, but Gai was asking too much. He doubted he'd make even fifty laps; he'd probably faint from exhaustion at forty. Still, Neji continued obstinately, his feet pounding against the ground, as he weaved his way through forests, an empty market place, past the academy and the Hokage Tower and back into the training ground. The sun was up now, and was beating relentlessly on his back, and his beige shirt was drenched with sweat. His arms ached as he swung them back and forth, continuing the momentum of this insanely fast-paced, insanely long run.
He could see Tenten from his Byakugan, a few meters behind him. She seemed slightly more tired than he was, and her movements were not as graceful as they had been a few laps earlier. She stumbled every now and then, and Neji knew it was a matter of time before she gave up, and sank to the ground in exhaustion. Though it was commendable for her to have kept up this far, Neji was just waiting for her to collapse to the ground and stop. He knew there was no way he'd keep up with Lee (who from the look of it was far from tired) but he'd make sure he did at least three more laps than Tenten, who was a girl. Anything less would be unacceptable.
After her thirty-sixth lap, Tenten did collapse to the ground, panting heavily, and though Neji was sorely tempted to join her, he ploughed on, ignoring the shooting pains lancing along his muscles. He was shocked at Lee, though. He'd known the boy was fast and had gargantuan reserves of stamina; his training had been solely focused on taijutsu, speed and stamina since his young days, since the doors of ninjutsu and genjutsu were closed to him. But Neji couldn't help but feel slightly astonished at his inhuman speed and stamina. He supposed it was due to endless hours of concentrated efforts on just one thing, but yet even he had to admit it was incredible.
Neji stopped after his thirty-ninth lap, falling to the ground in as dignified a manner as he could, grunting something about how overexertion could be fatal to one's body.
Gai simply clapped him on the back, told him he'd done a decent job, and that he required much more training if he wanted to be as 'youthfully fit' as Gai himself. This affronted Neji, who glowered at Gai rather menacingly. Gai didn't notice this though; he was too busy ebulliently cheering on Lee, as he zoomed past on his fortieth lap.
"Don't worry," Gai then told Neji, as the scowling white-eyed boy leaned against a tree, collecting his breath. "A few months with me, and one-hundred laps will be nothing for you!"
Neji's heart rate returned to normal as Lee sped past on his forty-third lap. Tenten, who was sprawled a few meters away amidst the long grass pushed herself up, staring after Lee with wide brown eyes.
"He's – amazing," she whispered, and Neji just rolled his eyes. There was no way he was going to consider himself inferior to Lee of all people. After all, Lee couldn't even do ninjutsu or genjutsu, the former of which was practically a necessity if one wanted to be a ninja. He didn't voice this thought to Tenten though, at chose to close his eyes and meditate, clearing his mind of all thoughts. There was a rustle of grass to his left, as Tenten settled back down on the grass, and the clearing was silent, other than the series of loud footfalls and heavy breathing as Lee raced past every few minutes.
Neji immersed himself into his meditation, and didn't know how much time had passed until he was rudely jolted away by Gai's shouts and a loud thump on his right. Neji opened his eyes, and was met with the sight of a sweat-drenched, red-faced Lee, on his hands and knees, breathing heavily.
"Well done, my youthful pupil!" Gai was gasconading, "I am proud of you, Lee!"
Neji's stomach clenched – he couldn't possibly have done all hundred of them! It was impossible, even for Lee.
"But – sensei!" Lee gasped, and Tenten was at his side in an instant, holding out a bottle of water which he gratefully accepted, chugging it down in one gulp. "I – didn't – finish!" He struggled to get up, and Tenten looked at him, rather horrified.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"I still have – twenty six more laps!" Lee panted, but Gai placed a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.
"You can always improve tomorrow, Lee," he told him, teeth twinkling in what Neji considered was a rather disturbing manner. "And honestly, I was stunned the moment you crossed fifty. Seventy-four, my youthful student, is brilliant!"
"I am glad I have made you proud, Gai-sensei," Lee said sincerely, eyes shining.
Neji looked away, closing his eyes again. He didn't know if Lee was being genuine or sycophantic, but for some reason he found it rather sickening.
– X –
This, Neji thought complacently, is more like it.
After what he considered an overdone warm-up, Gai had finally set them to chakra-controlled exercises; the basic techniques which involved tree-climbing and water-walking.
This came to Neji almost naturally, due to the training he'd had since he was a child. He could feel, and see, the streams of chakra flow easily through his body, twisting and turning, and relocating at his command. Concentrating just the right amount at his feet had been easy, and he'd mastered tree-walking after his third try, in less than ten minutes. He'd walked gracefully to the top of the tree, and perched himself on the tree branch, watching with amusement (concealed behind his stoic mask) as his other two teammates attempted the feat.
Tenten was moderately good – initially she faced the trouble most new genin did, and couldn't quite control her chakra. She had to start off by taking a long run-up and dashing up the tree, before she'd fall back down, flipping over mid-air and hurling a kunai to mark the spot she'd crossed. She progressed steadily though, coming about an inch or two higher every time, and her tree was now punctured with a series of slashes running up its length. Still, it took her almost twice as long as Neji to reach half the height he'd attained, as was currently struggling to go higher. She'd usually inject too much chakra, and hence crush the tree bark, lose her footing and slide down.
Lee, on the other hand, was progressing dismally. He'd barely reached two third of Tenten's current height. Due to his malfunctioning chakra coils, he was having great difficulty gathering chakra to his feet. Gai-sensei had told him it would be hard because of this defect – but not impossible. Luckily, the chakra coils in Lee's lower limbs were better formed than those in his arms, and though he'd never be able to perform basic ninjutsu, or gather chakra properly to his arms, he would, after much effort, manage to gain substantial control over his legs; enough for tree-climbing, water-walking, and chakra-powered kicks at least. A lugubrious looking Lee had brightened at this news, and proceeded diligently at the tree-walking task. However, unlike Tenten, Lee achieved most of his height due to the sheer speed with which he dashed towards the tree, rather than actual chakra control. Still, with his Byakugan, Neji could tell his chakra control was improving by miniscule amounts; after a few weeks of training, he'd probably master it as well.
Neji leaned against the bark of the tree, his gaze now shifting back to Tenten, who was ploughing her way up the neighboring tree, an expression of utmost concentration on her face. She was doing quite well, and was just two meters or so below Neji, when her footing suddenly slipped. Tenten gave a cry as she lurched backwards, falling headfirst towards the ground.
Neji reacted almost instinctively – he leapt off his tree branch, towards Tenten's falling figure, with the intention of catching her before she fell. Below, even Lee was running with his arms outstretched, a similar notion in his mind.
She stunned them both, though, pulling out an oversized kunai and stabbing it into the tree trunk. There was a horrible grinding sound, as the metal tore into the bark, sending splinters of wood flying everywhere. Tenten's trick served its purpose though, and the friction between the tree and the kunai slowed her down, albeit with a large jerk, and she managed to flip back around before neatly landing on her feet. Lee stopped a few feet in front of her, and Neji landed besides her, feeling rather stupid.
"Tenten! You scared me!" Lee exclaimed, but she smiled cheerfully at him.
"Don't worry about me, Lee, just focus on your training!" she chirped, shooting a smile towards Neji as well.
Neji ignored this, wondering what had compelled him to come to her rescue anyway – not that she'd needed it. It was probably just the fact that she was now a teammate, and if a teammate got hurt, it would affect the dynamic of the team.
"You should be more careful," he told her darkly, before stalking off.
Tenten shrugged, interpreting his surly behaviour as possible concern – or not. She recommenced her tree-climbing as Neji walked towards Gai and demanded a more exigent exercise.
Gai started Neji on water-walking after that, and Tenten joined him two hours later, as Lee continued to scamper up trees. Water-walking, though slightly more challenging than tree-climbing, didn't prove too difficult to Neji. He mastered it after half an hour, and a few splashes. He then sat on the river side, wringing the cold water from his long locks, watching Tenten and Lee from the back of his head using his Byakugan.
Tenten was having trouble on the water – she'd slip in a few inches every now and then, and at times she'd flail wildly before tumbling in with a crash, only to emerge a few seconds later, spluttering and soaking wet. Neji found it slightly entertaining as she pulled herself out of the water for the eighth time, angrily pushing away drenched brown bangs from her eyes. Her clothes were soaked as well, and stuck to her figure, something which Neji proceeded to ignore pointedly. Lee had gained a meter or so with his tree-climbing. Of course, Gai would make them both practise until they had it down perfectly. For a ninja, balancing on water and walking on walls is something that should come as instinctively as breathing; you had to practice until the chakra almost involuntarily gathered itself where you wanted it, something which Neji was beginning to manage quite well.
– X –
Half an hour later Gai had called them back. Neji, Lee and a dripping Tenten assembled in front of him near the trees, where a variety of dart-boards and cloth dummies, made of grainy brown bags filled with dry grass, were hanging.
Tenten's disgruntled expression brightened tenfold at the sight of this.
"Well, I've made you work on your physical strength, and you chakra control," Gai said. "That's two basics done for the day. It's getting late now, so there's just one skill left!"
"Target practice!" Tenten cheered, brown eyes sparkling.
"Correct, my dear flower. Target practice it is! It's five o clock now – you will do one and a half hours of target practice, my students, before you limber down and leave. Remember, aim with the full power and accuracy of youth!"
Neji considered his advice, along with his obsessive blather about youth rather futile, but proceeded to stand across one of the shiny, red plastic targets, fingering a few kunai. He focused his eyes on the centre of the target, and flung three kunai in rapid succession.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
They didn't hit the bulls-eye, but were barely a few centimetres from it, forming a rather lopsided triangle. Though it wasn't perfect, Neji was satisfied – if that was an enemy, he would have probably hit their vitals. Still, he needed to improve his precision, and even his accuracy by a bit.
"Good job!" Gai praised him heartily, though Neji could see Tenten's expression through the back of his head.
She was smirking. As if she thought she could better him. The very notion was ridiculous.
Neji knew Tenten had excellent aim – he'd seen her during demonstrations at the academy, and earlier that day when she'd used her kunai and shuriken during their test. However, with the advantage of the Byakugan, he had an excellent aim as well, and all three of his kunai were barely a centimetre off the target each. It wasn't possible that she could get any better than that.
Neji whirled around in surprise, as five grey blurs zoomed through the air towards different sides of the forest. They were kunai, he realized, and she'd chucked them with a meteoric speed. There was no way she'd be able to hit the targets though, Neji thought, if she threw them that fast. It was a bit hasty, and possibly over-enthusiastic of her.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Neji found it difficult to keep the expression of shock off his face, when three of the five kunai buried themselves deep into the exact centre of three of the targets. The one that she'd aimed at the target he'd been practicing on was now nestled between his three kunai, making them look rather out-of-place and poorly aimed in comparison. The other two kunai she'd thrown were barely half a centimetre off.
Her aim and skill with weapons, Neji conceded, was laudable, and superior to his own.
Tenten however, narrowed her eyes, shaking her head as she looked at the two kunai that were not lodged dead-centre. Obviously, she wasn't pleased, though Lee and Gai seemed thrilled.
"Wow, Tenten! That was awesome!" Lee cried, "Can you teach me?"
"Beautiful, my young flower, you are truly blooming with youth!" Gai boomed, looking extremely proud. "I see we have THREE extremely talented ninja in this squad! Lee with his super-human speed and stamina, Neji with his perfect chakra control, and Tenten with her unerring aim! I cannot wait to tell Kakashi!"
Tenten and Lee both beamed at this, though Neji was expressionless as usual.
He wondered for a moment if Gai and Kakashi were friends; from what he knew, Kakashi was relatively reserved, and didn't seem like the kind to converse much with a lunatic like Gai... but then, maybe he was mistaken. However, Gai's words did make sense. Though Neji was known as a 'genius' (and it irked him slightly to be compared with Tenten and Lee, no matter how talented they may have been in their own ways), he had to admit his new team did appear pretty well-balanced. He found himself abhorring the concept of teamwork far less at the end of the day, though he still would have preferred going solo with a Jounin sensei.
The training session drew to an end after they finished target practice and did a few stretching exercises to cool themselves down. The sun was setting, casting a blood red glow over the sky and training grounds, and Neji and Tenten proceeded to walk away from the training grounds. Gai had held Lee back, for some reason which the other two didn't particularly want to know. They walked out in silence, Tenten fidgeting with a shuriken, until she finally spoke.
"So – I guess I'll see you tomorrow," she said politely, nodding at Neji. "Good-bye, Neji."
She scampered off, without waiting for a reply, and he was slightly relieved. It's not like he'd really intended to give her one, one that was more than a mere grunt of recognition anyway. At least Tenten seemed to understand this part of Neji's behaviour, and he was slightly grateful towards the fact.
– X –
The next day of training started off with laps at seven in the morning. This time, Neji managed forty, and Tenten did thirty-seven; one more than the previous day. Gai seemed satisfied. Lee, however, shocked them all. Neji and Tenten were both surprised when Lee slumped down, over twenty laps too soon, moaning about his legs. He barely managed fifty-two, and his movements were sluggish, as if he bore some kind of unimaginable weight. In fact, unknown to Neji and Tenten, he was wearing weights; incredible heavy ones, strapped to each leg; it was a miracle he'd managed fifty laps, and maintained his lead in front of Neji the entire time, though this lead had been lessened to a mere five meters.
After an hour of chakra control exercises, and an hour of target practice, Gai then set them through gruelling taijutsu training. Most of this required quite a lot of stretching and kicking of trees, which Lee proceeded to do with gusto. Tenten did as well, though Neji crossed his arms and refused.
He had his own unique style of taijutsu, which was far more elegant, and far more deadly than this showboating business. When he relayed this to Gai, the bushy-browed man didn't seem surprised, and nodded.
"I suppose you're referring to the Gentle Fist?" he asked, and Neji nodded.
"It's my clan's technique, and I much prefer it to – this style of taijutsu," the young Hyuuga said, undertones of pompousness creeping into his voice.
This seemed to annoy Lee, who turned from his tree to shout at Neji.
"Why do you talk like that?" he demanded, and Neji raised an elegant eyebrow questioningly.
"You know," Lee pressed, gesticulating wildly, "As if – as if your taijutsu style is superior to Gai-sensei's, and to mine! Just because it's different doesn't mean it's better!"
"The Gentle Fist is the deadliest, most complex, most lethal, most effective style of taijutsu there is," Neji deadpanned. "Other styles stand no chance against it. Unfortunately for you, only Hyuuga clan members who possess the Byakugan can do it. And it requires chakra control, something you lack."
He'd meant to say it matter-of-factly, but Lee took it as a direct insult.
"I bet I can beat your Gentle Fist even without your special eyes, and your chakra control!" Lee hollered, eyes glinting. "Just because you're a natural genius, everything comes easy for you! But I'll work hard, and show that I can defeat you as well, with my taijutsu!"
"Impossible," Neji scoffed, rolling his eyes, though he was rather taken aback. He hadn't meant to insult Lee, he was just stating the obvious, in a rather straightforward manner.
"No it isn't!" Lee yelled indignantly, "I'll prove it to you! You are my rival now, Neji, and I will fight you to prove my point!"
"Lee, are you crazy?" Tenten interrupted worriedly. "You can't fight him. He's a – well he's supposedly a genius!"
Her slightly tactless comment however, seemed to fuel Lee further. Tenten really did have the tact of a sledgehammer in the best of situations.
"I don't care!" Lee shouted. "I don't care if he's called a genius! That's only a title, something he was born with! I can beat you, Neji, just you wait and see!"
Neji was rather surprised when Lee charged at him, with full intentions of attacking. He side-stepped gracefully, despite Lee's speed, and spun around on one foot, before thrusting a chakra-infused palm at Lee's chest. He didn't aim for any vital organs, but sent the other boy flying through the air a few feet, until he crashed to the ground.
Lee stared at him, wide-eyed for a moment from where he was sprawled on the ground, and Tenten gasped, clasping her hands together. Neji glared at him, a frigid, white-eyed glare, and Lee glowered back, his thick brows furrowed and his dark eyes just as intense, before he scrambled up, obviously intending to make another move. Tenten held him back though, grabbing his arms and pulling him backwards before Neji, who had already fallen into his attacking stance, could land a hit on him.
"Let me go, Tenten!" Lee cried, struggling against her, "I'll get him this time!"
"Don't Lee!" she moaned, "Do you want to get hit again, or something?"
"See," Neji said softly, smirking, "Even Tenten knows it's useless. You can't fight me, Lee. You never will. You'll always fail, just like you'll fail at becoming a shinobi. It's fated. You can't-"
"SHUT UP!" Lee bellowed, interrupting what would soon erupt into a fate-centric monologue. "I don't care what you say, Neji! That's not true! I will become a ninja!"
His voice was thick, and his eyes were shining oddly. Neji felt a slight pang of guilt at Lee's hurt expression, but ignored it. Though his words had been harsh, they had been true.
"Stop deluding yourself," Neji said sharply, "It's no use. Just accept it, Lee. Accept your destiny."
Like I have, mine, Neji thought bitterly, ignoring the horrified glance that Tenten had sent him. She didn't say anything though, and had laid a conciliatory hand on Lee's shoulder.
Lee was trembling, rather violently.
"You – you – Neji – " he stammered.
"Let it go, Lee," Tenten whispered, almost fearfully as she patted his back.
"What?" Neji snapped, wondering why the hell she had suddenly decided to side him. He'd attacked first after all, Neji was only defending himself. If Lee wanted to be childish and overly optimistic, there was nothing Neji could do about it. "If he wants to say something, Tenten, he can just spit it out!"
Tenten flinched slightly at the acerbic tone in which Neji said her name, but remained quiet.
"ENOUGH, BOTH OF YOU!" Gai's booming voice cut through the air, and the three genin fell silent.
"Neji, Lee, as your sensei, I expressly forbid both of you from ever fighting one another again. If I ever find one of you attacking the other again, you will both face dire consequences. Am I understood?" Gai's voice was uncharacteristically hard when he spoke, his face stern.
Neji was sorely tempted to point out that Lee had attacked first, but thought better of it. Gai could actually be rather intimidating, and though Neji was certainly not intimidated, he didn't want to antagonize him.
Lee also seemed to bite back his words, and settled for a whimper of "Y-yes, Gai-sensei," instead.
Gai then glared at Neji, who inclined his head slightly in response.
"Good," Gai said gravely, shaking his head. "You all must understand that in a squad, teamwork is the most important tool a shinobi can have. Speed, strength, chakra control, aim, jutsus – it's all useless if you don't have proper teamwork and team bonds. For if there is lack of coordination between squad members, during a deadly mission, even the slightest miscalculation of a teammate's movements can lead to the death or injury of your ally, and give the enemy an upper hand. On the contrary, some attacks can be pulled of flawlessly when you merge your talents, taking even the most powerful S-ranked shinobi by surprise. It's all about teamwork, and team bonds. Lee, Neji, Tenten, I hope you comprehend the true importance of what I am trying to impress upon you."
The genin nodded silently, and Neji observed that for once, Gai-sensei was speaking like a normal human being. Though he inwardly disagreed with some of what he had said – how could teamwork possible be more advantageous than jutsu, and the Hyuuga jutsus were not meant to be collaborated, they were for solo fighters – Neji maintained a respectful facade, agreeing outwardly to his sensei's words.
"Right then, let's continue," Gai said. "Tenten and Lee, work through the taijutsu positions I taught you. Neji, show me how much of the Gentle Fist you have mastered so far."
– X –
Neji, at the end of a short spar with his sensei, had to reluctantly admit to himself, that the man was certainly phenomenally talented. His speed had been too great, his movements to rapid for Neji to keep up with and he found himself unable to land a single hit on the man. Moreover, Gai had managed to land a couple forceful blows on Neji, bruising the young Hyuuga's body as well as his ego. He limped back to the training area, his respect for Gai having increased, albeit minimally, to find Lee and Tenten both kicking viciously at a tree trunk. Lee seemed to be enjoying the task, a sheen of sweat on his excited face, though Tenten seemed rather annoyed, and slightly tired. Gai stopped them a few minutes later, after adjusting their forms, and then called the team for their ending exercises before he dismissed them.
Lee sped off without a word, rather uncharacteristically not saying a word to either of his teammates before his swift departure. Neji felt his stomach curl slightly, with guilt, but ignored it. Tenten lingered for a moment more, seeming as if she'd wanted to say something, her mouth half-open, before she caught Neji's questioning gaze and quickly shut it, rushing off as well with a hurried goodbye to her teammate and Gai. Frustrated by the awkward atmosphere and the aching pain in his limbs, Neji nodded coolly at his teacher before leaving as well, headed straight for the Hyuuga compound.
To his annoyance he bumped into Hinata again, who seemed to notice his slightly unsteady gait and the fact that he was limping, and hence injured.
"N-neji-nii-san?" she asked tremulously, white eyes widening, "Y-you're hurt?"
Neji glowered at her and she shrank back, but continued, twisting her fingers together.
"U-um – I – I have some – some – o-ointment – if you – if you like," Hinata offered, her voice faint.
"Mind your own business," Neji snapped, not liking to appear weak in his cousin's eyes, and stalked off, trying very hard not to limp.
Hinata scurried away like a frightened mouse, and Neji darted into his own room as inconspicuously as he could, barely avoiding an encounter with his uncle Hiashi, who walked down the same corridor just moments later.
That night he unwrapped his bandages, surveying his injuries. Gai, though he'd merely been – toying with him, hadn't let Neji off that easily. There were a quite a few large purplish bruises, unsightly blemishes across the pale and usually spotless skin. Neji ground his teeth – they'd take ages to disappear. Unlike the Gentle Fist which ruptured only internal organs without any visible scarring, Gai's taijutsu did cause external effects. He quickly wrapped up his limbs in clean white bandages, hiding any trace of injury – for that would be denigrating – and slid into bed, not bothering to take any painkillers.
A ninja must always known pain, and the experience would just make him stronger. And Neji needed to get stronger if he wanted to surpass the Main House; the really he was far superior to that worthless Hinata.
Neji curled his hands into fists, pupil-less eyes darting underneath his closed lids as he drifted off into sleep, the pain in his limbs gradually fading away as he entered his slumbering oblivion.
He dreamt about his teammates that night. Lee was there, wearing the same tight green spandex that Guy wore, pummelling Neji into the ground. Neji tried defending himself, but his Gentle Fist proved useless against Lee's hard strikes. Tenten was cheering Lee on, and when the bushy-browed boy sneered at Neji's face from above, he suddenly turned into Hiashi, his face hard. Hiashi berated Neji for his failure, telling him that as a Branch House member he had no right to dishonour the clan this way. He said that even baby Hanabi would make a better shinobi than Neji, and then suddenly, Neji found himself chained, inside a large metal cage, and Hiashi was activating the seal on him and he was writhing in pain, calling for his father.
That's when he shot up out of bed, panting slightly, silver eyes wide as he realized it had all been just a dream. Lee would never defeat him, of course. Hanabi was a snivelling little child who was possibly more annoying than Hinata; there was no way she could surpass him. Hiashi wouldn't unnecessarily activate the seal, Neji would never give him reason to. And Tenten – Tenten had actually played quite an insignificant role in Neji's dream, but for some reason the thought of her cheering on Lee instead of him gave him a strange feeling of discomfort in his chest.
– X –
Even Neji had to admit, rather begrudgingly, that his team was improving under the tutelage of Maito Gai.
He and Tenten could now manage about sixty-five laps, when Lee had reached eighty. Tenten could walk on water without falling in every now and then, and Lee could hang upside down from a tree by his feet as if he'd been doing it since the day he was born. He could manage water too, though it sometimes sloshed around his ankles when he fell in a few inches; but it was a drastic improvement. All three of them had become exponentially faster, and Neji realized that this speed was improving his mastery of the Gentle Fist. With Gai around, one had to move fast if they wanted to land a hit, and Neji could now manage up till an Eight Trigram Twenty-Eight Palm attack. He was working on Sixty-Four palms, though that would require even more training. Lee had adapted to Gai's taijutsu easily; he worked diligently and painstakingly and was progressing at an alarming rate. Tenten would fight with more and more weapons, ranging from staffs to nunchuks. Gai had even taught her a special method in which she could seal her rapidly increasing armoury in a small, light paper scroll; a far more convenient way to carry around her arsenal than actually physically dragging around the numerous pieces of metal and wood.
They'd successfully completed every single mission they had been given so far – mainly measly D-ranks which Neji abhorred, as well as a couple of C-Ranks.
The first mission was to catch Tora, the Daimyo's cat. They accomplished it in eighteen seconds, and the Hokage had been impressed. It hadn't been difficult; Neji had used his Byakugan to pinpoint the cat's exact location. Tenten had aimed a barrage of kunai where he had directed her, inciting poor Tora to leap out of her hiding place, fur bristling in indignation and fright. And then, in a blur of beige and black, Lee had pounced on her, clamping his arms around her furry belly, ignoring her hisses and mewls of protest. Neji found the whole thing quite ridiculous actually.
The other missions were worse – walking dogs, raking leaves, gardening, even touching up the chiselled faces of the Hokage Monument with kunai. Though Tenten had enjoyed the last one, she along with Neji, found the others quite irritating; more so due to the zealous effervescence with which Lee and Gai performed these mundane tasks.
The C-Rank missions were decent, and Team Gai pulled them off almost flawlessly. They were mainly escort missions, and thanks to Neji's Byakugan they were not ever ambushed without notice; after which Tenten would pelt the enemies with kunai, and the rest of the squad would charge on with their taijutsu. Perhaps the only complaint that their clients did have was of mild earaches caused by Lee and Gai's raucous shouting, competing, cheering and once, to Neji and Tenten's dismay, singing.
Neji and Tenten had found some sort of strange solace in each other's company, being the two sane members of the squad. They often shared exasperated looks, and teamed up together during arguments when Gai and Lee were being far too impractical or infuriating (like the time they suggested that they reach their venue in half a day, when the journey required would really be two days. When Neji pointed out their client wouldn't be able to keep up, even if he and Tenten did, Lee suggested carrying the poor client piggyback. That's when Tenten had lashed out at him). They didn't speak all that much, other than what was necessary, but Neji found Tenten to be one of the few, and quite possibly the most tolerable person in his life. Though Tenten's admiration for him was evident, even Neji harboured a sense of respect towards the kunoichi; she was skilled at what she did, and didn't act like a complete, socially inept retard. She didn't annoy him or fangirl over him and she was good with weapons; in Neji's eyes, this was satisfactory. He didn't consider her a friend, but she was probably the least annoying person, or the person he felt least compelled to jyuken the guts out of, at least.
Team Gai's daily training sessions continued as usual; though Gai had forbidden Neji and Lee from sparring, Neji found independent practice more beneficial either way. Tenten usually practiced alone as well, using targets or dummies, leaving Lee and Gai together. Twice a week, however, Gai made it a point that the whole squad train together as one, rather than in their separate factions.
Today had been one such session. Gai had put them through a gruelling physical training and taijutsu exercise for five hours straight, and by noon, all three, including the usually hyperactive Lee, were quite exhausted.
"All of you did well today," Gai told his genin, flashing them a blinding smile and a thumbs up. "In fact, I think I'll give you the rest of the day off!"
"Yes!" Tenten cheered, looking thrilled. Even Neji had to control the look of relief that almost flooded over his features; Gai had really put them through hell, working them till they could have died of fatigue.
Lee however looked disappointed.
"But sensei," he began, pouting, "What if I want to train harder? What if I want to become stronger than I was yesterday?" he cried, echoing the phrase that they had recently adopted as their motto after one particularly inspiring training session.
"You succeeded," Tenten pointed out blandly, "As of yesterday, you could do only eighty-six laps. Today you did eighty-eight. Quit whining!"
"A good point, my dear flower," Gai said, and Neji smirked slightly as Tenten flinched at the nickname. It was obvious she hated it, and Neji was grateful Gai hadn't thought of one for him; he probably wouldn't be able to control himself from attacking him if he did.
"But worry not, Lee, my youthful pupil. For before you three leave, I have a VERY special SURPRISE for all of you!" Gai announced.
"Oh! A surprise! How kind of you, Gai-sensei! How very thoughtful!" Lee yelled, bouncing around like an excited three-year old. "What is it? What is it?"
Gai paused for a long moment, obviously trying to create suspense, before producing a hideous green spandex bodysuit from seemingly nowhere and holding it out dramatically.
"Custom-made, specialized green spandex bodysuits!" he shouted ebulliently. "Streamlined, waterproof, perfectly fitting, comfortable, not to mention stylish pieces of clothing, flexible and perfect for any kind of fighting, especially taijutsu! These are unique and YOU three are some of the few ninja bestowed with the honor of wearing this amazing, amazing garment. So wear it, and EXPLODE with YOUTH! I promise, this will improve your speed, stamina, aesthetic appeal while fighting – not to mention team bonds!"
Neji, Lee and Tenten stared on as Gai gasconaded about the green spandex bodysuit. Neji and Tenten had looks incredulity coalesced with disgust.
"You're – joking right?" Tenten asked finally, with an uncertain edge to her voice. Neji didn't feel the need to dignify Gai's outburst with a response, though his sentiments echoed Tenten's own.
Lee on the other hand, looked ready to explode.
A few seconds later, he did.
"OH THANK YOU GAI-SENSEI!" Lee screamed, clutching his hands together, his round eyes wide and misty. "I WILL WEAR THESE, AND EMULATE YOU, AND IT SHALL HELP ME PROGRESS AS A NINJA AND ACHIEVE MY GOAL!" Lee cried passionately.
"AH! LEE! MY YOUTHFUL STUDENT! I AM SO – PROUD OF YOU!" Gai choked at the last bit, tears welling in his eyes, extending his arms outwards, as Neji and Tenten's expressions morphed into absolute disgust.
"OH GAI-SENSEI!" Lee cried, his voice muffled by sobs, as he ran into his teacher's waiting arms. They embraced youthfully for a while.
"LET US RUN NOW, WITH THE FULL POWER AND FLAMES OF YOUTH!"
With that, Lee and Gai broke apart, tears streaming down their cheeks; it was the first youthful display of affection, the first of many more to come, and Neji and Tenten were at a loss of words.
It was Neji who spoke first this time, breaking the youthful atmosphere with his icy cold tone.
"Can we leave now?" he asked.
"Of course!" Gai said, "But don't you want to try your suit first? I made sure I had your correct measurements, but it is always better to try!"
Neji wondered for a moment, how the hell the man managed to get his measurements but decided he would rather not know. As for the spandex-
"Hell no," Neji said emphatically, his voice carrying a lot more emotion than it usually did.
"You're not convincing us to wear those," Tenten added adamantly.
"Wh-why not?" Gai asked, bewildered. "They're so – youthful! And they will kindle your flames of-"
"I would not be caught dead in that," Neji said through gritted teeth.
"I actually expected you to wear this when you were alive and fighting," Gai said.
"Seriously!" Tenten rebutted, "This is insane! We're not going to wear those and look like morons! It'll be like this retarded cult or something! We'll be the laughingstock of Konoha!"
"No. Don't bother trying to convince us further. We're not going to do it," Neji said, speaking for both of them.
Gai stared at him for a moment, and then at Tenten. They had identical stubborn and determined glints in their eyes.
"Your loss," he shrugged, his voice one of utmost melancholy. "But don't come crying to me when Lee beats you both after benefitting greatly from-"
"We won't," Neji said shortly, interrupting him. "Can we leave now?"
"I suppose so," Gai said dejectedly, and Neji wasted no time in strutting off, followed soon by Tenten, who offered a hasty apology to Gai before leaving.
Lee stayed back to try on his spandex.
Once they were out of earshot of Lee and Gai, Neji slowed his pace. Tenten soon caught up with him; he usually would have continued walking quickly to ensure she didn't, but for some reason he found himself not minding her company.
"That was – disturbing," she said after a while, grimacing.
"Extremely," Neji agreed.
"I hope those – um – youthfests – don't become a regular occurrence," she went on, and Neji found himself smirking at this description.
"They act like seven year-olds, it's mortifying." he muttered, wondering why he was even bothering to converse with her; he probably just needed to vent it out on someone, and she was the best person there was for that, considering they shared the same plight.
"Hm," Tenten murmured in agreement. "You know – I – I'm kind of thankful that – you're – um – normal…"
Neji glared at her for a moment, wondering what she was implying, before realizing it was a compliment.
"I don't think I'd be able to stand them both if you weren't there, not when they're like this. It's like they feed off each other…" Tenten ranted.
Neji furrowed his brows at the first part – it seemed almost fangirlish, something which he would scorn. But then again, this was Tenten, and she certainly wasn't a fangirl. She'd meant it honestly, and Neji knew that somewhere in him, he felt the same.
He didn't think he was particularly fond of Tenten, though he spent more time with her than the other two (choosing to sit next to her if they ever went on those god-forsaken team dinners) put together. Still, her presence was always oddly – comforting. As if he knew he had some kind of unspoken support from her, that he had another sane teammate who suffered through Lee and Gai's crazy, asinine antics. Neji wondered if he had begun to grow fond of her, or consider her a friend – he dismissed this thought quickly. She was just a teammate, and conveniently she was similar to him in some ways. That was all.
"Kami, I'm starved," Tenten said, after finishing her tirade. "Do you – um – want to grab a bite to eat?"
Neji was shocked for a moment as he registered that she was inviting him out to eat. A lot of fangirls had done that; he'd ignored them blatantly, sometimes rewarding the persistent ones with a frigid Byakugan glare. But this was Tenten, and Neji had established earlier that she wasn't like that. She probably meant it in a friendly way, since she knew they were both starved after the training session.
Still, going out to eat, that too with – someone else – was a rather foreign concept to Neji, who was generally a loner. He decided to decline, as politely as possible. After all, he wasn't going to treat her like a fangirl when he knew she wasn't one – or so it seemed.
"No thanks," he said curtly, carefully watching her facial expression.
Tenten didn't seem to mind much, merely shrugging.
"Okay then. See you tomorrow," she called nonchalantly, scurrying off.
"Good – bye," Neji found himself saying, a bit awkwardly. She didn't hear him though, and Neji turned around and headed for the Hyuuga compound.
– X –
The next morning, Neji arrived at the training grounds earlier than usual. He decided to pass his time meditating, and was sitting quite serenely, when twenty minutes later, Tenten arrived.
He could sense her chakra, and he didn't bother greeting her. She knew he was meditating after all. However, to Neji's surprise, Tenten called out to him after a moment.
"Hey – um – Neji?"
He ignored her, feeling slightly peeved. She'd never bothered him before; Tenten had enough sense to know Neji was not to be disturbed meditating, so why the hell was she calling him now?
"Sorry to – um – bother you," Tenten said awkwardly, "But you're kinda – sitting below my – training spot…"
'What the hell is she on about?' Neji wondered for a moment.
"Neji!" Tenten called again, now sounding slightly annoyed. "You just have to move a few meters! I need to do target practice!"
'Go somewhere else,' Neji thought, rather selfishly, despite the fact that he was sitting directly below the stuffed dummy she liked to practice on, its clumpy legs above the top of his head.
He could have sworn she'd growled it out – there was no way he was moving though. Neji Hyuuga never moved for other people, not even Tenten.
"Fine," he heard her say, before he proceeded to block out her voice; after all, that was the true art of meditation.
Tenten grumbled for a few moments, though Neji continued meditating peacefully, oblivious and uncaring to the fact. Suddenly, however, there was a loud thump, and Neji felt something whiz past the top of his head. His white eyes sprang open, Byakugan activating, and he looked up to see a kunai lodged firmly into the tree trunk, barely an inch above his head.
He glowered at Tenten, who was smiling impishly, her brown eyes sparkling, as she spun a kunai around her fingers, obviously intending to fling it at the target.
"Are you – mad?" he finally asked her, forcing his voice to be calm.
"I'm sorry, but you didn't move," she said, though her face indicated she wasn't really apologetic at all. "And I needed to do target practice."
"Are you aware how – dangerous – that was?" he almost snarled at her.
"Come on, my aim's pretty much perfect. I wasn't aiming at you, and even if it slipped a few centimetres, it wouldn't have hit you for sure. I angled it upwards."
She did have a point, Neji had to give her that much. But still, the gall of her – Neji's thoughts were interrupted when not one, but two green blurs zoomed into the clearing, loudly announcing their entrance.
"Double dynamic entry!" Lee and Gai cried together, leaping in with one leg outstretched. They landed neatly on the ground, striking identical poses, their teeth glimmering.
"Oh. My. God," Tenten muttered, shaking her head. "This isn't happening…"
"TENTEN! NEJI!" Lee shouted, "Don't I look YOUTHFUL?"
Tenten stared at him, and Neji averted his eyes in disgust.
Lee was wearing the green spandex, and orange legwarmers as well. His forehead protector was now tied around his waist, like Gai's. But the worst – or possibly the most striking was his hair. The long braid and the uneven bangs had been chopped off. Lee now sported a perfectly round, shining bowl cut. He was a mini-Gai, a clone of the Green Beast.
"This is – frightening," Tenten whispered, and Neji inwardly agreed with her.
The training session that day was one of the worst; euphoric at the prospect of being like his idol Gai, Lee was ten times more rambunctious and energetic than usual. Gai had also attempted to teach them some crazy, possibly suicidal technique called the Lotus.
It involved them jumping high into the air, and barrelling downwards headfirst while spinning simultaneously. Neji and Tenten gave up after three tries; though Tenten achieved the required height, and even managed to flip upside down, she ended up falling down with a sickening crack straight after that. The next time she jumped up and started spinning, she couldn't rotate her body mid-air, and lost control and crashed down yet again. Even Neji found it literally impossible to plummet upside down while spinning rapidly at the same time. He soon reached the same fate as Tenten, though his landings were slightly more graceful, or so he preferred to think. Still, even after three poorly executed tries, the physical exertion left Neji and Tenten gasping for breath, their muscles filled with searing pain. And when Gai told them something about bandages, Neji just managed to tangle his into a big, convoluted knot; pointless for wrapping up an enemy. Tenten didn't even wear bandages. That was the point when Gai told them, rather regretfully, that they would not be able to accomplish the difficult feat that was the Lotus. Neji was indignant at first, but then shrugged – he didn't really care either way. It wasn't suited to his taste anyway – Neji preferred damaging internal organs, not smashing bones and ripping apart muscles. And Tenten preferred throwing around weapons.
Lee, on the other hand, progressed further than the other two. He'd gotten nowhere near to executing the technique properly though, and Gai soon told him to stop as well, though he did have an odd glint in his eye. After he dismissed the group, he told Lee to stay back.
Neji and Tenten didn't find this odd – Gai's blatant favouritism was sometimes irritating (when he took sides) but otherwise, neither of them cared. They trudged back in silence, forgetting the morning's near-altercation after the excitement of the day.
"Damnit," Tenten groaned, "I'm aching all over…"
Neji didn't reply, wondering if he could get some of that damn ointment Hinata had. Its healing properties were miraculous, but there was no way in hell he was going to ask her if he could borrow it. Still, his muscles were throbbing and he felt like he was going to drop dead any moment.
Somehow, he managed to drag himself back to the Hyuuga complex, only to stumble across Hiashi, his uncle.
"Are you well?" Hiashi asked, noticing his pale demeanour.
"Yes," Neji said shortly, and seeing that his uncle wanted an explanation, added, "Difficult training session."
"You are limping," Hiashi observed, though he didn't sound concerned.
"Pulled a muscle," Neji grunted. He wasn't lying – he just conveniently forgot to mention that he'd pulled perhaps four or five. In different places.
"Hinata has some ointment. You may want to use it," Hiashi suggested, but Neji shook his head, a bit too soon.
"I'll be fine," he said, a bit aggressively, and Hiashi raised an eyebrow.
"I'll be fine," Neji replied, in a calmer tone, clenching his fists. "Hiashi-sama," he added, trying to keep the acrid tone out of his voice.
He really hated the godforsaken customs and etiquette of the Main House at times like this. Hiashi, however, seemed satisfied and swept off.
Neji dragged himself into the room, controlling the urge to slam the door shut; though really, he was too exhausted for the effort anyways. After a quick shower, he decided to meditate – after all, his morning session, he recalled, had been rather rudely interrupted by a certain bun-haired kunoichi.
He couldn't focus for long though –he was hungry, and he soon went to the Hyuuga kitchens, fixing himself some herring soba, before retreating back to his room to eat. Neji never ate lunch with the Main House, though he was forced to dine with them sometimes – he'd hated the experience. He had to sit next to a squirming Hinata, as a bunch of Main House elders gazed at him with a mixture of disdain and pity. There was perfect silence, and he had to follow a bunch of stupid rules; for example, he couldn't pick up his chopsticks until Hiashi-sama, the clan head did. Though some may have considered it an honor that a Branch House member was allowed to dine with the Main House, Neji despised it, and considered it humiliation.
After he finished his meal, Neji read a scroll on chakra control and the theory behind the Heavenly Spin, one of the complex legendary Hyuuga techniques which even a majority of the Main House members could not perform. It seemed exceedingly difficult, though Neji's secret ambition was to master it, mainly to spite the rest of the Main House.
Soon however, his exhaustion caught up with him, and he slumped back into his pillows, falling asleep, even though it was barely four o clock.
He didn't hear the light tapping on the door, or the sound of it softly opening, as a trembling Hinata peeked in, before placing a small jar of golden-brown ointment on his table. She stared at him for a moment, a mixture of sadness, concern and fear on her face, before she quickly exited, shutting the door softly behind her.
– X –
The next morning when Neji woke up, he saw the jar of ointment resting on his table. His was initially angered – how dare anyone come into his room without permission, however noble their purpose? It must have been Hinata, he realized, and he wondered if she was patronizing him. She probably wasn't, he reasoned, his anger abating slightly. The moment he slid off of bed, attempting to stand up, he was greeted by another flash of pain, and grudgingly applied the ointment, before wrapping his arm and leg up in bandages. He then placed the jar in his weapon pouch, deciding to give it to Tenten. He couldn't throw it away – that would be a criminal waste. And he didn't want the half-filled jar lying there, because then Hinata, or whichever Hyuuga had given it to him would realize he had used it – which was unacceptable, for Neji did not need the Main House to pity or help him in any way
When Neji reached the training grounds, he deliberately sat down just below the tree Tenten used for target practice, and began to meditate. He heard her footfalls a few minutes later as she entered the training grounds.
Tenten made an exasperated sound, and Neji opened his eyes, feeling slightly amused.
"Are you sadistic, Neji? Do you want me to chuck weapons at you again?" she asked, brown eyes narrow.
"Hn," Neji smirked at her, and this seemed to infuriate her further.
"Oh quit the monosyllabic replies, Neji, seriously," she said, irritated. Neji was surprised he was letting her get away with that comment – no one spoke to him that way. However, for inexplicable reason he found her fury amusing.
"My whole body is freaking aching from yesterday, and I really REALLY want to do some actual useful ninja training, not all that pointless spinning upside down with bandages thing Gai-sensei made us do yesterday. So please, will you just move, or I swear I'll start using my weapons," Tenten threatened.
Neji glared at her.
"Hit me, and you will regret it," he said, before closing his eyes, feeling rather satisfied.
"What?" Tenten cried, "What do you mean? This is my target practice spot, why can't you meditate somewhere else Neji?"
She almost seemed like she was pouting, and it amused him further. Neji's lips quirked, ever so slightly.
"I'm not stopping you, Tenten," he said softly, eyes still closed.
"But – what are you saying? I can't practice when you're sitting under the target, and you said I will regret it if I hit you-"
"Come on Tenten," Neji said, cracking one white eye open. "Do you have so little faith in your accuracy?"
"Wait – you mean – you – but that's dangerous! You said so yourself yesterday!"
"It would be," Neji nodded, "If you were a moron lacking any directional sense or aim. Are you, Tenten?"
He wondered why he was teasing her – and why he was enjoying it, but continued nevertheless.
Tenten seemed shocked as well, when the fact that he was possibly teasing her registered in her mind.
"Oh – okay, fine," she said, flushing slightly. "Is that a challenge?"
"Hn," Neji smirked again, closing his eyes. It was reckless, but he'd seen her so many times. The girl had perfect aim, so Neji knew he was in no danger. He kept his Byakugan activated though, just in case.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Two kunai and one shuriken embedded themselves into the target above Neji's head. He smiled inwardly, before blocking her out completely and lapsing back into his meditation, not even slightly concerned by the fact that a girl was hurling lethal objects just inches above his head.
He trusted her. Or, he trusted her aim at least.
Tenten in the the meanwhile, feeling slightly flattered by the fact that Neji trusted her aim to such an extent, commenced her target practice with enthusiasm, though she was slightly more careful than usual, her throws slightly slower.
After that day, it became quite a common routine; Neji would meditate under the tree with the targets and the dummy, while Tenten would fire away weapon after weapon above him. It didn't distract either of them. In fact, it was mutually beneficial. Neji had to concentrate harder on his meditation to block out the sound of metal scraping wood, the whoosh of air when a weapon whizzed past his ear, far too close for comfort, the slightly annoyed sounds Tenten made when a weapon went half a centimetre off target. And Tenten had to make sure her aim really was perfect, lest she accidentally maim the boy sitting below her targets.
He thrust the ointment into her hands later that day as well. She'd seemed rather surprised, but extremely grateful, and thanked him. He didn't reply, offering her no explanation as to why he was giving it to her.
She'd paused for a moment before they parted ways.
"I'm going to eat," she said, leaving the offer unspoken, but Neji understood nonetheless.
He was inclined to join her – after all, he'd be able to avoid Hiashi and Hinata that way. But she hadn't actually asked him, maybe she'd just been informing him of the fact, and he thought it may be rather awkward even if he did go with her, so he just nodded in response, before turning around and walking off.
Tenten watched him for a moment, before turning around herself and heading towards the Ramen stall. He wasn't being rude – Neji was just like that, she knew. And she hadn't exactly invited him this time. But still, she couldn't help but feel a tiny bit disappointed. She'd been happy after he'd given her the ointment, something uncharacteristically generous and caring of him. She wondered if that meant they were friends – it was a question that plagued her often in regards to Neji. She admired him, and wanted to consider him a friend. She just couldn't help but wonder what his feelings were about the matter, if he harboured any at all. Neji was not completely unreadable, but he displayed very subtle signs, and Tenten didn't know if she was misinterpreting them or not.
As a matter of fact, Neji did consider her a friend, somewhere within him, though he didn't acknowledge it. Perhaps Tenten had noticed, perhaps she had not – she was actually quite perceptive. It would probably just take time, and being grouped together on a three-man squad, they had all the time in the world.
– X –
The next evening, after practice, Gai insisted on a team dinner.
"My treat," he said, and Lee beamed at him. Even Tenten cracked a smile, though Neji's face remained as hard as ever. Though he'd initially found the team dinners highly aggravating, he was now rather indifferent towards the whole affair – perhaps he was warming up to them, ever so slightly.
Fifteen minutes later they were crammed into a small booth, Neji and Tenten sitting opposite from Lee and Gai. Neji hated sitting in confined places – it violated his sense of personal space. Tenten's bare arm would brush against his when they ate, and the cloth of her pants brushed against his bandaged leg. It didn't make him feel as uncomfortable as usual though. He couldn't move away, but found he really didn't care that much.
Neji munched on his rice-balls in silence, as Lee gobbled them down in rapid succession across from him. Most of the conversation was held between Lee, Tenten and Gai. Neji responded in monosyllables if asked anything. Lee, apart from passionate declarations of rivalry, didn't speak to him much anyway, even on a daily basis.
"Team," Gai announced suddenly, banging his palms on the table.
Neji saw Tenten roll her eyes – like him, she probably expecting some kind of melodramatic speech or something similarly ludicrous. Gai seemed to be in that kind of a mood, and his eyes were sparkling disturbingly.
"I have good news for you all," Gai said, and the trio waited with bated breath. Neji and Tenten were both inwardly praying that it didn't involve spandex, squirrels or sunsets, all three of which had become pretty much taboo for the both of them after several bad experiences.
"I've entered you three in the Chuunin Selection Exams!" Gai said.
There was silence for a moment, before Lee wrapped his arms around Gai, sobbing his thanks.
Even Tenten smiled to herself, and Neji couldn't help but feel just a bit excited. He'd get to meet powerful opponents during the exams, he was sure of that. And he'd progress to Chuunin.
Neji had really wanted to become Chuunin, ever since Hinata had graduated from the Academy a couple of months back. It was demeaning for him to be on the same level as her. Neji didn't know much about Hinata's team, except that she had a female sensei, a dog-loving Inuzuka and a bug-loving Aburame on her team. Neji preferred his team, and couldn't help but feel they were superior in comparison. It was the first time he'd felt anything close to pride for Gai, Lee, and even Tenten – though it wasn't as much pride as it was a sense of preponderance.
– X –
That next day, their training lasted longer than usual. Spurred by the news of the upcoming exams, Neji, Tenten and Lee had all resolved to train harder, and the sky was dark when they finally finished. It was eight o clock. Gai had dashed off to challenge Kakashi to some ridiculous bet, and Lee had followed him like a loyal puppy. Neji and Tenten, however, had remained at the training ground. Neji was meditating – for some reason, he didn't feel like going back to the compound that night. He didn't know why, but it was quite peaceful that night, and he found meditating in the forest was far more effective than doing it at the compound. Tenten, for some reason, hadn't left either, and was currently standing a few feet away from him, casually throwing a few kunai at the target above his head. It was late at night, and they were alone, even though they'd finished their rigorous training; for some reason, it wasn't awkward though, and it didn't bother either of them. The forest was silent, except for the occasional thunking noises when Tenten's weapons hit their mark. Both the targets and the dummy vaguely resembled giant pincushions, considering the number of kunai sticking out of them.
"Hey!" a sudden familiar voice called, breaking the silence. "Hey! Did you hear?"
Lee sped into the clearing, leaning against the tree Neji was sitting under. Tenten looked at him curiously, and even Neji had opened his eyes. Lee continued, without waiting for a response.
"For the first time in five years, there are going to be rookies in this Chuunin Exam!" Lee said breathlessly.
Tenten raised an eyebrow, flipping a kunai in her hand.
"No way!" she said, but Lee nodded fervently.
It was odd for such a thing to happen; even Team Gai, despite having a nearly perfect mission success rate and above-average taijutsu skills had waited for an extra year. Gai had held them back from the exam, and though Neji and Lee had been disappointed at the time, they realized it made sense. They had grown a lot in the past year. Entering naïve newbies who had just graduated from the academy and barely masted skills like water-walking – it seemed almost ridiculous.
Neji frowned slightly – did that mean that Hinata was entering as well? Impossible – she would surely fail, and no sensei was foolish enough to enter someone as weak as her. Frankly, Neji wondered why she even bothered with the profession of a shinobi. Clan pressure, probably. He'd heard that the batch below them had a talented bunch of kids – the children of the old Ino-Shika-Cho trio, as well as the sole surviving Uchiha. But yet, they were inexperienced, and though Neji thought it would be interesting to watch these other clan kids fight, he also thought it would be a pointless waste of time.
"It's probably some stubborn Jounins in competition or something," Tenten muttered, and Neji nodded in agreement, thinking of Gai and his Eternal Rival, Kakashi.
"No, the story is that three of them are the students of Kakashi," Lee said, and Tenten perked up.
Neji raised an elegant eyebrow – Kakashi Hatake was well-respected even amongst the Hyuuga. Hiashi had been slightly disappointed when he had found out he'd been assigned a team. Though Hiashi didn't care that much about Neji, and had no hopes for Hinata, he'd been desiring that Kakashi stay a few more years without a team, so that perhaps Hanabi would have a chance with him. But now, Kakashi had a team, and Neji couldn't help but feel slightly smug that Hanabi's chances were ruined, though he was curious to know which three genin he'd been assigned. Neji suspected the Uchiha was one of them.
"That sounds interesting," Neji murmured aloud.
"Yes," Tenten said, flinging a kunai above his head, "But in the end…"
Thunk. The kunai met its mark, as usual.
"You have to feel sorry for them," he finished for her.
"That you do," Lee said. "It is foolish, entering them in! This kind of thing requires hard work and training, and that requires time."
"Is your cousin entering?" Tenten asked Neji.
She knew about Hinata of course, and a little about the animosity between the Main House and the Branch House. Neji had told her about it a month back when she asked why he glared at Hinata whenever they saw each other. He hadn't revealed too much (nothing about his father) but only that there was a rift in the clan, and Neji had a grudge against his uncle and hence, Hinata. Personally, Tenten pitied the girl. Hinata had seemed like quite an innocuous, gentle little creature, and Neji could be intimidating.
Neji stiffened at the question – he'd been wondering the same thing.
"For her sake, I'd hope not," he spat. "She's pathetic."
Tenten realized she'd hit a sore spot, having temporarily forgotten about Neji's dislike, and immediately changed the topic.
"I wonder what we have to do. I bet they'll have a written test, as well as an actual demonstrational component where we have to fight…" she mused aloud.
"I hate written tests!" Lee moaned, and Tenten continued.
"Or they could test us on individual components and jutsu by making us do tasks like at the academy…"
Neji was sufficiently distracted by this.
"That's unlikely," he countered, "Since people pass even if they can't do all kinds of jutsu," his eyes flicked to Lee for a moment. "I think you're right about the written part and the hands-on fighting though. They'll probably have some sort of a league or tournament. I wonder how many people pass though…"
"I guess it depends on the number of participants," Tenten said, before looking to Lee who was banging his fist against the tree.
"I hate written tests!" Lee wailed.
"Shut up, Lee!" Tenten scolded, "We're not even sure if there is one, we're just speculating! And you'll manage, trust me! All you have to do is write about the techniques and jutsus that you use in real life. It should be easy now that you've actually done it all!"
"Unless they test us on complex theory, though I doubt they will," Neji said.
The conversation continued on for another half an hour. It was one of those rare occasions when Neji, Tenten and Lee actually spent time together when they weren't actually training or being compelled by Gai. Neji found that talking to his teammates wasn't actually that bad – it was almost amicable, and he found himself tolerating even Lee (who was far more tolerable without Gai's presence).
When he headed home later that night, after parting ways with Lee and Tenten, Neji felt a brimming sense of anticipation towards the exams. He'd master his Gentle Fist techniques, and then he'd show Hiashi (who would undoubtedly come to watch, despite everything – his duty as a clan head required him to) as well as the rest of the Hyuuga how talented he really was.
Neji found himself hoping that Tenten would do well too – even Lee for that matter, though they were apparently 'rivals'; after all, if he and Tenten passed, and Lee didn't, they'd never hear the end of his whining and moaning.
At the end of it, they were a team, and as much as Neji wanted to deny it, he was slowly, gradually warming up to them, even if he didn't show it.
– X –
End of Part 1
A/N – I hope you enjoyed this so far. Please please drop by a review! Part 2 will include the Chuunin Exam and the Rescue Sasuke arc bits, and perhaps a bit extra.