To Chisa Chispa: Thank you for your review! I'm all for political intrigue huehue. Stay safe! :)
To Guest: I'm really glad you mentioned Neji's letter, because it was my favourite to write. I always thought Neji and Hinata's relationship was never properly addressed in canon, so here we are. :P Thank you for your review! Stay safe! :)
I guess I now write long chapters.
LETTER FROM LADY HINATA TO CAPTAIN NEJI HYUUGA
I have wept with both pain and joy over your letter. In your answer, you've given more than I could have hoped for. I know how our family ties have not spared you any pain. I've never hoped nor yearned for your forgiveness.
My husband and his brother, Lord Itachi, are most keen to make your acquaintance. I've enclosed a describing of the location of the house.
Please do write to me if your time and spirits allow it.
"Where is he?" The Admiral's voice boasted from the harbour.
The ship stilled, men looking over at each other, then shoving at each other to straighten their uniform and hat. The plank screeched under the Admiral's weight as he boarded the ship. The men fumbled on themselves kicking out the way their card games and flasks. They saluted.
Red-faced, Admiral Morino shoved them aside, walking through the crowd.
"Where is he?" Admiral Morino shouted again.
Neji looked down from the upper deck. Neatly, he folded the maps he was holding, and pinched his lips.
"Are you looking for me, Admiral?" he asked coolly and saluted.
Admiral Morino narrowed his eyes at him. His scars deepened, his face a mask that shifted and twisted. Despite Neji's higher vantage point, the Admiral was imposing in his dark uniform. He was a thick man with gruff manners, an elusive smile and a booming voice his wide range of moods rarely altered. This unusual disposition often made men uneasy enough to reveal more than they had planned to.
"Get down. Now," Admiral Morino ordered and spun on his heels. As he walked away, he shouted a couple of orders and insults to the men who had managed to do the least to mask their altered states.
Neji suppressed a sigh. He nodded to his first mate, returning the maps to him.
"Return these to my cabins."
"Sir..." he hesitated.
"I'll be back soon."
Neji walked down to the lower deck, but when he reached the bottom step, he frowned. His men looked at him with petrified expressions. Discreetly, they pointed and nodded toward the beach where the Admiral stood, his back to them.
Neji stilled, turning his head toward the sky.
Seagulls cried out and whined above his head. They projected distant fleeting shadows over the rolled up sails and the deck. Still watching them, sky-bound, Neji started walking over those shadows and through the crowd that had gathered. As he stepped down the ship, he could feel the nervousness in his men's taut bodies.
Only heavy silence followed his steps.
His heels sank in the rocky sand. The harbour was calmer in the gold light of the setting sun. Men had gathered on their respective ship for a meal, a drink and a game of cards.
With a lingering gaze back to his crew, Neji approached the Admiral.
"Sir," he saluted again.
Admiral Morino watched the horizon with narrowed eyes, the lines of his face deepened by the harsh shadows accompanying the setting sun.
"Why am I signing off your leave for Wales?" he asked and his neck grew corded and sculpted and purple with anger.
Neji's body relaxed. His conversations with the Admiral were stiff and sullen since he had been asked to return Lady Tenten's letters.
"I'm visiting my cousin, sir. She married and retired there with her husband to tend to his brother."
Admiral Morino abruptly spun toward him. He searched his face. Uncomfortably, Neji endured his stare and brisk manners.
"There's no one else awaiting you in Wales?" Admiral Morino asked slowly.
Neji straightened his back.
"No, sir. It's my first time there."
Admiral Morino clicked his tongue and waved at him stiffly.
"Let's walk, boy. Those goddamn men are watching us like seagulls," he grumbled and started walking.
On their left, the sea was flat, barely rippling with waves. On their right, the woods grew denser and habitations sparser.
"Sir..." Neji started awkwardly after a moment.
Their stroll had taken them further than he was comfortable with. His ship appeared a shapeless shadow in the golden horizon.
The Admiral sighed and stopped, feeling for his pockets.
"What are your intentions during this trip?"
"I don't understand, sir."
"I'm asking, Captain," Admiral Morino began with a raising voice, "if you are about to do something that will cause my Lieutenant to rouse me from my sleep to break you out of jail? Fisticuffs, drinking barrel after barrel, murder?"
Neji didn't falter.
"No, sir," he whispered, blankly.
Admiral Morino spat. Then, he looked at him, hard, his lip curled up in disgust. Without averting his gaze, he handed Neji his flask.
"It's an order, soldier!" Admiral Morino shouted, his face contorting, red. "Bollocks! You lost an estate, drink like a man!"
Neji flushed, looking down at the flask thrust in his hand.
Then, Neji tilted the flask to his lips taking a small sip. He pinched his lips, swaying, his throat burning. He pinched his lips tighter to keep himself from coughing. He handed the flask back to his officer, but the Admiral made no movement to retrieve it.
"How angry are you?" Admiral Morino asked roughly.
"I'm not angry."
Neji reddened at the colourful curses the Admiral snapped in response.
"Are you going to swoon?" he shouted and laughed, a mad flicker in his darkening eyes. "I'm a sailor through and through. I don't care about no manners. Plainly, I'm asking you how angry you are. Are you angry enough to make a mistake that will get your crew killed or are you angry enough to murder your uncle? If it is the first, I'll make it my business. If it's the second, I'll tell you you're being foolish and send you on your way. I never liked the man."
Neji paled. Quickly, he took another gulp from the flask, throwing his head back. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. His thoughts muddled, the burning sensation in his chest intensifying.
"So, which one is it?"
"None," Neji said blankly, quelling another fit of coughs.
Admiral Morino grunted. He touched his scars with the tip of his fingers, his eyes once more seeking the sea.
"I was once very angry. It cost me half a battalion. I was handsome, if you'd believe it. I never wanted for attention from women. They would throw themselves at me in ways, that if I were to describe, your virginal arse would fall off you. Because I was handsome, I could get away with anything. After the French tortured me, no one would meet my eye. They gave a higher rank, but it meant nothing."
The Admiral spat again.
"They always say it is a terrible thing for a woman to grow old and ugly, but being disfigured does as much to a man's vanity. I had murderous intents toward everyone, including myself," he paused, looking over at Neji as he stumbled backward. "Oh, sit down, pretty boy, it's not a mortal sin to speak of it."
His blood hammering against his skull, Neji dropped to the sand barely noticing the weight of the Admiral's hand on his shoulder as he forced him down.
"We're sailors, Hyuuga," the admiral continued after a while. "We go to the sea with nothing. This is how we make our fortune, but the sea takes as much as she gives. She's a cruel bitch."
Neji's head spun from the alcohol and the vulgar language. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to hurl.
"How many of those fools, do you think, have come back and found their wives had run off while they were gone? Or their child had died? Or they had a new child? They only flinch if they come back and nothing has changed."
The Admiral looked down at him, his eyes gleaming with an intense ferocity.
"I'm angry like I've been angry all my life," Neji finally answered, his voice quiet. "Nothing has changed."
"You're a sailor, what devil nonsense is this? Things change. No wave is ever the same."
Neji's mouth quirked up.
"Why are you telling me this, sir?"
"Because my wife inquired after you," Admiral Morino grumbled. "I will not reveal the amount of fretting she did over you because it makes my blood boil. She was most insistent to learn if you wish for her to call upon the King to intervene."
Neji smiled savagely, tiredly. To a man like him, raised as a servant boy, the King was a distant figure one talked about, but never met.
"What would..." Neji shook his head, trying to clear his head. "What would the King do? I would have lands that I would never feel are rightfully mine. I would still have a meaningless title."
They stared at the sea in silence.
"You gentlemen are all the same," Admiral Morino shook his head and snarled. "You ought to learn to look a man in the eye and say what you feel. 'I'm angry, sir,' is what you should have responded when I first asked you. There's no weakness in what you feel."
Admiral Morino started to walk away, but Neji called out after him. His head, his heart, pounded, desynchronized, hollow.
Admiral Morino half-turned toward him, his face darkening.
"Will you ask me something foolish, Captain?" he asked quietly.
"Would you thank Her Grace for her kindness? She was always... most gracious to me."
Neji clenched his teeth, looking down in shame.
"She enjoys the company of strays, be them orphans or drunks," Admiral Morino snorted, although it was soon replaced by a savage grin forming on his lips. "Ever since, you entered my fleet, she asked after you because of your mother. 'Don't overwork him, Ibiki.'" He snorted again and narrowed his eyes. "Look at me, Captain."
His jaw set, Neji looked up, all of him pounding, waiting, and yearning and yearning for peace.
"You may think I'm a lowly man- SHUT UP AND LISTEN!"
Neji clasped his mouth shut.
"You may think I'm a lowly man," the admiral repeated in a low voice and out of reflex, Neji opened his mouth again. "You've never listened to me and caused me so much headache, denying it would be insulting to the both of us."
"Yes, sir," Neji said, betraying nothing.
"Stay out of trouble for my wife's sakes. She's a saint of steel, and she truly cared for your mother, so she will continue to extend both friendship and assistance to you. But you don't want to wake the beast, don't you?"
"No, sir." Neji answered stiffly.
The Admiral's grin stretched, crooked, and when he clasped his back, Neji grimaced, his head spinning more rapidly.
Neji's followed his retreating back with eyes for a moment before turning back to the sea. He lowered his head.
His body swayed from the alcohol, from the same old anger.
He lay on the sand.
"A sailor needs to handle his liquor better than this," the Admiral shouted, and his laughter boomed, stretched by the howling wind.
Neji closed his eyes.
"Yes, sir," he mumbled, and his hands sank in the sand, grasping at grains, grasping at nothing. Dirt. Lands were merely grains of sand. And they shifted and shifted.
Only there, within reach, for the briefest moment.
LETTER FROM LORD SHIKAMARU TO CAPTAIN NEJI HYUUGA
I will respect your wishes even if I think they are folly. Don't you yearn for compensation? If a soldier doesn't fight for lands, then what does he fights for? As it is your wish, I will say nothing more upon it.
Naruto came to visit us. We were hesitant to receive him on account of the scandal of his marriage. Yet, Lady Ino and Lady Sakura are now the closest of friends. The whole party agreed that you were gravely missed.
It is my understanding that you wish to visit Lady Hinata, and perhaps avoid the troublesome and awkward repercussions of your presence near the Earl and Lady Hanabi. I am certain, Lady Hinata's sensibilities have foreseen this danger. Your absence has nonetheless left Naruto agitated and impulsive, as it is in his nature. He may very well decide to travel to Wales and visit Lady Hinata and you. I thought I ought to warn you of the possibility.
P.S. I know this may be troublesome, but Lady Ino insists that you should forward her regards to Lady Hinata, as well as her regrets that the lady is so far away from us.
Throughout his journey to Wales, Neji re-read Lord Shikamaru's last letter before sliding it back in his briefcase by his side. The mail coach swayed, slowing and jolting, and the sea briefly erupted in front of him. Neji clenched his teeth, his knuckles tightening on the leather of his seat. He despised travelling by land. At least, he was the last passenger aboard the coach.
They reached the village in a trot, the stiff air of winter fogging the horizon. The coachman stopped the coach by the inn.
"We're here, Captain," he tipped his hat and jumped down his seat. Stretching, his hands against his lower back, the coachman shouted over his shoulder at a servant boy by the stables for the horses to be fed.
Neji got off the coach and saluted the Royal Guard sitting by the mail box before entering the inn of the village. Inside, the air was warm and sleek, heavy with the smell of potage and ale. The hostess hushed him toward a table, her face flushed with the heat of the hearth.
"Are you staying the night, sir?" she asked with a smile, her hands tired and nervous.
"No, just a warm meal, and a horse."
Neji dropped the coins in her stretched hand, and she bowed stiffly before shouting at her husband to prepare for a horse.
Neji distractedly watched the other travellers and locals sitting around him. Some play cards, others had quiet gatherings. His uniform brought distinguished bows and furtive glances.
Neji quickly ate his meal, while the host prepared for a horse. Lady Hinata had fondly described the road for him in her last letter. Nonetheless, Neji asked the host about the Uchiha household. The old man pointed to a blurry house in the horizon.
"That's the house, sir. Maybe two miles out of town The inn is quite busy now, so I'll send a post boy with your trunk to bring back your horse later. Good journey!"
The servant boy Neji had seen earlier held the bridle of the horse as he mounted. He bowed awkwardly once Neji was settled on the saddle and ran back to the stables.
Neji rode out of the village.
The Uchiha household overlooked the village, carefully nested between a dense forest, and the rocky edge of the cliff. The road leading to it curved near the sea.
The salty air reinvigorated him.
Neji repeatedly stopped his horse as he rode to the Uchiha estate. Every time he did, he faced the sea, and he waited, like he had waited and paced in front of his uncle's manor. He waited, like he felt whole and certain of the firmness of the land.
Below, the waves crashed and broke on rocks and angrily drenched the sand. Far away, a storm built.
Neji turned his horse one last time toward the road and finally reached the gate.
The Uchiha house had two wings, adorning a U-shape in the middle of tall hedges and a frozen garden. Lady Hinata stood by the entrance of the house. Upon seeing him, she waved at him, her breath clear and white around her face.
Neji pulled at the bridle.
A stable boy was called for the horse, and Neji dismounted in the interior courtyard. He handed him the bridles.
"A man will come later for the horse and my luggage," Neji said.
The stable boy nodded quickly and bowed before leading the mount away.
When Neji turned back toward the house, he glimpsed at his cousin already hurrying to greet him.
"Brother!" Lady Hinata huffed, her face flushed, and jumped at his neck.
Her bonnet receded on top of her head. His insides twisted. Neji hugged her back.
"Lady Hinata, what would your husband think of such behaviour?" Neji asked amused, and gently pushed her away.
"I'm glad you're here," Lady Hinata said softly and gestured toward the house, so he would follow her. "Come inside, we've started a fire. Mr Uchiha is waiting for us. Was your trip enjoyable?"
"I took the ship as far as I could," Neji admitted awkwardly. "I've yet to change out of my uniform."
"I'm glad..." she laughed quietly. "I know how you hate travelling by land."
They entered the horse and servants helped them out of their coats and hats. Neji then followed Lady Hinata to the living room. A dark haired man stood up immediately, closing the book he had been reading. Although, Neji suspected the gentleman had only pretended to read before his arrival.
His demeanour, while composed in appearance, turned swiftly, almost nervously toward Lady Hinata. Only once had his glance met hers, did his shoulders drop.
Lady Hinata flushed, her face soft as she pointed at her husband.
"Mr Uchiha, may I introduce my brother, Captain Neji Hyuuga."
The two men bowed to each other and exchanged the pleasantries and civilities appropriate for the beginning of an acquaintance.
"I'll arrange for a fire to be started in your rooms, and perhaps a bath?" Lady Hinata turned toward Neji. "Please sit by the fire."
Lady Hinata shyly hushed Neji toward the couch. The fire crackled most pleasantly, bathing the room in both warmth and shimmering light.
Neji immediately turned back toward Mr Uchiha to offer his compliments, but the gentleman was nodding, barely acknowledging his words. He still followed his wife with his eyes as she walked out of the room to instruct the domestics in the appropriate care of their guest. Mr Uchiha's gaze eventually darted back to Neji as he felt his stare on him. The tip of his ears turned red at being thus discovered.
"Yes, Captain..." Mr Uchiha cleared his throat. "The woods..." he added vaguely and gestured without energy.
Neji pinched his lips to keep from smiling. He changed the subject to save his host from further embarrassment.
"You've a lovely home, Mr Uchiha," Neji said and inclined his head briefly before sitting down. "Lady Hinata's description does not do it justice, I'm afraid. She's very guarded in this manner."
Mr Uchiha nodded to himself, gripping the book on his thigh.
"My wife was most happy that you agreed to come visit us. I told her..." he paused, his taciturn expression shifting with unease and embarrassment. "I told her it was too cold to wait by the gate, but she insisted."
Neji gave him a small smile.
"I'm happy to see Lady Hinata with such caring manner. From her letters, she appeared quite happy by your side."
While Neji expected the usual ripping envy at his cousin's happiness, he didn't expect the wave of sadness that tightened his throat. His thoughts led him back the sense of slipping dirt, drifting sand he senses whenever the word 'home' formed in his mind.
"As we are family, if I can be of assistance..." Mr Uchiha let the sentence dangle, watching him with sharp dark eyes that reminded Neji of his friend, Lord Shikamaru.
Because Neji was accustomed to being the poorest relation, his ego wasn't bruised by Mr Uchiha's clumsy speech. He did feel that Lady Hinata's departure from the room had come timely, but he made no comment on the matter either. Neji hadn't needed Lord Shikamaru's warning of Lady Hinata's astuteness to know how sensible she truly was.
Yet, he hesitated before replying, his gaze darting across the fireplace.
"My place has always been at sea," Neji said evenly, still watching the flames. "I never cared for lands, so I'll have a title without lands." He paused then, carefully silencing his savage satisfaction at bearing his uncle's title.
As Neji expected, Mr Uchiha looked at him strangely, but did not reply. Neji knew he must sound like a madman. Without lands or fortune, his marriage prospects and his future were limited.
Lady Hinata returned moments later, still huffing but smiling.
"I had prepared the room overlooking the seaside for you," she said and sat down by her husband.
"You didn't have to do this, Lady Hinata," Neji countered. "I have lived in most inadequate and rudimentary quarters during my service. I would have been comfortable anywhere."
"It was no problem at all we have many unoccupied rooms in the West wing near the family rooms. "Tell him, Mr Uchiha..." she gingerly looked at her husband, blushing.
Thus beckoned, Mr Uchiha nodded in agreement with his wife.
"My brother is resting now, but he was most anxious to meet you, Captain Hyuuga. He had heard of your exploits during the war through his acquaintances. He was Captain in the Royal Navy himself in his prime."
Because Lady Hinata looked at him expectantly, Neji bowed his head at Mr Uchiha to thank him and relaxed in his seat.
"The honour is all mine, I assure you Mr Uchiha," he added, and Lady Hinata pressed a hand to her chest as if relieved by the quiet friendship taking place between the two men.
"We should let him rest before dinner, Mr Uchiha..." she urged gently.
"Of course," Mr Uchiha nodded again, and reached for the bell. "I'll ring for a servant to take you to your his rooms at once, Captain."
Bored, Lady Tenten spun her dance card on the table. Around her, servants and butlers hushed trays of food out-of-the-way for the dancing to resume. The private ball was monstrous in terms of guests, the viscount hosting it, determined to marry off his own daughter by the end of this season.
"I wonder why parents are so desperate to parade and marry off their offsprings," Tenten had risked at the beginning of the night, her voice laced with sarcasm. "Is it the pain of childbirth that makes you resent us?"
"No, it's remarks like these," her mother had replied icily and touched her fan.
Tenten sighed, pinching her lips as Mr Inuzuka caught her eye and inclined his head. His wolfish grin normally drew a blush and a sharp intake of breath from ladies, but Tenten felt neither. She merely glanced away, aware that Mr Inuzuka drew his steadfastness from his frustration the way a man in love drew it from a single gesture of affection.
Tenten licked her lips.
"Don't," the duchess cut her off. "Now is not the time to embarrass us both with your theatrics."
"Am I not entertaining then?"
The duchess levelled her pale gaze to hers.
"Is Lord Shino next?"
As the host approached the floor to announce that dancing would finally resume, Tenten looked down at her dance cards, weighing in the possibility of an escape.
"Do we know Konohamaru Sarutobi? I don't recognize his name."
The Duchess reached for the dance card, read the name for herself, and twirled her fingers at the servant nearest them.
"No, and you are refusing his dance," the Duchess said coldly, then to the servant: "Inquire where Mr Ebisu is, and tell him he is summoned, if you please."
The servant bowed and disappeared within seconds, swallowed by the crowd. The host's booming voice followed laughter and trepidation and ruffle of silk. Musicians had taken their place back at the front of the room.
"If I refuse his dance, I cannot possibly accept any other gentleman without causing quite an embarrassment for our host."
"Please, do no feel like you ought to hide your excitement. It is quite plain to me."
Tenten opened her mouth, but her mother inclined her head at Lord Shino in greeting. He coughed discreetly, still holding out his hand to her. She took it, her eyes seeking her mother's. As usual, the Duchess' composure revealed nothing about the state of her private thoughts.
Frowning, Tenten took her place in the line of dancers, facing Lord Shino. She forced herself to look at him, his genteel and cold manners, earning sighs from ladies here and there. She forced herself to feel a tingle of want and desire. Other ladies appeared to love and yearn more freely than she could.
As the violin started and they bowed to each other. Her thoughts returned to her mother's peculiar reaction to the name of Konohamaru Senju. Lord Shino made no attempt to initiate conversation and neither did she.
She moved with her usual effortlessness through the dance steps, but she barely felt his touch on her hand and lower back.
When music faded and they had returned to their initial place in the line of dancers, Tenten looked up at Lord Shino again, wondering what it was that she was missing. What it was that made her so different from other ladies.
She quieted the name that rose inside her.
She quieted the dread and the shame that followed suit.
Desperately, Tenten tried to smile, but Lord Shino didn't return it. He took her hand and walked her back to her seat by her mother's. With one last bow, he was gone, unaffected.
"Mother?" Tenten asked hesitantly when she saw the Duchess already wearing her fur.
A servant stepped in behind her and draped her own shoulders with her coat.
"I've asked for the carriage. Come, it's time to leave."
The Duchess spun on her heels, and they made their way through the crowd. Tenten nodded and smiled at acquaintances, avoiding the curious gazes of ladies and gentlemen. Everyone knew her mother as arriving and departing at proper hours. It was inconceivable that the Duchess would leave shortly after dinner; the gossip was likely to abound.
"You frighten me, Mother," Tenten hissed under her breath, just as the Duchess froze.
Tenten followed her gaze. The ball stretched to the library and family parlour. Both rooms were as heavily and lavishly decorated as the main room. Curiously, Tenten looked between her mother and the room, until she found on whom her mother's icy stare was fixed.
"Is that... Miss Hanabi?" Tenten asked and turned on her heels. "How could she be here?" she asked herself quietly and turned away from the scene. She squared her shoulders: "Let's leave before we cause a stir, Mother."
The Duchess didn't move. In her fists, her fan was broken, snapped in three pieces she still held.
"Next to her is Lord Konohamaru."
"Mother... Lord Hiashi's anger may amuse you, but now is hardly the time..."
"They are married," the Duchess said with cold anger. "Lord Hiashi isn't here."
Tenten turned back toward the couple, frowning.
"They seem to be an appropriate match. Why are you reacting this way?"
The Duchess' composure shifted and stilled. She looked back at Tenten and touched her cheek. Tenten's inside twisted painfully as her mother nodded to herself.
"Tenten, I lied to you,"
"About their being married?" Tenten asked slowly, but her heart, her cheek ice-cold.
The broken hand fan rested between them, disregarded on the floor.
"Last week, I didn't want you to see what your father had written."
"What had he written?"
"Lord Konohamaru purchased the Hyuuga estate in his wife's name," the Duchess said plainly, without any more traces of anger or remorse. She said it with the same voice, she would decree something as 'settled'.
"But... I don't understand if he did then..."
Duchess Sora didn't waver.
"Captain Hyuuga is left with nothing. He must be trying to dispel any past rumours about Captain Hyuuga and you if he is asking you to dance."
She meant to walk past her mother, but she was easily blocked. She felt her face flushed, her breath, her heart strident in her ears.
"We're leaving. This is settled," the Duchess said and clasped her daughter's hand.
"You-" Tenten's voice shook with rage.
They were soon stopped by the host looking at them gravely. His smile was forced, his manners polished as he bowed. Tenten looked over her shoulder at the couple. An older gentleman standing by them caught her gaze and bowed his head.
Tenten immediately looked away.
"Lord Sarutobi asks to me to introduce him to you, Your Grace. We were greatly concerned to see you were ready to leave already. I hope all is well in your household?"
The Duchess didn't bat an eye.
"Tell him I'm most displeased and shocked by his manners. Please, do remind him a ball is hardly appropriate for an introduction. It is for acquaintances to be renewed, not new ones to be formed. Send him away. As you can see, we are leaving."
She turned toward her daughter, leaving the host at loss for words.
"Come along, Tenten."
Tenten clenched her jaw, staring, immobile, at the hand her mother was extending to her. She knew there always was the threat of gossip, but she couldn't contemplate the possibility of remaining silent. She couldn't contemplate the possibility of Captain Hyuuga finding out that she had remained silent when she had once told him directly: "You have acted poorly, sir."
They had acted poorly, Lord Sarutobi, Lady Hanabi and her husband. They had all acted poorly, and she couldn't contemplate not saying ot as plainly as she had done in the past.
"Tenten," her mother hissed in her ear now. "He's an earl. Even you are above his station. You will not receive his introduction. It would be most inappropriate, and do you not see how this would be perceived? That goat."
"I know," Tenten said mutely and took a single step before stopping again.
Duchess Sora's mouth tightened, but she didn't add anything.
Helplessly looking for his wife, the host let them pass.
"Your Grace!" it was now the hostess' turn to make haste after them. As they reached the hall, she cried out after them, winded, flushing angrily.
She curtsied out of breath before adding: "You are leaving quite early..."
"Yes," The Duchess replied stiffly.
"We do not care for your acquaintances," Tenten spoke loudly without glancing at her. "There are thieves among them, Madam."
"Thieves, surely!" The hostess turned toward her husband, blanched, tearing at her hands. He returned her look of horror.
"Ask Lord Sarutobi, he will tell you how one steals an estate."
Some guests were discreetly watching the curious events unfolding in front of them. It didn't take much time before the gossip reached Lord Sarutobi's ears. He and his son gaped, red-faced with embarrassment and anger.
By then, the Duchess and her daughter were already outside, and there was nothing to be done, than to bear the whispers before planning a graceful exit.
Outside, Mr Ebisu had brought forth the carriage.
Unperturbed, the Duchess ignored the pleads of both host and hostess until the door was opened for them. Then, she turned her head, her eyes shining with a violent intensity that was akin to her husband's. It was of little surprise that both Admiral Morino and his Duchess knew how to cut down a man with a few words:
"Do not invite us again."
The Duchess was helped in the carriage, followed by her daughter.
The door shut.
The Duchess closed her eyes.
"Don't," she whispered with a tired voice.
Tenen didn't move from her position by the window. The curtains hid half of her in velvet shadows and folds. Her gun didn't waver, its tip resting against the window. It fogged up. When the carriage pulled out of the courtyard into the road and the opportunity of a shot was lost, Tenten sat back against her seat, glaring at her mother.
Her forehead and cheeks were white, her mouth dry.
She taped the gun against her thigh.
"Why didn't you inform me sooner?" Tenten managed to say.
"Your father and you, you are both so short-tempered," the Duchess started with a sigh. "I thought it would be best to give you the opportunity to ridicule Lord Sarutobi. The ton will now think twice before inviting him anywhere. Are you satisfied?"
When Tenten didn't answer, the Duchess opened her eyes, her head tilted to the side, watching her daughter. Her features shifted freely now, twisted with cruelty, her pale green eyes shining in the darkness.
"Not all wars need weapons and such, child, but you already knew that or you wouldn't have called Lord Sarutobi a thief, yes? So, why are you angry with me?"
'We don't understand each other,' Tenten thought miserably as she had a thousand times over.
In silence, the carriage shuddered over a bridge.
In silence, the carriage slowed and stiffened, the horses trotting on softened ground as they advanced deeper in the lands.
"I simply wonder, Mother, if you chose this 'opportunity' as you called it, to show your displeasure without directly aiding Captain Hyuuga because of the danger he represents," Tenten said when she saw the castle.
Shadows ripped through the Duchess' face. Her chest heaving with anger.
"May I remind you, daughter of mine, that I invited Captain Hyuuga in our home before he was introduced to you," she said softly, her gaze burning, but the rest of her, once more cold and distant. "I'm crossed with the two of you. You've both lied to me, and schemed. You could have both thrown away your future, do you finally understand that, Tenten?"
"Silence," she hissed, and Tenten shrunk back, wishing her mother had shouted instead. She wished she had made her feelings plain, the way her father had.
She watched the Duchess fought for words, weighing them, while doing the same with her rising emotions. Her lips curled back and stiffening, when they reached the inner court of the castle.
She was painted in quivering darkness.
"You've both terribly wounded me and made a fool out of me," she whispered in a most uncharacteristically feeble voice.
Her cheeks blanching, Tenten stared back at her mother until all traces of her hurt expression had slid off, her chest heaving slowed, and the coachman had taken out the step of the carriage.
And Tenten couldn't help but hope the evening had been all a most vivid dream.
Once in her rooms, Tenten pressed a cold hand to her moist temples. Around her, servants walked silently, yawning as discreetly as they could, to light candles in her bedchambers and her dressing room.
Numb, she let the questions and quiet chatters of servants go unanswered.
"Just take it off me," Tenten asked shakily, her hands gripping at the fabric of her midsection. She felt her maid struggle with the laces, but there was no room to breathe. "Just cut it off me!" She sobbed and pressed a hand to her mouth.
The maid and servants exchanged an alarmed gaze before all surrounding Tenten to help her out of her clothes. Hurriedly, they draped her in her night clothes, the oldest of the servant leading her with a soothing voice to her bedchambers.
They retired as discreetly and quickly, leaving their young mistress to her dark thoughts.
One hour later, the door to her bedchambers creaked open. Tenten stiffened, then relaxed when her mother sat on the bed. The Duchess sighed and lightly touched her back and legs as if to ensure all her body was properly covers by her covers.
"I don't feel well, Mother," Tenten muttered, mechanically. "May be I excused from attending tomorrow's ball?"
She felt her mother's fingers gently brush her hair out of her face, then soothed her back.
"Let's not be crossed. Let's once more be friends," she said with her usual composure.
Tenten felt herself nod.
"I did ask your father to inquire after the Captain's welfare. The Captain refused my help."
Tenten pressed her face to her pillow. Her head pounded.
Her mother shifted uncomfortably to look down at her.
"Oh, you worry about your father and I? He wasn't crossed with me for inquiring after Captain Hyuuga," the Duchess said plainly and nodded to herself. "He knows how close I was to the Captain's mother."
Uneasy, the Duchess looked around her and fluffed the pillows and straightened the blankets over her daughter. Once she was satisfied, she nodded again and straightened her back.
"We won't fight again over this matter. We've been married a long time. There's truly no need to drive you in this state. We always come back to each other."
Tenten nodded again distractedly, squeezing her eyes shut.
She didn't want to correct her mother on the cause of her anguish. 'Does he hate me now?'
LETTER FROM DUCHESS SORA MORINO of REDWOOD TO ADMIRAL MORINO
I've no secrets from you except when it comes to purchasing anything French as it is our agreement. As such I am informing you that I will scheme and meddle as far as my education and rank will allow. Our daughter has grown withdrawn, subdue and pale, and I will not suffer it any longer. She collects accomplishments at a rate that is most frightening. She has gone through all my father's weapons and my mother's musical instruments. I do not know what to think anymore. She shows no particular attachment to any young man who comes calling. Worse, she has taken after your sordid habit of vanishing whenever the butler introduces callers. In my late mother's castle, no less. Had my mother been alive, she would have had died of this display of impropriety alone.
I urge you to speak to Tenten once you return home. You know how I struggle with emotional displays, and I simply do not seem to understand her fleeting states. I told her about Captain Hyuuga's particular situation, and she caused quite a stir at the ball. The gossips are bound to reach you faster than this letter, so I will spare you the details. She has kept to her bed to-day and has refused all food trays. I did all I could to soothe her, but she cannot seem to improve in spirits.
May you come home safely.
As the Duchess finished writing her letter to her husband, she reached for her seal, and Mr Ebisu appeared by her writing table.
She gestured for him to wait while she sealed the letter. She had grown accustomed to the soldier's unpolished manners, but it still took great offence in the amusement he always bore. His dark eyes always gleamed behind spectacles that he always chose to polish when people addressed him. It sent shivers down her spine, at times, the way he listened his eyes lowered to his spectacles, his movement slow, and his amused expression never receding.
The Duchess now turned toward him as she handed him the letter.
"Make sure this leaves as quickly as possible, please."
"I heard interesting rumours in town."
The Duchess stiffened, but without missing a bit, she dismissed her ladies-in-waiting.
Mr Ebisu waited until the door was tightly closed between the Duchess' parlour and her bedchambers before taking off his spectacles. With measured movements, he took out a handkerchief from his breast pocket and started polishing the lenses.
"Her Ladyship's neighbours have a guest known to us."
"We've many acquaintances, I'm sure you're aware, Mr Ebisu," the Duchess replied coolly.
Her daughter's welfare weighed heavily on her thoughts, and she hardly had the patience for Mr Ebisu's impertinence.
"Captain Hyuuga is here. He lodges with Mr Uchiha, Mrs Uchiha and Lord Itachi. It seems Mrs Uchiha is his cousin, Lady Hinata."
The Duchess didn't flinch. She blinked and icily dismissed Mr Ebisu with a wave of the hand in the same breath. She then reached across her writing table for her bell.
"Do you not wish to alter your letter, Your Grace?" Mr Ebisu inquired with a frown, still polishing his spectacles.
The Duchess rang for the housekeeper, ignoring Mr Ebisu's inquisitive gaze. With her usual efficiency, she gave the older woman orders for the household, then call back in her ladies-in-waiting. In a rustle of silk, they reemerged from her inner rooms and sat to resume their needle work by the window.
For a moment, Mr Ebisu observed the perfectly orchestrated movement of those attending to the lady. Even for a man, such as himself, who praised himself in understanding the delicate and frail workings out the mind, the Duchess was quite unsettling in her manners. Ignored by all, Mr Ebisu had no choice, but to bow curtly before exiting the parlour.
The Duchess held up her cup of tea to her lips, resting the gold gilded rim to her bloody lips.
A lady never repeated a dismissal.
More importantly, a lady never showed her hand.
A week had lapsed after Captain Hyuuga's arrival in the Uchiha household, when he was shown to the grounds of the Uchiha estate. Lady Hinata, Mr Uchiha, and himself walked by the cliff after they shared a cold collation by midday. The breeze was strong, but warmer than the previous day. It rolled across hay and tall grass, the scent of moist soil, fresh and strong.
Lady Hinata stopped by the cliff, holding her hat with one hand and showing the horizon with the other. The sky and the sea were vibrant blue, both crinkled by strong winds; they both foamed, wave by wave, cloud by cloud.
"It's beautiful, isn't it, brother?" Lady Hinata huffed, her cheeks pink.
As she was accustomed to, Lady Hinata waited for his reply with great expectation, her manners shy, her eyes gleaming.
Neji inclined his head with a small smile, and Lady Hinata's spirits lifted immediately. She spun on her heels, grabbing on the arm of her husband.
"It's even more beautiful on the other side," she added huffing and tilted her head toward the woods.
Neji followed the couple and both Mr Uchiha and he listened with amused expressions as Lady Hinata elaborated in great details of the work their tenants have undergone during summer and fall.
At the edge of their propriety, Lady Hinata interjected her own discourse to salute her neighbours' kindness: "Our neighbour is kind enough to let us peruse her lands for walks. All of this..." she pointed to the tightening woods, a stream agitated below thin ice and hills. "All of this, is theirs."
She looked up at her husband, and with the same demeanour Neji recognized as his own, Mr Uchiha readily agreed with his wife. Her taut expression eased, and her shoulders dropped, and she looked the happiest and most at ease, Neji had ever seen her. This both provided him with great pleasure and great pain.
"The Lady of the castle is most generous indeed," Mr Uchiha added, his voice clipped, but his body was turned toward his wife, his eyes searching hers, as if to seek, in return, her own approbation.
Neji discreetly turned his head away. The Uchiha brothers both had guarded manners when they mentioned persons of superior birth; their parents' estate had been violently ripped from their grasp by a jealous and greedy lord, Lady Hinata had informed Neji.
Smiling timidly, Lady Hinata now tapped her husband's arm with great affection, and they proceeded with their walk. Just as readily the lady resumed her detailed account of what her household hoped to reap once the weather was more clement.
In the distance, they caught a brief glimpse of a lone rider mounting a brown stallion with a black mane. The rider' pale blue riding dress trailed after the horse in the wind.
"She rides almost every day," Mr Uchiha observed coolly, his lips pinched.
Lady Hinata looked back at her husband in surprise.
"I've never noticed her before."
"Hn. I believe I told you this. She is the daughter of the Lady of the castle."
Neji purposefully fell behind, looking around him at the tall trees. Because of the couple's calm and shy manners, he considered most of their interactions to be of private nature, especially with Mr Uchiha's icy interjection and darkening thoughts, palpable.
"Indeed?" Neji heard Lady Hinata exclaimed now.
He turned away from them, having reached the cliff overlooking the sea. The waters were troubled, of a darker colour than the sea on the other side. He breathed in the salty air, and he felt like less of an intruder.
"I've never been properly introduced to her," Mr Uchiha said and Neji startled. He hadn't heard them approach; husband and wife were both standing by his elbow now, staring out at the sea, arms tightly linked.
"She was always out riding whenever I visited. It was most peculiar because her mother was receiving callers alone," Mr Uchiha frowned, and bowed his head at Neji. "I apologize, Captain Hyuuga, I have no memory for names. Surely, Lady Hinata can tell us more?"
"I can't, sir! You've told me very little of our neighbour." Lady Hinata flushed deeply turning toward Neji to explain: "Noblemen and noblewomen are scarce in the area, but our neighbour resides in the castle. We have never had the pleasure... of course... Their party appears to travel often and it would be improper to impose without an introduction. The Lady of the castle has been most kind to Lord Itachi before we arrived, however. Hasn't she, Mr Uchiha? Perhaps, we should inquire about her name with him?"
"Yes," Mr Uchiha said tentatively, seeking reassurance in his wife. It was clear to both cousins, Mr Uchiha purposely neglected titles and names of a certain class. His memory never failed him for his own people.
It took little time for Mr Uchiha and Mrs Uchiha to nod at each other, in perfect understanding that the burden of remembering the aristocracy and its conventions would fall on Lady Hinata for now on. Both satisfied and reassured in their affection for each other, they pressed forward.
Neji looked down to hide his amusement. He had to admit to himself he had been sceptical of the match at first, but they complimented each other most appropriately. Mr Uchiha's taciturnity was eased by Lady Hinata's gentleness and good spirits. In return, Lady Hinata had gained a stronger composure from Mr Uchiha's brisker manners.
"Oh, but she's stopping I believe," Hinata held her bonnet back against the wind, squinting in the harsh light. "We should greet her at the very least."
Neji remained where he was, as the couple walked on to greet their neighbour. Branches and dry herbs snapped under their weight. The ground was uneven. They moved, awkwardly, toward and away from each other. From where Neji stood he could see Lady Hinata's face flushing with embarrassment. Finally, Mr Uchiha fastened his wife's hand around his forearm.
"Careful, my dear," Neji heard Mr Uchiha mumble.
Clearing his throat, Neji turned back toward the cliff. Parting from the horizon, the sea moved, restless. Wave after wave broke ashore, the waters swirling and rumbling angrily.
Lady Hinata cried out.
Neji swiftly turned back toward his cousin.
Hinata had her handkerchief pressed to her mouth, her face completely red. Her body swayed back only held back by her husband.
The rider was bent over her horse, her hand stretched toward Lady Hinata. Neji ran back toward the party. He heard the woman speak rapidly to Mr Uchiha: "She is positively done. Hold her, sir, she'll swoon presently!"
Neji slowed recognizing the voice.
Feeling his stare, the rider raised her face toward him, her mouth stretched in surprise.
His limbs refused to move.
Lady Tenten stared back at him.
Below, the waves receded, gurgling, spitting.
His heart burst in his chest.
Am I shameless? Yes. Am I enjoying the drama far too much? Also yes.
Thank you all for being so patient with me.
Happy new year, guys! I'm glad I managed to update this before the new year. huheuheuehhue Take care!