Author's Notes: As promised, here is part two and the end of the story. Thanks for reading!
In Front Of Every Star
Part Two: If I Said I Loved You
Neji stood in the middle of the grounds that, until four years ago, he had considered their place: his and Tenten's. It was both strange and devastating all over again to think it had been so long since he had heard Tenten speak to him. It was no use pretending that he did not think of her every day, whether or not he had tried not to – and he sure as hell had tried not to, using everything from missions to seclusion at the compound to try and escape the memory of her.
Will you be my wife?
A question posed years ago still haunted him as much as the scent and feel of her. Aiming a chakra blow at a training post, he watched the wood splinter and saw in his peripheral vision a pair of birds fly out of a tree and into the sky.
The beautiful days hurt most, when the skies were lovely, because he could always see her there, dancing with her dragons.
I have only ever wanted to be yours. And now I am.
Neji wondered if her voice would sound different now from the absence of battle cries, the lack of admonishments toward him and Lee. He knew she had not changed in appearance. He saw her sometimes, every couple of months if the timing was right, when she walked through the Konoha market to carry food home to her husband, the man who saw her every night.
He had felt thrown into the depths of his own sadness the day Tsunade had explained her course for helping the Land of Fire. And he had watched her wedding using Byakugan, hundreds of feet away from the actual ceremony site. He remembered the words in his head that day, a bitter bidding that she marry a man she didn't love if it pleased her, damning her accursed inability to tell her village no, hoping that stranger Izanagi's kiss kept her warm because he would be fine, fine on his own…
All lies and self-deceptions.
Neji's unique eyes spotted a kunai left in a vacant training post; not thrown by her hand, of course, but it would have been in another world.
Troubles would find her, he was sure, knowing how her whole life she had never been able to avoid them. Even if she had left him behind, choosing duty first and him second, he could not detach himself from her well-being simply because of jealousy.
Neji promised himself the same thing he had promised her on that night he could not forget.
Where I live has never bothered me. And you'll be there.
Yes. I'll be there.
One of the few pleasures Tenten had in her marriage lay in the friendships she had formed with other civilian women who lived in the evenly spread cluster of homes distanced from Konoha. It was thanks to these women (Yukiru, Kaori, and Tomoe, by name) that she had eventually grown accustomed to all of her tasks – laundry in particular.
In return, they revered her, in awe of her tales of missions, of Gai and Lee, of living just ahead of danger and loving it – things that all felt like a long, wonderful dream now. They offered much-needed sympathy when she finally confessed her reasons for being married to Izanagi Hideki and how she yearned to go back to that life that kept her living by the edge of her blade. Many of the women were in arranged marriages as well, but the ones in love with their husbands recognized that she too had once known the emotion. But Tenten made it a priority to never speak of Neji, feeling she would tarnish him in some way.
Most of all, it was Yukiru, Kaori, and Tomoe who helped her realize the entirety of the mistake she had made.
In the fifth spring of her marriage, the three of them appeared without warning, their housewife's hands beating frantically at the door until she heard them from her place behind the house and called them to her. When they found her, Tenten was at the top of a tall ladder, washing the outside panes of the upper-story windows.
"What is it?" she asked, sincerely concerned when she saw their trembling shoulders and blanched faces. "What has happened?"
"Your husband!" cried out Yukiru, the youngest and most newly wed of all of them.
Tomoe tried to elaborate. "Izanagi-san, he…" She shivered even though the day was warm, unable to go on.
Impatient, Tenten slung her dirty towel over her shoulder. This was her only unfading problem with civilian women. They were far too delicate. "Please, has something happened to Hideki?" She had never once referred aloud to Izanagi Hideki as her husband.
It was Kaori, at last, who explained the situation. The eldest of them all, her tone was desperate but loud, her anger steadily rising as she spoke. "He's a traitor, Tenten! Izanagi was found by Rock-nin – they've finally infiltrated the Land of Fire – and he promised them a surrender by first the Land of Wind, then Fire. He's taking them now to Sunagakure to show them secret entrances so they can attack."
At first, Tenten had a difficult time comprehending this message. When the news sank in, however, she responded so swiftly and with such rage that she was moving faster than she had in years. Leaping from atop the ladder, she landed on bent knee before her three fellow wives.
"Quickly now!" she commanded. "I must change. Tomoe, go to my storage house and bring my katana from beneath the box of wood you'll find there! Yukiru, get the large scroll from inside the closet next to the front door! Kaori, there is a pouch filled with small bombs stowed in my china cabinet, bring it to me!"
The women looked frightened of handling these weapons but one fierce look from their friend had them scrambling to obey the orders. Tenten jumped to the branch of a nearby tree and climbed to her bedroom through the window. She pulled a long unused uniform of red and white from the bottom drawer in the chest she shared with Hideki. Changed, she went to her bed for one last thing. Reaching beneath the mattress on her side of the bed, she pulled out her old Konoha hitae-ate and wrapped it tightly around her head.
Meeting the three gathered women in front of the house, Tenten stopped for only a moment to utter a word of thanks and hoped it would suffice for all that she wanted to say. They stood watching as she flew from tree branch to tree branch until she was out of sight, and all four understood the real meaning of her farewell:
Tenten would not be coming back.
She had ruled out going to Konoha to warn Tsunade because, though her friends had done well by telling her what had transpired, there were trained Konoha informants stationed constantly along the border who would have discovered Hideki's plan before three housewives. Chances were good that Tsunade had already been told and had sent out retaliation.
Tenten, however, had her own plans for dealing with her disloyal husband.
They didn't make it far. Bred for speed by Maito Gai, Tenten caught up to them in only three quarters of an hour, though she was dismayed to see that there were four shinobi who appeared to be at least Chuunin status. All she could hope for was that her skills were not as rusty as she feared and that the useless Hideki wouldn't get in the way.
Hideki spotted her first. "Tenten?" He had never seen her fully armed. He eyed the large scroll on her back with some surprise, and then forced a nervous smile. "Just ignore her, gentleman!" he pleaded weakly. "She is my headstrong wife, a bit too impulsive. You know how women are…"
One of the shinobi grinned devilishly, the Earth plate over his forehead gleaming in the bright sun. "I'd like to know that woman anyway," he muttered. "What say we strike a new deal, Izanagi? Your wife for— SHIT!"
Tenten watched blood spill from the place where the rude shinobi's lower lip used to be before she had aimed a shuriken at it. Now there was only a jagged cut and a fountain of blood mixed with saliva to mourn its loss.
Slowly she drew her katana from the sheath slanting over her back. "I and those who have my respect don't stand for traitors," she murmured, looking at the enemy shinobi but undoubtedly speaking to Hideki.
The injured one's comrades immediately moved forward, but Tenten leapt with all her strength into the air, unraveling her scroll as she rose and using the katana to deflect an upward onslaught of kunai. All ten fingers controlled fully-activated chakra strings in under sixty seconds, and then came the punishment: a volley of metal, blades, spikes, blunt objects – all caught the light and flashed like a thousand stars as her opponents ran for cover.
Of course, being in the wide-open desert, there was no cover to be found. Hideki was spared only because she was a mistress of perfect aim, even when she controlled so many weapons at once.
She needn't have worried about the shinobi, Tenten realized. All three lay dead in the sand, and it had only taken fifteen minutes, tops.
Tenten heard what was sure to be a team from Konoha make their approach. But they could wait. Keeping both her steps and breathing even, she moved toward Hideki, her eyes shaded by the fall of her mahogany bangs.
He stared up at her from his knees on the ground, his face blank with – not wonder – but sheer lack of knowledge. Hideki had only seen Tenten train. She had never cared enough for his opinion to tell him she was actually good in live combat.
"You," she muttered lowly, "are not a man. I don't even believe you havea spine. You were ready to surrender and put both our countries in the chains of the Land of Earth!" Rage bubbled up quickly, raising the volume of her voice; she was eager to strip her husband of any delusions of pride he had. "You think I don't know about your brothel whores? They've made you weak! Sake has left you soft!"
She saw his mouth turn downward, the frown looking dangerous but that was all. And Tenten didn't fear looks.
"There isn't even a drop of warrior blood in you!" she shrieked, nearly seeing red. "I've born all I must of your pathetic whims and needs. Do you know what you are today? A useless shinobi. A dead weight in war. And a disgrace to your clan!" The vision of him sitting there without drive on the ground made her want to kick him in the side, but she restrained herself.
Hideki did get to his feet in time. He had been bruised by the enemy shinobi, no more. He gave a small chuckle when he met her eyes. "I've had enough of this joke," he spat at her. "I agreed to this marriage, sure, because I was under the impression that I'd actually get a wife. Yet I married you, someone who won't even put on a fucking dress. I've been patient with you, Tenten, in your pants and training shoes. I even handled you throwing metal all morning. The gist, dear," he snarled, his eyes narrowing, "is that I can't go on being married to a guy! Oh yeah," he said when she looked ready to talk, "I'm pressed to admit you're an ace with a blade, admirably taught…but if someone here isn't what they should be, it's you! You're no woman!"
"No," she seethed, mutiny coming through in her tone. Overhead, the sky began to darken, as though nature was following the lead of her mood. "I'm done. You can go on with your wretched, useless life, Hideki. Live on by letting others die for you. But it won't be as my husband."
"Are you trying to dismiss me, Tenten?" He laughed at that, head thrown back, but she could tell that there was thriving hate for her in his mind. "It can't be done. Don't forget the reason we were married in the first place. The Elders of my village will disapprove, and Konoha will be thrown out of favor."
Tenten couldn't help it. Her lips spread wide, showing teeth, before she broke down in an genuine laugh of her own. "You're a fool, Hideki. Don't you realize? It has been five years since I damned myself to a horrible life by marrying you. The Elders of Sunagakure are dead. It is you alone who will lack favor."
She started to turn away from him, but his enraged shout halted her. "No! No, Tenten! We could be bound still, the two of us! You could be pregnant now with my child, and that would secure…would secure…"
"Your honor?" Disgusted, Tenten glared, puzzled at what could have possessed her to abandon her integrity and waste five years on such a person. "No, not even then could your honor be saved. I carry no child in me."
"How do you know?" he demanded. "How?"
Her lips quirked upward. "Because every week when I went to Konoha for your food, I bought a little something for me: an herbal contraceptive. Didn't you ever notice that I always drank tea before bed?"
Tenten guessed by Hideki's infuriated screams that she had achieved the revenge she hadn't even known she wanted. She left her prison-bound spouse standing alone in the sand, turning instead to face the team that had been sent from Konoha.
Neji stood directly in front of her, only two yards away. Her lungs seemed to become paralyzed, air suddenly precious as she struggled to keep down the shock. But the Hyuuga was then walking forward toward her, and she felt the first icy drops of rain on the back of her neck.
He did not halt his steps until he was standing right beside her, facing in the opposite direction. Tenten knew he could see her as well as if his eyes had been placed directly on her tense form.
"You heard?" she managed to ask, relieved when her voice came steadily.
Neji took a sharp breath, as though he was struck by her quiet tone. "All of it," he replied honestly. They let several tightly-wound moments pass without event until he added, just as softly: "Where will you go?"
She knew better than to think it was out of concern that he asked her. "Home, of course." Forcing her legs to move, she continued onward, never daring to look back, careful to walk in the blind spot of Neji's Byakugan.
Thunder rolled and lightning struck, reflecting the way Tenten felt inside.
She sat in the trimmed grass of a gently-sloping hill, watching a small stream journey on over stones smoothed to perfection. Tenten had been here for hours, plucking idly at the petals of wildflowers – not in order to predict her admirer's affections as young girls did, but only because she wanted something to do with her hands.
The apartment she had left empty upon her marriage to Izanagi Hideki had not been leased since her departure from Konoha. The landlady, Tenten had learned, had been indisposed to rent it to anyone other than her and had happily returned the documents bearing her signature. The key she carried was the same one she had always owned, and the familiar weight of it in her pocket was like a welcoming gift.
Her friends had made no exception in letting her know they were glad of her return; Lee and Gai had given her such a tearful, overzealous greeting that she was currently doubting the wellbeing of her spine, so forceful had been their embraces. She had shared a drink with the other working ninja in her generation when Tsunade had officially replaced her name upon the roster for kunoichi available for missions – sans the surname. It was starting to seem as though she had never been married.
Of course, little things reminded her that she indeed had been. For instance, the only reason she was sitting here now, hours after night had fallen, was because it had been difficult to sleep in the two weeks since her arrival in Konoha. An empty bed was not easy to tolerate after five years of sharing one, whether or not she had enjoyed Hideki's presence. She found she preferred cool ground to cool sheets, and she delighted in the golden-white glow of tonight's moon.
But the loneliness was still there, and nothing Tenten did could fully banish it.
Footsteps on dewy grass stirred her from her reverie and alerted her to another's arrival at her quiet hill. Casting a sharp-eyed glance over her shoulder, she spotted Neji, luminous in the night with his usual ensemble of pure-white and eyes of silver.
Her lips formed his name, but no sound accompanied it. Their paths had not crossed since the day she had left Hideki, and now, minutes from sunrise, here he was.
"I didn't find you at your apartment," he said, the sound of his voice startling because it was still so recent in its reality.
"That's…that's because I'm not there," Tenten explained, realizing belatedly how foolish a thing that was to say. Neji only exhaled a little, his jaw losing just a bit of its constant tightness.
A quiet settled over them. Tenten had the painful thought that tonight's sky was not so very different from one they had witnessed together half a decade ago, before the world had drawn in around her. Turning away, she buried her face in her hands.
"Why did you come here, Neji?" Her voice was muffled by her fingers.
She didn't see the way his eyes turned downward. "That's something I've been asking myself." He went wordless for a full three minutes; Tenten wondered if he would leave with the revelation that he truly had no reason for being there. "You should know that I tried very hard to hate you," he said at last.
Her shoulders shook with both the effort it took not to sob and the chuckle she breathed out. "I couldn't blame you."
"I even considered leaving Konoha for another country. It was worse than hell, being so near to you without actually having you always in sight. I wanted to be somewhere no trace of you could survive."
Tenten went to her feet but couldn't find the strength to face him. Neji was confusing her. The words should have made her feel like her heart was bleeding, but there was only a dull ache. No accusation was threaded between the syllables. She actually felt calmed by the way he spoke to her.
"But I couldn't go. I'd have felt no better than the coward Izanagi turned out to be if I gave up on this country. It took time, but eventually I realized you only left me for the sake of the village…all of the Land of Fire."
She kept her eyes trained on the stream. An autumn-browned leaf, fallen from an oak, appeared bronze in the light as it floated unobtrusively against the bank. Pressure she was unable to ignore rose higher in her chest until she pressed a hand there, trying to contain it. Tenten failed.
"You never married," she blurted out, squeezing her eyes shut because she knew she didn't deserve the beauty of her hometown after what she had put her former teammate and fiancée through.
Silence stretched, but Tenten had the feeling she was the only one of them truly bothered by it. "How could I have left myself available to your needs if I had?"
Gasping, she whirled – but Neji was there, catching her wrist as they flew at her sides and pulling her body fully against his own so not a breath of air was between them. Tenten's chest heaves with violent emotion, and she had the strangest urge to hurt something – herself probably – but Neji's grip on her prevented her from moving as much as an inch.
"Our lives yielded for reasons you alone saw," he murmured in her ear. The warmth of his breath, remembered in dreams for five years, caused her eyes to fill, the moonlight misting in her vision. Another second, and her cheeks were wet. "But really, they only delayed. I would have died alone before I chose someone over you."
Tenten's sobs came freely now as her arms wrapped around him. "It doesn't make sense, Neji!" she exclaimed. Her heart pounded because he had crossed the line. The proper response, she was sure, would be to turn to frost. But she never could. Certainly she had imagined Neji would have thought her cruel to presume he might have continued loving her…though she had felt that way for him, all her life…
She couldn't help wondering, even now, what he would say and do if she confessed that to him. It would be like risking the tide.
"No," he agreed, his smile pressed to her temple in a way that ached with its familiarity. "Perhaps not. But you… You never had his child."
Her hands curled into the loose fabric of his shirt. "I would never force a child to grow up knowing he was the product of a loveless union." She didn't know if was for this very way of thinking that Neji had never stopped loving her.
"Then," Neji ventured after moments filled with her ragged breathing and his racing pulse, "what about a union…not loveless?"
She lifted her head with a jerk, her eyes shooting to his. Tenten searched his gaze for several moments but found him absolutely serious. "I can hardly believe you," she whispered, her hands trembling against his chest.
Her heart might have stopped when he kissed her in answer. Her eyes slid promptly shut, and Neji staggered backward with her until his back met the trunk of a tree. Tenten let herself be held – and, she thought, loved again – suffering the memory of hundreds of nights she had missed him.
It felt like the world drawing in again, but this time, they were part of it. Land, water, air…all seemed to relate to the mending of the hearts reaching for each other during the kiss beside the stream.
"I'll be your wife," she murmured when his lips left hers. "I finally will be yours."
The promise was accepted with his hand at her cheek. "I don't want to tell anyone yet," he said softly.
"It's been a secret for five years already, Neji," she laughed, tilting her head to the side. "Why would you want to hide—"
"Just the sky, Tenten, for now." He pressed his lips briefly to her forehead, then her jaw. "Just the sky will know."
She understood, and smiled. She turned in his arms, reveling in the power of the man that held her. Tenten watched as the sun made its first appearance of the day, and silently declared their love in front of every star in sight.
It felt like their lives, so long delayed, were finally beginning with this dawn. As the day grew bright, so did their happiness.