*comes back from the dead* Hey guys. A/N at bottom to explain this Lazarus-esque return.
Disclaimer: I only own the story part. Most names and places belong to M. Kishimoto, minus Karin, who is Tite Kubo's.
Konohagakure was still. The queen had left on the day of the first snowfall to meet with King A in Kumogakure. The word dispelled from the queen's administration painted it as a friendly invitation. However, the citizens of Queen's City weren't thoroughly convinced.
Ino looked out from one of the large glass windows in the castle, discouraged by the white bleakness of the grounds.
She yearned for spring. Winter always seemed to accompany the most hopeless of times in Ino's life, and this winter was no exception.
Ino turned over what her mother had said about marriage in her head.
Court life had taught Ino that the world was unforgiving and unfair, but it was one's responsibility to turn it to one's advantage. Life was ruthless, and you had to be ruthless in return.
But now, Ino felt like ruthlessness couldn't solve her problems. Ruthlessness was a child's game. And she was not a child anymore.
"Lady Ino," a voice greeted.
Ino turned from the window to see Hiashi Hyuga coming towards her. It was probably impossible, but Ino thought he appeared fiercer every time she met him.
"Hiashi-sama," Ino said, bowing a little. "What brings you here?"
"I was speaking with your father about wedding matters," Hiashi answered. He glanced out the window briefly. "I hope your excitement isn't doused by this dreary weather."
Ino shook her head quickly.
"Oh, no, of course not. It—I was just thinking."
"About what, if I may ask?"
Ino scrambled for a pleasing response.
"Ah," Hiashi interrupted. "My nephew, am I right?"
Ino was thankful for the suggestion.
"Yes," she supplied. "It's . . . difficult with him being away."
Hiashi nodded, looking out the glass again.
Ino studied the older man's face, wondering if she could somehow mention to Hiashi her situation.
Of course not. Don't be stupid, she told herself.
"I am pleased that our two families could make this arrangement, Lady Ino. It will undoubtedly be beneficial."
Ino tried to smile, but it was nowhere near genuine.
"I am thankful for the opportunity to join such an illustrious family," Ino replied.
Hiashi glanced at her with his cold, unreadable eyes.
From down the hall, a voice called, "Ino!"
Hiashi and Ino turned to locate the speaker. A man with pineapple-shaped hair.
Hiashi's eyes narrowed.
"Who is that?" he asked.
Ino silently cursed Shikamaru for his timing.
"No one, Hiashi-sama."
Hiashi pressed his mouth into a firm line and excused himself, walking away from his future niece-in-law.
However, instead of continuing forward to his destination, Hiashi hooked a right and waited.
He was rewarded for his patience several moments later, when footsteps and voices neared.
"I can't believe you just did that," whispered Ino.
"I didn't know," defended the man.
"You're going to get me in trouble," Ino snapped.
"You've done that yourself, Ino."
There was silence for a moment, and Hiashi's curiosity grew.
"We could still do it, you know. Run away," mentioned the man.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ino answered, but her reply was wilted and frail. "Your father would kill you."
"That's nothing new," Shikamaru promised.
"This is your problem," she told him. "You have no regard for the consequences."
Shikamaru laughed a little.
"I have no regard for the consequences? I'm not the one who has still not made a decision concerning her future. I'm not the one stringing lovers along."
There was a tense pause, and the man moved on, saying, "Listen, Ino, you know your options. You can't keep going on like you are. Someone will find out. Just decide what you want."
"It's not that easy!" Ino hissed, seemingly on the verge of tears. "What I want isn't what everyone else wants!"
"Why are you trying to please everyone?" Shikamaru inquired, sounding tired. "Since when have you ever done anything to please other people? Do you—do you really care for Hyuga?"
Ino's answer was strained, "I don't know. I'm so confused. . . I just don't want to hurt him."
"He's a grown man. He can look after himself," Shikamaru stated distantly. "But by all means, if all you want out of life is riches and parties and court life and a happy little perfect family, then marry Hyuga. I won't give you those things."
Hiashi watched the young man stride past his hiding place without looking back. Several moments later, Ino passed by, silent.
Hiashi stepped out into the hall, looking in the direction the two had departed. He narrowed his eyes and turned to walk back the way he had come, determined.
Inquiries had to be made.
Tsunade's arrival at Shimogakure was met with overwhelming alarm. As she stepped from her carriage into the main square of the walled city, Jiraiya quoted some strand of history about how the last time a king or queen had ever set foot there was at least three hundred years ago. Tsunade just rolled her eyes at his nonsense.
Guy, Kakashi, and Neji were all present to meet her and escort her to her quarters for the night. She would continue on to meet King A in the morning.
Tsunade sat down heavily in a chair when they reached her room. She cradled her forehead, waiting for someone to speak.
"Well?" she prompted when no one did.
"Nothing has changed, milady. We have been at a cease-fire for almost a week."
"A has sent nothing?" Jiraiya inquired.
"Nothing," Kakashi replied.
Tsunade pursed her mouth.
"I almost wish I had some news, either way," she muttered tiredly.
No one answered her.
"Tomorrow, Jiraiya and I will travel to Kumogakure to attempt to sort this out. Though I doubt all of this is just A making the appearance of decorum."
"It will be all right, Tsunade. I'm the smoothest talker in all of the countries combined!"
Tsunade snorted, but ignored his comment. She turned her eyes to Neji.
"How is TenTen?"
Neji thought, wondering how to answer such a question.
"She's made it her responsibility to not only weaponize all of the females in this town, but to educate them as well," Neji divulged.
Tsunade laughed heartily.
"Well, I suppose that I can never say she doesn't use her time wisely. Are you assisting her, Neji?"
Neji tried not to make a face.
"I have more pressing matters than to be TenTen's lapdog."
Tsunade grinned, as if she weren't sure if that were true or not.
"Of course you do," she murmured.
Tsunade directed her attention to Guy, who briefed her on the army's current standings and how their lines functioned during assault. She was pleased with TenTen's position out of the fray, but still being put to use as an archer.
"Thank you all, for your diligent service these past few months. I am very grateful," Tsunade said as they were dismissed. "I hope that I can repay you with rest soon."
"Not that we would know what to do with it," commented Guy to his comrades as they headed out.
Kakashi and Neji smiled in agreement.
Complacency was like a foreign concept now.
TenTen was waiting for him when he returned to his tent, her head bent over the equations she so vehemently despised.
"How did it go?" she asked eagerly when he came in.
"Fine," Neji replied. "Tsunade asked about you."
TenTen raised her eyebrows, watching as he sat down across from her.
"Really," she said uncertainly.
Neji smiled a little.
"I told her about your plans for Shimogakure."
TenTen made a face.
"What did she say?"
"She found it very amusing."
TenTen moved her mouth into a slant.
"First lesson is on Friday," TenTen informed. "Can I go?"
"I don't see why you should ask my permission anymore, seeing as you'll do what you like regardless of what I say," Neji responded, raising his eyebrows.
She looked back at her equations, and Neji glanced at a few loose pieces of strategy plans before letting his eyes wander back to her.
Things had been smooth between them ever since TenTen's charges' ambush of Neji. They had spent the majority of the week during the cease-fire sparring and poring over the numerous subjects Neji had procured for TenTen to study. From what Neji could gather, TenTen was making fast progress, as were her charges.
As TenTen scrawled out her work, she murmured, "Do you remember that day we were just outside of Frost territory, and our whole regiment had that massive snowball fight?"
Neji smiled slightly, recalling the memory.
"It was more of a snowball war, from what I remember."
"I hit you so many times in the face that day," she said wistfully.
Neji rolled his eyes.
"You've never had an inclination towards mercy."
TenTen finished her problem and slid the paper over to Neji to check.
As he perused her work, TenTen tapped her fingers on his desk, thinking.
"Do you think. . ." she paused, wondering. "Do you think if things had been different, if we had met each other under different circumstances, we would have been friends?"
Neji glanced at her, thoughtful.
If he had met her without all of their shared and tumultuous history, Neji wasn't sure what they would be to each other. There were so many possibilities.
"I think there would have been a great chance of us hating each other," Neji said.
"Yes, you're probably right."
Neji turned back to her paper, privately holding back the rest of his conclusion. If they had met under less strained circumstances, with TenTen being herself and with no war, Neji knew they would have liked each other, instantly. There was no doubt in his mind.
"I think you have surpassed me," Neji stated, giving the paper back to her.
TenTen rolled her eyes.
"Stop joking," she retorted.
A second later she stood and tidied up the books she had laid across his worktable.
"Neji?" TenTen said as she headed for the tent opening.
Neji looked at her over his shoulder, expectant.
TenTen seemed to hesitate, taking a deep breath. She crossed her arms.
"This is how it's meant to be, right?"
She didn't clarify her question, but Neji didn't need her to.
He read the doubt written across her face, and wondered if she saw the same expression on his own.
"Yes," he said softly.
TenTen nodded once and departed, muttering a goodnight as the tent flap fell closed.
"Does anyone have the answer to . . ." Futaba trailed off, squinting at her paper.
"Number four?" Hibari finished.
"Yes!" Futaba responded.
Hibari smiled shyly and showed Futaba her work, quietly giving an explanation.
Karin miserably held her head in her hands.
TenTen had designated Thursdays as study days for as long as the cease-fire was in effect. Which meant all Thursday, every Thursday until some headway was made, the girls would sit and study their educational material. Which meant review. Endless review.
Karin was sick of it.
She glanced at Matsuri in her peripheral vision, and was happy to see the other girl looked as bored as she. Moegi, on the other hand, was completely enraptured by her science text.
The youngest, Hibari and Futaba, thoroughly enjoyed Thursdays. But to Karin, they didn't count. They obviously couldn't grasp the depth and importance of things like food . . . and sleep.
"Let's take a break," Karin suggested, standing up and stretching.
Moegi glanced up, a skeptical eyebrow raised.
Karin rolled her eyes and assured, "It'll only be for a few minutes. Promise."
"Where are we going to go?" Futaba chirped, tugging on her cap.
Karin thought for a moment, running through possibilities. Staying within the confines of the encampment was definitely undesirable. . . The quarry wasn't all that impressive, and besides they would have to walk through a few feet of snow to even get there.
And then Karin had a truly innovative idea.
"Let's go to town," she proposed casually, raising a dark eyebrow.
The younger girls immediately squealed and began pulling on heavier clothing. Matsuri just shrugged and joined them. Moegi, however, crossed her arms and sent Karin a skeptical look.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Moegi informed.
Karin stared at her.
The orange-haired girl was only a few months behind Karin in age, but she might as well have been several years older from the way she acted sometimes. Not that Karin minded . . . most of the time. It was just there always seemed to be this tangible tension between them, like they were both wrestling for an unnamed and invisible position.
"If you're worried about Ito-sensei finding out, she won't," Karin claimed. "We'll be back long before she comes to check on us."
"And how do you know that?" Moegi posed.
"Because it's Thursday and that means she's restoring her weapons. And that always takes her hours."
Moegi's mouth shifted in criticism.
"It's just not a good idea," she eventually released.
Karin responded listlessly, "Well, then don't come."
She turned away and began tugging on her boots. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Moegi look miffed. But a moment later, the orange-haired girl started putting on her coat like the rest of them.
The walk to Shimogakure only took the five girls half an hour. The snow had thickened enough to cause some necessary exertion to move smoothly, and Futaba's short stature gave her some trouble.
When they arrived, the small town was still conducting business. The girls entered the market and took in the numerous shops encased in the main square, and the amount of people milling around.
"Now what?" Moegi inquired, automatically looking to Karin for direction.
Karin looked away, trying to be quick. She'd dragged them all out here; now they needed something to do.
"Let's look in the shops," Karin murmured.
Giddy, Futaba took Hibari's hand and raced off to a small bakery. Its door was open, and the smell of fresh bread wafted out into the frigid air.
Without a look to Moegi, Karin started forward to follow the smaller girls inside.
Moegi crossed her arms.
"Who made Karin Queen of Konohagakure?" she rhetorically asked Matsuri.
Matsuri tugged on one of her heavy locks.
"No one," she tentatively answered. "But this was Karin's idea, this trip."
Moegi pressed her lips together disapprovingly.
"We're just going to get in trouble."
Matsuri scuffed her foot against the stone of the square.
"Not necessarily," she replied neutrally.
Moegi sighed and nodded, unconvinced.
"Come on," Matsuri encouraged. And together, she and Moegi crossed the square to enter the bakery.
Inside, it was oppressively warm. Futaba, Hibari, and Karin were gathered close to the oven, which was located behind a worn wooden counter. The oven door was open, revealing blistered red insides.
A girl possibly a little older than Karin was removing bread with a long flat paddle.
"How do you keep it from burning you?" Futaba asked, amazed.
The girl glanced at her, and then at the rest of them.
"Practice," she answered shyly.
The girl finished removing the bread and carefully closed the oven door.
"You work here?" Futaba continued, truly interested.
The girl shot a glance at a man who was assisting a customer a few feet away. She nodded to Futaba curtly.
"What's it like? Do you get to eat bread all the time? What kind of things do you make? Which is your favorite to make?" questioned the youngest girl breathlessly.
The bakery girl seemed a little taken aback, and Karin stepped in.
"Sorry," she said, apologizing for Futaba. "We just haven't had a chance to be in this town until now."
The girl nodded slowly, her eyes comprehending.
"You're the five that everyone keeps talking about. The girl soldiers."
"Yes, we are," Moegi answered.
The bakery girl snuck another glance at the man helping customers.
"I heard that you're having lessons this weekend," she whispered.
Matsuri nodded, "Yes, our sensei is leading it."
The girl bit her lip, a troubled expression gathering on her face.
"I really want to come, but . . ." she looked at the man again.
"He won't let you?" prompted Karin.
The girl shook her head.
"Sneak out!" Futaba hissed.
"Futaba," Moegi cautioned.
"What? TenTen-sensei says that every girl deserves a chance to learn and be strong."
They stared down at the youngest member of their group, thoughtful.
Karin looked up at the baker's daughter.
"Do it. We start tomorrow at noon," Karin said in a hushed, but urgent tone.
The man's customers were thinning. He noticed the small huddle of girls by the oven. His eyes narrowed.
"Are you buying or dawdling, girls?" he asked in a rough voice.
The bakery girl's eyes widened slightly in fear, and Moegi took the cue.
"Leaving," she said to the man, beginning to usher the others out. They went without protest.
Back out in the square, the five stood together, wincing at the nip of the sudden cold.
"We should go. TenTen-sensei will come and check on us soon," Matsuri suggested.
In agreement, they all started shuffling to the southern exit.
"We almost got that girl in trouble," Moegi said to Karin.
"It was fine. We all made it in one piece," Karin shrugged.
Moegi sighed heavily.
"You're just like sensei," Moegi muttered under her breath, certain Karin had not heard.
But she had. And to Karin, that wasn't such a bad thing to be accused of.
The last time Tsunade had been this far north, it had been her first year as queen. She had been on a diplomatic campaign to all of the main countries surrounding Konohagakure, attempting to put forth a good face.
It had all but ended in disaster in the past. Hopefully her fortune would be better this time around.
An escort from A was waiting for them across the border, and so Tsunade and Jiraiya were briskly accompanied to Kumogakure.
Upon arrival, it was storming. As expected.
Tsunade grumpily let Jiraiya lead her into A's palace, holding her tongue from spilling curses on the stormy capital.
They were brought into A's private chambers, where the Lightning king was already present, along with his brother B.
"Tsunade," greeted A in his gruff voice. "Jiraiya, welcome."
Tsunade smiled thinly.
"Thank you for having us, A. It is always a pleasure to be in the hospitality of the Lightning king," Jiraiya flattered smoothly.
A smirked, and ran a hand over his white mustache.
"I wish it weren't under such circumstances, Jiraiya."
"Neither do I, A," Tsunade replied, eyes sharp.
A's face hardened once more.
"Enough with the niceties, Tsunade. You have been disrespectful."
Tsunade's eyebrows arched in indignation.
"I have been disrespectful?! You are the one trying to steal my land."
A clenched his jaw.
"I'm hardly stealing anything you consider worthy. You have all but neglected this area of your country since you became queen. At least in my care the town will flourish the way it is meant to."
Tsunade gripped the arms of her chair. Jiraiya squeezed her shoulder.
"What I do in my country is none of your concern, A," Tsunade responded waspishly.
A shook his head.
"You are ignorant, even in your old age. Everything one country does affects the other. Your endless war with the Stone and Frost countries caused everyone suffering, not just your people. You are too narrow-minded to handle your affairs properly."
Tsunade stood, glaring.
"How dare you say that to me," she hissed. "I have lost hundreds of my people to a war that was never what I intended. You have no idea the costs I have had to pay as queen."
A sent her an unforgiving stare.
"Your reign has all but been a disgrace. I have waited patiently to exact this land, this town from you. And now is the time to do it."
Jiraiya interrupted, "No, King A, we are here to negotiate terms to avoid war."
A looked at Tsunade as he spoke, "There will be no negotiations. This was merely decorum. I will take Shimogakure from you, and I will be pleased to receive your letter of surrender on the day you give up your hope of ever prevailing against me."
Thursdays were TenTen's weapon cleaning days. True to habit, she was sitting outside of the armory tent when Neji found her, sharpening her arrows by the fire.
TenTen was obsessive about taking care of her tools. It was something she had developed over the course of her service in the war.
At first, Neji had found it admirable that she took such great care. But now in retrospect, Neji found her behavior more compulsive than anything else.
She smiled lightly when he walked up to her, pressing her finger to the arrowhead.
"How did everything go with King A?" she asked when he sat next to her.
"We haven't heard anything yet. I'm sure we'll hear something by morning though."
TenTen nodded absently and slid the arrow in her quiver.
"Do you think it will be good news?"
"I'm not sure," he released. "King A is not so easily swayed. And both he and the queen are impossibly stubborn. I'm not sure a compromise will be reached."
TenTen thoughtfully handled her bow, and produced a rag to polish the wood.
"I don't think fighting would be such a bad idea," she commented softly.
Neji glanced at her.
"And why would you say a thing like that?"
TenTen shrugged, working her rag across the grooves of her bow.
"There's nothing wrong with fighting for something you feel strongly about. And I can understand why Tsunade would choose not to back down from this," she offered.
"There's a difference in fighting for something you feel strongly about and fighting because you feel like your pride has been threatened."
TenTen pursed her lips.
"I don't think she's doing this completely out of pride."
"Then what?" Neji inquired.
TenTen took her time to answer, turning the bow in her hands.
"How would you feel if countless people were trying to steal what was yours? What you were entitled to? What you were entrusted to protect? Wouldn't you want to preserve it as much as possible? This isn't about pride totally—Tsunade is just trying to defend what is hers. She's trying to defend her people and the country. I wouldn't mind fighting for a reason like that."
Neji sighed, at a loss.
"Don't you ever get tired of being so virtuous? You put everyone to shame."
TenTen smirked, but said, "I don't know what you're talking about. If you're feeling inadequate in comparison to me, then that's your problem."
Neji smiled slightly, looking at the bow she was cleaning.
"Why are you so fixated?"
"What?" TenTen asked, looking up at him.
"You're neurotic about cleaning your weapons."
TenTen made an unpleasant face.
"I'm not neurotic."
"You clean all of them once a week, and it takes you hours. You do it even if you haven't used them that week."
"I don't know," she murmured quietly.
A few moments passed in silence, and Neji wondered if he had unknowingly upset her.
When she finished cleaning her bow, she wrapped it back in its cloth and faced Neji.
"My father had several trades, but he worked with leather mostly. Whenever he would make a new piece, he would clean it five, six times before he gave it to the customer. I used to watch him while he did it. He had such careful, precise hands. I remember thinking when I was young that he must have traded hands with someone whenever he cleaned the leather, because he was so much more gentle with it as opposed to when he was crafting it."
TenTen sighed, "Anyway, when I asked him why, he said that the leather needs it. The material can start out so hard, and it needs a lot of attention to be formed into the shape it needs to acquire. It endures hammering and pulling and all sorts of torture, just to fulfill its purpose. And he taught me that it's the same way with people. Once you put something under pressure, it can either thrive or fail. But no matter the result, it still needs to be taken care of. All tools need care to fulfill their purpose. So, I guess my father taught me to take care of the things I use, because they matter, even if it's small."
After a moment of silence, Neji finally said, "I wish I could have met your father. He sounds like he was a very interesting man."
"He was. I'm sure he would have liked you."
"Don't say things that aren't true," Neji responded quickly.
"That is the truth," TenTen answered. "I think he would have looked at you like a son."
Neji glanced at her, pensive.
"Maybe," was his reply.
A/N: When I decided to discontinue this story two years ago, I had the intention of letting it die. However, that's easier said than done. I'm not sure if other people have this feeling or not, but do you ever have a story that you create (or read, I suppose) that just won't ever leave you alone? It resurfaces, over and over again, and you get ideas from time to time, and you wonder if perhaps you should begin writing it again. This is that story, for me. I'm so invested in it, and it's followed me around these years, always in the back of my mind. Honestly, I tried to suppress it. But, I've decided that I want to finish it. Really finish it.
I've been writing this again for a little over a month, and things are going well so far. My goal is to work ahead, but I really don't know how that will work out because I'm so busy this semester.
That's another thing: I have no idea when I'm going to be updating. I'm extremely busy this semester, and it has shown no sign of slowing down. That being said, there may be severe gaps of time that go between chapters. But, I'm determined not to let this story die again. So, as a reader, know that I'm committed to finishing.
I'm really pleased to be able to share a little bit more of this journey with you, readers.