"Unsealing Technique!" Tenten opened her scroll, and out poured forth a steady stream of water into the large cooking pot. "Exploding Dragon Strike!" The charcoals underneath the pot roared into life.
"YAH!" With one rapid series of chopping movements, the meat and vegetables came apart, ready to be added to make stew.
From, above her, she heard a familiar sigh— a sound she least expected to hear in this out worldly setting. She whirled around and found Hyuuga Neji peering through the cellar window where the dirty kitchen was.
N-No way! She repeatedly scrubbed her eyes to make sure they weren't tricking her. It was really her teammate of many years, the prodigious jounin of Konoha.
From where he stood, she knew he could see her from head to toe. And seeing he did, as he took in her rags and soot-covered appearance intently but quietly, until finally, he spoke.
"So this is where you've been since yesterday."
"NEJI!" She rushed towards him, still shaking her head in disbelief. "I-Is this for real?" She scampered to climb over one of the shelves so she could reach the high glass window he was kneeling next to.
"O-Oi, look at where you're stepping. You might fall and hurt yourself."
"Oh, Neji!" She finally reached the topmost panel. Tiptoeing, she reached out and spread her fingers atop the window, not noticing how the thin glass was the only thing separating their hands.
He looked away. "It seems I have made you wait too long. I—"
"... wow, you actually have way more curves in that dress you're wearing than I do!" she exclaimed, pressing her face even more against the window to inspect his hooded blue gown and the big red bow tied under his chin. "Gosh, this is so unfair— uh-oh..." She cowered nervously when she saw the dark aura emanating from him.
His clan's famed Byakugan veins popped all around Neji's face as he irately gripped the sparkling wand on his clenched fists. "Well now, I'm relieved to see you are safe and well enough to conduct couture assessments at this critical point of time, Tenten. I myself do not understand why I am wearing this-"
"CINDERELLA! WHERE'S OUR SUPPER?!" It was unmistakably Drizella's voice, the older of her two stepsisters in this world.
She met his inquisitive pale eyes and shrugged. "That's what they've been calling me all week long. I gathered intel and learned that I'm living with my stepmother and her daughters, and for some reason, I'm doing the chores for a bunch of fully-grown, healthy women."
"Then you better go." Neji got up and dusted his knees. "I'll meet you in the garden after your chores. Let's talk about the situation at hand."
"CINDERELLA! CAN'T YOU BE ANY SLOWER!" That was Anastasia, who was younger than her but seemed to possess no desire to acknowledge such trifling matter.
She made a face. "Why can't we talk right now instead? We need to brainstorm for a way to return to Konoha, stat!"
He eyed her disapprovingly. "You should prioritize your duties and responsibilities to your family above everything else."
"Um, they aren't really my family, you know."
"In this world, they are." He knocked on the glass that was directly above her forehead, making her touch her brows in reflex. "I'll see you later." He turned his back and strolled away.
"CINDERELLA! DID WE STUTTER?!"
"Alright, alright, geez!" She leaped down from the window and landed squarely on her feet with ease. When she looked up, her stepmother and stepsisters were gaping at her openly.
"G-Good lord, how did you jump down from such a high place without breaking any bones?" Anastasia looked at her as if she were an alien life-form.
"Even Lucifer gets nervous from that height!" added Drizella, referring to the nefarious feline that made the arms of its mistress its home.
Tenten scratched her cheek. "Well, to be fair, though, your cat also gets severely triggered from jumping off foot stools-"
"An impertinent child as always, aren't you, Cinderella?" Lady Tremaine's quietly sharp voice pierced the small cramped space. Both girls immediately hushed themselves in deference to the unparalleled queen bee.
The aged woman continued, "Given your monstrous jumping abilities, we, therefore, expect you to be the one to clean our chimneys from this day forward. Send word to the sweeper that we won't be needing his service anymore."
"Anou… aren't you going to ask why I have those abilities in the first place?" asked Tenten, somewhat dumbfounded. "I mean, that's a logical question and all."
The stepmother allowed a slow, mocking smile on her face. "I hold neither regard nor expectations for a spawn of my husband's deceased first wife." She gracefully pivoted back to the dining room. "Now, if you're done with your dawdling, I believe a dinner service is in order."
"You better make sure you feed us something edible this time, Cinderella." Drizella glared daggers at her. "Not even flies dared approach your last dish."
"Ugh, don't remind me." Their stepsister rolled her coffee brown eyes. "Those flies were terribly rude, I tell you. Rude!"
Garasu no Geta
A/N: This was supposed to be for #NejiTenMonth 2017 on Tumblr, but life happened. Hopefully, I'd be able to complete all the prompts next year. :)
Tenten threw the freshly-laundered clothes up in the air then skillfully used her wire strings to catch them. In a minute, the clothesline was filled with properly lined up garments. She finished it off by hurling clothespins at them, with each one hitting their marks perfectly.
Neji, who was watching from the treetop, struggled to conceal the amused twitching of his lips. "I see that you've fully exploited your tools and jutsu to adapt to this world."
"It's a lifehack, Neji, a lifehack." After knotting the clothesline, she plopped down on the roots of the same gnarly tree where her teammate sat. "Anyway, are you finally going to tell me how you ended up here?"
He crossed his arms. "Yesterday, I found it odd that I couldn't sense your chakra at all, so I paid a visit to your apartment. I found you lying unconscious on your bed while holding a book-"
Tenten gasped. "That was the book that Grimm-ojisan forcibly gave me! This world is from that book!"
"-and when I tried to remove the book from your hand, it lit up and transported me here," he finished, shaking his head. "I can't believe I let myself get caught by a low-level genjutsu, even with these eyes of mine."
She sighed and tucked her knees underneath her chin. "Don't worry, Neji. It's not like you would have guessed that you were holding a children's book that swallows up souls. It should be me who should be ashamed for trapping you in this world with me."
"No. We can still escape from here," he said firmly.
"Through your wand?" The weapon expert in her covetously eyed the tool, itching to take it apart to see how it worked.
He gave her a withering glance before continuing. "If this is indeed a world from the book, then all we have to do is to finish the story so we can return to our world."
She clapped her hands in delight. "As expected of a Hyuuga!" She peered up at him in excitement. "So how does this story go?"
"I've only ever read the annals of the Hyuuga family and whatever is required by the Academy. So, unfortunately, I do not know."
She grimaced. "Me, too. The only thing I would read besides weapon manuals is more weapon manuals. Come to think of it, isn't this why that uncle forced that book on me?"
"What do you mean?"
Tenten opened her mouth to speak, but in the last second, she changed her mind. "Nah, couldn't be." She then got up. "Well, time to cook for those brats again."
He eyed her curiously. "Earlier, you were reluctant to return to them. Why the sudden change of heart?"
"It's true that them lot can be quite bossy and demanding," she answered, smiling, "but it's as you say, Neji: in this world, they are my family. When we return to Konoha, I may never get a chance to experience something like this again."
When she was met by his silence, she continued jokingly, "Besides, I can see those women know even less than I do when it comes to cooking and cleaning, so as a shinobi, I should do my best to help them until they get the real Cinderella back."
She had started walking back to the house, but Neji's quiet words halted her tracks.
"For what it's worth, I already see you as my family."
How odd. Having known Neji for so many years, she knew it was his own way of comforting her. But for some reason, a strange feeling of sadness filled her instead. Disappointment, even. Weird.
She turned to flash him the biggest grin she could muster. "Thanks, Nii-san!" Her bubbly laughter followed suit when she witnessed his face contort in response.
"A ball?" echoed Tenten as she and her family sat in the parlor. As usual, she was busily attending to their whims. For today, they have asked her to do their hair. Not knowing any other hairstyles, she had styled them after her own odango buns instead. Amazingly, the sisters were okay with the fact. Or perhaps they were too busy gloating at her to notice what she has done.
"That's right, Cinderella!" A look of smug superiority was on Anastasia's face. "There will be dancing and music and pretty ballgowns… and, oh! They say the prince will be there, too!"
"But you cannot come with us to the ball" sneered Drizella.
"That's fine," replied Tenten lightly, tying one of Anastasia's buns with a fine blue ribbon.
The siblings exchanged startled glances.
"B-But it's a palace ball! They said he'll finally be choosing his princess from the guests. How can you be fine with being left at home?" stammered the younger girl.
"You're just sourgraping, right, Cinderella?" sneered the older of the girls.
"Not really." The kunoichi's attention was wholly on the other hair bun. "I don't particularly like dressing up."
The siblings were both at loss for words. They had never met a girl before who casually stated that she didn't enjoy fashion.
"Then," Lady Tremaine looked up from the scarlet and gold-lined envelope with the palace seal. "You'll miss the sumptuous buffet that the king's chef himself prepared for the party."
Tenten's ears perked up. "A royal chef's buffet?"
For the past few days, they had all been making do with whatever she ended up cooking. Initially, the women showered her with scathing remarks for her deplorable cooking, but lately, the women had mellowed down and had learned to accept her dishes so long as they were safely edible. It was the culinary version of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps.
"Indeed," nodded the woman. "But I'm afraid I cannot let you go with you looking like that."
Tenten self-consciously sniffed herself. "Well, I do intend to take a shower before attending the ball—"
"That's not what Mother meant, you idiot!" Drizella was ecstatic for another opportunity to break their little Cinderella. "Your clothes, just look at them!"
"Oh!" She snapped her fingers at the epiphany. "The dress code, right, right. Then maybe one of you girls can lend me a gown?"
"THE HELL WE WILL!" chorused her stepsiblings.
"No good, huh?" She patted down the creases of her maidservant uniform. "Then I'll attend as I am, I guess."
The three exchanged meaningful looks, and then stood up at the same time.
"So in order to stop you from embarrassing the family by going to the ball in rags, they opted to tear up your clothes instead?" asked Neji as he and Tenten sat in the garden that evening. He had earlier lent her his big blue hooded coat upon seeing her tattered garment.
"That sounded a little drastic, but what's a little sacrifice to preserve their good family's name..."
She nudged him with her elbow. "But Neji, I have to go to that ball!"
"What, you want to meet the prince, too?" If she hadn't known Neji for years, she swore she would have thought he was sulking.
"Goodness, no!" Her lively laughter filled the deserted garden. "I just think this might be the break we're looking for in order to advance the story. Major events like these often serve as catalysts in the RPG games I've played."
He let out a sigh of reluctance.
"Neji!" She turned her pleading eyes at him. "I can't do this without your support. Come on!"
"... fine." He took out the ubiquitous wand. "Bibbidi bobbidi boo."
"Neji, why are you hitting the poor pumpkin-WOAH!" Tenten's eyes shook in wonder as the fruit evolved into a luxurious coach.
"Bibbidi bobbidi boo." Neji swished his wand over a group of mice and lizards, transforming them into horses and horsemen respectively.
"Amazing, amazing!" she cried in delight. "So that's the power of a magic wand, huh?"
"Combined with the chant, it amplifies my chakra," he explained, "so I can sustain numerous transformation techniques all at the same time. I discovered it while trying to investigate why I was given this ridiculous outfit and props."
She clapped her hand over his back in delight. "That's my genius!"
He cleared his throat self-consciously. "What about you? Go ahead and use your henge no jutsu to get dressed."
"R-Right." Tenten closed her eyes for a moment to visualize her henge model. Okay, that one looks nice. Pressing her hands together to gather her chakra, she cried, "Transformation Technique!"
In an instant, she changed into a powder blue furisode kimono with dyed silk and beautiful white sakura patterns. A snow white obi embraced her curves, while a fistful of small pink flowers adorned her upbraided auburn hair. "So, what do you think, Neji?"
She was met by his open-mouthed, speechless gaze.
"A-Ahahaha! Did I go overboard?" Come to think of it, this is the first time that I've ever asked his opinion about something else besides combat strategies or techniques. She was always confident when it comes to the two, but perhaps she erred on the side of ambition by thinking she could pull off a sartorial opinion from him with the same degree of success.
Right now he must be thinking of a gentle way to say that this look doesn't suit me. Tenten waved a hand with a smile. "On second thought, maybe I should change to something else. I just thought a kimono can hide my after-buffet belly—"
That seemed to snap Neji out of his trance. He started towards her, and she unwittingly took a step back. For what reason, she didn't know, except that she felt hotly embarrassed to be in the same space as him right now.
He stopped directly in front of her, then fell on one knee. "Pardon me." He gently flicked his wand over her wooden geta.
"WHOA." She sucked her breath in as she watched her sandals turn into glass. Her wide brown eyes turned to Neji, who seemed sufficiently pleased with his footwear choice.
"D-Don't you think this is too luxurious for me?" she asked nervously, inspecting the sparkling sandals from all sides. Thank goodness the tabi socks won't let anyone know when I last did a proper pedicure!
He offered her a rare smile of reassurance. "It suits you rather quite nicely.." He rose and opened the coach door for her. "Good luck with your infiltration mission."
"Y-You're not coming?" she asked, feeling panic slip into her voice. Her and Neji parting ways was NOT part of the plan.
"The ball distinctly mentioned young ladies in the invitation, did it not?"
"T-Then let me give you a makeover!" She grabbed his hands and struggled to pull him into the coach with her. "Come. With. Me… argh!" Even with all her strength, he was immovable like a rock.
"Don't be foolish. Unless Hyuuga-sama commands it, I will not go anywhere wearing a ballgown." He retreated a few steps from her. "Now go— the clock is ticking. Be safe."
She peered at him closely, deliberated for a moment, and then smiled. "Thank you, Neji. I'll be back by midnight."
Neji watched as the magical coach vanished in the horizon. Tenten definitely saw through me. His legs gave way, and he crashed down on the ground, perspiring and breathing heavily. The unusual amplification of his chakra was taking its toll on him, so despite his reservations, he elected to stay behind in order not to be a liability to her.
It was only eight o'clock in the evening. He had to conserve his chakra use for the next four hours, all the while maintaining a zen-like state despite the disconcerting possibility of a wife-looking prince meeting with a certain charming lady enchantingly clad in cobalt glass kimono and glass sandals.
It was going to be the longest night of his life.
Lady Tremaine was pleased as peach as she roved her steely eyes around the room. So far, none of the debutantes could compare to her daughters' gowns, hair, and makeup. "Cinderella did a passable job accentuating your allure with these odd hair buns."
"She sure did, Mama!" agreed Drizella. "Everyone is looking at us!"
"Oh, is that the duke?" The woman motioned for her children to stay vigilant for the prince's arrival and then sauntered off to mingle with the nobility.
Anastasia leaned over to her sister's ear and whispered, "Hey. Speaking of Cinderella, don't you think she's been acting strange this past couple of days?"
The older sister nodded. "I noticed that, too. She doesn't look at us with weepy eyes anymore—"
"She doesn't break into songs while in the middle of her house chores!"
"She speaks in a louder, unladylike voice!"
"And she also talks to us more…"
"...like we're her sisters instead of her mistresses," finished Drizella, uncertain how to feel about the last tidbit.
"I don't really dislike that." Anastasia looked down. "The things she says sometimes makes me smile." Her thumbs twiddled as she spoke. "I wish we were able to bring her with us. Then we could all make fun of these other girls' dresses together."
"Hush, Mama will hear." But Drizella said nothing to negate her younger sister's words.
Just then, they heard the rumbling buzzes of the crowd. Both of them looked around, trying to find out the reason for the ruckus.
Their search stopped at the topmost step of the grand staircase.
The minute Tenten entered the grand ballroom, she knew her infiltration mission had failed.
All heads had turned her way in amazement. Even the sound from the orchestra had stopped, and the murmur from the guests was only getting louder.
"Is she wearing a sleeping robe for the party?"
"Is she a foreign princess?"
"Her sleeves look like full skirts!"
"Why does she not wear any jewelry?"
Her eyes rolled. Well, sorry for being a full-blooded Fire Country citizen strolling into your dazzling world of gowns and wigs. Recalling that her outfit was the one that Hyuuga Neji approved of, she stood straighter and began to walk.
The unusual graceful gait captivated the crowd, who prior to this had never seen a foreigner amongst themselves. Everywhere Tenten went, they dutifully parted to give way to the befuddled kunoichi, who specifically wanted to join and disappear into the crowd.
Goddamit, stop making way for me! I have to hide my presence!
"IT'S THE PRINCE!"
Tenten sighed in relief when the attention finally shifted away from her. Next time, I'm going to do my intel first on fashion norms instead of getting carried away by my girly fantasies. She headed for the long buffet table.
A young, bright-eyed man appeared on the draped balcony, flocked by his doting royal parents. "Thank you all for coming here, my dear constituents! This feast is not just for me but also for you, so I hope you're enjoying yourselves!"
I guess poor people who can't afford even a mere rouge to attend the ball aren't classified as constituents to them, huh? Tenten thought wryly as she piled up the meat on her plate.
"I must admit that I was opposed to this, as I did not think it's possible to find the future queen of this kingdom in just one evening of dancing and drinks."
My point exactly. She stuffed a spiced morsel into her mouth. Oooh, this beef is GOOD! At this point, she droned out the rest of the prince's speech, much like how she does with the daimyo (to Neji's dismay).
"But this evening has thankfully proven me wrong, for I have found the woman who stole my heart at first sight." The ballroom's lights were all extinguished by the servants, to the crowd's excitement. Then the sound of drum roll reverberated as a lone spotlight flicked back and forth the anticipating ladies.
"Tonight's princess and this kingdom's future queen is none other than…" The spotlight finally found its stop. Tenten, who was busy munching on fried shrimps, shielded her face with one arm when a sudden flood of light bathed her.
W-What the… did I win a grand prize at a raffle or something? Her eyes frantically darted across the room, searching for context so she'd know what to do next.
"... the foreigner princess!" happily announced the prince, to a mix of joyful cheers and tearful whimpering from the other aspiring princesses.
"M-My plate!" cried Tenten as the servant politely took it away from her hands while another escorted her to where the prince was. The orchestra started a waltz number, and the thrilled prince impatiently met her in the middle of the dancefloor.
The prince wore a dreamy, smitten look on his face. "I was not mistaken. You are as lovely as I thought, Princess."
She pointed to herself, dumbfounded.
He nodded. "May I have this dance?" He bowed and offered his hand, earning her more envious whispering from the crowd.
"P-Pass?!" The prince's eyes bulged like everyone else behind him.
She laughed uneasily. "W-Well, you see, I got interrupted while eating and was brought here to you before I could get a chance to wash my hands. I think it still smells of butter and shrimp oil."
The servants looked like they were about to suffer from a heart attack, but to her surprise, the prince merely laughed his head off.
"Butter and shrimp oil, huh?" He brought her hand to his lips. Then to Tenten's and everyone's astonishment, the royal prince stuck his tongue out and gave her skin a little lick. "My favorite dish, if I may say."
Face burning, Tenten abruptly withdrew her hand. "T-That's… rather unhygienic, Your Highness." She tried to tiptoe away, but her every step backward was countered by the prince's enthusiastic own.
"Indeed. Talking dirty to his lovers is a royal blood's specialty." Feeling emboldened, the prince aimed for her waist.
At the last split second, Tenten saw a familiar gleam heading the prince's way. "Look out!" she cried, pulling the prince to her embrace so they can evade the projectile together. The prince, who lost his balance, fell on top of her obi-covered chest.
"Y-Your Highness, are you alright?!" she asked worriedly, her eyes expertly searching him for surface wounds.
"F-Fine… I'm fine…" The prince seemed to be in a daze as he gazed at her.
"A pointed weapon almost hit His Highness!"
"Block the exits! Search the palace grounds!"
The barked out instructions were muffled out by the booming sound of the large clock tower announcing the arrival of midnight.
N-Neji! Acting quickly, she untangled herself from the prince and lifted the hem of her kimono. Then before anyone could say anything, she dashed off as quickly as she could.
"Someone stop the princess!"
Her usual shinobi speed was being impeded by the weight that the kimono had, so Tenten made her decision quickly. Ripping out her expensive-as-hell-in-Konoha-marketplace obi, she shook off her outer robe. This helped her gain an advantage in speed somewhat, despite being chased by people who knew the terrain better than her.
The exterior staircases! Tenten's eyes lit up when she saw that the coach was already at the foot of the steps, as if waiting for her. However, she didn't notice the tar that seemed to have been prepared by her pursuers, knowing that the guest only knew of one exit.
Shoot, the geta is stuck! The more she struggled, the harder the tar wrapped itself around her footwear.
"They're gaining on me, huh?" With a heavy heart, she slid her foot off the captured glass sandal and tucked the other sandal into her robe. She then hurried into the coach.
She could feel the coach threatening to crumble— a sign that the chakra wielder was quickly losing control over the transformation. She stuck her head out of the carriage window and cried imploringly to the horseman.
"Please! Take me to Neji as fast as you can! I beg of you!"
The horseman gritted his teeth and nodded. Before them, the palace drawbridge was slowly being rolled back.
"GO!" she yelled at the top of her lungs, and in response, the horses leaped majestically in the air, landing safely on the other side. Tenten had barely time to sigh in relief when the elegant coach vanished, leaving a huge pumpkin and several critters scampering on the ground.
Not too far away, palace guards were yelling instructions to retrieve the mysterious foreign princess. But Tenten had only one thing in mind.
Neji! She quietly slipped into the darkness, heart pounding in fear.
She found her teammate in the garden where she left him earlier. He was lying against a tree, face paler than usual.
"Neji?" she called out tearfully, crawling towards him.
He opened his eyes, not without obvious laborious effort. "You're back. That was fast."
"Your lizards and mice must have noticed that you can't hold on for much longer, so they tampered with the clock," she said with a shaky smile. "Y-You… overexerted yourself again…"
Instinctively, she touched his face. He felt cold to her fingertips. Without hesitating, she immediately gathered him into her arms, wanting to lend his chilled form every ounce of her body warmth. Whatever protest he may have had out of modesty died when she firmly pressed his head to her bare slender neck.
"I'm sorry, Neji. Please bear with me a little more… just until I see a bit of color return to your cheeks," she murmured next to his ear.
"... you worry too much." He closed his eyes, relishing the warmth radiating from her softness. "Did you find what you're looking for?"
He felt her fingers tighten their grip on his hair. "Y-Yes," he heard her barely inaudible response.
"Good. That is all that matters."
"I'm so sorry, Neji. I'm sorry for putting you through something like this. I'm sorry, I'm sorry…" Her voice broke off.
He let out a grunt. "Shut up, Tenten. I'm trying to sleep." As expected, his teammate immediately clamped her mouth shut.
It seems like I'm not the only one who needed this moment, after all.
"CINDERELLA! CINDERELLA, WHERE ARE YOU?!" Lady Tremaine sounded positively livid as she summoned her stepdaughter servant in vain. "Lucifer still wants to sleep some more on my lap and I've already been sitting on this blasted chair for three hours! I need to switch with someone else!"
"I'll do it." Anastasia ignored her mother's intrigued look as she took the spoiled feline in her arms. Just then, the doorbell rang.
"A guest? How rare." Deciding that the guest was infinitely more important than her daughter's surprising change of heart towards their maid, the missus of the house headed out of the room.
Drizella joined her sister in the room. "So you don't even bother to hide your feelings from Mama anymore, huh?"
The younger of the siblings sighed. "Cinderella has gotten more lonesome since the ball, hasn't she?"
Drizella leaned against the wall and glanced at the window. "She's in the garden again, taking care of that long-haired stranger."
"If he were, he'd be the classiest one I've ever seen."
Anastasia perked up. "Is he her secret lover? How adult-like!" She sighed dreamily, earning a contemptuous look from the annoyed Lucifer.
"There's more." The elder sister bent to whisper furiously to her sibling's ear. The latter's eyes widened. "You don't say!"
"Girls!" An excited Lady Tremaine entered the room, followed by a small group of people dressed in palace official uniforms. "Make yourself proper— we have honored emissaries sent by the king himself!"
Both girls looked at each other in puzzlement.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" The messenger coughed a couple of times before proceeding to read the rest of the announcement on his scroll. "By the royal decree of His Majesty, all ladies, foreigners or locals, must try on this crystal footwear."
One monocled official stepped forward to present a shiny glass sandal placed on top of a tasseled pillow.
"Furthermore, it has been decided that whoever fits this sandal perfectly shall be declared the bride of our beloved prince." The messenger rolled the scroll back and turned to his fellow officials. "Commence the fitting!"
"You really should try and finish your meal so you can regain your strength," remarked Tenten as Neji pushed the barely touched bowl away. "We're not sure how much longer the story will run, so we can't have you run out of chakra."
The book is feeding on it. Neji realized that like a shark, the magical book found its food and was now happily devouring him as days passed. He made sure not to breathe a word to his teammate, though, who seemed to be worried sick as she was now.
"My body simply refuses to take in garbage, that's all."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Lies. You finished the curry lunches I made for you back in the Academy, and those were curries even mommy curries couldn't love. At least this one has salt in it."
Touche. Neji decided to adapt his next strategy— keep quiet and hope that the matter becomes forgotten during the course of the day.
He was grateful to hear a sound of lively conversations heading their way. That should be enough to distract the kunoichi. "I should hide." He was about to crawl back to the bushes when Tenten resolutely held his hand down.
"Stay." And Tenten refused to let go even when her stepfamily and the palace officials arrived at the scene.
Lady Tremaine took one look at the defiant Cinderella holding the hand of a sick hobo and her nose turned up in disgust. She turned to the palace official with a forced smile. "Please pardon the unsightly mess that is my stepdaughter. She has always held a soft spot for the impoverished and the sick. So if you may, please have Cinderella try the sandal on, too-"
Anastasia blocked their way. "I told you, that sandal is mine! I was the one who danced with the prince! He should be marrying me!"
"M-Marrying?!" chorused Neji and Tenten.
Drizella sounded off scornfully. "Please! That sandal is clearly mine, as shown by how three of my five toes fit PERFECTLY into them! Cinderella doesn't need to try it on!"
"Bite your lying tongues!" snapped the stepmother, cheeks heated in shame. She then faced the kunoichi with a saccharine smile. "Now, child, go ahead and try on the sandal. The prince is eager to bring his bride and the bride's family into the court, you know?"
"Mama, no!" Both daughters protectively stood in front of the amazed Tenten. "This is the man that Cinderella truly loves!"
"A-Ah…" Tenten gulped then looked away, laughing awkwardly as she carefully avoided Neji's eyes. "S-Shucks, you guys. I would have worded that a bit less strongly."
The old woman's nostrils flared in ire. "Get out of the way, you two, or I'll cut your feet off!"
"Hey, hey!" Tenten got up, coming between her stepsisters and the infuriated madam. "Let's not go down the dark path of bodily mutilation here just because of a sandal fitting." She pulled out one of her scrolls. "So if that sandal fits and I marry your prince, my stepmother and stepsisters will be guaranteed protection and wealth all their lives, and we all live happily ever after, is that right?"
"T-That is correct, Mademoiselle." The official wiped a bead of sweat uncomfortably off his brow. He was not used to holding such candid conversations with people, least of all with a frank young lady.
She grinned. "That's all I needed to hear." In a flourish, she tugged on the strings holding the scroll together.
"Tenten!" yelled Neji, his voice laced with anger for the first time since she remembered.
Sorry, Neji. I really want this story to get to its happy ending already so I can finally send you home. She folded her fingers together. "Space-Time Technique!"
The scroll unfurled, revealing the other glass sandal.
"I-Is this sorcery?" The stepmother couldn't believe her eyes. "That he couldn't forget about his first wife and truly love me… is it because of her spell?"
"C-Cinderella!" The two daughters hugged each other, knowing that their stepsister had just made a considerable sacrifice for their sake.
Tenten calmly slipped on the left geta and was about to reach for the right when a visibly weakened Neji stopped her.
"I alone will do this for you." And just like in the garden that night, he knelt down before her and carefully removed her worn-out blue sandal. He then slipped in the other half.
Suddenly, her powder blue kimono reappeared, as beautiful as it was that night of the ball. There was no more room for doubt— they had found the missing princess.
"Your Highness." All of the officials bowed respectfully at her. "You saved our prince's life. Thanks to you, we have found the treacherous assassin who tried to harm him. We will be honored if you can continue to look after him."
She forced a smile. "C-Certainly. He's a good kid." She then turned to her stepmother and stepsiblings. "Thank you, ladies. I owe you this wonderful feeling of knowing what it's like to have a family. You may be hopeless slobs and snobs, but I'm just as hopeless because you wormed your way into my heart anyway. So, really, thank you."
"C-Cinderella…" Her stepsisters broke down into tears while their stepmother embraced them comfortingly.
Finally, she turned to Neji. "Well then, I'm off to my happy ending. See you in Konoha soon!" Feigning a casual grin, she walked past him, but then felt his hand yank her back.
"Do you really think I would let you walk into another man's arms while wearing the geta I personally picked for you to wear?" he asked quietly, hushing everyone in the garden.
She stifled a gasp. "N-Neji…"
"Don't go." Even if she managed to avert her eyes, she could not escape from the powerful command of his voice. "Can you truly call it a happy ending if you are in pain? Are you really that much of an M?"
Tenten's eyebrow arched at his last line. "What do you know, Mr. S? The happy ending I want is to see you safe and sound in the world we truly belong!"
"Then call me a greedy fellow for wanting a happy ending for both you and me." Neji pulled her to him with surprising force for someone who was gravely bereft of chakra. "My happy ending is any path, no matter how difficult and long-winded, so long as it leads to you."
Her eyes widened. What the heck is he trying to say? Is he...
But there was no more opportunity for words and reflection, as he had bent down to stake his long-due claim on her lips. As the kiss deepened, she felt herself getting lighter, as if she was floating and being carried off by the wind.
Ah, she really liked Neji. Ever after and beyond.
"Grimm-ojisan, you bastard!" Tenten slammed the book furiously on the bookseller's face the following day. "Take this and never show yourself to me again!"
The silver-haired old man laughed boisterously, unfazed by the threats of Konoha's weapon mistress. "Ah, so you've met my brother."
"Must have pissed him off, too, huh? Let me guess— you made fun of Wilhelm's stories?"
She recalled the fateful meeting between her and the storyteller. "Well, maybe. B-But I was just poking fun at his 'love like death' statement. I mean, it was amusingly morbid. Who would have thought he'd take it to heart?"
Read this then, oujo-san, and experience a love like death!
"I see." He dusted off the cover of the book reverently before placing it back into his backpack. "I hope you wrote us a good story to sell."
"Many thanks, oujo-san. We look forward to reading this."
"GRAH! I can't believe you're going to make money out the ordeals you put us through!"
The jovial man roared in laughter. "Oh, and let me leave you these words as a parting gift, ojou-san— what my foolish brother could not properly express."
He looked up at the sky and spoke. "Love is like death. It must come to us all, but to each his own unique way and time.
"Sometimes it will be avoided, but never can it be cheated, and never will it be forgotten." He winked at her conspiratorially. "I hope that the gentleman gave you a love like death." He offered the flustered kunoichi a final merry wave before marching off outside the gates of the Hidden Leaf village.