Fingers drummed against the wooden arm of her chair, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed as she stared across the table at the map her generals had set up. Alone in the command tent but for the single lean shadow drifting along the edges, Ino ran the pad of one finger across her bottom lip in thought, unconsciously nibbling at her perfect nail until the shadows reached out to stall her movements.
“It would not do for an empress to have such unsightly fingernails.”
Her finger lowered and Ino smirked behind her watching the shadows coalesce in to the shape of a tall man with dark hair. “One would think that an empress could do whatever she wants.” Her mirth faded quickly in to frustration as haunting blue eyes returned to the map. “And I want to win. Tell me about this woman again, this…Sakura.”
“Haruno Sakura, the ruler of Konohagakure, the only empire whose size rivals your own. She is said to be a woman of short temper yet she is also lauded as an incredibly fair and benevolent ruler.” Shikamaru shrugged. “It’s been a drag but it seems like we’ve finally come up against someone with an actual head on her shoulders.”
“Either that or she has good advisors.” The smirk reappeared for a brief moment as Ino entertained the idea of a puppet queen, sat primly upon her throne while her underlings pulled the strings to make her dance. She waved the idea away quickly, however. From the rumors which had reached them she would guess that Haruno Sakura was as much of a hands-on ruler as she herself was and, while that certainly made for more intellectually engaging battles, it also meant that more of her people died each time she and the empress of Konohagakure met on the battlefield.
Ino was getting rather tired of stalemates. She was a smart enough woman to know when it was time to change tactics.
“Shikamaru, my dear, send for a messenger. And tell them to bring a white flag.” Her advisor blinked at her impassively.
“You have a plan,” he noted. Ino chortled inelegantly, free to do so with no one around to hear her but her one true friend.
“I always have a plan,” she said.
As her advisor stepped out of the tent to do her bidding Ino rose from her chair and sashayed across the carpeted ground to run her fingers over the map. Small figurines depicting her own companies and Empress Sakura’s were dotted across the parchment, some of them laid on their sides to show where either her men or her enemies had been defeated but those were few. Most of their encounters ended without a clear winner and Ino, the final product in a long line of tactically brilliant rulers, saw an opportunity in that.
Reaching across the very center of the map, Ino fingered the tiny crowned horse which represented the last known location of Empress Sakura’s main war camp. Her bottom lip pushed out in a thoughtful pout as she plucked the horse from the its spot and held it up in front of her eyes.
“Ride, my lady. Ride out to meet me.”
Absently patting the neck of her restless mount, Sakura murmured under her breath almost without thought. The horse trembled beneath her touch and quieted at her words. Sharp blue eyes watched her from half a hundred feet away and Ino found herself quite unable to stop her wandering thoughts from admiring how well her fellow Empress handled the beast. Her motions were rote, clearly done by habit alone, and it was obvious that Haruno Sakura has spent a great deal of her life on the back of a horse.
Something about that appealed to Ino, who had spent her fair share of time in the saddle as well since the wars began. Whatever bug had crawled in to the ears of all the world’s leaders at the same time had been driving them all with the same compunction to conquer and spread since almost before she could remember. Ino was not born a child of war but she had been raised as one and there was only respect in her heart for other leaders who put as much of themselves in to the dirty work as she did.
The rumors, it appeared, were true, although she had known that the moment she laid eyes on the woman awaiting her on this steely dawn. Sakura was a war lord, a battle-worn Queen who wore the blood of her enemies just underneath the skin.
And she was beautiful.
Squinting in irritation at her own distraction, Ino gently guided her own horse forward, boldly making the first move to place herself between the two armies. Behind her she could hear Shikamaru scrambling to follow with her banner and an exasperated grumbling about how much of a drag this all was but she paid no attention. More important was the way her opponent gracefully tossed her hair as she moved forward as well. That long elegant neck held her head up so proudly and Ino couldn’t help but wonder if she had ever bowed to anyone in her life. Probably not.
When they met in the middle there was a moment of brief humor where both of their vassals tried to announce them at the same time, each thinking their own empress the higher standing and worthy of being announced first. The blonde next to her opponent glared at Shikamaru, clearly insulted on his liege lady’s behalf, but the moment Ino saw the woman crack a smile she knew that this meeting had been one of her better ideas.
“Peace, boys,” Ino said. “We can see each other; we know who we are.”
“By reputation, if nothing else,” Sakura agreed.
Ino very carefully did not swoon. That voice was honey over velvet with a core of steel and would have wobbled her knees had she been standing on them at the moment.
“Gracious of you to respond so politely to my request for a conference. As host, I have had my people set up a pavilion where we might recline and speak in comfort.” Seeing one of Sakura’s eyebrows twitch, Ino smiled her most winning smile. “An open pavilion, of course. I would not hide you away and make your troops worry. They will see how well I treat their Lady.”
“Your hospitality is legendary,” Sakura said, a hint of wry humor layered under her words. Ino was thrilled enough to allow a laugh, doubly thrilled to see the way the other woman watched her raptly.
“Only the pleasant hospitality today,” she promised. And strangely enough, she meant it.
It took surprisingly little time to reconvene under the elaborate awning her troops had set up for them and Ino reflected that it was probably because neither she nor the other cared much for pomp and ceremony. Both of them dismounted with a few murmured words to their people and came forward with no more protection than their bearers, carrying the colors which marked their position for all to see. It had been so long since Ino had begun travelling everywhere with her banner man that she was certain she would feel more exposed without her family’s crest placidly wandering after her wherever she went.
After the both of them had been settled and a nervous serving girl had offered them both refreshments, Empress Sakura cut through the chaff to get straight to the point.
“I found your missive rather interesting,” she admitted. “And if you’ve called this council for the reasons that I suspect you have then I openly admit myself to be quite intrigued.” Her honesty was so refreshing that Ino found herself replying in kind.
“I am offering you an alliance. Our forces have met and clashed time and time again yet very rarely have either of us come out the victor. A stalemate cannot last forever, not without breeding ill feelings which lead to rash decisions. My good woman, I care for my people. Enough of them have died defending my lands from others who don’t know what is good for them and I am quite keen to prevent as many further deaths as I possibly can.”
Sakura watched her over the rim of a battered water skin, taken from her own hip after she politely refused the fruit juice offered by the serving girl. Under those thoughtfully narrowed eyes Ino had to resist the urge to squirm and rub her thighs together against an odd need for friction.
“Join with me,” she proposed confidently, ignoring her body’s strangeness. “I do not propose either of us to assimilate each other’s lands; merely an alliance between us. Sister empires. As they say: if you can’t beat them, join them.”
“You assume I need an alliance.”
“I said nothing to imply that either of us needed one, only that both of us would greatly benefit from one.”
“And what other benefits can you promise me from an alliance with you?” Sakura lifted one eyebrow.
Ino very nearly fumbled her fruit juice. A shame it would have been since fresh anything was hard to come by in the camps and it would have stained the pale blue robes she wore to conceal the armor underneath but Ino worried only about whether Sakura had noticed. Unfortunately it seemed that she had.
Fortunately, on the other hand, she apparently hadn’t realized her own words could be taken in such a manner. A pretty pink flush graced her cheeks and her green eyes darted away, allowing Ino a moment to discretely gulp in a lungful of air. There wasn’t really any politically correct way for her to blurt out how much she would enjoy showering a woman of Haruno Sakura’s caliber with those sorts of ‘benefits’ so she took the opportunity to compose herself properly. By the time those eyes were on her again her chin was raised and her lips pursed together primly.
“I can offer you many things,” she announced in that soft yet commanding tone which had brought many a man to his knees before. “Organizing trade between our lands would be the simplest of tasks and we have many products to share with each other. Protection of the borders between our lands will be a shared task, equally attended by both parties. Your people will be granted safe passage through my lands and, if you will pledge the same to me, then I will give my word upon honor to come to your aid should ever you need it.”
“Many things indeed. It seems we have more to offer each other than an end to the squabbles between our troops.”
“Squabbles,” Ino repeated in amusement. After giving it some thought she supposed that was really all the battles ever amounted to. No matter what scheme she cooked up or what tactics her opponent employed, neither of them were ever truly able to outmaneuver the other. “I suppose there is one more thing we might both gain from an alliance.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“Some god forsaken intelligent conversation.”
The way Sakura so freely tossed her head back and roared with laughter, completely unconcerned with propriety or the fact that she snorted thickly while doing so, was quite possibly the most beautiful thing that Ino had ever seen. Almost immediately she was overwhelmed with the desire to cause such a reaction again. She could listen to that hiccupping sound all day and never tired of it as long as it came from a face that beautiful, from a chest covered in delicate linens which she suspected concealed the same plates of armor she had disguised under her own outer layers.
“Now that alone is worth more than I could possibly say,” Sakura said after she finally calmed down. Behind her chair, the blonde man holding her banner gave his ruler an incredibly offended look. He did manage to hold his tongue but it seemed like a close call. The scars on his cheeks flushed red and he looked away with a grumpy frown.
“Do we have an accord, Your Majesty?”
“I believe we do, Your Majesty. Naruto, sweet thing, send for a scribe. Let’s get some things down in writing first and then I fully intend to take you up on some of that intelligent conversation.”
Restraining herself to only a mild grin, Ino reveled in the rush of glee racing through her bloodstream. It felt as though all of her life had been building to this moment and she was more than ready to meet whatever came of the decisions they came to this day.
Parchment and ink shifted lazily in the breeze, skittering across the table until a pale hand reached out to capture the would-be runaway. Ino traced the curves of the signature fondly before folding it and tucking the little treasure away inside her sleeve. Later she would hide it inside her trunk with the rest of her precious belongings but for now she wanted to keep Sakura’s words as close to her heart as she possibly could.
There was something charming in the scratched out words and the ink blots around the edges, proof that her favorite ally had penned the correspondence herself rather than having someone take down her words for her as most in hhheir position would. It gave their communication a much more personal feel and Ino had taken to doing the same if for no other reason than to hope that Sakura would see fit to allow yet another of the barriers between them to be torn down.
Having any sort of friend was hard for an Empress. Becoming friends with the ruler of another nation came with entirely new pitfalls and distances that Ino very much wished she could simply do away with. What sweet joy it would have been to simply ride out and meet with Sakura in an empty field to while away the afternoon as some of her soldiers did on occasion. Of course, generally they did such things when they took up a beau from one of the nearby villages or from another encampment and Ino flushed at the thought of sitting as closely to Sakura as she had seen her troops sit with their lovers.
Just thinking the word ‘lovers’ in conjunction with Sakura was enough to make her wish for nightfall to come sooner. Time alone in her quarters was becoming more and more of a necessity with each letter between them.
With effort, Ino pulled herself together and wrenched her thoughts away from the inappropriate avenues they had followed yet again, focusing instead on a more realistic future. Sakura had written to confirm another meeting between them, the third since their alliance had become more official than the simple ceasefire just over two years ago.
Both of their empires had flourished in that time, able to refocus their time and resources on other problems both internal and external. With more soldiers on her western front Ino was able to better protect her port cities from Iwagakure’s battleships. Able to release a handful of her forces from service now that there were less battles to fight, her cities had never been more prosperous or so well kept. Soldiers laid down their swords to take up the masonry and carpentry they had left behind when duty called them to war. Ino could not possibly have been more proud of her realm nor the people she watched over and Sakura’s letters indicated that things were progressing much the same in her own realm.
“Your Majesty,” a voice hailed her from behind. She turned to see the commander of her armies, Choji the Winged General, with his fist pressed to his chest in reverence. He was a massive man whose renowned ferocity in battle was well-balanced by the gentleness he exhibited once sword returned to scabbard.
“Are the preparations complete?”
“We wait only for you, my Lady.”
“Yes and if I don’t hurry along like a good little empress you’re going to get that tick in your left temple. I’d best pick up my feet then, shall I?” Ino smiled and laid a hand under her general’s chin to raise it up. Choji was a man of strict duty and he would never dare to look her in the eye without permission.
She was delighted to see his nose wrinkle slightly. “I would never presume to hurry Your Majesty.”
“Of course not. Choji, my old friend”-she ignored the way he jerked at being referred to as her friend-“give me your advice. Is this trip wasteful? Am I allowing personal desires to blind me to things I should be giving my attention to instead?” Ino lowered her fingers and watched Choji’s passive face, giving away nothing of his thoughts.
“It is important to maintain good relations with one’s allies,” was all he offered.
Ino’s smile was slow and wild. It seemed her intentions were obvious to at least those who were quite used to watching her every move and it made her wonder how obvious they were to her whom she had intentions towards. If Sakura were aware of how captivating Ino found her then her invitation to ‘allow the nations to see that we continue to strengthen our union’ took on an entirely new meaning.
“Bring me my horse, Choji. We ride.”
“As your wish, Your Majesty.”
Lounging on soft cushions with a bowl of grapes near at hand in the capitol city of Konohagakure was not a situation Ino would have expected to find herself in only a handful of years ago and yet here she was, entirely content as page boy around her own age slipped back out of the room, the red tattoos on his cheeks peeking out from the shadows for a moment longer before he closed the door. With him gone that left only herself and Sakura here in this luxurious room all alone.
Her counterpart was freshly bathed; Ino could tell by the scent of roses which wafted from her skin when they embraced each other in greeting and the lack of dirt on her clothing. And such delicate clothing she wore here in the heart of her empire. Ino could understand the statement behind it, wearing no protection as though to flaunt her safety here, and she found herself a trifle jealous. After a lifetime of fairly living in her armor it would be nice to take this opportunity to feel silks against her naked skin and not have greaves digging in to her shins beneath her mantle – even if these were her nice greaves, engraved and polished to a shine despite going unseen.
She had already achieved her greatest desire, however, and not even the thought of increasing her comfort could move her from her current position. There would only be so many opportunities to find herself completely alone with the woman who plagued her every idle thought.
“I trust your journey was pleasant.” Sakura plucked a grape and slid it between her lips, savoring it in a way that made Ino wonder if she was being seductive on purpose or if she always made love to her meals like that.
“As pleasant as it could have been. I miss my old horse.”
“Yes, my condolences on his loss.”
Reaching across the small distance between them, she laid a hand on Ino’s wrist in consolation. Ino felt her heart crashing about inside her chest in a manner which would have alarmed her were this anyone but the woman at her side. Smart tactician as she was, Ino could see when it was time to admit defeat. Her defeat was in the way she had loved Sakura almost before they met, engaged by the brilliance of her battle strategies until she was then seduced by a beauty both hidden yet freely offered.
Taking a chance, she lifted her other hand and laid it atop of Sakura’s. Yamanaka Ino was nothing if not brave; calculating and always with several plans up her sleeve.
“Believe me when I say that I find no better comfort than in your welcome presence.”
Sakura’s smile was tinged with that same pretty blush she had seen only once before and Ino swelled with triumph. Hope took root that her feelings were not unwanted. A wolf rose up inside her then, coming out in the edges of her smirk and the weight of her fingers where they did not lift from Sakura’s, lingering there in pointed declaration.
When her companion met her eyes determinedly and made no move to retrieve her appendage it was all Ino could do to keep herself from howling in victory. Her prey, it seemed, was more than willing to be caught.
No, she reprimanded herself. Sakura could not be said to be her prey. There existed no word which could describe Sakura better in Ino’s eyes than to call the woman her equal and she realized that this, more than anything, was what she had fallen in love with. It was more than her pretty face and her alluring eyes, her spectacular temper or her gentle forgiveness. Rather, Ino loved a woman who could stand tall by her side, who held her head high and kept her hands just as sure around the hilt of her blade.
“You must be tired from your travels,” Sakura murmured, her fingers seemingly to tighten their grip on the wrist they held. “Allow me to show you somewhere you might find more relaxing.”
Ino offered no protests about how relaxed she already was perched her on this cloud of pillows with no other stressors in the room. She offered nothing but a winsome smile and raised to her feet to allow Sakura to lead her elsewhere, deeper within the palace. Not once did she think about asking the other to unhand her; not when she had been dreaming of this very moment since the first time she saw this perfect creature sitting proudly atop her horse, ready both for battle and for peace, and recognized a kindred spirit in her.
Only a few short years later would see the two empires come together under a single banner, united by marriage and by then so closely entwined it was hard to tell one from the other anyway. Already massive powers in their own right, as one they became the largest singular nation in the known world, reputed to be entirely peaceful unless their two Empresses deemed violence necessary in the protection of their people.
And so the world bowed.