Please see first chapter for disclaimer, etc.
Special Thanks: goes out to Midnight Insomniac, DarkAnonymous324, imjuzakyd, naash, noss5, Ariasujm-chan, rao hyuga 18, Crazy Kunoichi Tenten, SnowCharms, Gralete, and Kyaro-Chan for all your wonderful reviews! You all have supported me so much through this story, and I appreciate every single one of you!
Author's Note: This is so bittersweet. I started this story all the way back in January, and now here it is late July, and I'm finishing it up! I thought it was so appropriate to finish this collection off with Fly - it just seemed right. And though this story is complete now, I promise that I'm far from finished writing NejiTen stories! I've already started on my next project (still to be titled), and I'm really excited for it. But, for now, thank you all so much for reading (over 35,000 hits!), reviewing (almost 400! WOW!), favoriting, and alerting my story: you all are some of the most amazing people in the world, and this final piece is dedicated to all of you!
Never in his life had Neji felt his jealousy flare so hotly as the first time he saw Tenten twirl gracefully into the air with her jutsu. She was so free, able to lift off from the ground whenever she wanted, to fly high in the sky like the bird he'd always longed to be.
What gave her the right to fly when he was chained to the ground forever? Oh, sure, he could bound long distances like any other ninja, but it wasn't the same: Even at the apex of those jumps, he could feel gravity's inexorable pull on him, dragging him down.
She didn't seem to understand his fury, his overwhelming coldness toward her. Tilting her head, she stared at him with questioning brown eyes that begged to be told what she had done to offend him. He never told her, because heaven forbid he betray one of his clan's darkest, dirtiest secrets to an insignficant little girl who was only slightly more worthy to train with him than the ridiculous green beast who had taken one look at him and declared the Hyuuga to be his "eternal rival."
Never once did she complain when he trained so hard with her that he all but drove her to the ground, exhausted and in pain, most if not all of her chakra points blocked. Neji never lifted a hand to help her, spitefully thinking that her undeserved wings would lift her up again. Besides, she always came back the next day with a cheerful smile, eyes bright as she asked him what jutsu she would be helping him with today.
For two long years, they never altered their pattern. Every day Neji watched with jealous eyes as Tenten took to the open air, free and beautiful, as he was driven deeper and deeper into the ground. Not until the chuunin exams - or, more specifically, the night after his fight with Hinata - did he realize something.
As was her habit, Tenten did not question him when he showed up very late that night, even though he had come to her apartment. Eyes worried, she slid an arm around his waist, catching him before he slid to his knees in her doorway. She assisted him to her couch, urging his still-shuddering body to lie back against the cushions. She didn't comment on his less-than-polished appearance, hands soft as she reached for his headband, probably in an attempt to make him more comfortable. He was in too much pain still to stop her.
That was the first time he shared the secret of his curse with anyone outside his family. She didn't judge him; in fact, she said nothing as her cool fingers stroked the brand. Her eyes filled with a strange sadness as he told her that he'd been cast out on the street like a piece of trash, left to writhe in public agony after his seal had been activated: his due punishment after trying to kill the eldest daughter of the clan leader. He had been expecting it, though it had taken hours for him to shake off the aftershocks of pain enough to make his way across the village to Tenten's apartment. He knew of no where else he could go, because she only seemed to stick with him, no matter what he did to her.
Only much later he realized Tenten had been in pain herself, several vertebrae in her back having been broken during her match with the sand witch Temari. Though medics managed to repair the damage, they had told her not to do anything strenuous, that would aggravate the wound, for several days.
Even though he still jealously longed to have her ability to fly, Neji formally apologized to her for the night he'd come to her apartment. She simply smiled at him, turned, and initiated their daily routine.
*~Four Years Later~*
Tenten hissed in pain when Neji gently lowered her to the ground. She had protested mightily the whole way back to their campsite, even though he'd insisted that Gai-sensei and Lee were more than capable of finishing off the three enemy shinobi left over from the dozen the four of them had started out fighting.
"Your shoulder is dislocated," he told her.
Hissing at him again, Tenten doubled over on herself, teeth bared in pain. "You're going to have to pop it back in place," she told him. "Then we gotta get back and help Lee and Gai-sensei."
Long ago having learned not to argue with Tenten when she got her mind set on something, Neji pulled a roll of bandages from his pack for after he'd reset her shoulder. Kneeling next to her, he reached for her shoulder-
-And immediately froze. As if caught by the shadow possession jutsu the Nara clan was so famous for, Neji found it impossible for his hands to close that small bit of distance between them. He couldn't touch her.
"Neji?" Tenten's shaky voice pierced the sudden ringing in his ears, her concerned brown eyes peering into his lavender ones as she leaned forward a little more. "Are you all right?"
Images hammered through his mind, each impact making him draw a little further into himself...
...His fingers flying with carefully controlled movements that were so fast only his eyes could follow them, each strike closing off yet another of Tenten's chakra points...
...The round bruises on her arms the exact size of his fingertips, which only seemed to fade on their missions when they couldn't train...
...Lines of pain on her face that she tried to hide only when she thought he was looking at her, the stilted movements of her body indicating the lack of control she had in her limbs because of the effects his jutsu had repeatedly wrought upon her...
...The look on her face when he deliberately deflected her attacks back at her, intending to knock her from the sky with her own weapons...
Neji's hands began to shake. I can't do this. I can't hurt her again... He'd suffered from dislocated joints before in his life. He knew how painful the relocation process was; even if the unbearable pain only lasted a moment, he just couldn't bring himself to do that to her again. "I-I..." He stopped, unable to find words to articulate what he wanted to say - needed to say - to her.
Tenten reached out her uninjured arm to rest her hand against his sleeve. He could feel the tremble in her fingers from pain as she spoke. "Neji? Are you all right?" Her voice was tight with anguish she was trying not to show.
Something deep inside him snapped, somehow echoing his pain as his own hands began to shake visibly in response to her trembling. "I-I ... have never done this before," he lied. "Lee and Gai-sensei will be here soon. One of them will be able to do it for you."
Only minutes later, the greener half of their team arrived. Neji did not miss Gai's calculating look in his direction as he reset Tenten's shoulder. Her shout of pain made him wince, though he was selfishly glad someone else caused her that pain, not him.
Neji had never hated himself for weakness or cowardice in his life. But as he stared at Tenten across the fire that night as she slept, her face drawn and pale with lingering pain, he hated himself for the many times he'd tried to clip her wings and knock her from the sky. At that moment, he would give anything and everything he had to offer them back to her so she could soar freely in the air once more, no longer in pain that he had caused her.
He had underestimated her yet again, not anticipating her being released from the hospital so quickly - or her uncanny ability to know when he needed her. Perhaps, he considered wryly, he should have followed his first instinct and trained within the private walls of the Hyuuga compound instead of the very public Team Gai area.
Even though he so easily managed to underestimate Tenten, Neji hardly ever mistook her words. Just as she seemed to be able to read his mind, he found it equally easy to read hers. "Because I have become the one thing I promised myself I would never, never, become: a weak coward." He didn't move from his position on his knees, having fallen there to rest after training himself nearly to the ground, a punishment for his wrongdoings.
Tenten knelt in front of him, propping the hand not in a sling against the ground to help balance herself. "What makes you think that?" she asked softly. Her brown eyes stared steadily and deeply into his, shimmering with that unnerving knowledge that always made him instinctively look away.
"I realized that I had hurt you so many times that I was no longer able, or worthy, to touch you, even when you needed help and healing." Neji's guilt had forced him into many sleepless nights, where every time he tried to close his eyes he wound up reliving years of his own arrogance and stupidity.
Her hand - sturdy and rough from her constant handling of weapons, but delicate with her touch - settled over his fist, pressing hard against his own knee. "We have all done things in our lives that we wish we had not," she said slowly, thoughtfully. "And yet ... for as long as we live, there exists an opportunity to reach out and seek forgiveness. I have been in the unique position of watching you grow and change over our years as teammates, Neji."
He'd wanted to change - really, he had. Neji had long ago apologized to his younger cousin, trying to bridge the gap he'd forced between them since they were children. Several lengthy talks with his uncle had begun to ease the tension caused by misunderstanding there, too. And yet, for all the apologizing and changing he had done, he had never once apologized to Tenten, who deserved his plea perhaps more than any other. As he had always done, he took her presence for granted, knowing that she would always be there, no matter what he did or said.
Before he could self-recriminate any more, Tenten regained his attention. "I do not possess the gift of foresight, though there are many times I have wished that I did. But from the moment we were put on Team Gai and started training together, I knew that you were going to be a great shinobi. I wanted to help you, because ... well, I admired you, and though I wanted what you had, was jealous that you possessed what I did not..." She smiled, not a hint of bitterness in her expression, expected though it was. "I knew you were the only one between us who could hope to fly high enough to touch the skies."
Neji blinked, shocked. "But..." He trailed off, unable to articulate the thoughts jumbling around in his mind. All these years, I've been jealous of your ability to touch the skies, seeing myself earthbound the whole while. And yet you've seen me as the one able to fly, even though you soar to great heights I could never hope to acheive...
Swallowing hard, Neji made an attempt to reorganize his thoughts and try again. "But all these years, I've been thinking you're the one who can fly, and I'm stuck down here. Your jutsu helps you fly, something I can never do." He looked down at where their hands touched, her skin golden and warm against his, pale and cool. "I was so jealous of you, wanting to bring you to the ground with me because I wanted what you had. I-I wanted to ask you if you could teach me how to fly."
Eyes widening slightly, Tenten stared at him with her mouth slightly agape. She seemed surprised by what he'd told her, that he would think such things about her. "Neji..." The word came out with a long sigh, and she seemed at a loss about what to say next.
He broke the eye contact he hadn't even realized he'd established with her. "It seems I've taken the conversation on a tangent," he said. "My original intention was to apologize to you, for all the wrongs I've done you in my life. And ... there are many."
"A man's true worth is measured not in works, but in his strength of will and his courage to right his wrongs, even if it takes a long time." Tenten smiled at him, her eyes warm and filled with forgiveness. "I think the same is true for shinobi. Moreso, I believe that you are not only a fine ninja, but a great man."
Neji was left sitting in the middle of the training field, his head ringing with his teammate's words, the feel of her lips still lingering on his cheek. And you, Tenten, are a fine kunoichi, and a great woman.
Despite his many years believing the reverse, Neji finally discovered that his feet never even had to leave the ground for him to be able to fly. He knew the first time he kissed Tenten; the first time she told him she loved him; the first time they were introduced as man and wife; the first time he held their son...
"You seem thoughtful."
Neji turned from the gardens he hadn't really been seeing to smile at Tenten. She'd let her hair out of their twin buns for once, letting the soft dark tresses flow around her face and shoulders. Her yukata covered her to her ankles, where her bare feet peeked out from beneath the soft blue fabric. Its silken folds accentuated the gentle swell of her stomach, and her wedding ring flashed as she rubbed her left hand in tender circles over their rapidly-growing second child.
"I suppose I was." He extended his arm, taking a step back as he drew her against his side. "We've come a long way, haven't we?"
She smiled up at him, nose wrinkling slightly. "I suppose we have. But what's put you in such a contemplative mood all of a sudden?"
"Now we're only a few weeks away from the birth of our second child. I was just thinking about all the times I was convinced that our feet had to leave the earth to offer us the freedom of flying." They silently tracked a group of birds across the dusky sky before Neji spoke again. "My perspective has changed very much now." There had even been a time when he had been reluctant to share how he felt about her with Tenten, for fear that doing so would chain her to the ground.
"Flying is about more than spreading your wings and taking flight to touch the sky," she agreed. "It's that feeling you get inside when you're with someone you love. When you're so completely, wonderfully, and incandescantly happy that there is nothing else in the world but you, him, and your own personal sky."
"Why share that one-" he pointed straight up "-with everyone else, when you can have one of your own, right?" He kissed her forehead.
Tenten beamed. "Precisely." She rested her head against his shoulder, following his earlier gaze out toward the gardens.
Neji slid his hand over his wife's. He hadn't clipped her wings; in fact, Tenten had helped him grow a pair of his own.
Now they were both free to fly as long and as high as they wanted.
Author's Ending Notes: I can hardly believe his collection is (finally) finished! These past six months of working on ELOD have been some of my all-time favorite in all my years writing. All the people who have taken the time to review have been so kind and supportive, and I appreciate you all. And though this story is complete, I'm far from finished with NejiTen stories! I've already started on my next one (yet to be titled), and I want to thank everyone who has read, reviewed, favorited, and alerted this collection, for giving me the support and courage to continue on with NejiTen stories after this one. Thank you all again, so much, and I hope you've enjoyed Eyes Like Open Doors! I hope to see you all again soon!