Disclaimer: Don't own.
Summary: Weaved through the chemistry of Konoha's best taijutsu squad has always been much, much more left to be discovered. [Team Gai, Nejiten]
When You're Gone
The morning started out like any other. They met at their training grounds, which were secluded from the rest of Konoha due to the volatility and explosiveness of their training. After exchanging greetings, they parted, Green Beasts starting off on their daily laps, leaving Neji and Tenten to their own devices.
The relatively saner training partners walked to their traditional clearing, littered with fallen leaves, silently. They both knew the procedure; it had remained the same after all these years. The person who commenced the spars alternated each time. Today, it was Neji's turn.
Tenten readied herself. This spar would probably just be like any other – immeasurably tiring and intense, progressively requiring greater concentration, and equal. That was what was most important to Tenten in the attributes of their sparring.
After years of getting beaten to a pulp by the Hyuuga prodigy, their skills had eventually leveled out in comparison to the other. When one of them became stronger than the other, the one falling behind would catch up eventually, as time allowed, since ANBU seemed to have taken a liking to retrieving Neji spontaneously for missions. Of course, that didn't mean the entire thing was a breeze for one of them when that happened. The other always posed a threat, whether or not they were weakened in some way. Nevertheless, you had to fight the best to become the best, and that was one of the ideals of their training.
When the attack didn't come, Tenten straightened herself warily and watched as Neji looked out over the trees to his right, activating his Byakugan coolly.
Tenten sighed – their training had been interrupted before it even began. Although, this was a bit unusual. The Fifth normally didn't send for people so early in the morning – the crack of dawn hadn't even arrived yet.
Reading her mind, Neji said, "Who would've thought Tsunade would be up working so early?"
Tenten smiled as she felt the approaching shinobi's chakra come within a hundred meters. He never dropped an honorific on anyone's name when they were alone like this. In each other's presence and the other's only, they simply became lax that way. Gai would never have allowed it.
The wiry Jounin leapt down from the trees gingerly; the pair's sparring matches were infamous for sudden eruptions and bouts of attack. Comprehending the way most of the shinobi messengers' minds worked, Neji assured, "We haven't started training yet."
The man let out an almost inaudible sigh, if not for the teammates' acute hearing. He wouldn't be losing a leg to one of Tenten's scythes today. Taking a deep breath, he spoke, "Tsunade-sama requests your presence in her office immediately, Neji-san, for a solo mission."
Tenten inwardly groaned. This was the third time this month he would be sent off on a hazardous task by himself. After all, the Hokage didn't summon him just to pick up trash. It wasn't that she worried about him not coming back or dying in the midst of battle; she just liked having him around, although she often had to remind herself she needn't worry about his safety anyway. He could take care of himself after all, right? She wondered if they would be able to get through a normal day, without any interruptions, before the end of the month – the first day of October was exactly a week away.
The crumple of fallen leaves brought her back to reality as Neji dismissed the Jounin, taking a step towards the direction of the village. "Well, I guess I'll be going now," he said. Eight years ago, he wouldn't have made a sound, but simply disappear with the messenger in arrogant spite. But he had changed – everyone had.
"I won't have to take the other two and your family out to search for you, will I?"
Neji paused in his steps, hesitating for a moment. He inclined and turned his head slightly. "You doubt my ability?"
Tenten shuffled her feet nervously. "No, it's just...I don't know, something feels different."
The Hyuuga prodigy turned around completely and walked towards her, knowing that she was unwilling to elaborate. "You don't have to worry. You never have, and you don't have to start now."
Tenten averted her gaze and nodded. For some reason, she couldn't bring herself to look at him. Some part of her felt bittersweet about it, with the small possibility of never seeing him again drifting around in her mind. Yet those eyes...they were mesmerizing. She could never bring herself to not fall into a trance whenever she saw them.
She looked back up when he didn't stop. Trying not to drown in the pearly white orbs that were the guiding light of her kunoichi life, she had the urge to back away. Neji usually didn't come this close to her unless it were absolutely necessary. Suddenly, her heart inadvertently began to thump faster in anticipation.
Neji stopped a small step away from her. Tenten tried not to flinch under his unwavering stare. She didn't want to ruin the moment by asking what was wrong, however awkward it was.
The Hyuuga prodigy raised a hand. Blinking, Tenten felt her head almost give way to some unknown pressure. Then, she realized he was patting her head. She blinked some more – that was definitely unexpected. Certainly nothing he would've done if it hadn't been just the two of them. For the first time in her life, she felt just the tiniest bit uncomfortable because of Hyuuga Neji's proximity.
"I'll be fine." Neji gave her a reassuring smile, or one as reassuring as the stoic shinobi could get it to be. There was just a small hint of strain in it, as if he didn't believe himself.
"I don't have to be told twice." Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew she wasn't being completely honest. True, she almost never had to hear things twice to believe it, but this time...she supposed it was desired for comfort.
Neji turned away as if he couldn't bear to look at her any longer. "I'll see you soon. Tsunade will be expecting me."
She nodded, mostly to herself than him. "Bye."
And then he was gone. A few leaves floated down to accommodate the spots on the ground left behind by his swift exit.
Tenten released a breath she didn't know she had been holding. She was puzzled by his behavior and the strange situation overall, and even her own erratic heartbeat. Having decided to go find her other teammate and their sensei, she left in much the same way, fighting against the premonition that clouded her mind.
It would be several days since the messenger came until he would go to those training grounds again, this time to summon the rest of Team Gai.
Tsunade knew that Tenten valued Neji much, much more than the other two did. After all, they had been sparring partners since...since they had come out of the Academy, she supposed. Eight years of close companionship. Though, that didn't mean the other two members of the team treated Neji with apathy – in fact, they treated him with the exact opposite. But to put it simply, Tenten would have been more devastated than Lee or Gai if Neji walked out of their lives without saying goodbye.
Despite her seemingly lazy and uncaring attitude as the Fifth Hokage, the blond woman was keen, and she almost never failed at dissecting people mentally and emotionally. She knew that Tenten didn't like people beating around the bush and figured that she shouldn't add insult to injury.
"Neji went M. I. A. during his last mission."
A shocked gasp went up as the younger Green Beast's eyes widened in disbelief. The prodigy had been...he refused to conceive the idea. However, Gai's face remained stern, and Tenten stared at the ground, trying to fight off the tears that were threatening to fall. Over the past few days, she had been contemplating this possibility, as Neji didn't often go off on missions that were longer than a week without telling her in advance. But she didn't expect it to be confirmed.
"Godaime-sama, permission to go on the rescue mission?" Tenten thought, if Neji were there, he would have admired the figure of duty and professionalism that Gai could uphold when required.
"Denied. I'm sending out a few squads of ANBU to investigate his disappearance." Tsunade didn't want to harm the man's pride, even if her choice were more logical, so she left unspoken the fact that the ANBU would be more effective in this type of mission than a taijutsu team without its Byakugan user.
"Hokage-sama, we're his teammates." It seemed that, fortunately, Lee had learned well the serious, diplomatic ways of Maito Gai and had remembered his knowledge just in time to attempt to persuade his superior.
The Fifth suppressed the urge to quirk an eyebrow. Tenten hadn't even spoken in protest yet – she was slightly surprised that her instincts had failed her. "I apologize. However, I cannot send out a team on a rescue mission just because it is their teammate that is missing, especially when the ANBU would be more useful. Shinobi must not let their emotions get in the way of their duty," she said firmly, waiting painfully for, perhaps, one of the Green Beasts to become their usual character again and start bawling their heart out at the refusal and damage to their dignity.
On the contrary, Gai simply bowed, although he did not dismiss the matter completely. "Tsunade-sama, Team Gai is much more than just a team." With that statement, his two students took the cue to leave, and he followed, closing the door gently behind him.
It wasn't until Neji was brought back five months later by a Hyuuga ANBU squad that Tsunade really understood what Maito Gai had meant by that sentence.
During the time of their teammate's absence, Team Gai was solemn, to say the least. The two Green Beasts had lost their youthful vigor and energy, trudging around town with bowed heads. Kakashi was surprised that Gai had ignored him when passing by their training grounds. In an attempt to raise their spirits, he had even challenged Gai to a rock-paper-scissors match, reminding Gai of their ongoing competition and even lying, saying that he was winning to entice the spandex-clad man's sense of pride. Gai had simply shaken his head, and Lee's face was a mask of apathy. The older Green Beast had not even bothered to point out that he was winning, and not the Copy Ninja.
Tenten seemed more unaffected, but that may have been because she was never really as lively as the other two in the first place. But other shinobi she went on missions with remarked that she was always distracted in her work, and she never spoke unless spoken to. Rumors said that when she was in the village, she cried every night before falling into a disheveled sleep. But she claimed there was a leak in the roof of her apartment that she had neither the time nor money to fix, although it certainly didn't rain every day.
Hyuuga Hinata had observed all of these changes, looking on with worry. She herself missed her cousin, and though she was closer to him than anyone except Tenten seemed to believe, Neji did not play that large of a role in her daily life. She found that not having him there did not influence much of her surroundings.
Once, wishing to mend some emotional wounds, the Hyuuga heiress stopped by Team Gai's training grounds with some home-baked cookies. Lee and Gai were sparring with distracted looks in their eyes, moving instinctively. They were able to acknowledge the caring girl's attempt at "renewing their youth", as she herself had stated in earnest, but there was nothing they could do except give her a half-smile and accept the cookies with a quiet "thank you."
That was when Hinata realized that the grief caused by her cousin's disappearance was much worse than she had expected.
When she had proceeded to see Tenten in the clearing she and Neji always trained in, she was amazed to observe that the weapons mistress was scratching a message onto the trunk of the largest tree there. Tenten didn't seem to notice her presence, so the shy girl had left quietly, not wanting to disturb her privacy. Returning to the clearing a few days later, when Tenten was absent on a mission, Hinata blinked when she read what the bun-haired girl had inscribed into the bark: "I love and miss you."
Uzumaki Naruto had always wondered why Team Gai was as distraught as it was. He understood Tenten's anguish, but he couldn't put it past Lee and Gai to feel this much agony for their stoic teammate. Once, the blond invited Lee to Ichiraku for a lunch break. The younger Green Beast ate silently, without uttering a single word, much to Naruto's dismay. When they parted ways, the aspiring Hokage finally realized what was causing Lee's despair – the spandex-clad boy had no one to impulsively challenge on a whim. Naruto's insight had grown keener throughout the years, and he decided that this was the thing that seemed out of place. Nothing was the same without this indication of rivalry.
Lee's despondency caused a chain reaction, though no one except Nara Shikamaru was observant enough to notice that it all stemmed from Maito Gai's disciple. Since Lee seemed to be unwilling to train, Gai had in turn become displeased with himself for allowing this lack of youth to reach him. But there was nothing he could do about it, as the absence of Neji had an effect on him too, while Lee's burdensome persona had pushed him over the edge.
The deprivation of daily "springtime of youth" shouts had drawn the entire village of Konoha into a gloomy disquiet. The citizens and shinobi of the Hidden Leaf Village had never expected the absence of the spirit from these bold acts to have such an effect on them – in fact, many of them had longed for this day to come. But when it actually did, they realized that they had never been more wrong in their misunderstandings.
Multi-colored leaves floated down gently in the clearing, some landing on Tenten's head as if to jolt her out of her reverie. But she ignored their unspoken protests, not bothering to pick them out of her loosened cascades of brown. Soon the trees had shed completely, only for their bare branches to become covered in white flakes, just as December began. The birds had long grown uncomfortable with the village's malaise, and they had left in search of better habitats. They seemed to know when Konoha was going through hard times, for they began migrating earlier than usual, several farmers of the Land of Fire noticed. The squirrels began hibernating as well, but Lee didn't cast them a second glance.
As the year drew to a close and went deeper into winter, and shadows grew longer, Tsunade realized that she could not do a thing. Of course, she had noticed long ago the people's state of melancholy depression. However, all she could do was wait for results, whether it be confirmation of Hyuuga Neji's death or a successful retrieval. The village would have to get out of the hole it dug for itself, though she could nudge it along the right path. She too was affected by all these happenings.
The thaw came very late that year. The sun finally started to shine in mid-February, but there was still no sign of Hyuuga Neji. All ANBU reports had had negative results, although they continued to search without returning to base, unaware of how significant their task was to the health of the village.
Then, on the first day of spring, he came back. Exhausted, he staggered and stumbled through the gates, but nevertheless, he was back.
The first thing he said after coming back, to Tenten by his hospital bedside, was: "What the hell happened to this place?"
Her response was to smile sheepishly, throw her arms around his neck, and reply, "I missed you so damn much." She proceeded to surprise him by kissing him full on the mouth.
The Green Beasts would have immediately glomped him and yelled about how the springtime of youth had returned, if it weren't for the stern faces of his Hyuuga ANBU escorts. But that didn't stop them from doing the latter, along with bawling and embracing each other in their bliss.
Excruciatingly slowly, Konoha started to wake from its autumn and winter slumber. People rejoiced at the restored life of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, although they decided not to admit that they had missed the Green Beasts that much. With the beginning of spring and Neji's return came energy and spirit. Who would've thought the absence of the stony persona of Hyuuga Neji could cause such a depression?
A month later, Konoha was back to its original vigorous status. "The Cloud bastards should've thought twice about letting their guard down." Neji caressed Tenten's face absently. He had long discovered the scratched message on the tree they were currently resting on.
"Mhm." Smiling, Tenten shifted slightly to make herself more comfortable. She looked up into those eyes that she had missed so much. Unlike Konoha, they weren't so hidden in the leaves. After the desperate winter, the Hyuuga clan had become lax in their restrictions and approved of the two sparring partners' relationship. The day that the messenger had interrupted their sparring session, back in late September, seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Neji! Tenten!" The exuberant shouts of their sensei jolted them out of their happy little bubble that had seemed so isolated from the world.
"What?" the weapons mistress groaned as she jumped down, hand in hand, with Neji. She was surprised to see the Fifth standing next to the two Green Beasts. "Oh, Tsunade-sama. What are you doing here?"
"Hey." The Hokage smiled. "I just wanted to let you guys know how grateful I am for your help in restoring the village."
Cries of protest went up immediately as Lee pointed out that they were the cause of Konoha's grief in the first place. Tsunade dismissed his shouts with a wave of her hand. "Nevertheless, I am grateful. You have opened my eyes to something...something I have never experienced nor acknowledged before."
"What is that, Hokage-sama?" Neji asked respectfully.
Tsunade closed her eyes and tilted her head upward. After a moment of serenity, she opened them and looked up at the birds, as Team Gai waited patiently. They were free – no longer caged, just like the four in the clearing with her – and building their nests in preparation for the years to come. She let her answer to Neji's question dwell in her head for a while, but it never came out as words.
"Tsunade-sama, Team Gai is much more than just a team."
Gai was right, she thought. Reaching an epiphany, she now understood what he had meant by that one statement, made so many months prior to that moment, nearly two seasons ago, when they had been denied the permission to pursue Neji.
Team Gai wasn't just a team. They were a family.