AN: The last chapter. =( I hope you guys enjoyed it. Next up, if I can stop being so lazy, Mara and I have another collab planned. And I really need to work on some of my other stories. =)
Chapter Ten; Aqua Vitae
Ten Years Ago...
"Momma, what are they doing?" Tenten asked, pointing a grubby little finger at the women standing silently, signs in their hands. Most of the men who passed by laughed and jeered at them, calling out jokes and mocking the women, who made no effort at retaliation.
The brunette woman looked in the direction her daughter was pointing. "They're picketing, dear," she explained.
That information, though, did not satiate Tenten. She merely kept staring, a perplexed expression on her chubby face. "But what's picketing?" she asked. "And why are they letting those men be so mean to them?" Tenten wondered, frowning. "That isn't very nice of those men! Didn't anyone teach them to be nice to ladies?"
"Well, picketing is when you stand and hold up signs for people to read. It helps bring forth change sometimes," she explained. "These women are picketing to have the law changed so women can vote. The men are being mean because they don't agree with the women. They don't want women to be able to vote."
Tenten's face fell. "But why do they want the law changed? I thought the law was something that was good for everyone. You told me that the law helps keep me safe at night," Tenten said stubbornly, looking up at her mother for some sort of reassurance or explanation.
She sighed and smoothed her daughter's hair. "Sometimes the law isn't right. The people who make laws are human, just like you and I. So sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes they change their minds. The law has been changed many times before because people realized that they were wrong."
"But how do we know if the law's right or wrong? And is that what you're supposed to do if it's wrong? Just sit there and let people be mean? That's not fair, Momma," Tenten said sadly, her brown eyes wide.
"Right now all those women can do is stand there. If they tried to go vote, like they want to, they will be put in jail," she said, and sighed. "Sadly, there's no way to really tell if the law is right or wrong. Often, it's up to each person to decide, and people have different ideas sometimes. Usually, though, if there's something that your heart tells you is wrong, it's wrong. The law isn't always right. People, even lawmakers, cannot hope to be perfect. What's important is that we recognize our mistakes and try to fix the things we think are wrong."
Peering at the women with the signs, Tenten cocked her head. "Even if it means standing up there and having people being mean?" she queried.
"Even if it means standing up there and having people being mean," her mother agreed. "What's important is that we don't just go along with the wrong things."
"Tenten? Tenten!" Lee's voice penetrated into Tenten's thoughts, and she looked up, blinking as if she'd just stepped into a bright ray of light. "Are you all right? You seem to have fallen into a sort of a daze. Perhaps you are not feeling well?" he asked, all big eyes and a concerned face.
Sighing, Tenten pushed a few stray strands of hair behind her ear. "I'm not sick, Lee. I'm not feeling my best, but it's something that I'll get over sooner or later, I suppose," she sighed.
"Has your heart been hurt by the vigor of youthful love? Tenten, you cannot give up! You must accept your feelings and act on them. There is no time to wait! Youth does not wait for anyone!" Lee said, his voice full of zeal.
She groaned and attempted to muster up a glare, and she succeeded only in looking particularly dejected. "Lee. Shut up. I really don't want to hear about it right now. My conscience is giving me hell currently, and I don't need you pestering me, also. Just–ugh. Just leave me alone. I need to go on my patrol," Tenten said curtly, holding her keys and blowing past him.
Right before she could reach freedom, Gai apprehended her, obscuring the door with his much larger body. "Tenten, are you planning on going on your patrol right now?" he asked, peering down at her face.
"That's right," she said, her voice grumpy and a small pout on her face. "Now, if you could get out of my way so I can just leave, that would be a big help," she requested, her teeth clenched as she tried to force her voice to at least sound polite.
"I would rather if you didn't go, Tenten," Gai cut in, his voice sympathetic. One of his huge hands rested on her shoulder, and she fought the urge to shake him off.
"Chief," she whined. "I don't care what Lee thinks. I'm fine. I'm not stupid enough to let my emotions to get in my way during patrol. I leave that kind of idiocy for other times," she added bitterly, biting her lip. Something was prickling at the back of her eyelids. Tears, she realized belatedly, just as the first trail of wetness made its way down her cheek. She was such a weakling, she thought bitterly as she wiped it away with the back of her hand. Such a girl.
Gai wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gestured to Lee with his free hand. "Lee, could you please take over our dear Tenten's patrol? I must speak with her, and I have full confidence that you should accomplish it as admirably as Tenten would, were she not indisposed!"
Springing into a full salute, Lee grinned foolishly. "Of course, Chief! I will do my best!" With that, he sped past them, only pausing to place a brotherly kiss on Tenten's cheek. "We believe in you, Tenten. Even when you do not believe in yourself," he said quietly as a few more tears coursed down her face.
Seconds later, the door thudded decisively behind him, and Tenten drew a shuddering breath. Before she could begin to speak, though, she was cut off by her chief's deep voice. "Once, when I was a few years older than you, I made a poor decision, one that affected others and myself negatively. I hadn't made it out of ill-intent, I was just foolish and too quick to act. Instead of deliberating carefully, I made a decision. Now I can hardly speak of it; I feel too much remorse, too much regret. Not because I made the decision, but because I never remedied it when the chance came.
"Tenten, there are no people who are perfect. Even when the springtime of youth is at its most glorious, one will still make mistakes. It's how we learn. How many mistakes we make in a lifetime is of little consequence. What truly matters is that, when we can, we fix our mistakes. Our law has been fixed many times, but it is still not perfect. It's a long way from perfect. But as we keep learning, we must have the strength to admit we were wrong and fix our mistakes."
Wiping her eyes again, Tenten breathed in steadily. "I still feel like it's too late now," she said remorsefully. "I don't know if I can fix it. I feel like too much damage has been done."
Gai just chuckled and hugged her tightly, then pulled away and smoothed her hair. "Very few things are lost causes, Tenten. Now, I think you have quite a bit to think about. Would you object too highly to me sending you home?" he asked gently.
"No, I suppose not. I guess I need some time to think. I'll be back tomorrow, Chief," she said, squaring her shoulders. "Thank you."
Watching as she left, Gai chortled. "She will make the right decision, and her youth will blossom beautifully for all to see," he said to himself before he turned around and headed towards his office.
Just like youth, paperwork waited for no one. Alas.
. . .
As she lounged on her couch, Tenten made a valiant attempt to read, but the letters of her book merely swam before her, making her feel even more nauseous. Before she could make another attempt at reading, there was a loud knock on her door. Her eyes slid to the wall clock, and she sighed. It was time for Lee to be done with her patrol. He'd be checking up on her. "The door's open," she intoned.
"I would think that a police officer would have some degree of concern for her own well-being," came a cool voice from her doorway. Tenten gasped quietly, her eyes instantly snapping to his empty pale ones. "Tenten, I came to level with you. If you'll listen to me for a few minutes, I won't bother you any more," Neji said calmly as he approached the couch.
Regret and pride and a sort of desperation battled somewhere inside of Tenten, making her stomach turn and her head spin. Pride won, again. Didn't it always? "Fine, Hyuuga," she said, trying to sound more imperious than she felt.
What did she even have to feel pride over, anyway?
"We both know we made mistakes. I think it's time we fixed them, Tenten. It's not too late. We can take down the charges on the bar. I've looked into the legalities; we still have time. We may have to act quickly, but it can be done."
Tenten sighed and put her book down, gazing levelly at Neji. "I wish this all could just blow over. Neji, I'd stay here in my house until no one even remembers Ichiraku's, if that's what it would take. I know it's foolish. I know it's childish. But I just don't feel like I could possibly even look at them again. Naruto, Shikamaru. Hinata and Temari. Ichiraku himself. Even you. I can't believe that they'll forgive me. I wouldn't forgive myself."
"How can you just assume that? Why do you think they'll damn you when you're not even willing to give them a chance to forgive you?" Neji asked cryptically. Graceful as a cat, he settled himself near her on the couch, pausing as she tensed up and then relaxed. "Don't be irrational. They'll forgive you. Give them a chance, Tenten."
"What makes you so confident they'll just forgive me? It truly was my fault, and I know that. I can own up to the truth. I'm sure they know it, too. So what even makes you believe they'll be kind enough to just forgive and forget?" she demanded, her eyes glaring into his.
Neji shrugged. "Well, my conversation with Hinata led me to believe that. Like when she told me that it's a human thing to do, to make mistakes. Like when she said love makes fools of us all, and that was understandable."
For a moment, Tenten was silent, her gaze falling to her hands. "Do you really think we're in love, Neji?" she challenged softly, cautiously.
A serene smile crossed Neji's lips. "Yes," he said confidently, dropping his head to kiss Tenten, his lips feather-soft on hers.
. . .
"There it is, Tenten. Just as if nothing had ever happened," Neji said, his hand wrapped comfortingly around her smaller one. "Now, come on. We have some friends in there who would like to congratulate us on winning it back."
She frowned and drew back slightly, her shoulder brushing against his jacket. "I'm nervous, Neji," she confided.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Neji's small smile. "I'm here, Tenten," he reassured her. Suddenly, she dropped his hand, and he glanced over, concerned. Her chocolate eyes were stony, her shoulders squared against the sensible fabric of her police uniform, her hair down. Slowly, she drew a breath, and Neji feared for a moment that she would bolt away. Instead, she yanked open one of the ruby doors and strutted through, her steps confident. Neji grinned, following behind.
He only barely managed to dodge as Tenten was tackled back several feet by a blur of black, blonde, purple, and blue.
"Tenten, you absolute ass–"
"It's s-so good to see you again-"
"–if you ever pull a stunt like that again–"
"–we both really missed you, Temari's just–"
"I missed you both, too," Tenten said, managing to unpin her arms from her sides and wrap one around Hinata and one around Temari. "I really missed you two. I'm awfully sorry," she said, her voice now quavering.
"Oh, don't you even start sounding so pathetic and weepy now, wet blanket," Temari demanded, wiping away what looked suspiciously like tears. "We're at our regular table. Naruto and Shika are up right now, but when they're done with their song, they'll be down." Tenten allowed herself to be dragged along, and Neji wandered after, smiling.
The moment they approached the table, Naruto abandoned his trombone and vaulted over the stage. Grinning wildly, he grabbed Hinata, spun her around, and kissed her on the mouth. She turned bright red but managed not to faint, although she was more than a bit breathless when he released her. "Well, I guess you two are an item now," Tenten said wryly, laughing.
Naruto hugged her tightly. "We missed you, Tenten. Way to go, getting the bar back!" he cheered. Tenten laughed quietly. It was just so like him, to concentrate on what she'd done right, even when she'd done so much wrong. "And yeah, me and Hina are finally together! I even get to kiss her! And Neji doesn't try to hurt me when I do, which is a good thing."
"Maybe he should beat some sense into you," came a calmer voice from behind Naruto. Shikamaru, too, had ditched the band. Smirking, he clasped Tenten's shoulder. "It's good to have you back, Tenten. I'm glad you made the right decision," he added, adjusting his fedora slightly.
"Yeah, I'm glad, too," she replied, smiling.
"Not that he did anything about it, of course," Temari complained good-naturedly as she stole Shikamaru's hat and placed it on her own head. "It would have been too troublesome for him."
Reaching over, Shikamaru pushed the brim of the fedora down playfully over Temari's eyes. "Just like my relationship with you," he smirked.
"You love it," Temari insisted, pushing the hat's brim up and throwing her arms around Shikamaru's shoulders.
"I never denied that," he agreed.
Tenten turned to Neji, but before she got a chance to speak, another voice cut it. "Girl, I ought to have you thrown out of my place. But I guess I'll just ask for your order, instead." Tenten spun around to see Ichiraku standing over the table, grinning.
"It's good to see you again, Ichiraku. I'll have a strawberry daiquiri, please," she asked, looking over her shoulder at Neji, who shot her a smile. "Nonalcoholic, of course."
Ichiraku boomed with laughter. "Of course. I would never dream of serving alcohol here!"
Maybe that was true, Tenten thought benevolently. And maybe it wasn't. And maybe she was okay with either one. As she considered this, she felt a hand cover hers, warmth radiating from slender fingertips. Smiling, Tenten turned and softly kissed Neji.
Finally, Tenten decided, she might have grown into a woman her mother could be proud of.