Pairing/Characters: NejiTen, SasuSaku, Tsunade, Hiashi, Shizune, Lee, Gai, Hinata, Orochimaru, Anko, Shikamaru, Temari, Kiba, Ino, Naruto.
There was a range of responses to this princess, so suddenly arrived, with whom Neji seemed so familiar. Everything from appreciative murmurs to approving smiles or indignant name-calling met King Hiashi's ears, but he remained too stunned to hear them. What mattered to him was that Neji's secret was revealed, and that it was good; baffling, indeed, but good.
As for Neji, the prince wore a rarely-seen expression of contentment as the brunette swayed and spun at his lead, the silk of her night-colored dress granting easy movement. But she appeared nervous, a little jerky in her steps. This was unlike Tenten, who could dance with a man as easily as she could with knives.
“You are...” He paused when her eyes turned on his own. They were, of course, brown with the flecks of amber that he had tried to count from memory in the nights without her, but they were also very wide. “Different somehow.”
A grin at once materialized on her features. “Do not concern yourself, Neji.” Stepping in time to the music, she pressed two fingertips to the heart-shaped pendant at her throat, the gold glittering beneath her skin. “After tonight, everything shall be—”
“Perfect,” he said with her. He watched the heart as it glinted and instantly felt better. She was here at last. To stay with him forever. “Yes, Tenten.”
The waltz soon ended, and as he rose from his bow and she from her curtsy to the sound of admiring applause, Neji looked toward the maestro, who ceased all music with a commanding flick of his hand. Across from him, Tenten watched expectantly.
It was time to rescue her.
The muscles that would have been her triceps if she'd been in human form positively burned Tenten, but she flew on at top speed toward the pale, tall structure lighted like a beacon for Hiashi's ball. She was frightened by the notion of what Orochimaru could do to Neji, and all present there – Hinata, the king, Lee, Gai, all the guests! – if she did not make it.
Landing on the nearest windowsill that looked into the ballroom, Tenten surveyed the sparkling scene. She immediately spied Neji standing in the center, practically radiant with dignity. He was facing away from her window, standing with...someone...with...
A soft bird noise erupted from her beak. The sight of her beloved holding her hand without feeling it was disconcerting at best, terrifying at worst. She had anticipated an attack of violence, not of deception! Neji smiled at the woman who was her and yet an impostor.
The crowd was silencing itself.
“I wish to make an announcement,” he said, loud enough to be heard through the glass, “to the present kings and queens of surrounding nations or their representatives; to the ladies and gentlemen of the court; to my family, and to Queen Tsunade though she still sleeps.”
Tenten's breath caught. Her mother was alive! In the fit of misfortune that had found her, she had pathetically forgotten Tsunade. Had Orochimaru enchanted her as well?
“Today,” Neji continued, “I have chosen my bride.”
No. Tenten's head shook involuntarily. No!
Hinata smiled from her place beside a blond lord. Even she could not identify the other princess as false.
“I wish you to know her as the future queen of the king of West Fire,” said Neji, “and, eventually, the kingdom of Fire once more in its unification.”
Desperate, Tenten flew to the next window, then the next, attempting to enter Neji's line of vision so that he could realize what was happening. She tapped wildly at the glass with beak and wing. Neji! Neji, you've been tricked! You've been—
But Neji still did not catch sight of her. “So that I may prove my feelings for her, something at which I have failed in the past...”
Tenten soared to yet another window and saw that the figure bearing her body now pressed herself to Neji's side, and he faced away again, as though she had turned him thus on purpose. If she had been seen by the impersonator, then Tenten knew this was the case.
“...I now make a vow; a vow so strong that it may not be broken, by man, magic, or beast, stronger than any force on earth, to best all vows...”
The tapping changed to beating, and a gilded edge of the window sliced open an inch of Tenten's wing, blood tainting the pure swan feathers. In her icy horror, she did not even register the physical pain. Her spirit, however, was ablaze with agony.
She went into a frenzy of searching for entrances, attempting a cellar door (chained), a fountain built into the wall (caged), and a servant's window peering over the ground (rusted shut) before returning to the bright pane of glass that framed the cause of her heightening panic.
“Here, before the whole word,” Neji was concluding, “I make a vow of everlasting love.”
The prince gestured to the woman who now stood just behind him, gloriously beautiful in black and red, flowing hair, and oddly nonchalant smile. “To the princess Tenten.”
Neji's slow stretch of the arm was like a blow to the neck, leaving Tenten stunned and then pulsing as the emotional pain and the physical melded and became indistinguishable. Something inside her like started weakening, like a column of wax under a flame. It hurt, but she managed to flutter upward and catch the breeze, directing herself back toward the lake in Orochimaru's heartless domain.
A blend of polite clapping and ecstatic cheering swelled in the ballroom, and Neji squeezed his future wife's hand. Before he could say a word or hear one of hers, a gust went through the entire room, extinguishing lights and billowing clothes. There was no source for the mysterious wind, until the double doors clattered open.
Neji saw a cloaked man on the steps, saw his lips curved and his eyes narrowed. Reading ill intent, he held a hand to the woman beside him before proceeding forward. “Who are you?” he demanded before his uncle could.
“I suppose I will be the courteous one and say simply 'hello' first,” replied the long-haired, pale newcomer. The coolness in his voice soon cracked, however, and he came near to doubling over in restrained laughter. “You behaved so predictably!”
“What do you...”
“And astoundingly, I may add. Pledging your everlasting love to another,” said Orochimaru, “is quite the feat of witless disloyalty.”
Neji's facial features hardened. “What are you daring to imply?” Aiming another hand to the black-clad woman, “This is Tenten!” he exclaimed.
“Tenten,” he was corrected, “can never be with you. Tenten is out there. Tenten is mine!”
The truth dawned on Neji with all the gentleness of a boulder hurtling down the cliffside to squash him in the ravine. “It's you! The one who did all of it to her, to Queen Tsunade.” He watched the sorcerer jerk at the mention of the monarch's name. “You are finished,” Neji declared. “I made a vow of everlasting love, and Tenten—”
“No.” Orochimaru lifted his right arm. “You made a vow of everlasting death.” With a stretch of his fingers, a fine line of orange-gold light trailed from him to the woman behind Neji, who writhed and collapsed on the carpet.
Neji froze for a split second, then raced toward her, calling out for a response. But even as he ran, he saw the brown hair shorten and grow brittle, then discolor to a shade of wilted lilac blooms. The skin paled and the face contorted to a new face. By the time Neji knelt at her side, Tenten had become someone else completely. The strange woman rose shakily to her feet and then went to join the sorcerer.
Gasps and outcries burst from the witnesses. Someone fainted. Neji noticed none of it.
Orochimaru added, “And Tenten fades quickly.” With a sweep of his arm, he drew Neji's attention to a western window that held the night sky and, in its center, the wing strokes of a retreating white swan.
“Tenten!” Neji cried, unable to believe his own fooled state.
“I would hurry,” came Orochimaru's cruelty-slicked advice. “If you put in the effort, I am sure you will be able to meet her for one last, short goodbye.”
The prince exhaled once quickly, as though to expel his own weakness, before bolting to the door without heeding Orochimaru any further. There was only one chance, and time was most obviously of the essence.
What had he done?
In the ballroom, Orochimaru did not bother with the other members of the royal family, although both daughters were present and would make for an almost effortless murder. Hiashi was a crownbearer that did not interest him. To amuse himself, he made a suggestion to Anko.
“We should hurry home, my successful actress. There is still a dramatic ending to see tonight.” With a touch to the girl's elbow and a lift to his night cloak, Orochimaru dematerialized from the palace grounds.
It took mere seconds before the terrified, quizzical screams and demands broke out from the horde of attendees. To escape them, Hiashi was ushered to the stairs leading up into the castle using Gai as a bodyguard. He ascended only ten steps before he came face to face with a woman whose yellow hair was tangled from a sleeping braid and whose brown, somewhat bleary eyes flared with unleashed passion.
“Hiashi,” said Queen Tsunade in even, fearsome tones. The king could not speak for shock at the sight of his old friend awake right in front of him. “Where is my daughter?”
To Be Continued...