A/N: Welcome to the final chapter. I would do my thank-you's here, but I'm sure you're all anxious to read the ending (more of an epilogue feel, if you ask me), so all my notes as well as the announcement of an upcoming project is at the end of the chapter. Enjoy the finale!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fic.
Daring To Bleed
Chapter Ten: Elaborate Lives
The volunteers working in the Land of Wind had been separated within Suna according to their place of origin. Since Tenten was the only one from Konoha, she had acquired a place more spacious than, say, those from the Grass, who had come in a group of eight and all lived together in one building.
And because Kiwamura Sanosuke was the only citizen hailing from the Waterfull, he too had a residence all to himself, and he used it to complete his work. The lower story was used as his home, holding a bedroom, bathroom, and small cooking area, and gave no sign that he was anything more than a normal, if superbly talented, shinobi. Upstairs…
Gaara's keen eyes took in every nook and cranny; small lanterns burning gold-red oil flickered over the "workshop" on the second floor of the housing he had provided for Kiwamura. Blueprints leaned in the corners and dangled off the edges of a multiplicity of tables set up all over the large room. Weapons – some he recognized to be Tenten's work – sat in cases against each wall. Maps of the Land of Wind and its surrounding nations littered the floor. Cracked pens, ink stains, dirty rags, tools, and scrolls all haunted the vicinity like bloodthirsty phantoms threatening an unsuspecting life. Kiwamura himself was out.
"He's been busy." Kankurou spoke from Gaara's side as the brothers inspected the place. "But he's so unobtrusive…we never had any reason to suspect—'
"No, he's useful," corrected Gaara. "So we would not want to suspect him. An electric wirer from the Waterfall, a village that powers itself with hydroelectricity." The Kazekage's eyes narrowed. "What were we thinking when we hired him?"
"We thought," Kankurou said, "that he was our only option three years ago. There was no other country allied with us that could boast to have an electrician within their borders. Of course," he added, bringing up a thick file clutched in his hand, "the Land of Waterfall did no boasting at all, considering these credentials are forged. I wouldn't be surprised if 'Kiwamura' isn't even his real name."
Gaara didn't so much as glance at the documents, choosing to take Kankurou at his word. "A costly mistake on our part. It leaves the question that if he works for the Mist rather than the Waterfall, why has he waited so long to act?"
"He needed someone to trust him," came a smooth voice from the door. The sand master and the puppet user turned to see a figure in the doorway with a hand resting on a cocked hip, and a smirk forming beneath gleaming teal eyes. "And I can see I'm the only one here witty enough to realize that," continued Temari with a grin at her brothers.
"Temari," greeted Kankurou. "When did you get he—"
"About ten minutes ago," she cut him off. "I got filled in on things from those guards Gaara's supposed to keep with him, and I found out about the attack of the office building three days ago right before I left to come back."
"What about the Chuunin Exam you're supposed to be running?" inquired Gaara, his tone as uninflected as ever.
"Shikamaru's got a handle on things, and I'll be going back when this is cleared." Temari rolled her eyes when both of them simultaneously remembered her engagement to the Nara heir, and she fielded any impending questions. "We'll talk later. As I was saying, Kiwamaru needed someone to trust him while he planned the sabotage on the construction project."
"But he doesn't mingle with anybody," stated Kankurou, folding his arms. "He has no real friends here."
"Sure he does," countered Temari, approaching them. "Someone in the same boat as him, without any fellow ninja from home to spot any possible inconsistencies in his acting. Tenten." She aimed a serious look at Gaara, though worry tinged the shine in her gaze now that she'd mentioned the person Gaara had been having feelings for. "Not a bad choice, considering how close you two were getting. Kiwamura used to speak with Tenten in her shop, however briefly. And they even worked together on a wiring project once. He probably counted on Tenten lobbying for him if you and Kankurou started to give him any flak."
"Except that there's a hole in your theory," Gaara replied evenly. "It was Tenten who had us inspect Kiwamura."
"Then it seems," Temari relayed without missing a beat, "that he talked just a little too much."
She had no sooner arrived at this conclusion when the man in question appeared at the top of the stairs, his arms full of various equipment. His green eyes widened slightly, apparently not having heard their conversation, and some of the paraphernalia clattered loudly to the floor. "Gaara-sama," he murmured, already backing down a couple of steps.
"Come on." Before he could move anymore, Kankurou released a string of chakra that encircled his waist, and he hauled the potential traitor up toward them. "Stay a minute." Kiwamura's knees landed on the hard floor, and he grimaced.
"Please," he implored, "what's going here? I just came to—"
"Devise further your plan," finished Gaara. True fear entered the usually-emotionless man's face, and one could only imagine how the three siblings appeared, cast in the demonic red glow of the lit lanterns. "I tried an unsavory number of times to negotiate with the Land of Water. My efforts were, quite plainly, in vain."
At that, the fear suddenly drained from Kiwamura's expression to be replaced by extreme dislike. "Of course, Kazekage Gaara." His voice had changed now from unknowing to cruelly accepting. "You take our business and our money, first with your shinobi, now with your land. What can a nation do but retaliate as they must?"
"Your daimyo should learn to investigate the feelings of his competition," noted Temari, one eyebrow lifted in lack of impression. "We of the Sand are not without thought to those in the Mist."
"Your pity is unneeded!"
"That's not what it looks like to me," said Kankurou. "Right now, though, we really don't have any pity to give. The Kazekage's office destroyed, innocent people attacked, a good kunoichi taken advantage of—"
"What, that whore?" Kiwamura let out a short peal of mirthless laughter. "That Tenten who dropped you the second she laid eyes on an old teammate? She served her purpose, a suitable distraction to practically everyone here while I infiltrated your obviously weak system and prepared to destroy it all. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if she's with that Hyuuga right now, laughing behind your back while they—"
But he was silenced quite instantaneously by a sand-created hand squeezing around his neck.
"I do not believe," Gaara said quietly, his anger making it difficult to keep his tone and face impassive, "that you want to complete that sentence." Kiwamura gagged, his eyes bulging, and he clawed furiously at the hand that held him but met only tightly-grouped grains of sediment. Gaara released him after several moments, and he fell on his side, wheezing, and was unconscious within seconds.
"What shall we do with him?" Kankurou asked at last.
"Interrogate him," Gaara ordered, remnants of emotion thickening his voice as he headed for the door. "Get the details of his plan and the names of those working with him. Then get in touch with the Mist. He'll make a good example if they try anything again, and…" He paused unexpectedly.
"And what?" His siblings blinked at his back.
"And tell that worthless daimyo of theirs that I am still opening myself to negotiation, whether or not he decides to take advantage of the opportunity."
As Gaara whisked out, Temari turned to look at Kankurou, a sheen of wonder coating her eyes. "That's…"
"Not what I thought he would say," nodded Kankurou. He smiled, then shook his head with a soft chuckle. "Maybe the last three years haven't been a waste like I thought."
"How is Gaara doing?" questioned Temari, watching her brother haul Kiwamura up and over his shoulders.
"Not as bad as you'd think," he replied honestly. "But Tenten…and that Hyuuga Neji…you knew, didn't you? That if he came here, she would—"
"Yeah," she said quickly. "But I was pretty sure, too, that Gaara would…that he'd be fine. Eventually." They stood in silence for a moment, then Temari sighed. "If nothing else, there's been a change in him."
Kankurou nodded his agreement. "And despite the circumstances, I wouldn't say it's a bad one."
Lee was dragging his pack on the ground, leaving a wide trail in the sand at his feet as he neared the village gates. "I don't think I got enough," he informed the pair at his side. "We're going to need enough to last us three days."
"Idiot," muttered Neji, though his voice held no true admonishment. "We need more food than dumplings. We've got enough to get home."
"But the dumplings are—!"
Tenten smiled as she listened to them argue, thinking it was much like their Genin days. She still wore a set of plain robes to cope with the heat and would not be changing until tomorrow when they were out of the Land of Wind. Slipping her pack around her shoulders, she turned away from the Konoha shinobi to face the two people seeing them off. "I can't thank you enough for your hospitality."
"Three years is a long time to do the work you've done for us," replied Temari, spreading her hands to take Tenten's. "It's this country that should be thanking you."
"I've already signed the check," Kankurou chortled. "You should be set for quite awhile."
"That doesn't matter," Tenten assured him, but Temari smiled.
"I'll be bringing the rest of your things along when I return to Konoha myself. You're sure you don't mind us taking the apartment here?"
"Consider it my early wedding gift to you and Shikamaru." Tenten had learned that once they married, Shikamaru and Temari planned on spending half the year in either Konoha or Suna, and she highly doubted that they would want to share a residence with Kankurou and Gaara. "Nothing seems like a loss now that the Mist have been stopped."
Neji approached them, touching a hand almost casually to the small of Tenten's back, but the affection was there. Lee bounded over with a wide smile. "Do you think that the Mist's daimyo will want to talk to Gaara-san?" he queried.
"We're not sure," Temari confided. "They're a stubborn group."
Tenten nodded, casting a glance around. "Speaking of Gaara…I guess he decided not to show up."
"He's busy," Kankurou told her apologetically. "What with Kiwamura's followers being apprehended, and the meetings with the contractors, he hasn't had time to—"
Tenten cut him off with a kind word. "I understand. But I…" She looked up at Neji. "It would've been nice to say goodbye."
The silence was awkward for a moment, but then Kankurou held out his hand. "You'll visit?"
"Of course," Tenten smiled, shaking. "I may need a brush-up lesson on chakra strings." She turned her pleased expression to Temari. "Or on how to use tessen."
And there, in the aridity of the day, friendships forged and strengthened, alliances were renewed. It was, the five of them realized, everything the Lands of Fire and Wind had ever hoped for. Neji and Lee shook hands with Kankurou, Tenten embraced Temari. They weren't warriors, in this moment of goodbye, but people. Human.
Something each of them, from time to time, forgot they were.
Neji turned to Tenten, allowing his fingers to slide from her back into her hand. "Are you ready?"
Tenten closed her eyes, imagining cool streams and shadowy forests and dappled sunlight. She was, it was understood, picturing home. "Yes," she murmured, opening her eyes again and turning them to her other teammate. "Lee?"
He shot her a grin that sparkled. Tenten experienced something new, with Neji holding her hand, and a fully grown Lee staring down at her. She felt…wiser, somehow. Despite the fact that as ninja they could never truly be considered normal people, it was becoming apparent that their lives were not so elaborate that they could not feel what normal people felt. Camaraderie, concern, happiness, belonging…
The three of them – the reformed, rejuvenated Team Gai – crossed the threshold of the Sand village together, leaving the city boundaries and meeting open desert that would become dirt road and brilliant grass before too long. Warmth beat down upon them from above, and suddenly Tenten felt another kind of heat. Halting, she turned her head to the left and then lifted a hand to block the sun's glare as she look upwards.
There, standing on one of the towering cliffs and nearly silhouetted by the sun, was Gaara. His robes flapped as they wished in the high-altitude breeze, and his crossed arms were not forbidding but familiar. The sheen of red hair and the flash of aquamarine eyes made Tenten comprehend that there were things to this place, things to Gaara himself, that she would never forget…nor did she want to.
His life, too, was elaborate. Yet he had seen fit to care for her. She still felt something, but it was platonic now, more sincere and more honest. It was, she suspected, exactly what he had been waiting for.
From up on his cliff with his breeze and his sky, Gaara raised a hand in farewell. And perhaps it was a trick of her mind, a play of the sun, but Tenten truly thought that she could see a smile on his face; one of understanding, of forgiveness, of daring. For he was Gaara, and he would dare again to care for someone else one day.
Her reverie broken, she brought her attention back to the man at her side. Meeting cool eyes of pale silver, she stepped toward him, and Neji held her in the way she had dreamed of in the years before the Sand.
"I love you," she murmured. And Neji, when he spoke, asked the question that she had expected, had been waiting for.
Looking up, she grinned. There was light in both her eyes and her voice. "Because you dared to love me."
"You guys!" called Lee from ahead. "Let's show Gai-sensei that we are still youthful and hurry home faster than we ever have before!"
Home, Tenten thought. Neji's hand tightened on hers.
It was just one more thing for which they dared to bleed.
Notes: Ohhhh, it's over! I've had so much fun writing this fic. It became difficult to write here and that, but I think I pulled through, and I'm still so astounded at how many of you liked this fic. I know there were some people that were hoping for things to turn out differently in regards to Tenten "choice" but truly, I planned for her to be with Neji from the beginning – this fic was, after all, a sequel to a smaller fic that was NejiTen from the start. And I tried to be as nice to Gaara as I could, hinting that he'll also find love someday.
Upcoming Projects: Well, I do have another big one planned, but I'm going to take a break for awhile and work on smaller one-shots. Multi-chapter stories are taxing, especially with my job and all of that. But I will tell you that I will be spending time outlining a NejiTen and SasuSaku Chinese Historical AU epic (as challenged by the Neji x Tenten FC) and the fic itself will be debuting sometime next year.
Lastly, thank you to all that read this fic and kept so wonderfully in touch. I'm glad you weren't afraid to let me know what you thought and that, for the most part, the response was positive. I hope to keep hearing from you in the future. Again, thank you and do take care.