CHAPTER 1 : The Winds of Change
The war had ended, and despite all that had changed, when the shinobi that fought in it returned to their homes, life continued on as it had before the war. Sure, there was a lot to clean up, villages to rebuild, peace treaties left to sign, a new Hokage to be promoted, and shinobi to be recalled from formerly enemy, now ally, territories. But otherwise, life went on.
the feeling of change is inescapable," Tenten mused as she munched on a crisp celery stick in her hand; part of the lunch she was eating while sitting at the base of the large oak tree that grew in one corner of hers and Nejis training field. The one that had the heart with the T, ampersand and N carved into it. The very same heart that for the longest of time Neji had mistakenly believed read "TEN" when in fact it was their initials that were carved into the wood. Of course this was before the two of them had started dating and the long time crush had seemed to be unrequited. But that was a lifetime ago, or at least it felt like it.
"Naturally," the white-eyed prodigy replied, bring his water bottle to his mouth as he gently nodded his head.
As always he was a man of few words, but being together with him for so long, Tenten had learned to read between the lines. While most would have taken his one word reply as rude or indifferent, Tenten knew that he meant it sincerely and did in fact agree with her. "But I mean, even with everything going back to the routines of old, there's still this static in the air that just screams of something new and entirely different from before," the eighteen year old girl elaborated.
Tenten's arms swung back and forth, as they often did when she was excited about what she was saying. This made the little plastic bag containing peeled carrot sticks, which the bun-haired girl had been in the middle of offering her boyfriend before she started flailing her arms about, more than a little difficult to accept. Neji, nonetheless, easily dug into the bag and pulled out two sticks, chewing and nodding as he listened to her go on about how the world they knew was turning into something which not too long ago, had seemed completely unimaginable to most of its inhabitants. A dream, a hope at most, but never something anyone had actually believed was possible.
The word, said quite often of late, still seemed so foreign and unfamiliar. But those were the talks. The Lords of all the nations, and the Kages of the five great shinobi villages were talking peace. A true, unending peace. Sure most people had expected something of the sort to occur after the war. After all, one does not fight a war side by side and not develop a strong feeling of camaraderie. Still, to actually see it happening, to hear of all troops deployed on foreign land returning to their village.... some ninja had been gone for years even, and to know that none would ever be sent out again
"There are just no words for it!" Tenten breathlessly exclaimed, while at the same time extending her hand out to the Hyuga who immediately understood it to mean her mouth had run dry from her little rant.
He handed her the water bottle he'd been drinking out of and gently cleared his throat. "Ten," Neji began. He had something he wanted to say as well. Though he agreed with the kunoichi in pretty much all respects, the Hyuga's experience in the war had left him with a little insight of his own.
Life was short.
So many had left to war and not returned. This was true of missions, and the fact was Neji had known of the brevity of life even before the war, but losing so many in such a short amount of time had been a bitter reminder. And though now, with talk of peace, it seemed unlikely that shinobi would die so needlessly, it still gave the Hyuga reason to pause.
Life was fleeting and ever changing. And though he accepted this, Neji was a man of comfort who enjoyed routine and the familiar. He was a man who held on to things longer than necessary at times and who was greatly hurt when he lost that which he cherished. And there was nothing in the world Neji cherished more than the people he loved.
More that a few times during the war the Hyuga had come close to losing a some very important people. But it was after a certain fan incident that, for the first time in his life, left Neji feeling truly terrified. It was just a moment. He only found out about it after everything had passed. But for that brief chilling moment, it occurred to the Hyuga that he very well could have lost the one person who mattered most to him. And thus Neji decided in that instant that he would never, ever, let her go.
"It's time to go!" Tenten announced as she rose to her feet, screwing the cap back onto the water bottle they had shared.
"Right," Neji nodded as he stood up and took the bottle and their supply bag from her. Together they walked to the village where they were to meet their two other teammates for a simple delivery mission. It wouldn't take more than half a day and they'd be back in the village before nightfall. "We'll continue after the mission," he said, more to himself than the girl who had seemed unaware that her boyfriend had been about to ask her something.
As the Hyuga expected, their mission had been a simple one. Most missions now were. There just wasn't a need for complicated dangerous missions. Sure there were a few that had some element of danger, but those were primarily due to terrain and the occasional group of bandits, but for the most part the current missions were easy and safe.
It was tiring though. Like always, Lee and Gai decided the pace. Of course, being who they were, the two green beasts decided that they would run the entire distance between Konoha and the village where they were to make their delivery. This in turn caused them to miss the route they were supposed to take, which got them lost, which got them into trouble, which made them run late. So in the end, Team Gai didn't arrive back in Konoha until well passed night fall.
"It's Gai and Lee," Tenten sighed, smiling wearily as if she were explaining to him why things had ended up the way they did. Of course they both knew that no explanation was needed. It was Gai and Lee. Getting lost because they missed an exit was exactly the kind of thing that pair of overly enthusiastic shinobi did. In fact, they had done the exact same thing when Team Gai had been called back to help Team Kakashi rescue the Kazekage not too long ago; though now that incident actually felt like ages ago, instead of a few months like it actually was.
"It's late," Neji sighed. He knew he was stating the obvious, and that wasn't much like him. But since he'd been thinking about what he wanted to ask the Kunoichi the entire day and had rehearsed it so many times and imagined it so many different way, there was a bit of nervousness in the Hyuga. That was a feeling which the prodigy was not all too familiar with, so as a result, he was a little off his usual self.
"Yeah," the weapon's mistress nodded just the same, brushing off the oddity as just Neji being tired. "You don't have to walk me home you know, I know you're tired from having to pull those two out of the crevice they fell into," she snickered at the memory. In their excitement at finally getting a new mission, Gai and Lee had accidentally fallen, and become wedged, into a narrow crack in the earth as the team traveled over some steep rocky terrain. They had slipped right in. And it had taken Neji a few hours to bash the surrounding rocks wide enough to allow him to crawl down, dig them out, and pull them back up.
"I am tired," he admitted, knowing that was the reason Tenten had offered to let him go home without walking her to her door. But that just wasn't Neji. Not even in their genin days had the Hyuga once finished a mission without walking the kunoichi to her front door. He certainly wasn't going to start now that they were together just because of a little exhaustion. "Tenten," Neji gently cleared his throat as they rounded the corner to the kunoichi's street. She lived on the opposite end of the village from where the Hyuga compound was located, which made Neji's trip longer but he wanted to drop her off. He still had something to say.
"You want to come in?" Tenten asked as they came to a stop at her front door. Waiting for his replay, though they both already knew he would say, the kunoichi turned down to her back and began searching for the key. They were both so focused, the girl on her quest for the key and Neji on the question he needed to ask, that neither noticed the door knob turn.
"Come in? At this indecent hour?"
Before he could even pause to think, and forgetting his exhaustion completely, Neji's body moved in front of the kunoichi. He pulled her behind him and stood in an defensive stance, looking into the doorway of the weapons mistress' house and saw four unfamiliar men staring back at them.
"Hikyuu! Fuzei! Tetsu! Batsu!"
TO BE CONTINUED...