Author's Notes: I've had this one in my head for a while. It will be a two-parter, and you can expect the next part soon. I hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
In Front Of Every Star
Part One: The Choice Is Mine
A breeze, chill with the coming autumn, passed along the side of her neck, moving like an intimate touch. Tenten smiled as she twirled a kunai round and round the index finger of her right hand. Leaning her head back, she cast her hazel gaze upon the millions of stars that hung from the overhead sky.
She loved nights like this one, when the wind whispered softly and the trees were full of moonlight. There was no battle to fight, no training to do. And the best part was that her head rested in the nook of Neji's shoulder, one of his arms wrapped possessively around her middle.
"Do you remember when we were children?" she asked him quietly.
His lips were pressed to her temple, and she felt them curve. "Of course. You were so defiant."
"You were so arrogant."
"You were a tomboy," he elaborated with a chuckle that she felt rumble against her back. He could picture her in the air, clouds and endless blue her backdrop, as she fell to rain sharp offense against him as they sparred. She had been much smaller then, less womanly, but just as fierce, always armed. "But I don't think anyone minded."
"You always had scraped-up knees," she recalled fondly, "even with the bandages." His hand turned over, and she gripped it, kissing the scarred row of knuckles. "Did you know…ever…?" If you loved me then?
"No," he admitted fairly. "You know how I was."
"Main house, main house, and more main house?" Tenten gave a squeal of laughter when he rolled them both over so that her back was in the grass, and he had her firmly pinned. "All right. Well, I didn't exactly predict anything. I hoped, maybe, for some attention."
"You received it," acknowledged Neji, becoming suddenly interested in the collarbone left exposed by her askew neckline.
"But I was never so foolish to expect you would propose to me." Tenten's smile widened when his colorless eyes fell on hers. "Of course, now that you have—"
Neji efficiently silenced her by fusing their mouths, and Tenten mentally admitted that she did talk too much sometimes. Tossing the kunai away, she wrapped her arms about his neck and enjoyed the kiss.
"We have a meeting with the Godaime in the morning," he told her when they broke apart, both breathing irregularly.
She lifted a brow. "Did Lee tell you what it was about?"
"It's not for Lee. Apparently it's not a mission." As he spoke, Neji delved his fingers into her hair, and Tenten instantly decided she liked it when he did that.
With a small laugh, she suggested, "Maybe we're getting a raise."
He looked amused as he pulled her to her feet. "Maybe. Anyway, we have to be there just after sunrise. I think we should get some sleep."
Ever so rational, Tenten thought in amusement. "You weren't surprised when your uncle gave you permission to marry me?" she queried as they walked back toward the resident area of Konoha, leaving their old training ground empty.
"It is only Hinata-sama whose marriage will be arranged. With both my parents dead, Hiashi-sama has limited say over my adult life so long as I remain faithful to the Hyuuga clan. You don't mind living at the compound?"
She shook her head. "Where I live has never bothered me. And you'll be there."
This time it was Neji who smiled. "Yes. I'll be there."
The vow was sealed with another lingering kiss outside her door. Neji's hands tightened on her waist, and Tenten had the impression that he really did not want to leave. She watched him make his way toward the Hyuuga estate. When he had vanished into the night, she looked toward the heavens again. If she could have chosen the sky under which she would agree to marry her longtime love, Tenten would have picked just this.
"I know it's early. Thank you for coming."
"It's not that early, Tsunade-sama," whispered Shizune in a failed attempt to be discreet. "You were late arriving here!"
"Now, business!" Tsunade staunchly ignored her assistant. "Neji, Tenten. I don't suppose I need dance around details. You are both aware of the Land of Earth's recent hostility toward neighboring countries."
Shizune, file in hand, read from a data sheet: "High-ranking Rock-nin have been invading the Land of Rain and the Land of Grass for months. It is only a matter of time before they seize the Land of the Waterfall, and then move onto the Land of Fire."
"That won't happen," Neji cut in, his confidence high. "Konoha, especially with its current allies, would be especially difficult to conquer."
"I agree," Tsunade said, "which makes it doubly important that our ties with our allies remain strong." Her sharp eyes suddenly swiveled to Tenten, brown on brown. "There are those in Sunagakure who are dubious of our allegiance toward them. Elders there are accustomed to tradition. Kazekage Gaara has suggested that we answer their call for symbolism, something to represent the bond between Wind and Fire."
Tenten felt extremely uncomfortable at this moment, wishing suddenly that it had not been she and Neji who were called this morning. "Godaime-sama?"
"In short," Tsunade told her, "they are asking for a marriage union between a shinobi of Suna and a kunoichi of Konoha."
A weight like a dropping stone or falling hail settled in her heart, heavy and just as cold. Tenten bit her tongue, waiting.
The Hokage watched the younger woman with eyes that grew slowly more sympathetic with each second that passed. "I am asking you to be that kunoichi for the sake of your country. If our bond with Suna was to break—"
"Why should it break for such a foolish reason?"
At Neji's sharp question, Shizune looked up. "Unfortunately, Gaara of the Sand is still under many critical eyes. He is not yet free to execute his full way over Suna. If the Elders there are dissatisfied, he could be forced to abandon us."
"Then why must it be Tenten?" Neji's breathing was labored, his voice rising.
"Tenten is a successful kunoichi. Her record is spotless, her fidelity is unquestioned. She is young. And she lacks heritage, being parentless." Standing, Tsunade walked around her desk, coming toward Tenten. "There is no one else to take part in this decision other than you. This is an administrative advantage."
Tenten nodded, understanding the logic. But she could not see Tsunade well, her eyes partially blurred with shock that she had not yet gotten past. "To accept this proposal the Land of Wind has made…" She trailed, unable to continue.
"You know how these things are done," said the Godaime. "To become a wife of both countries would invalidate your position as a kunoichi. You would be exempt from going on missions and fighting in war, should it arrive, though your Jounin standard is what makes you desirable for the arrangement."
"I would give up my career," she nodded, "and...other things…"
Neji's hand fell on her shoulder from behind, and every muscle she had went utterly tense.
"Oftentimes we must learn to be selfless for our nations," said Shizune quietly. "You love Konoha, don't you, Tenten!"
"Of course!" she exclaimed, the notion that anyone could think otherwise hitting her like a slap to the face. "But—"
"You can say no," Tsunade told her fairly, "and we can hope for the cooperation of the narrow-minded Elders anyway. It will be difficult, but I think it can be done. The problem is that a question of loyalty is not helpful when preparing for attack."
Tenten took slow, deep breaths. It was hard to imagine herself married to a complete stranger, blacklisted from the ninja ranks when she had spent nearly all of her life in the effort to become an accomplished kunoichi. Now that she had achieved that goal, her future seemed bleak. And Neji… Neji.
"Who is he?" she asked suddenly, catching the two older women off-guard. Even Neji's hand jumped a bit on her shoulder. "The shinobi from Wind? Anyone I know?"
"I'm afraid not. This man is close to your age, but he only recently achieved Jounin status. He is from a clan working not too differently from how our Hyuuga clan operates." Again Shizune spouted off these facts from a neatly-filed sheet. "His name is Izanagi Hideki."
"Izanagi Hideki," she repeated in a murmur, immediately thinking: Izanagi Tenten. Thinking of something, she looked at the Hokage and asked, "Why did you invite Neji here? If this has nothing to do with him?"
Shizune and Tsunade exchanged poorly-veiled glanced. At last it was Tsunade who said simply, "We felt he should be aware of the circumstances."
For the first time since coming to the Hokage's office, Tenten turned to look at Neji. His head hung downward, the long fall of ebony hair shielding his face, but her eyes caught he glint of white just before he turned and stalked out of the room.
Something ignited in her chest. Recognizing it as fear, Tenten hurried to follow him. "Neji!" she called out in the hallway. "Stop! Stop!"
At her forceful cry, the Hyuuga prodigy halted beside a window and allowed her to reach his side.
"Are you going to only walk away without a word?" she demanded, wishing she did not feel as though her insides were all solidifying and cracking into pieces. "Neji, the choice is mine…but," she struggled to add the truth, "I can't refuse." She saw him visibly flinch. When he looked at her, his eyes were completely different from those who had asked her to marry him last night.
"It's…" He seemed to reach out for a word and was forced to settle with one he found inadequate. "It's cruel. Cruel that this has happened just now. And you are going to let it?"
"Strictly speaking," (and it hurt so much to say it because her mind was screaming for her to deny all), "I am not taken by you. The Land of Fire could be endangered if we part alliance with the Land of Wind. Were that to happen and it was my fault, I…" Tenten faltered because his glance and the set of his shoulders were making her feel worse with every unconfident syllable. "I couldn't live with myself."
He watched her as though every word she said was one of her daggers flung ruthlessly into his body. "Last night," he said, reaching out to encircle her slim wrist with his hand, "you promised yourself to me." He pulled her closer, and their bodies met. Tenten felt tortured by the memory of how he had kissed her. "Does that mean nothing to you?!"
"Neji, even if I marry him—" He tried to break away, but she grabbed him. "Even if I do, you will still be the man I love!"
He stared at her, stricken, because in that instant both of them knew that she would accept Suna's proposal and turn away from Neji's. Tenten knew that had been the most wrong thing to say. Neji slipped out of her grasp and vaulted out of the open window. She watched, her pulse sprinting, as he landed safely on the ground and disappeared into the morning throng of Konohans.
This time, she did not follow him.
Presently, she heard the click of Tsunade's high heels on the floor and saw the hands with the blood-red nails on the window sill beside her own calloused palms. "You are very good to this nation, Tenten."
Her voice was flat. "And I am very cruel to him."
Tsunade kept quiet a moment, as though unsure whether or not to proceed. Eventually, her own shrewdness prompted her. "As young as you are, I am sure Suna would agree to give you a year-long engagement period. Then you will be twenty-four years old, and—"
"No," interrupted Tenten, "I don't need a year. Please tell the Izanagi clan that I will marry their son at the earliest convenience. This weekend, perhaps."
The woman who had once been her idol hesitated, but then nodded curtly. "Yes. I'll have Shizune message them today."
Tenten did not go with Tsunade but remained at the window. At age twenty-three, she was a retired kunoichi. Her hands gripped the sill more tightly, but she did not cry. Instead, the gray skies opened up and did her weeping for her.
A month after her marriage, Tenten was able to make a valid assessment of her husband.
Izanagi Hideki was a lower member of the Izanagi clan, one level lower than where Neji stood with the Hyuuga. It was not that he was an untalented shinobi, but he was unmotivated – hence his unusually late promotion to Jounin rank. In a word, Tenten would describe him as lazy.
And not Nara Shikamaru's style of lazy. There was no cloud-watching for this man, and she had yet to detect any hidden brilliance. And – though he was yet untested – she did not have the impression that Hideki would suddenly unleash fierce loyalty when it came to battle in the way of the Nara heir. He knew little restraint, making frequent visits to the brothels near the border, preferring sake over tea.
From the moment she had become a wife, Tenten found herself on the fast track to becoming a skilled cook. This surprised her mainly because she had performed minimal cooking in the past, having little interest in it, and now she was thrust into the world of culinary advancement. It was difficult – while Hideki was never completely in resentment of her food, he never praised it either – she felt, at best, "acceptable." It reminded her of being back in the Academy, but this time her trials felt far less necessary.
Her new situation of being a symbol for Konoha's allegiance presented many annoyances. Any good-weather afternoons were spent walking the fair distance to Konoha in order to buy groceries. Hideki was the only one between the two still doing shinobi work, and he received his missions from his homeland of Wind. However, upon going to Konoha to meet his new wife – whom, Tenten recalled, he had received with initial excitement and approval of both her personality and looks – he had chosen for them to live in a small house closer to the Leaf village, on the Fire side of the border. Tenten had learned later that he preferred the cooler climate and the foliage-rich countryside.
This worked in her favor, at least, because she was able to keep in touch with her friends. Lee was always in the marketplace if it seemed like a day on which Tenten would be there, and he kept her informed of all the latest news that was deprived her in her segregated area.
Neji she saw only in glances; if he was walking on the other side of the street, or if he appeared in the window of the Hokage's office building, a flash of white gaze and black hair. On those days, the return trip home always consisted of her staring at the sky, as though the expanse of air could explain to her why she felt so unsatisfied.
She kept up her training because the feel of vegetable-chopping knives was not enough to satiate her need to use weapons. Hideki had expressed his reproach of it, but sometimes he would stand off to the side and watch as she tossed kunai, shuriken and loosed arrows and other assortments of projectiles – never missing her target.
After a year, she wondered if he was simply envious of her skill. Tenten carried a certain pride for her capacity for dedication.
They got along as they needed to, though at times she was filled with the aching need to scream and fight him, to do something that would obliterate his chronic lack of action. But as far as being a wife went, she was perfect at it. Tenten held her tongue and cleaned her house. The only time she had defied his wishes was when he demanded she start wearing kimono, and she had refused. Her nights were always cold, but Hideki made use of her, and she often fell asleep to the slowing of his pants while the only passion-induced sweat on her body was his (yet another reason to continue training).
One night she was left glowing from thoughts of Neji when it was Hideki's hands on her. She didn't bother to correct her husband's smugness.
Sometimes Tenten wondered why she had not simply let Tsunade plead to Suna's Elders' compassion instead of amputate herself from a life that had been as close to perfect as she had ever dared expect it? She had become a champion of breakfast and dust bunnies rather than a victor of enemies! Tenten reminded herself in these instances that, thanks to the sacrifice she – and presumably Hideki – had made, Konoha and Suna were strong in their alliance.
This was important too, because in the three years she had already spent married to Izanagi Hideki, the Land of Earth was moving in, and already talk of Rock-nin spotted along the border to the Land of Fire was abundant in the marketplace.
To Be Continued In Part Two: If I Said I Loved You