As a warning, this starts off like a sequel, but I promise you it's not. Just go with it. ;)
Also, there is no formal time period/setting for this AU. This is very much a mash-up of the legends of Mulan and Joan of Arc, and I pulled a bit from Tamora Pierce's quartets The Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small. So, keep that in mind, I suppose. :)
Disclaimer: Kishimoto owns all characters. The idea and words are mine.
TenTen scratched the sliver of skin below her manacles. She bit her lip when the irritated skin cracked and began to bleed once more.
She assumed they would kill her soon.
Treachery was a crime that was punishable by death, and the full consequence was usually enacted.
TenTen was not afraid of death.
For as long as she'd been in this country, TenTen had never been afraid of death.
Outside, the sky was threatening rain.
The tower croaked and groaned as the wind roared outside.
There was a clatter in the hall.
TenTen peered through the dimly lit cell, expecting a guard.
Instead, she saw her prosecutor.
His eyes were the strangest she'd ever seen: a misty white, the pupil hardly defined.
Behind him walked a guard, a set of keys in his hand.
TenTen watched them, curious as to what her prosecutor wanted.
Her case had already been decided. She was expected to burn any day now. His job was done.
What does he want now? TenTen thought, suspicious.
The guard unlocked TenTen's cell and entered, grasping her manacled wrists and unshackling them.
TenTen sent him a questioning look, but the guard remained silent, stepping once more out of the cell, leaving TenTen and her prosecutor alone.
"Come," he said shortly, his peculiar eyes focusing on her brown ones.
TenTen stood, deciding to reserve her questions until he told her just what was going on.
She exited her cell, feeling uncertain.
Her prosecutor turned and started walking down the slim walkway of the prison.
TenTen passed other prisoners, numerous guards, each time receiving the same curious look.
Up ahead, her prosecutor never lost stride, carrying him to the outside world.
TenTen bit her cracked lip, anxious.
It had been weeks, close to a month since she'd been outside.
TenTen tentatively stepped out into open air, feeling the rough road under her scantily clad feet.
It had begun to rain lightly.
TenTen shivered a little in her thin clothes.
"Hurry up," called the prosecutor, not pausing even once to see if she was still following.
TenTen followed a little closer, silently considering abandoning her prosecutor. She was free now, and that meant he no longer held any hold on her. . . But there were too many questions she still required answers to.
Grudgingly, TenTen stuck with the man leading her, trying to suppress her curiosity.
He led her through several streets before finally arriving at what appeared to be a former public house.(1)
The prosecutor sat at a desk facing the door where TenTen was framed.
"Please sit," he said through clenched teeth.
TenTen did not know what she had expected from him when she first saw him in the prison. Though, considering, anger seemed to be an appropriate reaction.
TenTen sat on an uncomfortable chair at the corner of the desk, meeting the prosecutor's eyes without fear.
"You should be pleased to hear that you've been cleared of all charges," he began, barely containing malice from his voice.
TenTen waited. She knew there was more.
"The queen has found you guiltless of that which you were charged and has absolved you from execution."
He paused, as if collecting himself.
"She sent me to retrieve you and inform you that you will be honored for your hand in the war. She requests your presence at the castle when you're done here."
He closed his mouth, glaring at her.
TenTen considered him, thoughtful.
"How angry are you that you weren't able to see me burn?" TenTen inquired softly.
He blinked, as if this wasn't the response he'd expected.
"Guess," he answered, his gaze unflinchingly fierce.
TenTen nodded curtly and stood, leaving without another word.
With their city being the capital, the castle was built in the center with everything else sprouting off in all directions.
It was a full downpour outside when TenTen trudged into the stone-walled safety of the castle, feeling completely out of place in her scanty prison garb.
A group of maids went scurrying by, glancing at her.
The leader of the group appraised her and called out, "What's your business here?"
TenTen straightened a little.
"The queen requested my presence. Where is she in residence?"
The maid considered her in her prison clothes once again, but if she had an opinion she kept it to herself.
"Follow me," she said briskly, parting from the group and setting off down a hallway.
Tsunade was lounging in her personal sitting room when the maid and TenTen entered.
Tsunade straightened, smiling as the maid left and left TenTen standing alone.
"Good morning," Tsunade greeted.
TenTen bowed respectfully, looking at the carpet.
"Please sit," Tsunade invited, gesturing to a high-backed chair close to Tsunade.
TenTen obeyed, keeping her expression flat.
"Well, I see you made it in one piece," Tsunade genially started, treating TenTen to a smile. "Was Neji cordial?"
TenTen met Tsunade's amber eyes, conveying a negative response.
"He raved for about an hour at me before I made him go release you."
"He's very upset with me," she murmured, frowning.
"Yes, but if it makes you feel better, he isn't that pleased with me either," Tsunade responded, raising her eyebrows.
For a moment Tsunade paused, studying TenTen's features.
"Foremost, I must apologize for the length of time you spent imprisoned. It took several weeks to dispel the charges against you."
"So, it's true?" TenTen inquired. "I'm free?"
"Yes. You're free."
Tsunade let this sink in for a moment before saying, "I'm going to honor you for your service during the war. As you can probably imagine, your circumstances were especially unique and your command in some of the key battles aided our victory.
"The law forbidding women to serve in the army has been in place ever since the military has been established. I have abolished it."
TenTen gaped at her, surprised.
"Women can serve in the army now?"
Tsunade nodded, smiling slightly.
TenTen mulled this over for a second, eventually nodding.
"After I'm honored," TenTen began, sneaking a glance at Tsunade, "I wish to return home."
Tsunade stared at her and smoothed her dress over her knee.
"No," the queen answered firmly.
TenTen's forehead wrinkled in confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"I wish you to remain here, at court. I have a job for you to do."
TenTen waited for her to explain.
"Since women can now serve in the army, there will be girls wanting to train and become soldiers. You will be their instructor."
"I don't understand," she stated. "Why would any girl wish to become a soldier?"
Tsunade stared at her, confused.
"TenTen, you were a soldier—!"
"My circumstances were different," TenTen firmly interjected. "Now that the law is abolished and the war is over, there's no reason for women to be trained as soldiers. Not that any would choose to."
Tsunade lifted her head slightly in antipathy.
"I think you underestimate your race." Tsunade reached to a side table and retrieved a slim stack of papers. She held them up to illustrate. "Applications."
Tsunade handed them to TenTen, who incisively looked through them.
When she was done, she looked at Tsunade, expectant.
"It's not many, obviously, but hopefully recruits will grow over time."
TenTen glanced back at the papers.
"Eight girls?" she inquired, raising a single eyebrow. "And what will I teach them?"
"Everything a male soldier learns," Tsunade instructed surely. "I won't have any discrimination."
TenTen sighed, thinking.
"Neji obviously retains his position as overseer and instructor of all soldiers."
"I can handle him," TenTen murmured.
TenTen sighed again, looking at the queen.
"I have no choice in this decision?"
Tsunade smiled politely.
"I'm afraid not."
TenTen nodded dutifully.
"Then I accept."
"Good," Tsunade said, pleased. "I have rooms set aside for you, since you own no property in the capital. You should be able to find everything you need there."
TenTen stood, recognizing her dismissal.
"Thank you," TenTen bowed again, and retreated from the room, applications in hand.
Her rooms were on the ground floor of the castle, tucked along a hallway of other occupied rooms. They were small, but functional and practical, no more or no less to what TenTen needed.
The first thing she did was take a bath.
Good hygiene in prison was a privilege, not a requirement, and the guards deemed most of them undeserving of a privilege such as a bath.
While TenTen scrubbed off the grime that had accumulated on her body over the past few weeks, she thought.
She had never expected girls would wish to become soldiers. TenTen herself had never wanted to be one—she had had no choice. But to willingly submit to a military lifestyle? In a way, TenTen admired these anonymous girls.
She had never before been put in a position to teach children, and TenTen wasn't sure if she would be an appropriate teacher.
Who is more qualified? TenTen thought. You're the first woman to ever serve in the army. Who is more qualified than you?
Moodily, TenTen ducked her head under the water, freeing her hair of soap.
And Neji . . . he was a problem.
TenTen resurfaced, wiping her face with her hand.
She hadn't expected his reaction to be so hostile.
However, looking back on it, TenTen didn't know what she had expected.
Neji was by nature austere and rigid. He followed the law without yield. If TenTen had been surer of anything, she should have been sure of his reaction.
TenTen pushed the matter from her mind and stood from her bath, drying off and redressing for bed.
It was only mid-afternoon, but TenTen was exhausted.
After lying down, it took her only seconds to fall into sleep.
The dreams got more and more vivid as time went on.
She could smell the heady presence of the fog and burning wood. The sounds of battle could be heard. TenTen felt the weight of her armor, the heat that accompanies padding and chainmail.
Suddenly, TenTen was transported to the battle she heard, standing on the brink of a hill.
Someone clapped her on the shoulder.
TenTen turned to see Neji, clad in his armor.
His face read grim severity.
"You take the lead," he ordered, sending her off.
TenTen tripped off down the hill, feeling the constricting band of linen she'd used during the war to tame her breasts. She was a man in this dream.
Her sword was in her hand, even though TenTen couldn't recall withdrawing it.
Soldiers were fighting everywhere, scattered across the unlevel ground.
TenTen analyzed the sides, seeing that it was matched evenly.
She entered the fray, driving her sword certainly into the hearts and bellies of her enemies.
Overhead, an eagle cried.
TenTen blinked, looking up.
An arrow whistled through the air.
The arrowhead buried itself in her chest.
TenTen looked to see the shooter.
Atop the hill where she had just been, stood Neji, a bow in his hand.
No sooner did TenTen collapse, did men, enemy and friend, fall upon her, wielding weapons. They ravaged her repeatedly, laughing.
TenTen woke with tears in her eyes.
(1) The formal name for a pub.