All This…And Heaven Too
Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
There are many ways to tell a story.
This is one.
While some of the most common things become accepted canon, we don’t always agree, oftentimes forcing even The Creator of the signature work to admit ‘I was wrong,’ frustrating us to no end because now it is ‘set in stone’. Which is why we create alternate universes, to satisfy our hunger for…well, whatever the case, be it to right some wrong, give our hero or heroine satisfaction, or to complete a journey we felt was never satisfactorily finished.
This is another version…a tweaking…a difference here and there, some so minor, they may not be immediately noticeable.
Consider this a level of the multiverse, finite and infinite, each universe part of a vast assemblage and existing simultaneously, the numerous realities unaware of the other. Therefore at first glance, should you, in the reading of this account, discover something you believe a contradiction, recall this introduction and remember – this is only one version of the story and the lives entwined with it.
From a French motion picture entitled Beauty and the Beast, directed by Jean Cocteau and released in 1946 according to our known universe:
Children believe what we tell them.
They have complete faith in us.
They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict.
They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home.
They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s Open Sesame:
Once Upon a Time…
A Brief History
Their people had always possessed a sense of exploration and adventure, to know what lay beyond the boundaries of the island which was the heart of their ancient kingdom, beyond the lands which were part of their growing modern Empire. It was in their blood, their nature, not as conquerors but as seekers, explorers, their desire taking them across immense, seemingly endless oceans and uncharted continents. It did not happen overnight. The usually peaceful unification around the world took decades, centuries…
Their society prospered, built on advancing technologies with a singular passion for steam, until almost everything – from modes of transportation to their homes and fashions were born of that industry. A historian eventually coined it ‘steampunk’. The term stuck.
However, it was not always the growth of an Empire pushing them forward.
There were times when the fates gave someone the right amount of determination or insanity to pursue what even the most foolhardy and adventurous of Britons had yet to attempt, to decide to travel east of the Empire’s Bharata, beyond the splendors of independent Cathay, into territories where few had gone. An intrepid archaeologist/historian/college professor made it to the borders, spending the next year performing survey work with his team and seeking rumored treasures from ages past. When he returned home, although he had made no direct contact with the inhabitants, his journals made mention of human beings with supernatural abilities, some of whom he alleged were witnessed flying through trees and bending elements including water or fire to their will.
They made for good stories. The Empire had seen much in its’ travels. And the archaeologist was well-respected for his previous retrieval work in finding legendary objects, in particular, lost religious items. For the most part, his records were accepted as fact.
It was not until the stewardship of the second Hokage of Konohagakure – Tobirama Senju – did the Britons finally meet these people of whom the eminent Doctor Henry (aka Indiana) Jones reported.
Charles and Amelia Stanley – noted explorers, historians and experts in anthropology and archaeology – accepted the next adventure, their exploratory team penetrating the borders of what they would learn was the Land of Fire. The Stanleys became the first Westerners to discover Konohagakure…Konoha…the Village Hidden Among the Leaves. They came not as conquerors or interlopers, but to learn if the Jones chronicles were accurate. It wasn’t long before they also learned that what he had seen was the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
When the Stanleys and their party returned to the Briton capital two-and-a-half years later, they were accompanied by a few of the ninja granted permission to travel with them. The ninjas were also on their own mission of discovery and exploration, so Konohagakure could be part of the outside world they, too, had heard whispers about.
Before long the Empire knew of them too. While some remained doubtful about people flying through trees, controlling elements or walking on water, it did make for a rousing good story. Most importantly, ninjas existed and the witnesses saw they possessed gifts equal to if not greater than those of the acclaimed medieval magician Myrddin of Caerfyrddin.
Talk of forming an alliance of some sort came into being, not with the Leaf Village as a part of the Empire, but as an ally, equals.
The murmurs about athletic games so each society might compete in friendship began, pushed by then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister William Pitt, and members of the royal family. By the time the ninja returned to the Village, accompanied by the Stanleys, there were diplomats with them too, as well as scholars, historians, surveyors, as well as those with the knowledge of agriculture and anthropology.
Charles and Amelia’s multi-volume Hidden: The History of Konohagakure, the Village Among the Leaves became required textbook reading on the university level. An abridged edition became a popular best seller.
The Alliance became reality, both on paper and in a vocal agreement. While many “on the outside” could not comprehend such a thing – that a force such as Konoha with its’ shinobi would consider itself on a level plane with the likes of mere mortals. It happened. It succeeded. The athletic games to push each side to their best happened every few years, usually in the Village, but on several occasions in Briton, giving the few who made the journey a chance to see their allies even more personally. Each side benefited.
The ‘final’ Games. The Glorious Games were how they came to be known, both in Briton and among the Villagers. Of all those which had been conducted, these were considered the best and most memorable. Emperor-King Edward IX accompanied his athletes, along with his beautiful Queen, Alexandra, and their little daughter, the heiress-apparent, Princess Elizabeth. The Briton team was the largest in the history of the Games and people came from far off lands to watch the competitions, realizing with amazement that there were actual mortals with such fortitude they might make a jonin tremble, if only for a second.
There was already talk of the next Games becoming even more magnificent.
They never happened.
The Nine-Tails came. That story is chronicled in the histories of Konohagakure and need not be repeated here.
Briton could not have come to their aid had they even desired. The greatest war in their history, their one and only world war, broke out against the invading fascist forces of Germania and Italia intent on global conquest. It took several bloody years before their armies were pushed back and defeated. One dictator was executed by his own people who were part of the Resistance – him along with his mistress. The chief leader and instigator of the war – his dreams of conquest swept away – hid in a bunker in their nation’s capital, along with his mistress, general staff and those of his military and personal echelon. As the Imperial Briton armies surrounded them, the man worshiped as Der Führer took his life, as did his mistress and others not wishing to live in a world without him.
One World War was over.
The conflicts in Konohagakure continued almost without ceasing.
The Alliance was broken, broken for years, but never forgotten.
But you see, there are moments when the perfect time arises for renewal.
This was the moment.
Once Upon a Time…
PROLOGUE – The Answer
TEN MONTHS BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF THE MAIN STORY
From Windsor –
My Lady Tsunade –
Great and Honorable Lady, Granddaughter of the First Hokage of Konohagakure – Hashirama Senju, God of Shinobi –
Greetings to you from Briton.
First, I must confess that not only was I surprised upon the receipt of your letter, but was overcome with emotion that after so many years, a Hokage of Konohagakure was reaching out to us once more in remembrance of the alliance and friendship we once possessed.
When I was a girl, one of my fondest memories was of accompanying the King my father (Edward IX of blessed memory) and my mother, now the Queen-Dowager Alexandra, to your beautiful little village: of the friendships I made, the camaraderie which was spread, and the competition between our athletes. It was such a magnificent alliance. It is regrettable that due to the many strifes our world endures, it was torn asunder despite all we did to maintain it.
News has reached us of the troubles you have experienced these past few years, and my heart ached, not only for you but for your good people. It is never easy to lose those you have sworn to protect – it tears at the emotions, even as we remain strong in our resolve as their leader. That is the thing which sets us apart from our citizenry: the decisions, often difficult beyond imagining; the maintaining of an isolation only we can comprehend because we fear becoming too close, when we realize that many times, it cannot be helped.
Lady – I weep for those gone from this world, and rejoice in those who remain to carry on the honor of your village. I can well imagine how precious is the new generation in your midst.
Tsunade took another sip of sake as she read the letter for the dozenth time. For the last hour, from the moment the messenger arrived, she had held the correspondence in one hand and her favorite drink in the other, analyzing the pages, reading over each carefully phrased word, searching for the truth or the lie behind each sentence.
Her assistant Shizune stood close-by and remained quiet, having read the letter over her mistress’ shoulder when it first reached the office. Occasionally however, she found the need to quiet Tonton when the piglet squirmed in her arms. “Shh…” she would whisper, “do you want to disturb Lady Tsunade?”
“This is important to the future of the Village, do you understand?”
The small pig nodded, her little string of pearls shaking about her neck as she did. “Oink-oink,” came the reply, and Tonton appeared to comprehend how crucial this was.
In these last twenty years, we, too, have suffered pain and rejoiced when we could, but in our positions as leaders, we must remain god-like, untouchable and yet filled with a passion only you and I know.
Tsunade fought back her own emotions. Of the death of one so precious it drove her into a life of despair for years, until only the unquenchable drive of a precocious yellow haired boy forced her to face her demons. She knew that what this Queen spoke of came from the heart.
Not only in the last twenty years had the Queen-Empress of the Briton Empire lost her beloved father (a man nicknamed “the perfect King” and considered one of their greatest monarchs), but her Prince Consort as well. The young woman had sworn to never remarry – that information had reached even the far-off Leaf Village. But a few years before, the Queen met another; found a second chance at love, and had made a handsome Earl and Naval captain her husband and consort.
It’s amazing enough to find real love once in your life, Tsunade considered. She’s managed to find two. I envy her that and she once more returned to the letter.
….Therefore after much discussion with both the Privy Council as well as the Parliamentary leadership, we are most keen to negotiate the return of the Games, as well as restore an alliance we once held dear. My regret is that it has taken this long for us to reopen formal dialogues, but let us not look back, my Lady. We must look forward in our endeavors. I believe this can benefit us both.
I regret I will be unable to personally attend the negotiations or the Games in Konohagakure. Rejoice with me, my Lady – the future heir to the throne of Briton grows in my womb. I cannot risk traveling such a vast distance, therefore I pray you will do me the honour of accepting in my place, my beloved kinsmen and kinswomen who will serve as my representatives, as well as be participants in the Games. They are from the Marshall branch of the Royal family; devoted and loyal servants who have protected the throne for generations. I cannot think of better ambassadors to come in my stead.
Of course her people would be protective. The Queen might not be as fragile as an egg, but when the future of one’s kingdom was at stake, sacrifices were necessary.
Tsunade had a feeling that if Briton’s ruler had her way, the Queen would want to not only attend, but participate in the Games whether she was early in her pregnancy or with a month or two remaining! This was, after all, someone who was often on the frontlines of battles more than her ministers likely cared to see. Tsunade imagined the young woman argued and argued her point, but eventually saw the facts. In a way that was unfortunate. The Hokage regretted they would not meet on this occasion, for she thought they might have a few things in common.
Hard to dislike anyone who sent me such exquisite sake, bless her. Tsunade downed the last of the elixir in her ochoko. It was possibly the best she ever enjoyed in her life, and that was saying a lot. The Queen sent four bottles of a premium dai gingo sake, along with the promise that when her negotiators and athletes arrived, more would be in the offing.
“So Lady Tsunade?” Shizune asked when the Fifth Hokage eased the finely crafted stationery to the desktop.
Tsunade pointed one manicured fingernail at the letter. “I’ve heard the Briton Queen counts Japanese among her many languages. In fact, she requires all of her courtiers and diplomats to be fluent in it among other international languages. It’s because she has always had a special fondness for our Village.”
“I didn’t know that about her.”
“Oink,” Tonton answered.
Tsunade’s right hand swept across the blue ink. “I’m pretty sure she wrote this in her own hand. There’s a casualness to the pen strokes, whether she’s being formal or lapsing into informality. She didn’t let some secretary do it, and she easily could have considering who she is. She wanted this to be personal.”
“Meaning the Empress-Queen of Briton wants this as much as we do.”
Shizune smiled, as did Tonton. “So…”
“So tell the Council to get their behinds in here. We’ve got Games to plan, facilities to build and repair, trade negotiations to…well, to negotiate! But tell them not a word yet to the people. We want to make sure the major behind the scenes stuff is out of the way when we do. And I think I’m going to send Kakashi, or Might Guy, or both of them with my reply so we can push this forward. That research you found me on the last time the Games were here…”
“Well, the Queen’s late father may have known Might Duy and Sakumo Hatake when he was here, so Her Majesty might feel a sentimental connection with Guy and Kakashi. Worth a shot anyway. At any rate, I expect the Council to get on board with this. There’s a load of work to be done before we welcome the Britons back.”
“Yes, my lady. I’ll go fetch the Members right away.”
Tsunade shook her head. “Uh-uh.”
Tsunade shook the empty Tokkuri. “Warm me up some more of that dai gingo will you, Shizune. I’m going to need it.”
“Yes my lady.”
Tsunade grinned, her eyes returning to the letter as she reread the final words:
My messengers are to await your word and return to me posthaste with the news. I anxiously await this Great Lady, in honor of those who have gone before us, and to celebrate the generations that stand to benefit from our friendship. I visualize only great things ahead as we strive to battle the evils threatening to destroy the small lights of freedom. Until then —
The Lord Watch Between Me and Thee While We Are Absent One From Another.
Queen of Briton, Cymru, Eire, Scotus and Gaul; Empress of Bharata; Protector of Teyshas, Canadia, Oceania, the Western Isles and North Africanus
Dieu Et Mon Droit
Queen Elizabeth concluded the letter with not only a hint of what her own kingdom suffered during years of war, but to remind anyone who saw it, just how beneficial an alliance would be with an empire such as theirs once each location was traced on a map. Tsunade knew it was quite a formidable realm which stretched across a good portion of the globe, and she regretted all the issues involving Konohagakure had driven the friends apart, not out of desire or necessity, but due to the meddlings of others. Now the opportunity again arose for a renewal of what once had been, and both women intended to take full advantage of it.
And there was one last thing she noted. Elizabeth included an ancient Briton saying, one of the deepest held in their religious rites. It was said between the closest of friends, between spouses, between the dearest of relatives, between lovers. Each utterance or proclamation was with the greatest reverence. That was why, when Tsunade saw ‘The Lord Watch Between Me and Thee While We Are Absent One From Another’, she knew her fellow leader recognized how crucial the offer had been. The hand of friendship was extended .
It was time to begin, but first…
“Shizune – how long does it take to warm up that damn elixir?”
“Coming my lady.”
Chapter One – Training Day, Arrivals
“DO NOT THINK I HAVE A PROBLEM DROPPING ANY ONE OF YOU! DO NOT THINK YOU ARE SAFE FROM BEING CUT BECAUSE YOU ARE MY STUDENTS! AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS, RIGHT?!”
“YES GUY-SENSEI!” Two members of Team Guy screamed simultaneous responses, although they were well aware that their instructor already had a reply.
“IT WOULD MEAN SHAME TO YOUR TEAM, SHAME TO YOURSELVES, AND SHAME TO ME AS YOUR SENSEI!”
Neji Hyuga and Tenten – despite their difficult individual workouts – were mouthing Might Guy’s words as he shouted them. This was not the first time he had uttered those phrases. Neither took him lightly. There were times, to them and the world, when the Jonin seemed foolish, but underneath those less than attractive features was one of the strongest, bravest men Konohagakure had ever produced. He accepted his responsibilities as a teacher with great seriousness, and for several years he had guided them to explore every ounce of their talents, even when they felt they were at the edge of collapse. Considering what he expected of them, and what he knew they were capable of, then yes, if he found them lacking when compared to others, there was no doubt he might put them aside for the upcoming Games, perhaps to teach them a valuable life lesson.
“And he’s not going to permit Kakashi-Sensei to have an upper hand.” Neji was breathing hard when he collapsed on a stump. Their Teacher had given them leave to relax and had disappeared – he had a good idea as to where.
Tenten used one sleeve of her tunic to wipe her forehead as she sat next to him, letting the weapons scroll she had been maneuvering rest at her side. “Don’t let Guy-Sensei hear you say that.”
“Well you know it’s true, Tenten. Those two and their rivalry-” Neji shook his head. “I suppose I should say Guy-Sensei and his rivalry. I often feel as though it’s a one-sided issue.”
“Be that as it may, do you honestly want Team Kakashi to make us look bad? I mean-” and she took a drink from her water bottle, “I don’t want to look bad in front of any of them, but-”
“Them specifically? Because of Guy-Sensei?”
“Sure. Don’t you feel the same way? He was right. It is for ourselves, for him, and our Team.”
Neji nodded. Although considered a natural-born, unbeatable genius, he had learned a few hard lessons these last years. Being defeated by Naruto during the Chunin exam finals knocked him on his haughty behind, both in a literal as well as a figurative sense. Almost dying as a member of the failed Recovery Team had given him even more insight. Watching his teammates face defeat during those long ago exams with one almost crippled for life – no, he never wanted Team Guy face anything like that again.
“You’re smiling,” Tenten said in a sing-song manner, and she put her head closer to Neji’s bowed one. “You want to kick their butts too, don’t you?”
“More than you can know. I’m eager to take on the Britons too.”
Tenten slapped him on the back. “THAT’S THE SPIRIT, HYUGA!”
“You know you’re starting to sound like Sensei.”
The young woman blushed. “I did, didn’t I? Please stop me if I do that again.” They laughed, even as she gave a slight shudder.
“I know he hasn’t said anything, but I still keep thinking he might suggest having the four of us wear the tights, you know, like a sign of teamwork.”
“And solidarity?” It was Neji’s turn to cringe. “I hope not. You’re right, he hasn’t mentioned it yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. Although he’s never pressed the issue, not since…”
Not since that morning years ago when he proclaimed the new outfits as a reward for their hard work. A single member of Team Guy fell over themselves to be the first to accept, the most eager member of the group, and Tenten and Neji exchanged grateful glances when their teammate held up that first green jumpsuit – and for him, it was love at first sight. There had been no looking back. The white tunic and dark pants worn after his Academy days vanished forever, as did the scruffy, near shoulder-length hair.
Guy had been so touched by the boy’s reaction that he failed to notice that the remaining students never ‘officially’ collected theirs.
“I love Guy-Sensei,” Tenten continued as she giggled, “but I don’t think that color looks all that great on me for day-to-day wear.”
I think you’d look lovely in any color, Neji thought, wondering for the hundredth time whether Tenten realized how much she had grown up or how pretty she continued to become. “Well be thankful it worked out. And speaking of working out, I’d guess we’d better get back to it before we break for the day.”
Tenten began a stretch routine as she nodded. “I’m just glad the rain stopped. Seemed like it never would.”
Neji was on his feet as well. “It wouldn’t have been the best of welcomes for the Britons after all these years.”
“Nope, not at all. So did Sensei give you any idea as to when we would break for the day?” She prayed they wouldn’t leave the Training Fields and head straight for the parade route, for it would feel uncomfortable showing up in public after training all morning. They might be the hardest working group of Chunin, but talk about poor impressions, arriving at something so momentous and smelling like- She did not want to think about it.
“He hasn’t said, but don’t worry,” Neji added, smiling as he deciphered what was on her mind. “He’ll want us to look our best. We’ll have time.”
Tenten adjusted two of her scrolls, then looked off into the distance, in the direction their Sensei had gone minutes before. “I wonder how Lee’s doing. We haven’t seen him since we got here.”
“What do you mean ‘Hmph’?”
“I’m sure Lee is fine. Guy-Sensei likely gave him another of those harebrained assignments the two of them revel in.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he did. I’m just afraid that one of these days, Lee’s going to accidentally hurt or kill himself, and we won’t find him for hours cause we’re thinking he’s off doing ten thousand squats on a mountaintop with a goat for company. And stop smirking, Neji! It’s not funny!”
It was the remnant of the earlier downpour that once threatened to ruin the day. The raindrop trickled from the top branches, landed on a single leaf, and was suspended between a deep green vein and the tip.
“Nine thousand nine hundred seventy-nine.”
The drop moved, inexorably drawn by gravity until it reached the apex of the leaf, and caught in mid-air.
“Nine thousand nine hundred eighty-six.”
Until it landed on top of a head of thick black hair which was sweat-plastered against the owner’s scalp and face.
“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-four.”
The grunts grew more intense the longer the exercise continued, and even the small audience of squirrels that at first found the peculiar human of some interest went about their business when it became apparent there was no intention of stopping anytime soon. Therefore he had been alone for what felt an eternity, but his goal was within reach.
“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-eight..” He strained, spurring each muscle to continue; his thumbs lifted his upper body weight and cursed him for starting this routine, while the heavier wrist weights threatened to pull him downward into the puddle filled with rain and his own perspiration. Just…a…little…more. “Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine.” One more. You…can…do… “Ten thousand!” he exclaimed, uncertain where the energy had come from to shout his accomplishment to the world, and once it was over, he collapsed and rolled onto his back, not caring that his green jumpsuit became spattered with mud. He smiled and chuckled, covering his face with one arm as he caught his breath, and welcomed the feel of the remaining raindrops as they fell from the leaves, their touch cooling his face.
“I did it, Guy-Sensei,” he groaned. “I did it.” There was satisfaction underneath the pained words.
Only in that moment did he realize how beautiful the morning had become, his eyes fixed overhead and above the treetops – the clear azure skies; the few clouds dotting the foreground transformed from a charcoal hue during the rains into the white of new fallen snow. The breeze caressing his slender body was not as unbearably hot as he thought during his workout. It refreshed him so much that he shut his heavy-lidded eyes while his mind wandered, enjoying the bird song that serenaded him.
“Laying down on the job already?”
Without hesitation, the young man rolled over and sat straight up when the stern voice pierced the quiet, and in seconds he was on his knees, his head bowed. “Guy-Sensei,” he managed between gulps.
“I leave you alone for a few minutes and I return to find you lounging around like some Academy student on a school holiday.” Might Guy stepped nearer his pupil, noticing that the black eyes glanced up then quickly lowered, hoping to see his Teacher’s expression without being caught. “What am I going to do with you, Lee?” he asked, exasperated. “What do you think I ought to do?”
Rock Lee lifted his head. “Whatever punishment you see fit, Guy-Sensei.” He prepared for the punch he felt would follow.
I cannot keep this up, Guy thought, and a hearty laugh broke the tension as he tousled the boy’s drenched hair. At seventeen, Lee was not a boy any longer, but sometimes Guy could not help joking with him, always interested in the type of reaction he would get. One of these days he’s going to land a blow that’ll send me flying, or so improve a move I taught him years ago that he’s made it his own, and then I’ll know he’s surpassed me at last. As a teacher you hope that day never comes, but of course it always does… “Lee, I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
“Sensei?” The chunin looked puzzled.
Guy shook his head. Some people often wondered if Rock Lee was a little slow on the uptake, but Might Guy knew better. There were little things which continued to make the student such an innocent. If Lee he felt – in any manner – was not doing whatever it took to please his instructor, he took it with great seriousness. And this had been one of those moments.
“I said I’m sorry, Lee. I couldn’t resist pulling your leg. I’ve been standing over there watching you finish up.” He squatted in front of Lee, noticing that a boyish smile had appeared on the younger man’s features.
“You were, sir?”
Guy flashed him one of the familiar grins, white teeth revealed, and gave the even more familiar big thumbs up. “Brilliant Lee! Absolutely brilliant! I knew you’d be able to do it.”
“So how do the new weights feel? Too much?”
Lee rubbed his still aching deltoids, then moved his fingers along his forearm muscles, astonished he managed to support the additional weights. “Well as you always say, Sensei, no pain, no gain, right?”
“I will become accustomed to it the more I work with them. I always do.”
“That’s the spirit. By the times the Games begin in a few weeks, you, Tenten and Neji are going to wipe up the arena with the competition. You’re going to make your old Sensei proud.”
Lee’s dark eyes widened, for as usual, Guy’s enthusiasm was infectious, but as he saw the tears in his instructor’s eyes, he sniffed and attempted to keep some control, but as always, the effort failed. “Guy-Sensei!” he cried, wiping his face. “Thank you for continuing to have faith in me.”
“Well, of course I continue to have faith in you, Lee. I always have. You just always need to remember…”
“That it is not enough for you to have faith in me. I must continue to believe in myself as well. And as I have always told you, I promise never to give up. That is my code. That is my ninja way.”
“That’s my boy! And there’s nothing wrong with you taking a little time to stop and smell the roses, as they say. You work hard enough. You deserve it. And a good ninja is always aware of the environment around him so you should take notice of everything.”
“Thank you sir. That is good to remember,” and Lee felt relieved, knowing that he had Guy’s approval to – on occasion – lay back and watch the skies.
“Of course. Eh…Lee, what’s wrong?”
The chunin looked sheepish. “Sensei, I always wondered…”
“Wondered what?” Guy moved so that he sat beside his student.
“Who are these ‘they’ everyone talks about? ‘They’ say stop and smell the roses. ‘They’ say stop and smell the coffee. ‘They’ say the grass is greener on the other side. I have never understood who or what ‘they’ are or how ‘they’ came with such authority that we repeat all of their sayings or adages without a second thought…Sensei?” He noticed Guy’s stunned expression. “Sensei?”
“Uh…you know, that is a very good question, and actually, I’ve kind of wondered that myself,” he responded, scratching his head. “That would make a good project, finding out who these ‘they’ are and what makes them so all-powerful.”
Lee reached for the pouch he put aside during his exercises, and a small notebook and pencil were withdrawn. Although his thumbs throbbed, he was able to scribble onto one page “‘Find out who ‘they’ are,” and he repeated the words aloud. “Right, sir! That will make an excellent project once the Games have concluded. I have always been curious each time I hear those sayings, but you are the only one I felt I might ask. Neji would laugh, and Tenten would shake her head and say ‘Oh Lee – really’. It was…” He closed the notebook and put it away. “It was not a ridiculous question, was it, Sensei?”
Guy put an arm around Lee’s shoulders. “Lee…in life I have found that there are no ridiculous questions. What is ridiculous is when someone doesn’t ask because they don’t want to look stupid or have others think them stupid.”
Lee nodded, then smiled. “Is that another of those things which ‘they’ say?”
The jonin chuckled. “More than likely.” Guy sprang to his feet, and his student did as well, adjusting the pouch so that it criss-crossed his body. “ALL RIGHT THEN!” and he began to stretch, grinning as Lee followed his lead. “So you got in ten thousand pushups using your thumbs alone.”
“And the squats and lunges?”
“Completed sir! As ordered while wearing the new wrist weights and the ankle weights as well!”
“Done sir!” They looked at the tree which had taken the brunt of Lee’s punches and leg extensions.
“And your five mile run?”
“Before the sun rose, sir and during the rain!”
“And are you tired?”
“Not at all, Guy-Sensei!”
“Then consider the rest of the day and tonight as a holiday.”
“A holiday,” Lee whispered, smiling. “Thank you sir.”
“You haven’t had one of those in awhile, have you?”
“No sir we have not.”
“Well, it’s a celebration you know. Welcoming the Britons, and the parade and everything. Konoha doesn’t get events like this every day.”
“Oh, that reminds me. I will not expect to see the three of you in training until ten tomorrow morning. That is an order,” he stressed, realizing that if he was not specific, Lee would arrive before dawn as always. “I realize that’s a lot later than usual, but the Briton party will last way into the night, and we don’t want to be rude by leaving too early. So consider the late start and attending the parade and the party as a reward for all you’ve done these last few months.” He saw Lee’s eyes widen. “You’ve been working hard since the Games were announced. I’m proud of you, Tenten and Neji.”
“Thank you sir. I hope when the Games begin, we do you proud.”
“Oh no doubt that you will. So we’ll head back to the Training Fields, fetch Tenten and Neji, then you can head home and clean up.”
“There you are, Sensei, Lee!” Tenten called out when the two appeared.
“How was your workout, Lee?” Neji asked, noticing that his teammate was rubbing his arms.
Lee’s smile was ecstatic. “Sensei was good enough to present me with new wrist weights, and I performed ten thousand push-ups on my thumbs while using them.”
Neji and Tenten traded glances. What had one of them said about harebrained? All that was missing was the mountain goat.
“TEAM! At ease!”
The three relaxed and sat on the ground, forming a semicircle around Might Guy, who remained standing.
“I’ve told Lee you’re going to head home, clean yourselves up – I can’t allow you to go out in public after all the work you’ve put in…Tenten?” He noticed the girl’s relieved look. “Did you believe I would take you to the parade when we’re all as rank as mountain goats?”
And everyone’s talking about goats. “No, of course not Sensei.” Shut up, Neji. She noticed Neji was trying not to laugh, and she prayed that his damn Byakugan developed temporary mind reading abilities so he could know what was on hers. He might be shocked at the language!
“Well head home,” Guy continued, “scrub yourselves and meet me in front of the Temple in an hour. That was why I wanted us to start training earlier than usual, so we could finish early.” He paused, listening when some nearby birds squawked at a disturbance and then took flight, while in the distance he could see a mob of Sika deer speeding across the meadow. “We’ll need a perfect spot to watch from.”
When he motioned, they stood, politely bowed, and were surprised when their Teacher began to laugh.
“Guy-Sensei, what is it?” Neji inquired, when a distant thap-thap-thap-thap caught his attention. He noted that Lee and Tenten heard it as well.
Guy continued laughing. “You’d better get a move on, Team,” he teased, pointing upwards. “There’s not a moment to lose. Look!”
The chunin followed his finger – and their mouths dropped. A twirling sound, metal against metal, thrashed at the wind, the vibration increasing as the source emerged from the clouds as though by magic: an enormous, shimmering pecan-colored oval against the sky’s palette of white and blue. At the vehicle’s rear were a series of rotating fins within an immense ring – the source of the sound they had initially heard; and supported by cables underneath the balloon, for that was the term that came closest to describing what they observed, was what appeared to be a massive enclosed boat, which was half the length of the oval.
Behind it came another, smaller in size, but of the same color, and behind that one was a third in silver-gray. A fourth and a fifth appeared a short time afterward – their designs and sizes again varying, with one having a shark-like appearance with sails and metal fins, and the other gliding along as though maneuvered by the wind alone. More followed, and by the time the twelfth and final vehicle came into view, the ground rumbled with more ferocity as each vessel soared miles above Team Guy, then banked towards the east, some at a higher altitude, some circling, and others including the first one beginning their descent.
Lee’s eyes grew larger if that was possible. “What in the world?”
“Wow!” Tenten kept blinking her eyes, knowing this was no dream.
Neji shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Guy’s smile had grown even broader. “No one in Konohagakure has seen anything like this in twenty years. Now you can better understand why the clearing Lady Tsunade ordered is as large as it is. Wait until you see them all up-close.”
“So the people are inside the balloons?” Lee asked in amazement. Like his teammates, he had never seen a flying machine before.
“Some of them are, but some are in those contraptions underneath. They’re called gondolas, but I imagine the largest balloons have space in the hull or the lining for the passengers and crew. Oh, the times Kakashi and I would go onboard when we were invited. We never got to ride in one, but…Well, enough of my reminiscing or we’ll be standing here all day. We have a parade to attend. Get a move on! I’ll see you in an hour!”
“Yes Guy-Sensei,” came the simultaneous replies and the three sped off, although on occasion, they caught themselves looking off to where the airships filled the skies over the Village, and they once again wondered who or what these Britons were.
“And King Edward IX begins its’ final approach, Admiral,” Lieutenant Henry Marshall – also known as Harry – called out as he followed the readings from his position as first navigator on the flagship of that name. “One hundred kilometers to the landing site; weather is still clear, and we’re beginning our descent pattern.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” And to the helmsman: “Steady as we go, Lieutenant.”
“Steady as we go, ma’am.”
The admiral stepped down from the com, arms folded, and moved to where the chief pilot rotated the brass wheel operating the vessel’s main steering controls.
“The Olympic, the Sovereign, and the Mauretania are standing by, ma’am,” her communications officer said, as the voice levels on the bridge increased with more directions and orders. “The Britannic and Majestic, the Victoria, Saint George and Aquitania are in holding patterns…”
“Landing crews make ready,” the Admiral ordered.
“Landing crews at the ready, ma’am.”
“OFFICERS ON THE BRIDGE!”
Henry sprang to attention upon hearing the pronouncement, a slight smile pulling at his lips when he saw two females step from the lift and onto the quarterdeck, salute, then make their way down the oak staircase to where the fleet commander stood. He was well acquainted with the new arrivals, both of whom still wore their more casual traveling outfits, having not yet changed into the more formal parade uniforms. And while the youngest appeared to dance with every step, the eldest moved more gracefully as befitted her position, although her eyes betrayed her excitement. Henry had seen the unmistakable twinkle when she passed him, discreetly returning his smile.
That was an expression he had known his entire life, the one revealing that his beloved older sister was thrilled beyond belief at this adventure in a land they had only studied.
“Admiral Jessig, thank you again for inviting us to the bridge.”
“Noble Lady Kathryn and Lady Tessa. It is once more a privilege having you and your family on-board Her Majesty’s flagship. I believe you and Her Ladyship will get an excellent view of our approach if you position yourselves at the port windows. I am certain you will want to see their most famous landmark as we flyover.”
“The Windsor, the Parliament and the Empress of Bharata await their orders, Admiral,” communications advised.
“Notify all ships captains to begin their landing procedures when safe to do so.”
An eager fifteen-year-old Tessa rushed to one of the single panes which made up the bridge’s viewing windows and peered out, her neck stretched as though hoping to see even further than she could. She motioned with one hand. “Kathryn! Kathryn!” and she indicated the lush forests and undulating multi-colored landscape below them. “Oh my God, isn’t it beautiful?”
“I think everything we’ve seen so far has been beautiful, hasn’t it?” her sister remarked as she stood beside her.
“I just never realized it would look like this. You know, I’m not certain what I expected. I studied the topography; saw Papa and Mama’s photographs from when they were here. And I heard someone say it’s exotic, although I’m never sure what is meant by that.”
Kathryn laughed, her small turned-up nose crinkling. “It’s another of those words people use because you go ‘Oooo…exotic’ and your mind conjures up dark and mysterious and dangerous.”
“Well, I told Michael and Harry I love the name.”
“Name? Oh! Konohagakure? Or Konoha?”
“I like those too, but I meant the other, the Village Hidden Among the Leaves. Leaf Village. That sounds exotic. Or romantic, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps romantic as if from a poem. Konohagakure, Konoha,” and Kathryn then mouthed ‘Village Hidden Among the Leaves’.
From childhood, Kathryn tried to visualize this Leaf Village whenever her parents spoke of their time during those long-ago Games. When she was little, she often renamed it the Emerald Village as she mentally constructed a world all in greens with never ending springs and summers, and trees with leaves so abundant, one did not know they had arrived at their destination until they were at the village gates. She came to think of it as a magical place similar to a fairy tale her parents would read to regale her and her siblings at bedtime. But it was a land where instead of kings or queens, and chivalrous knights and fair ladies, there were leaders called Hokage who put their lives on the line for their people. There were Ninja – male and female – who were the knight-protectors and possessors of great abilities and powers akin to magic. There was even the occasional villain because no great epic was without a villain or two.
Kathryn could not have asked for better stories to fall asleep to, especially when she realized her own destiny, both as a Briton and as a member of the Marshall family. Once she accepted her responsibilities, she prayed to be as brave and honorable as her noble ancestors or those distant Ninja from that Village Hidden Among the Leaves.
And now she would meet a real Hokage. She would meet even more real Ninja, something that would have remained a fantasy until almost a year ago when that message arrived for her Queen.
She blinked, realizing what she saw coming into view was not her imagination. “Tessa…”
Tessa moved closer to her sister, one arm going about the oldest one’s waist. “Wow! Oh wow! It’s as Mama and Papa described it.”
“Indeed it is,” Kathryn responded as the miles of trees gave way, and as in her childhood dreams, the Village instantaneously appeared once the airship had descended from the clouds: buildings both ancient and new with a network of streets threaded among them; spots of blue indicating lakes and streams were dispersed among the greens of parks and gardens, but all appeared miniature as the ship streaked overhead. “Oh, look, Tessa.”
“The mountainside,” Tessa gasped.
“OFFICER ON THE BRIDGE!”
Quick greetings were made between the latest arrival and the Admiral, and in moments, a tall, elegant young man joined them, towering over both females.
Tessa gave her oldest brother a hug. “Michael! Good morning – and look.”
“Morning! You arrived just in time,” Kathryn told him, greeting her brother for the first time that busy day. “There it is.”
“Exactly as we’ve been told all our lives.” It was his turn to admire the sloping surface on which were carved in minute detail the enormous sculptures of the Hokages of Konohagakure.
“Watching over their people,” Kathryn whispered.
“Gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it?” Tessa’s question was filled with admiration. “I can’t wait to get down there.”
Despite the uneventfulness of the four days of flight, and the opportunity to fall into a routine outside her usual one, Kathryn was eager to land so she could touch the ground once more. While she enjoyed that unrestrained feeling involved in flying, traveling in the air for over six thousand kilometers had worn on her nerves.
“It won’t be long,” Michael assured Tessa. “And are you prepared to give them a show, Kitten?”
“Absolutely! I’ll be wearing my brand new top hat that Mama gave me as a going-away present. Wait until you see it. It has bits of clockwork and you’ll love the way the veil flutters behind me when we’re riding.”
Michael gave her a kiss on the forehead, while noting that Kathryn was still watching out the window, her features pensive. “You are such a child sometimes, Kitten. I suppose sergeants don’t get to wear such frivolities every day, do they?”
She giggled and rolled her eyes. “Of course not. You’re silly, Michael. But it’ll be nice to not wear my uniform every day.” Her back straightened and she became so much more serious that the innocent image from a few seconds before vanished. “I just hope that there will be some archers that will really challenge me when we compete. I don’t like things handed to me.” She stepped to another window, her attention drawn to a meadow dotted with deer.
Michael walked to Kathryn’s side. “This is our childhood dream come alive, isn’t it?”
Kathryn traced a finger along the window frame. “It really is.” When she looked up into his face, she smiled as his eyes transformed from an iridescent blue to emerald green. “Your irises are at it again,” she joked.
“Are they? I never know until I look in a mirror,” he grinned. “Lord knows what color they’ll be by the time I’m in uniform.”
“Must be nice,” Kathryn teased.
“Having eyes that change color to compliment whatever you’re wearing or whatever mood you’re in.” She turned away from him.
“What can I say? It’s a gift.” Michael cleared his throat, fingers combing through his short reddish hair. “I thought, before we landed, I thought I might again mention…”
But Kathryn was already shaking her head, and although in profile, the calm on her face switched to annoyance. “Michael…”
“Just…think about it.”
“Why?” Not wishing for everyone on the bridge to hear their conversation, she kept her voice low.
“Because Her Majesty asked it of you.”
“Asked but did not command. Suggested but did not order,” she reminded him.
“Yes,” he whispered, “suggested, as both your sovereign and your kinswoman. Kathryn…there can be nothing wrong in taking a look at him. Who knows?”
She sighed. What did she think earlier about the trip being uneventful? It had been, unless one of the peerage traveling with them (and on occasion, Michael, and to a lesser extent Harry) decided to raise the topic that rankled her nerves. She had heard it often before their departure and during the journey, and now she was prepared to throttle the next person who raised the issue. “He must be a child.”
“No, he and his cousin, the eldest daughter of Lord Hiashi, are both of marriageable age. We’ve told you that.” He knew Kathryn was offering up arguments to deflect the issue. “There’s only a few years difference between your ages. And I think Harry is delighted to meet the young lady.”
“Harry is delighted to meet any young lady.”
“Kathryn.” Michael tried not to laugh, although he knew the statement to be true.
“Michael.” She turned to catch one final glimpse of the mountainside as they floated out of range. There was silence between the siblings as she considered her options, reasoning her way through every possibility as she did with anything momentous. “Neji Hyuga,” she uttered.
“He’s a born genius, one of the most gifted Ninja they’ve ever seen. There’s already mention of him becoming a jonin in the near future, perhaps even while we’re here. You are doubtless looking at a future Hokage. He’s supposedly attractive…”
“The Queen said that too.” She knew Michael felt no need in repeating the other attribute given to her ad nauseum: that Neji Hyuga was from a branch of one of the finest clans in Konohagakure, although there had been or were family issues. She could do Intel as well as anyone. While studying them felt akin to constructing a jigsaw puzzle, Kathryn obtained one vital piece of information. These Hyugas did not appear to have a history of peace and harmony with each other. For someone like her, for whom family meant everything, it was difficult to fathom.
“Well, she knows a possible future mate should make you happy in every aspect of a long lasting relationship. Cousin Lilibet loves you, cares for you, and that’s why she made the suggestion, if you would be so inclined. It might make for a good alliance. You might even find you have feelings for him if the opportunity arises. You don’t know. You won’t know unless…”
He took one of her hands. She was his favorite, as much as he loved and adored his other brothers and sisters, so when the lords mentioned they would broach the issue to her once more before their arrival, Michael volunteered for the loathsome duty as it only seemed right. At least – unlike with one of the peers – she might not challenge him to a duel. Might not.
“Kathryn, look, just meet with him, dance with him, talk to him at the party tonight. I’m certain he’ll be there. If in the end, you feel nothing, then no one will obligate you…”
“You won’t leave me alone until I say yes, will you?” she mumbled.
He could tell her temper had swelled, even as tears threatened her eyes. He hated asking, he hated pushing. He knew that Kathryn was her own woman, and while their Queen would never pressure her into a marriage against her will, the ‘suggestion’ to meet someone while these indirect mentions of contracts and obligations crept about in the background was enough to send her into an understandable frenzy.
Kathryn nodded, returning her attention to the scenery outside the window.
“I’ve ruined the day, haven’t I?” The words were remorseful. My poor little sister. I’m so sorry.
“No. No, you just made me remember I can never put my duties aside for one single moment, can I?” Rubbing the insides of her eyes with a thumb and index finger, she muttered “Neji Hyuga” once more in an attempt to become accustomed to the name before taking a deep breath. She gave Michael a quick kiss on his cheek and tried to smile. “We’ll be landing soon. I’d better start getting ready. Tessa? Come on Kitten. We need to get dressed. We’ve got a parade to attend, don’t we?”
Chapter Two – Renewed Alliances
Although it was not ladylike, Tenten grunted once then twice as she stood tiptoe yet again. “And I thought we had one of the best spots outside of being up there,” she grumbled to her companions while pointing at the dais. She thought back over the amount of time they spent searching for the perfect location, the one they were assured would give them the best view of the proceedings.
Unfortunately, more and more people crowded around them until the prime space became a little less than such. Even her sensei, who insisted they arrive early, was peeved when Kakashi Hatake and his team strolled up at the last minute, greeted them, and proceeded to stand in front of them. Tenten looked up at her mentor, watched his heavy black eyebrows twitch with aggravation, then prayed he and his ‘rival’ would not launch into “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who would get to stand at the front. For once, she hoped they behaved like adults. Strike that. She hoped Guy-Sensei would behave like an adult and let the matter go.
At any rate, it was times like this when she wished she was an inch or two taller, like Sakura, who she was certain experienced another growth spurt in just the last few days.
She looked to her right to where Rock Lee stood. She saw such a sympathetic look in his big round eyes and wondered what was going through his mind. “Hmm?”
“If you do not mind, I could hoist you on my shoulders to give you a better view.”
“Hoist me on your…” she queried, noticing that not only did Neji Hyuga cock his head, but Team Kakashi – with the exception of their leader – turned to look as well.
“It would not be a problem. I am taller than you, therefore it would give you something of an advantage.”
“You should see as much as you can, Tenten. I doubt any of us have seen a spectacle of this type before, and to think that you might miss a single moment because your view was obstructed. Please, accept my offer.”
She almost launched into a polite argument as a flurry of excuses came to her lips: wouldn’t they look silly; wasn’t she too heavy – she was not fat, but for him to support her for the gods only knew how long. Lee, however, had that look on his face, the one which said he would not take ‘no’ as a response.
“Okay fine,” she acquiesced, and in two quick gentle moves, Lee maneuvered her onto his broad shoulders. She giggled and placed her hands on the top of his head to support herself. “Hey Lee! Be careful! You drop me and I’ll beat you senseless, do you hear me?” she joked, knowing there was nothing to fear. Supporting her didn’t seem to strain him at all.
“Just hold on to me Tenten. I promise you will not fall. Just relax and let me do the work.”
Neji shook his head. “Lee, sometimes I don’t know what we’re going to do with you.” That was when he realized Guy-Sensei appeared to be on the brink of tears.
“DID YOU SEE THAT KAKASHI?!”
The masked jonin’s head was buried in the latest issue of Icha Icha. “Hmm? What was that Guy?”
“DID YOU SEE THAT KAKASHI?!”
Naruto laughed hard. They all might be older, but that didn’t mean they could not enjoy a bit of fun. He hoped that no matter what happened in the future, enjoying life was something none of them ever lost. “Bushy Brow has Tenten on his shoulders, Kakashi-Sensei! I swear Bushy Brow, you just keep getting stronger and stronger, don’t you? Hey Sakura, do you want to get on my…”
Sakura’s eyes widened. Shaking her head, pink hair swinging before her face, she exclaimed, “No way, Naruto! I can see just fine thank you.”
She did take a moment to look back at Lee, who was saying something to his teammates and paying her little to no attention, except to have politely greeted her when she arrived. It was difficult to believe that this was once the boy of thirteen who swore his undying love to her. Seems the passage of time made him realize her heart belonged to one and one alone, even if…
No, she was not going there, not today, not when this was a happy day for the Village.
“KAKASHI!” Guy shouted, causing several people around him to ease away, mumbling they would find another spot. “THIS IS WHAT I MEAN! MY STUDENTS ARE TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE SPRINGTIME OF THEIR YOUTH! THEY ARE GRABBING THE BULL BY THE PROVERBIAL HORNS AND SHAKING IT FOR ALL IT’S WORTH!”
Kakashi’s visible eye peeped up from the pages. “That’s wonderful, Guy,” he answered, returning his attention to the ‘scene by the ocean’ which had captured his undivided attention. Hmm…So she put…Wait? Put his…What?!
Sai moved a few inches to slip beside Neji. “I don’t understand how you do it,” he whispered.
“Don’t understand how I do…what?” Neji uttered, avoiding gritting his teeth. He was uncertain how to approach this former member of the Root – that secretive part of the ANBU organization. Sai – having been stripped of all emotions – was still relearning everything it meant to be human, however it was a slow, annoying process despite him having been among them for some time.
Sai observed Guy-Sensei as the older man continued to wax poetic in that way of his. Lee and Tenten were laughing harder, simply enjoying the day. “As a Hyuga, I don’t understand how you deal with Little Turd Brows and Super Turd Brows. They seem so…”
“If you say beneath me, I…” Neji took a deep breath on realizing Tenten overheard part of the exchange and was shaking her head. Thankful neither Guy or Rock Lee heard the derogatory comment, Neji cleared his throat. “What you may not realize is that Might Guy has taught me a great deal during the years he has been my sensei, more than you could imagine. As for Lee, well, he is different but…”
“Yes, a Ninja who has no ability at either genjutsu or ninjutsu.”
“Be that as it may, until you know them better Sai, you might want to mind your tongue. It’s only a suggestion of course.”
“Of course.” With a shrug, an indifferent Sai returned to his spot beside Naruto.
Neji felt one corner of his mouth turn up into a smile. He even caught Tenten give him a wink and a familiar Might Guy thumbs up. What do you know? This never would have happened several years ago. I defended Lee, when before, I would have been the one mocking him. But that feels like a lifetime ago. He smiled more, watching when Lee jostled Tenten a little, as if intending to let her tumble. When she squealed, he stopped. Neji sighed. The three of them had come so far since that day Guy-Sensei asked them what they wanted to accomplish in life…
“What was that?” Tenten asked, tapping Lee’s sides with her feet, indicating he should turn in the direction of the sound blasting through the usual crowd noises. All the onlookers were silenced, and people looked down the road towards where – a half-mile away – the renovated main gate was erected.
Lee moved his head this way and that. “I thought it sounded like horns.”
Neji was nodding. “Most definitely.”
Tenten felt a chill, attempting to recall the last time butterflies entered her stomach. The sound made her jump as well as fill her with excitement.
“Well, Grandma Tsunade’s finally here!” Naruto pointed towards the raised platform where the Fifth Hokage, Shizune with Tonton in her arms, the Council, and Konohamaru – the Third Hokage’s grandson – were ascending the elaborately decorated stage, followed by a number of the leading members of the prominent families in Konohagakure, including the Hyugas. “Look there’s Hinata and Hanabi!”
Neji’s features grew serious. He could have been up there too since the relations between the branches of his clan had improved, but he decided instead to be among friends. Seeing Hinata’s apprehension, however, made him wish he could have stood beside her, if just to offer her support.
Tenten smiled. “Wow! Doesn’t Hinata look pretty? I love that color on her.” Their friend was wearing an elegant formal kimono, and looking as if she wished herself anywhere else. Somehow she maintained her composure as she sat on one of the provided chairs, then looked straight ahead and down the path.
“Hinata has always been pretty though, Tenten,” Lee answered. “Unfortunately I think she believes certain individuals do not notice.” He looked at the back of Naruto’s head before another blast of horns caught his attention. In the distance they could hear screams, shouts and applause, and there appeared to be movement on the other side of the gates.
There was a third sounding of the brass and the gates were opened. Two dozen trumpeters ran inside and separated, some going to one side, and some to the opposite way, while horseback riders followed close behind them, the standards and pennants they bore flurrying about their heads as they stopped to await the signal.
Guy took a deep breath. “Tenten, Neji, Lee.” His students turned, each of them surprised the older man sounded as close to contemplative as they had ever heard him. “If this is even half of what they performed when they were here twenty years ago, you are still going to be amazed beyond anything you’ve ever imagined! And believe me, the Britons never half-do anything. This is something you’ll be able to tell your children and grandchildren one day.”
Team Guy was accustomed to their sensei and his occasional exaggerations to make a point (although Lee assured them that Teacher rarely did that). But as they looked down the long path, they had the feeling this was one of those times when Might Guy was correct.
Within moments of landing earlier that morning, each dirigible crew along with the Corp of Engineers, members of the military, and servants of all kinds began the detailed unloading of the equipment required to set up the compound in which they would live for over a month both before and during the Games. The operation was down to a precise science. Each person knew what was required of them, and before long, the once cleared field was occupied by the flying machines in addition to dozens of tents and makeshift structures of various shapes, sizes and usages.
In the meantime, other unloading took place: food and beverages, furniture, horses and personal pets, and luggage belonging to each traveler. Others had been assigned the duty of organizing the Welcome Party, and this in itself was yet another major undertaking as it involved not only food and drink, but the installation of separate and even more massive tents for the entertainment.
While all of that took place, the procession for the parade was assembled with the careful precision of a major invasion, for the event was scheduled to start not long after the landing of the last ship, and individual team leaders were giving final instructions. Dancers, gymnasts, singers and musicians warmed up. The float participants found their designated platforms and went through quick run-throughs of their performances. The bands found their places. Repairmen handled whatever was required of them, and a few members of the military performed a final grooming of their horses, while others completed the tasks of making sure their uniforms and accoutrements were in tip-top shape prior to the review. It was an organized chaos operating to perfection, and in short time, the thing which many had worked so hard for would come to fruition.
It was the children of Lord Alexander and Lady Georgiana Marshall who were to take center stage at the proceedings. Although their main objective was to participate as athletes in the Games, their current assignment included diplomatic matters. Not only were they serving as direct representatives of the Queen, but they were to iron out the final issues regarding the rules and regulations of the Games; re-establish the friendship the Britons and the Villagers once had years before – and of course there was the informally titled (among Michael, Kathryn, Harry and Tessa at any rate) ‘Operation Hyuga’.
For the moment, the siblings went about the final preparations for their part in the cavalcade, while the other groups had made their way towards the Village. Numerous people had been lining the route since the arrival of the Britons, regular folks from neighboring communities and lands, all wanting to get as close a view as possible as the procession wound its’ way from the visitors compound and across the paved roads and paths leading to Konohagakure. Now and then, shouts and applause, ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs’ were heard in the distance so it was hoped the reactions meant the parade was so far a success. It was not long until the only parade participators left in camp were the Marshalls and their staff, and per the outlined program, they would soon make their way as well.
“And all appears to be going accordingly, my Lady,” the major-domo explained as he accompanied his mistress and her family to the installed makeshift stables. “As we intended, the procession is pausing along the route so those unable to enter the village itself will be permitted to get more than a glimpse of the happenings. Once you and her Ladyship…” and he nodded in Tessa’s direction, “and their Lordships have started to make your way, it will coincide with the conclusion of the formal parade so you will be able to make the grand entrance befitting you.”
“The tributes have gone ahead, correct?” Michael inquired, giving his horse’s nose a gentle pat.
“My Lordship, yes. The envoy accompanies them and will present them to the Fifth Hokage and the citizenry prior to your approach. Then of course you, Lady Kathryn, Lady Tessa and Lord Henry have the gifts from your family as well as those from Her Majesty and His Royal Highness.”
Kathryn smiled at the silver-haired man who had been part of her life since she was a little girl. “Efficient as always,” she congratulated him, tugging on her gloves.
Grinning ear to ear, Dominic gave a sweeping, elegant bow in response. “My Gracious Lady, it is for me to serve the Marshalls with all of my being if possible. I would not have you and yours show yourselves to this Village Hidden Among the Leaves and have its’ people believe you poor representatives of the Empire.”
Harry adjusted his brocade uniform waistcoat once he mounted his favorite horse. “Dom – considering how well you take care of us, I doubt they’ll ever think that.” The young Lieutenant reached down to pat him on the back. “It’s always good seeing you, old friend,” he complimented the retainer since, being in the Royal Air Force, Harry was hardly at home any longer.
“Likewise, My Lord.”
Although some might have called it inappropriate, Tessa did not care in the least, and she stood tiptoe to give the family favorite a quick kiss on his cheek. “You are steadfast, Dominic. That is why Papa and Mama sent you with us. You’re just like our Kathryn – a rock; stalwart to the end.” Then the youngest of the Marshalls present for the Games ran over to her older sister and gave her a tight embrace.
“Nervous?” Kathryn asked, taking the girl’s strong hands in her own, but noticing they were shaking. The fifteen-year-old might already be an officer, but sometimes, the child in her surfaced if she faced uncertainties outside the world she knew as a soldier.
“A little. This is my first parade, after all, I mean, outside of what we participate in back at home and, well, you know what I mean, don’t you? So many strange people. They’ll all be looking at us and wondering about us and judging us.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Kitten. You heard what the Queen said, and you heard what Papa and Mama told us.”
Tessa nodded, her hazel eyes apprehensive. “But their viewpoint was based on things which happened twenty or more years ago. From what I understand, the Village has been through a lot since then.”
“As have we, but there are good people among them, and yes, they’ll be curious, but we’ll feel the same about them. That’s why it’s all being reinstituted.” She gave Tessa a tight hug. “I have a feeling you’re going to make many new friends.”
“I hope so,” and her voice lowered. “I’m certain Harry and Michael will too once the ladies get a gander at them.”
“Well, it’s true and you know it is,” the girl reiterated as she was assisted onto her chocolate-brown palfrey. “I hope you’ll make a lot of new friends too, Kathryn. You work so hard, dearest. You deserve it.”
Kathryn gave the slightest of smiles, wondering just how much time she would have to be on normal terms with the regular people. She was acting in her Queen’s name as a diplomat, an ambassador, and Lord knew what else might fall into her lap as the days and weeks passed. All she wanted was to give an outstanding performance at the Games, perhaps relax and have the tiniest bit of fun, but it seemed the things she disliked most would be first in her duties.
“Yes, yes, understood,” Dominic was saying into the mouthpiece of his headset, and he lifted one hand into the air. “My Lady, the word is given and you may proceed!”
“Thank you Dominic.” Kathryn adjusted the goggles over her eyes and with the assistance of one of her aides, leaped into the finely tooled leather saddle, giving her filly a quick rub before taking up the reins. She rarely rode side-saddle, but considering the splendor of the events, she felt this would better reflect the quiet, strong elegance she wished to portray.
Michael rode up beside her, just in time to see his sister transform from their sweet sibling to the no-nonsense commander and captain of the Royal Guard. Her entire manner was of complete seriousness, and no one looking at her would doubt the long heritage their family laid claim to.
“Ready?” Michael asked as Harry and Tessa drew nearer, eagerness apparent on both their faces.
“As always,” she said in her clearest tones, and giving the horse a gentle nudge with her bootheels, she cried “For God, the Queen, and the Empire!” over her shoulder and as the cheers went up, Kathryn urged her ride into a full gallop, her sister, brothers and their immediate staff close behind.
Dominic watched as the group faded from his view. “Your parents would be so proud,” he whispered, swallowing the lump in his throat. It was a shame he would not be on hand to see them make their entrance and presentation, but such was life. He then shouted “Now’s not the time to dawdle my people! We have a celebration to give in a few hours! Everything must be made ready, is that understood?! The people of Konohagakure are expecting a spectacle, and Britons that is what we shall give them!”
Simultaneous with the construction of one spectacle, the chief one – for over an hour – proceeded down the main boulevard of the Village. Whenever the onlookers believed they had seen it all, something else would occur, causing them to gasp, cheer, applaud, or exclaim their astonishment. Representatives from all corners of the massive Empire were present to celebrate the renewal of the alliance, and the performances were indeed on a grand and varied scale.
Leotard-clad gymnasts twirled ribbons of white and green – the royal colors – in a rhythmic display as they did their synchronized routines. In stark contrast, scantily clothed males and females wearing brilliant colored feathers and beads performed a series of dances from the islands, some of which were so uninhibited, a few mothers covered their children’s curious eyes. Marching in flawless formation, men in plaid tweed skirts (Might Guy explained that the proper name for the ‘skirt’ was a ‘kilt’) played unique instruments consisting of a bag-type object and pipes. These gentlemen exhibited such serious expressions that none would dare mock them for what might be called ‘feminine’ garb. They were accompanied by young women, also wearing similar kilts, who performed folk dances native to their nation of Scotus, threading a path between the men so all moved in perfect unison.
Small floats on which gymnasts and dancers performed intricate, unbelievable acts paused so that everyone had the opportunity to see them. One larger, more elaborate float contained actors and a choir which commemorated – in a piece composed for the occasion – the lost alliance and the Games of twenty years ago, the operatic performance so monumental that it would have been more suitable for the stage, and yet they managed to succeed on a smaller scale.
And so it continued, each act so varied that no one felt bored. Whether it was the ballerinas with their rainbow hued scarves, flowing gowns and colorful tutus; the charioteers, steering teams of two horses or four; the fire dancers; or the brown, red and gold costumes of flamboyant dancers and swordsmen from the countries with the so-called Southern Latin influence. Whether it was a grand masquerade with every imaginable color, the actors both singing and dancing as they moved along; or the release of birds and butterflies by dancers in green or white, when combined with the music of the marching military bands and small orchestras, the performances merged one upon top of another in near breathtaking perfection.
There were groans when the impression was given the parade was coming to an end, but the original trumpeters joined the musicians with drums and cymbals, and all repositioned themselves. While they did, thirty members of the Royal Air Force band, all of whom were officers or corpsmen, proceeded down the street, followed by another group of finely dressed riders. Once the horsemen and women had performed a brief series of exercises to show-off the prowess of their magnificent white animals, one handsome, older individual emerged from the group. The black of his uniform was a sharp contrast to his silver hair, and once dismounted, he climbed the steps of the dais and offered a ceremonious bow to Tsunade.
“Great Lady, I am Percy, Lord Gladstone, Earl of Derby and envoy of our gracious Majesty, Elizabeth the fourth Queen of that name. I bring you greetings from Briton and the citizens of the Empire as we once more unite to honor the living – and those who have gone on to the glories of Elysium and Valhalla!”
His words caused those Britons inside the Village – male, female, child and adult – to cry out “Awooo! Awooo! Awooo!”
Tenten, still maneuvered on her friend’s shoulders – with nary a complaint from him – sat back a tad as the roar resonated and the surroundings trembled. “Woah! Wow!” was all she could say as the envoy continued his remarks.
“You were right, Guy-Sensei,” Neji commented in a low voice. “This is astounding. I can’t imagine what it was like twenty years ago.”
Guy gave one of his brilliant smiles, not wishing to be too loud in what was something of a solemn moment. He bent his head a little nearer to Lee’s, noticing that the young chunin remained wide-eyed, having said little since the parade’s beginnings. That pleased Guy, knowing there were things in life which still astonished Lee. Far too often, the others in the boy’s age group were less than enthused or were cynical, but from the ones within his sight, Guy knew the new generation had been left speechless. As for Rock Lee – something in those black eyes indicated he was drinking in each second of the event with such intensity, he felt himself more a participant than an onlooker.
Guy could not resist. “Well Lee?” he softly asked. “You haven’t said a whole lot. Aren’t you having a good time?”
So as to not disturb Tenten, Lee turned only his head to face Guy, his cheeks reddening from embarrassment. He knew Tenten and Neji made most of the comments for their Team, and down in the front, Naruto, Sakura and Sai offered the running commentary for Team Kakashi. Lee wanted to be as expressive, but each time he tried to speak, the words tripped him up, and before he could mention one thing, a different act appeared. He feared sounding awkward, as though he was a few steps behind the others.
“I am sorry, Guy-Sensei,” he whispered back. “This has all been so breathtaking, I was afraid I might miss something if I spoke. You were right though. It will be an event for me to tell my children and my grandchildren – if I am that fortunate.” The last words were unintended, spoken before he realized how it sounded.
Tenten fought back the “Awww” which almost sprang to her lips; instead she gave Lee’s shoulders a slight rub. Neji glanced away. It was his turn to feel some embarrassment at the unusual pessimism in Lee’s voice, for the words solidified the fact that home and hearth was not a Ninja’s normal life. And Guy patted his student’s back, wondering yet again where the years had gone for Lee to have become nearly as tall as he!
The envoy finished his short and moving speech, leaving more than a few dabbing their eyes. He presented gifts to Tsunade and the Council, and in the meanwhile, numerous performers moved through the streets, shaking the hands of as many of the Villagers as they could reach. A few tossed commemorative gold coins into the crowd and flower petals and herbs were strewn about.
Both Sakura and Tenten found the sprigs of a small green plant pressed into their hands by the prettiest of little girls, their tiny voices announcing “Rosemary for remembrance my ladies” before they moved on.
“Awww,” both young women crooned, appearing as though they would melt.
“They’re so cute,” Sakura said.
“Couldn’t you just eat them up?” Tenten replied.
Naruto rolled his eyes. “Oh come on Tenten, Sakura,” he complained. “Really? It’s just a plant.”
“Just a plant?!” the girls said in unison.
“It’s rosemary!” one exclaimed.
“Rosemary for remembrance!” said another.
“Yeah, for remembrance, Naruto!”
“You’ve never heard that before?!”
“I’m sure even Neji and Lee and Sai have heard that!”
“Don’t you know anything, Naruto?”
Naruto couldn’t tell one voice from the other as they screeched at him. It was bad enough Sakura and Tenten were being uncharacteristic. Guy-Sensei was in tears, holding some coin he’d grabbed in mid-flight!
“Come on Kakashi-Sensei,” Naruto pleaded, hoping his teacher would speak before Sai made one of those way-too-blunt comments. “Say something. Aren’t they being a little silly?”
As Toshiro snatched her raven-black tresses within his thick calloused hands, the coolness of the water caressed… Kakashi glanced up from Icha-Icha, oblivious to the surrounding conversation. “Oh I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
Naruto buried his face. “Forget it! I give up!”
Once the performers returned to their places, the brass and the drummers performed a short piece to continue the ecstatic mood. The envoy gave a stiff bow, first to Tsunade, then the Council members; to Konohamaru, to the heads of the chief families, and finally to Shizune and Tonton (who had received her own little gift). He kept his composure when a voice in his earpiece said, ‘The falcons are at the gates’.
Timed to perfection he thought, smiling. Her Ladyship prided herself on punctuality.
The music ended. He looked over the enormous gathering, recalling that when he participated twenty years before, there had also been such a large number. He could not help wondering how many of those present today were in this place back then. But this was not the time for inner reminiscing. Accepting a silver and ebony staff from his aide, and before any restlessness could settle in, he slammed the staff three times onto the stage and a calm fell into place.
There was another brief fanfare from the trumpets.
“My gracious Lady Tsunade, honored members of the Council, honored guests and People of Konohagakure – our well loved Village Hidden Among the Leaves!” he cried out without need for artificial amplification. Hearing themselves addressed with such great affection caused them to respond with a gigantic yell.
“It is my great pleasure to present to you, the representatives of Her Royal Majesty, Elizabeth of Briton, fourth Queen of that name: her beloved kinswomen and kinsmen, defenders of the realm!” He stretched out his free hand. “Her Ladyship, Captain Kathryn Marshall – commander of the Royal Guard and Her Majesty’s Personal Guard! His Lordship, Lieutenant Michael Marshall, Captain Marshall’s second-in-command and commander of the Royal Secret Service! His Lordship, Lieutenant Henry Marshall of the Royal Air Force Dirigible Division, and Her Ladyship, Sergeant Tessa Marshall, Legionnaires/Archery Division of the Royal Army!”
Another cry of “Awooo! Awooo! Awooo!” came forth, this time from those in the military who served at their side.
The staff struck the stage three more times, the brass and the drummers performed another fanfare as introduction. The massive gates reopened, and the crowd stretched and moved to see what was coming next.
Even those seated on the dais stood in preparation for – well, they had a notion, but considering all they had witnessed, most were a little uncertain. Tsunade, meanwhile, looked delighted that some of the old guard had their breaths knocked away by what they were seeing.
This time when the brass sounded, it was not another flourish but the beginnings of something strong and elaborate. Each horn’s melody pierced the air with the accompaniment of cymbals and drums, as a rider bearing the Marshall family standard entered first, followed by four horses of various colors, each walking side by side down the path, untroubled by the hundreds of people and in fact enjoying all of the attention.
Michael gave the appearance of relaxed dignity as he rode in, although the entire time, he solemnly surveyed the surroundings as they rode past. One hand was on his horse’s reins while the other rested a small baton on his hip. His smile was electric, his eyes sparkled, and he heard a few in the crowd shout that they remembered his father and that Michael resembled him. The Lieutenant responded with a nod of the head, his chest swelling with pride at the mention of the parent he admired.
Harry had practiced his entrance for days, as he tried to decide what stance best suited the occasion. In the end, he went with a more informal approach with both hands on the reins, but with his engaging personality he could not help but wave, then flash that famous smile which caused women all over the Empire to almost faint in delight. He was thrilled to see that although the females in the Village did not faint, they reacted as he hoped and expected, no matter their age.
Bubbling with excitement, Tessa was loving every moment, unable to resist waving at the little children, and happy when they waved back once they saw her friendliness. Her sister had been correct. These people which had suffered so much had taken the time to relax and enjoy themselves, and the young ones for the most part appeared untouched. It was wonderful to be that innocent.
And it happened. Her eyes twinkled as she rode several feet away from the team consisting of Shikamaru, Ino and Choji and members of their families. She raised her hand and smiled warmly at a young man who caught her attention. Distracted for a moment, she slowed the palfrey, but upon realizing her error and cursing herself for such a misstep, Tessa sent her mount into a canter to catch up to her sister and brothers.
Choji gulped as he watched ride away what was quite possibly the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. “Uh…Shikamaru?”
“That girl. That Tessa.” The last he saw of her was a sheer veil drifting out from behind her hat.
“Did she wave at me or did she wave at you?”
“Well if she was waving at me, her timing was way off because I wasn’t looking at her when she did. Doesn’t say much for her calculation skills if she missed by that…” He stayed in deadpan form, but could tell his childhood friend was disconcerted. Shikamaru sighed. “What a drag. Look Choji, yeah, I think she probably waved at you.”
“But…But…Why? Why would she…”
“I have no idea. I haven’t thought that far ahead, okay?” the genius Shadow Ninja told him. “Look you’re missing everything.”
Kathryn, meanwhile, kept her head steady and straight ahead. Unbeknownst to most, the violet-gray eyes darted as she analyzed her surroundings: exits, the number of civilians, the number and placement of the advanced Briton security guard, as well as the Village’s high-level security-Nin; where might a possible threat occur or come from; were there any unaccounted-for weaknesses. She listened for odd sounds and watched for suspicious movements.
After all, the Leaf Village had suffered devastating surprise attacks in the past, and although she, Michael, and the combined efforts of the Briton Secret Service and intelligence agencies had worked closely with the top security and intelligence among the Konoha Ninja, she never ceased to wonder if – despite all of the advanced planning – something was missed. Although the parade had been going on for over an hour, her vigilance did not cease. In seconds, her mind worked through a number of possibilities should the unexpected happen, so it was almost difficult to relax and enjoy what her parents assured her would be a joyous occasion.
Her sweep completed, the barely noticeable clasp on her horse’s reins eased, and a smile appeared as she began to acknowledge the excited crowd. Despite her visible, regal rigidity, those who knew her best would notice that for the first time since entering the Village gates, she was at ease.
The hours of rehearsal and advanced organization had paid off. The Marshalls, followed by the officers staff, covered the parade route in minutes, so as the musicians completed the final notes of the march, and the multitude screamed its’ delight, the horses came to a stop before the platform. Michael jumped down and stepped over to assist Kathryn; Harry did the same for Tessa. The two oldest siblings proceeded first up the stairs, Kathryn’s hand resting over top of her brother’s left, but as they reached the final steps, she broke off and took the lead, her moves bold and confident without hiding the femininity apparent in each curve.
When she was within several feet of Tsunade, Kathryn removed her goggles, adjusted her calf-length military jacket, and was down on her right knee, each action so smooth it all appeared as one.
Placing her right hand near her heart, she announced: “Great Lady Tsunade, honored Granddaughter of the First Hokage of Konohagakure, I am Kathryn Marshall, protector of Queen Elizabeth of Briton, my kinswoman and most beloved sovereign!” Her voice resonated so those within earshot heard each word. “On behalf of my brothers and my sister…” and the three knelt behind her “I graciously accept the hospitality and friendship offered by the people of Konohagakure!”
Tsunade smiled, just wanting to get all of the formalities out of the way so they could relax. She was looking forward to this party the Britons were giving, but until then…Be polite, noble. “Well, it has been too long since the Britons have entered our gates, much too long.” She held out both hands. “I welcome you Kathryn Marshall, you and your people, to what I hope will be a return to what we once held dear in our hearts.” And please tell me you brought more of that sake!
Kathryn took Tsunade’s hands, reverently placed her forehead against them, then kissed them. “Great Lady, you do us honor. Thank you,” and she stood and faced the crowd so the people could better see her.
“She’s pretty, isn’t she?” Naruto whispered to no one in particular. “Lady Kathryn.” He could not believe someone could look that amazing in leather, gold and brass! And there were those curvaceous legs covered in black riding tights and the intricate looking knee-high boots too. She was a soldier, but also very much a woman. He wondered if any of the other men were feeling the way he did.
“Yes,” Sai remarked, and his teammates as well as Neji, Lee and Tenten held their breaths, waiting for the comment to come. “But the younger sister has the more classic beauty. That is a face that men would, as they say, die for and not think twice.”
Naruto grimaced. “Sheesh, Sai, you’re a barrel of laughs.”
Tenten and Sakura shushed them as Kathryn was speaking to the citizens.
“…and that this will be the beginning of a new alliance, forged from what we once had, but always looking forward to what we hold common: a love, no, a passion and a human-held desire for freedom! Let the Games, when they begin a few weeks hence, tell the evil in this world, in no uncertain terms, that whatever past attempts they have made to hurt us, destroy us, or wipe us into extinction, we shall hold fast. As one of my noble relatives proclaimed during our Great War not long ago, ‘We shall go on to the end. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never, never surrender!’”
There was an enthusiastic cry from Villagers and Britons alike.
“You know she has the blood of royalty and statesmen in her.”
Everyone turned to Kakashi, who was not only speaking, but had tucked Icha Icha under his arm. No one was certain how long he had been paying attention?
Meanwhile, the bands played an upbeat tune while the Marshalls presented their personal gifts to Tsunade and the Council.
Sakura shook her head. “Well she’s related to the Queen, we heard that, but…”
“Her genealogy has great soldiers, as well as great statesmen on her side,” Kakashi explained. “The Marshalls are the chosen warriors for their royal family, even when a few decide to go into their form of politics. It’s been that way for generations, and they’ve proven themselves time and time again. She has several powerful warrior-statesmen in her family tree, and the greatest retired a couple of years ago, didn’t he Guy? That’s the relative she quoted.”
Guy nodded and closed his eyes, and with apparent admiration took up where Kakashi left off. “I’m sure he’s in his eighties or nineties by now. Kakashi and I saw him at the last Games; he was just a spectator. A legendary warrior; a journalist; a consummate, brilliant historian with amazing insight. He helped lead the Empire through their World War.” He gave his students a steady look. “Team! When you’re not training and preparing for the competitions, that’s going to be your next project.”
Neji’s eyes widened. “What is, Guy-Sensei?”
“Study the works of Winston Leonard-Spencer Marshall, especially his histories. I think you’ll learn a lot. You won’t regret it.” He flashed them one of his smiles.
Tenten swallowed hard. “I think we already are,” she groaned, looking down at Neji.
But Lee’s eyes betrayed his eagerness. “Yes, Guy-Sensei!” he exclaimed.
Neji shook his head. Of course Lee would be excited at the prospect of devouring the gods knew how many volumes of the works of someone they just learned about. Lee would probably have a copy of one of the books in front of him while he worked out! Hell, he would probably keep one on a nightstand for bedtime reading!
Guy turned his attention away from his pupils. “So Kakashi,” he began while the presentation of gifts continued, “I know your team will be participating in the Games.”
“Naturally. And yours?” Did he need to ask?
“Naturally. What about you?”
“Yes, you. Are you going to participate the way we did twenty years ago?”
And here we go. “I haven’t decided yet.” He maneuvered Icha Icha from out under his arm. “What about you?” Do I need to ask? I already know the answer.
Might Guy pretended to give his fingernails closer examination. “I need to read over the contests again once they’re finalized, but I figured, let’s show the youngsters that we’re still full of the Power of Youth and show-off our own prowess again in the field.”
Icha Icha returned to the front of Kakashi’s masked face. “That was twenty years ago and we were on opposing teams in a tug-of-war event.” He glanced up to see the slight annoyance pulling at Guy’s eyebrows. “Okay, there was more to it than the tug-of-war.”
“You’re right! By the time it was over, we were tied in the juvenile events in which we participated, and if you’ll recall, we were never pitted against each other one-on-one.”
“You had one gold, one silver and one bronze medal. I had one gold, one silver and one bronze medal. I say it’s time we break that tie!”
Kakashi sighed. Maybe they would get lucky and there would be an added rock-paper-scissors event. “Whatever you say, Guy. Just name the time and place.”
Guy clenched his fists in anticipation. “YOU’RE ON KAKASHI!” Despite his excitement, he was under incredible control and had not disturbed the formal goings-on.
“Oh brother.” Tenten heard herself, Naruto, Sakura and Neji say the same.
Only Lee seemed as electrified as the two men he admired, well, as electrified as Guy-Sensei at any rate.
The presenting of gifts concluded. A beaming Tsunade, overjoyed at the gift of the best sake on the planet, stepped forward on the dais, one of Kathryn’s hands grasped in hers. Without speaking, The Fifth Hokage raised both her and the Captain’s arms and another roar of approval rang out. The two women made a slow circle so that all could see them, and when things calmed, Tsunade announced:
“As you may or may not know, the Britons are among the most hospitable people I have ever had the privilege to know. So I’m passing on their invitation. You are invited to the campsite outside the Village for what we hope is the first of many celebrations prior to the Games. Everyone is welcome to attend. I do mean everyone, no matter your ages! The festivities will begin in five hours and I expect all of you to be there! That is an order from your Hokage!” She was trying to be solemn, but the smile appeared as the people laughed.
Brief final words followed on both sides and the event came to an end.
The Britons involved in the parade stayed in place until all returned to normal, and the Villagers returned to their homes or businesses, still excited over what they had seen and anticipating what was to come. Kakashi bid Team Guy farewell with a ‘See you all at the party,” as he departed with Sai, Sakura and Naruto.
“You must be exhausted, Lee,” Tenten told him when he lowered her to the ground, noticing he remained focused on what the Britons were doing. The Marshalls were descending the stage, along with Tsunade, the Council and the others.
Lee shook his head. “Not at all, Tenten. I am glad I could help you out. You did see more, did you not?”
“I did, yeah. Thanks for coming up with the idea.”
“Well Team,” Guy announced, “meet me in front of the Temple in four-and-half hours.”
Neji raised an eyebrow. “We’re not going to train more today, are we Sensei?” They cleaned up before coming to the parade, but the sneaking suspicion Guy intended to get them all hot and sweaty again came to his mind.
“No, we’re done for the day, Neji.” He glared at one specific person. “That means you, too, Lee.”
“Yes Sensei.” Lee did hope to get in a couple of more hours of training before the celebration, and as usual, Guy figured him out.
“Go home, get yourselves ready; meet me at the Temple and we’ll head to the party together.”
The team headed off in separate directions, but as Lee was telling Guy he would see him later, he noticed that his teacher grew somber.
“A moment before you leave,” and he looked around to make sure they were alone.
“I’ve already advised Neji and Tenten, but I wanted to put you on your guard too.”
Lee’s back straightened and his face became grave as well. Had they been given some special mission he and the others were unaware of until now? “Yes, Guy-Sensei.”
“I’ve been to these Briton parties before, and they, the Britons, are a joyful people who live life to the fullest. There will be entertainment, and food, plenty of food – and drink. All types of drink.”
Lee’s face grew pale.
“Promise me,” and Guy placed a protective hand on one of Lee’s shoulders, “that you won’t drink anything until I, or Neji and Tenten have double-checked it. I would even say be careful of some of the foods. They love to prepare many of their dishes in wines and other alcohols.”
The chunin nodded. “Of course Guy-Sensei. I understand.”
They both understood. Lee would never imbibe of alcohol at any rate still being underage, but there was the time he had taken that sip of Guy’s sake, thinking it water.
He was perhaps twelve-years-old – it was all a blur and they had been celebrating his achieving a major maneuver in his training…
The evening ended with a restaurant in shambles, ripped apart as if by gale force winds, and Neji and Guy trying to get Lee under control without hurting him. Lee later awoke with a massive headache and little memory of what happened. All he knew was Might Guy was more tearful than he had ever seen him – and that was saying a lot. Neji was annoyed and mumbling about “Lee’s deplorable behavior”. Tenten was also in tears having watched her friend and teammate transform into some type of indestructible beast…He did not learn the truth until much later…
The boy shuddered.
“I would feel irresponsible as your Sensei if we didn’t take these measures. You know it’s not personal.”
“Of course not, Guy-Sensei. I would expect nothing less of you. You are thinking of me.”
Guy smiled. “As always, Lee. And while I only had to pay off the damages to the restaurant…”
Lee winced. “I know, I am sorry.” The thought that he caused his beloved Teacher so many problems…How could he have been so stupid to have thought it water! “You are still taking reimbursement from my earnings, are you not, Sensei?”
No, Guy never had, but his student didn’t need to know that. “Oh of course, of course I am, but I bring all this up because paying for restaurant damages is one thing. Should an incident of this magnitude occur in the presence of the Britons…”
“I know, sir. It would bring dishonor to Konoha, and to you and my teammates, and I would bring shame to myself as a shinobi.”
“And I’ll never let that happen! You all are going to have a wonderful time getting to know the Britons. They’re a great people – you saw evidence of that today – and I have many fond memories of when they were last here. So just promise you’ll be on your guard until we know a drink or the food is safe. Accept them from me or your teammates – no one else. The Britons love a good joke, and a few might think it’s funny to give an underage boy a drink they claim has no alcohol, just to see what happens next.”
“Well, that’s enough. I’m done.” He patted Lee’s shoulder. “See you in four hours, twenty minutes. Do not be late! And remember, no more training!”
Lee gave an enthusiastic, respectful salute. “YES SIR!”
Chapter Three – The Welcome Party
At staggered times to prevent possible traffic jams, and about a half-hour before the scheduled start for the Welcome Party, the complimentary wagons and carts arranged by the Village started the guest conveyance to the Briton compound.
Tenten suggested her Team go the “old-fashioned” way, her logic being that they did walk on most of their missions, so why not take it “slow and easy” like normal people were doing, Shinobi included. After all, it was not a race for them to get there, however, should someone wish an upgrade to arrive in a more stylish fashion, several drivers were for hire for that purpose.
The owner of a pair of vivid brown eyes set sights on that specific mode of transportation the second she saw it.
“Tenten called it a suggestion,” Neji whispered to his teacher and Rock Lee while they watched Tenten seek out an available wagon, suitable enough for her (and them). “I call it subtle arm-twisting. I would have agreed to her idea anyway, but she didn’t have to be so rough about it.”
He rubbed his wrist, recalling Tenten’s grip as she had coyly told him, ‘Neji – you don’t really want me…I mean us to arrive and not look my…our best, right?’ And he remembered following her gaze to a wagon where Naruto – following a bit of nudging from Kakashi – was assisting Sakura in boarding, the pink-haired girl looking quite elegant.
Lee swallowed. “Arm-twisting? I thought her quite intimidating, Sensei, even more than normal.”
And he remembered following Tenten’s gaze over to a wagon where Sakura sat between Naruto and Kakashi, and how the pink-haired girl pulled out a compact to double-check her appearance. Tenten had growled, ‘Lee – you don’t really want us…me…us to arrive and not look my…our best, right? I mean, take to the trees? Who does that, right? We want our Team to look good. You don’t want us all hot and clammy, do you? You’d never suggest something like that to Sakura, would you?’
Lee groaned. “I am certain she has one of her kunai hidden underneath her dress – at least she indicated she did, even if I never saw it. And I never suggested we travel as such, Sensei – she just assumed. Why would I want us arriving all ‘hot and clammy’ as she put it? It is one thing to be threatened by an enemy, but by a fellow team member?”
“Lee!” Guy exclaimed. “You’re talking about Tenten, remember?”
“It might be Tenten, Guy-Sensei, but Lee’s right,” Neji insisted. “She’s blown it way out of context. I swear she would have held us all at kunai-point if we suggested we travel any other way than how she wants it.”
“Well, considering how she looks, do you blame her?” But his mind drifted a bit…
And Guy remembered Tenten walking up to him, blinking her eyes, and nodding towards the vehicle with Kakashi’s Team. ‘You know I admire you Guy-Sensei, and you’ve been such a wonderful teacher to all of us, and you are always right about things, but do you want Kakashi-Sensei to appear, well, chicer by upstaging us…uh, you? You see that? Kakashi-Sensei hired a nice cart for his Team. It looks amazing. Now we can take one of the free wagons – nothing wrong with that, but they might be a tad, oh I don’t know, bumpy, lumpy. Or we could get a nice cart like Kakashi-Sensei did. Wasn’t that…’
“Perhaps I overreacted,” Guy mumbled, hoping the girl did not spend every cent he gave her on their transport. It had not been a great deal of cash, but still…
“Sensei! Neji! Lee! Look! I found one!” The three turned to see Tenten waving at them with one hand, while the other motioned at the brand new wagon pulled by a sleek gray horse which might have descended from a champion thoroughbred. “He’s ours for the night, isn’t that great?! Don’t just stand there! Come on!”
“Well,” Might Guy sighed, as he and the others headed her way, “I hope she at least got us a deal.”
Deal or not, Tenten obtained a lovely transport with excellent springs to prevent too rough a ride, and spotless cushioned benches for their comfort. There were even clean blankets for use later that night on the return home after the weather had cooled. In the end, when the wagon glided past Team Kakashi, Guy tried not to appear too pleased as he gave his ‘good guy’ pose to his rival. In addition, his praise for Tenten’s bargaining skills was unending.
It was a beautiful early evening, considering the morning started with thundershowers which threatened to ruin the day. During the ride, Might Guy regaled his students with a brand new story of a competition he and Kakashi had engaged in during the Games. It always tickled the three to imagine miniature versions of their Sensei and Kakashi, but it helped pass the time. About fifteen minutes after they departed the Village, the smooth ride concluded, the driver bringing the little wagon to a stop right at the boundary of the Briton encampment.
Moments later, they were back on Terra Firma, the young men assisting Tenten in stepping onto the ground, something which pleased her as it was nice to be treated like a lady. She was even more pleased when Lee said:
“Tenten, I have been wanting to tell you how pretty you look this evening.”
“Why thank you, Lee,” the girl replied, heat entering her cheeks.
As soon as the party was announced, she spent days shopping for a new outfit she prayed would flatter her feminine side as well as show how much more of an adult she had become. After what she felt had been her ‘maiden battle,’ going into a shopping war with every girl her age, she emerged victorious and with something which – weeks later – still made her giddy in a girlish way whenever she pulled it from her closet.
“Lee’s quite right,” Neji commented. “The three of us are privileged to escort you.” He linked arms with her once they had alighted from their wagon. “You’re going to be the loveliest girl there.”
Oh you guys,” she giggled, flattered and self-conscious. After all her earlier cajoling, she felt bad at almost becoming brutal to get her way. But it appeared her temporary ‘insanity’ was forgotten as well as forgiven, for Neji and Lee could not have been sweeter. It was nice to hear ‘the boys’ compliment her as they did, considering they normally saw her as their close fighting companion and a good friend.
Someone would have to be crazy to think I look like ‘one of the boys’ when I’m wearing THIS.
She glanced down at the bronze-colored, midriff-revealing blouse and the clingy silken matching skirt which flowed about her ankles. She even dared to do her hair in soft curls instead of her usual buns and decided that just once, she would wear a touch of cosmetics to celebrate the occasion.
Sakura and Ino are going to gag. Both of them were eyeing this outfit when I snatched it up right from under their noses. I can’t wait to see their faces!
It was Tenten’s turn to offer up the compliments. “And I think you two look pretty handsome too.”
Neji’s crisp knee-length, oyster-white tunic and the slender pants possessed a tailored fit. Instead of the loose flowing clothing he wore when training or on missions, the suit revealed his physique to perfection. Everything about him smelled of sandalwood, one of Tenten’s favorite scents.
She was also delighted Lee looked his best. Although it was a pair of his trademark green tights, they were brand new, as was the lighter green flak jacket worn over it. His black hair shined and was combed so that not one strand was out of place, and his bushy eyebrows had been smoothed so they appeared as under control as they could be. Each hand and wrist were swaddled in bright white tape without a single fray, and his leg warmers and sandals were pristine. And he smelled so good! Tenten smiled, imagining him layering the fragrance he wore from the moment he climbed into the shower.
Did Guy-Sensei teach him how to do that? Or maybe Neji did. Or maybe he read how to do it. Lee’s always curious about those kind of little things. Well, whatever, he smells nice. Cardamon – mint – hmm…amber. You did good Lee! You did! You might not ever be as handsome as Neji, but you don’t care. As far as you’re concerned, you are the Village’s Handsome Devil. And she linked her free arm within one of Lee’s so that she was arm-in-arm with the two young men she admired.
Guy tipped the driver and received assurances that the man would wait for them until they were ready to return home – no matter how late the hour. (The Jonin also got the impression that Tenten may have done some more ‘arm-twisting’ and subtle ‘intimidation’ so the driver felt it best to keep his word). Afterward, Guy caught up to the three, just in time to hear their compliments to one another. He did his best not to cry, but he was sniffing as he followed his students.
“All of you are making me proud. I can’t believe how grown up you three are.”
The trio thanked him in unison, delighted they had earned their sensei’s approval in something outside of training.
The scent of roasted meat was the prevalent thing catching their attention when they first arrived, but they were able to take in everything else as they passed through Briton security and were permitted to enter the main compound. Although the official sunset would not be for several more hours at that time of year, shielded torches were already lit, their golden hue dotting the landscape. White fairy lights draped the structures erected for the party, so once it was dark, the illumination would appear like stars come to Earth. Everything had been designed for the comfort of the attendees, whether they were inside or outside, so there were immense tents, temporary gardens with benches and fountains, as well as greenery and floral arrangements constructed in a way which felt a natural part of the scenery.
Off in the distance, they could see the dirigibles tethered into place, and the reality of how enormous they were became apparent.
“What did I tell you?” Guy told the group. “Amazing aren’t they? I’ll have to see if they’ll allow us onboard one day.”
Music and singing could be heard in three of the four tents in use, and the aroma of fresh baked bread and pastries, as well as various meats became more pronounced.
“So Tenten, we’ll leave it up to you,” Might Guy told her, smiling down at her. “Which tent do you want to try first?”
“Decisions, decisions,” she said with a lighthearted smile. This might be one of the few times they would have an opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves, so why not be a little playful and use those so-called ‘feminine wiles’. “Okay, how about…that one?” She nodded towards the smallest structure. “I swear I smell…”
“Chocolate?” Neji asked, tickled to see Tenten grin in agreement.
“Oh good, I’m not crazy!”
The tent in fact was considered the ‘dessert tent’ according to one of the staff, and after entering Team Guy could see why. Table after table was laden with sweets of every kind: confections, hard candies and other chocolates were fashioned into all types of intricate shapes; dozens of puddings, cakes, pies and pastries in numerous flavors; cupcakes were on tiers, chocolate covered fruit and truffles were displayed in refrigerated cases, and fountains of dark chocolate, white chocolate and milk chocolate had been erected in a triangular formation near the center.
“Chocolate!” Tenten, Lee and Neji said at once.
“Have you ever seen…” Tenten shook her head. I’m getting fat just looking at all of this.
“No and I would have no idea where to begin,” Lee commented. The Village saw chocolates at special holidays, but to see it in such abundance was breathtaking.
Not a lot of people had discovered the tent yet. Among the ones that had were a small group of prepubescent males, and they had gathered around something fascinating, giggling as they pointed.
“What are they…” Neji started to say, but Tenten had already broken away to find out on her own.
The kids were startled when she came up behind them and greeted them with “Hello there, boys. What’s up?” so their answers were not immediate. When she returned to her Team, she was shaking her head in amazement while the boys sprinted away.
“Guy-Sensei, remind me one more time how I lucked out and got these two?” She smiled at Lee and Neji.
“What were they looking at?” Neji asked.
Tenten groaned. “Boys can be so stupid. They found some chocolate candies over there that are…” She rolled her eyes, but Guy was already laughing.
“Are they flesh-colored with a single brown dot?” Guy asked, and when Tenten nodded, he explained, “They had them here the last time and they were popular and delicious. The Britons call them Nipples of Venus. Venus was the name of some ancient goddess.”
Tenten groaned again. “You have got to be kidding?”
Lee and Neji snickered until they saw Tenten’s annoyed expression.
“Idiots,” she muttered as she turned to go. “I’m surrounded by idiots.” She stopped long enough to drool over a series of beautiful cupcakes then motioned to her Sensei and teammates. “Well, are you three coming or not?” The men laughed as they followed.
The incident was forgotten by the time they started their tour of the other tents. Tenten, however, was emphatic: she could not resist returning to the desserts at some point.
Each facility became more crowded as the Villagers continued to arrive and the Britons were on hand to mingle, but even then there was never a time when the person felt claustrophobic. The hosts had gone out of their way to ensure that everyone has a sense of comfort. They did not want the biggest problem to be where to sit or how not to step on someone’s toes. The ‘major’ concern should be what dish or drink to try next, or what entertainment they wanted to enjoy.
Team Guy felt an overload of emotions from the friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Although Guy enjoyed commenting on the various similarities and differences between the present-day and the celebrations of two decades before, each area, even each corner provided a new revelation for them.
It was one reason why they were not surprised when they ran into Naruto and Sakura. After they all spoke of how wonderful things were thus far, the blue-eyed, blonde Ninja gave them a bit of news.
“You’ll never guess where I found Grandma Tsunade,” Naruto told them as he laughed, taking another gulp of his punch.
“Naruto…” Sakura shook his arm as if issuing a warning.
“Sakura, you almost made me spill my drink. But guess where I found her? She’s playing craps in one of the side rooms with some of the Brits and some of our people!”
“Naruto!” Sakura warned again although it was too late.
Neji, Tenten and Lee exchanged glances as they smiled. After all, everyone knew of the Fifth Hokage’s weaknesses, and if her form of entertainment at the party was gambling, then so be it.
For the rest, they all hoped it would prove a night of marvelous surprises.
Without announcement, the Marshall siblings entered the main tent and were surrounded by fellow Britons as well as Villagers, all of whom greeted them with bows, curtseys and handshakes. The formalities of the parade were set aside, so all those witnessing their arrival saw the Queen’s cousins at their most casual as they mixed with the guests.
The relaxed situation gave Kathryn an idea. Upon hearing her suggestion for them to initiate a more personal exchange with the people of Konoha, her brothers and sister prepared to dive in with their typical enthusiasm. The four joined a number of officers and noncommissioned in a lively Ronde accompanied by music from the Briton Renaissance. Before long, a few Villagers found themselves swept into the activity whether they had intended involvement or not. The plan, however, worked to perfection, and soon enough, people were clapping along or attempting to learn the steps.
Overjoyed at the reaction, Harry tossed his jacket to Michael, shouted “Hold this, will you, Mike” and ran to the center of one set of Britons and guests. To the amazement of those able to see, Harry squatted and was skillfully kicking out his legs in an impromptu version of a Russian Trepak. Not to be outdone, Tessa joined him, performing a Galliard around him, the dexterous steps and leaps revealing her athleticism was not only in the field.
Due to the massive amount of cheering once the dance ended, no attempt was made to speak at normal tones. That was when a sportive Michael hand-signalled Kathryn’s staff, a motion they recognized. From his standpoint, the perfect opportunity had arisen for all in attendance to view his sister in yet another light, to reveal the devotion her dedication to service had earned her. If the Hyugas desired more reason to see her benefits, this exercise would suffice.
To Kathryn’s astonishment, several adjutants hoisted her onto their shoulders, laughing when she squealed and gripped them to steady herself. The chant began, low at first and then, like a wave undulating towards shore, gathered momentum until every Briton present turned to join in.
‘Valkyrie! Valkyrie! Valkyrie!’
‘Valkyrie! Valkyrie! Valkyrie!’
They clapped to the rhythm of the syllables.
A few let loose with a full-throated ‘Ho-jo-to-ho! Ho-jo-to-ho!’ whether they could carry a tune or not. The tent reverberated with their celebration.
The majority of Leaf Villagers did not understand what brought about the jubilation, so while some sought a quick explanation, a number of others shrugged, smiled and joined in the salute. They only knew the young woman from her appearance at the parade, but she made such an impression, the citizens decided that whatever this ‘Valkyrie’ or ‘Ho-jo-to-ho’ was, the Britons were showing how much they loved and respected her.
A blushing Kathryn was paraded about, her glee revealed by a smile as she revelled in the unexpected salute. At one point as they passed Michael, she called out, “You did this.” His response made her roll her eyes, for he placed a hand to one ear, shook his head and mouthed ‘What? What did you say?’ while wearing a mischievous grin.
The noise died down once the Captain was placed on a stage where she could better see the crowd and they had a clear view of her. Catching her breath, she thanked everyone for coming and hoped they were having a good time. “As you can see,” she joked, “we tend to break out into a celebration at the slightest notice, so forgive us that.”
The Villagers chuckled and applauded.
The little greeting complete, she accepted a stein of ale from her aide-de-camp. The facility went silent, the attendees awaiting Kathryn’s next words. She raised the container, held it out towards the audience, and after some consideration proclaimed, “I drink to all those who came before us! I drink to all those who follow, that they be worthy! I drink to the glories of Valhalla and I drink to the renewal of the Alliance!” Kathryn’s voice lowered, her eyes scanning the beaming faces of her fellow warriors. “I drink to you, my glorious band of brothers and sisters. Know that I am proud to serve at your sides!”
And with a shout of ‘Awoo! Awoo! Awoo!’ the party returned to normal.
For Kathryn, it had been a pleasant reprieve to have danced so everyone, Briton and Villager alike, knew this was a down-to-earth gathering and not a regal court function. To be saluted in such a fashion – it was nice.
But uppermost in the minds of the four Marshalls was the official beginning of what they referred to among themselves as ‘Operation Hyuga’. From that duty, there would be no escape.
“So which is Hanabi and which is Hinata?” Harry asked as he studied the Hyuga sisters, tugging his jacket back on and giving himself a quick once-over. He was unsure what he expected, even after scrutinizing the Intelligence reports on the Hyuga clan. Until now, his opinions had been based on cold hard data, not on the actuality of seeing either one in the flesh. It was difficult to fathom the reasoning behind the eldest daughter, Hinata, being removed as heiress-presumptive and the younger sister installed as a replacement, but when it came to family politics, one never knew.
“The one on the left is Hinata,” Michael told him.
Kathryn nudged Tessa, the two rushing away while they had the opportunity.
Meanwhile, Harry’s response was an astonished smile. “She’s lovely,” he whispered. “By God, she’s absolutely lovely. I never imagined…” What did it matter whether she was heiress or not? “Would you uh…Would you care to introduce us then, Mike? I’m eager to meet her.” His older brother placed an arm around his shoulders so as to guide him to where the Hyuga patriarchs and the sisters stood with a few of the Briton nobles.
“You can’t stay away from them forever,” Tessa joked, she and Kathryn hurrying for another side of the tent. They wound their way through the guests, welcoming them as they did.
“I know, but I’m going to do my best,” Kathryn said, glancing over her shoulder to see how much distance had been placed between her, Michael and the others.
“Well, Harry seems game.”
“Our brother is always game when it comes to a pretty face.”
“That’s true, but I hope he doesn’t lay on the charm too thick, at least not at the start. I was watching her for just a couple of seconds, Kathryn, and she looks shy. I mean very shy. I don’t want Harry to send her running for her life.”
“Michael’s with him. He’ll keep him under control.”
“I hope.” Whatever else Tessa was going to say froze on her tongue as her eyes and smile sparkled in anticipation. “Kathryn, do you mind?” she asked.
“Remember that boy I told you about? The one I saw in the crowd?”
“Yes, why? Do you see him?” Kathryn craned her neck with the hope of seeing for herself. Tessa had not quit speaking of him the entire time they were preparing for the party.
“I see him.” The young sergeant smoothed her dress and jacket, then used her fingers to brush at her hair.
“Kitten, you look fine. Go ahead.”
“Okay, okay. Look, I’m sorry to leave you like this.” She was already on the move.
“I’ll catch you later. Try to have some fun!” Tessa was swallowed up within the guests as she rushed away.
Kathryn smiled, recalling her little sister’s excitement as the girl wondered whether he might be present at the party. Try to have some fun. I had hoped to, but…I guess I’ll see. I envy her being able to still have that freedom. Well, I had it too, until certain people got it into their damn noggins to…Okay, stop it. I agreed to this foolishness. I might as well see it through…Oh, Kitten, you’re at such a wonderful age. Your first romance. Well, I hope it’ll be. I just wish I’d had a chance to see this young man. Tessa said he was on the heavy side, but not much else. Maybe I’ll…
The Captain turned at the sound of her aide-de-camp’s voice. “Alanna.” It was the one time she regretted seeing her efficient administrative assistant.
“Excuse me, My Lady, but Lord Michael asked me to find you. He wishes for you to join him. He has located Neji Hyuga and thought it would be nice if both of you greeted him.”
Kathryn took a deep breath, her stomach knotting. What did Tessa say? Try to have some fun? I’m afraid that is going to be a little harder than I thought. “Thank you Alanna. If you would please take me to my brother.”
Hands clasped in anticipation of the evening to come, Ino spun in one spot, surveying the tent’s magnificent interior. This was more enchanting than she could have hoped for: the lights, the spectacle – she felt like the often spoken of ‘kid in a candy store,’ as well as a princess in some story her father might have amused her with at bedtime. And the men, it was almost too much. Her entire life had been spent around the likes of Shikamaru and Choji, or Naruto, Neji, Kiba, Rock Lee, Shino and in recent times Sai. Of course there had also been the one for whose affections she and Sakura had fought over…
But comparing those adolescents to the likes of these Briton males who came in every age, every color, every size and shape, each one oozing sensuality and godlike handsomeness. There was no comparison! Ino felt ready to overdose on her excitement. It was like a choice between cheap conveyor belt sushi, the same plates spinning around until someone realized the products were past the expiration date; or being waited on at a table, while the finest and greatest sushi chef in the world prepared Fugu Sashi!
What a comparison. Briton men and Fugu Sashi. Beautiful, potentially lethal. I could still eat up every single one of them. And I’d want…
“Earth to Ino!”
She groaned, looking over at the bored Shikamaru and Choji, the latter munching on something or other. “What?” How could the not-so-godlike Shikamaru interrupt her magnificent fantasy?
“Look, it’s a drag standing here watching you drool over every Briton man you see. Choji’s not enjoying it. I’m not enjoying it. I want to see what else is happening.” Shino and Kiba had told him there were female dancers entertaining in another tent, dancers who could move their bodies with amazing finesse, whether on the ground or in the air. He was not going to miss that for, well, for this!
“And I’m dying of hunger!” Choji exclaimed. The last of the hor’dourves he snatched from a sterling tray were rammed into his mouth.
Ino’s eyes narrowed. “You’re always dying of hunger. And Shikamaru, you, I thought you’d be more sympathetic to what I’m going through here.”
The shadow-Nin looked astonished. “Be more…How can I be ‘more sympathetic’ about you trying to decide which of these guys you’d like to…”
“Watch it Shikamaru! Don’t go there.”
“I was going to say, you’d like to take home to Mommy and Daddy.”
“Yeah? Well anything’s better than you two pieces of imitation crab meat.”
Choji looked at his best friend. He knew he and Shikamaru stayed in a running battle with the sole female of their group, but to be compared to a cheap piece of seafood, and fake seafood at that! “Why did Ino just call us imitation crab meat?” he grumbled.
“Because Choji, she’s delusional when she’s hunting down good looking men.”
Ino turned red. “I’m…”
“Pardon me. Hello!” A sweet voice came out of nowhere.
The trio was startled to find the beautiful Tessa standing before them, a charming smile on her face. She did a quick curtsey as introduction.
“I’m Tessa Marshall. Welcome to our party,” she greeted, wishing she had arrived before the ‘imitation crab meat’ portion of the conversation! That was hysterical and she couldn’t imagine what brought on such an outburst!
Shikamaru decided to speak first since it was normal to find himself as the unenthusiastic leader of the three. “Lady Tessa,” he said, recalling her numerous titles from the announcement at the parade. “Good evening, yeah hi. We saw you during the parade.”
“Did you?” So they were paying attention. I wonder if he…“That’s wonderful. I’m glad you were there. I hope you had an enjoyable time.”
“We did thanks.”
“And I’m sorry, but you are…”
“I’m Shikamaru Nara. Glad to meet you, Lady Tessa.”
“It’s very nice to meet you as well.” He’s so thin, she thought. Nice looking but thin.
There was a pause. Throats were cleared. Shikamaru sighed. What a drag. Guess I’ll have to do all of the introductions. Choji looks like he’s going to hurl, and Ino’s too busy eyeballing the Sergeant’s outfit. “This is Ino Yamanaka.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mistress Ino.” Tessa reached over, giving the blonde a warm, unexpected embrace. “Welcome to our party.”
Ino stuttered, “Oh…uh, oh, thank you. Thank you very much for having us, My Lady. It’s all wonderful, just wonderful.”
“Well we’re thrilled to have you.” Tessa concentrated on the last person of the group, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. Here she was: a decorated legionnaire in her archery division and an officer to boot, but she was tense about an introduction to the young man who captured her fancy. “And…this is…” she started, hoping to encourage him to say something, anything.
“This is Choji Akimichi,” Shikamaru said, since his friend was too overwhelmed to speak.
“Welcome Choji Akimichi.” Tessa dipped another curtsey.
“Hello,” he whimpered. Shikamaru shoved him in the ribs and Choji added, “Uh…nice to meet you, Lady…Sergeant…Sergeant Lady…Lady Tessa.” He was glad he had finished eating. He would have been embarrassed for her to see him devouring something.
“You may call me Tessa.”
Shikamaru and Ino ceased to exist.
“Alright…Tessa.” Choji shivered when the girl stepped close enough for him to smell her flowery perfume, the cream-colored gown giving her an angelic quality.
“I wonder Master Akimichi.” Tessa gave a coy smile. “Would you care to see what we have cooking outside in the smokers and on the grills? The pigs have been roasting all day and…”
Choji’s eyes lit up. He was excited this beautiful girl was paying him attention – and she was adding such a succulent dish to the equation?! “Roasted pigs?!” Tessa nodded. “All you can eat?”
Tessa laughed. How cute! “Of course all you can eat. Everything we’re serving is all you can eat.”
“I would love for you to show me, Lady Tessa! I mean…Tessa. And you can call me Choji.” He accepted a hand, glancing back once to flash a goofy grin before Tessa guided him away.
There was a pause, then…
“What just happened?!” Ino exploded, goggling at the pair. A few guests briefly looked her way then returned to what they were doing. “What…just… happened?! She’s royalty. Or about as close to royalty as I may get in a while! Shikamaru?!”
“What?!” He was still staring after Choji and Lady Tessa.
“What just happened?!”
“How do I know?” he responded, shrugging. “It’s all a drag. She likes Choji. You saw that during the parade. And he seems to like her. And on top of that, you know he loves roasted pork as much as he loves barbecued beef. For him this is the ultimate combination.” Who would have thought it? I think that pretty girl’s got the hots for Choji. Hope none of them start thinking about me. Dating’s just way too much work. “Now if you’ll excuse me. There’s another tent with my name written all over it. Have fun with your…uh…whatever.”
Once outside the main tent, Choji – an animated Tessa as his guide – zigzagged the small groups milling and wandering about, the couple heading in the direction of the grills and smokers constructed at a distance so the smoke would not become a nuisance. He sniffed the air, allowing his lungs to fill with the fragrant mixtures of hickory, applewood, mesquite, and oak, anticipation growing in his eyes as he looked about. He came close to running into several individuals, saved due to his companion quickly moving him out of the way, but his senses were overloaded: with aromas, with the visual display the Britons had created, with her. The world around him was filled with multiple diversions.
On occasion, he would give the young sergeant an incredulous look, see her smile, then duck his head in embarrassment, unsure how to react, the round cheeks turning crimson. At this point, he felt confused. Unlike in the past, the scent of barbecue did not seem as crucial: not as crucial as whatever perfume Tessa Marshall wore.
“See? What did I tell you?” Tessa announced, lightly touching his right arm to indicate he should look.
Choji’s mouth dropped. Long folding tables covered in green linen and white linen appeared endless, each one brimming with silver warming trays, platters, and cold stations. Barrels and bottles of wine, ales, liquors and other beverages were as prominently displayed as the roasted pig serving as the centerpiece on one stand. Despite the temptation to linger, stare and point at the variety of items, the organized queue of Villagers and Britons moved quickly, even when finding it difficult to choose. A few servers cut and carved the pieces of meat, poultry, and seafood while others dished out the accompaniments.
“Did I die and go to Heaven?” he whispered. At this point – had he been with Shikamaru and Ino, or those with whom he felt comfortable – drool would have been visible at the corners of his mouth. Somehow he avoided that, knowing a pair of hazel eyes were on him.
“Did I die and go to Heaven?” he repeated,
“Because I’m here.”
Tessa smiled. “Yes,” she said again, praying she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt.
“And…that.” A shaky finger pointed at the layouts.
“And it’s got to be a dream because you’re beautiful and there’s all that beautiful meat…and…” Had he compared this lovely girl to all this succulent meat? But she was grinning, not seeming to take exception. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Shikamaru…he’d tell me I’m not making any sense and…”
“Well,” Tessa’s brisk manner of speech was even more pronounced, “Master Nara’s not here and you know, he might not blame you anyway. Go ahead and think whatever you like, whether it makes sense or not.”
Choji gave a firm nod of the head. “You’re right.”
“And I think we should fix a plate for ourselves, don’t you?” She tucked one arm within his closest. Despite being taller than many fifteen-year-olds, she felt tiny beside him. “I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Kathryn kept telling me I ought to have a bite of something after we returned to camp, but I was so excited. About everything, you see. I’ve been in parades before, but never anything this historic.”
“Are you in a lot of parades?”
“A few. Special occasions like the Queen’s birthday or the Prince Consort’s birthday – that’s her husband. And of course we had massive celebrations when my cousin, the little Princess, was born because no matter how many brothers and sisters she has, she’s the oldest and she’ll be Queen someday. But I must be honest.”
“What about?” Choji was uncertain what he was about to be told.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect because I only know of Konoha from all the stories I’ve heard from my family who came here years and years ago.”
“So how did you feel?”
“I was nervous, you see. All the strangers. But everyone was so kind when we rode in. You can’t imagine how happy it made me seeing your children waving at us and people were smiling and…It was nice. It was nice of all of you to make us feel welcome. I heard a few people call to Michael that he resembled Papa and I thought it was awfully sweet of them. My parents told me it’d be this way.”
“Oh, well, it was nothing.”
“Nothing?! Oh no, Choji. It meant a lot to us – to Kathryn, Michael, Harry and me. Then I looked into the crowd and I saw you and…Well, I’m glad you made it.”
“So am I, Your Ladyship.”
Groaning, Tessa rolled her eyes. “You’re not back to that again, are you?” she teased. “I told you. Call me Tessa.”
“My Lady!” They were greeted by one of the servers. “How may I help you?”
Tessa cocked her head. “Hmm…I think I’ll try the grilled chicken and the brisket with a little of the cole slaw. Oh! Some pickles and whatever else you think would go with that.” She leaned towards Choji and softly said, “I can always get more. Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach.”
“And you sir?”
“Huh?” Choji realized he was being spoken to during his analysis of the contents of each dish and bowl. He didn’t know where to start because most of it was foreign to what he knew. “Oh, I’m…I don’t…” This was the first time in his life he had been at a loss for words when it came to food.
“My friend,” Tessa suddenly said, “will have some of the ribs, a turkey drumstick, oh and some smoked brisket. Do you like salmon, Choji? It was caught fresh and frozen for the journey, but it’s still excellent.”
“He’ll have a piece of salmon too. I really think we might need a couple of trays to hold everything because he’s going to want sides along with that. And don’t be stingy.” Smiling up at him she added, “He wants a hearty sampling of all our Briton fare.”
Choji emitted a delighted sigh and answered, “What she said.”
A few minutes later, they were sitting on one of the picnic blankets made available for those wishing the full outdoors experience.
Tessa dabbed a napkin to her lips, looking over to where Choji had cleaned the drumstick of all its’ dark meat and was now biting off a slice of brisket, doing his best to keep the juices from dripping on him. “So Choji Akimichi…”
Choji stopped in mid-action, put down his chopsticks and smiled at her. She resembled a dream, the layers of her dress spread out around her like a cloud, although the draping revealed a pretty pair of stockinged legs. Shaking himself back to reality he responded, “Yes, Tessa?”
“Tell me about yourself. Are you a Ninja? If so, what rank are you? Genin? Chunin?”
“You know about that? Our rankings?”
“Of course I do. Good Lord. I’ve been hearing about Ninjas my whole life. I’ve heard about Ninjas as often as I did hobbits and elves and dwarves and wizards and…” On seeing his puzzlement, she paused, shaking her head in amazement. “Choji! You’ve never heard of hobbits?”
“I don’t think we’ve ever run into them before. Who are they?”
“Oh!” She didn’t tease him at not recognizing the fictional characters, but instead, her eyes widened and without realizing, she excitedly shook his hands. “Oh, Choji, you don’t know what you’ve missed! They’re these little…” Somewhat embarrassed at getting carried away, Tessa let go. She needed to be calmer, like Kathryn, but sometimes the Marshall passion was too overwhelming in all of them. Pushing back the bowler hat from where it had slid over her forehead, she took a deep breath. “You know what? It can wait. It’s not important right now. But I’d love to tell you someday, if you think you’d be interested.”
“Well, I like hearing about other people. Sure, Tessa. Sounds like it might be fun.”
“Great. And you’re right. It will be. I think you’ll enjoy hearing about them. And it’s funny, but Ninjas in training sort of remind me of this series of books with these make-believe wizards that attend this school and…” She shook her head again. “I’m rambling. Sorry. I tend to do that.”
He looked understanding. “When you’re nervous?”
“When I’m…Yes. Sometimes. Kathryn’s the same although you’d never know it. Now. Ninjas. I keep getting side-tracked.”
“You said you’ve heard about Ninjas?” He went back to eating.
“Right, yes.” She motioned with her hands, causing her to laugh while Choji watched, wondering what she was attempting to do. It wasn’t long before he, too, chuckled. “Hand signs or something, am I right?”
“Or something? Yeah, I guess you can say that. Sorry, I laughed.” He hoped she didn’t take offense, but Tessa was laughing harder, placing her hands over her face.
“I know I must have looked idiotic doing all that.” She flailed her hands again. “Anyway, you know what I mean.”
“Sure I did.” Another bite finished up the brisket and he began to munch on a selection of salads Tessa had suggested. “These are good.”
“I told you you’d like them.”
“I’m a chunin. Haven’t been one for that long though. Shikamaru and Ino – we all made it together.”
“Well, congratulations then.”
“Thanks. They’re part of my team.”
“We’ve all been together for years.”
“That’s nice. So you know how one another works then?”
He tried not to laugh as he thought of his numerous adventures with his teammates. “I guess we do.”
“That’s very important for teamwork. You need to have a flow to it all or it falls apart.”
“Shikamaru and I do for sure. We were friends long before we were genin.”
“Really?” she asked, layering her brisket between a small ciabatta bun so as to make a sandwich.
“Yep. I even remember the day we became friends. My dad was with us. I had some chips.”
“Chips, chips. Oh! You must mean crisps.”
“Is that what you call them – crisps?”
“Mm-hmm. We call chips Gaulish Fries.”
“In fact, they should have some up there with the other sides. When we go back, we’ll have to get some. I’m sorry though. You said you and Shikamaru became friends…”
“Oh, we became friends over a bag of chips.” He looked upwards and then back at Tessa, noting an expression of wonderment on her face as if she was imagining that moment. “We watched the clouds and ate chips. It was a good day.”
“I’ll bet! And that must make him a very special friend then.”
“Yeah, he sure is.”
“He seemed nice. Mistress Ino too. Mmm. I saw you all together. At the parade, I should say. I’m guessing you were with your families. I saw the one gentleman near you, and I figured that must be your father because you resemble.”
Choji nodded. “That was him, yeah. You noticed that much, huh?”
“I have to,” she proudly told him. “You have to be vigilant and study things, even when something catches your eye. My parents and teachers taught me that. And you can’t afford distractions or you’ll miss the mark. I’m an archer, so that’s key. I’m still kicking myself for slowing my horse,” she grumbled.
Choji almost said he saw her do that, but knew the admission would make Tessa scold herself more. “You slowed your horse?”
“You didn’t catch it? Michael, Harry and Kathryn said nobody noticed or cared, but it’s not like me, so if you didn’t see it, then good. Perhaps no one else did either.”
Lowering his head, Choji softly said, “So…I’m…I’m guessing something caught your eye, huh?”
Tessa shrugged, taking up a forkful of salad. “Yes, I suppose it did.” Her voice had grown softer.
Another bite. He looked thoughtful as he chewed, and on swallowing asked, “Tessa?”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you wave at me?”
“Why did I…?” She stared at him, shocked at what she had heard. “You mean you don’t know?”
“I…No,” he squeaked. “Should I?”
Putting aside the plate and utensils, Tessa gave Choji a steady gaze, deciding whether she should do what was on her mind. She recalled her observations of Kathryn’s steadiness whenever the older sibling experienced a romance, admiring her sister’s temperament and wishing to emulate it. But she often wondered how Kathryn had such control when she fell in love, to be romantic and yet composed. Because Tessa’s heart was beating with uncontrolled desire, pumping so loud she feared Choji would hear it. This was happening quicker than the younger Marshall expected, but she couldn’t help it.
Her fingers stroked one side of his red hair. “Because you are quite possibly one of the most handsome boys I’ve ever seen.”
“Huh? What did you…?” His chest rose and fell with each quickening breath. Gulping, he hoarsely asked, “What did you say?”
Tessa’s response was to smile, lean forward and kiss him on the cheek. When she looked at him again, a broad smile was on Choji’s lips. Tessa settled back, took up her plate and said, “Now, tell me more about yourself, Choji.”
“And there he is.” Michael nodded in the direction his sister should look, and Kathryn moved so she could observe without bringing overt attention to herself. “Do you see him?”
“Yes.” A small group comprised of an older man, two younger ones, and a young woman stood near a table laden with decorative fresh fruit displays. They were in the middle of an animated conversation as they laughed, pointed, and stretched their necks to better see. “He resembles Lady Hinata and Lady Hanabi, doesn’t he?” In fact, she was amazed at how similar in appearance the Hyuga clan was, no matter how close or distant their relationships.
“It’s those eyes. Makes them all distinctive, along with the facial features. So…what do you think?” Michael smiled as Kathryn shrugged, pleased that otherwise, she offered no objection to the individual she was seeing.
“He’s…not unattractive. The rumors got something right for a change.”
“Will you meet him then?” he asked, keeping the eagerness out of his voice. The way Kathryn was situated, Michael could see over her shoulders. This meant he had an excellent view of the Earl of Derby and several more among the Briton peerage making odd facial expressions at him, attempting to ascertain the Captain’s reaction based on what they saw of Michael’s.
Kathryn, meantime, rolled her eyes, sighing. “Do I have a choice?”
“Of course you do.”
“Of course I do,” she muttered, performing a dumbed-down impression of her brother. “Sorry,” but Michael was laughing. “So other than Might Guy and Master Hyuga, who are the others?” She had met Guy and his fellow Jonin, Kakashi Hatake, when they came to Briton to finalize the agreement with Queen Elizabeth.
“The young lady is called Tenten,” Michael recited from his memory of the reports, “and the other young man is…”
“His son? Might Guy’s son?”
“No?” Kathryn shook her head, astonished. How was it possible two individuals were unrelated and resembled one another that much? “You’re certain?”
“That’s what I was informed. His name is Rock Lee and he, Mistress Tenten and Neji Hyuga have been students with Might Guy for years.”
“Incredible. I mean, they…could they not be father and son?”
Michael chuckled. “Oh I agree, but our sources claim they share no common bloodline.” He bent closer to his sister. “Seems their common bond are those eyebrows.”
Kathryn winced. “Michael! That’s awful. Neither can help how they look.”
He regretted the comment the moment he uttered it. Had one of the officers under his command said anything similar, Michael knew he would have dressed them down as being rude and unprofessional. And here he was breaking his own code. “You’re right…of course you’re right. We both have heard Might Guy is a powerful warrior. I should show him more respect than I just gave him. And I know nothing of the boy to tease him that way. So, are you ready?”
“Ready?” It was as though she had forgotten ‘Operation Hyuga’, but reality returned and her eyes grew despondent. “Oh yes, ready. Yes, of course. Time to throw me into the lion’s den.” Kathryn linked arms with Michael, and together they approached the four as Guy was speaking to his pupils.
“And it was right then that they…Captain Marshall!” Upon seeing the siblings, he stopped his talk and struck a regal pose as he bowed to the pair. “Lieutenant Marshall!”
“Sir, it’s an honor to make your acquaintance again,” Michael said, shaking the Jonin’s hand. It was his way of apologizing for his earlier attempt at humor.
Kathryn made a curtsey. “Might Guy, it is good to see you again, although I was uncertain if you would remember me. I was one of so many when you visited us.”
While Guy smiled, his students glanced at one another, amazed that their teacher managed such control over his emotions when before, each mention of the Britons brought him to the brink of tears. “Of course I would remember you, My Lady. Although you and your brother were part of the Queen’s security detail, you could not have shown strangers a greater kindness than you did while Kakashi and I were there.”
Michael answered, “Well, it’s good to see you under more informal circumstances, and you are most welcome here.” And now we wait to see who makes the first move as far as the additional introductions. “I hope you’re all having a good time. It’s just a tiny way of showing our own appreciation. We have heard of Konohagakure all our lives. It’s wonderful to see it at last.”
Guy beamed at the words. “We are happy to welcome you and your people. It has been too long. Oh My Lady, Lieutenant. I beg your pardon: these are my students. This is Neji Hyuga.”
It begins. Kathryn gave a slight curtsey, her focus never once leaving Neji’s face as she analyzed his pale features in closer detail. He, too, studied her with those amazing lavender eyes and she wondered So is this part of the Byakugan? Is this what he does to his foes – draws them in with his eyes until they are helpless? We’re not altogether certain what this Byakugan is or what it does. All I know is if I continue to look at him this way, if I don’t take care, I shall lose myself before I realize it. “Master Hyuga,” she said, breaking the silence and whatever spell he might have woven.
“Le capitaine Marshall,” he greeted, and taking her right hand in his, he bowed, then kissed the back of it. “Je suis très heureux de vous rencontrer.” (‘Captain Marshall, I’m very pleased to meet you’).
Kathryn did not reveal her shock. How did he know? The Gaulish tongue had been beloved by her since childhood; she was as fluent in it as she was Japanese and her own native Briton. Did he assume that with her being part of the Royal court, she would be familiar with what was considered an international language, a language of the diplomatic community and ‘polite’ society? Or had he somehow learned of her personal fondness for it and decided to use it to his advantage? Whichever the case, her heart skipped a beat.
Recovering she replied, “Il est un plaisir de vous rencontrer ainsi (‘It is a pleasure to meet you as well’),” glimpsing Michael’s smug smile, as well as the stunned expressions on the faces of Neji’s teacher and friends.
Releasing her hand, Neji broke eye contact with Kathryn. “Captain, Lieutenant…since you are already acquainted with Guy-Sensei, may I introduce you to my fellow teammates? This is Tenten.”
The two women nodded their heads in greeting, but Tenten was surprised when Kathryn shook her hand, then followed it with a warm embrace. “It’s very good to meet you, Mistress Tenten.”
“Oh…likewise, Lady Kathryn.” She had seen the Briton females welcome the female guests this way, so she guessed it was a custom.
“And I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I love your outfit. It’s gorgeous.”
Tenten blushed. “Thank you so much, My Lady. And if you don’t mind me saying, I love yours too.”
“Why thank you, Mistress Tenten. That’s very kind of you.”
Tenten watched how the Britons of both genders dressed, finding it both intricate and elegant as these were fashions never before seen in the Hidden Leaf Village or her limited travels. She wondered if she could pull off such a look. The long, black military cut jacket with vertical buttons along both sides; a silken black dress underneath a white striped tunic which fell just above the hem of the flared skirt. The outwardly worn black corset cinched the entire outfit. Even the elaborate pearl necklaces and silver chains served as the perfect accessories and did not feel overdone. Tenten could see white cuffs and gloves – lacy and intricate – with all types of jewels and links. And that footwear! She felt she might surrender all of a mission’s pay to own a pair of those sexy mid-calf black boots with the lace and translucent fabric. She wasn’t sure when she would ever wear them, but pulling them out of a closet once in awhile and slinking around her home, just to feel so feminine – oh, it would be worth it!
Once. I’d love to try that look just once. Me – with a corset over top of my clothes. It would set the Leaf Village tongues wagging, that’s for sure. I can see it now!
Her attention focused on Lady Kathryn’s brother.
“And it’s nice to meet you too, Lieutenant,” Tenten told Michael, praying her knees were not knocking together as she imagined, but she was caught off-guard. At first glimpse, Michael’s eyes were a soothing pale, field grass green. The moment Tenten greeted him, his eyes transfigured into a smoldering dark blue. What in the…? What did he just do?
“My pleasure, Mistress Tenten.” As Neji had with Kathryn, the Marshall brother gave the pretty chunin a kiss on the hand.
If I drop dead this second, I’ll go a happy woman, Tenten thought, hoping she could remain cool and collected despite her body reacting in ways she would rather not think about in mixed company.
Neji motioned towards the final member of their group. “And My Lady, My Lord, this is my other teammate – Rock Lee.”
With perfect poise, Lee stiffly bowed from the waist while saying “It is an honor to meet you, Lady Kathryn”. There was no way he would attempt the hand kissing without having rehearsed it to perfection (Kissing my own hand I suppose). Considering he had been ignorant of the action before today, he knew he would never carry it off with the suaveness the Briton and Neji possessed. He was still attempting to comprehend that language Neji and the Captain exchanged, deciding it was another of those mysterious things in which ‘born geniuses’ and royalty excelled.
“Master Lee, it is nice to meet you too.” She returned his bow with a curtsey.
Lee was thankful he was not distracted when she responded, so he could offer a polite smile as he bowed to her a second time. The last thing he needed was to look a fool in front of these visitors. He was already concerned he might have gawked as Captain Marshall went through the introductions with the others.
With a short distance separating them, he was able to see she was as pretty as he suspected when she presented herself to Lady Tsunade during the parade. His innate curiosity caused him to observe her closer, as he did when he met anyone for the first time. But one thing Might Guy stressed: never let a subject know they were being studied. Lee feared he might have made an error ‘worthy’ of a beginner. The idea that the Captain would turn to find some black-eyed chunin glaring at her as though he had lost his mind – that would be an embarrassment which would spread like wildfire through the Briton compound and the Village.
Rock Lee – forever labeled the complete and utter dweeb.
But he realized the lovely Captain smiled back at him. One glance further gave proof his actions had been successful. Guy-Sensei was smiling, then winked in lieu of his familiar thumbs up; Tenten was smiling and not rolling her eyes or shaking her head; even Neji was smiling instead of looking appalled.
Just one more to go. You can do this. Lee continued his good manners, bowing towards Michael. “And Lieutenant Marshall, it is a great pleasure having you and your family as well as your people here in our Village. Guy-Sensei has been telling us many wonderful stories about the last time the Games were held.”
“Master Lee – as my sisters and our brother will tell you, this is a dream come true for us as we have heard the stories as well. Thank you for your kind words.”
With a closer view, Michael wondered whether their intelligence had botched the research regarding this boy and Might Guy not being son and father. The resemblance was extraordinary. I apologized to Kathryn for what I said earlier, but those eyebrows and that hair. Amazing. If they aren’t related, God help young Master Lee. I’m afraid his hero’s physical attributes and wardrobe selection are not ones he should emulate.
However, the curiosity about a Jonin and his student needed to wait for Kathryn, of her own accord, stepped over to Neji Hyuga.
Kathryn! You did it! I won’t celebrate just yet, but thank the Creator!
Michael looked towards a small gathering consisting of a few members of the peerage and the Hyugas who carried the most authority in the clan. Their heads were together; there was a good deal of nodding accompanying their self-satisfied expressions. He sighed. He was not happy with his coercion of his sibling; he had the disgusting feeling of selling her to the highest bidder. But it was best she and Neji meet and see how matters progressed, than for her to refuse without any attempt at compromise. The Queen would credit her cousin for trying, and that might alleviate Kathryn being placed under such pressure in the future should Operation Hyuga fail.
“Would you care to dance, Lady Kathryn? I think I may know this one.”
Michael was thrilled when Neji asked and was even more pleased when Kathryn agreed. The couple excused themselves to those in their company, and the Lieutenant smiled as his sister was escorted onto the floor at the center of the tent so she and Neji could join a group beginning the ancient Allemande. That’s a perfect dance for them – elegant, stately, and the steps will give them some very nice, close contact. Wonderful Neji Hyuga. You may not realize you did so, but dancing is one of the ways to my sister’s heart.
He prepared to excuse himself, but instead paused in what he was about to say. He would be an idiot, he thought, to let this pass. After all, he did find her attractive. Therefore, he clicked the heels of his black boots and asked, “With your permission Might Guy. May I have the pleasure of this dance, Mistress Tenten?”
Tenten caught herself before she gasped and squealed. “I…” She almost said she did not know the dance, but stopped. If Neji could do it then so could she. She had always been a fast learner. “I’d love to, Lieutenant, thank you.” She permitted him to take her left hand, and as Michael led her away, she looked back at Guy and Lee. Two words were silently but excitedly mouthed before she disappeared in the crowd.
Lee shook his head. “Guy-Sensei, did Tenten say…”
“‘He’s gorgeous,’” Guy repeated back. What had he said about his students growing up?
“‘He’s gorgeous’.” Lee repeated the comment as well, shifting to have a better view of the dance floor. He saw Tenten smiling up into the Lieutenant’s face, laughing as he guided her through the various handholds. But Tenten has always had excellent tastes. I cannot blame her for wanting to dance with him. He also observed Neji capably performing all the complicated twists and turns involved as Kathryn followed his lead.
Once he heard Might Guy step beside him, Lee said, “Tenten looks like a princess, does she not, Sensei?”
“Well, that’s what happens when you grow up with someone, Lee. You turn around and they don’t even seem like they’re the same person. It’s hard enough for you, Neji and Tenten having that realization. Think how it is to me as your teacher. Makes me feel…old.”
Lee smiled, his focus shifting to Neji and Kathryn Marshall. All around he heard whispers of how perfect the couple looked, comments he ignored as he returned his attention to Guy. “You will never grow old, Sensei. Do you not say that age is a number?”
Guy chuckled. “Glad you’re still paying attention when I give you advice. But yes, remember that when you’re a Jonin with students of your own, Lee – the Power of Youth. That is what will keep you young! That is why age will always be a number!”
“I will remember, sir.” Although that seems so far in the future. Me – a Jonin. But that is something more to aim for. Guy-Sensei has assured me I can do anything once my mind is set, and he has never steered me wrong.
Those thoughts evaporated when the dance concluded, for neither Tenten, Neji or their partners were leaving the floor as another dance began. And this one, Lee perceived, sighing, put each couple in even closer contact as they swirled around the floor.
“It’s called a waltz,” Guy announced.
“A waltz,” the young man whispered, observing one of Neji’s arms around the Captain’s small waist. One hand rested in the crook of her back, while his left hand clasped her free right one. After all these years, Neji remained full of surprises, and this evening, one after another was revealed until Lee felt as awkward as he once did at the Academy.
“Many of the adults learned it when the Britons were last here. I tried it too, even as a boy, but it’s a bit slow for my liking. The ladies, however, love it.” Guy’s voice lowered. “And that’s often the thing that matters most in a man’s life, making sure that his lady is pleased.”
“Yes Sensei…Tenten appears to have caught onto this waltz.” His teammate was animated as she gazed at Michael Marshall, and Lee wondered Is this how a woman looks when a handsome man is courting her?
Captain Marshall wore a similar expression to Tenten’s, and Lee thought her conversation appeared excited, involved. There were times when she nodded her head as she considered something being said, or a pretty smile crossed her lips. Neji kept her humored, for on occasion she laughed at whatever he said.
“You would think they had known each other their entire lives,” Lee mumbled, unaware Guy heard him.
“Who do you mean? Tenten and Lieutenant Marshall?”
“I…Yes.” Then he added, “and Neji and Captain Marshall too.”
“Well, some people tend to hit it off pretty quick, and others…” Guy paused, knowing his student might feel a tad dejected. After all, Lee was the single one of the three pupils not on the dance floor. Guy patted Lee’s back. “Don’t you worry, my boy. The evening’s young.”
“Right now,” he confided, wrapping an arm around Lee’s shoulders, “this tent is full of dozens of some of the loveliest women the gods have put on this Earth. And not just lovely, Lee, but smart and courageous and talented on top of it, just like Captain Marshall. And as the evening goes on, before you know it, others like them will be walking over from the other tents so there’ll be dozens more on top of the ones you’re seeing. You couldn’t ask for a better chance to meet someone who would enjoy your company. Give it time. Do you hear me?”
Lee smiled and nodded, his confidence rising. “Yes sir! I will remember that, sir!”
‘…In everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way.
I’ll find you in the morning sun,
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon –
But I’ll be seeing you.’
The onlookers swayed in time, danced, sang along, even shed tears to the slow piece, and when the ebony-complexioned soprano crooned the final line, the song ended to rousing applause. It served as a welcome change from the fast rhythms of the last several selections, in addition to evoking memories of the last major Briton war, but it was time to switch the pace again. After sipping some water, the singer told them, “Thank you so much ladies and gentlemen, thank you. You’ve been awfully kind this evening.
“I realize it’s still early, but as we have so many wonderful guests from the Leaf Village among us, we thought this would be an excellent time to announce one of our Briton traditions, one many of you may recall from twenty or more years ago.” Some cheered, already prepared for what she would say. “Now that was well before my time, but it’s always a treat to announce our classic…Lady’s Choice!”
The sound of adrenalized female chatter grew louder, but Sakura, Tenten, Ino and Hinata looked around, hoping for some clarification as the announcer continued.
“Lady’s Choice everyone. We’ll begin the dance in a little so you’ll have time to…prepare.” She winked as she came down off the stage, her eyes scanning the room for her own ‘choice’.
“Okay, nobody told us about this,” Sakura complained, watching as several female officers hurried pass, their footfall light, each with determined expressions as they pointed towards a few of the Village males. “What’s this Lady’s Choice?”
Ino already looked angry. “Yeah, if I get left out, I’m not going to be happy. I know I don’t know what it is, but I still won’t be happy.”
“Excuse me. You’re wondering about the Lady’s Choice?”
The four found Tessa Marshall in front of them, her porcelain features glowing with anticipation as she sought out her intended target.
Sakura nodded. “Lady Tessa, well, yes, thank you, but no, we don’t know what it is. No one explained it to us.”
“Oh it’s wonderful! You’ll love it, trust me. You get to choose your dance partner from among any of the available males, and I do mean any of the males and they cannot deny you. You walk up to them and say something like ‘I want to dance with you – Lady’s Choice’ and there you go. It’s sort of silly in an old-fashioned way, but we’ve been doing it forever and a…” The sentence trailed off.
Choji and Shikamaru walked close-by, the pair moving as if they had a mission to accomplish. She and Choji became separated after a short time together due to Tessa having to fulfill her duties as a hostess, so she was thrilled to see him again. They did promise to meet up later, therefore the opportunity could not have timed out better.
“…forever and a…I’m sorry. Will you excuse me please?” She hurried off behind the two friends, attempting to maintain her composure.
Ino grinned. “She has a thing for Choji.”
Sakura shook her head. “Don’t you mean she has a thing for…”
“I mean she has a thing for Choji. She rode past him during the parade and she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Both Shikamaru and I noticed. Must like big guys I guess. Who would have thought that, huh? He’s flabbergasted. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted.” So much for her well-intended advice about him losing weight to get a girlfriend. If Lady Tessa was interested in him, no amount of harassment on Ino’s part would help.
Hinata’s voice was so tiny, Tenten barely heard her over the din. “What is it Hinata?”
“She said…Lady Tessa said I can choose…anyone?”
Tenten smiled, knowing where this conversation was leading. “Yep…anyone,” and she winked while backing up. She did not wish to be rude, but she knew this game could get dangerously competitive should she not get a head start on Ino and Sakura and anyone else insane enough to get in her way. “Good luck, Hinata,” and she rushed away.
“Oh,” came a shy whimper, and Hinata stood tiptoe and saw him. It’s now or never, Hinata. He won’t be able to say no and she sprinted towards him.
As word spread among the Village and Briton females, the excitement increased. Matters were not hysterical, but some accepted the challenge with the type of intense passion Might Guy could appreciate. Before long, the males of almost every age understood the predicament of a deer or duck during the hunting season. They were under the scope, the aim had been made, and the best thing to do was to either accept their fate – or find a place to hide. Most, however, were delighted to find themselves getting so much attention.
Tessa was already teaching Choji a few steps as she knew what the traditional dance would be. Sakura threw away all caution, and snagged Michael Marshall just as Ino was making her move.
Undaunted, Ino was about to ask Harry Marshall…but it appeared Tenten already had the upper hand. Ino growled. Wasn’t it enough that Tenten had ‘stolen’ that outfit from her? Was it not enough that Tenten had danced several dances with Lord Michael, and now she was ‘stealing’ the brother as well? Then Ino caught sight of a tall, dashing, brown-skinned brunette wearing one of those odd hats with gears and a near floor-length brown uniform coat which fit his body like a second skin. The brass on his waistcoat and belt sparkled like stars, and she realized as third choices went, he would not be all bad.
Not for the first time did she wonder what they put in the Briton waters to create such men!
Off in one area, Kakashi was surrounded on all sides, and desperately seeking an escape route. One voluptuous ensign declared she and her fellow noncommissioned officers would play rock-paper-scissors for the opportunity to dance with him as they heard “it’s your all-time favorite game.”
Rock-paper…Come on…really? REALLY?! Who the hell would come up with something like…Wait…where’s Guy?
And off in another area, his back against a vertical support of the tent frame, Rock Lee watched, realistic as to his prospects.
Several lovely Britons smiled and nodded at him in acknowledgment, but none stopped. Had he still held those deeper feelings and fantasies from years ago, he would have imagined Sakura rushing his way to make an offer. Were she not having such a splendid time with the Marshall men, Tenten might have come over, scolded him for being ‘silly’ and then asked. Were these not favorable circumstances and the chance to corner the yellow-haired genin of her dreams, sweet Hinata might have asked. She had always been very kind to Lee, as he always had been to her.
Before the ‘Lady’s Choice’ was announced, he gathered enough courage to ask a couple of the ladies to dance, his motto being “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Each one found a polite excuse as to why they could not, then he watched them stroll off with some male most considered ‘more attractive’. On his final attempt, as he walked away following the rejection, he heard the corporal laugh and say to her friends, “Was he kidding? Oh my God, those eyebrows! Do you think they’re real?!” Lee took it all in stride, as he had most of his life. Later, he decided it was best to observe rather than participate.
The excruciating minutes gave him time to face facts. When the likes of Kakashi Hatake, or Neji Hyuga, or Shikamaru Nara were in a room with you, the ladies tended to select masked and mysterious; aloof and suave with mysterious eyes, or ‘I’m bored out of my mind and you find that attractive – what a drag.’ Because that was how things tended to work out, no matter how much one believed in themselves.
It is not that I have not had a nice time tonight. It has been quite an experience seeing how the Britons behave, and Guy-Sensei was correct. They are great lovers of life. It is just…I may be somewhat out of my element here, and at this moment even more so. It has been well over an hour, and there may be dozens of Briton ladies here and I know I have not met them all, but…I think my best course of action is to walk outside, regroup and wait until this Lady’s Choice dance has ended. I will not be missed at any rate, although Guy-Sensei will be disappointed in…
Lee turned at the sound of the clear, soft voice, blinking as he faced the smiling figure before him. “Lady Kathryn,” he gulped. “Good evening. Good evening again.” He wondered why she looked different from earlier, then saw that her coat had been removed, better revealing the attractive ensemble underneath.
“Good evening again, Master Lee.” She took several more steps, and due to the heels of her boots, she was eye-to-eye with his five-foot-six height. “I’m sorry. Are you already leaving us?” Her eyes shifted to where a portion of the tent flap was in his hands.
“Leaving?” The canvas was dropped. “No, I…I was thinking about stepping outside for some air, but I…” He paused before he said something which made him appear awkward and decided to repeat more firmly, “I was thinking about stepping outside for some air, My Lady.”
Kathryn looked disappointed. “Oh. Sorry. It was only that I wanted to ask you to join me in the next dance.”
“I…I beg your pardon?”
He prayed he was not gaping, but he must have misunderstood. This was a joke. It had to be. There was no other explanation. For a second, a short list of candidates who put her up to this farce went through his thoughts, from the impolite corporal to some former Academy classmate, concealed and waiting until Lee fell for it and became the brunt of the joke. That idea faded on seeing the Captain’s expression. He detected a natural warm-heartedness overcoming whatever dismay she displayed at his initial answer. Besides, she did not seem the type to go along with such a poor practical joke.
“The next dance?” she stressed, indicating those milling around. “I want you to join me. It is Lady’s Choice if you did not hear the announcement. I don’t believe I’ve seen you on the dance floor yet this evening, which is such a shame as you’re missing half the fun of being here.”
After all the failed attempts at getting a young woman to share a dance, here was an offer the majority of males at the Party would sacrifice the proverbial arm and leg to experience. Lee, however, felt overwhelmed. He accepted the reality of it, but the idea that this gentlewoman with a list of titles longer than his arm was asking him…While it felt out of character, his confidence, his courage, and his nerves were failing under the pressure of such attention. This time his mind went through a host of excuses as he contemplated how observant she was to know what he had and had not been doing.
“I am sorry, My Lady,” he replied following a brief silence.
“Is something wrong, Master Lee? Are you unwell? I can fetch one of our medics if…” Despite the calm of her questions, the Captain appeared anxious.
“No, I…I am not…Yes, yes, I…I am sorry. You see…I do not dance, Your Ladyship.” At least that sounded plausible, although on seeing her half-smile, he wondered if he convinced her.
“Ah, well.” She glanced aside, then looked at him once more, shaking her head. “No. I shall not take ‘I do not dance’ as a justification. This is a party! I’ll lead. You shall follow my steps. It’s as simple as that. And since this is our traditional dance, and the lady chooses her partner and there can be no refusal, well, you do not have a choice!” She boldly thrust out a hand for him to accept. Although she exhibited a serious countenance, there was an unmistakable gleam in her eyes. “Lady’s Choice, Master Lee!”
She spoke with such authority Lee found it impossible to find another excuse or lie – he had never been a good liar at any rate. Besides, he did not want to be the source of some ‘international incident’ should he continue to refuse. He placed one hand on hers, then saw her smile widen as a tug forced him from the spot which had served as his temporary safe place. He realized he was smiling, too, at the way she handled the situation: ladylike but with a touch of no-nonsense as well. He respected that.
But one thing he did not like were the many eyes concentrating on the Queen’s ‘beloved kinswoman’…and him! To be center stage as a participant in exams and exhibitions was one thing. To be the center of attention at an event with the majority of the Leaf Village in attendance was another.
He tried to ignore the whispers from the more judgmental Villagers – few in number, but vocal nonetheless. (‘Isn’t that Dork Lee?’ ‘Of course, it’s him. Who did you think it was?’ ‘He hasn’t improved one bit, has he?’ ‘The older he gets the uglier.’ ‘Why is she dancing with him?’ ‘I thought she and Neji Hyuga looked beautiful together.’ ‘Still as stupid looking as ever, isn’t he?’ ‘Doesn’t she know those eyebrows are lethal weapons?’).
He ignored the faces of his fellow genin and chunin. Although some looked surprised on seeing the pairing, others had no feelings one way or the other as they found themselves escorted or figuratively dragged onto the oak parquet floor.
Naruto grinned as he walked by, Hinata Hyuga at his side. “Hey Bushy Brow, so you got grabbed up too, huh? They’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer this time, are they?”
Lee smiled, but the action was not on Naruto’s behalf. Good for you, Hinata. Good for you. I am happy to see you accepted this challenge. Perhaps this was the opening you required to show Naruto how you feel if he would stop being so stupid.
All around him, male chunin, male Jonin, male genin, male Britons and just regular males were snatched up, making Lee feel less self-conscious about being on display. Several groups formed on the floor in order to keep the lines of dancers from becoming unmaneuverable. By the time this dance began, he hoped to blend into the crowd and become one out of dozens.
“I know you don’t normally dance like this in the Leaf Village, but my parents said this became quite popular with everyone when they visited.”
Although speaking to him, Kathryn had stopped, forcing an embarrassed Lee to backtrack several steps since he continued moving before realizing his error. “Did it, My Lady?” That was all that came to mind while he searched the Briton’s face for indications of regret at selecting him. He saw none.
“I am thinking you have never danced a reel before, but oh that is right. You do not dance. That is what you told me.”
Lee recognized Kathryn’s near perfect imitation of his voice, including his inflections and how he never used contractions. Had it been anyone else, he would have thought they were mocking him, but she continued to smile in the hopes of putting him at ease. It succeeded in making him more bashful than usual. “No, My Lady,” he stammered. “I mean I can, but I do not…what I meant is yes, that is what I told you, and no, I…I cannot dance.” Her eyes are violet and gray. I noticed them when we were introduced. I do not think I have ever seen eyes that color before…and why am I thinking of that now?
“I thought as a Ninja,” her voice returning to normal, “you would learn to be light on your feet. Excuse me…one…moment.” Kathryn placed her hands on his arms. “If you don’t mind, can you…stand right…there. Perfect. Thank you.” She positioned herself a few feet in front of him.
His eyes shifted to his toes. And she has you there. What has Guy-Sensei told you about always thinking hundreds of moves ahead of your opponent in order to set things to your advantage. Not that she is an opponent, but I should have better prepared my answers. I had no idea she would find similarities between dancing and learning the moves of a Ninja. “I might dance…a little, My Lady.”
“Ah! Well, that will make it easier then, won’t it?” She took both of his hands. “Just relax, Master Lee. We’re dancing. It’s supposed to be fun, and I promise, I’ll lead. You just keep up with me until you get the hang of it, okay?”
‘Supposed to be’ is the operative term, he thought, glancing around to see who was in their grouping. The males had been lined up on one side, the females on the other, and as he scanned the floor, he almost laughed at how eclectic all the groups were. But once more, every sound was drowned out as he heard the voices yet again. Mocking, hurtful, the ones who dragged down what little confidence he had, and it was all coming from the edges of the dance floor. He wondered if he alone heard them, or would everyone in the tent soon join the discussion.
“And then you’ll…Master Lee?”
He snapped out of it. Kathryn was giving instructions and he recalled but a little. “My Lady?”
“Are you alright?” Once more concern tugged at her features. “You’re sure you feel okay?”
“I am…I am sorry, My Lady. Begging your pardon, but I do not think you have chosen a worthy partner for this dance of yours.” But he noticed her eyes reflected not pity, but a kindness and an understanding. In that moment he knew she heard what those Villagers said.
Kathryn motioned with a finger indicating he should lean towards her. “An ancestress of mine had a saying which you should take to heart, Master Lee,” she whispered. “It was this: ‘Let them grumble. This is how it’s going to be.’” She grinned. “Ignore them. They can either enjoy watching us have a good time or they can go to Perdition. Pardon my language, but I can’t abide fools.” She nodded at the stage. “I think we’re about to begin so it’s too late for you to back out. Besides, you’ll be fine.”
Famous last words.
“Just remember,” she hurriedly added, “you’ll take four steps towards me and bow, and I will take four steps towards you and curtsey. We do that simultaneously. Don’t forget. Then you take four paces back to where you started, just as I will, and I’ll take your hands and the real fun begins.”
Famous last words – again.
An announcer said something about the Teyshas reel, which was greeted with loud, vocal anticipation.
Lee noticed the Captain was already tapping a foot as the musicians played the opening. He heard a few Britons emit a reverberating yell resembling a battlefield cry. Kathryn curtseyed all the way to the floor, wiggling her eyebrows to remind him he had an action to perform as well. He bowed, just as he did upon their first introduction; stepped back, then felt her small hands clutch his larger ones, the little links of chains, rings, and bracelets that were part of her odd gloves and cuffs pressing into his tape.
The rest was a momentary blur as it all came together. He heard Kathryn giving directions, her strong voice standing out among all the others. They danced sideways down a column of people in their group. They switched partners and Tenten clasped his hands, vanished, and Kathryn returned, tugging a bit to indicate the couples were to twirl in a circle. Afterward, they moved sideways again, first one direction and then another, and he felt her move his right hand upwards as she linked hers about it.
“Spin!” she called out, and Lee followed her guidance as they spun around each other, then reversed hands to spin the opposite way, before returning to their original positions to begin the entire sequence from the start. But this time, he took the initiative, and his usual optimism kicked in so that Kathryn knew from his action that he felt comfortable enough to lead her.
He lost track of time. All he knew after those first moves was that this reel was one of the easiest things he had ever accomplished, and he laughed to himself on thinking how difficult he tried to make it in the beginning. He did not step on Kathryn’s feet or trip over his own despite the change in tempo and the addition of new steps. He smiled when she let loose with one of those Briton battle cries; laughed as she apologized for getting ‘carried away,’ and next apologized for making the initial apology. Most important, from her actions, there was no remorse over partnering with him.
They were in perfect synchronization, the moves intensifying and becoming faster. He watched her swirl around him as they danced among the numerous other couples. Strands of red-gold hair loosened from her elaborate chignon and fell past her shoulders. Each time she pressed against him, no matter how brief, he smelled her perfume, the chemistry of her body warming and strengthening the notes of roses and citrus and other scents unfamiliar to him. He did not understand how she mastered any dance in those tall, narrow heels. He promised not to stare when he got the occasional glimpse of her slender legs, revealed when the skirt to her knee-length dress rose just a little. And he ignored the subtle tingling through his body whenever their eyes connected, and he smiled in response to her smiles and her laughter.
Lee had never danced like this in his life and was so involved, he did not know the reel was drawing to an end until the Captain pulled away and took four paces back. His sandaled feet almost skidded as he prepared to go another round, but he stopped himself and was once more bowing to her while she curtseyed before him. His fast reflexes saved the day! When the music concluded, the applause and cheers were more intense, while more than a few, Kathryn included, let go with another battlefield cry.
His next action came without a second thought. Kathryn was still in the deep curtsey, but as she prepared to stand to her full height, he extended his right hand and said: “Allow me, My Lady.” She paused in her action, surprised at first, then delighted. Both knew her capable of standing up without assistance, however, this unexpected little act of gallantry felt perfect in the place and at the time!
Lee watched her smile, heard a courteous “Thank you, Master Lee,” and several slender fingers lay against his taped wrist. He took her hand with a gentle grasp to give her leverage, and in an instant, Kathryn was at her full height again.
“Master Lee…answer me this.” Still catching her breath, she pulled a lacy white handkerchief from a dress pocket and began to fan herself.
“Yes, Your Ladyship?”
“I thought you said you couldn’t dance!” she teased.
He chuckled, revealing his perfect white teeth. “I suppose I was incorrect in that.”
“No, no, I was mistaken. It is obvious. I can dance.” The divulgence caused his companion to slap her hands together in celebration.
“Oh, there’s no denying you can, Master Lee!”
“Well,” and he offered a small bow, “thank you very much, My Lady.”
She seemed puzzled. “For?”
“The Lady’s Choice. Thank you for asking me.” And I was ready to wander outside…
The corners of Kathryn’s smile appeared to touch the edges of her flashing eyes. “Oh, you are most welcome. I appreciate you dancing with me. I know I made you feel you had no choice in…”
“Yes, but it worked out, did it not?”
She became pensive. “You had fun then?”
Fun. Fun was the satisfaction of a well-done job; of all his accomplishments to that point and pushing to achieve more. But earlier in the day, when he wondered about these Britons and what their Party might entail, whenever the word ‘fun’ came to mind or was mentioned by Guy-Sensei or Tenten, to Lee it meant new experiences. Swirling around a dance floor with a woman like Kathryn Marshall never entered the equation.
“I had fun, Your Ladyship, I really did,” Lee told her, tickled to see that his answer elated her.
“And so did I! The Teyshas Reel is one of my favorite dances.”
He began to think it could become one of his as well.
Kathryn cleared her throat. “Master Lee?” she continued, her voice gentler than Lee could recall having heard it.
“I wonder, that is, if you have nothing planned at this second, would you like…”
But her face transformed. Her warm smile, the twinkling eyes, her informal nature – it vanished the second they heard one of the nobles call out “Lady Kathryn!” Her demeanor growing rigid, she focused on a small group of Briton officials – and Neji for some reason was among them. She looked back at Lee, gave a partial curtsey and said, “Thank you again for the dance, Master Lee. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”
Before he could say anything, she hurried away, each step graceful and formal, her attention focused on Neji as he nodded his head in greeting. Lee could not hear the conversation, but after a few moments, there was laughter, Kathryn bending her head so as to listen to whatever it was Neji said. Both smiled and strolled away from the group.
“Hello, Tenten.” He smiled as she ran up and patted him on the back.
She was flushed, still breathing hard, and fanning a hand in front of her face. “I saw you out there with Lady Kathryn. You were…Don’t deny it. You were having a great time!”
“I was thinking the same of you,” he replied.
“Oh, you mean me dancing with Lord Harry?”
“And Lord Michael too.”
“Well, they’re, you know they’re…”
“Gorgeous?” He winked, smiling more as she blushed. “You are fortunate it was Guy-Sensei and I reading your lips.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure where that came from. I mean, you know me. How often do I go around spouting off crap like that about…Well, I…It’s just…”
“Tenten, it is I. You do not need to apologize for what you are feeling. You are having a wonderful time. The two of them have shown very good taste in spending time with you. They are the ones who should consider themselves fortunate.”
“Oh, Lee.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, giggling and wetting her thumb to clean the tiny spot of lipstick she had left. “Anyway, how are you doing? Are you having a good time?”
“It has been…nice.”
“Well, I’m glad Lady Kathryn called you out. I had these pictures in my brain of you standing in a corner watching everybody instead of getting out there on the floor. You weren’t doing that, were you? Standing in a corner?”
He shook his head, wondering if Tenten believed his answer.
“She seems nice, doesn’t she?” Tenten asked.
“Her Ladyship? She is, yes,” Lee agreed, glancing at his hands. He noticed a tiny sterling silver loop from one of Kathryn’s jeweled gloves or filigreed cuffs caught on the tape on his right hand. They switched hands so often during the reel, it might have happened at any time, however, he regretted not seeing it before they parted. He could have retrieved it for her so it might be repaired. “She is funny too.” He tucked the portion out of the way. “Did you know she does imitations?”
“No! She does…Who did she imitate? Wait! Did she do you?”
“If you had been here and closed your eyes…”
“Oh, I’m so sorry I missed that! Too bad Guy-Sensei wasn’t around, oh, or Neji! I’d love to hear her do Neji. Or Sensei! If she could peg Sensei I don’t know what I’d think! Hey, are you hungry? I am. I guess all that dancing makes you hungry. I can scout everything out for you.”
“I would appreciate that. Thank you, Tenten. So have you finished dancing with the Marshall brothers?” he asked as they moved towards the dining area. People were again dancing, but others were finding seats, heading outdoors, relaxing or examining the rows of buffet tables.
“Oh…I don’t know. It’s early. Can you believe how early it is?” Tenten did not realize every move she took was as though she was still dancing. “Oh, Guy-Sensei said he was proud of both of us grabbing hold of the springtime of our youth.” She nudged him. “He saw you dancing with Lady Kathryn. He told me to tell you,” and she flashed all of her teeth and gave a hearty thumbs up, “and something about ‘See – what did I tell you?’ I guess you know what that means, huh?”
Lee smiled. “I do, yes…I have not seen Sensei in a while. I was wondering where he had disappeared to.”
“I think he’s been up to no good, so he’s hiding out. He kind came out of nowhere to talk to me, then he up and vanished again. Sakura said Kakashi-Sensei was looking for him too. Something about rock-paper-scissors and some female officers before the Lady’s Choice. I’m not sure what happened, but knowing Guy-Sensei…” She giggled, then paused. “Oh, there’s Neji and Lady Kathryn. I wonder where they’re going?” she pondered, she and Lee watching the couple head outside. “I’ve been hearing…things.”
One of Lee’s eyebrows rose as he scowled. “What kind of things?”
“Oh, you know. Things.”
Lee shook his head. “Tenten, what do you mean by ‘things’?”
Tenten often had a tendency to make matters sound worse than they were. No one forgot the time she told Naruto Lee’s condition was ‘grim – very grim’ when her teammate had been temporarily removed from active duty so his chakra network could better heal. By the time she finished her prognostications, Naruto thought Bushy Brow was dying! Therefore over time, Lee learned to prod Tenten for additional details before he reached any final conclusions.
Her response was a groan, irritated that Lee required more specifics. “Oh Lee, you know. Somebody said this, somebody said that, then someone told someone else, and you figure you’re getting the tiniest bit of the actual story by the time it reaches you. But I heard this from Sakura, who got it from Shino, who got it from Shikamaru, who heard it from Choji, who’s been arm-in-arm with Lady Tessa most of the night, and she ought to know something being Lady Kathryn’s sister. And then Kiba said Hinata told him that with Hanabi being the Hyuga heiress, she heard some rumors too.”
His head was spinning. “So what is being said?”
“That the Briton Queen asked Lady Kathryn to meet Neji. That’s why you’ve seen all the Briton higher-ups mingling with the Hyugas. I think Lord Harry might have been asked to do the same with Hinata, so that’s why he’s been chatting her up, but, well, you know where her heart lies.”
Lee nodded. “Yes.” He paused, considering the information. “So this Queen wants Lady Kathryn to…” and his voice dropped “I am sorry. She wants Lady Kathryn to marry Neji?” What else was he to gather from a Queen asking her subject (albeit a relation) to ‘meet someone’?
“That’s what the rumor mill’s saying, but don’t you dare quote me on that. I don’t even think Neji’s aware of what’s going on, not yet anyway, or maybe he’s beginning to put it together, but they’ve been pushing the two of them at each other all night. That’s a gimme.”
Lee was beginning to dislike these ‘they’ people. “Lady Kathryn does not seem the type to let anyone force her to do things against her will.”
“I agree. Neji might not be thrilled either. He’s very much his own man, even if he has a loyalty to his clan, but it’s like they’re plotting behind his back and Lady Kathryn’s back and the two of them don’t have a lot of say in the matter. But anyway, like I said, it’s all conjecture and speculation and it makes for good gossip. If there’s such a thing as good gossip. But I don’t think we should mention it to Neji unless he brings it up first.”
Tenten examined the elaborate layout of food, asking discrete questions of the servers in order to determine what contained even the smallest amount of alcohol (“Oh – that’s so pretty! Is that prepared in some type of…Oh! Red wine?”), and discovered a number of items safe for Lee to eat. She suggested they try a tempting, foamy white punch being ladled from a large silver bowl, but had the presence of mind to ask what the ingredients were before the waiter gave them a taste – and she cringed upon hearing what accompanied the fresh orange juice. There was sparkling wine from a region in Gaul; white rum from one of the Empire’s islands, and a few other alcohols Tenten lost track of as she thanked the waiter and pulled Lee aside. Eventually, the two settled on water infused with fresh lemons and mint, but only after she double-checked there was nothing more than that!
They found a table in a quiet area of the facility, an ideal spot to observe all the goings-on without appearing to be doing so.
“I guess,” Tenten contemplated out loud as she took a bite of poultry called a Cornish Hen, “it could do a lot as far as alliances and all between Briton and us.”
“What do you…Oh, you mean a marriage. I suppose. I do not know a great deal about marriage playing into diplomacy and politics. Guy-Sensei keeps telling us how crucial it is for us to have a better understanding of foreign affairs, but I do not have a complete grasp of it yet.”
“Same here. We’re fighters, right?” She pointed at her plate. “You have to try this chicken, Lee. It’s great. But you know, I guess on some level, we’re ambassadors and diplomats whenever we take a mission. Lady Kathryn is military; so are her brothers and sister, but look at her. She negotiates and the gods know what else every time she opens her mouth. She’s even supposed to work with our people to iron out the final rules and regulations for the Games.”
Lee nodded. Might Guy had already informed the chunin that one of his upcoming duties would be for him and Neji to stand by and witness those deliberations with their Sensei. It might be tedious, but it was an important part of his training. Being a ninja from the Hidden Leaf Village was not all on the battlefield. There were times when you sat at a table, peered across it at your opponent and played ‘nice’.
Tenten rolled her eyes. “I don’t get it.”
“What do you not get?”
“The last time I looked, we were in the twenty-first century, right? I don’t think she or Neji should have to feel like they’re being auctioned off. I don’t care if royalty or important families have done this arranged stuff forever or not. It just seems kind of old-fashioned in the extreme.”
Lee did not immediately respond, but instead used a fork to pick at the thin slices of roasted suckling pig on his plate. It had been ages since he had used that utensil, so it should have been the renewal of a cultural experience to enjoy as Guy-Sensei would have told him. Instead, a somber air embodied him. He wondered what Kathryn and Neji might be doing. “I agree. It is primitive for this day and age,” and he inhaled, “but of course if they enjoy one another’s company…”
“Well, that would make a huge difference. But enjoying someone’s company, that’s one thing. Feeling love, hey, that’s something else. They haven’t known each other long enough to be in love, but what do I know, huh?” Her laughter sounded ineffective to Lee’s hearing. “Maybe it is. You know…love at first sight, blah-blah-blah.”
“Right.” The thought of his one and only ‘love at first sight’ came to mind. A difficult lesson learned. It was never like the storybooks.
“I know one thing.”
“What is that, Tenten?” The pit of his stomach tightened.
“The two of them make a great looking couple. Everybody’s saying that.”
Why wouldn’t people say it when the physical evidence was obvious. Kathryn Marshall would make a lovely addition to the Hyuga dynasty, permeating a bloodline in which cousins married cousins. Since one day, Neji might become a candidate for Hokage, having a consort with her pedigree and influence could be crucial to the Village remaining a strong force, offering benefits perhaps he and Tenten were not recognizing.
“Aren’t you hungry anymore?” Tenten noticed her teammate had stopped eating. “The hot food’s going to get cold and your cold food’s getting warm.”
He was ‘starving,’ but could not erase the memory of Kathryn’s kindness, along with that startling transformation from an ebullient young woman into someone regal and reserved, all within seconds. “I suppose it is all of these…rumors. I do not like gossiping about Neji, and although we do not know Lady Kathryn that well, I do not like gossiping about her either. Perhaps…we should put it aside until we know more?”
“Sure Lee. You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” She turned aside, faking a cough as a transition. “Here…try this. It’s good” She cut the drumstick from the half piece of hen she was enjoying. Once he had eaten some she said, “See? What did I tell you, huh? And promise you’ll go back with me to the tent with the desserts when we’re done. Not right this minute. There’s still a load of stuff in here I want to check-out.”
“It did look good. All the chocolate.”
“Good? Good?! It looked amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. But if I don’t watch it I’ll gorge myself and won’t be able to move when we’re training tomorrow.”
“Well, whatever you decide on I will split them with you, do not worry. I enjoy chocolate, but you know it is not one of my weaknesses.”
“I know, I know. Unless…” Mischief brewed in her eyes.
“I heard somebody say they have chocolates in there with spices and chilis and peppers.”
Lee’s face glowed. “Spices and chilis?”
“And peppers. Can you imagine that?”
“No, no, I cannot.” Was that even a possibility: one of those little chocolate creations infused or stuffed with perhaps the hottest peppers imaginable? “Alright Tenten. If I can help you in your enjoyment of the Briton chocolates, it will not be a problem.”
“And that is why you’re my very best friend.” Tenten’s grin was so exaggerated, Lee couldn’t help but laugh, for without her realizing it, she improved his mood.
He took another bite of the food she shared with him. “You were right. This is very good. I might have to try some of this when I go back.”
“I told you, didn’t I? And you mean go back for seconds?” When he nodded, Tenten looked relieved. “Thank the gods. I thought I was the only one who was going to get greedy. Their food is – wow! Oh and thanks. About the desserts I mean. I was hoping you’d…” She paused, her attention diverted.
“What is wrong?”
Lee turned, a tiny part of his mind hoping Neji and Kathryn reached an amicable and mutual parting of the ways while talking alone, but no, Neji was holding aside the tent flap as she entered. It was often difficult to tell how his teammate felt when one looked at his face, but the Briton captain was smiling and appeared comfortable in his company as they strolled off in the opposite direction.
Scolding himself for the negativity, Rock Lee almost heaved a frustrated sigh, but stopped, wondering why he would even react in such a manner. One thing, however, was clear. It appeared the rumors might not be rumors after all.
The song I’ll Be Seeing You was published in 1938 – music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal.
to be continued…