A/N: Thank you so much for your patience! The chapter is finally here – don't worry I'm just as amazed. I'm fairly sure that there's a ton of stuff that can be done to improve this chapter but meh, at least it's written ^^ Don't forget to leave me a review – I could do with some con-crit!
Warnings: Some lemony stuff later in the chapter – skip if you don't like. Don't say I didn't warn you!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of the characters or places used in this story
Shikamaru stared at Neji, a slight frown drawing his brows together. "What do you mean you know him?" he asked, already trying to think through the implications of Neji's statement. Neji stepped away from the door, the crashes and muffled cursing from inside clearly showing that Temari had heard the conversation between her husband and Shikamaru.
"I mean, I saw him in the compound once," Neji shrugged, "he was leaving as I was entering. I got a good look at him – I'm not mistaken. The man at your door just now was the same man. He had business to conduct with the leader of the organization, so I'm assuming his links with them are less than innocent."
Slowly Shikamaru made his way to the couch, dropping down in an absentminded way, his hands automatically forming his 'thinking pose'.
"So," he mused, "we've got a feudal lord that's lining his own pocket on the side."
Neji cleared his throat, "Not exactly, I think it's worse than that. The organization I worked for was creating an army of civilians implanted with unstable shinobi powers …"
His voice trailed off as the two men stared hard at each other.
Shikamaru jumped to his feet, "So, you think he's in on that? What does a feudal lord want with an army of civilians with powers they can't control? Unless…" he stared at Neji in silent horror. The Hyuuga's expression did not reflect his troubled thoughts, as always, but Shikamaru could see the faint lines of worry tightening around his eyes and mouth.
Neji nodded slowly, "Yes, that's what I'm wondering."
The door opened and a frantic-looking Temari emerged fully dressed and still tying her hair up into her customary four ponytails.
"What?" she asked, coming to a halt when she noticed the tension in the air, and the worry on Shikamaru's face.
Slowly both men turned to look at her. Shikamaru cleared his throat, "What do you know about your husband's dealings as feudal lord? His relationship with Gaara in particular?"
Temari stared at him in confusion, clearly wondering why he was asking such questions when time was of the essence in ensuring that they didn't get caught.
"I- what? Not much. He's not Gaara's biggest fan, but I guess they get along fairly well considering that Gaara has the more powerful position."
Neji made a jerky movement toward the door, and Shikamaru reached out to grab his arm.
"Wait, it proves nothing," he tried to reason.
Neji stopped and turned to Shikamaru with a skeptical expression darkening his features.
"It's good enough for me – and if the Land of Wind is connected with outlawed shinobi, then what's to say that there aren't other Feudal lords with the same idea? Kami knows, no one could blame the Fire Country's Feudal Lord for not being particularly fond of Danzou!"
Shikamaru shook his head again, "But, it still proves nothing! All we know is that Jiku visited your organization and that said organization is in the business of armies-implanted-with-powers," he argued without real conviction – his gut was telling him that they were on to something too.
Neji snorted, "Fine, that's what we know. What do you think, then?"
The impatience in his voice was badly concealed and Shikamaru ran a tired hand over his face again, ignoring Temari's insistent looks. Why did everyone have to have so much energy all the time?
"I think that the Wind Country's feudal lord is planning on trying to overthrow the shinobi village with an army of very dangerous civilians," he admitted reluctantly.
Neji worried his lower lip between his teeth as he leapt from roof to roof, keeping pace with Shikamaru just slightly ahead of him. What they'd uncovered did not bode well – for anyone involved. They'd quickly come to the conclusion that the only chance they had of saving Suna and Konoha – possibly all the shinobi villages – was to get Gaara convinced as quickly as possible. Kami knew they had less than no chance of convincing Danzou of their findings and should they, by some miraculous means, actually manage to convince the Hokage, there was no telling what the man would do, or even if he'd do anything at all. No, Gaara was by far the better bet.
Shikamaru had quickly sent Temari ahead, to meet her husband as requested, but also to get her brother alone. The fewer people who knew of their suspicions the better. Despite the very real threat to his home – a place he'd sworn to protect with his life if necessary – Neji found that he only really cared about getting to Tenten. To explain? To ask for her forgiveness? He wasn't really sure. But the threat of death loomed over their heads and nothing seemed to matter quite as much as making sure that Tenten knew that he loved her, no matter what either of them had done.
They reached a crossroads and both men drew to a halt. Shikamaru waved a hand in the direction of the Hyuuga compound.
"Last time I checked, you weren't supposed to be running around without permission. Go. I'll handle Gaara and Danzou."
Neji grimaced but there was too much truth in Shikamaru's words to be ignored – he'd come too far to ruin it all now. With a slight inclination of his head Neji turned, aware of Shikamaru rushing off in the opposite direction behind him. Rooftop after rooftop disappeared beneath his sandaled feet but his mind was disengaged from the actions his body performed. A mere block from the Hyuuga compound Neji abruptly turned to the right. He had to see Tenten. No matter what the risk.
The Hokage's office was crowded with people. The Kazekage and his retinue mingled with Konoha council members and Shikamaru took a deep breath before entering the office proper. Luckily the ANBU stationed outside had taken one look at his serious expression, listened quietly to his explanation that it was of the utmost importance that he speak to the Hokage, and let him inside without argument.
Temari was speaking quietly to Gaara, her husband had engaged Danzou in a discussion, and Shikamaru could see the way the Kazekage's expression changed, a slight frown drawing lines on his forehead. He stared at his sister for a long moment before he nodded once. Temari turned and her gaze met Shikamaru's. He jerked his head in the direction of the hallway and she nodded imperceptibly. From the corner of his eye, as he turned to exit the room, Shikamaru could see Temari tugging on Gaara's sleeve but then he was outside and he quickly made his way to the end of the hallway, and the stairs that led to the roof.
Shikamaru headed for the railing, straining his senses to try and ascertain if any chakra signatures where close enough for them to overhear his explanation to the Kazekage. There was a rustle of robes, the sound of sand swirling in the wind – sounds that made him think of blazing suns and desert – and Shikamaru turned slowly to face Temari's brother.
The Kazekage was expressionless as always, but the mere fact that he had come up here at all gave Shikamaru hope that maybe they weren't too late – maybe there was still something that could be done.
"Kazekage-sama," Shikamaru said, bowing slightly.
Gaara merely inclined his head and waited silently for Shikamaru to get to the point. Shikamaru turned to face the breath-taking view of Konoha that spread below him – so peaceful, so serene – and determination ran through him. Safeguarding the peace below relied on his explanation to Gaara, and unconsciously his hands formed his thinking pose as he rested his elbows on the railing.
"I don't know what Temari-san has told you," he began, careful to keep any indication of intimacy with the Kazekage's sister from his voice. To his surprise Gaara replied in that slow, careful way of his.
"She told me enough for me to realize that what you have to say may be of grave importance for the shinobi villages."
Shikamaru nodded and quickly got his thoughts in order.
"Through a former Konoha missing-nin we have gained some information about an outlaw organization that gave us quite a bit of trouble a few years ago. We thought them destroyed but it has now come to light that they've been quietly amassing an army. An army implanted with unstable shinobi powers. It seems that one of the leaders is quite a gifted medical-nin and he's somehow developed a technique that allows him to transpose bloodline limits into ordinary citizens. Thus his army is potentially limitless. Worrying as that is, it is not the worst that we have heard. According to this missing-nin Jiku-sama is involved with this organization." Shikamaru couldn't help the twist to his lips when adding the honorific to that man's name but he could not afford to alienate Gaara through his own personal opinions.
Gaara nodded and also leaned his arms on the railing, "Continue."
"Well, when I first heard that Jiku-sama was involved I only assumed that he was trying to make some extra money, or gain some influence, through unorthodox channels but given what we know about the organization's army – added to the fact that this organization has indicated that the armies are in aid of attacking the shinobi villages – I think his dealings with them are of a more sinister nature." Shikamaru paused, unsure of how to articulate his fears without outright accusing the feudal lord of treason and sedition.
"You think that Jiku is trying to overthrow my rule," Gaara stated it for him, "and since one Feudal Lord is involved what's to say that the others aren't too. Thus there is a potential threat to Konoha as well."
Shikamaru nodded. Gaara's features had yet to reform into anything other than a serious expression and Shikamaru couldn't help but wonder if that boded well or ill for them.
Suddenly Gaara straightened up. "You're making very serious accusations here. And it seems that you're basing all of your assumptions on nothing more than the word of a missing-nin. Do you have any other proof?"
Reluctantly Shikamaru shook his head. This was the difficult part. How to explain that he trusted Neji to have told the truth? How to make the Kazekage trust his gut feeling? Because Shikamaru's gut feeling told him very eloquently that they were spot-on with their assumptions.
"Kazekage-sama. The missing-nin is trustworthy, and I believe that he has already given what information he has to the Hokage. Though the part about the feudal lords have only come to our attention a few hours ago."
"Why not approach your Hokage then?" Gaara asked coolly, but Shikamaru could feel the intent way his aquamarine gaze – so like his sister's – was fixed on his face.
Shikamaru frowned, "With all due respect to the Hokage, I felt that this concerned Suna more at the moment. We have no proof of anything but even less proof that Konoha is in any danger. And I thought that you would prefer to handle your own internal problems without Konoha's interference."
A puff of breath, almost a sigh, and Gaara turned to Shikamaru with a wry look in his eyes, "Nicely deflected," he said dryly. "Because I know that Naruto values your opinion – your intelligence – above all other shinobi and because I know that Tsunade-hime placed a high value on the advice from the Nara clan, I will investigate this matter. I thank you for bringing it to my attention."
Gaara turned to leave and Shikamaru couldn't help but slump slightly over his folded arms in relief. The Kazekage's voice suddenly sounded behind him.
"You have my gratitude for giving me, if nothing else, some leverage over an old enemy. But that does not mean that you have my blessing when it comes to my sister."
Shikamaru froze. How on earth had he known that? They were so careful … he whirled around to face Gaara but the doorway was empty.
Temari nodded absently as she listened to Jiku outlining their travel plans to the Hokage. Her attention was focused – subtly – on the doorway. What was happening out there? Had Shikamaru managed to convince Gaara of anything? She nearly jumped out of her skin when her brother suddenly reappeared but his expression gave nothing away and she sighed inwardly. She kept her gaze locked with Gaara's – knew that her eyes were begging for some sign – but Gaara only nodded vaguely.
She turned back to her husband and the Hokage before they noticed her abstraction and nearly jumped out of her skin again when something soft yet coarse brushed against her ankle. She glanced down and a frown of confusion marred her brow when she saw the thin tendril of sand. It nudged her ankle again and Temari suppressed the urge to glance at her brother. Instead, she heeded his silent request and excused herself from the men. The tendril remained next to her brushing against her skin periodically as she walked away and only once she was a safe distance away from Jiku did the sand leave her side. Temari glanced at Gaara in confusion but he was talking quietly to Kankurou – giving no indication that he was manipulating his sand beneath everyone's feet.
Her gaze flew back to the tendril that had guided her away and she wasn't even very surprised when Kankurou suddenly appeared at her shoulder. She could feel the tension radiating from him and surreptiously began to loosen her big fan from its restraints. She was still focused on her task – her brain working a mile a minute to try and figure out what was going on -when all hell broke loose.
Jiku shouted, his arms wind-milling, as he fought against the sand wound tightly around his ankles. People were jumping and screaming but Gaara advanced on the feudal lord, arms crossed and face expressionless.
"There is no sense in struggling, my lord," he told Jiku softly as he neared the other man's struggling figure.
Jiku raised his eyes to Gaara's, his face flushed with indignation, "What is the meaning of this, Gaara? Release me at once!"
Sudden rage distorted Gaara's normally placid features and Temari tried to suppress the shiver of fear that ran down her spine – no matter how far Gaara had come some habits were hard to break and her instinctive reaction to that expression on her brother's face was one of them.
"I don't think so, Jiku. Release you? So that you can plot against me further?" Gaara snarled the words and Jiku froze. His struggles ceased and when he raised his eyes again, they were glinting with malice, a sneer pulling at his lips.
"So, you finally caught on, did you?" he asked snidely.
"What are you planning?" Gaara asked, refusing to rise to the comment, his mask now firmly back in place.
In contrast Jiku's features seem to become even more distorted – rage flowing through every line of his body.
"You ninja – you're all the same. Thinking that your powers give you the right to lead, that you're a cut above the rest of the world." He slowly brought his hands together and formed a simple sequence of seals.
Temari's eyebrows nearly touched her hairline – what was Jiku planning? He couldn't use those seals …
The entire room seemed to gasp when chakra began to glow around the feudal lord's hands. Jiku smirked at Gaara – the only one who'd managed to hold on to his composure with this new revelation.
"Well, Kazekage-sama, you're no longer a cut above me! You think you know what's best for the world – but it's no longer your opinion that counts. We feudal lords are tired of dancing to the Kages' tune – we're taking back that which is ours by right."
Jiku moved quickly, his hands slicing down toward the sand that bound his ankles and Temari and Kankurou both started forward when Gaara stumbled back a step, a look of disbelief on his face. His siblings' eyes followed his gaze when it became apparent that he was unharmed, to the thin line of sand that lay on the floor next to Jiku's feet.
Temari's gaze flew between Jiku and her brother. The chakra that had glowed on her husband's hands seemed to have severed the chakra flowing through Gaara's sand – and now the sand lay in a harmless pile on the floor. What? How?
The entire room stood frozen in shock and Jiku took advantage of their momentary paralysis.
"The world's about to change, Kazekage. Are you ready for a new age?"
And he threw himself at the window, only a couple of steps to his right.
The crash of glass breaking, the splintering of wood, seemed to jerk everyone from their shocked stupor but by the time Gaara, Temari and Kankurou had reached the window, Jiku was already only a speck in the distance. He moved much faster than any civilian Temari had ever encountered.
"How?" she managed to articulate the sound through her shock.
"Seems as if he was one of the successful experiments," Gaara muttered, mostly to himself. Then he drew himself up to his full height and turned to face Danzou.
The Hokage hadn't moved from his spot but Temari didn't like the avaricious glint in the old man's single visible eye.
"Hokage-sama," Gaara began, "I am informed that you are aware of an outlaw organization that uses a technique to transplant kekkei genkai into civilians. It is no longer Konoha's problem alone. As has been demonstrated here today, Suna's feudal lord has ties to this organization – has benefited from their techniques – and unless I'm much mistaken, it appears as if they are planning to overthrow the shinobi villages."
Gaara's pronouncement was met with total silence. Finally the Hokage seemed to gather himself.
"So it would appear, Kazekage-sama. I propose that we ally ourselves with our other friends of the five great shinobi nations and attack without delay."
Gaara shook his head, "I do not agree, Danzou-sama. We do not know where they are, we do not know their capabilities and they will have the advantage of being forewarned now that Jiku has escaped."
Danzou seemed to puff himself up with outrage, "Gaara, forgive me, but you are letting your youth dictate your actions. Offense is the best defense. And I have a source that can lead us straight to their hideout."
"War is imminent, Danzou. I'm not deluding myself on that score, but we will be better served by strengthening our defenses, letting them come to us – we have whole nations to consider and I will not plunge my people into senseless bloodshed when there's a way to protect them."
Danzou shook his head in disgust, "Very well, boy, then we reach a parting of the ways. I will do as I think best in Konoha and you must do as you see fit in Suna. But let all here bear witness to the fact that I tried to warn you!"
Gaara's mouth twisted but he kept his temper under control much to Temari's relief.
"So be it. The best of luck to Konoha."
Gaara turned and with no further word or gesture he swept through the room and out the door leaving Temari with no choice but to follow.
The soft knock at her door nearly had Tenten jumping out of her skin. A sleepless night spent agonizing over Neji, the past and her mistakes, did not allow for peace of mind and her nerves were on edge. She levered herself sluggishly off the couch, where she had been staring into space for hours now, and made her way to the front door. She barely had it open, didn't have time to process the shock of Neji standing on her doorstep, before he'd pushed his way inside, and closed the door behind him with a slight sigh.
For an interminable moment they stared at each other, hazel eyes clashing with pearlescent ones, and then Neji moved jerkily forward. Tenten froze in disbelief when his hand stroked gently over her cheek, sliding over her skin to bury in the fall of her hair over the nape of her neck, but she didn't resist – didn't protest – when Neji drew her toward him.
"I'm sorry," he murmured against her lips before his mouth slanted over hers.
Involuntarily her hands lifted, fisted in the material that covered his chest, and then Tenten was lost in his kiss. There was only the silkiness of his tongue as it wound sinuously around her own, the pressure of his lips on hers, his hand clenching in her hair, the other resting on her hip, pulling her tightly against him.
When they finally broke apart for air, and Tenten slowly opened her eyes, she found Neji staring intently at her.
"I've made many mistakes. But if you will allow me to, then I'll try to make up for the pain I've caused you."
Tenten frowned slightly, trying to make sense of his words through the blood pounding through her veins.
"I-I don't understand," she finally managed, licking her lips nervously. He wasn't angry about her betrayal?
"I know about Danzou," he said simply, and Tenten froze.
"How? I never meant for you to-"
"It doesn't matter," Neji interrupted, "none of it does."
And then his mouth was on hers again and Tenten forgot to think. Forgot to want to. She wound her arms around his neck, standing on tip-toes to press as close to him as she could. For now, he was here, he wanted her and she wasn't going to argue with that.
Slowly Neji began to back her toward the bedroom, never lifting his mouth from hers, his hands roaming all over her body in sensuous sweeps. Tenten shivered in reaction, her hands snaking around his waist to slide up under the soft fabric of his shirt. Her fingernails raked a path down his spine and Neji growled into her mouth, his hands sliding over her hips, cupping the soft mounds of her backside as he lifted her swiftly into his arms. She wound her legs around him, a gasping moan escaping when he transferred his mouth to her neck, sucking softly on a pulse point.
They reached the bedroom and Tenten barely had time to process the fact of Neji putting her down before he was hovering over her again, his mouth tracing lines of fire over her skin. It was too much but it wasn't nearly enough and Tenten writhed under his touch, silently begging him for more. She could feel him smirking against her skin, and suddenly she realized that Neji was right.
None of it mattered anymore. Not the past, not what she'd done, nothing mattered except this feeling between them. They'd never needed anyone else and they never would. Tenten fisted her hands in his hair, yanking his head up from his slow exploration of her stomach, and drew his mouth back to hers.
"I'm sorry too," she whispered against his mouth, her tongue licking back and forth across his lower lip. His eyes blazed into hers and Tenten shuddered in anticipation.
"It's behind us," he finally answered.
Tenten smiled up at him, and suddenly pushed him over onto his back, straddling him, as she ran her hands up and down his chest under his shirt. Watching him intently she lowered herself slowly before grinding their hips together and a satisfied smirk pulled at her lips when Neji threw his head back against the pillow, his hands tightening around her hips, holding her in place, coaxing her hips to move.
She leaned over to press another urgent kiss against his lips and he took back control, flipping her smoothly onto her back. Time became irrelevant and it seemed to Tenten as if their clothes melted away by magic, one kiss flowing smoothly into the next as hungry hands explored straining bodies.
Finally, just when she was sure she couldn't stand another second without him inside of her, his hips pushed forward and their bodies melded into one. And, in that second of desperate bliss, Tenten vowed silently that nothing would ever part them again.
Temari fought against the tears as she took a last look around her rented room, to make sure that she'd forgotten nothing. They'd swept from the Hokage's tower and Gaara had ordered them all to meet at the gates in ten minutes. She barely had time to gather her belongings before she was due there but silently she acknowledged that maybe it was better this way. She didn't think she'd be able to hold on to her composure if she had to tell Shikamaru goodbye. This time probably for good. Death was looming and the mere idea that she'd never see his crooked smile again, never feel the touch of his hands, was enough to make her want to curl up into a little ball and die. But that was not her way. She was not weak. Never had been and she wouldn't allow emotions to drive her to weakness now.
She wiped quickly at her eyes and turned to leave, only to gasp and press a hand to her heart when she came face to face with her brothers, lined up in her doorway.
"You nearly gave me a heart attack," she gasped as she sank down onto her bed, hand still pressed firmly over her heart as she fought to calm the frantic beating.
She stared up at her siblings questioningly, wondering what had brought them here and why Kankurou was giving her a twisted sort of smile. They entered the room and Gaara closed the door softly behind him before turning to face her with an inscrutable gaze.
"You are free now," he said finally and Temari frowned in confusion.
"From Jiku. Gaara dissolved the marriage on grounds of his traitorous actions. Or, at least, he will as soon as we're back in Suna but you can consider it done," Kankurou elaborated awkwardly.
Temari grimaced. She'd completely forgotten about that – truth be told she'd never really considered herself married to begin with. She started in shock, jerked from her thoughts when Gaara lowered himself to sit next to her and placed an awkward hand on her shoulder.
"I never thanked you for what you did for me. By marrying him," he said softly, keeping his gaze on the floor.
Tears welled up again and Temari shook her head impatiently, "No need to thank me." She tried to strive for her usual brisk tone but failed miserably and cleared her throat.
"We should get going," she muttered, wiping another impatient hand across her eyes as she stood. To her surprise neither of her brothers made any move to follow her lead. She shook her head in confusion again. Theirs was not a sentimental family, they were just as awkward as she was at the moment, and she couldn't understand why they weren't standing and changing the topic to a more mundane one in relief.
"Temari," Gaara began slowly, "I never thanked you but now I have the chance to make that right." He raised his eyes to hers, "Do you love him?" he asked slowly.
It never occurred to Temari to pretend ignorance – she knew Gaara was referring to Shikamaru. She shrugged helplessly, "I do."
"Then I release you from your obligations to Suna. You don't have to leave with us today. You can stay." Gaara watched her closely and Temari was aware of her eyes widening, as the instinctive protest rose to her lips.
"What? I-I can't do that! Suna is my home – a part of me," she protested.
A slight smile pulled at Gaara's lips, "And it will always be your home. I'm not banishing you, Temari. But I know that your heart is here, with Shikamaru. So stay. Who knows what the future will bring, and there has been enough unhappiness in this family of late."
The tears – suppressed successfully until now – wouldn't be suppressed any longer but for once Temari did not feel shame as the liquid spilled down her cheeks.
The very darkest part of the night had fallen but Neji was still awake, stroking his fingers softly down Tenten's arm as he watched her sleeping. A slow smile pulled at his lips and, for now, he allowed the contentment to spread through him. Tomorrow was soon enough to start worrying about what the future might bring.
A soft tap at the front door pulled his attention away from the sleeping girl and he rose regretfully, grabbing clothes on his way, before the unannounced and uninvited visitor could wake her. If the dark circles under her eyes were anything to go by she hadn't been sleeping well.
At the door, Neji paused in the act of pulling his shirt over his head and activated his Byakugan. Recognizing Shikamaru's chakra signature, he sighed as he opened the door, cursing the fact that the real world was catching up to him so quickly, He wasn't ready to face it yet.
To his surprise Shikamaru responded to his curt nod with a small smile, and held out a scroll for the Hyuuga to take.
"Your pardon – and your reinstatement," he said softly, "All able-bodied shinobi to gather in the square before the Hokage's tower at dawn tomorrow. We're going to war." The last sentence was said with a grimace and Neji raised his eyes questioningly to Shikamaru's.
"They believed you," he muttered, taking the scroll and opening the door to admit the other to the small apartment.
Shikamaru held up a hand and shook his head, "No, thanks, I've got to go. I figured you'd be here so I thought your official pardon might come in handy when you have to venture outside again," he smiled briefly, without humor before continuing, "yes, Gaara believed me. But the Hokage and the Kazekage's ways of dealing with the imminent threat differ vastly and the Suna contingent has already departed. The Hokage has already sent messages to the other shinobi nations – you know how Danzou is, he'll have his war at all costs. He wants to address everyone tomorrow, hence the summons."
Neji closed his eyes briefly, regret for the small amount of time he had left with Tenten flooding through him, and then he nodded.
"We'll be there."
Dawn was very near to painting the sky with the first brush of rosy color when Shikamaru finally let himself into his apartment with an exhausted groan. For a moment he paused, leaning against the closed door and allowed the pain to pull his features into a grimace.
She'd left without even saying goodbye.
But then, how could he have expected her to do anything else? No doubt she'd had orders to leave Konoha as quickly as possible. Shikamaru sighed and pushed away from the door. He had about an hour of sleep, if he was lucky, before he had to be present for the Hokage addressing the troops. The bitter thoughts pulled the corners of his mouth up with distaste and he couldn't help but think that the rest of the village wasn't going to take the Hokage's orders any better than he or Neji had. The orders were far removed from anything the Third or the Fifth would ever have contemplated … but … Danzou, no matter how badly suited for the position, was Hokage, and the oaths Shikamaru had taken held him bound in place. He would follow his orders, he didn't have to like them.
He reached his bedroom but instead of flopping down onto the bed as he'd planned he froze in the door way. Temari glanced up from the scroll she'd been reading and fixed him with a pouting glance.
"Took you long enough. Where were you all night?"
Through the shock that held his body immobile and his voice locked in his throat, Shikamaru managed a non-committal grunt. Temari rolled her eyes at him.
"You didn't think I'd let you fight alone, did you? When you can barely take care of yourself in a battle?"
A smile broke through the confusion on Shikamaru's features and he walked forward to flop down onto the bed next to her, pulling her into his arms in the process. She shrieked softly and giggled when his hands tickled across her ribs, the mischievous light fading from her eyes.
"Troublesome woman," Shikamaru muttered, burying his face in the curve of her neck, enjoying the feel of her body relaxing into his.
"Crybaby," she returned softly, running her fingers over his hair, laughter apparent in her voice.
Shikamaru sighed and rolled over, taking her with him, relishing the warmth of her body as she snuggled closer, and closed his eyes. She was here. How he didn't know but he had his suspicions – and when he had to wake up in an hour's time would be quick enough to ask her all the questions in the world.
The pale fingers of sunlight broke through the light cover of clouds, as Neji and Tenten made their way to the square, hand in hand. After Shikamaru had left Neji had woken her regretfully to relay all he knew, and they were both prepared. Little as they liked it, they had an obligation to their village to follow the Hokage's orders.
They reached the square and Neji wasn't even very surprised to see Shikamaru standing at the edge of the crowd, Temari by his side. But Tenten hissed in surprise and tugged at his hand, inclining her head toward the couple. He nodded slowly and nearly groaned out loud when Tenten's searching gaze turned into a calculating one – a gaze that said he would tell her everything he knew later. But then they'd reached their friends and all four shared a nodded greeting before turning to face the platform where Danzou stood – surrounded by his Root ANBU, as always, and flanked by the council of elders.
Neji glanced through the crowd, noting the familiar faces of people he'd once called his friends and firmly ignored the drivel Danzou was spouting: 'for the glory of Konoha' and 'protecting that which is ours' seemed to feature heavily. But on the last score at least he had to agree with the Hokage. He would protect Tenten with every ounce of strength he possessed, and when his eyes met hers – shining with a fervent, burning light – he knew that she felt the same.
After all the years, after all the pain and lies, they were no different. It was still the same as it had been in their genin days when they'd banded together to save themselves from the insanity that was Gai and Lee – they would face the world together. Destiny could be overcome – if you had the right person beside you.
Tenten squeezed his hand tightly and Neji firmly forced the thoughts of war and death, destiny and pain, from his mind to send her a small smile, filled with reassurance. Somehow they would be alright – he could feel it in his bones.
A/N: Finally! I can't believe I actually finished it ^^ I hope that you enjoyed the story (btw, I did plan on an open ending from the beginning but I doubt I'll do a sequel) and thank you so much to everyone who read/reviewed/alerted/favorited throughout. Your patience knows no bounds and I really appreciate that you stuck with me despite the long time it took to finally get this one done! Remember, done or not, reviews are my crack ^^