Okay, I thought of this idea after reading chapter 4 of HighQueen's Neji Gaiden (awesome story, by the way) when Lee and Neji were pitted against each other in the chunin exams. I really like the idea of their friendship/rivalry and wanted to do a story on it. So this was born. I tried my best to keep them in-character and make an attempt at going deep with their thoughts, but I'm not sure how well it turned out. Anyways, this takes place during their second attempt at the chunin exams which I decided was located in Suna (I stated so later in the story but I didn't want people to start giving me weird looks when I wrote 'sandy stadium'). Also, I don't know if any of the other genin participated in it because I only went into Neji and Lee's fight. Also, I pretended that the Sand Siblings had already made chunin just to make things a bit easier. One last thing: please ignore the bad ending. I really couldn't think of anything else to type. The battle scene may not be written well, either. I'm pretty bad at those. Makes me feel sympathetic to the people who make the anime and manga when it comes to battles.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Friends and Rivals
Neji stood rooted to the spot. He could feel his face twisted into a look of utter shock, but he didn't bother to hide it. He didn't care if others saw him show emotion. The thing that was normally one of his top priorities outside of his ninja career and family affairs was trivial compared to the five words displayed so clearly on a large board in front of him.
Neji Hyuga VS Rock Lee
It was something that was more than likely inevitable during their second attempt at the Chunin Exams, now that the truly tough competitors like Gaara and his siblings were already promoted. Without them, he and Lee were the strongest genin taking the exams. It was quite obvious they would have to face each other at some point.
But now? In only the second round of the finals?
Though Neji had changed his beliefs almost two years ago, he was certain that Fate was toying with him just for fun. Why else would he be fighting Lee, his supposed rival and teammate, so early in the exams?
He noticed Guy near the front of the stands, unusually silent and an unreadable expression on his face. He wasn't looking at either of his students; instead he stared somewhere beyond the sandy stadium. Tenten stood higher in the stands with the other competitors, looking worriedly between Neji and Lee. Neji guessed she was afraid they would go all-out on each other in regards to their rivalry; he didn't feel the same way. No, Neji was worried that they would be unable to fight each other.
Sure, Neji had always found Lee annoying, but after being forced to put up with him for three years he got used to his company. He actually found himself enjoying it at times, not that he would ever admit it. But he did consider Lee a close friend. That didn't say much since Neji didn't have all that many friends to begin with, but it was still worth something. Especially when taking into consideration Neji's cold, aloof personality and Lee's over-enthusiastic, eccentric one. It was almost unthinkable that the antisocial prodigy would ever even be able to withstand being around Lee for more than five minutes, let alone make friends with him. But he had, and he had never found himself wishing he hadn't more than now. Lee was one of the few friends Neji had made, and he didn't want to lose him because of a single fight. Even if he was unbearable at times. But Neji knew that Lee had easily forgiven him for his faults, so Neji did the same for him.
They had been through so much together; missions, training, get-togethers...Neji had even accompanied Lee to a ridiculous puppet show once, much to the taijutsu specialist's surprise. The Hyuga had only accompanied him to cheer him up after putting him down on his birthday (only after he had insulted him did he discover it was his birthday), and he had wanted to forgive him. Without making it look like he was, of course. So he had asked to join him in seeing the puppet show he had wanted to go to. After a minute of silence, then another minute of nonstop laughing, Lee had agreed joyously, claiming Neji was finally beginning to 'embrace his youth'. Neji had wanted to hit him for that, but he had decided against it since it was his birthday and he had already hurt him once. So he waited until the next day. Lee had sported a large bump on the head for a few days afterward, and promised not to mention 'youth-embracing' ever again. Neji had been thankful for a week without mentions of it, or youth in general, until Lee had vigorously shouted about 'the passions of youthful love' when he had seen Neji and Tenten alone together near their training grounds, unusually close though Lee didn't let Neji explain he was only pulling a sliver out of Tenten's hand. They had both turned red at the statement, Neji out of anger.
The next day Lee had mysteriously ended up with two black eyes, a broken arm, and a bruised rib, but still with his wide, ever-present grin. Even wider than usual, if possible. He wouldn't say what had happened, only mumbling something about love, denial, and Neji's powerful Sixty-Four Palms technique.
Neji nearly laughed at the memory, but he was too stricken by the current situation. How on earth was he supposed to bring himself to fight Lee? Sure, he had secretly enjoyed their fights, even if he always won, but this wasn't a fight between teammates or even a fight between friendly rivals. This was a real fight between opponents striving for the same goal, a goal with slim chances they would both attain it. As much as he thought their rivalry was immature and pointless, he wished he could view this match as just that. But he knew in his heart that he had never believed in their rivalry at all like Lee did, and he considered Lee too close a friend to just ignore that and claim him to be an opponent.
Which got him thinking...what did Lee think of their match?
Despite being lost in his thoughts, he knew he hadn't once looked at Lee. The white-eyed genius knew it wasn't just by chance, having been thinking and not paying attention to where his eyes drifted. His subconscious was purposely avoiding Lee, for fear of their fight and his reaction to it. Even though Neji didn't want to fight Lee, it would make him feel better knowing that Lee was excited about their fight, considering it a chance to prove the better of the two and perhaps end their rather one-sided rivalry for good. But Neji knew that Lee had also changed his opinion about their relationship over the years, and although he had always considered the Hyuga a friend, he now thought of him as more of a friend than a rival. He hardly ever even brought up the rivalry between them nowadays. Neji knew that Lee was more than likely disappointed with the matchup and would think it as something like the beginning of a wall between friends, not a fight between rivals to see who is stronger.
Neji had to admit, he felt the same way about the matchup. Why did they have to be pitted against each other now, just when Neji was beginning to consider the crazy, spandex-wearing lunatic a friend?
Knowing he was just procrastinating to avoid looking at Lee, he stopped his thoughts and slowly raised his white eyes to meet his teammate's black ones.
Lee was staring at the ground, but Neji could see the disappointment on his face. It was obvious he was unhappy with the matchup as well. It pained Neji to see him like that. He knew that if Lee at least would enjoy it, he would be able to go through with it. But not now. Not when Lee, the ever-happy and always optimistic one, was upset by the fight.
Just then, Lee decided to look up and their eyes met. The reluctance and sadness in his eyes was clear. I don't want to do this, Neji.
I know, Lee...I know.
"But we must," Neji said aloud, voice barely a whisper. But he knew Lee had heard it clearly, as if he had yelled it above the murmurings of the impatient crowd. The look in his eyes said as much, if not his response.
"I...I do not think I can fight you," Lee admitted. "I know I have always considered you my eternal rival, from the first moment we met. Maybe it was because I was annoyed with you. Maybe I just wanted to make Guy-sensei proud by having a rival like he does. But I claimed you as my rival that day, and I told you that one day we would fight and I would prove that my hard work was stronger than you. That I was stronger than you. Even earlier today, I hoped I would be paired against you, but not to prove my strength to you. No, I wanted to fight you so that we could finally have our all-out battle to confirm who the better of us is, and to have a spectacular climactic ending to our rivalry!"
He grinned and gave Neji his signature thumbs-up, but Neji could tell the gesture lacked his usual enthusiasm.
"But now..." Lee continued, his grin disappearing and his arm falling limply by his side, "I do not wish to fight you, Neji. I have always considered you a good friend and teammate, but it was not until I saw our names on the board that I realized how much that meant. You are my friend, Neji, and I do not want to lose you. Even if it is just to gain a higher rank, not battling as enemies, I do not wish to be pitted against you. Ever. You mean too much to me for me to throw that away, for however brief a time, in a battle. Even if it means I will never advance to chunin, I will not fight you, Neji."
To say he was touched by Lee's words was an understatement. He was completely and utterly honoured by how much Lee cared. Neji wished he could describe how much his teammate meant to him as easily as Lee had. The Hyuga was never good with words, especially concerning friendships. But for Lee he would try.
"You mean a lot to me, too, Lee," he began, and had this not been a serious time he would have laughed at the look of pure shock on Lee's face at his words. It was obvious Lee had never expected Neji to divulge his feelings, even if he had done the same. "And I don't want to fight you either. You are more than a brother to me and you mean more to me than I can put into words. But we must fight to strive for the rank of chunin. We made a promise as a team that we would do our best in the exams, no matter what happens. You wouldn't want to let Tenten or Guy-sensei down, would you?"
Lee shook his head, although it wasn't as enthusiastic as normal. He still looked hesitant about their fight, so Neji continued, "You said you've always wanted to have a real match with me. Think of this as the ultimate conclusion to our rivalry."
His bowl-haired teammate looked surprised. Ever since Lee had first declared Neji his eternal rival, he had brushed it off as if it were nothing. Whenever he mentioned the word 'rival' to him the prodigy would simply ignore it, and every time he fought in honour of their rivalry Neji thought of it as a simple training exercise. But now, for the first time, Neji was finally acknowledging their rivalry. And the Hyuga was acknowledging him as his rival.
Lee gave Neji a thumbs-up, a real one this time. "Very well, then! We shall make this the climactic ending to our youthful rivalry!"
Neji was relieved to say the least. Lee had not only been cheered up at the thought of their fight, he was using the term 'youthful' again. Not that Neji cared for the word, but it did mean that Lee was back to normal again. And the prodigy couldn't be happier.
"I, Rock Lee, the Handsome Devil of the Leaf Village, challenge you, Neji Hyuga, genius of the Hyuga Clan to a fight! Do you accept?"
Neji allowed a smirk as he nodded. Yes, Lee had definitely returned to his usual self.
As they got into their respective battle positions and prepared for the fight, Lee's voice turned quiet again, quiet enough that only Neji could hear it. "But know that no matter what happens, you are still my friend, Neji. I will not hold back, and I hope you do not either, but this fight will not change a thing between us."
Neji nodded. "The same goes for me. You are still my friend, no matter what may happen."
Word exchanging finished, the battle began.
The opening move was made by Lee, who charged Neji with his incredible speed. He easily blocked his kick with his arms, though he knew he would end up with bruises there later on. Lee's kicks were hard, especially with the added strength of his leg weights.
Countering quickly with the Gentle Fist, Lee leapt back to avoid his chakra being blocked. He charged again, this time fighting with punches that were met with thin air. Lee looked around, searching for his opponent, and just managed to locate him in time to avoid a deadly attack. Neji's chakra-infused palm grazed Lee's shoulder blade, causing a painful burning sensation, but at least Lee had dodged the initial attack. The damage would have been much more than a simple chakra burn.
He quickly leapt away and began to run quickly in a circle around Neji, creating a cloud of dust. Neji activated his Byakugan to pinpoint Lee's location. It was difficult because of Lee's speed, but not impossible. His kekkei genkai could not slow down time, but it allowed him to see Lee's blurry figure easily enough to block a sudden kick and send him flying with a correctly aimed Gentle Fist attack. Neji couldn't help but smirk in triumph, however small a victory it was.
Lee got back up to his feet, clutching his stomach where Neji's palm had hit. He winced slightly in pain but grinned widely. "Very good move! I would expect no less from my rival!"
While Lee had been shouting praise, Neji had taken the opportunity to disappear and emerge directly behind him, fingertips glowing blue in preparation for another attack. However, Lee managed to roll out of the way and aim a kick to his legs to knock him off his feet. Neji almost didn't see it coming. Almost.
He back flipped out of the way, surprised Lee had realized what he had been planning to do.
Lee grinned again. "Ah, I see you are wondering how I predicted your move! It is very simple, really. You have always underestimated my attentiveness, so I purposely pretended to not pay attention in order to deceive you into attacking me when you didn't think I knew what you were going to do—just like right now!"
And with that exclamation Lee leapt out of the way, revealing Neji who had attempted to sneak up on him again. Neji cursed silently, but smirked. "Not bad," he offered.
"Thank you, my esteemed rival!" Lee gave him a thumbs-up and a blinding grin, before charging him with the leaf hurricane. Neji tried to dodge, but Lee was faster and managed to hit his leg. It was throbbing painfully, but Neji didn't let it get the better of him. Dodging another kick, Neji lashed out with his Gentle Fist, managing to get in a few good hits before Lee was able to get out of the way.
They both fell back, panting slightly from jumping around a lot. Lee's face had a playful smile on his face. It was as close to a smirk as Lee could get. "What do you say we take it up a notch with our more powerful techniques?"
"Alright," Neji accepted the challenge. He got into the familiar position of his Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms as Lee unrolled his bandages and unlocked the first gate.
"First gate, gate of opening! OPEN!" A massive flare of chakra emanated from Lee as he charged towards Neji. "Primary Lotus!" he yelled as he attempted to kick him into the air. Neji managed to dodge, or so he thought. Momentarily forgetting Lee's superior speed, he was caught unaware as Lee came into sight behind him and with a painful kick to his lower back he was sent flying into the air. As Lee appeared beneath him with Dancing Leaf Shadow Neji tried to escape, but he was useless trapped in the air. He felt Lee's bandages grip his form tightly and they began spinning rapidly, the ground coming closer and closer every second...
At the last possible moment Neji managed to cut Lee's bandages with chakra from his fingers, but he couldn't fully escape the fall and landed hard on his back, momentarily knocking the breath out of him. He knew that even if Lee was his teammate he wouldn't go easy on him, so he rolled out of the way, dodging a powerful kick in the progress. Quickly getting up he risked a glance at where he had been a moment before. There was a shallow crater, and Neji was grateful it hadn't been him. If that kick had hit him...Neji was certain he would have ended up in the hospital for a long time afterward. But he was glad that Lee was living up to his word and not holding back.
And he hoped that he wouldn't, either. It would be unfair to Lee to hold back during the match he had looked forward to for so long.
Neji decided to show some of his speed he had acquired from their tough training, and appeared behind Lee before he realized what was going on. Quickly getting into stance, he attacked with his Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms. He hit two times, four times, eight...The hits continued to double until thirty-two, where Lee managed to throw a weak kick at Neji to distract him long enough to get away before his move was complete.
They exchanged several more punches and kicks before they ended up on opposite sides of the Suna stadium, both panting heavily. "This...this has been...the most fun...battle...I have ever had..." Lee managed to say between gasps for air.
"Same...here..." Neji replied, breathing just as hard.
"You have...definitely improved since...our last battle...unlike...unlike me..."
"I wouldn't...say that...You have improved...a lot, Lee...Before...you would have...already lost..."
What Neji didn't say was how thoroughly impressed he was. Even though he had always secretly acknowledged Lee was a good fighter, when compared to him he had always thought Lee was inferior. In every battle they had ever fought, Lee had always been beaten by Neji before now. Just the fact that Lee was still fighting amazed Neji. Though he shouldn't have been all that surprised; the last time they had truly fought was before Lee had faced Gaara. His teammate had improved a lot since then, and, although he never said so, Neji had wanted to fight Lee to see how much better he had gotten.
Well, he had gotten his chance. And the thought of their battle made him smile. But only a little. He didn't want Lee to think he was too soft.
"I am...getting tired..." Lee said. "How about we...finish this...with a bang?"
Despite his best efforts, Neji couldn't stop his smile from growing wider. But he supposed it didn't matter too much. After all, even Neji Hyuga was allowed to smile when he was enjoying himself. "I'd...like that...Let's end this battle...and this rivalry...the way...it should end..."
Lee perked up instantly, appearing almost completely recovered. Only his harder than normal breathing gave away his exhaustion. "All right then! Let's end this! First gate, gate of opening! Second gate, gate of rest! Third gate, gate of life! Fourth gate, gate of pain! Fifth gate, gate of closing! OPEN!"
While Lee opened his five gates, Neji dropped down into his Eight Trigrams One-Hundred-Twenty-Eight Palms stance and prepared his body and his chakra for the blinding speed he would need to attack at. In addition to his Byakugan, which he had left activated since Lee had run around him at an incredible speed.
As a final preparation, Lee, who had now turned a reddish colour and had chakra pouring out of him in large waves, took off his ankle weights and chucked them behind him. They left two craters almost as large as the one Lee's kick had, earning some gasps from the audience, who had been silently watching the fight up until then.
Lee ran around Neji with blinding speed, far too fast for even Neji's Byakugan to pick up a trace of this time. But luckily his One-Hundred-Twenty-Eight Palms move slowed his vision enough for him to see as if time were slowed down. If he could manage just one hit on Lee, that is.
It all came down to luck. Neji nearly scoffed aloud at the idea. Their final battle, and the difference between winning and losing came down to luck? Unlike Lee, Neji had never been a believer in luck, preferring to believe in ability. He always considered luck to be something that people who won or lost used as credit or an excuse, respectively. Neji used to believe things that were considered luck by others was fate, but now that he didn't believe in fate he didn't know what it was. He didn't want to admit it really was luck, since that would be admitting he was wrong. And Neji Hyuga did not like to admit he was wrong.
But luck was the only explanation he could come up with for such random occurrences. So, hoping he had luck on his side, he struck out with a chakra-infused hand.
Instantly the entire world slowed down and he was able to see Lee clearly. His movement was so extremely fast that he still appeared to be running in Neji's vision, but more like his normal pace of running when he wasn't trying to defy the limits of the human body.
He managed to hit two times, four times, eight times, sixteen times, thirty-two times, sixty-four times...
Lee dodged just before Neji managed the last hit. His attack stopped, Neji's vision returned to normal speed, and Lee was running around him in a blur that appeared to be a single line even to his Byakugan.
Neji knew this was it. Unless he managed to avoid the full brunt of Lee's attack, he would lose. He would lose...to Lee.
The thought made him smile. The truest smile he had ever managed.
But it was that smile that cost him the match.
For the split second he had stopped focusing on the battle, Lee had managed to force Neji into the air. He vaguely felt himself being smacked around in the air like a pinball, but everything was so fast it was hard for him to realize what was happening. The sharp pain that he had felt with the first few hits slowly melted into a single throbbing throughout his body as Lee attacked him in multiple places, seemingly at the same time. He felt himself being hit with an especially powerful blow, and then the ground rushed up to meet him. The instant he touched the sandy bottom of the stadium he ended up in the middle of a large crater that took up nearly the entire space of the fighting area. His body was in too much pain for him to even begin to think about moving, so he simply watched as Lee landed in front of him. Their gazes met.
Neji could tell that Lee was in extreme pain, probably as much as he was at least, but he was smiling nonetheless. "That was a great battle, Neji. Truly the spectacular conclusion to our renowned rivalry."
The prodigy smiled weakly; he was barely able to even do that without his body burning fiercely in protest. But he somehow managed to speak. "You were amazing, Lee."
Despite his injuries Lee gave Neji a thumbs-up and a blinding grin. "As were you, my esteemed rival."
"The winner is...Rock Lee of the Leaf Village."
At the proctor's words, Lee's eyes lit up brightly. Neji was certain that had he not been injured so badly he would be prancing around the stadium, spouting words of youth. Then, of course, Guy would join them in the stadium and shout about how proud he was of both his students. And then there would be the infamous sunset background (which Neji still had no clue where it came from) and he would probably get up and walk off, even if he only got a few steps before collapsing from pain.
Lee thanked the proctor vigorously, before turning back to Neji and speaking in a quiet voice so only he could hear. "I may have been declared the winner, but if it had been announced any later I am sure I would have collapsed from exhaustion and it would have been a tie. It may not be official, but I believe we both won today's match."
He extended his hand to Neji. The Hyuga thought briefly about refusing it, insisting he could stand on his own, but he realized that it was not an offer of help but a gesture of friendship. Swallowing his pride, Neji grasped Lee's hand with his own and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet by his teammate. He refused any extra help to stand from him, though. He may have only been trying to be kind, but Neji Hyuga didn't need help.
Mere seconds after being helped into a standing position by Lee he felt himself being tackled in a hug. He could see nothing but twin brown buns, and realized Tenten had rushed out of the stands and embraced both him and Lee. When she pulled away he could see tears forming in her eyes, but he knew they were tears of joy, not sadness.
"You—It—I mean...That—that was...Wow!" she finally managed to sputter out. Neji couldn't help but smile in amusement at Tenten's struggle for words, and looking over at Lee he could see the taijutsu master was amused as well.
Before either boy could say something they were engulfed in a massive bear hug. Even Tenten, though she wasn't involved in the battle. More like she was in between them and their attacker, none other than Guy.
"My students! I'm so proud of you!" he exclaimed, and when he pulled away Neji could see the tears streaming down his face like waterfalls. He stifled the urge to sigh.
"Guy-sensei!" Lee sobbed, tears pouring out of his own eyes.
Guy momentarily forgot his other two students as he and Lee embraced. As Neji had guessed, the infamous sunset background had appeared. He turned his eyes away from the scene in disgust.
"Some things never change, huh?"
Neji looked up at Tenten. Her brown eyes were sparkling with pride. He shrugged and allowed a small smirk to form on his lips. "Yeah, I guess not."
"I'm proud of you, Neji."
Guy's unusually serious voice caught Neji off-guard. He had thought that Guy and Lee were still being overly emotional. He turned to his sensei and saw the bowl-haired man watching him with an unreadable expression. In the corner of his eye he saw Tenten congratulating Lee and supporting him by the shoulders. His exhaustion from using five of the gates was starting to sink in. Neji realized his own fatigue was trying to get the better of him, but he forced himself to remain unbothered until he was admitted into the hospital.
"You may have lost to Lee, but I could tell that it was an even match. You both fought your best today, and I couldn't be prouder of either of you. I don't know who will be promoted, but in my opinion you have both already attained chunin rank. I am certain that the both of you will be considered for the title."
It was perhaps the most profound thing Guy had ever said, and it was by far the longest he had ever gone without mentioning youth. Neji smiled almost embarrassedly. He wasn't used to such praise from people like Guy. He was used to people admiring him and talking about his high level of skill, but he had never been so honestly commended.
"Thank you...Guy-sensei," he replied, knowing that he had to show some gratitude.
Guy nodded, then called Lee and Tenten over. "To celebrate this amazing event, I will treat you all to dinner once the Chunin Exams are finished!"
"But, Guy-sensei..." Tenten interrupted, looking confused, "shouldn't we wait until we find out who's promoted to chunin?"
Guy smiled softly; it was the gentlest smile Neji had ever seen him use. "To me, all three of you are already chunin."
Lee's eyes began watering again, Tenten blushed in embarrassment, and Neji smiled. It was a great honour to know your sensei had so much belief in you.
He turned to see a few medic ninja with two stretchers. "We've come to deliver you and Rock Lee to the hospital," the one to the left explained.
He and Lee nodded. Neji then turned back to his teammates. "Promise me you'll work hard during the rest of the finals?"
Lee and Tenten both nodded. "We promise," Tenten replied.
"And if we break that promise, we'll do one hundred—no, two hundred laps around Konoha!" Lee exclaimed.
Tenten was shocked. "What? Lee, that's ridiculous! Be thankful you're even allowed to continue participating in the exams! And what's with the 'we'?"
Neji chuckled as he and Lee were helped onto the stretchers. Guy and Tenten watched as they were carried away to recover, Guy in tears again either from the sight of two of his students being rushed to a hospital or from pride at said students' performance.
The tournament had ended with Lee as the victor, and two weeks later they received the news that all three of them had been promoted to chunin.