Pairing/Characters: NejiTen, SasuSaku, Tsunade, Hiashi, Shizune, Lee, Gai, Hinata, Orochimaru, Anko, Shikamaru, Temari, Kiba, Ino, Naruto.
The sight to which Anko Mitarashi was most accustomed was the dark cloak hanging from Orochimaru's back, grown slightly ragged over the years and maintained by her sub-par needlework. The garment waved flag-like with every step the sorcerer took, and she cherished the familiarity, but not as much as the five times in her life that Orochimaru had looked her in the eyes.
“Did you see, Anko?” he was saying. “She has almost broken entirely. The human mind craves constancy. Changing between woman and bird, gathering hope and then losing it, all this weakens her practically by the hour. As for Prince Neji of West Fire...well, his vow could become a problem. Tenten does not need to be present for him to prove his love for her. And I have been civil so far, have I not?” He pressed a fist without warmth to the underside of his chin. “I should not have been so foolish. Civility is what lost me my throne eighteen years ago.”
The first had been in her childhood, a lone man spotting a starving, abandoned child on his way to begin work for the king of East Fire. The four times following had been only when Orochimaru was particularly pleased with himself, and Anko was his only option for someone to whom he could communicate his feelings.
“Anyone attempting to secretly enter the Hyuuga palace,” went on the sorcerer, “would be bodily detained on sight, so murdering him is not possible – as of yet. What is necessary is that I deceive Neji. He is clearly determined to rescue Tenten, but he must be stopped. The question concerns how?
She shut the door behind her once they reentered the castle, having left Tenten to her misery. Anko lingered over the number six when, without any signal, Orochimaru turned and stared at her, possibly alerted to her by the heavy sound of the door as it closed.
“Of course,” murmured Orochimaru through sallow lips. “You!”
Anko's mouth went dry. To receive her master's full attention was so rare that she was incapable of forming a worthy response.
Orochimaru grabbed her by the shoulders. “I will disguise you to appear as Tenten! You'll go to the ball in her place, Anko. I'll need to change things here and there, but you both are nearly the same height and shape. Well, you are also too old. But that and everything else is a matter of the right spell.”
“Truly...” Her voice cracked. Anko only ever bothered to speak to Orochimaru, yet as he so seldom bothered with her, talking was a skill she lacked practice at. “Truly, master?”
“Certainly. You'll have to prepare, naturally. A girl so ungraceful and meek as you won't pass as East Fire's princess before an entire court of monarchs-to-be.” Orochimaru's lips spread back so that his pointed teeth glimmered in the weak light of the old castle. “Can you disguise yourself, Anko?”
With a vigorous nod, the loyal, misguided woman assured him she could.
“You must understand the beauty of this spell. Once Neji professes his love for the wrong woman, the spell will not be broken. Rather it will break Tenten. You see, Anko,” Orochimaru grinned, “the princess Tenten will die. Appropriate homage to two esteemed members royalty!”
Leading her to the center of the room, where no objects stood within ten feet of her, Orochimaru put a hand over her eyes. “I want you to think of all the beauty and grace and independence you so lack and Tenten exudes. Think of how perfect you could have been if you were not so useless a creature, Anko. Dwell in the fortune that passed you by.”
Anko subjected herself to his words, allowed them to fill her. If only she were useful, beautiful, graceful...full.
“It seems your uncle has outdone himself.”
A proper compliment paid toward his family in the proper place, but Neji was too preoccupied to entirely appreciate Lee's thoughtful show of respect. He had yet to finish his scan of the sea of faces, notably most of them young women, that roamed the Hyuuga ballroom. “Of course he has,” he replied in time. “He always tries to, one way or another.”
“No remarkably scathing comment?” Lee noted, although the bowl-haired man seemed unsure of whether he felt surprise or apprehension. “That is certainly unusual. I would have expected a more embittered choice of words.”
“Well, for one thing,” he explained, “there is so much excess is this room even I find it difficult to enjoy the occasion, and you disdain the unnecessary. For another, King Hiashi expects you to decide which of the eligible women here you will marry before the month's end.”
Neji, every sense he possessed filled to the brim with triumph, turned away from his friend to conceal the mysterious twitch his lips gave. “I am not so concerned about that.”
The virtual parade of heiresses that had gathered in West Fire for King Hiashi's impromptu ball was essentially a dizzying cyclone of expensive gowns, overly bright color, and estrogen that could be destructive as discreetly or bombastic as the women chose. Each hopeful girl did everything but prance by him to show off her looks, breeding, and talent in order to arrest his attention. Neji's ear was still ringing from the high C one had warbled sans warning.
Not every princess appeared to be at all interested in the prospect of Prince Neji for a husband. Indeed, one tall blond had struck up rather heated bickering with the captain's son, Shikamaru, off to one side of the room and could not tear her narrowed eyes off of the grated-looking man, who appeared just as aggressively captivated by her.
Most of them, however, seemed to have coiled themselves like glittering springs, ready to jump at him with regaling of their wealth, their respective nations' history, and most of all, their attractiveness as women. One such assailant was a blue-eyed girl who wore her corn-yellow hair in a high ponytail behind her tiara. Her voice as it called after him was pitched so high that a visiting prince (most likely attending to survey the pickings without having to hold a ball of his own) had to restrain the dog that accompanied him as it barked at her in response. The talkative princess was soon distracted and allowed Neji to maneuver a few more paces forward before the host of the event successfully located him, Hinata at his side.
“You are not mingling well,” Hiashi told Neji in certain disapproval. “There is an announcement expected of you tonight.”
“How does Queen Tsunade fare?” queried Neji in what he knew would be a failure of a change of subject.
King Hiashi's frown deepened. “You know perfectly well that you would be informed directly upon her awakening. Just as you know, I am not so easily dissuaded from my point.”
“Uncle,” said Neji in a manner with which he had never before addressed the king, “has it occurred to you at all that I may have already chosen my queen?”
Hiashi merely started, but Hinata broke away from her father's side to approach him head-on. Neji surprised her when he caught her by the elbows in something that might have become an embrace if the Hyuugas had been raised to do such things. As they weren't, Hinata only clutched at Neji's sleeves. Her wonder at his inference even briefly ridded her of the nervous stammer. “What are you saying, cousin?”
Instead of replying, Neji took her arm and led her away from King Hiashi, who stood floored and stifled from his nephew's retort. “I have never seen you dance, Hinata. Come and impress me, will you?”
In her swan form, Tenten fluttered wildly, but to no avail. The narrow, ground-level turret into which, with a wave of his bony fingers, Orochimaru had transported both her and Sasuke allowed no space for her wingspan. The most she could do was float in disgruntlement in the algae-riddled damp at the bottom of the turret, glaring balefully up at the sorcerer, who watched from a wooden casement window above.
Sasuke was perched on a rusted iron ring hung by a chain from the far ceiling, his head tilting this way and that in perturbation.
“Now do not favor me with such looks of hatred,” said Orochimaru in his slick tones. “Thank Tenten, Sasuke, for your predicament. She craved a company other than mine, such a spoiled, unsatisfied princess that she is. It is only that I did not want to play unfairly. If Tenten cannot make it to the ball at the palace, then you shan't either. I promise to return with a full report on the event.” The sorcerer grinned when they met his words with a cacophony of squawk and honk. “Oh, I see. You require even more company? I suppose it is cruel to keep two established lovers apart.”
Orochimaru snapped his fingers, his hand glowing. Sakura materialized near the room before plunging down, her startled scream cut off as she hit the water. “Here you are. Your friend can join you.” He paid no mind to Sakura's frantic flailing – the girl was evidently too shocked to swim well at the moment. “I myself must be off. It is the poorest show to be late for a ball, you'll agree.”
The window slammed to a cracking shut as he left them. Sasuke tugged on the iron ring with his hard, curved beak until the rust gave and the ring to hang on the way to the water. Sakura grabbed that chain at once and sputtered, her hair plastered like a rose-colored scarf around her face, algae sticking to her sopping dress.
I'm sorry, Tenten could only say to Sasuke, floating near to Sakura as the other woman caught her breath.
He has been waiting for a chance to torture us, Sasuke returned solemnly. He brushed the feathered tip of a wing over Sakura's cheek, then settled on his lover's shoulder. He will meet his end.
How? she demanded, hopeless. Look at us! There is no escape!
You may be wrong, the Uchiha differed. In my brief explorations of this dungeon, I have noticed a substantial amount of water.
Meaning there is a leak somewhere in this wall through which you can most likely swim out into the lake.
Feeling daft, Tenten waved her long neck in protest. How could I abandon you?
How will Orochimaru be defeated if we do not try every potential route to success? Sasuke's eyes, though those of a raptor's, hardened on her. It is up to you, Tenten. I will do my best to lead Sakura out of here once she has calmed enough to hold her breath for so long. In the meantime, Orochimaru is planning to dispatch your prince, and I can do nothing for you any longer.
Tenten's fears had manifested. Orochimaru had finally played his final hand, and her options were either to wait and see if Neji overpowered him or if he could be slain essentially by her love. And she did not have the patience to see her love kill her lifelong companion.
Very well, she said to him, meeting Sakura's eyes. She thought of her mother, of the expression of strength Tsunade had worn in the moment before facing Orochimaru on the road to the river. A desire to possess equal strength rose so forcefully within her that she did not even say goodbye to her friends before diving beneath the surface to hunt for the way out – and the way to Neji.
“Neji,” said Hinata while her cousin led her in graceful circles amid the throng of other dancers, “is what you told my father true?”
“I was thinking you should help my future wife on our wedding day,” Neji told her, thinking of Tsunade's relentless slumber.
“You are so secretive,” she murmured. “Will you not tell me who she is?”
“I believe you will know.” To distract her for the moment, Neji turned her so that Hinata came face to face with an acquaintance of his, whose bright hair had been easily seen by his eyes and toward whom he had been steering Hinata for the duration of the dance. “Master Uzumaki,” he addressed the blond man, “allow me to introduce my cousin, Princess Hinata.”
“Oh! So this is the Hyuuga princess!” Uzumaki spoke with none of the gentle tones owned by the rest of the aristocratic gentlemen Hinata usually met. Rather, the astonishing blue of his eyes seemed to be occupied by optimism and perhaps some mischief instead of the usual scheming. “I get what all the talk's about. You are a gorgeous princess!”
Hinata immediately locked up. “G-g-gorgeous?” Her stutter was back, and when Uzumaki swept into a bow in the cape he seemed uncomfortable wearing, the princess colored rose-red from her neck to the ends of her coal-black bangs. Neji actually had to press a hand to her back in order to steady her.
“Call me Naruto,” the blond told her with a broad grin.
“I will leave her to you, Uzumaki,” said Neji, manually placing Hinata's hand in Naruto's before turning and walking off. The guests appeared to grow restless....
As if in response to his thoughts, the massive doors of the hall was knocked upon loudly enough for the sound to ring over the din of the crowd and the music of the orchestra. Neji almost smiled; she was as assertive as ever.
King Hiashi, in his ongoing befuddlement, sent a servant to answer, although Neji overhead him ask a clueless Gai who could be arriving, as every invited guest had already been accounted for. The prince felt an unfamiliar lurch in his chest, a combination of nerves and thrill palpitating his heart.
The doors were opened to reveal a woman, slim and smiling. Her bark-brown hair, falling over her dress's red trim, was lustrous in the sparkling of the chandeliers, out-shined by her darker eyes. The chatter and music hushed at the entrance of this unexpected woman – a princess, most supposed, or a highly ranked lady. Lee's mouth had dropped open so that his jaw came close to touching his chest.
Not far away, Hiashi had turned to Gai and gripped his shoulder hard enough for his knuckles to blanch. “Who is that?” he demanded in soft urgency of the advisor. His lips had grown thin. “Gai, tell me what Neji has told you of this woman!”
“Nothing, my lord,” responded Gai. “It is just...you see her yourself. She so resembles—”
“It can't be!” the king hissed. “Surely she was killed. The carriage in the rain....”
As Hiashi tumbled over his words, the arrival came to Neji, her smile warm and welcoming. “I was uncertain,” the prince confessed. So consumed by her presence, he did not even notice that the fabric of her dress which had previously been white was now pitch black. “I feared you would not—”
“Have more faith,” she interjected cheerfully. “I will always come to you.”
Neji took her hand, a smile of his own playing at his mouth. “Tenten.” He gestured to the orchestra. As the music swelled again, he led her into the slow waltz before all the world.
In the darkness shrouding Orochimaru's hidden domain, a single bubble blossomed on the surface of the lake, where it burst. An instant after, the swan that was Tenten burst similarly from the lake. She gained altitude as she headed for the curtain of vines leading away from the old castle.
The night was devoid of any light, but her bird eyes were sharp, and she remembered the formations of the trees. She was sure that she could navigate through the forest to the Hyuuga palace. But time, Tenten knew, was not on her side. And she could not predict Orochimaru's plan. Flying faster, she allowed herself to hope one more time.
She had someone waiting for her.
To Be Continued...