Disclaimer: The manga/anime series, "Naruto" and any and all characters or place names pertaining thereto are the sole property of the creator and associated persons. The author of this story does not claim or aspire to own any of these. Any thoughts or opinions expressed by the characters in this piece of fanwork do not necessarily reflect those of the author or of the creator of the original series.
The training ritual always stayed the same. The moves were always different, of course, but the feeling was the same. They met, they tested their strength, they offered criticism, they showed their improvement, they ran out of useful negative emotions and left.
Lately, that had become a comfort to Tenten. With the world around her changing so rapidly, it was nice to know, or at least believe, that Neji hadn't changed. Not in any important way, at least. He'd become a chuunin, of course – that was never in question – but so had she. It might have been easier to say that, although they changed, the change did not affect the relationship.
Today, she was going to change it.
It might, perhaps, be easier if we move back a few short hours, when Tenten had been speaking with her mother. Ever since her father had died fighting the Kyuubi, her mother had held on tight to her daughter, panicking at every mention of the word 'mission', or, gods forbid, 'chuunin exam'.
Tenten suspected that this was another plot to make her give up her 'tomboyish' lifestyle and become a 'real woman'. She suspected. Her mother might really have lost her mind and decided to destroy any hope her fifteen-year old daughter had for her life.
"... Mama..." She protested weakly after listening to her mother's demand. "You don't really mean to see me married before the end of the year. You're just... overreacting to something you've heard, or read, or... something, right?" Or this was some sick, twisted joke.
"Now, Tenten," Her mother began. Tenten had a moment to appreciate the irony of her mother's condescension considering the situation. Her appreciation was lessened by the immediate threat, however. "I know this is a hard idea for a young girl, so used to living in the present," When you were a good kunoichi, that was how you thought. There was no other choice. "But... you're an only child, darling."
"I am aware." Tenten replied.
Her mother flushed slightly, but soldiered on. "I just can't stand the thought of my blood fading from the world as thought it was never there. I know that, left to your own devices, you would never marry. So I've arranged for you to meet Ishin-san tomorrow. He's... well, he's..."
"He's what?" Tenten prompted, doing her very best Neji impersonation. It worked.
"He's going to be your husband, dear."
The chair clattered to the floor in the ensuing silence and there was a loud thump as Tenten's hands met the sturdy wood of the table.
"What? You have no right to do this." She announced coldly even as her breath fluttered like a panicked bird in her throat.
Her mother touched her face, stroking along her cheek. "Oh, honey, I know it seems unfair now, but it won't be that bad, you'll see. You'll get married, have a few children and... you'll never have to do any of that fighting again. You won't get hurt anymore." Her other hand came up and gripped her daughter's face tightly.
Tenten slapped at the invasive touch. The last thing she wanted with the twisting feeling in her gut was the façade of understanding.
She'd have a few kids. Spend the rest of her life barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen trying to take care of them. With Ishin-san.
"You know, kunoichi have been trying to battle the notion that a woman is just a glorified brood-sow for generations." She said quietly. Her mother sighed.
"I know, darling. But it really isn't a woman's place to be out working among the men like that."
"Not a woman's place?" Tenten repeated furiously. "It is the place women have been working towards for centuries. How can you say that all the women before you have been wrong?"
Her mother scowled. "It's high time you gave up this childish posturing, anyway. You'll meet Ishin-san, and, if he finds you agreeable, you will marry, and you will bear his children."
Tenten thought fast. It was the thing that helped her gain the advantage on the battlefield. "And what if I already have a boyfriend? What will he say?"
Her mother's eyes narrowed. "You don't have a boyfriend, Tenten."
Oh, I will. If it puts a stop to this, believe me, I will. "If I did?"
Her mother's lips pressed together. "Well, then, I'd have to meet him, and decide if he would be better for you than Ishin-san."
Hope swelled inside her twisted insides; it was a fluttering, fragile creature. There was a loophole here.
Tenten swallowed. "And when would you meet him?" she asked, hoping her mother wouldn't give her an impossible time slot.
"The weekend. I have to work the week, but if you had a boyfriend, it would have to be the weekend." Lucky it was Tuesday. "Of course, since you don't have a boyfriend, it's a moot point."
Tenten's eyes narrowed. "Give me until the weekend to find a boyfriend. If, by that time, I'm in a healthy, working relationship, give up. In exchange, I'll promise to behave when I meet... Ishin-san."
Her mother sighed, considering it. There was no way an adolescent could possibly manage to form a healthy relationship with a boy in four days and particularly not one as work-oriented as Tenten. She'd gain her cooperation, though. "Alright. If you're in a relationship that I think has better prospects for your future than your marriage to Ishin-san by the end of the week, I'll leave you to your own devices. Really, darling, I only want what's best for my baby."
Tenten sighed, knowing that her mother wouldn't do something she thought was wrong for her and becoming even more worried. She shook on it and left.
How hard would it be to find someone to be her boyfriend for a week? Well, okay, someone acceptable, so not Lee. Not Naruto, either. Or Chouji, since her mother didn't like the Akimichi clan – something about a high-fat, high-salt diet leading to an early heart-attack, and, good heavens, wasn't the world dangerous enough? Shikamaru? Well, he was a twelve-year old Chuunin, a known genius, and he was a part of a clan of good repute. But her mother always proclaimed the impracticality of spending the day not doing anything productive. That might be a problem. Laziness was not something her mother would put up with. And Tenten's father had played go, so it was out, anyway.
Maybe Kiba... no, the Inuzuka clan didn't exactly have a clean slate where drinking, gambling and nasty bouts of fleas were concerned. The Aburame clan was Right Out for obvious reasons, although she'd have loved to make her mother squirm like that. Who else was there? Uchiha Sasuke? She well-recalled the loud diatribe her mother had given on evil, cowardly turncoats when the town's favourite little ball of angst had run away. Sasuke was overrated, anyway.
But, there was nobody else. Nobody else. She was pretty sure her mother wouldn't mind an older man, knowing her traditionalist ideals. Gai-sensei was out. Kakashi was an open and well-known pervert. Asuma smoked – an unforgivable sin. It was a pity that she'd never once spoken to Kotetsu or Izumi. Of course, since they were usually so wrapped up in each other, she wouldn't have gotten a word inside their love-struck barrier anyway. Genma drank like a fish. Iruka-sensei was not going to be of any help, unless she desperately needed advice. Actually, she was getting to that state.
Well, there was always Jiraiya. She was sure she could offer to be his muse and he'd find some way to rescue her... drag her up into the mountains with him and grope her, but she wasn't sure how desperate she was. She frowned and balled her fists, the hard, trapped feeling in her stomach and chest rising.
She looked up at the sky. Neji was going to be annoyed; she was lat –
Her saving grace. Her guardian angel! He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He wasn't a traitor to the country. He worked hard. He was not a total pervert. He didn't have millions of bugs using his body as a nest. His fashion sense was not utterly ridiculous and she was sure he had manners under there somewhere. If he had a high-fat, high-salt diet, it didn't show in his 17.3 body mass index.
In short, he was her last hope.
He was even attractive.
As she realised who she was talking about, she realised she was doomed.
And she'd reached her destination.
Across the clearing from her stood her fate. With clear, cold eyes and white skin and inky hair he stood under the luminous overcast sky. In that light, he looked like he was made from stone. She knew, from the blind fits of rage and the silent, tense moodiness she'd witnessed over the past five years, that he was not.
She held up a hand and smiled her usual cheerful smile. "I have an excuse," she protested. His eyes narrowed. Either her smile wasn't cheerful enough, or he'd suddenly begun to care about her excuses.
Taking the change in expression for interest, Tenten decided that now would be a good time to present her case. If there was a good time.
"I'm going to be a baby-making machine for some guy I don't know." She continued flatly. That... didn't sound right. Neji's posture shifted slightly from hostile to curious. Regardless of how it came out, it had a good effect.
Tenten swallowed and moved closer to him so she didn't have to raise her voice so much. "That didn't come out quite right," She admitted. He raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly. "Mother... wants me to get married by the end of the year. I'm meeting my... husband-to-be tomorrow." She waited for a reaction.
Neji inclined his head slightly to show he understood. It was one of his most appealing traits. He always understood what she was saying and still never overreacted.
"She wants me to quit being a kunoichi." Neji's eyes narrowed further and a faint frown line appeared on his forehead. Maybe he was going to overreact. "But, I made her a deal," she continued. "If I can find an acceptable boyfriend to bring to lunch on Saturday, she'll leave me to my own – and his – devices."
Neji nodded. He took a breath to speak and for a moment she thought that he might be about to volunteer and that she was saved. Saved! "... Good luck, then." He said with unusual compassion. Her heart sloshed mushily inside her stomach. "What do you want to try first?" He turned away and began to walk a little deeper into the forest.
Oh, that selfish, egotistic..! She supposed she hadn't given any clues, exactly, to what she wanted, but, still, the nerve... She took a deep breath. If she attacked this, she'd have no chance.
He stopped and half-turned to face her.
"Neji... you don't understand," Which was probably the wrong thing to say, but he didn't look like he'd taken offence yet, "You're the only acceptable boy I know."
There was a cool silence. "No."
It was kind of funny, Tenten thought, how one word could kill all hope inside of you. It was kind of funny how she'd gone to Neji, the one person she knew who could scent out vulnerability and attack it mercilessly.
She swallowed. It was very cold. She'd known it was a long shot, known he wouldn't agree, but the slim chance that he might have allowed her to be calmer about the situation. Now that she knew that her life's blood, sweat and tears was wasted on a body and mind that would never live up to its potential, she wanted to run. Run and run and run until she was pure wind and she'd never have to think or feel again.
How had he cut her so deeply with one word?
"I... I need to go." She said. Even to her, her voice sounded strange, like it belonged to someone else.