Pairing/Characters: NejiTen, Tsunade, Hiashi, Shizune, Lee, Gai, Hinata, Hanabi, Orochimaru, Anko, Shikamaru, SasuSaku.
The ballroom was awash in gaiety. The smell of the feast combined with the jovial music ordered by Gai (King Hiashi was generally not aware of what constituted a celebration) was enough to drunken even the sourest people present (including King Hiashi's) with delight.
Queen Tsunade had already begun uttering insistences regarding her daughter's wedding to Shizune, who nodded attentively. Lee, in his desire to congratulate the two among whom he had been raised, had taken but one step in their direction before Tenten's voice filled the hall as strongly as Neji's had:
One of the horns with the orchestra hit a terrible note, Queen Tsunade literally bit her tongue, Hiashi turned so quickly it seemed his spine might snap, and Lee tripped over his own feet to the floor. Peace became pandemonium for a brief moment before all was reduced to shocked witnessing as all silenced themselves to hear the princess's words.
It was Neji, however, who spoke first. He was just noticing that Tenten's fingers were no longer warmly linked with his. “What's the matter?”
“I just...” His lips hung parted as she fought for words.
“Everything of you I see is exactly what I've ever longed for in a woman,” Neji continued. The statement was somehow unromantic, so prosaic was he.
The question caught him somewhat off-guard, but Neji met Tenten's alert brown eyes stare for stare, as he always had. “Haven't you realized...”
Her chest rose quickly, in eager expectation.
“You're beautiful,” he said. “The most beautiful...”
Princess Tenten expelled the breath in just as much haste. Raising an arm to run her own fingers nervously through her long, dark hair – how she longed for a dagger or even a needle to busy her hands with! - she squared her shoulders. “Thank you,” she told him. “Yet...surely...there must be more to me than beauty alone that compels you.”
The eyes of the prince, so like two moons, turned suddenly unsure. It was an unusual sight to see, Neji in a position of anything less than absolute confidence. It had been one of the things that Tenten had always most resented and secretly admired of her betrothed. “I...”
“Neji.” Hiashi's voice was stern but also anxious. In such an unanticipated moment, he appeared to share his nephew's apprehension. Beside him, Tsunade's hands were balled into fists. The glares she sent Tenten's way were easily ignored.
“Does it concern you only that I am beautiful?” specified Tenten, taking one hopeful step toward him. “What more concerns you?”
Again, the king's prompting call: “What more, Neji?”
But Neji stood there, thunderstruck and unmoving. It soon was clear that he could only mentally grasp at the now plenty air between him and the princess. He at last made an attempt to respond. “What more is there?”
There was a thwack audible throughout the ballroom as the flamboyant Gai slapped a hand to his forehead. Lee's forehead made a similar sound as it hit the floor in despair.
As for Tenten, her newly-squared shoulders now slumped. Without a word, she turned and swept from he ballroom; not in visible distress but with perfect nonchalance. Her mother and Shizune soon followed.
Neji, on the other hand, could not move. Silence continued its uncomfortable reign over the room. It was a rare day indeed that any member of the house of Hyuuga faced humiliation, but today it seemed Neji had embarrassed no one but himself. As Lee pried himself from the floor, Gai called for more music but the melody served only to heighten the sense of failure rather than ease the tension.
Feet away, King Hiashi downed an entire goblet of ale.
Queen Tsunade's party departed from the palace that very afternoon. As the purpose of their summer visits had come to an end, however unfortunate, she upheld that they no longer had any reason to occupy West Fire.
“If there is nothing else to say,” King Hiashi replied in his customary solemn tone of voice, “we at the very least tried. We tried incredibly hard, in fact, Tsunade.” He took his fellow ruler's hand and helped her to the seat of her saddle.
“Certainly,” agreed Tsunade in the same brisk manner of veiled disappointment. “And trying, it seems, is all that can be done at times.” The exchange was a dark cloud in a day as beautiful as the one on which the queen and her daughter had first arrived in the west.
Beside his uncle, Neji watched Tenten mount her white horse with a whisper of her beautiful skirts and a pat to the mare's neck. Irritation had seized him during the last few hours, and seeing her tie the strings of her riding cloak at her throat only caused the negative feeling in him to swell. She did not glance in his direction.
Tsunade noticed this as well and made of point of ordering, “Say farewell to our hosts, Tenten.”
She flipped her hair, a waving flag of indignant womanly victory. It was one of the tricks she had picked up from her mother. “Farewell,” she called to the pale-eyed royals on the road.
Shizune frowned, and Tsunade arched an eyebrow.
“Farewell, Prince Neji,” she revised more softly. Her knuckles were white on her horse's reigns.
It took a moment, but when Neji did not voluntarily deign to reciprocate, King Hiashi almost threateningly touched his shoulder. Neji met his uncle's gaze, retaliation in mind, but he backed down beneath the fury there. He looked once more to Tenten. “Farewell, Princess.” None could be sure, not even Neji, but there might have been a note of regret in the words.
With a last nod, Tsunade steered her mount to take the lead, followed by Shizune. Tenten's head at last budged from its stubborn forward position, but just as stubbornly, Neji looked sideways, only watching her exit through the gate when he heard her horse's hooves progress on the road.
When all three woman were gone, Hiashi reacted uncharacteristically by tossing his hands into the air. “So many years,” he announced in clear temper. “So many years of planning, of coming to agreements, and now – wasted by a fool nephew!”
Neji waited until the offended monarch disappeared into the castle before turning, only to see his cousin Hinata watching from a distance. A lock of her arrow-straight hair, black as night, was clenched in her nervously shifting right hand. She had grown from a timid girl to a timid woman. Neji spared no time for her but marched right past into the palace himself.
“You've broken my heart, you know.” Tsunade's arms were crossed as they bumped along in the carriage taking them to the ship at the docks. Night had come early, and wind and rain lashed at the drawn shades to either side of them.
Accustomed to her mother's taste for the over-dramatic, Tenten did not react but continued to calmly tie her hair up into the twin buns she still favored as an adult. One of the scarlet ribbons caught on her little finger, and she paused, realizing she would have to start over.
“I cannot even understand what you did today,” Tsunade lied, her ruined hopes getting the better of her. “What was it you wished for Neji to say? He is a man, my child. He will not know your mind in the way I do.”
Tenten now took a deep breath and made to answer the queen. “I see that I've disappointed you, Mother. But I could not promise myself to him. Not then.”
“He doesn't love me,” said Tenten passionately. “Or at least I can't be sure that he does.”
“He said you were the most beautiful woman he had ever even thought of,” Tsunade reminded her. “As far as men go, that is often as close to true confessions of love that you may ever receive. Why, even your father...”
“I want more than that, Mother! Not just my appearance, but me, myself, must be the reason Neji wants to marry me.”
Tsunade then remembered the words she had said to Hiashi nearly two decades ago, and a little sigh escaped her crimson lips. “I see. Well...” Reaching for the princess's hand, she interlaced her ringed fingers with Tenten's undecorated ones. “Perhaps he will learn some sense and try again in a proper way. Until then,” she advised, “be just as you are – strong and brave.” A sparkle of her usual mischief entered her brown eyes. “And then feel free to send Neji vindictive letters. Sometimes we must fight for our happiness.”
A smile broke out on Tenten's young face, and she leaned forward to embrace her mother. Just as they were pulling away, ready to begin less serious topics, Shizune's voice reached them as they hit a particularly vicious jolt. “Your Highness!” The carriage slowed, then stopped, nervous whinnies from the horses reaching their ears over the wind.
Tsunade looked past the cover on her window. Tenten saw the rosiness promptly vanish from her mother's cheeks even as Tsunade's jaw set. Purposefully, Tsunade opened the door and stepped down from the carriage. Tenten started to follow, but a firm shake of the head from the queen, and the girl remained obediently confined.
Tsunade's voice was heard over the weather's din (“You!”) before a strong thunderclap rattled the carriage. Tenten gripped the seat, but the lantern fell from the ceiling to the carpet. Glass shattered, and the light was extinguished. She took a deep breath to calm her racing heart.
There was audible conversation, but it was too low for Tenten to make out what was said, or with whom her mother was speaking. That the person was a man was all Tenten could figure. And there seemed little hope of the rain letting up.
A strange sound different from the storm caught all of her attention, and then a bright green glow illuminated the carriage through the smallest of cracks. Too nervous and worried now, Tenten flung open the door. “Mother! Shizune!”
There wasn't time to register the status of her loved ones or even anything she could see. There was only a deafening hiss...and then...
Her hair ribbons were clutched by the wind and torn from her tresses, lost to the night.
To Be Continued...