Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, nor any places, characters, things, or ideas therein. The aforementioned belong to Masashi Kishimoto, Shounen Jump, TV Tokyo, Viz Media, etc. I am writing this fic for entertainment purposes only, not monetary gain.
Summary: He sat silently in the shadows and watched. :Neji x Tenten:
Warnings: Mentions violence
Author's Note: My first of two fic entries for NejiTen Month over on DeviantArt. This piece doesn't take place at any particular time in the series - particularly since I stopped writing canonically over a year ago. So, in this fic, the war never happened. At the beginning, they're around eight, and in the latter part, they're around seventeen or eighteen. Thank you so much for reading this fic, and I hope you enjoy it!
He sat silently in the shadows and watched.
All around him, his classmates played and ran and laughed, enjoying the freedom from classes that Iruka-sensei had granted for half an hour (no longer and no shorter - the man was nothing if not almost obsessively prompt). Hyuuga Neji watched them all with disinterested pale eyes, allowing his gaze to drift from face to face without bothering to settle on one for more than a few seconds at a time.
Predictable. They were all predictable, and for a shinobi, that spelled death.
Neji didn't need his Byakugan to see the group of girls gathered to his left, huddled in a group. He could feel their intense stares on him, like a bunch of vultures waiting for their prey to die so they could pounce and devour. Determined not to give in, he ignored them and moved on to the next group. They were the bullies, the ones constantly patrolling the schoolyard looking for people to pick on. Their usual targets were girls and weaklings - the latter being the next group of people for him to ignore.
At a training stump on the opposite end of the yard from Neji, Rock Lee kept up his endless kicks and punches, his lips moving soundlessly as he counted them off. He was at the bottom of the class, an utter failure. He was loud, obnoxious, enthusiastic - everything Neji was not and equally despised. It would be just his luck if Fate decided to stick him on his team. He already dreaded it.
Finally, Neji's eyes settled on the one figure he'd watched every day without fail since their early days in the Academy. She stood a few steps to his right, feet and hands moving in an intricate dance. Occasionally he caught the flash of metal as she produced a weapon, but they vanished just as quickly, back into the places where she hid them. (He'd been watching her for years, yet could still not figure out exactly from where she produced all those weapons.) She was just as predictable as all the others in her routine, but he'd quickly found that her dance was different every day.
She easily performed a sommersault, springing off her hands to land on her feet, two kunai in her hands, arms crossed over her chest. Raising up onto her right foot, she spun around, shuriken replacing the kunai when she finished her rotation. Leaping nimbly, she spun again, senbon between each of her fingers when she landed. Then her eyes caught his, and she smiled at him.
Neji quickly looked away, feeling an uncharacteristic blush creep up his neck at being caught watching her. Nothing interested him outside his clan's jutsu, or so he'd told himself numerous times. Truthfully, though, he was starting to realize the dancing girl with panda-ear buns atop her head had gone beyond interesting to him. She simply fascinated him. He wanted to fight her, to see how his techniques matched up against her obvious skill with weapons. He knew he'd have to be fast and flawless to beat her, because for as long as he'd watched her, she'd never missed her intended target with her weapons.
He jumped, shocked to realize that somehow the girl had managed to sneak up on him. Jolting to his feet, he glared down at her (so very thankful for the fact that the top of her buns came up to about his eye level, since his extra height gave him a slight advantage) and said, "What do you want?" It came out sounding more surly than he'd meant it.
She smiled again, a graceful movement of her small mouth which warmed her endearingly wide amber eyes. "To say 'hi,'" she said. She didn't seem the least put off by his attitude. "I'm Tenten."
"Just Tenten?" He'd heard her name in class, naturally. She was seated behind him and directly to his right, and Iruka-sensei often called on her for answers to weapons-related questions. He'd always wondered why he'd never heard her last name, and now was his chance to know why.
"Yep." Her hand twitched, and a moment later she stood spinning a kunai around her index finger. "What about you? It's usually customary to introduce yourself after someone introduces themselves to - well, you." She laughed lightly.
Neji scowled. "Hyuuga Neji. But I'm sure you already knew that."
"Of course. You're the resident genius, prodigy, and heartthrob of the year. It would be nothing short of ridiculous if I didn't know you." Tenten's smile didn't falter even once, nor did the rhythm of her spinning kunai.
"You must also know that I don't like being bothered. Why are you here?" He knew he should have stopped watching her long, long ago. No one was meant to get close to him. He couldn't let anyone get too close, get inside his carefully erected defenses. It would be nothing short of disastrous - deadly.
"I've seen you watching me. I wondered if you'd like to be friends." Tenten flicked her wrist, shifting the kunai so she was holding it in front of her face, the blade perfectly in line with her nose. She studied him with those sharp eyes from either side of it, still smiling. But it wasn't a false smile, or even a malicious one. It was, instead, filled with inviting warmth and, like she had said, an invitation of friendship.
"I do not believe in having friends. As shinobi, forming such ties will invite heartache. Either they will become a compromise or they will leave you, either by choice or death. Perhaps even both." He'd learned that lesson the hard way. The day his father had been ripped from him, he had promised himself that he would form no more bonds. He refused to fall into that trap again, to be lured into a friendship with a person who would also, undoubtedly, be torn away from him to be murdered in someone else's place.
Tenten seemed unperturbed by his sharp refusal. "All right then. Would you like to spar?" Her whole body was still as a statue, standing tense and ready before him. Only her lips moved - her eyes never flickered away from his gaze, even for a moment.
Even though he didn't like her (didn't want to like her, refused to like her, would never like her!), he deeply admired her spirit. Not many people had the courage to walk up to him, ask to be friends, take his denial without even twitching, and then challenge him to spar in the very next breath. Is she insane?
Though he knew others watched him, they'd never dared come close. Tenten, however, had walked right up and talked to him as if he was as normal as everyone else in the class. Neji wanted to feel offended by that - as a Hyuuga, he was certainly different from everyone else, thank you very much - but he felt too fascinated to be offended. From where did she draw such courage?
"I'll make you a deal," he said, questioning his own sanity even as he said the words. "If, at the end of our school careers, we are assigned to the same team, I will spar you. But not a moment before." If they were assigned to the same team, he would know Fate meant for them to know each other. For now, though, he just couldn't take the chance.
Tenten blinked once, as if surprised. Her smile faltered, but only for a moment. "All right then," she said, turning away. "I look forward to our match."
Neji silently watched her walk away from him, stunned not only by her words, but the confidence with which she voiced them. She actually believes we will be on the same team!
He did not believe it himself, but he couldn't still the remnant of the small, trusting, vulnerable little boy left inside him - hidden so deeply inside him he'd almost forgotten it still existed - from hoping she was right.
Closing his eyes, Neji released a long, relaxing breath as he filtered out the usual night sounds around him: chirping insects, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of the wind in the trees...
...And the rumbling snores of his sensei and teammate. Irritated, Neji cracked open one eye and glared across the still-roaring campfire at the offensive green duo, for once wishing he wasn't so well-mannered and self-controlled so he could give in to the childish urge to throw something at them.
A soft chuckle met his ears, and Neji immediately relaxed as Tenten dropped down next to him. Her hair hung in soft waves around her face and over her shoulders, still damp from being washed in the creek.
"It's good to be going home." Reaching into her pack, Tenten withdrew a brush and ran it through her hair, each stroke even and sure. "It's even better to be going home from a mission that actually went right for once."
The corner of Neji's mouth tilted up in a rare smile as he opened his other eye, having lost interest in meditating with Tenten's return. "Do you ever think about what it will be like, when we're not doing missions as Team Gai any more?" The question slipped out without permission, but he felt grateful it had. He really did want to know the answer.
Pausing mid-stroke, Tenten stared at him from around the curtain of her long chestnut waves. "What?"
Feeling oddly disappointed, Neji turned away and prodded at the fire with a long stick. "Nothing."
He listened but didn't turn around as Tenten packed away her brush, then pulled her hair back up into her signature twin buns. He very rarely ever got to see it down, and he secretly cherished each instance.
"I'll miss it."
This time Neji did turn back to her. "What?"
Tenten looked up from unrolling her blanket to smile at him. "You asked me if I'd thought about what it would be like when Team Gai no longer does missions together, and I'm answering your question. I do, and I'll be sad when it happens." Shaking out the blanket, Tenten wrapped it around her shoulders and settled back down next to him. "Oh, we've all gone on missions with other teams before, but we've always still thought of ourselves as Team Gai."
Neji nodded silent agreement. Even as much as Gai and Lee drove him crazy sometimes, and all he wanted to do was Gentle Fist them into the silent reaches of some far-off place, he still couldn't help but think of himself as part of the team. "For better or worse, it's what we've always been."
"Exactly." Tenten sounded pleased by his response. "I'll be sad when going on missions with other teams becomes a more regular occurrence, but like you just said - for better or worse, we're Team Gai. Nothing will change that."
"Yes," Neji agreed. Drawing his own blanket out of his pack, he followed Tenten's example to shield himself from the encroaching night chill. "But do you know what I'll miss more than going on missions with Team Gai?"
Tenten arched one eyebrow at him, obviously surprised. "No. Tell me?"
He resisted the urge to blurt out the truth: he'd tell her anything. "You."
A startled laugh burst out of Tenten, and she quickly covered her mouth to stifle it. "What?" She darted a quick glance at the greener half of their team to make sure they were still asleep, then spoke again in a softer tone. "I'm not going anywhere, Neji."
"That's not what I'm talking about." Giving up on trying to maintain his cool distance, Neji turned from the fire to face his kunoichi teammate completely, forcing himself to meet her curious gaze. "I am a part of Team Gai, and always will be even after we get our own teams and go our own ways. But as much as I will miss it, I will miss going on missions with you even more."
Once again, Tenten blinked. "I-" She stopped, looking stunned.
Now he'd started, he couldn't stop. The words poured out of him, one after another, the truth finally finding its voice under the cover of night. "Do you know why I always watched you when we were children at the Academy?"
She shook her head slowly, silently.
"I admired you, even then. Though you always did the same thing every day, dancing with your weapons, your patterns differed. I studied you for a long time before even realizing it, and after I did, I decided to keep watching, to see if I could detect some sort of repeating pattern. But, in all those years, you never did the same thing twice. It was always different, and even though I hated myself for doing so, I couldn't help but admire you." Neji shook his own head, half in disbelief at his younger self. "The first time you talked to me, I didn't know what to think. No one had ever approached me before, and I was afraid to let you in. Afraid I'd lose you." He had let one other person in, trusted and believed in and loved them with all his heart, and oh, how badly he'd been hurt by that loss. "I didn't want to take the chance of being hurt again, so I decided I'd ignore you."
A small smile tugged at the corner of Tenten's shapely mouth. "Good job," she said. "Even after that, I still felt you watching me."
Neji bit back a responding grin. "Yes, I know. I couldn't stop myself, couldn't completely block you out, even though I wanted to. I couldn't stop myself from hoping again, even at the risk of being hurt. I decided if Fate placed us on the same team, it would be a sign I could finally let someone in again. Let you in."
Tenten looked away, tracing patterns in the dirt with one slender, strong finger. "And we wound up on Team Gai together."
"Yes, we did." It had been a bittersweet day for him - though he'd gotten what he wanted with Tenten's presence, it hadn't been without the stipulation of dealing with the two craziest people in the village. But he would willingly do anything for any one of them - even Gai and Lee. "It has been a joy beyond words, these past few years, having you in my life, Tenten. I would-" he faltered, instinctively fighting against the urge to voice his most secret thoughts. He'd always been a private person, and though he longed for Tenten to know the truth, he wasn't sure how to voice them.
Leaning forward, Tenten grasped one of his hands in both of hers, drawing his attention back to her and assuring it would remain there. "Me, too," she whispered. "More than losing Team Gai, more than anything else, losing you would be the worst."
Neji stared down at their joined hands, willing his fingers to curl around hers. Shifting, he allowed his other hand to join the first, cupping her cold hands in his slightly warmer ones. "Promise me something?" he whispered.
"Anything." Her response was immediate, proving yet again how completely she trusted him.
"No matter what happens, no matter how many missions we go on separately, we'll always find a way to be together." He deliberately allowed the double meaning to seep into his words, finding it the easiest way to declare himself. If she were to deny him, perhaps having voiced it that way would make the sting of the rejection a little easier to bear...
Tenten withdrew her hands, and Neji instantly knew nothing could ease that hurt. He moved to turn away, but her left hand shot out and grasped his wrist. "Let me speak," she rebuked softly.
He nodded once, stiffly and unwillingly. Could he bear to hear what she had to say?
"Hyuuga Neji, do you know how long I've been waiting to hear those words from you?" Tenten smiled, softening any sting to be found in her sentence.
"I-" Neji snapped his mouth shut. "What?"
"I've been thinking the same thing for a long time. But I'm never quite sure where I stand with you - never sure if you feel the same way as I. It seems sometimes I caught glimpses of what I hoped were your true feelings, but it always disappeared so quickly, I could never be sure. But now..." Lifting her hand, she extended her pinky toward him. "I promise that no matter what happens, I'll always find a way to come back to you - as a teammate, as a friend, and..." Though she trailed off, there was a promise of so much more in her eyes.
Even though it was childish, Neji didn't hesitate to twine his pinky with hers. "And I promise the same."
Though Team Gai, as a unit, knew him better than anyone else in the world, there had always been one person who could draw him out more completely than any other.
And Neji was glad he could finally join her dance.
Author's Ending Notes: I stopped writing canonically around a year ago, so this is definitely AU - no war. I picture Neji and Tenten around eight at the beginning, then around seventeen/eighteen in the second half. I'm not quite sure what prompted this fic, but it had been rattling around in my head for a while, and I thought it would be good for my first NejiTen Month fic. Thanks again for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it!