Title: The Third Dragon
Rating: G
Fandom: none really, it can be argued, but actually Naruto.
Characters: Neji, Tenten
Genre: Fantasy, fairy-tale, sort of AU

Once upon a time, in a land of fire, there lived a girl with dark hair and thin hands and eyes that could flash like lightning. She had been born very far away, in an ancient empire whose thrones were tumbling, and been brought to the land of Fire when she was little because her family was fleeing something; but they died before they had got to safety, and she arrived in Fire a small orphan with not even a name.

Still, she grew up well enough, into a bright, light-moving girl, slim like a sword-blade and tanned from her hours in the sun. She carried her head high and spoke clearly, and without fear; she would smile at anyone willing to be friendly, and clearly did not trouble herself overmuch for anyone who was not; she was brave and swift and honorable, and Fire counted itself lucky that it had her.

She was in training to be a warrior. From childhood this had been her one driving passion, and for this she trained everyday in sun, and rain, and snow, and wind. Beside her trained her closest friend, a silver-eyed boy who came from a long line of warriors, and they grew apace until their eighteenth year.

One day, in the spring of their eighteenth year, the silver-eyed boy told his friend something of his family customs - he spoke carelessly and with some heat, because it annoyed him, and he did not notice the sudden pain that entered into the girl's amber-flashing eyes. It was gone in the next second, and the girl laughed at her friend, and teased him, and smiled a very odd smile with her mouth but not with her eyes.

She left their village the next day, and she stayed away for as long as it took for the moon to wax to full and wane to darkness – thrice over. Finally, when the crescent moon shone like a sickle-cut in the black night-sky, she returned to her home.

And the boy with the strange pale eyes went out to meet her, and his face was set in anger. He demanded of her where she had gone – "For," said he, "You gave no word of leaving."

But she only laughed at him, and asked mockingly, "And where was it written that I owe you an accounting of my comings and goings? You hold no claim on me."

His frown deepened, and the crease between his straight dark brows grew more pronounced. Again, he asked where she had gone.

She laughed, again, but answered as his mouth opened a third time. "I have been journeying all through our country," she answered him, her eyes flashing with hidden knowledge.

And the silver-eyed boy wondered.

"Where did you go? And what did you see?"

And she laughed a third time, and told him: "I have been to the mountains whose tops are ever shrouded in clouds and mist, that men call the towers of Heaven. And there I saw fields of ice that glittered whiter than the pearls of our Lady, and so brightly as to blind the eyes; and I saw the dark-spotted mountain cat that lies in wait among the rocks; and I saw a star that had fallen to earth. It was black, and smooth, and it was colder than the snow in which it lay, for all it had once shone in the sky brighter than any flame."

"And I have been to the forests that are more ancient than all traces of man, where the fine-scented trees grow to the sky, and cast deep green shadows upon the earthen floor, underneath the layers of pine-needles and fallen leaves. The deer lives there, and the panther, and the bear, and the golden-eyed wolf."

"I have been to the great city at the heart of our land, where the palace of the king sits high atop the crowds and clamor, and where the market-place brings to thee anything in the world that thou couldst wish. The markets clamor all the day and into the night, while paper lanterns light the ways and the wares, glowing red and gold. The merchants sit on silken carpets beside their wares, and they count their monies with wags of their heads. Strings of amber and coral, of diamonds and rubies and carved ivory, run through their hands with as little care as if they had been strings of wooden beads."

"Wine-sellers and pastry-sellers and sellers of roasted meats roam the market-places, crying their wares, and one may feast like a king as he walks through the market. The wine they sell is the wine of the lower valleys, the white as crisp as the snows I had seen, the red as deep as shadows in the forest, sweet as honey and as heady as the kiss of a lover."

The boy's brow had been smoothed by wonder as he listened to her speak of her travels – now it furrowed again.

"And what would one such as you know of a lover's kiss?"

"That matters not," she said in reply, and her face was without expression.

The girl with the dark, knowing eyes again removed herself from the village, this time for a space of three days and four nights. On the fourth day she came back again, and the boy waited for her at the gates as he had before.

"And where did you go?" he asked again, and felt that he asked this question too often.

"I have been at work," she replied. "I had gathered the steel of the fallen star, and the jewels of the farthest lands – ivory, and scented woods, amber and jade and topaz, silver and gold – and it was for these that I traveled the lands. And from these – look – I have forged mighty blades."

She held two swords in her hands, twin swords alike in length and grace and beauty. In her right she held a sword whose hilt was made of gold – a red dragon, cunningly wrought, curved about its length and formed a guard for the hand. Amber beads formed the eyes, and a great red ruby was set at the pommel. In her left she held a sword whose hilt was silver, and the dragon carved of onyx and jet, with tiny emeralds for eyes. An emerald as great as the ruby glittered in the pommel.

And the boy saw the beauty of these weapons, and he immediately felt a great desire for them. He asked that she gift him with one of the dragon-blades; but she only laughed.

Again, he asked, for the sake of the friendship they shared between them; she laughed again.

A third time, he asked, angry now, and spoke using his power as a son of a noble house; but at that she laughed, and louder, and said: "These, o my lord, cannot be given, or taken, or stolen. These must be earned."

There was silence, cool and quivering, that stretched between them for the space of three heartbeats – and then he bowed his head. "What must I do?"

So she set him three tasks, three quests to complete to win a dragon.

This was the first of the quests: to take a pile of mixed grains, and sort them by hand, all between the rise and set of sun. His eyes burned and his back ached, and his hands flew as fast as he could; but as the last remnants of sunset light faded away, he knew with sinking despair that he would not complete this task, and fell asleep with his hands in the grains.

But he awoke to clean white sunlight slanting through the windows, and his hands folded under his head, and two piles of uniformly sorted grains on the table in front of him.

The second quest was more a warrior's quest, something befitting a bard's tale. "Go," she told him, "Go to the top of the mountain that men call the Rock of the Birds, and in its snows find me a flower. Pluck for me something that grows in the cold and in the heights, and is beautiful, and bring it back here."

So he left on his own journey, armed with a sword that was lesser than the one he quested for, and he made his way to the Rock of the Birds. And he found it necessary to wield the blade, several times, during his journeying, and also to sleep under an open sky; to eat only what he could hunt for himself; to do without sleep and water and comfort so that he could fulfill his purpose.

But he came to the top of the mountain, and stood in snow-fields that stretched to fill his horizon; the ice glittered as silvery as his eyes, and blinded him under the sun. And there were no flowers.

He searched, and searched, but nothing lived up there in the mountain fastnesses – nothing save he, and the eagles in their high eyries, and nothing beautiful he could take back to prove his worth.

But he did not leave; he stayed, and ate snow to stay his starving belly, and slept huddled in his cloak. And one night he had a strange dream; he dreamt that he held his hand over the snow, and gently cut it open with the dragon-blade he wanted so dearly – the dragons shifting colors in his dream.

His wounded hand bled, and his blood fell onto the snow. Bright red upon white – color against purity.

When he awoke, a single blood-red bloom stood next to him.

The last task was the simplest. "Fight me," she ordered him. "Fight with me, here, now, and if you defeat me you shall have your prize."

He faltered, unsure. And a slow, mocking smile curved her lips, and her eyes glittered. "Do you fear me?" she purred, circling him with slow smooth motions. "Do you fear that you will be unable to best me in battle?"

"No," he replied, and that was simplest truth; he had always been the greater. But that had been in the days before, before she had left and before she had made those swords and before she had forced him to suffer.

"No," he said again, and he drew his sword. She smiled and drew her twin blades, red dragon and black dragon, and they moved into the steps of a swirling, dangerous dance.

"Yield," he commanded, his blade at her throat. She shook her head and he adjusted his straddle-stance above her, to better pin her down.

"Yield," he said again, and he pressed slightly- ever so slightly – against the skin of her throat, so that a thin red line glimmered slowly into being. Her eyes narrowed, and he fought the urge to draw back – the fear that, rather than surrender, she would make him cut too deeply.

"Yield," he said, a third time, and his voice trembled.

At that, she did.

She held her hands up, like a priestess offering sacrifice to her god.

"You have won a blade," she told him, head still bowed. "Choose which dragon you will, and it will be yours."

And looking at her bowed head, and the swords offered to him so openly, the silver-eyed boy came to a realization. He understood, all of a moment, what had happened during his three quests -

...the girl who slipped into the room in the middle of the night, while he slept, and left behind a completed task...

...the warrior who had trailed him through a journey to the mountains, and had watched over him, and laid a red flower beside his sleeping head...

...and the friend who had danced with him, danced with blades and sudden steps and leaps through the air, and who had yielded when he asked it.

He bowed his own head, and drew in a single, trembling breath; and then he reached out, and curved his hand around the back of her neck, and drew her close. She dropped the swords.

"This," he whispered, laying his forehead against hers, silver eyes looking into amber. "This is the dragon I choose."

Oh man. I know this language sounds a bit pretentious. I was trying to write more for feel than anything, but...guh. How did it sound to you guys? Purplish-prosey? Was it overdone? The second half was way less influenced, was it better? Edit: Cut out and revised the dialogue I KNEW was wrong, but had such fun writing anyway. That's a fatal flaw, that is - this love of 'thee'.

I wanna sushi.