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Cosmos

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Sakura is twelve when she wakes up to a field full of flowers. 

She immediately notices two things: One, the flowers hadn’t been there when she’d fallen asleep and two, the flowers in question are cosmos.

(Ino’s favourite, Inner whispers).

She fights the urge to cry at the sight because Inner’s right, these are Ino’s favourite flowers. But she and Ino aren’t friends anymore. They’re enemies now, rivals for the affection of a boy who has never once glanced their way.

Sakura’s fingers pluck one of the cosmos. It’s a beautiful flower - maybe that’s why Ino likes them so much, she muses to herself. The thought thickens the lump in her throat and she doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s jealousy, maybe it’s grief, or maybe it’s some combination of the two.

A breeze picks up, tousling her hair and the flower in her hands. Sakura swears she can hear Ino’s voice whispering amongst the flowers.

Am I as pretty as a cosmos flower, Sakura-chan? 

This time, Sakura can’t stop the sob from leaving her throat.

She clutches the cosmos in one hand and tries in vain to stop her tears with the other. Shinobi don’t cry, she tries to remind herself. They must never cry lest they show weakness. Weakness is a luxury that Sakura does not have.

Still, the tears don’t stop. Sitting in a field full of cosmos flowers hurts more than it should. Sakura is quietly grateful that no one else has come across her. The last thing she needs is a seasoned shinobi to see her like this: a paper ninja with pink hair crying like her heart’s been shattered.

Sakura has known pain; it comes with being a civilian at the Academy. She prepared for pain whilst she was there because children can be so cruel. 

(Were we prepared for this kind of pain, though? Inner questions).

(No, Sakura sobs, we weren’t).

It’s too late for regret. She already returned the ribbon Ino had given her what seems like a lifetime ago. The only thing that she can do now is move forward like a good shinobi.

Sakura is determined to be a good shinobi. She has no other choice. She knows what she is, she knows what people see when they look at her: a civilian girl with pink hair from a no-name clan whose only purpose is to be fodder for better shinobi. She has to be the best. She has to be.

(We will be, Inner promises).

She will be. She will, and then Sasuke will finally look at her and breaking off her friendship with Ino will have been worth it.

(Will having Sasuke-kun look at us really make up for how hurt Ino looked, though? Inner asks).

Sakura doesn’t have an answer. 

-

Sakura is thirteen when the earth moves.

She’s fighting a man who makes monsters look tame. Naruto is unconscious, Sasuke’s down for the count, and it’s up to her to make sure they make it to the morning. It’s a task that’s easier said than done when her opponent is a Sannin.

She can tell that he’s toying with her. He doesn’t have any real reason to stay other than sadism. And Orochimaru, she’s quickly learning, is a sadistic fuck.

Sakura moves faster than she ever has in her life. She grabs Sasuke’s limp body and lobs him towards the bushes one moment, then blocks Orochimaru’s sword with a kunai the next. She doesn’t get a chance to enjoy her accomplishment because a second later, the kunai in question is gone and she’s exposed.

Orochimaru swings his sword with every intention of cutting down the upstart paper ninja before him. 

Sakura reaches out, more out of instinct than out of any real attempt to block the incoming blow, and screams.

She screams and something - the forest, the gods, maybe even the spirits of the Founders and her ancestors themselves - responds . It has been quite some time since the earth bent and twisted like this, but it remembers how it bent for Hashirama Senju and now-

Now it bends for her. It bends for the waif of a girl, for the nobody with pink hair, for the paper ninja who’s only strength was supposed to be her test scores. It bends and twists and flies towards the snake that does not belong in this forest.

She can only watch as the ground explodes to reveal vines that fly towards Orochimaru at speeds that can only be described as deadly. They certainly prove deadly for him.

Orochimaru is undeniably strong and incredibly fast, if the way he’s spent the last fifteen minutes destroying her team is anything to go by. But no amount of speed can save him from the insurmountable number of vines that Sakura sends his way. They strike him in so many areas in so many ways that Sakura can’t tell where the man’s body starts and the vines begin.

Blood drips from what’s left of his body. Sakura thinks she hears his final death rattle, or maybe it’s the leaves whispering their promises of protection. Whatever it is, it sends a wave of relief through her that drops her to her knees.

(Get up, Inner hisses. This is no time to rest!)

(She knows that Inner is right. There are still monsters lurking in this forest, monsters who can’t hear the warnings whispered by the leaves and would only see a paper ninja with pink hair).

She pushes herself up onto her feet. She takes a step and sways, blinking past black spots in her vision. Before she can collapse to the ground, roots rise up to brace her.

Sakura grips the roots, confused but thankful at their presence. She’ll wonder what’s happening and ask questions later. Right now, she needs to get to Sasuke and Naruto. She needs to hide them, needs to find a place where she can tend to them the way a gardener might tend to their plants.

She slowly makes her way to her teammates.

(Our boys, Inner whispers and Sakura doesn’t correct her because it’s true. They’re hers and she will die to keep them safe, the way they almost did today. She won’t be the weak one any longer).

She grabs Sasuke first because he’s the closest and hauls him towards a cluster of tree roots and bushes. It’s not the most glamorous or intricate of hiding places, but it’s the best one she has right now. She tries to keep herself steady as she moves because whilst Sasuke is unconscious, she figures that he’s already been through enough today.

Once Sasuke is settled, she goes back for Naruto. It takes her longer to get to him than it did to get to Sasuke, if only because Orochimaru pinned the blonde to a tree. It may be chakra exhaustion or adrenaline fuelled delirium, but Sakura will swear up and down until she dies that the tree shudders and lowers Naruto down to her when she touches it.

She places Naruto next to Sasuke, checking both of them over one last time. To her relief, Sasuke’s condition hasn’t worsened; his forehead is still drenched with sweat and his face is still pinched with pain, but he’s breathing so Sakura will take that as a win. Naruto still hasn’t awoken even with all the jostling she did to him to get him down from the tree and next to Sasuke. Like Sasuke though, Naruto is breathing.

(If they’re breathing, then they’re not dead, Inner says in a tone that Sakura thinks is supposed to be comforting).

(They’re not dead yet, is Sakura’s dull reply).

She strips Naruto of his jacket, folding it and tucking it under his head so that he can have some comfort and protection from the forest floor. For Sasuke, his pillow is smaller and made using the arm warmers he wears.

Sakura sits so that her back is against the tree. Everything hurts and she’s so tired . Nothing in the Academy ever prepared her for this, but then again, Sakura never prepared herself for this either. She had been too busy chasing Sasuke to prepare for something like this.

She glances at Sasuke, then at Naruto. 

Her grip tightens unconsciously on the dirt beneath her hands. She thinks that she can feel the forest floor shake in the distance, but that also might just be the exhaustion.

She pulls a kunai from her holster and sets it on her lap. As tired as she is, Sakura knows that she can’t sleep just yet. Her boys are her priority. They had her back earlier, now it’s her turn to have theirs.

As determined as Sakura is to stay awake though, she’s still a child (no matter what the village may say). Granted, she’s a child who fought a Sannin and lived to tell the tale, but there’s little she can do in the face of chakra exhaustion. She doesn’t know how long she manages to keep her eyes open for before she finally succumbs to sleep.

-

Sakura awakens to the sensation of someone’s fingers gently carding through her hair. 

It takes her a minute to realise that the fingers belong to Ino, that the face above her is Ino’s, that the lap her head is cradled in is Ino’s . When the realisation does hit, Sakura shifts to jerk away. Or at least, she tries to. Between the bone-crushing exhaustion that weighs heavily on her body and Ino’s gentle touch, Sakura can’t do much more than flinch.

It’s enough to have Ino’s ministrations pause. “Forehead?”

“H-ey, Pig,” she croaks out. 

“Oh, thank the Sage!” Ino exclaims. She sounds relieved, much to Sakura’s confusion. “I was starting to think you weren’t going to wake up.”

“Told you it was just chakra exhaustion, Ino,” Choji says from his position next to Naruto.

Ino huffs. Sakura finds her eyes drawn to Ino’s neck and cheeks, both of which have turned a light shade of pink.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know for sure!” Ino defends. “The three of them were unconscious!”

“They were breathing,” Sakura hears Shikamaru grumble.

She turns her head and sees that he’s next to Sasuke. Saskue’s head is in Shikamaru’s lap, similar to how Sakura’s head is in Ino’s, so that the Nara heir can pour something down the unconscious boy’s throat.

“What’s Shikamaru doing to Sasuke-kun?” Sakura demands, doing her best to sound menacing with her head still in Ino’s lap.

Is Shikamaru poisoning Sasuke? Sakura knows that she’s amongst shinobi from her own village, but the exams are still going on. 

Shikamaru doesn’t even spare her a glance. “It’s a fever reducer,” he says dryly. “There’s six days left in the exams. You want to move him? It won’t happen if he’s still running a fever this bad.”

“So, you’re not poisoning him?” Sakura asks.

Shikamaru finally looks at her. “It’s too troublesome,” he says. “If I did, I’d have to deal with Ino shrieking about ‘how dare I poison her precious Sasuke-kun.’”

“Shikamaru!” Ino snaps.

“Maa!” He sets Sasuke’s head back down on the ground and raises his hands in the universal gesture for peace. “Chill, woman, I’m not going to.”

Sakura blinks at the exchange. It sounds almost...sibling-like. It also seems to be a common exchange between the two, if the soft sigh that Choji lets out is anything to go by. She doesn’t know if Ino and Shikamaru will actually come to blows, but Naruto and Sasuke are still unconscious and the last thing she needs right now is for either of her boys to be caught in the crossfire.

(What crossfire? Ino will kick Nara’s ass, Inner grumbles).

She probably will, Sakura concedes. That still doesn’t mean she wants them fighting with the bodies of her teammates in the same vicinity.

“Ino,” Sakura cuts in.

“Hm?”

“How’d you find us?” she asks.

How did you find me , is what she really wants to ask.

“I saw the cosmos.” Ino holds up the flower. “Also, the really weird roots were a give away that something was up.”

Roots?

Sakura lifts her head as best she can to take in her surroundings. Sure enough, the Forest of Death’s roots have formed some kind of dome over her team.

“They’re pretty much impossible to cut through,” Ino continues, oblivious to the frown that forms on Sakura’s brow at her words, “as one unfortunate Oto team found out.”

She winks at Sakura. It makes Sakura’s stomach flip.

“How’d you get in then?” Sakura asks before she can stop herself.

Ino’s smile is soft. “They let me in, Forehead,” she says. “Once I saw you, Naruto-baka-”

(Don’t let her call him that! Inner snaps and Sakura doesn’t know why).

“And Sasuke-kun, I went back to grab Shika and Choji. I figured that we’d stand guard and help you out, in case whatever put you all in this state came back.”

Sakura’s stomach clenches at the thought of Orochimaru coming back. She turns her head so that she doesn’t have to look at Ino.

“He’s not coming back,” she says quietly.

“What do you mean?” Sakura can hear the confused frown in Ino’s voice.

“He’s not coming back,” Sakura says again. “I, I-”

The words get stuck in her throat. She knows that killing comes with being a shinobi; she saw plenty of death during their last mission. But she’s supposed to be a paper ninja. Sakura may be a child, but she’s not completely ignorant. She knows that she’s not supposed to be the one that kills. She’s the one that’s supposed to be killed because she’s a civilian girl from a clan whose battles Konoha has forgotten.

“Oh, Sakura.” Ino’s hand is on her face and it takes everything Sakura has to not start crying then and there. “I have you. You don’t have to say anything else.”

“I had to protect them,” Sakura whispers. She wonders if Ino and her team saw the blood soaked vines or the body crucified within them.

“I know. You did a great job. Sasuke-kun and Naruto-baka are alive.”

“I’m tired, Ino,” Sakura whispers. This time, she can’t stop the sob that leaves her throat because she’s that tired. 

“Rest, then, Sakura,” Ino’s voice is gentle, like it was when they were children. When they were friends. 

“Naruto and Sasuke-kun-” Sakura starts, only to be cut off by Ino shaking her head.

“My team will continue keeping watch over them. I have you.”

There’s an undercurrent of steel to her words. They speak to two things: truth and promise - the truth that Ino has Sakura’s back and the promise that whatever threats remain in this forest will have to go through Ino to get to Sakura.

It makes Sakura feel warm. Protected.

(She’s always done that, protect us, Inner says. Ino is safe).

Which means that Sakura is safe, that she can rest a little bit longer without consequence.

Sakura’s eyes slip shut to the feel of Ino stroking her hair. She dreams about a field full of cosmos with Ino by her side.

-

(We should’ve known that it was too good to last, Inner mutters)

Staring up at the names on the match board, Sakura can only agree.

Yamanaka Ino vs Haruno Sakura

The sight of Ino’s name across from hers fills Sakura with dread, not because she’s afraid, but because her opponent is Ino. For all their declarations of rivalry, Sakura never did think that they would actually come to blows.

And the blows are brutal. Or at least, they’re as brutal as can be when delivered by two teenage girls still smarting over a smouldering friendship. Ino doesn’t take her seriously at first - something that irks Sakura more than she is willing to let on (she pointedly ignores Inner’s furious screeching) - but a dressing down from Sakura quickly changes her mind.

Ino’s attempt at Shintenshin is unexpected, if only because Sakura never thought she would be able to push Ino that far. It almost works until Inner decides that she’s had enough of Ino poking through their mind and forcefully shoves the blonde out.

(But not before trailing a finger down Ino’s cheek and making her blush. Sakura feels heat rush to her cheeks at the squeak that Ino lets out and doesn’t know why).

Their fight ends on an anti-climactic note. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of their fight, but there’s really no other way it could end. Sakura is exhausted. She’s never had large chakra reserves to begin with but between whatever caused the Forest of Death to respond the way it did when she fought Orochimaru, her sprint towards the tower with her boys on her back, and this fight, Sakura is now running on fumes.

“I’ve got enough left for one punch, Forehead,” Ino wheezes, sounding as rough as Sakura is starting to feel.

“Same, Pig,” Sakura says.

She can feel the proctor’s eyes on her, can feel the eyes of the other Rookie Nine on her, can feel Ino’s eyes on her. (She can’t feel Saskue’s eyes and for some reason, Sakura feels perfectly okay with that). They’re all waiting for someone, either her or Ino, to make the first (and last) move.

Sakura moves first.

She rushes forward, fist pulled back. She knows she’s wide open but she doesn’t care. She doesn’t have the energy to care. She has one goal right now: use her fist to prove to Ino that this fight was worth it. That taking Sakura seriously is worth it.

Sakura’s fist slams into Ino’s face the moment Ino’s slams into hers. It hurts like a bitch, as most punches to one’s face do. Sakura manages to keep from crying out in pain even as her face and head start to pound, but she can’t keep her eyes open as the adrenaline bleeds from her body. She swears that she sees a proud smile on Ino’s lips right before her eyes slip shut.

When she comes to, she and Ino are both on the balcony next to each other. Lee and his sensei are cheering someone on, which tells Sakura that her match with Ino has long since ended.

“I was wondering when you’d wake up,” she hears Ino say.

Sakura glances left. “I’m guessing I lost,” she says, pointedly ignoring the way that her stomach clenches at the thought.

“Asuma-sensei said it was a draw, so we’re both out,” Ino tells her.

That’s only slightly more comforting.

Sakura shifts, biting back a groan at the way every muscle in her body pulls. Everything hurts, that’s to be expected, but she can’t tell what hurts more: her body or her pride.

“I’m the one that should be crying, you know,” Ino chuckles. “To think that I tied with somebody like you…”

Cruel as the words are, Sakura can tell that there’s no real heat behind them. She knows Ino well enough to know that the girl is deflecting to hide her own frustration.

Still, even with how well she knows Ino, Sakura finds herself surprised when Ino lifts a hitai-ate. 

“Here,” Ino says. “You’ve bloomed into a truly beautiful flower, Sakura.”

Sakura can feel herself blush at Ino’s words. She grabs the forehead protector from Ino’s hands and ducks her head to hide the blush staining her cheeks, only for Ino to place a finger under her chin and gently lift her face up.

“You have such a beautiful face, Sakura. You shouldn’t hide it.”

The smile that Ino gives her is warm, and it sends Sakura’s heart fluttering.

Sakura doesn’t know if Ino can hear the way that her heart is pounding against her ribs, but she still coughs all the same to drown out any potential sound. “I’m not hiding anything, Ino,” she mutters.

(Liar, Inner grumbles).

(Sakura ignores her).

“Uh huh.” Ino sighs and leans back against the wall. “By the way, the next time we fight? I’m going to win, Forehead.”

“In your dreams, Pig,” Sakura scoffs.

(Whatever heat she wants to infuse into her statement dies when Ino places her hand on top of Sakura’s. If Sakura’s face matches her dress, well, Ino’s polite enough to not mention it).

-

Sakura is still thirteen when she awakens to leaves whispering in her ears. 

At first, she’s confused to hear them; she swears she closed the window earlier that night. It doesn’t help that in her sleep-muddled state, it takes Sakura a few moments to understand what the leaves are trying to tell her. Once she hears the undercurrent of panic in their message, Sakura is on her feet and out the window before she can blink. 

It doesn’t take her long to find Sasuke.

She’s out of breath by the time she reaches him because even with the roots and leaves guiding her to him with hurried whispers, her house is still on the other side of the village.

“It’s the middle of the night,” Sasuke says in lieu of a greeting. He almost sounds surprised to see her. “What are you doing out here?”

Only path out, the leaves whisper. No return.

“This is the only road out of the village,” she points out with a bravado she does not feel. “You’ve been pulling away. I don’t have to be a Yamanaka to figure out where your head is, especially not after you tried to kill Naruto.”

It helps that the leaves had also told her about the conversation that Kakashi and Sasuke had after the fight.

“Tch.” She doesn’t miss the way that his jaw clenches. “Go home. This doesn’t concern you.” 

(The hell it doesn’t! Inner snarls).

“I think it does,” she says coolly.

She watches him stuff his hands into his pockets. “I need power,” he says simply, as if that explains everything.

Sakura grits her teeth. She can read in between the lines of what he’s saying and what she sees enrages her. 

“So what, you’re just going to turn your back on us and go to the man who destroyed the village?” she demands.

“You know nothing!” he snaps and Sakura is faintly pleased at the emotion she’s managed to draw from him. “This isn’t my home. My family is gone! My brother killed them! I need power and he’s the only one who can give it to me! You wouldn’t-”

“He killed my parents,” Sakura cuts him off. “Orochimaru. One of his summons crashed through the civilian district and well, my parents didn’t make it out.”

She can see his anger turn into shock. No one else knows, not even Ino. Haruno Mebuki and Haruno Kizashi are just two of countless people who lost their lives during the Crush. Unlike many of the others though, her parents’ names are barely worth mentioning to other Konoha shinobi because they were civilians.

“I don’t want to have to kill you, Sasuke-kun, because-” 

Because he’s her teammate. Because he’s family. Because she threw away her friendship with Ino for him and if he leaves, then it means that she did that for nothing.

“Because you’re part of Team 7, same as Naruto and me. But if that’s what it takes to keep you from joining Orochimaru, then so be it.” Sakura’s hands flex. “I won’t let you spit on my parents’ memory.”

Can she really kill him? No, she knows that she can’t. She’s just a paper ninja to whom the leaves whisper to. But maybe, she thinks as she raises her hand, maybe she can stop him. Maybe she can make him stay. Not for her (she knows he will never stay for her) but for Naruto, for their team. For their family.

Vines rise up from the earth and fly towards Sasuke. For a brief moment, Sakura thinks that she has him. Then, he vanishes.

Shit.

A breeze whips past her.

Sakura’s eyes widen. She rushes to turn around and put some distance between her and Sasuke, but she never gets the chance.

She feels his hand clamp down on her shoulder before everything goes black. Before it does, she swears she hears a soft, “Sakura. Thank you.”

The next time she awakens, it’s to another hand on her shoulder.

“Hey,” a voice says, “it’s unhealthy to sleep outside, you know?”

(We are shinobi, Inner seethes. The ground has been our bed before!)

Sakura ignores her, instead choosing to take in her surroundings and her situation. Her body aches - likely from a night on the bench she’s on - and her knees feel like they’re bruised. Around the bench are petunias, orange lilies, and red dahlias that look as though they’ve recently bloomed.

She moves her hand absently, wincing when she feels thorns cut into her hand. She glances down to see a single black rose and then-

Realisation.

The flowers are her memory: betrayal, hate, anger. The leaves whisper what Inner screams: Uchiha Sasuke is a traitor.  

Inner’s rage crashes through her. It’s hot and burning. For a brief second, Sakura entertains the idea of letting it overwhelm her, before ultimately deciding that staying calm is the best option.

She looks up at the two chunin still staring down at her. “Uchiha Sasuke has defected,” she informs them. 

Two sets of eyes widen. Sakura forces herself to stay relaxed as they both truly take her in, sitting on a stone bench with crushed flowers at her feet.

“You’d better come with us to talk to the Hokage,” one of them finally says.

She does.

-

Sakura is fourteen when she marches into the Hokage’s office, looks the woman in the eye, then bows low and deep.

“Please take me on as your apprentice!”

Silence.

Sakura doesn’t fidget, no matter how much she wants to. She is a shinobi who keeps her eyes towards the floor and starts plotting for the worst case.

Tsunade laughs. Sakura can feel Shizune’s flinch, but she doesn’t. As far as laughter goes, Tsunade’s isn’t cruel like the children of her Academy days or sadistic like Orochimaru’s was. There’s a warmth to it.

“And what if I say no?”

Sakura finally looks up to meet Tsunade’s gaze. It’s indifferent, a stark contrast to the formidable woman that Sakura knows that Senju Tsunade is. There’s a gleam in her eyes, though. It lets Sakura know what Tsunade is really asking: how far are you willing to go to make sure I say yes?

“Then I’ll come back tomorrow and every day after that until you say yes,” she says firmly.

Saskue is gone. Naruto is gone. Sakura is all that remains because she wasn’t strong enough to stop the former or protect the latter. She refuses to stay that way. Her boys will become fearsome men and she will become a fearsome woman in her own right, one way or another.

The gleam in Tsunade’s eye brightens. 

“I heard from Kakashi that you have a brilliant mind as well as strong willpower.” 

Instead of providing a verbal answer, Sakura raises her hand towards Tsunade’s desk.

(Let’s show her what we can do, Inner growls).

Flowers start to bloom on the corners of the desk. 

There are shocked gasps that Sakura only vaguely pays attention to. Instead, she keeps her eyes on Tsunade as she gently but firmly encourages the rest of the desk to respond. It’s not long before the desk is covered in amaryllis flowers.

Naruto would find the whole situation hilarious, Sakura muses to herself as she takes in Tsunade’s wide eyes.

“It seems as though my clan isn’t nearly as dead as I thought it was.” Tsunade folds her hands in front of her face. “Haruno Sakura!”

Sakura snaps to attention. 

“I will take you as my apprentice!” Tsunade declares, flashing a grin that’s full of many things - teeth, promises, danger, maybe even a touch of grief - that almost make Sakura take a step back in fear. “But in exchange, I won’t take it easy on you!”

Sakura returns the grin. She knows what Tsunade sees when she looks at her: a paper ninja with pink hair that should have died out long ago. She stands up straight, spine like solid steel.

“I’m counting on it,” she says.

Tsunade tips her head. By now, the grin has turned into a warm smile. Sakura takes it as a dismissal and moves to leave, only to stop when she hears, “Sakura-san?”

Sakura glances back just in time to see Tsunade’s desk crack in two. It’s the only warning she has before both halves go flying across the room into the wall.

Sakura stares at Tsunade, eyes wide.

(One day, we’ll do that, Inner says in awe).

“Next time,” Tsunade snarls, “don’t turn my desk into a floral display.”

“No promises, Tsunade-sama,” Sakura says, because as controlled as her display was, she barely understands how her ability works. She figures that honesty might as well be the best policy when facing someone who could break her spine with their pinky finger.

She sprints from the room when she sees Tsunade’s eyes narrow.

She hears indignant sputtering from Shizune at her back that’s soon overtaken by a roar of laughter. Sakura feels herself smile at both sounds.

(Yeah, Naruto would definitely have enjoyed that, Inner comments).

Sakura definitely did.

-

Sakura is sixteen when she starts to notice that she’s been thinking about Ino constantly.

At first, she thinks it’s because of their friendship; the last two years since Sasuke’s defection and Naruto’s departure have done wonders for repairing it, as had Ino offering to let Sakura live with her after she discovered that Sakura’s parents had perished in the Crush. 

Inner quickly disabuses her of that notion with a snort.

(For a genius, you can be a real moron, Inner says).

(Sakura has no idea what she means and when she tells Inner as much, she’s met by laughter).

She doesn’t get much time to dwell on Inner’s words after that because Tsunade has lived up to her promise. Her training methods are brutal, the work schedule that she has Sakura on is even more so. Between missions, training sessions, and hospital shifts, Sakura’s default state seems to be exhausted.

It’s why when Ino manages to corner her on a rare day off and drag her off to a flower-filled training field, Sakura doesn’t even protest. Instead, she just sighs and shakes her head and lets the blonde pull her by the hand.

She does grumble a little bit towards the end of their journey, but only because it makes Ino toss her hair back and laugh. Sakura can’t take her eyes off the way Ino’s hair flutters in the breeze or how radiant Ino looks when she laughs. 

Sakura is so caught up in Ino that she trips over nothing, taking the both of them to the ground with a yelp.

(Sage, you’re hopeless, Inner mutters).

(If I’m hopeless, so are you, Sakura shoots back).

(At least I never denied it, Inner snarks).

Ino is the one that recovers first because of course she is. “Ne, Sakura-chan, if you wanted to get on top of me, all you had to do was ask,” Ino teases with a smile on her lips that Sakura can only describe as sinful.

It takes a moment for Ino’s words to fully register with Sakura’s brain. The moment they do, Sakura can feel her eyes go wide as heat floods her cheeks. She sputters out something that she hopes resembles words, but from the way that Ino giggles, it’s just unintelligible noise.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Sakura whines, only for Ino to laugh harder. “I’m tired, I’m allowed to do things like trip!”

Ino’s laughter eventually dies down. When it does, she reaches a hand out for Sakura and pats her lap. “C’mon, then,” she says.

Sakura doesn’t need to be told twice. It seems like whenever they’re together, they end up like this: Sakura with her head in Ino’s lap and Ino with her hands running through Sakura’s hair. 

“Gods, that feels good,” Sakura groans.

Ino hums. “You have some knots in your hair, Forehead.”

Sakura rolls her eyes. “My hair isn’t exactly a priority right now, Pig,” she says. “Tsunade-shishou has me doing 80 hour shifts at the hospital, on top of training with Tenzou-sensei.”

Her eyes flutter shut moments later when Ino runs her fingers through her hair. 

“Tenzou-sensei?” Ino sounds curious.

“He’s ANBU, I think. Or at least he used to be.”

He probably still is; his role as her jounin-sensei is likely just a cover for his ANBU status. There are weeks where she doesn’t train with him, the same weeks that an ANBU agent with a kitsune mask is also suspiciously absent.

“ANBU?!” Sakura’s eyes snap open when she feels Ino’s hand leave her hair. They meet Ino’s wide-eyed gaze. “Sakura, are you-”

Ino lets the question hang in the air. 

“No.” Sakura sits up. “I’m only a chunin, Ino. Besides, the pink hair would make me a pretty bad assassin.”

That last part is a lie and they both know it. They’re both shinobi, after all.

“Then why would she have you train with him?”

“Because-” Sakura starts, only to stop and bite her lip in thought. No one other than Tsunade-shishou, Shizune-sempai, and Tenzou-sensei (and Tsunade’s personal ANBU) know about her ability to make the forests bend to her will. She’s been hiding it from everyone else since that day in the Forest of Death. 

(If we can’t trust Ino with this, who can we trust? Inner asks).

Sakura knows that Inner has a point. If she can’t trust Ino to keep a secret, then she can’t trust anyone. Ino is a gossip, true, but only when it suits her. Sensitive information, delicate secrets, things with a weight and price - those things have never left Ino’s lips once they’ve been delivered to her. 

“Because of this,” Sakura eventually says.

She brushes her hand across the ground and gently encourages a handful of cosmos to bloom in its wake. 

Sakura sees Ino’s eyes widen. “That’s-”

“Yeah,” Sakura nods, “it is. That day in the Forest of Death, where you found us under the roots?”

“You did that.” It’s not a question.

“I did,” Sakura confirms. “Although I didn’t know at the time.”

She remembered the roots rising up to skewer Orochimaru and nearly kill him, but she didn’t remember much beyond that other than the leaves whispering that they would protect her and her team. 

Sakura plucks at the flower petals.

“I tried to stop Sasuke with it-” Sasuke, not Sasuke-kun; he stopped being Sasuke-kun when he left to join the man who killed the Sandaime and her parents- “but it wasn’t strong enough.”

She hadn’t been strong enough.

“I told Shishou shortly after she agreed to train me. Two days later, I was introduced to Tenzou-sensei.”

“Do you trust him?” Ino asks quietly.

“I do,” she says.

Sakura does trust Tenzou, just not as much as she trusts Ino. She will never trust someone as much as she trusts Ino.

Ino hums and goes back to running her fingers through Sakura’s hair. “When do you practice with him next?” she eventually asks.

Sakura blinks up to Ino at the question. “Uh, Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine to midnight, if he’s in the village,” she says. 

“You think he’ll mind if I stop by to watch you train?”

Another blink from Sakura. She feels like she’s missing something. “Maybe?”

Their shared Mokuton is a closely guarded secret. She hasn’t told anyone that during their first training session together, Tenzou-sensei impaled an ANBU agent with a blank mask using a wood construct that was as thick as a tree.

Ino pouts. “Can you convince him to let me watch? Please, Sakura?”

Sakura can never say no to Ino when she pouts like that. Not when her blue eyes shine like that .

“I can try,” she says. “Can you at least tell me why you’re so interested all of a sudden?”

Ino shrugs. “Information is my trade,” she says simply. “Besides, I need to know how you move so that I can have your back.”

“Tenzou-sensei has my back, Ino,” Sakura tells her.

“He doesn’t go on missions with you. I do.”

There’s something in Ino’s voice that Sakura can’t quite place. She almost wants to push the matter, but the look on Ino’s face makes her pause.

“I’ll talk to him,” she eventually says. “Just be aware that if he says yes, he’s probably going to expect you to train with us.”

“You say that like I’m bothered by hard work,” Ino scoffs.

Sakura smiles at Ino’s words. She knows that Ino isn’t bothered by hard work in the slightest; her drive is second to none. It just needs the right motivator and teacher, which is why Ino has flourished under Anko and Ibiki’s tutelage.

“Just don’t cry to me when he kicks your ass, Pig.”

“In your dreams, Forehead,” Ino snarks.

(Oh, if only she knew, Inner cackles).

Sakura chuckles and relaxes into Ino’s lap. Ino is still playing with her hair, something that Sakura finds incredibly soothing especially with Ino looking down at her. 

It’s so easy, she muses to herself as Ino’s fingers comb through her pink locks, to exist like this. Here. Just the two of them.

Sakura absently brings a hand up to rub her thumb against Ino’s cheek when she spots some dirt.

“What’s that for?” Ino asks.

“Just saw some dirt,” Sakura replies. 

She doesn’t know why her stomach flutters at the sight of the bemused smile playing at Ino’s lips or why her eyes are drawn to Ino’s. She thinks that she could get lost in Ino’s eyes; if she did, she knows that Ino would bring her back.

“Get some rest, Sakura,” Ino says.

Sakura pouts. “I’m enjoying the view,” she protests.

She watches Ino’s cheeks turn pink, then yelps when Ino flicks her nose.

“Take a nap, dork. Sage knows that you need it,” Ino says with a tone that will brook no argument.

“Fine,” Sakura sighs. “You’ve got my back though, right?”

“I do,” Ino confirms. “I have you.”

The undercurrent of steel in Ino’s words is a familiar one to Sakura. It carries an unspoken promise that she hears loud and clear, a promise that she won’t wake up alone.

(She hates waking up alone ever since Sasuke left her on the bench the night he defected).

Sakura takes Ino’s free hand and gives it a squeeze in thanks. She lets herself relax a little more. With the fingers running through her hair and the scent that is so uniquely Ino filling her senses, it isn’t long before Sakura drifts off.

-

Sakura is seventeen when she feels her world stop.

It happens like this: her team stumbles upon Sasuke and Danzo because of course they fucking do.

(Team 7’s horrific luck seems to carry over to whatever team she or Naruto find themselves embedded on).

Ino’s the one that spots Sasuke before anyone else. She’s the one who acts first, the one who raises her hands to try and stop him for just a moment so that the rest of the team can get their bearings. Were it anyone else on the battlefield, Sakura knows that Ino’s plan would’ve worked flawlessly. 

Ino’s plan fails, not because she’s weak (Sakura would kill anyone who thought that, if Ino didn’t do it first), but because it was created with the assumption that whoever wore a Konoha hitai-ate was an ally. Danzo isn’t an ally. He’s a traitor of the worst kind: the kind that sees his allies as disposable. 

When Danzo’s eye catches a glimpse of Ino, it doesn’t see a Konoha shinobi - it sees another tool.

Before anyone can react, his arm is around Ino’s neck and her body has become his shield. Sakura knows what his plan is even before he’s finished pulling Ino in front of him, and she knows that like Ino’s plan, his is doomed to fail. She knows that he thinks that Sasuke will pause at the sight of an old friend in danger.

(They’re not friends, Inner hisses. Ino is ours )

But Danzo both overestimates the relationship between Sasuke and Ino, and underestimates the man himself. He doesn’t see what Sakura sees when she looks at Sasuke. He doesn’t understand the depth of his hate, doesn’t understand just how far Sasuke has fallen. 

Sakura does. 

She sees the look in Sasuke’s eyes and then she’s running, screaming, begging Sasuke to not do what he’s about to do. She prays to anyone and anything that will listen that Sasuke will hear her for once but it’s all for naught.

The moment his electric spear pierces Ino’s chest, Sakura feels like her own heart has taken the blow. She can hear Danzo choking in shock, can hear the rest of her team shouting, but she pays them no heed. All she can focus on is the soft gasp that leaves Ino’s lips.

She moves faster than she ever has in her life - even faster than when she fought Orochimaru all those years ago - because Ino’s eyes are wide and then there’s blood dripping down Ino’s lips.

Help me, Sakura begs the forest around her and the forest obliges her plea.

Roots rise up to cut through the lightning and force Danzo and Sasuke back. Sakura hears Sasuke’s roar of outrage but she doesn’t bother to even spare him a glance because her eyes are on Ino.

(They’ve always been on Ino).

She can feel the strain on her chakra coils as she shushin’s towards Ino. She vanishes in a flash of cherry blossom petals one moment and reappears by Ino’s side with cosmos blooming at their feet the next.

Lightning flies towards her, but Sakura isn’t bothered by the light or the scream it makes because she knows that Sai has her back.

And he does have her back in the way that Sasuke never did.

The Chidori Spear never reaches Sakura. Instead, it’s intercepted by a furious ink tiger that explodes into a spectacular shower of black ink that has the added bonus of giving Sakura extra cover to shushin away unseen.

(That’s our boy! Inner crows).

She lands on one of the cliffs with Ino in her arms. It tears at her to lower the blonde to the ground, but she has to because even with the distance between them and the fight below, this position is still exposed. She brings her hand together to create a barrier and the earth moves as the roots rise up in response. It’s an ugly thing, something that Tenzo-sensei would sigh and shake his head at, but it’ll serve its purpose regardless of how it looks.

She turns her attention back to Ino just as another tiger made of ink appears.

“Cover us,” she tells it.

It nods like it understands her. It probably does; for someone who claims to be without emotions, Sai’s art always contains pieces of his heart and soul.

“Go after him,” Ino gasps out.

“No.”

“Sakura-” Ino tries, only to break out coughing.

“Stop talking!” Sakura says harshly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Those that abandon the mission are trash. Those that abandon their comrades, however, are worse than trash. Sasuke may be enemy number one now, but Sakura would rather be trash than leave Ino to die. When it comes down to it, she’ll pick Ino every single time.

(Because we picked Sasuke once before, Inner murmurs, and look how that turned out).

Sakura’s hands light up with healing chakra. She keeps her eyes focused on the wound, counting every breath that Ino takes. She fights the urge to dump chakra into Ino’s wound because she knows that whilst it might speed up the healing process, it’ll make Ino worse off in the long run and that’s not something she’s willing to do.

“W-why?” Ino rasps.

“Because-”

Because if Sasuke is the second-coming of Madara, then Sakura is the second-coming of Hashirama. Because she’s come to believe in love the way that Sasuke believes in hate. Because Ino is the sun to the flowers that Sakura grows.

“Because I won’t lose you, Pig.” Sakura tries to make her voice a growl if only to hide how affected she is, but it breaks at the end when she feels Ino’s chest stutter under her hands.

There are flowers around Ino now - orchids, carnations, tiny springs of yellow acacias. For once, Sakura curses her ability because the timing couldn’t be worse. She doesn’t need flowers right now. What she needs is for Ino’s wound to close and some colour to return to the blonde’s face.

(A stalk of blue salvia springs up, as if the forest is trying to reassure her that Ino will be fine under her hands. Inner cries at the sight because Sakura can’t).

Ino’s head lolls to the side. Before Sakura can start to panic and shout at Ino, she hears a soft, “Oh.”

Sakura can feel her stomach drop, and it’s not because of the blood on her hands.

“Sakura…” It comes out as a whisper that Sakura hears loud and clear.

She shakes her head. “No, we aren’t doing this right now.”

She’s not doing this right now. She’s not going to start talking about her feelings in the middle of a combat zone.

Ino brings a hand up to Sakura’s face, brushing a thumb under Sakura’s eye. 

Sakura’s body shakes from the effort of fighting back tears. She won’t cry. She can’t, not when Ino is still bleeding under her hands. 

“Sakura, I…” Ino’s hand goes slack as her eyes slip shut.

Shit.

“Ino? Ino!” 

Sakura’s hands don’t move from Ino’s chest, even as Inner screams in grief. She uses her chakra to map out every inch of the blonde to find out what’s happening. Her shoulders sink in relief a moment later when the picture forms in her mind - Ino is safe, relatively speaking. She only passed out because of blood loss and pain.

“Get Hinata,” she orders the tiger that still stands guard. “I need her to take over so that I can do a field transfusion.”

There’s a low rumble of confirmation from the tiger before it vanishes.

Sakura returns the attention back to Ino.

She can feel the worst of Ino’s wound knitting together. She keeps her chakra flowing through both hands even as she moves one to brush her knuckles against Ino’s pale cheeks.

Tears start to roll down Sakura’s cheeks. “Dammit, Pig,” she hisses. “You better not die on me, you hear me? I’ll never forgive you if you do.”

The worst of Ino’s wound is healed, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. If Ino dies, Sakura will never forgive herself.

There’s no response from Ino.

Sakura curses Sasuke’s name. It’s not the first time she’s done so, but it’s the first time she’s done it with this much venom.

-

(Ino survives with a scar above her heart).

(They don’t talk about the flowers. Sakura isn’t ready to talk about them and Ino must be able to tell because she doesn’t push the matter. Then, the day that Sakura finally decides to walk to the Yamanaka Flower Shop and pick up a bouquet of cosmos is the day that Uchiha Madara declares war on the living).

-

Sakura is seventeen when she punches a god in the face.

She’s not thinking about the way that Kaguya’s cheek buckles from the force of the blow. She’s not thinking about how tired she is or about how sore she’s going to be in the morning or even about how bullshit it is that it's come to this.

She thinks about none of that. Instead, her thoughts are on Ino.

She thinks about the way that their eyes met across the battlefield. It might have been a trick of the moonlight, but Sakura swears that she and Ino locked eyes right before the God Tree and Kaguya separated them. 

It’s that memory that fuels Sakura. It’s that memory that drives her fist into Kaguya’s face. It’s that memory that has Sakura pouring every ounce of chakra she has left in the byakugou into her fist.

(It’s a reckless move, one that would have Tsunade kicking Sakura across Konoha for attempting).

“SHANNARO!” Sakura roars.

(FUCKING BLEED BITCH! Inner shouts alongside her).

Kaguya may be a god, but Sakura is a woman fueled by grief and desperation. No god, not even the Mother of All Chakra, stands a chance against such a combination. Her punch sends Kaguya into the waiting palms of Naruto and Sasuke.

(I wish we could send her directly to hell, Inner snarls).

Sakura agrees. She wants Kaguya to bleed the same way thousands of shinobi have bled over the last four days. She wants Kaguya to hurt the way that she is hurting right now. But most of all, she wants Kaguya gone. Forever.

And that, she figures as she watches the Rikudou Chibaku Tensei complete itself, is close enough to hell for someone like Kaguya that Sakura will accept an eternal seal over a trip to hell.

The moon that the seal creates is ugly.

Sakura tells the boys as much.

Naruto sputters in indignation whilst Sasuke scoffs. 

“I’d like to see you do better, Sakura,” he sneers.

Sakura grins a vicious grin. “I punched a god in the face, Sasuke-kun,” she says sweetly. “And I did that with my own power.”

His sneer turns into a scowl.

Kakashi coughs. “Maa, maybe we can discuss this further once we’re out of here,” he suggests.

“...how exactly do we do that again?” Naruto asks.

Sakura sighs.

-

(The Rikudou Sennin ends up bringing them back with the help of all the dead Kage).

(Naruto, unsurprisingly, flips his shit when he notices that they’re surrounded by ghosts. Sakura still makes a small crater with his body because really? After everything they’ve done and seen over the last four days, ghosts of dead Kage are what makes him freak out?)

-

“So,” Sasuke drawls as they all survey the battlefield, “are we good?”

Sakura smiles. Then, she pours what little chakra she has left and swings her fist into his face. 

Sasuke goes flying across the battlefield, stopping only when his body meets the cliff on the other side.

“What the fuck?!” she hears Naruto screech.

Sakura waves him off. “He’s fine.”

“YOU JUST PUNCHED HIM ACROSS THE BATTLEFIELD!” Naruto shouts. “HE HIT A CLIFF!”

“He’s fine,” she says again and points to the figure that’s slowly pulling itself out of the crater in the distance. 

It takes a few minutes, but Sasuke does reappear. His nose is clearly broken and his eye is swelling shut, so he doesn’t look great by any means, but at least he’s not dead.

“See?” she tells Naruto. “He’s still breathing and he’s walking.”

“...you’re so much like baa-chan, it’s scary, Sakura-chan,” Naruto says, voice faint and face pale.

Sakura grins before turning her attention back to Sasuke. She appreciates that he’s keeping a respectable distance from her. She pointedly ignores the way that he drifts towards Naruto’s direction.

“Sasuke.” Sakura tilts her head when he pauses. “Now we’re good.”

(But that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten everything he’s done, Inner says. She has a long memory and so does Sakura).

She hears Kakashi-sensei let out a long, suffering sigh. “Maa, I suppose we should go check to see if everyone is still alive,” he says.

Sakura glances towards the God Tree. There are no other trees beside that abomination in the area, but a tree is a tree and it will speak if Sakura asks it too. She closes her eyes and reaches out with her chakra, probing each of its roots until it reveals a chakra signature that Sakura would recognise anywhere.

Ino.

“What do you say, Saku-”

Sakura takes off towards the God Tree before Kakashi-sensei can finish.

-

It takes Sakura ten minutes to reach the God Tree.

She runs at top speed using chakra she definitely doesn’t have. Each step that she takes feels as though it takes a lifetime.

(Just one of many that we’ve lived in the last four days, Inner murmurs).

The God Tree’s vines are slowly fraying, revealing dazed and confused shinobi. Sakura pays them no attention as she speeds past them - she only has one person on her mind right now.

She spots Shikamaru and Choji first. The sight of them gives Sakura hope; she remembers an old saying that wherever a Nara and an Akimichi are found, a Yamanaka is sure to be close by. It turns out to be true, because she spots platinum blonde hair in the distance.

“Oi, Sakura-chan-” Shikamaru greets, but Sakura ignores him. 

She pushes past him and Choji and makes her way towards Ino’s cocoon. She can see that it’s coming undone like all of the others, but there’s still enough of the God Tree’s bark covering Ino that Sakura feels her anxiety spiking. She has a feeling it won’t go down until Ino is completely free.

Sakura kneels down and reaches out to grip the wood. Then, she rips it off of Ino and doesn’t stop until Ino is wholly in her arms. She shifts so that Ino is pressed against her chest.

Ino’s eyes flutter open. “Sa-kura?” her voice is raspy.

“Hey,” Sakura says.

(Hey? Are you kidding me? That’s all you can say?! Inner demands).

“Did we win?” Ino asks.

Sakura nods. “We did.” She grins. “I punched a god in the face, it was great.”

Ino giggles. Sakura finds a grin widening at the sound until a sob breaks through Ino’s throat.

“Ino-” she starts, only to be cut off by Ino throwing her arms around her shoulders.

“I saw you,” she hears Ino whisper into her ear, the words shaky with tears. “Before this stupid tree got me, I saw you right when that bitch showed up and then you were gone and-”

Sakura wraps her arms around Ino, returning the embrace. “I saw you too,” she says quietly, cutting Ino off. “Right before Kaguya dragged us into her realm, I saw the God Tree take you.”

(The gods have a cruel sense of humour, to make your last sight of each other be that, Inner says).

(Sakura agrees).

“But-” Sakura pulls back to look at Ino- “I’m back now and this stupid tree is as good as firewood once all the katon users get freed.”

If Sakura doesn’t find Tenzo-sensei first and make the God Tree their bitch.

Ino stares are her for the longest time. Sakura would fidget, if she wasn’t so busy taking in all the details of Ino’s face. She makes note of Ino’s split lip, the cut above Ino’s right eyebrow, the blue in Ino’s eyes - have they always been that blue? 

She startles when Ino pulls her close again.

“You have no idea how grateful I am that you made it back, Sakura,” Ino says. The words come out shaky, only this time they shake with something that sounds like relief and grief to Sakura’s ears. “I couldn’t - I can’t, I can’t lose you.”

Sakura presses her face to Ino’s shoulder. She wants to say that Ino will never lose her, but that would be a lie and Ino is the one person she won’t lie to. 

“I punched a god in the face and came back,” she says instead. “I think that means I’m here for the long run, Pig.”

However long that run may be. Sakura hopes her ancestors and the spirits of the Founders will take pity on her in a way the gods clearly have not and grant her a run that is as long as the forests of Konoha are deep.

(They will. They see her and everything that she has accomplished and decide that perhaps the universe can be kind to the woman who punched a god in the face).

Ino laughs, but her laughter is tinged with tears. “You fucking better be, Forehead.”

Sakura just holds Ino tighter and doesn’t complain when Ino squeezes her back.

-

Sakura is eighteen when she finally kisses the girl.

She’s standing on top of Hokage Rock looking down at the village when she hears someone approaching behind her. The person is obviously friendly, if the way her ANBU agents haven’t pinned the individual to the ground is anything to go by.

(Not that they would without her explicit say so. She is the people’s Hokage in a way that her predecessors never were. She will be accessible to all, shinobi or not).

“Nanadaime-sama.”

Sakura smiles at the sound of Ino’s voice. She turns around to greet Ino, stance as casual as can be. “Maa, Ino-chan, you don’t have to call me that.” 

She would prefer Ino not call her that, if she’s being honest, especially since she’s only been the Hokage for all of five hours by this point. The whole village treated her like she was larger than life and now that she’s been appointed Hokage, it’s gotten even worse. The last thing she wants is for her best friend to do the same.

For once, Ino doesn’t give a sarcastic retort. Instead, the look that she gives Sakura is a nervous one. She’s biting her lip like she’s not sure about something.

Sakura feels her brow furrow. “Ino? Is something-” she starts, only to cut herself off when she finally notices the bouquet in Ino’s hands.

It’s smaller than the dozens she’s received throughout the week and less extravagant than a number of them as well. But the sight of orchids, carnations, tiny sprigs of yellow acacia, and three bright red roses nestled in the middle of it all sends Sakura’s heart pounding. With the exception of the roses, it’s the same combination of flowers that had bloomed around Ino’s body after Sasuke had stabbed her. They’re all held together by a ribbon that looks suspiciously similar to the one that Ino had given her during the Academy days - and one that Sakura had given back when she declared them rivals for Sasuke’s affection.

“Ino…”

“Orchids, because you’re so beautiful and the strongest woman in Konoha,” Ino starts. “Red carnations, because I admire you so damn much. Yellow acacia because we started off as friends and now you’re my best friend and because-” 

Ino swallows. 

Sakura can feel herself doing the same.

“Because it was always you.”

(Does she know that it was always her for us too? Inner asks quietly).

(She probably does, Sakura muses. Ino has always been insightful like that).

“And lastly,” Ino shifts the bouquet in her hands and takes a deep breath, “three red roses because I love you.”

Sakura feels like Lee just punched her in the gut at full speed.

“I love you,” Ino says again. She bites her lip and looks down, suddenly shy. “I think, I think I’ve always loved you. I just didn’t know how to say it.”

Neither had Sakura. Not until the forest had taken pity and shown Ino what Sakura hadn’t been able to say aloud.

She still doesn’t know how to say it because there’s so much to say.

(Why not say it in a language Ino knows so well? Inner suggests and Sakura agrees). 

Sakura raises her hand and concentrates solely on Ino. It’s not hard; Ino’s always in her thoughts these days. She thinks about Ino’s eyes and the way that they shine when the blonde is happy. She thinks about Ino’s lips and how she’s longed to kiss them. She thinks about Ino’s heart. Slowly, it all takes shape in her hand until there’s a single bush clover with two cosmos flowers - one coloured red, the other chocolate - wrapped around it.

She doesn’t miss the way that Ino’s eyes widen as she holds the flowers up for Ino to see.

“A bush clover,” Sakura begins, “because it’s your clan’s symbol and because I treasure the bond that we share.”

“Sakura…”

“Two cosmos, one red and the other one chocolate, because I love you more than anything-” or anyone- “could.”

Sakura licks her lips, throat suddenly as dry as the deserts of Kaze no Kuni.

“I love you, Ino,” she says. 

She has to fight the urge to sob once the words leave her lips because by the Founders and ancestors, it feels so freeing to say. Were Sakura anyone else, she would shout it from Hokage Rock at the top of her lungs.

“Dammit, Sakura,” Ino growls, grip suddenly tight around the bouquet. “You just had to upstage me.”

Sakura starts to sputter, but she doesn’t get a chance to get any words out because Ino fists the front of her robes and pulls her close to close the distance between them. The next thing she knows, Ino’s lips are on hers. 

Sakura’s eyes widen for a brief moment before they slip shut. Kissing Ino is like kissing the sun; it’s warm and comforting. It only serves to reinforce Sakura’s personal notion that Ino is the sun to the flowers that land produces in response to the Mokuton. 

The kiss itself is passionate and just shy of bruising with a hint of desperation. Sakura recognises it as the kiss that the two of them should have shared on the battlefield. Ino must recognise it too, because Sakura feels Ino’s hands pull her closer, feels Ino press herself harder against her. It says everything that they should have said months earlier.

Be mine.

I love you.

I’m here.

I will always have you. 

“You know, for a genius, you can be real dumb sometimes,” Ino says once they break apart.

Sakura pointedly ignores the cough that one of her ANBU agents lets out.

“Hah,” she chuckles. “Well, it’s a Team 7 thing.”

“No, I’m pretty sure that’s just a you thing, Forehead,” Ino teases.

(Oh, it’s definitely a you thing, Inner grumbles).

(Sakura only feels slightly betrayed, but definitely doesn’t pout. She does not).

Ino giggles. “Good to know that someone agrees with me,” she says.

Sakura can feel herself blanch. “I don’t-”

“Sakura.” Ino presses her forehead to Sakura’s. “I’ve been in your head.”

(Well. Shit, Inner says).

“Ino-”

“Shhh…” Ino places a finger against Sakura’s lips. “Don’t worry,” she drops her voice so that Sakura has to strain to hear it, “I have you.”

Kakashi wasn’t the greatest teacher, but he did teach Sakura three things that stuck: how to climb trees with her chakra, that those who abandoned their comrades were worse than trash, and that a shinobi needs to look beneath the underneath. That’s why Sakura hears everything that Ino doesn’t say: that this will be their secret and that Ino will die first before it leaves her lips.

“Thank you,” Sakura whispers.

“You can thank me by kissing me again,” Ino murmurs, drawing even closer to her.

Sakura smiles. “I can do that.”

And she does.