"You have got to be kidding me…"
Having sensed her chakra a few minutes back, Neji was unsurprised—not to mention secretly relieved—at the sound of the whispered groan issuing from a few feet behind him. He had worried that she would skip training today, leaving him to handle the disastrous duo alone.
Lee, on the other hand, jumped about three feet in the air, only relaxing when he recognized the bedraggled looking girl entering the clearing as their newest teammate.
"Ah, Tenten-san! It is good to see you looking so youthful this morning!" Lee beamed, rushing up to her. Neji felt his annoyance spike when he laid his hand casually upon her shoulder, and he reminded himself for the second time that day that he'd have to make news of their impending engagement public. "Isn't Gai-sensei's creation wonderful?
Tenten's face was a mix of emotions, none of which even came close to youthful. Shocked, exasperated, and annoyed seemed to be better terms to describe it.
"I understand your admiration, Tenten-san," Lee answered after a while, during which time Tenten had failed to come up with an adequate response. "It is so beautiful that it leaves even the most intelligent speechless; Neji has not been able to speak for over an hour!"
The boy in question glared at Lee, but didn't bother pointing out that his silence had nothing to do with the obstacle course. He thought his detest rather obvious, and Lee would catch on soon enough.
After a few moments of silence, Tenten finally collected enough of her wits to voice her exasperation.
"It looks like a death trap!" She shouted, eyes assessing the various knives, ropes, and bricks suspended on the wooden structure. "What the hell does Gai-sensei expect us to do with that?"
"Why, I expect you to conquer it, of course!"
Both Tenten and Lee jumped in mutual surprise, not expecting their sensei's abrupt arrival. Neji's only physical reaction was a twitch of his eyebrow, and he silently chastised himself for being so expressionistic.
"And Tenten, my dear flower," Gai continued, resting a hand on her shoulder as if he had not just instantly materialized in a puff of white smoke seconds before, "You really should not use such foul language. It is not lady-like!"
He didn't think it was lady-like?
She'd show him lady-like.
"Yeah, well neither is being a shinobi," she retorted maliciously, forcefully shaking off his hand; the last thing she needed was to be patronized by her very own sensei. "But I still signed up for that, you know."
If Gai was surprised by her hostility, he didn't let it show. "A point well made, Tenten." He smiled, raising an eyebrow appreciatively. "It seems you are quite devoted to the cause; I cannot help but admire your relentless passion!" He rustled her hair fondly, causing the buns on either side of her head to sag.
Tenten seemed annoyed by this action, but Neji couldn't be sure, as he was too busy analyzing the sudden fervor Gai-sensei had elicited with his words.
Pointing out the lack of feminine decor in cursing seemed a very reasonable comment to Neji, and he could not understand why she had been so affected by it. Surely it could not be due to her unrealistic dream to abolish gender stereotypes?
If so, he felt a wave of pity—or he would, if he was capable of such a thing—for his pathetic teammate. She would no sooner succeed in proving her worth as a shinobi—she was a kunoichi, not a shinobi—than in ascending to the legendary Tsunade-sama's rank.
So caught up on his thoughts, it was only when Gai-sensei began discussing their "Youthful Genin Test" that Neji returned to the present conversation.
"You will only have forty minutes to make it out of the course," Gai elaborated, presumably on a conversation he had earlier missed. "Each of you will be starting at different areas, and you are not allowed to touch each other within the arena." At this comment, Gai-sensei's glance skirted over Neji, to which he pointedly ignored. "Anyone that does not make it through will not be permitted to graduate to a Genin."
"But Gai-sensei," Tenten interrupted, and Neji felt his patience wavering. Was this what he had to put up with for the rest of his life: interruptions and needless questions? Couldn't she just keep her frivolous questions to herself for once? "I thought we already were Genin…"
At this particular inquisition, Neji pressed his lips together tightly.
He hadn't expected it to be a reasonable question, one he himself would have asked had she not have done so first.
"You are, technically," Gai answered, tightening his headband around his waist, "but you'll be barred from ever accepting any missions." At Tenten's relentless, questioning gaze, he elaborated: "You will essentially be an unusable shinobi."
From his peripheral vision, Neji saw Tenten blanch.
After a few moments of silence in which no one spoke, their sensei sighed.
"Alright, if that's all you three have to offer; honestly, I really thought you'd ask more—" Gai-sensei withdrew a kunai from his holster, quickly slashing his hand and slamming the ground, "—Nin-kame will escort you to your positions."
At the mention of the name, a giant, red turtle appeared in a puff of white smoke.
Tenten and Neji remained expressionless as the turtle rounded on Gai, its eyes narrowed into slits. "We've been over this a million times, Gai; don't call me unless you got something important you need me to do!" He gestured to Gai-sensei's three charges, his glare becoming more pronounced. "I'm not made to babysit a bunch of kids; my shell just can't take it anymore!"
"Ah, gomen, gomen," Gai chuckled, rubbing his hair sheepishly. "I always seem to forget…"
"Yeah, yeah," Nin-kame complained, turning away from his summoner. "I've heard it all before; just try and keep it in mind. Now, you three," he nodded toward Neji, Tenten, and Lee, "follow me. I'll take you to the starting lines."
Neji and Tenten made to follow the giant turtle, but hesitated when Lee didn't move from his spot.
"Come on, Lee," Tenten prodded, pointing toward the obstacle course. "We have to go."
Lee still didn't budge, his eyes wide as he stared at Nin-kame. Nin-kame seemed to realize this at the same time Tenten did, and he sighed with contempt.
"What's the matter with you, human?" He bit out harshly, already headed toward the first drop-off point. "Haven't you ever seen a talking turtle before?"
. . .
Ten minutes later, Neji exited the obstacle course, seemingly unscathed.
He ignored his sensei's dubious glance, taking a seat as far away from the man as the spacious clearing allowed. He didn't feel like dealing with meddlesome questions, and the best way to do so was to avoid the man altogether.
Slipping into his meditative stance, he closed his eyes, attempting to clear his mind of the numerous senbon and kunai he'd had to dodge throughout the course.
There had been one area in particular that had almost caught him—a pit of shurikan with nearly invisible chakra wires—and he couldn't help but wonder how Tenten and Lee were faring. He hadn't run into either of them throughout it, which meant they both were probably very far behind.
'Good' he thought proudly to himself, smirking, 'Maybe if they take enough time, I won't have to put up with them anymore'.
Lee was hands-down the most annoying boy he'd ever met, and he genuinely could not wait to be rid of him. And while he would obviously have to put up with Tenten eventually, he'd rather it be later than sooner; he found her quest to be his friend unnerving, and he had no intention of falling into whatever game she was playing.
Thus, when Tenten emerged from the obstacle course a short twenty-two minutes later, looking a little worse for wear, Neji was considerably displeased.
"You made it through, huh?" She muttered upon arrival, as if it was not obvious by the fact that he was sitting there that he had, indeed, made it through. Without intention, he detected a shortness in her breath, and he idly wondered if it was the shurikan pit that had her so winded. "Lee out yet?"
Neji stared at her, challenging her gaze.
As if that was even a question.
"Right," Tenten muttered, twisting a kunai in her hand. "Well, hopefully he makes it out in time. How much time do we have left, anyway?"
"Eighteen minutes," Neji responded without reflection.
"Ah." She muttered. "Well, in that case, I'm going to go practice with the targets. Care to join me?"
When Neji shook his head to indicate his refusal, Tenten merely shrugged. "Suit yourself."
As she walked toward the target boards on the other side of the clearing, giving Gai-sensei an assuring smile on her way, Neji allowed himself a breath of relief that he had not realized he had been holding.
Time moved quickly then, and before he even really had time to revel in her absence, Tenten was back at his side, biting her nails in ill-concealed worry. Upon opening his eyes, Neji immediately recognized Tenten's look of hesitation, and he quirked an eyebrow at her, silently urging her to spit out whatever it was she had to say.
"There's only eight minutes left, and Lee's still inside," she mumbled in a rush, tapping her foot impatiently across the ground. "I think we should go in after him."
The last bit took him by surprise, and it took Neji a moment to organize his thoughts.
Go in after Lee?
Why in the world would he ever want to do that?
It would be like guaranteeing his constant presence for a year, and that was the absolute last thing Neji desired—apart from maybe marrying Tenten, that is. No, the sooner Lee didn't make it out, the sooner he'd be kicked off the team.
There was no way in hell Neji was going in after him.
"You heard the rules," Neji answered casually, shrugging his shoulders. "Lee has to make it out on his own."
"Yeah, but I was thinking," Tenten responded excitedly, glancing at the covered obstacle course, "Gai-sensei never said we we're allowed to help each other. He just said that we're not allowed to touch each other." Her implications were obvious, and Neji shriveled his nose. "So what do you think?"
Sighing heavily, Neji resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. "You may do as you wish, Tenten, but I refuse to risk my future in the process of saving that idiot."
"But Neji," Tenten insisted, tugging at his hand. Upon glaring at her, she quickly let go. "We have to do something. We're his teammate, for Kami's sake; we can't just leave him in there!"
Neji's deadpan expression told her that he had no qualms with the idea.
After a few moments of suspended silence, during which Neji returned to his meditation, Tenten finally relented.
"Fine," she spat accusingly, and he heard rather than saw her feet slipping across the green, wet grass, "You can stay here and wallow, but I'm going in after him."
. . .
One minute passed.
Then two, then three, and with each passing minute, Neji found his frown deepening.
It had occurred to him shortly after Tenten's outburst that if she were to fail the examination, he would be forced to be wed to a woman that was neither familiar with domesticity nor the Shinobi lifestyle. She would essentially be useless in producing a worthy heir, and he could not stand for such a grave injustice to fall upon him after all his hard work.
However, by the time he'd come to realize this, she had already entered the arena, and he resolved himself to wait patiently for her return. But with only five minutes left before she would forever be marked a Useless Shinobi and thereby a Useless Wife, he found himself growing more and more impatient.
He chanced a glance toward his sensei, but the man seemed unworried by their absence, contending himself to sharpening a particularly blunt kunai.
You would think for a man as vocal as he, he would appear a bit more concerned, given the fact that two of his charges were still in the course with only—Neji checked his watch—four minutes and twenty-seven seconds left to go.
Another minute passed, and Neji sighed in resignation.
Looking back, he wasn't quite sure exactly what possessed him to re-enter the obstacle course, thereby putting his entire future as a Shinobi at risk, but it had been far too late to ask questions by the time he had. Besides, he had to find them before the time ran out, and that was an impossible enough task in and of itself.
Ducking into the fortified entrance, Neji didn't bother to assess his sensei's reaction to his impromptu decision—which was not, as Neji might have anticipated, one of complete and utter betrayal and shock, but an unpredictably large, teeth-pinging smile and black eyes glowing with unshed, hopeful tears.
. . .
"You all passed!" Gai beamed a solid six minutes later, eying each of his new students with palpable happiness. "I am so proud of you!" Enveloping them in a group hug—sans Neji, who had managed to sneak out at the last possible second—Gai allowed his tears to fall freely. "I knew you three wouldn't let me down!"
"But Gai-sensei!" Lee protested, sounding more pathetic and whiny than Neji had ever heard him, "we did not make it out in time… we were two minutes late. We have let you down, and we do not deserve to be graduated to Genin level!"
Neji felt his stomach tighten at Lee's admission.
If anyone didn't deserve to be a Genin, it was Lee. There was no 'we'.
He and Tenten had made it out with more than enough time to spare; the only one that hadn't been able to do it on his own was Lee, and there was no way in hell he was letting that little runt ruin his career. To hell with decorum; he was not just going to stand by and let what was rightfully his be robbed from him!
"Ah, but Lee, that was not the point of this trial!" Gai intoned playfully, and Neji felt the anger in his stomach evaporate just as quickly as it had come.
If the point wasn't to get through the obstacle course in the recommended time, then why the hell did they even waste their time with it?
Curiosity piqued, he chanced a glance at Tenten, irrationally hoping that she would voice his unasked question. Much to his displeasure, however, she was being uncharacteristically quiet, her hands folded behind her back.
"In the world of Shinobi, no mission can be completed alone," Gai began, his tone of playfulness replaced one of grave seriousness. "As Shinobi, we tend to think that we must endure everything without solace, without comradeship. This is a lie." His eyes moved to Neji's before continuing.
"I told you that you were not allowed to touch each other in this trial, giving you the impression that you were not allowed the benefits of comradeship. The very essence of the word Shinobi has done this to you for your entire lives. In our world, we must learn that it is not an individual's skills that keep him alive," his eyes moved to Lee now, and a small smile grazed his lips, "but his ability to cooperate with and understand his team. The best leaders are those that can follow, and I advise you to keep this in mind."
His customary grin returned with full-force, and he gave each of them a small nod, his impromptu speech seemingly forgotten in the midst of all the excitement. "You may have the rest of today off to celebrate your advancement! I applaud you on your vigor, and I look forward to seeing you all tomorrow!"
And with that, he disappeared in yet another puff of wispy, white smoke.
Following his leave, Lee quickly pronounced his excitement for having been officially graduated to the level of Genin, punctuating his explanations with outbursts about 'youth' and 'undying optimism'. Tenten listened politely, albeit reservedly, as he prattled on about his various endeavors inside the obstacle course.
Neji rolled his eyes in disgust, not sure whether he was more irked by Lee's declarations or Tenten's encouragement. Either way, he departed the clearing as quickly as he could, refusing to acknowledge both Tenten and Lee's waves.
It wasn't until he got halfway to the Hyuga Compound that he remembered Gai-sensei's unexpected words of wisdom and realized that he, the genius of the Hyuga clan, had completely failed to comprehend the point of the exercise, while Tenten, nameless and without a natural strength, had.
The thought bothered him far more than it should have.
AN: Thank you to all of my reviewers. I know it's been a while, and I apologize. I'm hoping to get back on track with this story. You'll find there was a lot less Nejiten in this chapter, and it may be like that for a while. I'm trying to get some sort of plot set up. Thank you for your patience.
And as a side note, I'm sorry for not responding to your reviews! I promise I'll do it from now on!