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?”
to be continued…