(Posted: 08/19/2013.)

For this "early" update, you guys have supportingcharacters, Dissonantia, bright-rebellious, and ignorance (anonymous reviewer) to thank. They left such nice reviews that my heart was incredibly touched.

With that said, please don't expect this every time. Love you all!


Arabesque

I Can Hear the Sea

11. ISN'T SHE LOVELY?

(Godaikoku Championships, part 2)

.

"... isn't she wonderful?"


"Considering the intensity of this matchup, the two gold-medal favorites have maintained a surprisingly civil, amicable relationship. There will be no knee-whacking here. [Michelle] Kwan, 21, and [Irina] Slutskaya, 23, are of the same generation, and of the same dreams. They have paid their dues, and are looking to cash in for the ultimate prize - the gold medal.

"We are maybe not close friends, but we are friendly," said Slutskaya, one of the few married skaters. "There is no reason not to be."

From Kwan, Slutskaya keeping a hot rivalry on ice by the New York Daily News (Feb 7, 2002)


(—Nineteen years-old, mid-February)

(8 February, fifth season on the senior level)

"The man skates like a bull. I mean, there's like, no artistry there."

"No, but the control he has over his jumps are second-to-none," Tenten giggled to her companion. "It's pretty crazy how he manages to land a tilted jump so stably. Lesser skaters just fall on those."

"You mean like me? I'm sure you could land that in your sleep!"

"Don't be so cheeky, Moegi," Tenten said, rolling her eyes. "This guy has four years over me on the senior level and he can land three quads in a program like it's nothing. But you're right, his presentation stinks."

"Well, at least he hasn't fallen or popped any jumps so far," Gekkō Hayate, an ice dancer, spoke up from Tenten's other side. "It's kind of been a splatfest so far ..."

Moegi snorted as they moved to clap their hands to the rhythm of the music just as the rest of the audience was doing. Tenten was currently watching the men's free skate event the day before her own and was sitting with her fellow Fire Country skaters in support of their teammates. Sitting next to her was fellow competitor, Ito Moegi. Sixteen and one year out of the junior circuit, Moegi was widely regarded as her "current" second-in-command.

Tenten had been thirteen when she was first allowed to compete at senior-level Nationals (the only senior event she was eligible for until she turned fifteen) and six titles later, she looked back to find that the silver medalist had been a different skater each year. Moegi had finished a rather distant second to Tenten at last year's Nationals, but had also managed to win this year's competition in Tenten's absence.

(Tenten liked to think that it signified that Moegi was a young skater with a very promising career.)

Sitting next to Moegi was newcomer Ueno Hibari, who was the same age as the freshly-minted National champion and was also new on the senior circuit this year. She had managed to snag a silver medal at Nationals and earned the third spot on the team at the Godaikoku Championships. She did, however, miss a chance at being on the World team, seeing that Tenten and Moegi had barely managed to get two spots for the ladies' event due to their dismal showings at the Worlds' event last year.

"Maybe girls like him 'cause he flails around so much," Uzuki Yūgao, Hayate's partner, snickered as the on-ice skater threw himself into the straightline footwork. "He's got windmill arms."

"She's right," Hibari said from Moegi's other side, nodding her head. "See she doesn't get it either! Why do all these girls keep screaming for him? He's not even that hot either!"

"Maybe because he's an Earth Country skater and we're in Earth Country?" Tenten asked amusedly. "Besides, it's nice to show a little support for the skaters. Anyway, Hayate's right. He hasn't fallen even once, so I think competing with home crowd cheering for him is helping him so far."

"Yeah, okay. Fine," Hibari sulked, having been reprimanded by her senior.

The competitor punched his hands into the air as he finished his skate. The audience stood and cheered for him, Tenten and company included.

"Is Lee on the ice yet?" Moegi asked as the Earth Country skater retreated to the Kiss and Cry booth with his coach to receive his scores. Most of the audience was still cheering and little girls were scattered around the rink picking up flowers and gifts and things.

"Yeah, he's talking to Gai-sensei over there," Tenten pointed towards a section of the ice. Lee was already inside the rink as Gai was talking to him by the boards.

"The scores please, for Amano Akatsuchi."

The audience fell silent.

He has earned 172.22 for the free skate for a total of 250.56 and is currently in ... second place!"

While the audience once again went crazy, Tenten's focus was mainly on her coach and her training partner. Lee seemed to be nodding to Gai while wiping his nose. When at last the audience quieted down to a hum, the announcer introduced Lee to the crowd.

"The next competitor, representing Fire Country, please welcome ... Rock Lee!"

As Lee skated out onto center ice, he was very well-received by the supportive crowd. Their little row of Fire Country skaters cheered loudly and proudly as Lee waved to the crowd. He was currently in fifth after the short program after receiving a score of 80.23.

For the free skate, he was skating to Nino Rota's "La Strada", a contrast to his soft and lyrical short program to "The Swan". For this program, Lee opted for a slightly more theatrical and whimsical route than most skaters would have. As the music began, he pretended that he'd just opened his eyes from a peaceful slumber and then pretended to trip on his skates, which had promptly "woken him up".

Lee then opened with a quad toe with plenty of height and distance across the ice; it would be sure to garner some +2.00s and +3.00 GOEs across the board from all the judges. Next were the quad toe-double toe combination and a triple axel; both delighted the crowd even more than his first (solo) quad.

After a flying sit spin, that's when Lee went to work.

He flew across the ice at a dizzying speed, throwing himself into his circular step sequence. For Tenten, it brought up past memories of grainy videotapes of a certain four-time world champion—more specially, their four-time World champion, Maito Gai. In his heyday, Gai-sensei had been famous for his dazzling displays of footwork. Where other skaters faltered in their performances with methodical and half-hearted steps during this portion of their programs, Gai-sensei had shined and delighted the crowd with how he flew across the ice with such quick steps, much like Lee was achieving now.

Doing the old man proud, that one.

Tenten smiled to herself. Off the ice and in training, Lee was usually such a personality that it was sometimes a little embarrassing to be around him.

But whenever he stepped foot on competition ice, he transformed into a whole other person. He was actually kind of ... suave.

The audience was practically eating out of the palm of Lee's hand. Around the stadium, people of all ages and nationalities were clapping jovially to the beat of the music, having a grand old time.

Both Tenten and Lee were heart-on-sleeve type of skaters, Lee especially. As silly as he could be in his everyday life, he was able to channel his personality into his programs to make them as wonderfully expressive as his "La Strada" program was now. As he transitioned out of his circular steps, he flew into a triple flip-double loop-double loop—

"Oh!"

Tenten cringed a little. While Lee hadn't exactly fallen, he'd taken quite a few steps backward out of his three-jump combination. She figured it was probably because he'd thrown himself into his performance so much that he'd had too difficult of a time to control his speed.

Lee managed to reign himself back in for his last four jumping passes: triple loop, triple axel-triple toe (in the second-half of the program! That particular combination had the crowd in a riot), double lutz (it was supposed to have been a triple), and a triple salchow, before going into a slightly slow flying combination spin, which wasn't entirely uncharacteristic—spins weren't Lee's strong suit.

But then he flew back into another footwork sequence which was less whimsical than before, but more like one that highlighted the beginning of an end to his program. About a quarter of the audience was out of their seats for Lee had even finished his back scratch-spin; Tenten and her compatriots were no exception to that.

Lee pumped his fists into the air, overjoyed at having more-or-less landed all his jumps. About a third of the audience remained seated, but was still clapping for the skater from Konoha.

They all sat back down when Lee stepped out of the ice and into the Kiss and Cry area. Tenten and Moegi anxiously awaited his scores.

"Ohhh, I hope he gets a good score!" Moegi squeaked.

"Yeah, me too," Tenten laughed.

"The scores please, for Rock Lee."

The audience fell silent.

He has earned 166.88 for the free skate for a total of 247.11 and is currently in ... third place!"

While most of the attendees were clapping for his scores, there were many who thought he was underscored for his valiant efforts and made sure the judges knew it. Around her, some in the audience booed and jeered at the judges for placing him beneath Earth Country's Akatsuchi. Tenten was just a little worried for Lee. With two more skaters left to go, there was a chance that he'd get knocked off the podium and leave with a 5th place finish.

"Oh, come on!" Moegi complained. "How is his program component score lower than that of the skater currently in first place? That's bullshit!"

(By the end of the competition, Lee barely managed to hold on to bronze—his second ever medal at the Godaikoku Championships.)

- - - x - - -

(9 February, the next day, morning.)

The next morning was the ladies' final official practice, which also doubled as their dress rehearsal. Both Moegi and Hibari had already practiced earlier in the morning, having been part of the second and first groups, respectively, to skate based on their placements in the short program. Tenten was in a group of five, with four other formidable skaters sharing the ice with her: Water Country's Ringo Ameguri was there (having finished fifth in the short program) along with the Earth Country #1 Miyahara Kurotsuchi (fourth), who had missed out on the Grand Prix circuit as she had still been recovering from surgery for a hip injury. Yono Karui of Lightning Country who seemed to be having a relatively good event so far, and was sitting in third. (Samui sat in sixth, and therefore did not "make the cut".)

And, of course, Sabaku Temari of Wind Country.

Tenten had just come out of a triple jump just in time to catch the last spin of Kurotsuchi's "Memoirs of a Geisha" program, the pink sparkles on the sakura flowers on her aqua blue dress shimmering under the stadium lights as the other skater struck her final pose. Kurotsuchi had drawn first in the skate order and Tenten third, so Tenten was right where she wanted to be. It would give her enough time to catch her breath after the five-minute warm up period later that night, but didn't make her wait too long to have her turn.

As fate would have it, Temari would be skating right before her, the reverse of what happened in the short program. So as the announcer called out the Wind skater's name, Tenten cleared out of Temari's way so that the older skater could practice her program in full.

Wearing a classy black turtleneck dress with an exhilarating open back, Temari skated into her opening pose.

The Wind skater would be skating to the music of Boléro. As the regal and one-movement piece came on, Tenten took the opportunity to briefly observe the choreography of the program. Boléro was one of those pieces of music that no skater could use without bringing a skating legend to mind.

In this case, it was Gamadō Shima and Fukasaku, the legendary ice dancing team from the small principality of Myōboku, which was a mountainous region located between the borders of Fire and Waterfall Country. Shima and Fukasaku were the original innovators, even before they had become Olympic champions some thirty years ago. On the journey to their Olympic gold medal, they learned how to seamlessly edit their pieces of music and create choreography that blended artistry with athleticism, which would influence the skating styles of generations that came after them.

Their Olympic free dance was to the music of Boléro, which they had performed to absolute perfection. Even now, more than three decades after that breathtaking performance that had garnered a straight row of perfect 6.0s, no skater or team had ever escaped the mention of Gamadō Shima and Fukasaku if they ever skated to Boléro—not even Temari.

However, to Temari's credit, her take on the piece of music was quite unique and modern. She performed it with such gusto that no other skater had ever thought of doing before, so that was major points to her choreographer as well.

Of course, Temari's height of 5'6" was quite unusual for a female figure skater; Tenten was 5'4" herself, most skaters were her height or below. So, it was quite a surprise that Temari could even land a triple axel as well as she did—all of female figure skaters that had accomplished such a feat were all under 5'2", short, and stocky. Nonetheless, with her tall stature, she had developed her own style—light, but alluring and dramatic; a little reminiscent of Terumi Mei—that would accentuate her long limbs rather than hinder them.

Tenten was nervous about the free skate later that night to say the least.

- - - x - - -

(9 February, later that evening.)

"You know how I hired a private investigator to look for any half-siblings I might have?"

"I do," Neji answered.

"Well, surprisingly enough, I've only found one," Neji's older cousin Kō said with a sarcastic chuckle. "Anyway, you'll never guess who he is."

"It would be unlikely if it was someone that I do not know. Is this mystery person a figure in the public eye or otherwise?"

"Well, a bit of both, actually."

Neji stayed silent, waiting for Kō to elaborate. When he didn't, Neji prompted with, "And?"

"It's Shō Ao!" Kō exclaimed, "My little brother is Shō Ao! Can you believe it?"

"The Water Country swimmer?" Neji asked; this new information had him raising his eyebrows.

"That's the one," Kō replied. "Do you think I should reconnect with him? Invite him to the wedding or something?"

"He's your half-brother. It is your decision, but I doubt the Elders would like that."

"Perfect. They're all too uptight anyway."

Even Neji had to smirk at this. Kō had always been considered to be the ideal ("perfect") Hyuuga princeling, so to speak, in his achievements and how he conducted himself—until he had met Shizuka. The cold beauty had stolen his heart and was perfect for him, except for one thing. She didn't come from an influential—or even wealthy—family. Because of this, Kō had to fight for her acceptance into the Hyuuga family for some time. Long story short, there were still some objections, but they were to be married in a few months. For Kō to say that he wanted even more to ruffle a few feathers of some of the more pretentious Elders was quite amusing in itself.

Despite this, Neji still had to ask, "Is that really such a good idea?" as he reached for the bottle of sake on the coffee table and poured himself a saucer. "He may resent you for having all of Uncle Hoheto's attention growing up—and for being a bastard child."

"Illegitimate. Illegitimate child," Kō corrected. "It's a question I asked myself many times. But I thought I should at least try. I did mention it to Uncle Hiashi, though."

"And?"

"He wasn't very receptive to the idea, but told me to do whatever felt right," Kō said, sighing and taking another drink. "Enough of that, so what's this I hear about my alleged half-brother and Tenten?"

Neji listened with annoyance as Kō rattled off on rumors he'd heard before setting the saucer down. "No truth to them," he replied gruffly.

"Really?" his cousin asked. "That commercial they shot together was pretty sweet."

"I am quite certain," Neji stressed, pouring himself another saucer.

"Is that so?" Kō asked with a laugh.

"That is what I have been told."

"Well, in any case, he looks like a handsome fellow. Seems like he and Tenten have good chemistry together—that's what Shizuka says anyway."

"Hn."

"Take it easy, Neji," Kō laughed. "I'm only joking."

"Speaking of your fiancée," Neji began, "the wedding is in three months, is it not?"

"Don't remind me," Kō groaned. "If she would agree to an elopement, I would do it in a heartbeat. All this wedding-planning is driving me insane."

"The Elders would strongly object to that; though, perhaps less than if you told them you were planning to reconnect with your illegitimate half-brother," Neji said, turning his gaze to the television. Yono Karui from Lightning Country was doing rather poorly tonight. The combination of alcohol and his ongoing conversation with Kō was helping him get through it. "Is that why you are here drinking with me on a Saturday night instead of spending time with your fiancée?"

"Well, I'm not stupid enough go out with my friends if she's at home planning for the wedding with her her friends. The Manor seemed like the next best option since Aunt and Uncle are out of town," Kō said unabashedly, finishing his own saucer of sake. "Anyway," Kō said, quickly shifting gears, "Is Tenten okay? I heard about what happened with the hotel."

"I think so," Neji answered. "The Federation made sure to increase security."

"That's good to hear. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Though, I'm glad it wasn't at the World Championships."

"I would rather it not have happened at all."

"True." The two sat in a comfortable silence before Kō spoke up again. "Anyway, where are my cute little cousins?"

"Cute? Hardly. Hinata returned home for the weekend from university last night; she is out to dinner," Neji said. "As for Hanabi, she is somewhere around he—"

"HERE!" the youngest Hyuuga cried out, practically bouncing into the living room with the family Leonberger on her heels. Her hair was in a mess; something that would not be so if Hiashi was in the house. Hanabi had clearly just woken up from a nap. "Hinata and company are back, Neji-niisan. I saw Kiba park his car outside from the window. Kō-niisan, I didn't know you were coming."

"To be honest, I didn't either," Kō said, shrugging. "How's my favorite cousin doing?"

"Hinata's your favorite," Hanabi said, pouting.

"Eh, depends on how I feel at the moment," Kō teased, affectionately scratching Juuken's ear after the dog insistently nudged his free hand.

"Neji-niisan, you're not supposed to be drinking in front of me." Hanabi pouted. Neji ignored her. "Is Tenten on yet?"

"Not yet," Kō answered. "Might be soon though."

"Heeey, how's the soon-to-be married Hyuuga doing?" Kiba exclaimed as he entered the room with Akamaru beside him, and Hinata and Shino in front of him.

"Kō-niisan!" Hinata exclaimed happily. "What brings you here?"

"Just wanted to see how my favorite family members were doing," Kō said sweetly.

"Liar," Neji muttered under his breath.

"Did you two get the wedding invitations?" Kō asked Kiba and Shino, ignoring Neji.

Shino nodded as Kiba said, "Y'know, my sister is going to be a bridesmaid in your wedding. It'd be a little awkward if we didn't get them."

"Ah, right. Right."

"Sabaku Temari, huh? To be honest, she's kind of hot," Kiba said, looking at the television and taking a seat next to Neji before swiping an extra saucer and pouring himself a drink. "How's Tenten looking?"

'Stunning, beautiful, amazing,' Neji wanted to answer. Instead, he settled on, "She's next."

As everyone else took their seats, Neji watched amusedly as Akamaru strolled towards Juuken, initiating a series of butt-sniffing on both sides until both large dogs planted their bottoms down on the floor, wagging their tails as they settled down. Neji turned his attention back on the large flat-screen.

"Really great footwork sequence there. I mean, she's got every turn and step imaginable in it!"

Sabaku Temari looked like she was really getting into the straight-line steps of her Bolero program, using her upper body to really feel the music. She was selling her long program quite brilliantly, as demonstrated by the audience members loudly clapping in unison to the beat of the music.

She followed it up with a sequence of choreographed spirals, which wasn't carried out as wonderfully as Tenten would've done, mainly because Temari lacked Tenten's extension and flexibility due to a back injury that she'd sustained in the past. Unlike with other programs, Temari chose to end her program with a jump instead of a spin, which was a pretty risky move considering that if it were to go wrong, it would have messed up the entire mood of the program.

"This last triple salchow is going to make or break this program ... and she barely—just barely—squeaks it in!"

"Well, you can see her catching her breath at the end of the program here. It's really a bit difficult to skate in this arena, being that it's so warm in here."

"Yes, I do have to agree, Izumo. She opened with a beautiful, beautiful triple axel, and a gorgeous triple flip combination, but popped her triple lutz into a double and opted for an easier double toe at the end of her axel-toe combination. But that was a incredibly brilliant skate from Sabaku Temari, considering that this is her first international event since November."

Sabaku Temari really was a brilliant skater; she wouldn't have made it to the top if she wasn't. At their best, she and Tenten would be on par with one another, almost equals. Whatever one might be deficient in, the other was stronger. Temari had been crowned World champion last year, and Tenten two years before that. But while Neji thought that Temari had reached the pinnacle of her skating skills, Neji believed that Tenten could progress even further—she would one day fully and undeniably eclipse the rest of her competition.

One day, she would be virtually unbeatable. He just knew it.

"Everything is slowed-down in this program, which I think is good for her with this piece of music. She really just took the time to enjoy the program. She's certainly working her way to the World Championships next month."

"The scores please, for Sabaku Temari."

"For Sabaku Temari of Wind Country: she has earned 133.46 for the free skate—"

"...For a total score of 207.04, a new personal best. She is currently in first place!"

Cheers erupted around the stadium. They knew what that score meant. On the screen, the faces of Temari and her coach lit up as they saw her score; Temari had covered her mouth in disbelief. She had passed the 200 mark—just like many skating commentators and reporters predicted she would earlier in the week.

Only, she didn't just break 200, she shattered it.

Only one woman had passed the total 200-mark since the implementation of the Code of Points (CoP) system; the Olympic champion, Kazahana Koyuki had only done it once in her lifetime (210.03) at the Olympics. Up until now, she had been the only woman to achieve this feat.

And even if it wasn't with a world-record score, Sabaku Temari was now the second.

Neji worried for Tenten.

Meanwhile, amid the thunderous cheers of the spectators, Tenten was being given a few last words of encouragement from Maito Gai while rubbing her nose with a tissue from the proffered box of tissue. When Gai-sensei grinned and clapped his hands together, she smiled back at him and nodded before turning around to face the crowd.

"No doubt hearing the very high marks for Temari may have had an effect on her," Kotetsu commented. "Talking to Maito Gai a moment ago and now skating off onto the ice is the leader after the short program after a new world record score. Can she beat that?"

"And now, representing Fire Country, please welcome Ryū Tenten!"

"She missed out on F.C. Nationals due to a stress fracture in her foot, but is back and here now hoping to get her third Godaikoku Championship title. With a record-breaking short program score two nights ago, we shall see if she can accomplish that Temari just did and perhaps set the bar even higher."

Neji as Tenten took the ice; she waved her arms in the air, moving in a circular arc around the rink. Her presence was welcomed very warmly by the crowd—was it possible for such a petite figure to exude so much presence over such a spacious place?

The dress was exactly as Neji remembered; a sophisticated number of rich, vivid red. The golden sequins and beads of her dress reflected in the light, weaving around her costume in an intricate design. While her short program dress was designed by Deidara, this one was actually done by a relatively well-known designer of figure skating costumes. (As much as she was Deidara's new muse, Tenten did like variation.) Her ears were adorned with glittering princess-cut diamond studs on each side, the jewels glistening brightly as she moved her head.

(Faintly, he wondered how the earrings he was going to give her on her birthday would look on her. Would she wear them to the World Championships?)

"Skating to Scheherazade, music that she and Yuuhi Kurenai chose together. Opening with a triple salchow—this replaces the jump, the quadruple toe-loop, which still hurts her foot."

"Why does that jump hurt her foot but not the other?" Kiba asked, taking another drink of sake.

"Because one's a toe jump and the other one's an edge jump," Shino said monotonously.

"Yeah, like that explains anything to me," Kiba said, rolling his eyes. "How do you know so much, anyway?

"She actually slipped off the edge on that triple salchow in practice earlier … something like that can shake your confidence. This is actually a jump that has given her trouble in the past year or so."

Neji noted that, like her short program dress, this one clung to her lean body before gently flaring out at her bottom. This dress, however, was far more ornate than her short program dress. Gold beading was meticulously and intelligently sewn onto the red dress, creating an intricate pattern along her upper body. The skirt of the dress had been constructed differently, with more layers and a carefully placed slit on one side. Even with the different skirt, the dress fluttered around her legs as she began to dance. There was intensity reflected in Tenten's hazel eyes as she flashed an alluring gaze at the judges before gliding backwards over the ice, setting up for her first jump.

"Right here, triple salchooow—oh! I don't know if that was clean. Might have been a minor double-footed landing. We'll have to see the playback to figure that out."

She enchanted the crowd with her expressive movements before immediately throwing herself into preparing for the next element in her program; her triple-triple combination.

"Her combination is next … replaced the toe with the loop. Great speed across the ice—triple lutz … triple loop … yes! YES!"

"Damn girl, my bad," Kiba joked. Akamaru barked from his spot right in front of the TV.

"One of the hardest triple-triple combinations being done tonight! Did you see how she just flew into that? The amount of speed she picked up was incredible. We're really seeing the effects of Maito Gai's coaching in her."

The few other skaters that had dared to attempt the triple lutz-triple loop combination had always made it seem so awkward and ugly, especially during the transition from the lutz to the loop. Neji knew that Tenten had studied the movement of reigning Olympic Champion, Kazahana Koyuki, because she had been the only woman to do that jump combination with such great quality.

"And this spread eagle into a double axel … double toe … double loop; and an arm up on the loop—which adds to the difficulty. Very nicely landed. Very light, very elegant."

"There is such wonderful choreography in this program, done by Yuuhi Kurenai … just beautiful."

As Tenten moved out of her first spin, a flying sit spin, she moved onto a series of choreographic passages just as quickly. With her movements, Tenten conveyed a sense of desperation—as the vizier's daughter, the brave and intelligent Scheherazade, felt when she was determined to save the lives of her people by deciding to captivate the attentions of a murderous sultan.

But there was such an unforgettable intensity in her eyes—she was more than just a pretty skater; she was a competitor, hungry for the win.

"She's really pretty, ne, Neji-niisan?" Hanabi slyly remarked, eyes glued to the screen.

With each intricate movement, Tenten spun a mesmerizing story, captivating the attentions of the viewers like the legendary storyteller captivated the king. Not only was she using her arms to express the music, but her whole body and her face as well. Her portrayal of the character was so convincing, so spellbinding— Neji was, without a doubt, enchanted.

"Hn."

"Kind of reminds you of the 6.0 era, doesn't it, Kotetsu? She's just got these little flourishes that we don't see with many skaters nowadays—especially since everyone is so busy counting whether or not they have enough points in their program to win or medal."

It wasn't a secret that Tenten looked up to skaters of old, like Senjuu Tsunade and Mitarashi Anko, the latter of which was currently commentating on the Fire Country broadcast of the competition. They had belonged to a period when artistry was held in equal, if not higher, regard to technical ability. Old man Sarutobi and Iruka-sensei used to have her watch old skating tapes when she was younger to teach her the importance of good posture and how to use her whole body to effectively convey emotions. But while she admired the two illustrious skaters, she had a style and uniqueness all her own.

"This triple loop—yes. Yes. Does it just so effortlessly. You know, I think her jumps have gotten stronger as this season has progressed."

And then Neji saw it as it was happening. She wasn't going to make it. Even Akamaru and Juuken had made noises.

"Double axel … triple to—"

Shit, shit, SHIT!

"Oh Kami-sama! That was unexpected. What a fall!"

"Crap—"

"Hanabi, language," Hinata said sternly.

"—Crud, that looked like it hurt!" Hanabi cried, squeezing her head with her hands.

Her fall had Neji cringing on the inside. He had seen it, even from her position in the air. Her double axel had been off enough already, it hadn't been wise for her to do a triple toe—it had looked so off-axis in the air—Neji wished that she wouldn't have been so stubborn. Besides, that was the jump that hurt her foot! Stubborn woman!

"That just … she didn't get enough lift into the air. I think her foot might still be giving her a bit of trouble."

With the illusion shattered, Tenten quickly got up and flew into her arabesque spiral. The stretch and extension of her positions slowly got the crowd mesmerized once more—all exuded a sort of soaring feeling that matched the music.

"But have you seen anything in this entire combination as beautiful as her spirals? The command she has over the ice when she performs these change of edges … marvelous."

There really was nothing like the pristine white of her skating boots. While many other skaters decided to hide their boots under the nude flesh-color tights that were mandatory, Tenten went the classic route. She'd tried it one year, hiding her boots, but she had hated how her legs looked. "I look like I have fat ankles," she'd stated quite bluntly. So the tights were tucked back into her boots.

"Triple flip. Ooh! She flew into it so fast, that I thought she was going to lose the landing on it, but she held on with such finesse!"

With the fall on her second double axel combination, Neji knew that Tenten was still trying to get her concentration back. She'd gone into the triple flip so quickly that he thought it was a miracle that she'd been able to wrestle control back on the landing like that without double-footing it or putting her hand down—she actually held the landing position of that jump—it spoke volumes of how experienced of a skater she was.

"Her control over the ice is amazing," Hinata quietly, yet admiringly piped up from beside Hanabi.

Without any hesitations, Tenten flew into her flying combination spin at a dizzying speed. Every change in position was breathtakingly beautiful. She had such good posture and graceful flexibility—something that some skaters struggled with.

"Good speed throughout this footwork here."

"…building up the tension before this final—triple lutz! Pure technique, her air positions are just flawless."

Tenten had the most wonderful ride-outs from her jumps. The fact that she could hold onto the landing for a few more seconds after the jump was completed showed such balance, such mastery of the blade. The crowd clapped and cheered as she emerged from the last position on her final element, the combination spin, before bending backwards into her ending pose.

"Beautiful program with some mistakes, but a standing ovation for her."

Tenten relaxed out of her pose and slowly skated in a circle, putting her hands on her hips before smiling, embarrassed. Neji's heart floated in his chest as Tenten shook herself out of her thoughts and gave the crowd a bright smile before waving, bowing multiple times.

"Ladies and gentlemen, from Fire Country, Ryū Tenten!" the announcer called out.

"She wasn't nearly as dominant as she could be, like in the short program … There might have been a mistake on the salchow; she had a glaring mistake on the second double axel combination where she fell, and that wild triple flip … did not skate to her full potential tonight, but man! I've said it before and I'll say it again, what a phenomenal skater—she's got such good basics and that makes for such wonderful technique."

"No wonder she's your girl, eh little cousin?" Kō asked, nudging Neji.

"Who's his girl?" Kiba asked, never one to miss a beat. "Wait, you mean—"

"Tenten!" Hanabi yelled excitedly.

"We are just best friends," Neji said stiffly. "I have no claim on her."

"Not a particularly wonderful skate for Ryū Tenten, but I mean, she's up against some really powerful skaters here. Lightning Country, the dominant country; Miyahara Kurotsuchi of Earth Country … and of course, Sabaku Temari who has been her rival for so, so long."

"But I think Kurotsuchi is going to get bumped out of second. Tenten, even with her flaws, was phenomenal."

"Probably not, but you do like her," Hanabi said simply.

"You like Tenten?" Kiba asked incredulously.

"I agree, Anko. That performance was not easy for her—that mistake on the axel-toe combination shook her up a little bit, but she really managed to recover from that."

"I do not—"

"He does—"

"Make up your damn minds," Kiba said, giving a pointed look to Hanabi and Neji.

Ko laughed. "So when are you going to do something about it?"

"I'm not going to do anything," Neji answered immediately, reaching for the sake bottle. He was too tired to argue and he recognized that it was futile to deny anything—but if they were going to have this conversation, he was going to need another drink. "Because there is not anything that needs to be done."

"Now look at this triple salchow ... see how she kind of tenses up as she's entering the jump and—yeah, there was a slight double-footed landing on that jump. Possibly a minor downgrade on it as well."

"But the secret weapon in her vast arsenal of skating skills is really her triple-triple combinations. Her triple lutz-triple toe combination was already ranked right up there with that of the men. But this triple lutz-triple loop combination …"

"Oh, come on. It's been like, what, about a year since you started liking her?" Hanabi asked, looking at him pointedly. "I heard you telling Hinata-neechan!"

"H-Hanabi!"

"So wait, it's actually true? Hina, why'd you keep it a secret from us for so long? I thought we were close," Kiba said with a laugh. "But suddenly everything makes sense. Geez, with all the eye-sex you keep trying to have with her ..."

"I do not—"

"Yeah, sometimes you kind of just stare at her," Hanabi added in all her teenage wisdom, "like she's the center of your universe, or something cheesy like that. And why are you acting so stupid? I tell you all the time that you should tell her!"

"Look at the speed and the trajectory of her jumps—first and right into the second jump."

"Hinata," Neji said, expecting a response from his younger cousin.

"Well, Neji-niisan, it's—I-I mean, I never wanted to say anything and she's never noticed—"

Neji shot her a look.

"Erm. No, a-absolutely not," she hastily corrected.

"And this double axel combination: shaky landing on the double axel and she just wasn't straight up in the air, nor did she get enough lift on the triple toe. It could be a costly mistake."

"But why not ask her out?" Kiba asked, genuinely curious.

"Because he doesn't want to screw up their friendship," Shino spoke up.

"But overall, her jumping technique's improved under the tutelage of Maito Gai—her artistry and acting has just been brought out by Yuuhi Kurenai. She's just gone above and beyond in her skating this year."

"The free skating scores please, for Ryū Tenten."

"I highly doubt your friendship's going to get to that," Kō said. "You two just need a ... push in the right direction."

"Scores are coming up," Hanabi interrupted. "Kami-sama, I hope they're good ..."

Neji held his breath.

"Her score for the free skate is … 128.77, with a total score of 204.61."

"It's not enough," Kō muttered.

"She is currently in ... second place!"

"Ugh! I'm torn between feeling happy and feeling upset," Hanabi complained. Neji agreed.

"Oh, it wasn't enough to win!" Kotetsu lamented. "But she broke 200!"

"Kind of makes you wonder what kind of score she would've gotten if she'd skated perfectly and with a quad toe," Anko stated. "It would have been massive!"

" Both Tenten and Temari have broken the 200-mark and it's looking like they'll be the only ones to do so tonight. I highly doubt anyone else will be able to top what those two have done. Highly doubt it."

"Seriously though," Kō said. "I approve of her and I'm sure Aunt and Uncle do too. Ask the girl out, won't you?"

Maybe on her birthday, Neji thought.

"Seriously?" Kiba exclaimed in disbelief. Everyone else looked at Neji like he'd grown an extra head.

Shit! He'd voiced that out loud!

"Wait, are you screwing with us right now?"

"No."

"Wait, like 'no' as in you're going to ask her, or 'no' as in you're screwing with our heads right now?" Kō asked.

"Choose whatever you feel is right," Neji said cryptically.

"Neji-niisan!" Hanabi pouted. "Tell us!"

"Well, if you're going to ask her, you better do it soon; Olympic season be damned," Kiba stated. "Ask her or someone else will, because I know for a fact that Sasuke's been giving her the same looks you have."

(At the end of the night, Tenten had done more than enough to keep her silver-medal position behind Temari.)

"What?"

"Just kidding—maybe."

"Kiba."

"Okay, okay! I made that part up."


I recently found a NejiTen one-shot that I had been searching for but didn't remember the title or the author. Anyway, it's called "Masquerade" by Lellian. It's good; go check it out!

- - - x - - -

Was this chapter too long? I would hope not.

Links in profile: (1) YouTube video of what Lee's free skate is based on. That of Tenten's and Temari's will be posted later.

Note #1: The bit about Shima and Fukasaku (the toad sages!) and Bolero is based on the legendary ice dance team Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean of Great Britain. Bolero is their most famous program where they received a string of perfect 6.0s for artistic impression at the 1984 Olympics—which was a truly amazing feat considering that the perfect 6.0 score was VERY rarely given, especially in international competitions, let alone a row of them. Even now, Bolero is a piece of music that no skater can use without being compared to Torvill and Dean.

(Programs that were considered masterpieces in the past might not seem like that now to newer generations, but they paved the way for skaters today.)

Note #2: Lee's La Strada program is inspired by World Champion Daisuke Takahashi's 2009-2010 Olympic free skate to the same music. (That program is actually when I absolutely fell in love with Daisuke's skating.)

Note #3: Will post Tenten and Temari's free skating program inspirations in a later chapter.

Song/Theme: "Isn't She Lovely?" by Stevie Wonder