Pairing/Characters: NejiTen, SasuSaku, Tsunade, Hiashi, Shizune, Lee, Gai, Hinata, Orochimaru, Anko, Shikamaru, Temari, Kiba, Ino, Naruto.
Away from the Hyuuga palace, Tenten's wings seemed to grow slower and heavier with every downward thrust as she propelled herself across the sky, over the miles of forest and through the curtain of vine that opened into the grounds of the derelict castle. The air she soared through was charged with an unnamed force, and her strength was sapped by it more as each minute passed.
She had fled so frantically that all control over herself had been surrendered to her pain. Aiming for the water, Tenten found she could not decrease her speed, and only the tips of her wings streaked through the wet surface, throwing arcs of dripping light as she flew over the lake completely. Out of the corner of her eye, Tenten registered a flash of pink hair. Sakura watched in frozen fear, still damp but free of Orochimaru's dungeon.
The cold stone of the bridge leading toward the castle caught her, and the swan lay stretched face-up near the steps leading to the arch, wings outspread. A familiar blend of warmth and cold flooded within her, light rising in her blurring vision. And then the notch of a wing became an upturned wrist and fingers dangling over the top step, a hard beak became a softly-parted mouth. Through her lashed eyes, Tenten vaguely noted that there was still no moon to greet her in her ruined state.
What more is there?
Tenten could have smiled if she'd possessed the strength. Neji's words, the question that had led to their series of misfortune, seemed apt enough in this moment. Her heart gave a swift, sharp twist inside her and she took to long pulls of breath as any strain on that particular organ would not be best.
Overhead, she saw Sasuke, still in raptor form as he circled above her in the darkness of night. Wasn't it odd that she had transformed and he had not? She could not begin to explain it. In fact, there were a great many things she could not even successfully think of right now. But Neji...she could think of Neji and of the way his eyes had widened to such disbelieving size when he first saw her upon the lake. To think that had been only last night. It seemed so long ago to Tenten.
And then, so strangely, Neji was there, his eyes so like the moon that had abandoned her tonight.
Unlike her, Neji could not even summon the wonder of why Tenten had reverted to human form. After bursting through the vines so forcefully that several leafy strands snapped from the bough above, the prince raced across the grounds following the same path as the previous evening, though on this non-illuminated night the travel was more difficult. When he arrived at the fore of the old castle, his breath fled from his heaving chest as though exorcised to see the princess he sought lying supine on the chilled stone floor.
There was blood coating her left sleeve where a wing must have been minutes earlier. Neji took no heed of the hovering bird he had chased before nor of the chalk-white woman standing in the distance.
“Tenten?” Her name grated from his throat like air between thorns, and, rushing to her, Neji dropped to both knees at her side. “Tenten!”
Her eyes, previously drooping, now blinked rapidly and then opened entirely to look up at him. “Neji?” she queried as one in a dream, unsure of her sight's true witnessing.
“Yes,” he murmured, almost afraid that too much volume would damage her somehow. “I'm here, Tenten.” With gentle arms, he lifted her so that only her body below the waist touched the stone. Her skin felt as cold under his fingers, and he tightened his hold on her unwittingly. Neji's hair fell forward, an ebony curtain on the side where Orochimaru's fortress was, leaving only the lake open to her view.
She trembled against him, one hand reaching up toward his neck. “I am...so weak, Neji.”
“No, no.” He said the words, hardly hearing them himself as he recounted a thousand memories of their child's play, in which he had been bested by her as many times as he had done the besting. “Strong,” he refuted, eloquence gone.
“I must be...”
“No!” He took her hand, pressed it to the place over his heart. “You are going to live, Tenten. With me, forever. The vow I made...the vow the world heard...that was for you.”
She nodded, but the movement was reminiscent of the water tumbling over the fall in the forest, never to be seen again after in that single second. “I know.” Briefly, her fingers returned pressure on his. “I love you, Neji,” she whispered. Only too soon, those fingers released altogether.
He froze, sound fading in his ears as the princess's head fell back over his forearm, her long brown hair cascading beneath her. The rest of her grew still.
“Tenten?” Why he made her name into a question was unknown, however, Neji knew the truth. As he laid her tenderly down upon the stone, his limbs shook with a rising fury even as his blood screamed in pain. “My vow...it was...”
“For her,” came a sneering voice. “But of course it was.”
Bolting to his feet, Neji whirled to see Orochimaru standing yards away, looking on.
“And she knows that,” he continued through lips spread in a grotesque mockery of a real smile. “Or rather, knew that.”
And then Neji's hands were on the older man, bunching in his ragged black clothes, and he gave a tremendous shake of the sorcerer, whose smile at once disappeared. “Do not,” he warned Orochimaru, “allow her to die.”
Orochimaru appeared unimpressed. “A threat? Is that what you mean to—”
“Do not so much as dare to allow her to die!”
“Ah, that is what you mean to make. You are quite outspoken tonight, Prince Neji.”
Knuckles turning as white as his eyes from the grip, Neji practically lifted the man from the very ground. “If you have the power – and I can see that you do – then do it!”
The false expression of ease Orochimaru bore now flashed to one of outrage. Throwing out both arms, the Hyuuga future ruler stumbled back a few paces. “Very well,” he snarled. The nostrils flared in menace. “Will you fight for your dying princess?”
The air around him crackled, sparks shooting from nowhere to nowhere. Orochimaru aimed both arms skyward, and then he was enveloped by a shifting, pulsing light that grew like a pillar around him.
The color of the spell's visual manifestation flared onto Neji's stricken face. He could hardly comprehend it. The green flash...
The pillar rose several stories high, a sickly shade touching every leaf on the surrounding trees, temporarily dyeing the lake's silver water to that of the light. And when it went away, the light did not fall as it had in Tenten's transformations but rather blinked out of existence to reveal a towering, squirming serpent.
The deadly form Orochimaru had taken snapped fangs that dripped poison, a forked tongue dark and darting from the large mouth. In his surprise, Neji did not move for several moments until a shrill call from the raptor brought him to his senses.
With the instincts of the hunter, he ran toward the castle, away from Tenten's unconscious body to prevent any harm toward it, fingers grabbing for the hilt of his sword. Without getting too near a wall where he could be trapped, Neji spun and faced the monster, blade upheld. The snake that was Orochimaru slithered at a remarkable speed, undaunted by the steel pointed at him.
He dropped his head to snap his teeth at Neji's left side, which Neji dodged, then his right, also a miss. Neji seized the moment to take a swipe at the snake's exposed neck and left only a lengthy scratch, cold blood seeping in response. It was not enough to stop Orochimaru, nor even to slow him down. Repositioning, Neji played defense, holding the sword one-handed, the other hand outstretched to feel the space around him and sense an assault.
He was not disappointed, and the scaly skin that covered the enchanted body left a shallow gash in the prince's shoulder. Ignoring the pain, Neji advanced, forcing the serpent to retreat a little, toward the castle's east side, by thrusting repeatedly.
With the difference in size, however, his defense was not impenetrable, and Orochimaru found a break in Neji's swinging to bat him once sharply with the whiplike tail. Neji soared backwards several feet above the ground, his spine meeting the oblique wall beside the bridge. His head hit the crumbling remains of what might have been a sculpture in the past, but now served only to set stars exploding in front of Neji's eyes.
His vision was badly blurred, so perhaps he only imagined it, but Neji thought he saw a pink-haired woman dive into the lake, only to come up in the minutes Orochimaru angled his flattened head this way and that to inspect his enemy, now that Neji's sword had not only been knocked from his head but shattered by the last blow as well. Cuts gained in the rash move now shone brightly on the snake tail, but Orochimaru remained focused on him instead of the wounds.
The raptor called again, and from seemingly nowhere appeared, a familiar wooden object carried by the lethal talons and dropped into Neji's lap. The Hyuuga clutched at the bow, wet from the lake, as the raptor took off toward the snake, showering Neji with water droplets as he went. The prince did not have the presence of mind to be surprised when the bird went for Orochimaru's slitted eyes with the curve of its beak.
His bow retrieved, Neji was still at a loss. The snake recoiled from the raptor but remained upright, and what use was a bow without a—
There was no time to look in the direction of who called for him, although Neji knew for a fact that it was Lee. His friend must have followed him from the palace. Instead of looking, Neji instinctively extended a hand and closed his fingers just as a thin arrow came into proximity of his grip. The rest was natural.
Arrowed notched, the muscles of his right shoulder tightly bunched as he took aim and fired. The raptor soared off as, with a shriek-like hiss, the serpent bent backwards, then fell forward. The arrow lodged in his heart went still deeper, pushed in by the ground that cracked on impact.
Mere seconds later, a shower of motes like the lights of fireflies flew from the giant snake, and then the creature – the sorcerer Orochimaru – vanished, body and soul.
On the other side of the lake, a shocked Lee watched from beside the woman who had emerged, sopping, from the water just as Lee had entered the hidden grounds. His eyes went impossibly wide when the raptor he had seen charge a giant snake on its own flew toward them. The pinions suddenly burst into white-gold light, followed by the rest of the small body, until the bird came to a stop some feet away, and the light lengthened. Once the light fell away, a man replaced the raptor.
Lee could only witness, agog, as the woman beside him pressed a hand to her mouth and stumbled forward to be caught by the dark-haired stranger, his arms already opening for her. “Sasuke,” she murmured before the man's hand dived into her pink hair and pulled her head back to seal his mouth to hers. Lee, smiling goofily, was heartily embarrassed, but neither the man called Sasuke nor his lover seemed to so much as notice him there.
He set his gaze across the lake again, and Lee's smile fell.
Neji, his bow discarded, had placed himself once more beside Tenten. He had gathered her lifeless body against him, slightly rocking her as though to help ease a pain that she could not feel, her forehead balanced against his shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” Neji murmured into her unhearing ear, speaking to her as much as to his own soul. “Forgive me, Tenten. I tried to break the spell...that was all I wanted.” His shoulders shook, not with tears but with an emotion that could not physically exist. “And you did not deserve this. You have always been so strong, and so brave, and you...you've always loved me, so kindly loved me.” His fingers slipped behind her head, smoothing the limp brown hair. “Just like I have always been yours, Tenten.”
He held her to him as closely as last night. When he was shaken by another tremble, Neji did not immediately realize it was from his own body.
Tenten shifted, her forehead rising from his shoulder, to blink rapidly into his eyes. “Neji,” she murmured in wonder.
Neji's lips parted in pure shock, almost unwilling to believe. “Tenten?”
Tenten's gaze softened, and her arms wound over his back and around his neck. “Oh, N—” His name was silenced by the force of his kiss as Neji rose to his knees and brought her up with him. They did not break apart for many minutes.
And, from across the glittering lake, Lee knew that he saw everlasting love.
To be concluded...