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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.

Chapter Text

Ino is fifteen when she realises that she’s in love with Haruno Sakura.

She supposes there were signs before that - the hurt that she had felt when Sakura had broken off their friendship and declared them rivals for Sasuke, the way her heart had stopped when she found Sakura unconscious in the Forest of Death, the dreams she had that left her gasping for air and feeling like her skin was on fire when she awoke. 

Shikamaru is the first person she tells.

He doesn’t even react when the words leave her lips.

“Shika, did you hear me?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

“And?” she demands.

“And what? Is this supposed to be news to me or something?” he asks.

Ino sputters. “Is it supposed to be - Shikamaru! I just realised this, are you telling me that you knew?!”

“Uh, yeah?” She smacks his shoulder. “Ow, woman! What are you hitting me for?”

“If you knew why didn’t you tell me?!” she asks hotly.

“Because I thought you already knew? I mean, aren’t you two already dating?” he asks.

Ino feels like she’s missing something huge. “Excuse me?”

Now Shikamaru looks confused. “You’re living together,” he says slowly. “And you share a room.”

“Her parents are dead, Shika,” Ino says quietly, annoyance bleeding away. “It wasn’t right for her to be alone.”

Especially since Sasuke’s actions the night he defected meant that Sakura now hated waking up alone.

“So you had her move in with you and share your bedroom.”

“Uh, yes?” Ino folds her arms and raises an eyebrow at him. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Your family’s house has a spare bedroom,” he points out.

Ino looks at him like he’s an idiot. “What part of ‘it wasn’t right for her to be alone’ did you not hear?” she asks.

Shikamaru stares at her. Then, he shakes his head. “Tch. And to think that you didn’t even realise you were in love with her,” he mutters. “How troublesome.”

Ino’s nostrils flare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’m out a good chunk of change to some people and I’m gonna have to take more missions to make up for it,” he complains.

It takes a moment for what he said to register with Ino’s brain. When it does, she feels herself flush.

“You’re betting on my love life?!” she shrieks.

He shrugs. “Me and half the village by this point.”

Ino doesn’t know what to say to that.

She lets out a frustrated sound, punches Shikamaru into the ground, and storms off.

(She pointedly ignores Shikamaru’s groan of, “Troublesome woman”).

She marches through the village without any real destination in mind. She can’t get Shikamaru’s words out of her head.

I thought you already knew. Aren’t you two already dating?

The answer is no, she and Sakura are not dating. They live together, yes, and they also share a bed. All friends do that, don’t they?

Ino spots a flash of pink hair in the distance. 

Her stomach flips at the sight. Suddenly, Ino knows exactly where she wants to go and who’s coming with her.

“Sakura!” she calls out, already making her way towards the pinkette.

She doesn’t give Sakura a chance to respond to her hail, grabbing Sakura’s hand as soon as she turns around and drags her along towards Training Ground Three.

“You know it’s my day off, right, Pig?” She hears Sakura sigh once they pass through the gate.

Ino laughs. “It’s mine too, which is why you’re coming with me, Forehead. Someone needs to make sure you see sunlight,” she teases.

A moment later, she hears Sakura yelp. She doesn’t have time to react before she finds herself on her back with Sakura on top of her.

Ino swallows at their position. It gives her a perfect view of Sakura (although Ino would argue that any view of Sakura is perfect); she’s flushed and her lips are parted as she breathes heavily, likely because Sakura had some wind knocked out of her when they fell.

Before she can stop herself, Ino says, “Ne, Sakura-chan, if you wanted to get on top of me, all you had to do was ask.”

The second the words leave her lips, Ino feels herself flush. Of all the things to say, it had to be that.

Thankfully, Sakura seems just as flustered as Ino is because her eyes go wide whilst her face goes red. She falls back onto her palms, sputtering out something that Ino thinks might be words, but it’s hard to tell.

Ino can’t stop the giggles that break free. She’s never seen Sakura this flustered before. It’s...cute.

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

Ino has to wipe tears of mirth out of her eyes because those words are so un-Sakura like. She only manages to get her laughter under control when Sakura starts pouting. Once she does, she reaches out for Sakura with one hand and pats her lap with the other.

“C’mon, then,” Ino says.

Sakura’s head is on her lap in seconds. 

Ino smiles and starts running her fingers through Sakura’s pink locks. They always seem to end up like this whenever they’re together: Sakura with her head in Ino’s lap and Ino with her hands in Sakura’s hair.

“Gods,” Sakura groans out. Ino has to fight back a blush. “That feels so good.”

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

She absently wonders if she needs to pick up some conditioner for Sakura, as well as pack her a hair brush for when she works nights.

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.”

Ino frowns. “Tenzou-sensei?”

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

Ino feels her heart stop. “ANBU?!” Fear settles cold and heavy in her stomach. “Sakura, are you-”

She lets the question hang in the air, praying to the gods, her ancestors, and the spirits of the Founders that doing so will keep it from being a reality.

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

That last part is a lie and they both know it. Ino knows just how capable a shinobi Sakura is, even with her pink hair. Besides, hair dye exists for a reason.

“Then why would she have you train with him?” Ino asks, trying to keep her voice calm.

“Because of this.”

Ino blinks when Sakura brushes a hand across the ground. Her eyes widen seconds later when cosmos bloom in its wake. There’s no way.

“That’s-”

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

“You did that.” 

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

Ino’s mind spins. 

Sakura, a girl from a civilian family who is apprenticed to the Godaime Hokage, has the same kekkei genkai as the Shodaime and Ino never knew until today.

Shit.

“I tried to stop Sasuke with it, but it wasn’t strong enough,” Sakura continues, oblivious to the fear that grows colder in Ino’s stomach with each passing second. “I told Shishou shortly after she agreed to train me. Two days later, I was introduced to Tenzou-sensei.”

Ino swallows. “Do you trust him?” she asks Sakura quietly, as if she’s afraid that saying Tenzou’s name will summon the man himself.

“I do,” Sakura says.

Ino hums to hide a small sigh and encourages Sakura to lay back down so she can go back to running her fingers through Sakura’s hair. “When do you practice with him next?”

Her mind is still spinning, but now it plots instead of panics.

“Uh, Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine to midnight, if he’s in the village.”

That’s not a great schedule to work with, but Ino will deal with it. 

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

“Maybe?” Sakura sounds unsure, so Ino breaks out her secret weapon.

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

Ino knows that it’s a dirty move, pouting at Sakura. But it’s a move that works, because Sakura agrees.

“Can you at least tell me why you’re so interested all of a sudden?” she asks.

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

“Tenzou-sensei has my back, Ino.”

Ino gives her a look. “He doesn’t go on missions with you. I do.”

Ino knows that when (not if) word gets out regarding what Sakura can do, Sakura will need someone watching her back both inside the village and out. Ino wasn’t able to protect Fu’s back, but she can protect Sakura’s. She won’t lose someone else that she loves the way that she lost Fu.

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

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

Her drive is second only to Sakura’s, she reckons. It just needs the right motivator and teachers, which is why she’s flourished under Anko and Ibiki’s tutelage. It’s also why she’s put herself through the hellish process that is med-nin training.

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

“In your dreams, Forehead,” Ino snarks.

If Tenzou is a threat, he won’t be able to beat her. Ino will kill him long before he has that chance.

She looks down at Sakura as she settles back down into her lap. Ino keeps playing with Sakura’s hair - half because she knows it’s soothing for Sakura and half because it soothes Ino herself.

It’s so easy, Ino muses to herself as her fingers run through pink locks, to exist like this. Here. Just the two of them. Maybe that’s why people already thought that she and Sakura were already dating.

She barely keeps from startling when she notices Sakura rubbing a thumb against her cheek.

“What’s that for?” Ino asks.

“Just saw some dirt,” is Sakura’s simple reply.

Ino smiles, bemused. “Get some rest, Sakura,” she says.

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

Ino feels her cheeks turning pink. She rolls her eyes and flicks Sakura’s nose. “Take a nap, dork,” she orders firmly. “Sage knows that you need it.”

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

“I do,” Ino says, knowing what Sakura is truly asking. “I have you.”

She won’t let Sakura wake up alone.

She lets Sakura squeeze her free hand and uses the other to keep combing through Sakura’s hair. Before long, Sakura drifts off to leave Ino alone with her own thoughts.

On a whim, Ino leans down and brushes her lips against Sakura’s forehead. “I have you,” she whispers. “I promise.”

-

Ino doesn’t trust Tenzou. 

She still smiles at him when Sakura introduces them to each other, still gives him a polite half-bow and thanks him for letting her watch, but she gives him none of her trust because he is blank.

He has his quirks, of course. If Ino didn’t know what she does, she would attribute them to his status as a Jounin. But Ino knows his kind, knows that mind, knows that blankness.

It reminds her of the last time she saw Fu - a happy child who had been turned into a blank slate.

For the briefest moment, Ino is tempted to take over Tenzou’s body and shove his tanto through his chest. Then, she notices the way that he positions himself behind Sakura and the way that his eyes constantly sweep the training field. It makes her pause because if Tenzou was completely like Fu, he wouldn’t stand like that. His shoulders wouldn’t be that stiff. He wouldn’t care.  

He stands like her father does, Ino realises. He stands like Yamanaka Inoichi does when she trains, the way only a father who has seen something truly horrible happen to his children would. 

Or to him.

Ino eyes Tenzou. She doesn’t trust him, but she does recognise that perhaps, he does understand. 

“I had a brother once,” she says.

Her voice is quiet, as if she’s sharing a world changing secret. In a way, she is. No one, not even Sakura, knows about Fu. The village and even the Yamanaka clan themselves have forgotten about him, but Ino hasn’t and neither has her father. Ino will never forget the young boy who became her brother, that young, happy child who’s laugh was as bright as his smile. Her father, well, Ino doubts her father will ever forget the boy who was his son in every way except birth.

There’s a hum from Tenzou.

“His name was Fu. He was like you.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him stiffen. “I won’t let Sakura go the way that my father let Fu go.”

(Ino knows that Fu is her father’s greatest regret and one that he can never share with anyone else).  

If she has to fight everyone in the village to keep Sakura away from the people who took Fu, then that’s what Ino will do. She has seen the grief etched into her father’s heart over Fu and knows that if she dies in the process of keeping Sakura from the people who took Fu, then it will be a worthy death. 

“You love her.” It’s not a question.

Ino shrugs. “Does it matter if I do?” she asks.

“It does if you want to have her back the way you say you do,” he says.

Ino moves her gaze to where Sakura is still sparring with Tenzou’s clone. The pinkette isn’t holding back - and neither is Tenzou’s clone.

“It’s always been her, I think,” she eventually says. 

To her surprise, Tenzou smiles. “Maa, I guess I need to talk to Hokage-sama,” he says.

Ino’s eyes narrow. “For what purpose?”

If he thinks that he can keep her from Sakura’s side, he’s sorely mistaken. 

“To get her permission to train you too,” he says. 

Ino blinks. She hadn’t been expecting that.

“The people who had me once, they think that people like you are weak,” Tenzou says bluntly.

Ino bites her tongue to fight the offence she can feel rising within her. She knows he’s not saying it to be cruel - he’s just stating his knowledge.

“You disagree,” she says.

He nods. “I do.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Love can make people strong, not weak, provided that the motivation is there.”

“It can,” Ino agrees. 

“If Godaime-sama approves of me training you alongside Sakura, know that I will not be kind,” he warns.

In the distance, Ino watches roots burst forth from the ground. Sakura, half a second too late in erecting a barrier, goes flying across the training field before slamming into a tree.

“I would be offended if you were,” Ino says.

“Good.”

Ino doesn’t trust him. But she will work with him.

-

Tsunade-sama grants Tenzou permission to train Ino alongside Sakura.

Tenzou lives up to his promise.

The first week, Ino hates him. He holds nothing back when she and Sakura are on the training field together. He gives them no chance to think or plan - only react. As harsh as his methods are, it has Ino quickly realising that she has to get rid of her preconceived notions about Sakura. The pink haired girl who fights next to her isn’t the same girl that needed Ino to fight off Academy bullies; this Sakura can hold her own, she just needs Ino to have her back.

And Ino does.

By the second week, they move in perfect sync with each other.

(The kind of sync only lovers have, Tenzou later tells her before asking if she and Sakura really aren’t together. Ino promptly throws a kunai at his head in response, only for him to catch it and laugh).

Ino learns that her affinity is earth, drawing a smile from Sakura.

( Explains why you like flowers so much, Ino , Sakura teases and Ino blushes without responding while Tenzou coughs).

By the third week, Tenzou has taught Ino how to make the earth bend for her. Ino knows that she will likely never have the same force behind her jutsu that Sakura has, but she has speed and sight on her side. She raises walls to protect Sakura’s back one moment, then spits earthen bullets the next.

The fourth week sees Ino train with Tenzou by herself. Sakura has to cover the night shift, leaving Ino to face Tenzou alone.

“Are you going to go easy on me without Sakura here, Tenzou-san?” she asks.

The answer, she finds out quickly, is no. Tenzou will not go easy on her even if she is alone now. If anything, he’s more relentless. He hits harder, moves faster, shows less mercy.

“Sakura has the forest as her eyes, but she fights amongst the trees,” Tenzou says. “She needs eyes that see what the forest sees.”

Ino spits out her latest mouthful of blood. “Anyone ever tell you that you sound like a gods’ damned fortune cookie?” she growls.

“If you can speak like that, then you’ve recovered enough to move again, Ino-san,” he says, a smile playing at his lips.

She barely dodges another set of roots that he sends flying her way, snarling out curses that would make even a woman from the Red District blush. 

Tenzou doesn’t even react to her language. Instead, he flicks his hand. The next thing Ino knows, she’s been flung across the training field and taken out a tree with her back.

“The people who had me once will show you less mercy than I do, Ino-san,” he says, smile gone and voice frighteningly blank. “They will use you to break her.”

“Like hell,” she snarls.

“Then come at me again and this time, try to kill me.”

She does. 

-

(They both end up in the hospital later that night - Ino with four broken ribs, a bruised spleen, and a split lip. Tenzou has five broken ribs, a broken clavicle, and a concussion. When Sakura sees them, she yells at them, calls them both idiots, then summons Shizune because she needs another set of hands to treat them).

-

Ino is sixteen when she feels her heart shatter.

She’s standing in the Hokage’s office, delivering her report on her latest mission when a harried messenger ninja stumbles in. The news he delivers freezes Ino’s gut.

Sarutobi Asuma engaged with Akatsuki. Status, critical. Medical and back-up requested. They cannot die .

Ino is gone before Tsunade can even start barking orders.

She pops a chakra pill the moment her sandals meet the street. Then, she sprints out of the village like the Shinigami himself is on her heels.

It takes her five minutes to find Asuma-sensei’s chakra signature using her sensory abilities. It takes her fifteen more to reach him. She runs into Aoba, Raidou, and Choji along the way. All she has to do is shout, “Asuma-sensei!” and then Choji is by her side.

When she arrives, Ino can only describe the scene before her as chaos.

Shikamaru is screaming himself hoarse, the two gate guards - Izumo and Kotetsu, if she remembers their names correctly - are being choked to death by a man whose chakra is so foul that Ino nearly vomits and Asuma-sensei is-

He’s not moving. 

Ino’s mind races. Before she realises what she’s saying, that she’s giving orders to two jounin and a fellow chunin, words fly from her lips, “Aoba-san, Raidou-san, give us some cover. Choiji, grab Shika. I have sensei.”

“Understood.”

Aoba vanishes in a literal murder of crows with Raidou close on his heels. Ino and Choji trade looks then join in the fray. 

Per her own orders, Ino leaves Shikamaru to Choji and makes her way towards Asuma-sensei. Aoba’s crows block her from the foul-mouthed silver haired shinobi, giving her the time she needs to get Asuma-sensei over her shoulders and make a hasty retreat to a distant building.

Ino shrugs Asuma-sensei off her shoulders the moment her feet touch concrete and has medical chakra flowing over her hands the next. Even before she starts running a diagnostic, she can tell that he’s in bad shape. His upper body is covered in second and third degree burns, and there’s blood on his lips. 

“Does he have a heartbeat?” she hears Shikamaru ask her frantically.

It takes her a second to feel it, but when she does, Ino nods in confirmation. “It’s faint,” she warns. She breaks off with a hiss moments later when she identifies the rest of his injuries. “He’s been hit in four critical areas.”

To say that Ino is a good med-nin is an understatement. She’s been trained by Shizune, so while Ino isn’t Sakura, she’s still one of the best in the village. That skill, though, isn't enough in the face of injuries this severe. Asuma-sensei doesn’t just need a medic, he needs a hospital and a miracle.

“Shit.” Shikamaru must come to the same realisation that Ino has, because she hears him ask, “How long will it take you to get to Konoha General?”

She looks up from Asuma-sensei. “From here with no interruptions?” she asks, then grits her teeth when Shikamaru nods. “Twenty-two minutes, less if I pop a second chakra pill.”

“And if there are?”

“He won’t make it.” Her hands move across Asuma-sensei’s chest. She’s doing her best to treat his injuries to get the bleeding to stop, but she can only heal him so fast and there’s already so much blood. “His liver is shredded, Shika.”

“We have to try.” Shikamaru pushes himself to his feet. “Choji, you go with Ino. Cover her the entire way. We’ll try to buy you time on this end and-”

The ground underneath their feet shakes as the man with the foul chakra arrives where they’ve holed up.

“You’re not going anywhere.” His voice is like ice. “His head is worth 35 million. I’m not-”

He pauses, then tilts his head like he’s having a conversation with someone none of them can see. Whatever gets said, it’s enough to have his eyes narrow in annoyance and then sigh. 

“Tch. Fine. Hidan,” he raises his voice.

“WHAT?” 

“That’s enough. We’re done here.” His eyes land on Ino. She can’t stop herself from tensing. “We’ll be back, Konoha.”

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Shikamaru snarls, his usual bored attitude having been replaced with fury.

“It means that he’s going to die and I’ll collect his bounty when he does,” he says, moving to leave.

“Wait!” Shikamaru is on his feet with his hands together to carry out his Kagemane no Jutsu, but the man and his partner vanish before Shikamaru’s shadow can catch him. “Dammit!”

Asuma-sensei starts to cough.

Ino drops her head to his chest and swears. “Fuck. Shika! Get your ass back over here!” she barks.

Shikamaru slides next to her moments later. 

“There’s fluid in Asuma-sensei’s lungs,” she says. “Lift his head up so that he doesn’t drown. I can-”

“S-stop,” Asuma-sensei whispers. “It’s, it’s okay.”

“What?” Choji explodes. “No! Ino-”

“I’m not stopping,” she says.

She has to keep going. If there’s even a small chance that she can keep him alive, then Ino will keep going.

“Ino.” Even though Ino hasn’t been a genin for years now, the firm note in Asuma-sensei’s voice makes her flinch. “That’s enough. I’m...done. Even I know that.”

“Shut up!” Shikamaru snaps. “Ino!”

“I’m working on it, Shika!” she fires back.

Ino can feel tears building in her eyes because she’s trying so hard and it’s still not working. She tries to keep her chakra flowing, tries to knit together Asuma-sensei’s shredded liver, tries to get the bleeding to stop but it’s all for naught. There’s nothing more that she can do.

Shikamaru and Choji must realise it too, because she hears Shikamaru choking on air while Choji lets out a small sob.

“I think…” Asuma-sensei wheezes, “I think I understand why the Sandaime did...what he did. I, I always took too long…” 

A pained smile crosses his lips. Ino wants to weep at the sight.

“Ino, Shikamaru, Choji…I have some last words that I need to say…” 

“Sensei, you shouldn’t talk-” Choji starts.

Ino cuts him off the same time Shikamaru does. “Choji,” they both say.

Ino’s voice is soft, Shikamaru’s is hard.

“Ino.” Shikamaru’s voice goes from hard to soft. “You can stop. These-” She sees his fist clench- “these are Asuma-sensei’s last words. We should, we should listen carefully.”

Ino’s hands flex in protest, then pull away to form clenched fists atop her thighs.

“Ino,” Asuma-sensei rasps out, “you’re strong-willed but dependable. Shikamaru and Choji, they’re clumsy, so please take care of them…”

Ino tries to chuckle but it comes out as a sob.

“Don’t be afraid to tell Sakura that you love her. Love-” he lets out a shuddering breath- “Love will make you strong. Don’t forget that, ever.”

“I won’t, sensei,” she promises, voice breaking. “I won’t.”

She lets her mind wander as he continues to speak. Those words are for Shikamaru and Choji to hear, not her. She only comes back to herself when she sees Shikamaru place a cigarette between Asuma-sensei’s lips.

He chuckles, though it clearly pains him to do so. “I quit because of Kurenai, you know,” he drawls. “But now, figure...figure I might as well do it now.”

Ino clenches her fists tighter. She knows he’s only telling half the story. He didn’t quit just because of Kurenai-sensei.

The smoke stings at all their eyes. 

It reminds Ino of her first day as a genin, when Asuma-sensei walked into their classroom with a lit cigarette in hand. Iruka-sensei had been furious, leading Asuma-sensei to offer sheepish apologies.

“We-” he breaks off coughing- “we had a good run,” he manages to get out.

“Yeah,” Choji chokes out. “We did.”

Ino nods, tears spilling down her cheeks.

When the cigarette falls from Asuma-sensei’s lips, that’s when Ino knows - her sensei is gone.

She can’t stop the wail that breaks free, “SENSEI!”

She hears Choji let out a choked sob next to her as she moves to grip Asuma’s flak jacket, as if doing so will bring Asuma back to them.

It doesn’t.

Sarutobi Asuma is dead and nothing Ino does can change that now.

-

Ino carries Asuma home. 

Choji protests because Ino can’t hide how exhausted she is, but she insists anyway.

“I’m a medic, Choji,” she tells him. “Asuma-sensei is my patient. I can’t just hand him off.”

She’s lying and they both know it. Her medical obligations to Asuma-sensei ended when he died. Still, Choji doesn’t call her out and for that, Ino is thankful.

It takes them an hour to get back to Konoha. By the time they arrive, Ino is about dead on her feet. Her arms ache, her back hurts, her knees are screaming and yet, she keeps walking until they see the medics standing at the gate.

The medics rush forward upon spotting them.

Ino tenses - and so does her team. 

There are yelps as the medics are pinned in place by Shikamaru’s shadow. Choji places himself between them, his body doubled in size to be their shield. And Ino? Ino tightens her grip on Asuma’s thighs.

“Stand down!” Tsunade shouts.

They don’t.

“Shishou, let me.” Ino blinks when she hears Sakura’s voice. “Ino, it’s Sakura. I’m stepping around Choji to look at you, okay?”

Ino says nothing.

Moments later, Sakura is in front of her.

“Ino, I’m going to take Asuma-sensei, okay?”

Ino takes half a step back. “He’s my patient,” she says. “I can’t just hand him off. Protocol for patient care in the field is-”

“I’m assuming care for your patient, Yamanaka-san,” Sakura cuts in, voice gentle but firm. “I have him.”

Ino stares at her. Then, she shifts her shoulders so that Sakura can take him onto her own back.

“He has second and third degree burns on fifty percent of his body,” Ino tells her. “There’s also massive internal trauma that I tried-”

Her voice catches in her throat.

“I tried,” she says. “I tried.”

She can’t get the rest of the words out. 

Sakura nods. “Understood.”

Ino watches Sakura’s back as she walks towards the medics who aren’t pinned in place. It’s only when she hears the quiet buzz of Shikamaru releasing his hold on the first medic squad, does Ino take a tentative step forward. 

She’s stopped by Shikamaru’s hand on her upper arm. “Ino.”

“I have to report in, Shika,” she says, voice dull.

Shikamaru takes her arm and wraps it around his shoulder. By now, Choji has returned to his normal size, and does the same with Ino’s other arm.

“Troublesome woman,” she hears Shikamaru mutter. “We’re Team 10.”

“We report in together,” Choji finishes.

She ignores the way that her boys’ voices shake as they say the motto that Asuma had all but beat into them during their genin days.

“And after that?” she asks quietly.

A dark expression crosses Shikamaru’s face. “We make those bastards pay,” he says.

-

Tsunade doesn’t yell like Ino thought she would.

She is, understandably, not at all happy with Akatsuki having killed Asuma nor is she pleased by Ino’s flight. It’s why Ino is on the receiving end of what turns into a half-chiding, half-consoling lecture. 

Her boys are next to her the entire time. Shikamaru’s hand is on her shoulder; Choji’s hand is holding hers in a grip so tight that Ino would complain if it weren’t one of the few things keeping them all grounded.

Tsunade takes a deep breath, then settles back in her chair to glare at them. “If Akatsuki weren’t in our back yard right now and if you weren’t one of the best goddamn sensors this village has, Yamanaka, I would pull you from the mission roster and demote you right now,” she says. 

Ino can’t even summon the energy to protest, even as she feels Shikamaru and Choji stiffen next to her.

“With that said,” Tsunade continues, “you showed exceptional judgement and leadership under pressure.”

Ino blinks sluggishly, not sure she heard the woman correctly.

Tsunade’s glare sharpens for a fraction of a second before the expression in her eyes changes into something that Ino can’t begin to describe. “I recognise the loss you all have just faced and offer my sincerest condolences to you all.” She sighs. “Yamanaka, you’re getting a warning and it’s going on your file. For now, you and your team have the week to regroup and recover.”

“Regroup and re- Tsunade-sama, we can’t just-” Shikamaru starts, only to fall silent when her hands slam onto her desk.

“You will regroup and recover, Chunin Nara, or I will demote all three of you.” Her voice is cold. “Now, get the hell out of my office. Sakura-”

Ino barely keeps from startling when she hears Sakura’s name. She hadn’t realised that Sakura was even in the room.

“Take Yamanaka home. She looks like an E-rank fuuton jutsu will knock her over.”

Ino thinks that she would be offended if it weren’t true. She has nothing left in her.

“I will, shishou,” she hears Sakura say, then Choji’s hand is gone and in its place is Sakura’s. 

“Sakura…” Ino murmurs.

“Shh…” Ino doesn’t fight when Sakura gently tugs her out into the hallway. “I have you.”

(If Ino had a bit more energy and wasn’t in shock, she thinks that she would yelp when Sakura sweeps her up in a bridal carry. Instead, she just presses her face into Sakura’s neck as the pinkette shushins them home).

-

Sakura sets Ino down on the edge of their bed.

“I’m going to draw you a bath, okay?” she asks. “I’ll come back and get you when it’s ready.”

“Promise, Forehead?” Ino croaks out.

She sees Sakura blink. “Promise, Pig.”

Ino has no idea how long she sits on the edge of their bed. She feels numb. Asuma-sensei is dead and she couldn’t, she couldn’t-

“Ino.” Sakura’s voice is soft. “Bath’s ready.”

Ino says nothing.

“I’m going to touch you and help you to the bathroom, okay?”

Ino would say that she’s perfectly capable of getting there herself but her body won’t move. She lets Sakura take her arm and drape it over her shoulder.

Their journey to the bathroom can’t take more than a handful of steps, but it feels like a lifetime to Ino. The bathroom is humid, although not uncomfortably so, and the water has bubbles floating on top.

“I’m going to undress you, okay? If you need me to stop, just squeeze my shoulder.”

Ino manages a small hum of confirmation, moving her hands to Sakura’s shoulders. 

She knows that Sakura’s hands are rough from the wood that she creates, but her touch is so gentle. It makes Ino want to cry as Sakura undresses her. She’s had dreams of this, of Sakura removing her clothes with this kind of reverence. Ino just never imagined it would happen like this.

Ino’s top hits the floor with barely a sound. Her skirt follows moments later. It’s only when she feels Sakura’s hands on the waistband of her shorts, does Ino tense. 

Her hands squeeze Sakura’s shoulders.

True to her word, Sakura’s hands stop immediately.

“Do you want to keep them on?” Sakura asks.

Yes. No. Maybe. Ino doesn’t know.

“They have blood on them, Ino,” Sakura says softly. “On the upper thigh-”

Her hands squeeze Sakura’s shoulders tighter even as she says, “Off.”

“Are you sure?”

She loosens her grip around Sakura’s shoulders ever so slightly. “Off,” she says again through grit teeth and a lump in her throat.

It’s not her blood. It’s Asuma-sensei’s blood. She needs his blood off of her.

“Okay.” Ino does her best not to shiver when Sakura’s fingers hook at her waistband. “I’m taking them off now. Just focus on me, alright?”

She does.

She focuses on Sakura’s pink hair, on Sakura’s red shirt, on the way that Sakura breathes.

“Okay, they’re off. Take a step back for me?”

Ino does and watches as Sakura moves her shorts to the rest of the pile.

“Let’s get you into the water. We’ll take it slow, just hold on to me, alright?”

She lets Sakura maneuver her body into the tub one step at a time.   

Ino sighs as the hot water slowly covers her body. It feels wonderful against her sore body.

“Can I undo your hair and wash it?” Sakura asks hesitantly.

Ino nods slowly. If things were different, she would blush at the thought of Sakura washing her hair. Amongst the Yamanaka clan, such a thing is reserved only for one’s immediate family or their spouse.

She closes her eyes as Sakura undoes the ties holding her hair in place.

“I had to take a chakra pill before I left. It took me five seconds to get a chakra pill out of my pouch and eat it,” Ino mumbles absently just as she feels Sakura start to pour water on her hair. “It took me another five seconds to grab Choji, Aoba-san, and Raidou-san because I had to slow down.”

She hears the bucket click to the floor. “Ino, what-”

“That’s ten seconds that I wasted,” Ino says. “Ten seconds that I could’ve used to get to Asuma-sensei sooner.”

Ten seconds that she could have used to save him.

“Ino-”

“I could’ve saved him. I know that I could have. All I had to do was get there sooner and then Choji wouldn’t be crying his eyes out, Shika wouldn’t be plotting revenge, and Kurenai-sensei-” Ino’s voice hitches- “Kurenai-sensei would still have her husband.”

“Ino-”

“Did you know that Kurenai-sensei is pregnant?” Ino asks. “That’s why Asuma-sensei stopped smoking, because he knew how shit that stuff is and he wanted to be around for his kid, Sakura. He wanted to be around .”

Ino’s spiralling. She knows that she’s spiralling, but she can’t drag herself out of it for the life of her. Asuma is dead and it’s all her fault. It’s her fault. It’s-

Ino startles when she hears the water splash out of the tub. She doesn’t know what’s happening until she feels Sakura pressed against her bare back. The pinkette is still fully dressed, but the feel of her against her back makes Ino freeze all the same.

She stiffens when Sakura’s arms wrap around her midriff.

“Sakura, what-?”

“Tell me what your initial diagnostic scan showed.” Sakura’s voice is soft in her ears.

“I-”

“Ino. What did you see when you first examined the patient?”

The patient. Not Asuma-sensei. Ino would bristle at the depersonalisation if she didn’t know what Sakura was doing.

“The scan showed severe internal bleeding,” she starts. 

“Where?” Sakura asks.

“Primarily in the right and left upper quadrants.”

“Why?”

“Severe damage to the patient’s liver, with additional injuries to the kidneys, spleen, and intestines,” she says.

“Did the patient have any additional injuries aside from internal ones?”

Ino bites back the mutinous reply that bubbles up. Sakura already knows the answer. She had Asuma-sensei’s body.

“Ino.” Ino bites her tongue harder. “Did the patient have any additional injuries?”

“The patient had second and third degree burns on fifty percent of his upper body.”

From the way that Asuma-sensei had trouble breathing, it was likely that whatever jutsu that Hidan used also burned Asuma-sensei’s lungs.

Sakura hums. “What did you do upon finishing your diagnostic, what did you do?”

Ino swallows. “I attempted to heal the patient’s liver.”

“Why?”

“The liver receives more than a quarter of a body’s total cardiac output,” Ino recites. “The patient’s liver was the most injured organ. In order to control the bleeding, I tried to repair as much of the damage as I could.”

 “Were you successful?”

“No.” 

“Why not?” 

Ino grits her teeth at the question. She wants Sakura to stop asking these questions. She doesn’t want to talk about Asuma-sensei or his injuries.

“Ino.” Sakura’s voice is as gentle as ever, but now there’s a firmness to it that Ino kind of hates. “Why were you unsuccessful in repairing the patient’s liver?”

“Because-”

Because Ino would repair one section of Asuma-sensei’s liver, only for another area to spring a leak. 

“Because the damage was too severe,” she eventually chokes out.

She can feel tears burning in the corner of her eyes as she says it.

“Do you believe that if you’d had another medic by your side, the outcome would have been different?” Sakura asks.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because-”

Because repairing an organ that was severely damaged like that required an operating room with a team of medics and Tsunade or Shizune at the helm. Ino had nearly been pushed to chakra exhaustion trying to save Asuma-sensei even with a chakra pill in her system. 

“Because the patient’s injuries required a higher facility of care than can be provided by field medics,” she says. “The patient required immediate evacuation to Konoha General, but-”

“But the patient was unable to be evacuated due to mission hostiles,” Sakura finishes.

Ino says nothing.

“Ino, please, look at me.” She finally glances over her shoulder to see Sakura’s eyes shining. “You did everything that you could. Ten seconds wouldn’t have made a difference.”

Ino bristles. “You don’t-”

She flinches when Sakura’s hands cup her cheeks. 

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Sakura says again. “If you hadn’t taken the time to take a chakra pill before you left, you wouldn’t have had chakra to heal Asuma-sensei and he would’ve died sooner. If you hadn’t slowed down to let Choji know what was happening, you would’ve shown up on scene without a means for cover.”

Sakura takes a deep breath. 

“If you hadn’t had a squad to cover you, you wouldn’t have been able to make it to Asuma-sensei at all and he would’ve died and I-” Ino hears Sakura’s voice hitch- “I could’ve lost you.”

Ino feels her already shattered heart break further when Sakura’s voice does.

“Asuma-sensei’s death isn’t on you, Ino. You did everything that you could. He just-”

“He died,” Ino finishes, voice a whisper. 

A sob breaks free as the finality of her words registers with her brain.

“He died,” she sobs. “Asuma-sensei died, Sakura. He’s dead.”

She turns to bury her face against Sakura’s shoulder and cries. She cries for Asuma-sensei. She cries for her boys and for Kurenai-sensei. She cries at the injustice of it all.

Ino cries and Sakura never lets her go.

-

(Shikamaru keeps his promise. While the man responsible for Asuma-sensei’s death doesn’t die - Ino later learns that he can’t actually die - he does end up imprisoned on Nara land for all of eternity). 

(After she, Shikamaru, and Choji have briefed their final report to Tsunade, Ino goes home to find Sakura cooking curry for dinner. Ino immediately walks over and wraps her arms around Sakura, holding her close like her life depends on it).   

-

Ino is seventeen when Uchiha Sasuke stabs her in the chest.

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

(Ino used to think that Team 7’s bad luck was just a bad joke. Then she started taking missions with Sakura).

Ino senses Sasuke before anyone can even spot him; he’s hard to miss with chakra that cold and that dark. By the time the rest of her team sees him, Ino’s hands are already moving to form the sign that she needs to make Sasuke’s body hers and give her team the time they need to get their bearings.

Unfortunately, she never gets a chance to carry out her plan because Danzo spots her.

She catches his eye and knows exactly what he sees when he looks at her: a tool to exploit. It’s the same look that he had when he came into her home all those years ago and left with her brother.

Before she can react, Danzo’s arm is around her neck and her body has become his shield. 

She can’t help but note the irony of the whole situation, especially when Sasuke turns his attention to her. She spent a good chunk of her youth wishing she had his attention, and now that she has it, she definitely doesn’t want it.

Ino hears Sakura screaming Sasuke’s name, begging him to stop. The sound tears at her heart; she’s never heard Sakura so desperate.

(If Ino never has to hear the sound of Sakura screaming like that, she will consider herself blessed by the gods, her ancestors, and the spirits of the Founders).

An electric spear pierces her chest.

The lightning chakra burns worse than Anko’s poisons. Ino can vaguely hear Danzo choking in shock behind her and absently wonders if Fu died for Danzo.

Ino coughs once. She feels the blood on her lips before she tastes it. She doesn’t have time to ponder more because roots explode from the ground, separating her from Danzo. The next moment, Sakura is in front of her.

Ino sees Sasuke aim another Chidori Spear in her direction - at Sakura’s unprotected back. She tries to call out to Sakura, but she can’t get words past the blood on her lips. 

It turns out that Ino needn’t have worried. Before the electric spear can even reach them, it’s intercepted by a furious ink tiger that explodes into a spectacular shower of black ink that has the added bonus of covering Sakura’s escape with Ino in her arms.

They land on one of the nearby cliffs. 

Ino bites back a small cry of pain as Sakura lowers hurt to the ground. She knows why Sakura does it, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. She watches the clouds disappear behind a barrier made of wood and earth. If she weren’t so wounded, Ino would have half a mind to tease Sakura about how ugly it looks.

“Go after him,” Ino rasps out.

“No.”

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

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

“W-why?”

Ino doesn’t understand. Bringing Sasuke back is something that Naruto and Sakura have talked about at length for the better part of a year since Naruto returned. Why is Sakura turning her back on the mission now?

“Because I won’t lose you, Pig,” Sakura growls, voice breaking at the end.

Ino feels the earth shift against her hands. She lets her head loll to the side to see what’s happening and finds herself surrounded by flowers - orchids, carnations, tiny sprigs of yellow acacias. 

“Oh.” Realisation dawns on Ino. “Sakura…”

“No.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Sakura shake her head. “We aren’t going to do this right now.”

When then? Ino wants to ask. She’s not stupid. Sakura may be the best medic in the entirety of Hi no Kuni (if not the entire world), but Ino’s injuries are bad. She doesn’t want to die with things unsaid.

She brings a hand up to Sakura’s face, brushing a thumb under Sakura’s eye. “Sakura, I…” Ino tries, but her adrenaline is all but gone now. 

Between the pain of getting stabbed in the chest, the pain of said stab wound being healed real-time, and blood loss, Ino knows it’s a miracle she managed to stay awake this long. Despite her best efforts, Ino’s eyes flutter shut.

-

(She wakes up in the hospital with a scar over her heart and Sakura sound asleep in a plastic chair next to her bed. She asks about Danzo when Sakura jolts awake; when Sakura tells her that he’s dead, Ino cries.

“I had a brother once,” Ino tells her around her tears. “His name was Fu. Danzo killed him.”

They don’t talk about the flowers that bloomed around Ino as she lay dying. She can tell that Sakura isn’t ready to talk about them and Ino isn’t inclined to push. Instead, they talk about Fu and the kind of boy that he had been before Danzo got his hands on him.

The day that Ino finally decides to confront Sakura about the flowers, Uchiha Madara declares war on the living).

-

Ino is seventeen when she steps into hell.

She thinks that she’s ready for war; her father had shown her his memories of the Third Shinobi World War before. She quickly realises, though, that memories don’t make up for personal experience and that there is no preparing for a war like this.

Ino is assigned to the front as a sensor whilst Sakura stays in the back to serve as the Allied Shinobi Forces’ chief medic. It’s something that frustrates Ino - she’s grown used to having Sakura’s back on the battlefield, not the other way around. She fights regardless of her own frustrations, however, if only because there is no other choice. 

Fighting the White Zetsu is easier for Ino than most.

Maybe it’s because they use a bastardised version of the Mokuton that Ino knows Sakura and Tenzou would be offended to see. Maybe it’s because she’s spent so long training with Sakura and Tenzou that she knows the earth’s tells. Or maybe, she’s so used to being Sakura’s eyes that she knows what to look for.

Whatever it is, it lets her cut down White Zetsu after White Zetsu. She feeds her strategies to Shikamaru and HQ (although, they’re less strategies and more feelings) and slowly, the war seems to turn in their favour.

Then Kabuto summons the dead. Suddenly, the battle turns the other way because how do you fight the people you loved and buried?

As hard as you can, Ino learns when Asuma-sensei appears before her and her boys. And with everything that you have.

Fighting him hurts, not just physically but mentally as well. It’s bad enough that he still kicks as hard as she remembers him being able to. It’s even worse to have to see his face. Her heart insists that he’s a friend even though her brain knows that he’s an enemy. 

It doesn’t take Ino long to notice that Choji is having the hardest time with him. She slaps him in the face, tells him to get it together, then shoves him out of the way to avoid a ferocious drop kick courtesy of Asuma.

“Either you help us stop him or we all die!” she shouts.

That seems to be the thing that snaps Choji from his funk. The next thing she knows, there’s chakra wings on his back and Shikamaru is behind her and then the three of them are moving as one. They send Asuma into the cliff and pin him in place with his own knives. 

“You three are a perfect Ino-Shika-Chou,” Asuma says, smiling even as the Suna Sealing Corps seals him away. 

Choji weeps as does Shikamaru. Ino?

Ino angrily wipes tears from her eyes.

“Let’s go,” she speaks up, catching her boys’ attention. She will not cry here. “We have a war to win.”

-

Ino thinks that the reappearance of the dead will be the worst that this war has to offer. Were Kabuto the only player, that would be true.

Then the Juubi appears and her father-

Her father dies.

Ino doesn’t see it coming. No one on the battlefield sees it coming. The ones who see it coming are, ironically, hundreds of miles away from the fighting. It gives them the time they need to say their goodbyes - goodbyes that Ino isn’t ready to hear.

I need you to listen to me, her father’s voice is sharp across her mind.

Tou-san, stop, please , she begs. She knows why he’s saying what he’s saying. She doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t want him to die. 

Ino, he says, you’ve grown up to be the embodiment of the Yamanaka clan’s mon - the bush clover - and everything it symbolises. I’ve been lucky enough to watch you blossom into a beautiful bush clover. I’m proud of you, Ino. I am so proud.

Ino can’t hold back the sob that his words draw forth.

I only wish that I had been a better father to you and Fu, he says; Ino can feel his grief and regret clearer than she ever has before. Danzo, he wanted-

I know, tou-san. 

Ino has known the truth for years, thanks to the grief in her father’s heart and the way that he wept when they trained away from prying eyes. She knows that Yamanaka Inoichi hadn’t given up the boy who was his son in every way but blood on a whim or because he was ordered to; he did it because it was the only way he could protect his daughter.

(Even though he is about to die, Inoichi will never tell her that Fu agreed to the trade. He will never tell his daughter that her brother lied through his teeth to the second most powerful man in the village and said that he was the strong one, just to protect the girl who had become his sister).

Her father’s laughter is warm. Of course, you do. She can picture him smiling. Ino?

Yes, tou-san?

Sakura. I approve of her. Love her, my daughter, and do not let her go.

I won’t.

I love you, Ino. Goodbye.

She weeps when he severs their connection. 

-

The fight against the Juubi is brutal.

With HQ destroyed, it’s up to Ino and Shikamaru to take up the mantles of their fathers and lead. 

They do so with aplomb. 

Ino finds that being Shikamaru’s eyes isn’t too different from being Sakura’s. They move like a well-oiled machine - Ino with her hand on the back of Shikamaru’s head, Choji at their rear to cover them. She works alongside her clansman (all of whom immediately call her Yamanaka-sama when her mind touches theirs) to cover the battlefield with her sensory abilities and relays what she sees to Shikamaru and the rest of the Allied Shinobi Forces. 

She doesn’t flinch when the Juubi roars or when it sends its clones out. She trusts Choji and the rest of the shinobi around her to buy her and Shikamaru the time they need to come up with a plan. It’s only when Sakura appears in a cloud of smoke, that Ino falters.

Sakura is covered in blood. Her flak jacket has seen better days and she’s missing her right sleeve, but to Ino, the pink haired woman has never looked more beautiful.

“Go to her,” Shikamaru says, snapping Ino out of her revere.

“What?” She looks down at him, not sure she heard him correctly.

“She’s headed to the front. She’s gonna need you and I need eyes up there too,” he says.

Ino hides a smile. She knows what Shikamaru is doing. 

“Haru! Kohan!” she shouts.

The clansmen in question are by her side in an instant. 

“Both of you cover. I’ll relay from the front.” She pins them with a look. “Do not get him killed or I will kill you.”

Both men nod, then take their position behind Shikamaru. Both place a hand on the back of his head because to do what Ino does by herself will take the both of them. 

“Understood, Yamanaka-sama,” Haru says.

“We follow your lead,” Kohan adds.

Satisfied that they’re in place, Ino makes her way towards Sakura. She’s relieved to see that Naruto is there, but less than enthused to see Sasuke.

“Ino,” Sakura greets warmly.

Despite the chaos and carnage around them, Ino smiles. She always smiles because of Sakura.

“Sakura.” She nods to Naruto. “Naruto.”

She doesn’t greet Sasuke. The Uchiha may be by Sakura’s side, but he is not Ino’s ally. She leads the Yamanaka now and the Uchiha, what’s left of them anyway, will not have her or her clan as their ally. She will tolerate his presence for Sakura’s sake and nothing else. 

“You have me?” Sakura asks.

Ino nods. “I have you.”

And then she and Sakura move, leaving the boys in their dust.

If she, Shikamaru, and Choji moved like a well-oiled machine, then she and Sakura move like the water and earth natures needed for Mokuton jutsu. 

They’re in perfect balance with each other. Sakura clears entire swaths of enemies with a punch one moment and skewers others with roots the next. Ino takes out the enemies that Sakura can’t see, being up close as she is, with well-placed kunai, explosive tags, and doton jutsu all the while transmitting information back to Shikamaru through Haru and Kohan.

(Later, when people tell stories about this battle, they will speak at length about the woman with pink hair who was the second-coming of Hashirama and the sensor who fought at her side).

Slowly, they turn the tide of battle. 

With Naruto and Sasuke joining them on the front, they whittle down the Juubi’s clones until their force and the Shinobi Allied Forces numbers outpace its ability to produce them. For a brief moment, Ino allows herself to think that maybe, just maybe, they have this. 

Out of nowhere, night suddenly turns to day.

Ino can feel the shinobi around her stutter and falter but she doesn’t. She’s too busy raising an earthen wall behind Sakura to block an axe that the pink haired woman doesn’t see coming.

Ino! She hears Shikamaru cry out.

She turns at the sound of his voice and takes a blow to her ribs that sends her flying across the battlefield.

She lands in a heap next to him. She groans as she sits up and turns to check on Shikamaru. She opens her mouth to ask him what had him call out for her, only for the words to die in her throat when she sees his eyes.

His eyes are wrong.

A quick glance around the battlefield shows her that everyone’s eyes are wrong.

Shit.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the God Tree move and spots a woman with chakra beyond description.

Ino moves. She has to move because she still can . She has to get to Sakura because that chakra is foul and she’s not letting the woman she loves fight something like that with two knuckleheads by her side. She-

White vines wrap around Ino’s wrists.

She snarls, flaring her chakra to rip through them, and tries to continue forward but now her eyes are burning from the false daylight. 

STAY AWAKE! Ino hears someone screaming in her mind. DO YOU HEAR ME? STAY AWAKE! DON’T LET HER TAKE YOU FROM US!

Us. 

Sakura.

There are hundreds of meters between them now, but Ino finds Sakura’s eyes with ease. They lock with each other and for a brief moment, it’s just the two of them on the battlefield. Ino reaches out even though she will never be able to reach Sakura in time and-

White vines obscure her vision.

The last thing Ino hears is Sakura’s other half screaming.

-

Ino blinks sunspots from her eyes. 

It takes her a minute to get her bearings. She’s on her back, her head cradled in someone’s lap with fingers combing through her hair, and a faint scent of cherry blossoms on the wind.

“Afternoon, sleepyhead,” a voice says from above her.

She cranes her eyes upward to see Sakura.

Ino’s brow furrows at the sight of her best friend. Something...is off. 

“Where are we?” Ino asks.

She sees Sakura frown. “We’re at the training ground. You fell asleep, remember?” she asks.

Training field? That can’t be right.

Ino glances around to see that Sakura is correct, they’re at the training field. That doesn’t make sense though. They were just on the battlefield together. Someone was screaming.

“What happened to the war?”

“War?” Sakura sounds confused. “We were training earlier, but I don’t think us sparring against each other counts as war, love.”

Love?

What the fuck is going on?

“No, we, we were fighting,” Ino insists. “I was behind you and then I got hit by something…”

Out of habit, Ino brushes her chakra against Sakura’s mind and finds-

Nothing.

There’s no one there.

Blood pounds against Ino’s ears.

“Ino?” Sakura sounds concerned. “Is everything okay?”

The concern is so genuine, so Sakura, that Ino wants to laugh even as she feels her world tip out from under her. 

“Everything’s fine,” she lies.

Nothing is okay because none of this is real. 

“Are you sure? I’m sure we can swing by the hospital and have shishou check you over before we have dinner with your dad and Fu.”

Your dad.

Fu.

“My dad?” Ino chokes out. 

“Yeah? Fu’s finally back from his diplomatic mission to Kiri, so your dad wanted us over for a family dinner.” Sakura - no, this isn’t Sakura - pauses. “Ino, are you sure that you’re alright? I can call your dad and say that we need to reschedule-”

“No.” Ino sits up and turns away so that this Sakura can’t see her face. “No, we don’t need to reschedule. I’m fine. I just, I had a nightmare, is all,” she lies.

“Okay.” She feels a hand on her shoulder. “C’mon, lay back down a bit. I’ll wake you when we need to leave.”

Ino obliges if only because she doesn’t have the strength to fight that touch. It feels so much like Sakura’s touch. She throws an arm over her eyes to hide the tears that form because her greatest desires are here - her father is alive, Fu is untouched by Danzo, and Sakura is hers - but she wants none of it. This Sakura isn’t her Sakura, no matter how much their touch is alike. Her Sakura is a woman with two hearts and two minds that love deeply. The woman whose lap her head rests in is just a hollow copy.

-

This world is perfect.

Her father is alive here. Her brother was never taken by Danzo. Sakura is hers; in fact, they’re apparently engaged.

Ino hates all of it.

She shares a bed with the woman she has dubbed not-Sakura. Not-Sakura doesn’t hold Ino the way her Sakura does; instead, not-Sakura sleeps with her face to Ino’s back instead of Ino holding her. Not-Sakura says that she loves Ino to the darkness of their room. Ino pretends to be asleep every time not-Sakura says it, then ends up not sleeping at all. She can’t sleep because she’s grown used to the quiet hum of her Sakura’s other half and not-Sakura’s mind is far too quiet.

Ino spars with not-Fu. It’s everything she imagined it would be - he’s brilliant, quick on his feet, and able to counter her with ease. He smiles like the sun when she cracks a boulder with her fist and laughs when she breaks his rib with a kick. Not-Fu tells her that he’s proud to be her older brother and Ino wants so badly to believe him, but she doesn’t. Instead, she unleashes her Doton: Doryuudan jutsu because whilst he may wear her brother’s face, he is not her brother.

Tea with her not-Father is as awkward in this perfect world as it is in hers. Not-Father smiles easier than her father did when he was alive, though. He talks about not-Fu freely, winks at Ino when he speaks about not-Sakura, and needles for grandchildren like Ino dreamed that he one day would. She drinks her tea at the very moment that he says he loves her, just so that she doesn’t have to respond. 

When she’s away from them, Ino cries silently because this world is perfect but so, so wrong. She can’t stay here. She won’t stay here. She wants something that this world won’t give her: reality.

-

Ino resolves to break this illusion one way or another. 

When disrupting her chakra and breaking a finger do nothing, Ino steals one of her not-Father’s old uniforms.

She supposes that she could have asked him for it, but the man who wears her father’s face and speaks with his voice is not her father. Stealing it, she decides, is a poetic move as well as a practical one. It gives her a taste of that teenage rebellion she never had and gives her a way to tell this illusory world to go fuck itself.

The old Konoha blues fit her perfectly. 

She draws eyes as she walks through the streets with them on.

“Ne, Ino, what’s with the new uniform?” not-Shikamaru asks.

Ino smiles pretty and does a half shrug, like she’s embarrassed by all the attention. “Felt it was time for a change,” she says.

Not-Sakura eyes her with a look that can only be described as hungry . “Do you have time to stop by the house with me?” she asks. “I needed to grab something and-”

Ino shakes her head. “Later. I have to talk to Hokage-sama about a mission I ran a few weeks ago,” she lies.

She has to fight back a laugh at the disappointment that flickers across not-Sakura’s face. They may share a bed (one of the few things that Ino will do to keep the illusion unaware that she knows this world is fake), but Ino will not share her heart or her body with this woman. This woman is not her Sakura.

(She had chosen someone else other than Sakura once. It is her greatest mistake and one that she has had the opportunity to rectify, something that she will forever thank her ancestors for).

She reaches out to take not-Sakura’s hand and gives it a squeeze; she is a shinobi and she has a part to play.

“I’ll be home later and then you can…” she trails off.

She fights back a smirk at the way not-Shikamaru groans even as her stomach clenches at the thought of having sex with not-Sakura. Sure, she could spin it as a mission assignment, but the idea still chafs at her.

Not-Sakura’s eyes brighten. “I’m holding you to that, Yamanaka.”

Ino hides a wince.

Yamanaka, not Pig. Not-Sakura never calls her Pig. She never thought she would miss the originally-offensive nickname that her Sakura throws her way, but she does. She misses the fondness in her Sakura’s voice whenever it’s said.

She lets go of not-Sakura’s hand. “I have to get going. Can’t keep Hokage-sama waiting,” she says.

She shushins away before either of them can say anything else.

She doesn’t head to the Hokage’s office, though. Instead, she flickers to the top of Hokage Rock and looks out to the village below.

She won’t deny that it looks beautiful. She thinks she would admire the sight, if she didn’t know how ugly it could be. She would rather have her ugly, imperfect village though. She would rather have that and all the pain and heartbreak that it brings because there is no love here. 

The Konoha that she stands in now has no love. It has fake fathers, fake brothers, and fake lovers who say that they love her but their words are as hollow as their smiles. 

Ino wants real love, the kind that the real Yamanaka Inoichi spoke about. The kind that can make her vulnerable, but also make her stronger.

Ino sighs and reaches into her pocket to pull out her hitai-ate. 

There are three ways to break a genjutsu, her father once told her. 

“Chakra disruption, pain, and strong emotion,” she mutters to herself. 

She ties her hitai-ate around her forehead because she is a shinobi of Konoha and what she is about to do is for her village.

“I’ve already tried the first two and nothing happened. That means all I’ve got left is option three.”

What emotion is stronger than the fear of death?

Love, she muses as she eyes the ground below. Love is stronger than that fear. She knows because it has made her stronger. The love she has for Sakura has made her so much stronger, and it gives Ino the strength that she needs to take a step forward and fall.

She reaches out with her sensory abilities, hoping beyond hope that they’ll reach beyond the illusion. That she can reach Sakura or at least, Sakura’s other half.

(She will never forget the sound of those screams).

She hopes and she falls and falls and-

-

And she wakes up pressed against Sakura’s chest.

Ino’s eyes flutter open. “Sa-kura?” she rasps out.

Please, she begs the spirits of her ancestors and the Founders, let this be real. Let this be her.

Let this be her Sakura. Let her be awake in a world where life hurts and Sakura is whole. 

Listen to her heart, the winds seem to whisper.

Ino does. 

She reaches out like she always does to brush her chakra against Sakura’s mind the same time she hears Sakura say, “Hey.”

Ino’s met by an embarrassed indignation that doesn’t belong to the woman holding her. Suddenly, her world is right again.

“Did we win?” she asks.

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

The grin on Sakura’s face tells Ino that there’s more to the story. 

It makes her giggle. Only Sakura could say something like that as casually as she does. It quickly turns into a sob that Ino doesn’t even bother to hide because this is real .

“Ino-”

Ino throws her arms around Sakura’s shoulders. “I saw you,” she whispers, unable to stop her voice from shaking with tears. “Before this stupid tree got me, I saw you right when that bitch showed up and then you were gone and-”

And she woke up in a world where everything was perfect but so wrong.

“I saw you too,” Sakura cuts in quietly. Ino feels herself sinking further into Sakura’s embrace as the pinkette returns it. “Right before Kaguya dragged us into her realm, I saw the God Tree take you.”

There’s an undercurrent of rage and grief that flashes through Sakura’s mind. It belongs to both Sakura and her other half. 

Realisation dawns on Ino. That was why Sakura’s other half had been screaming. She screamed because Sakura couldn’t.

“But-” Sakura continues, oblivious to Ino’s racing mind- “I’m back now and this stupid tree is as good as firewood once all the katon users get freed.”

Ino stares at her. She takes in the woman before her: her pink hair that seems a shade darker from all the blood that has spilled over the last four days, the fading bruise on her cheek, the burns on her right arm, the playful smile on her chapped lips - ancestors, Ino wants so badly to kiss those lips.

Ino pulls Sakura close once more.

“You have no idea how grateful I am that you made it back, Sakura,” she says. Her voice still shakes, although this time it’s due to a combination of grief and relief instead of tears. “I couldn’t - I can’t, I can’t lose you.”

She’s already lost Fu and her father. She can’t lose Sakura. The very thought makes Ino’s heart clench; she hasn’t felt this kind of fear in her chest since Danzo took up the mantle as Hokage an eternity ago.

Sakura presses her face to Ino’s shoulder. “I punched a god in the face and came back,” she hears Sakura mumble against her shoulder. “I think that means I’m here for the long run, Pig.”

Ino hopes her ancestors and the spirits of the Founders will grant Sakura a run that is as long as the forests of Konoha are deep, because the gods clearly will not. She prays, somewhat selfishly, that their mercy will extend to her as well and that she will be able to stand by Sakura for as long as possible.

(She will. Her ancestors and the spirits of the Founders hear her prayers and decide that, perhaps, the universe can be kind to the woman who punched a god in the face and the woman who loves her).

Ino chuckles wetly. “You fucking better be, Forehead.”

She feels Sakura tighten her hold around her body and Ino squeezes back.

-

Ino is eighteen when she finally kisses the girl.

It takes her a year, but it’s not entirely her fault. She’s busy with the post-war reconstruction efforts in Konoha and all the new responsibilities that come with being clan head. It doesn’t help that Sakura is equally as busy balancing the hospital and being in line to serve as the next Hokage. When they are home together, it’s spent sleeping in the same bed or sharing a bath because one of them is usually too tired to draw one for themself. 

Shikamaru, of all people, helps Ino with the bouquet. 

“So what flowers showed up again?” he asks.

Ino huffs. “Orchids, carnations, and yellow acacias,” she tells him. Again.

He hums. “You sure you wanna have yellow acacias in this?” he asks. “You two weren’t really a secret.”

“Shika, I didn’t know she liked me back until I got stabbed in the chest,” she says. “I don’t think she knows that I like her back.”

He gives her a look. “Don’t you mean love her?”

She scowls at him. “Shut up and get me the flowers.”

He sighs. “Man, you’re such a slave driver, you know that?”

“I also happen to be on a first name basis with your mother.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” he grumbles, grabbing the flowers in question and handing them back to her.

Her hands shake as she puts them all together. “Dammit-”

The air hums. It’s her only warning before Shikamaru’s shadow catches hers.

“Shika-” she starts.

“Chill. I know the rules. I’m not touching the bouquet, I’m just keeping your hands steady,” he says.

She smiles. “Thanks, Shika.”

“It’s one of the few things that I don’t find troublesome, you troublesome woman.”

“You’re such an ass.”

Shikamaru just hums again. His hands move and Ino’s follow. Soon, the bouquet takes shape.

“I’m thinking about adding three red roses,” Ino says absently. She glances at him. “Is that too much? I mean, Sakura and I haven’t even gone on a date and-”

“Ino,” Shikamaru starts, voice flat. “You two are living together. You share the same bed. You cook each other dinner and you drop off lunch to her. At this point, I’m pretty sure most of the village thinks that you both are married.”

Ino can feel herself start to blush. 

Her body jolts when his shadow leaves her, freeing him to grab three roses from a nearby pot.

“Useless lesbian,” he mutters under his breath. “Stick 'em in the middle or something.”

Ino does just that.

“Do you have the ribbon?” she asks.

“Yep,” he says, holding up the red strip of fabric in question. “I have to ask though, why did you have us tearing apart your room for this particular ribbon?”

Ino takes it and ties it around the bouquet. “Because it was Sakura’s, back when we were at the Academy. She gave it back to me after she declared us rivals for Sasuke and I just...kept it.”

In hindsight, that also should’ve been a sign that she was in love with Sakura.

“...I can’t believe it took you fifteen years to realise that you were in love with her,” Shikamaru says.

“Shut up, Shika.”

-

Approaching Hokage Rock fills Ino with more dread than facing the Juubi did. 

She knows she’s close to Sakura when she spots the ANBU nearby. A few of them nod in her direction as she makes her way towards Sakura.

Sakura has her back to Ino. Ino has a feeling that Sakura is taking in the view afforded by the mountain. She looks so at ease with the Hokage hat in hand, robes flowing in the wind. Ino isn’t the slightest bit surprised that Sakura carries herself like she’s held the office of Hokage her entire life, instead of the five hours since her coronation. 

Ino clears her throat. “Nanadaime-sama.”

 “Maa, Ino-chan, you don’t have to call me that.”

Sakura turns around, casual as can be. For once, Ino can’t come up with a sarcastic retort. She stares at Sakura because what else can she do? 

She watches Sakura’s brow furrow. “Ino? Is something-”

Ino lifts the bouquet for Sakura to see. She keeps her eyes off of Sakura’s face because she doesn’t think she’s prepared to see disappointment (or worse, pity).

“Ino…”

“Orchids, because you’re so beautiful and the strongest woman in Konoha,” she starts, eyes still not quite on Sakura. “Red carnations, because I admire you so damn much. Yellow acacia because, because we started off as friends and you’re my best friend and because-”

She swallows. 

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

The words are out. She can’t take them back now.

“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.”

She knew how to say it to everyone except Sakura. Then, Sasuke stabbed her and Ino found the language that she needed to finally tell Sakura that she loves her. That she has always loved her.

Sakura stares at her. 

Ino can feel her heart drop with each passing second of silence. Had she read things wrong? Had she misunderstood the flowers that bloomed around her that day? Had-

Her panicked mind screeches to a stop when she notices Sakura lift her hand. Slowly, three flowers take shape. 

Ino can feel her eyes widen when Sakura lifts them for her to see. 

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

“Sakura…” Ino breathes.

“Two cosmoses, one red and the other chocolate because I love you more than anything could.” She watches Sakura lick her lips. “I love you, Ino.”

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

There’s no heat in her words. They’re said only to fluster Sakura, who starts to sputter. 

Ino doesn’t give her a chance to make actual words. Instead, she fists the front of Sakura’s robes and pulls her close to seal the distance between them before pressing her lips to Sakura’s.

Kissing Sakura reminds Ino of a forest on a summer’s day - it’s soothing with an undercurrent of energy that fills Ino’s soul. The kiss itself is passionate and just shy of bruising with a hint of desperation. Ino recognises it as the kiss that the two of them should have shared on the battlefield after Sakura freed her from the God Tree. She pulls Sakura closer, presses herself harder against her. It says everything that they should have said months, if not years, earlier.

Be mine.

I love you.

I’m here.

I will always have you.

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

She sees Sakura’s cheeks turn pink. “Hah, well, I’m pretty sure it’s a Team 7 thing,” Sakura says.

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

It’s definitely a you thing, Sakura’s other half grumbles.

It startles Ino to hear her so clearly. She covers it with a giggle. “Good to know that someone agrees with me,” she says.

The pink vanishes from Sakura’s face, replaced with white. “I don’t-”

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

At least, Ino thinks that's why she can hear Sakura’s other half.

Well. Shit , Ino hears.

“Ino-”

“Shh…” She places a finger against Sakura’s lips. “Don’t worry,” she drops her voice so that only Sakura will hear it, “I have you.”

This will be their secret, and Ino will die first before it leaves her lips.

“Thank you,” Sakura whispers.

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

Sakura smiles. “I can do that.”

And she does.

She leans forward to catch Ino’s lips and Ino meets her halfway.

Later, Ino will learn that Sakura’s other half is called Inner. Ino will tell Sakura how Inner tried to keep the Infinite Tsukuyomi from taking her. She’ll tell Sakura that the reason she figured out that the world created by it was fake, was because the Sakura of that world didn’t have Inner. She’ll tell Sakura that she prayed for the illusion to end and that Sakura was the only reason she had hope.

But that will be later.

Right now, she wraps her arms around Sakura’s shoulders and smiles into their kiss. This kiss, she decides, is better than any genjutsu.

Chapter Text

Sakura is twenty when she causes a minor diplomatic incident.

In her defence, it’s not entirely her fault. 

It happens like this: Gaara walks over to exchange pleasantries like he always does. The delivery is a tad awkward like it usually is but Sakura returns them all the same because she understands that he was a socially awkward murder child for the first twelve years of his life.

(If her memories of how she treated Naruto when they were younger come up whenever she and Gaara do this song and dance routine, well, Inner is kind enough to shove those memories in a box for later).

Then, out of nowhere, he asks about her wife and Sakura can feel her mind screech to a halt. 

She blinks. “My what?” 

“Your wife?” She imagines that if Gaara had eyebrows, they would be lifted in question. “Temari informed me that you and Yamanaka-san married and I felt it would be remiss if I did not ask about her.”

Sakura knows that everything he said was important, but the only thing she can focus on is that she thinks he just said that she and Ino are married. 

“Ino and I are what now?” 

“Married. Temari-”

“Okay, so I did hear that part correctly.” Sakura waves him off. “Gaara-kun, why does your sister think that Ino and I are married?”

“You live together, and have been for some time according to Temari,” he says matter-of-factly.

Sakura frowns. “We’ve been living together since we were fourteen,” she says.

Gaara matches her frown. “I was unaware that the legal marrying age in Konoha was so low,” he says quietly, sounding somewhat disturbed. “In Suna, two individuals cannot be wed until they are at least sixteen.” 

(There’s a lot to unpack there, Inner chimes in).

(Sakura ignores her).

“It’s the same in Konoha,” she says hurriedly. “Even for shinobi.”

“But you and Yamanaka-san have been living together since you were fourteen.”

Sakura nods. “We have. My parents-”

“But you say you aren’t married?” 

“No, we are not,” Sakura replies. “But-”

“You’re not married?” Kurotsuchi cuts in suddenly, eyes narrowed. “Did I hear that correctly?”

“Uh…” Sakura rubs the back of her neck. “I’m…engaged?” she says and immediately winces because ancestors, she may be a shinobi - and a Kage to boot - but she’s also a terrible liar when not on an official mission. 

Kurotsuchi’s eyes narrow even further. “Are you asking me or telling me?” she demands with a force that her grandfather would be proud of.

“Ah…”

(Sage help us, Inner moans).

“Hmph. Well, I have the perfect person for you, Hokage-sama,” Kurotsuchi says.

There’s a scoff from Mei. “As if Haruno-san would prefer anyone you suggest. She’ll go for a water bride, it’s in her nature,” she says.

(There’s a snort from Inner. Ino’s affinity is earth, Inner points out).

It’s why they work so well together - wood cannot form without earth. 

“Thank you both, but I’m currently in a relationship-”

“I have a shinobi who is just your type,” Darui says from his position on the couch. “Karui’s strong, opinionated, just like Yamanaka. Except she has red hair.”

Sakura barely manages to bite back a comment about how there is no one like Ino, if only because this is already a mess and she’s not about to make it worse.

“I was under the impression that Karui-san is currently in a relationship with one of my shinobi,” she says instead, doing her best to keep her voice even.

She knows that Karui is already involved with one of her shinobi - Choji, to be precise.

There’s a quiet hum from Gaara that catches all of their attention.

“May I offer Maki-san?” he suggests. “She’s the head of Suna’s sealing corps and also a rising star at our hospital.”

His face is a perfect deadpan as he says it. The only reason Sakura knows that he’s not serious is because of the way his eyes gleam. 

Her eyes narrow in response. 

(That shithead, Inner snarls).

“I am in a relationship,” she says through grit teeth. “A very happy, committed relationship.”

“But you’re not married,” Mei says.

“No, we are not.” 

Yet. 

There’s a ring in a storage scroll that Sakura has had on her person for the better part of two months now.

“Well then-” There’s a gleam in Mei’s eye that Sakura’s not sure she likes- “Until my intelligence agents can confirm that you are married, I’m afraid that it is in the best interest of Kiri to continue its pursuit of your hand.”

(What? Inner asks flatly because honestly, what the fuck?)

“Gods, how dull,” Darui groans. “Well, I’m afraid Kumo has to make the same announcement, Sakura-chan.”

“Because Kumo wants the Mokuton?” Kurotsuchi snaps.

He shrugs. “I mean, it certainly doesn’t hurt. But also because she’s so damn scary, it’s hot.” He gives her an apologetic look. “No offence.”

“None taken, I think,” Sakura says numbly.

(What the fuck is happening? Inner asks).

Sakura has no idea. This summit is supposed to be about trade routes and village mission allotments. It’s not supposed to be about her love life. 

The building argument suddenly stops with a cough from Mifune. 

Sakura glances at him, as do the rest of the gathered Kage, but his gaze seems to be pointedly aimed at Sakura’s feet. She follows it to find-

Oh.

Petunias and love-in-a-mist flowers are blooming at her feet.

Sakura can feel her face turn bright red at the sight. This hasn’t happened in years - flowers blooming in response to her emotions. 

“Love-in-a-mist!” Mei exclaims, voice full of glee. “That’s has to be a sign in Kiri’s favour-”

“Pardon me, Mizukage-dono,” Mifune cuts in, “but if I recall correctly, those flowers are expressing Hokage-dono’s request for this line of conversation to cease. And the petunias are-”

“A warning,” Sakura says before she can stop herself. 

There’s a groan of dismay from Shikamaru behind her.

“A warning?” Mei asks.

“To stop trying for my hand while you’re already behind, Mizukage-sama,” she says coolly, her patience on its last thread.

The hungry look in Mei’s eye is unnerving. “Maa, Sakura-chan, that almost sounds like a challenge.”

And just like that, the thread snaps. 

“Believe me, it’s not.” Sakura smiles the same sweet smile she gave Sasuke right before she punched him in the face. “Besides, you’re not my type.”

Silence reigns.

(I completely agree with you, but by the Sage and ancestors, you have got to be the dumbest genius I have ever met, Inner says in disbelief).

(You’re me, she reminds her).

(And I’m horrified by what you just said. That should tell you something, Inner fires back).

It tells her a lot. 

Unsurprisingly, everything goes downhill from there.

-

There’s a thick stack of official looking paperwork on her desk when Sakura returns from the summit four days later.

She frowns at the sight of it. 

(Didn't we finish all of our paperwork before we left? Inner asks).

Sakura hums a verbal confirmation.

"Where'd it come from?" she asks the nearest ANBU agent, Bear.

He tips his head. "They arrived via courier falcon, Nanadaime-sama."

Sakura can feel her frown deepen. She makes her way over to her desk and starts flipping through it, eyes widening as she reads the pages.

By the time she's finished skimming her way through the stack, Inner is raging and Sakura is right there with her. 

“Ne, Sakura-chan-” Naruto starts, but Sakura ignores him.

“Shikamaru, get me Yamanaka Ino, then all of you get out,” she orders.

Twin blinks. 

“Uh, what?” Shikamaru asks.

“Get Ino and bring her here,” she says slowly, as if speaking to a child. “Once she’s here, I want all of you to leave because she and I need to discuss some things.”

“Uh, is this lesbian thing?” Naruto asks. 

Sakura gives him a flat look. 

“Right, shouldn’t have asked that,” he says. “I’m just gonna go with Shikamaru.”

“Please do.”

Both men all but sprint out of the office, leaving Sakura alone with her ANBU agents.

“When I said I want everyone to leave, that includes the rest of you,” Sakura says without looking up from her paperwork.

“Hokage-sama,” one of the ANBU starts. 

“Ino won’t kill me,” she cuts him off. “Even if she was going to, she wouldn’t do it here. She’d do it at home by making anmitsu or something.”

Her ANBU trade looks. 

Sakura sighs. “That was a joke. Her anmitsu is fine, it was her coffee mitsumame that gave me and Inoichi-san food poisoning a few years back.”

Another set of dubious looks get traded across her office. On another day, Sakura thinks that she would find their ability to trade expressions behind masks amusing. All it does today though, is make her sigh.

“I’ll be fine,” she tells them. “You can stand outside the office if it makes you feel better, but I’d like to be alone with Ino.”

One of them - Monkey, she thinks - coughs. 

“Not like that!” she groans. 

(What, you don’t think about having sex in the Hokage’s office with Ino? Inner asks).

(With these windows? Would you like to share Ino with the world like that? Sakura retorts).

(A dark growl is the only response that she gets).

Her ANBU don’t get a chance to respond because the door opens, revealing a confused looking Ino with Shikamaru and Naruto by her sides. 

“Hokage-sama,” Ino greets. “I was told you requested me?”

Sakura nods. “I did.” She motions to her ANBU and advisors. “All of you, out. Now.”

One of the agents - Tiger - seems ready to protest, but she’s dragged out by Monkey and Bear.

“That order includes you too, Kitsune,” Sakura says dryly. 

Kitsune huffs but otherwise says nothing else as he walks out.

Ino raises an eyebrow. “Everything okay, Forehead?” she asks.

“You tell me, Pig,” Sakura drawls. “You’re the head of intelligence, correct?”

She doesn’t miss the way that Ino’s brow furrows at the question.

“You know that I am,” Ino says, bemused. 

Sakura leans forward and folds her hands in front of her face. “Have you heard any information about...us?”

Ino’s bright red face is her answer.

“Right, okay,” Sakura sighs. “How long have people been under the impression that we’re already married?” 

Ino shrugs, face still beet red. “At least since the war ended.”

Sakura can feel a headache building. “And you never thought to tell me?” she asks, doing her best to keep her voice even.

“I didn’t think it mattered,” Ino defends.

Sakura keeps her face blank so that Ino doesn’t see how hurt she is by that statement. 

“It matters,” she starts, “when I go to an official summit and get asked how my wife is. A wife, mind you, that I didn’t even know I had.”

“Sakura-”

Sakura raises her hand to cut Ino off. “How much of your clan thinks that we’re already married, Ino?”

She sees Ino bite her lip. “None of them, actually,” she says slowly.

Sakura raises an eyebrow. 

“A few of the elders expressed...displeasure-”

“Because I’m a woman or because I come from a civilian family?” Sakura asks dryly.

The Haruno were warriors before they became merchants, but the shinobi of Konoha have forgotten that fact.

“Neither, actually,” Ino snaps. 

(Dumbass, Inner mocks).

(Shut up, Sakura fires back).

Ino’s eyes flash with anger. If Sakura weren’t so angry right now, the sight would have her stopping in her tracks and taking a chance to breathe. She knows that Ino isn’t a fan of when she and Inner come to mental blows. 

“They were unhappy because we didn’t have a ‘proper ceremony,’” Ino says, fingers forming air quotes as she speaks. “I cleared things up and let them know that you and I weren’t actually married after I had to stop a few of the younger clansmen from breaking into the village archives to find our marriage certificate.”

Sakura winces. Still, she asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?” This time, she can’t keep the hurt out of her voice. 

They live together. They share a bed. Sakura knows every Yamanaka in the village by now. Hell, she even tends to their gardens on the rare days that Shikamaru and Naruto manage to force her out of the office. 

“I would’ve-”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence, Sakura,” Ino says, voice dangerous. “That right there is exactly why I didn’t tell you, because I knew, I knew you would say that.”

Sakura’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t even finish it,” she says. “How do you even know what I'm going to say if you don’t let me finish?”

(Sage, you are a moron, Inner sighs).

(Sakura ignores her).

Ino folds her arms. “Go ahead then. Say what you were going to say.”

“Fine.” Sakura exhales. “If you’d told me, I would’ve asked you to marry me.”

Never mind that she’d been thinking about it for a while now.

“Would you have meant it?” Ino questions. “Or would you be asking because of an obligation?”

Sakura can feel Inner bristle at the question and so does she. 

“Loving you is not some obligation for me!” she snaps. “I want to marry you!” 

(Then fucking ask her already, you dolt, Inner snaps back).

“Ino-” Sakura starts, only for Ino to shake her head.

“No, don’t you dare ask me like this,” she says. “Don’t ask me to marry you because we got into a fight. Don’t ask me because you’re angry. Ask me when you mean it.”

Sakura bites her tongue because, angry or not, she does mean it dammit. 

“Fine,” she eventually says. “Fine.”

They stand there in silence for a few breaths, each processing everything that had been said in the last few moments.

Ino is the first one to break the silence. “I am sorry,” she apologises, “for not telling you sooner. I just, I wanted to avoid all of this.”

Ino motions around the room vaguely. 

“I know.” Sakura sighs, fight draining out of her. “I’m sorry for getting so upset.”

(I’m not, Inner mutters).

Ino smiles weakly. “It’s a justified anger,” she says before worrying at her lip. “Sakura?”

“Yeah?”

“Are, are we okay?” Ino asks hesitantly. 

(Oh, yeah, everything’s fucking peachy. We just found out that the other Kages think that we’re married and our girlfriend doesn’t want us to ask her to marry us, Inner snarks).

(That’s not true and you know it, Sakura growls).

Ino flinches.

Sakura rubs her temples. “I won’t lie, I’m upset that you didn’t tell me, if only because of the diplomatic ramifications that this could have had if the other Kage weren’t who they were,” she says. 

(Shit, can you imagine if it had been A instead of Darui? Or Onki instead of his granddaughter? Inner asks, sounding faint).

Sakura pointedly does not respond to either of those questions. Wars had been started over less. The only reason she thinks that things didn’t end up worse despite her outright rejection of Mei’s advances is because Shikamaru finally stepped in to remind everyone what exactly the summit had been called for. It also helped that Naruto would obnoxiously clear his throat anytime someone tried to bring up the topic of marriage.

“But overall, yes, we’re okay.” Sakura exhales. “With that said, I’m going to stay with Tsunade-shishou for a couple of days.”

“Sakura-”

“I need time to process and cool down, Ino,” she says gently. “I’ll come home in a few days. I promise.”

She knows that if she goes home like this, with her head twisted up and Inner itching for a fight, there’s a good chance that she’ll say something that both of them will regret. She and Ino have made a concerted effort to not fight at home even before they started dating. Sakura isn’t about to break the peace that they’ve worked so hard to establish.

“Okay.” Ino’s hand twitches, then moves to reach out hesitantly as if Ino’s afraid that Sakura will slap it away. “I love you.”

Despite their earlier argument and the frustration simmering underneath her skin, Sakura takes Ino’s hand and gives it a squeeze.

“I love you too.”

Ino pulls away. “Should I tell Shika and Naruto to come back in or do you want to be alone?” she asks.

“Tell them to come in. I’m behind on paperwork,” Sakura grumbles.

She doesn’t miss the raised eyebrow that Ino sends her way. “You’re never behind on paperwork, Forehead,” she says.

Sakura waves the concern away. “It’s mostly just damage control paperwork,” she says. “Kurotsuchi-san overheard me tell Gaara that we aren’t actually married and kind of cornered me in front of the other Kage, so now I’m fielding off marriage proposals left and right from Kumo, Kiri, Iwa, and Suna.”

At least three out of four of her fellow Kage appear to be apologetic about the proposals. Mei is not; if anything, the Mizukage seems intent on marrying Sakura herself.

“I’m telling them no, Ino,” she adds when a stiff silence settles in her office. 

The smile on Ino’s lips is thin, but her eyes clearly show relief. “You fucking better be,” she growls.

(Now she cares about marriage proposals, Inner grumbles).

(Stow it, Sakura says).

“Just let Shikamaru and Naruto know that they can come in because I do need their help for some of this,” Sakura says.

Ino nods, then moves to leave. She barely opens the door before both Shikamaru and Naruto, along with Sakura’s ANBU guard, come spilling in.

Sakura sighs at the sight.

-

“So,” Shikamaru drawls once Ino has left and the ANBU are back in their proper places. 

“You’re getting off early tonight,” Sakura says.

He raises an eyebrow. “Am I?”

She scowls at him. “Cut the shit, Shikamaru. I’ve seen your Academy records to know that you’re not as big a moron as you’d like people to think,” she says.

Naruto snorts whilst Shikamaru sighs.

“Alright, what do you need?” he asks.

“I need you to take my girlfriend out for drinks and let her bitch to you,” Sakura tells him, then fixes him with an appraising look. “Speaking of girlfriend, did you tell Temari that Ino and I were married or did you just let her come to that assumption by herself and never bother to correct her?”

“Things got lost in translation,” he says. “She mentioned once that some of Suna’s elders were looking to pitch their grandsons to you and I told her that you would never go for it because you and Ino were together. I didn’t know that she took that to mean that you both were married.”

He has the decency to adopt a look that’s a perfect combination of sheepish and apologetic. It’s so perfect that Sakura immediately narrows her eyes.

“I expect you to correct that mistranslation,” she orders, “so that her village stops sending me marriage proposals.

She slams her fist against her desk to make a point and pointedly ignores the way it splinters under the impact.

Shikamaru visibly pales. “I will, Hokage-sama,” he says quickly.

“Good.” She nods. “Naruto?”

The blonde snaps to attention. 

“Do you know anything about clan marriages?” she asks.

Years ago, she would have laughed at the thought of asking him something like that but time has taught her that Naruto is wiser than he appears. He knows things about the village and its history that not even the elders remember.

“Eh…” He rubs the back of his neck - a tell that lets her know that whatever he’s about to say is the truth. “A little bit. I’ve been reading up on Uzumaki traditions, ‘cause Ero-Sennin mentioned some stuff before he...died.”

There’s a collective wince shared by everyone in the office. Four years later, Jiraiya’s death is still a sore spot for Naruto.

“Most clans don’t talk about their marriage traditions though, unless they’re like allies or something,” he says. “I mean, you’ve got the occasional douchey clan shinobi who gets mouthy in the Red District, but they’re usually so low on the clan totem pole that whatever they spit out isn’t anywhere close to the full picture.”

“I take it most clan heads don’t frequent the Red District, then?” Sakura asks.

She knows from tales that she overheard from her father that some civilian clan heads do, but she isn’t sure about shinobi clans. Perhaps they do, they’re just more discrete.

Naruto shrugs. “Unless they’re going out of their way to confirm the existence of a bastard, no,” he says easily, like he’s talking about the weather. 

Sakura brings a hand up to her temples to rub away the headache that’s now starting to pound with a vengeance. 

“Anything in the archives that would give me a clearer picture of what I should expect?” she asks, knowing that he’s made it his personal mission to break in at least once a week. 

“Clan marriage traditions generally aren’t written down for outsiders,” Shikamaru speaks up. “Especially the founding clans. They tend to keep their stuff in the house unless they’re arranging marriages between clan heirs or clan heads.”

“Does that mean you have information to give me, Shikamaru?” she asks hopefully.

She deflates a second later when he shakes his head.

“Nope. You want Nara traditions, I can tell you,” he says. “Yamanaka...they’re actually the most secretive of the three of us. They don’t share them with anyone but other clan heads and with mom still the head of the Nara for at least another six months, I won’t get read in anytime soon.”

Sakura groans, “Great.”

A thoughtful look crosses Naruto’s face. “Tsunade-oba-chan might know,” he says. “She’s been the head of the Senju clan for years. I think Shizune-nee mentioned something about a Yamanaka proposing to oba-chan a little after Dan died-”

“Yamanaka Toru, he’s Ino’s granduncle,” Sakura says.

She knows his name and story well. Yamanaka Toru is still alive, though he hasn’t been an active shinobi since the day he asked her shishou to marry him almost thirty years prior. He’d been forced into retirement after Tsunade nearly killed him - something that he, thankfully, appears to bear her no ill will for.

“Yeah, him.” Naruto nods. “Although, I can’t remember if Shizune-nee said that oba-chan tried to kill Toru for attempting to propose so soon after Dan died or because she was offended that he was the second son of the Yamanaka clan head at the time.”

Sakura is willing to guess that it was a combination of both. She may have been born into a civilian family, but even she knows how offensive it would be for the second child of a clan head to offer marriage to another clan head.

“Alright,” she exhales harshly, “looks like I’m talking to shishou then.”

She grabs a blank scroll on her right and starts writing. After a few moments, she hands it to Naruto.

“What’s this for?” he asks, confused.

“A B-Rank mission for you,” she says. “You’re to-”

“‘Buy the most expensive bottle of sake in the village and bring it back to Hokage Tower,’” he reads, then glances at Shikamaru. “Uh, ne, Shikamaru, doesn’t this count as an abuse of power?”

Sakura clears her throat. “See these?” She asks, motioning to a small pile of paperwork to her left. “These are all the marriage proposals that arrived while we were at the summit. I call them a diplomatic clusterfuck because no one bothered to tell me that the rest of the world thought I was married .”

Naruto and Shikamaru both share a wince.

“If I’m going to be talking to shishou about clan marriage traditions, then I’m going to end up having to talk about my relationship with Ino,” she says. “Knowing shishou, she’s going to ask me questions about our sex life-”

Shikamaru groans.

“And I’m not about to do that sober. Got it?”

Dual nods. 

“Great. Now, Shikamaru, help me sort my paperwork. Naruto, get me that sake,” she orders.

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru grumbles without any real heat.

“Ne, Sakura-chan, can I charge the sake as a Tower expense?” Naruto asks on his way out.

Sakura shrugs. “Why not?”

He cheers and sprints down the hall.

(We’re going to regret that, Inner says).

“You’re going to regret that,” Shikamaru says.

“Probably.”

-

Tsunade-shishou does not ask her about her sex life.

Instead, she eyes the bottle of sake in Sakura’s hand and tilts her head with an amused grin on her lips.

“Alright, brat, what’s on your mind?” she asks in lieu of an actual greeting.

Sakura uncorks the bottle and pours them each a cup. Then, without waiting for Tsunade to take the first sip, she immediately downs her own cup before going for a second pour.

The second one goes down just as smoothly as the first. She’s not drunk or even buzzed (having trained under Tsunade herself, it will take a truly ungodly amount of alcohol for that to happen), but she does feel the slightest bit looser.

“Shishou,” she starts, “what do I need to know about clan marriage?”

There’s a cough from Shizune that has Sakura furrowing her brow. It turns into a frown when Tsunade-shishou lets out a long sigh and hands over a fifty ryo note to Shizune.

“You couldn’t have waited another two weeks before asking me that?” Tsunade complains without any real heat.

Sakura stares. “You were betting on me proposing to Ino?!” she eventually sputters out once her brain manages to reboot.

“Me and the whole damn village at this point,” Tsunade grouses out. Then, she smiles. “Okay, brat, what do you want to know?”

Sakura returns the grin. “Everything.”

-

Tsunade does tell Sakura everything as she remembers it. She may have been out of the village for a better part of a decade, but there are some traditions that Konoha’s clans will never change.

Each custom, Sakura learns, reflects what the clan values. The Uchiha value battle and thus require a prospective suitor to battle the clan head. The Nara require that the one seeking a clan member’s hand outwit their prospective spouse in a game of hide and seek.

“And the Yamanaka?” Sakura asks.

“Vulnerability and protection,” Tsunade replies. “Give your wife your weakness and offer the clan a means to protect itself.”

Her eyes turn to steel.

“Whatever you do, do not lie to the Yamanaka,” Tsunade warns, voice grave. “Or you will find an enemy for life instead of a wife.”

Sakura nods. “Understood, shishou.” She bites her lip. “Is it true that the Shodaime removed his armour in front of Mito-dono when he proposed to her?”

She sees Tsunade blink at the seemingly random question. “He did,” Tsunade says slowly. “Why, are you looking for another way to emulate my late grandfather?”

Her eyes sparkle, telling Sakura that Tsunade is teasing her.

Sakura smiles. “The Haruno were samurai, once,” she says simply.

According to the legends of her clan, that display had been what secured the loyalty of the Haruno clan to Konoha. As a people who were rarely parted from their armour, the Haruno understood the magnitude of that display and what it said about Hashirama as a person.

She sees understanding dawn on Tsunade’s face.

“Well then,” Tsunade eventually says, eyeing her, “I suppose we should see if his armour will fit you.”

Now it’s Sakura’s turn to blink. “Wait, what?”

“A samurai needs armour, don’t they?” Tsunade raises an eyebrow.

They do, and Sakura does. If her parents were still alive, Sakura would ask her father for his armour. He would give it to her and they would resize it together. Her mother would help her put it on whilst reciting the history of their family. None of those things will happen now. Her father's armour was destroyed when the house was razed to the ground during the Crush and her parents have been dead for five years now.

“I can’t take his armor-” Sakura tries.

She knows how precious the Shodaime and Nidaime’s belongings are to her shishou.

“You’re not taking it,” Tsunade cuts her off. “I’m giving it to you.”

“Shishou-”

“Sakura,” Tsunade sighs. “I will never have children. You and Shizune are my legacy. Allow me this.”

Sakura feels the fight leave her when she hears the unshed tears in Tsunade’s voice. She wonders if her shishou is thinking about Nawaki. Would he have worn the Shodaime’s armour if he lived long enough to marry?

“Okay, shishou,” she says. “Okay.”

-

The Shodaime’s armour doesn’t fit.

Sakura is slightly disappointed by this until Tenten catches sight of her in it and offers to resize it for free. Sakura tries to pay, but Tenten isn’t having it.

“You’re the Hokage,” Tenten says.

“I’m still a shinobi,” Sakura protests. “I should have to pay like everyone else!”

The Haruno were samurai once. Even after they became a clan of traders and merchants, they never forgot the importance of paying a fair price to those that crafted the tools that they used. Though the clan had dwindled by the time that Sakura was born, she had learned from her father that same lesson.

Sakura wonders if Tenten knows that, because she sees her eyes narrow.

“Consider this my wedding present to you then,” Tenten says shortly.

That’s one way around the Haruno honour. It may be bad form to not pay, but it's even worse to refuse a gift.

Still, Sakura protests, “Ino hasn’t even said yes yet!”

Tenten gives her an unimpressed look. “You really think she’ll say no?”

Sakura shrugs. She hopes not, but their argument from earlier in the week is still fresh in her mind.

Tenten sighs. “And people wonder why it took you two so long to get together,” she mutters.

(Inner howls with laughter).

(Sakura only feels slightly offended).

-

As different as the traditions of Konoha’s clans are, there is one ritual that they all share: the prospective suitor must present themself to the clan whose member they wish to marry. Not even the Hokage is exempt from it.

(Even if she was, Sakura would still present herself anyway).

Sakura walks to the Yamanaka compound - a place that is less a compound and more a sprawling neighbourhood situated between the civilian and shinobi districts. She keeps an even pace with Tsunade to her right; Naruto and Sai are at her left, although Sai is positioned slightly behind that of Naruto. The positioning of all of them is a statement: Tsunade is the closest thing she has to a mother now, Naruto and Sai are her brothers.

Two squads of ANBU - led by an agent with a Kitsune mask - are at her back. Their presence has a two-fold purpose: to protect the Hokage and to remind Konoha that the Haruno were samurai who once commanded armies of their own.

She draws stares as she walks. She thinks that half of them are because of the people flanking her sides and back. The other half are because of the armour that she wears; no one forgets the sight of Senju Hashirama’s armour, even if it is sized to fit a woman almost eight inches shorter than him.

Sakura finds that walking in armour is odd. She’s not used to making so much noise with each step, nor is she used to weighing so much; medical ninja have to be light on their feet and quieter than infiltrators in order to get to their patients without being noticed in the middle of a battle. She doesn’t mind it, though. It makes each step of hers purposeful. As an added bonus, the weight itself is rather grounding.

By the time Sakura arrives at the main Yamanaka house, word has clearly reached them if the crowd of Yamanaka clansmen is anything to go by. Sakura regards them all with feigned indifference until she catches sight of Ino at their head and feels herself choke on her own breath.

Sakura raises a hand in a fist to signal to her people to stop.

“You ready for this, Sakura-chan?” Naruto asks quietly.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she mutters back before turning her attention to Ino, who has since stepped forward.

“Nanadaime-sama,” Ino greets.

“Yamanaka-sama,” Sakura returns.

“You come dressed for war,” Ino says. “Do you seek battle with my clan?”

There they are, the opening words. This is the last chance that Sakura has to turn back. She doesn’t take it, though. She’s come too far, both figuratively and literally, and waited too long.

“No.” Sakura takes a deep breath and steps forward. “Honoured Yamanaka Clan Head, I come not to seek battle, but instead to make a request.”

“A request?” She sees Ino raise an eyebrow.

Sakura bows low. “Honoured Yamanaka Clan Head, I request permission to enter your grounds and join your people.”

She kneels, pressing her forehead to the dirt road. “I seek acceptance,” she continues, “from the Yamanaka Clan and the blessings of its gardens.”

Sakura is aware of the significance carried by both her words and actions. The Hokage does not need permission to enter a clan’s grounds in their own village, and they only bow to the Daimyo and their fellow Kage. To be the Hokage and do both, to bow before a clan head and ask to enter their lands, speaks volumes.

She hears Ino step closer.

“And what,” she hears Ino say, “do you have to offer us?”

Thanks to Tsunade, Sakura knows that the question is a trick. It contains an unspoken component that aims to measure the sincerity of a suitor.

She sits back and meets Ino’s eyes. It’s a calculated move, looking into her eyes. There are three clans in Konoha whose eyes you do not meet: the Uchiha, the Hyuuga, and the Yamanaka. To meet the eyes of any of them is done at one’s own peril.

Sakura smiles. Then, as Senju Hashirama did in front of Uzumaki Mito almost a century prior, she removes her armour.

She lets the shoulder guards drop first. Then she pulls off her chest armour and lets it crash to the ground. She brings her hands to the knot holding her hita-ate in place on her forehead and unties it, never once letting her gaze waver from Ino’s. It too hits the ground.

“I offer my hands for your gardens and the forest to your people.” Sakura brings her head to the ground again. “To you, I offer my mind.”

Gasps ring out from many of the Yamanaka. To them, the mind is a thing of contradictions. It is the strongest organ in the body but also a shinobi’s greatest weakness. To offer one’s mind to a Yamanaka is to give them everything you hold dear. Nothing will be secret between them.

She keeps her eyes on the ground even when she hears Ino’s knees meet the dirt. She doesn't lift them until Ino's hands are on her face. 

She meets Ino's eyes, blue as the sky and shining like the sun. There are tears that Sakura would normally panic at the sight of, but she doesn't because Ino is smiling. 

Sakura keeps her eyes on Ino's as Ino reaches down to pick up the fallen hitai-ate. She stops breathing when Ino leans forward. 

She doesn't cry when Ino brings the hitai-ate to her forehead. She doesn't cry when Ino reaches behind her to tie it in place. She doesn't cry when Ino sits back and places her hands back on her cheeks.

She only starts to cry when she feels Ino's chakra brush against her. It feels like springtime, just like Ino. 

(Crybaby, Inner snarks).

(Sakura ignores her because Inner is sobbing too).

“I welcome you to Yamanaka ground,” Ino says. “Your secrets are mine, my gardens are yours.” 

“Your people will always find refuge in the forests,” Sakura recites. 

“Your mind and all its secrets shall find safety with me,” Ino says. 

“Your gardens will flourish under my hands,” Sakura finishes. 

They aren't wedding vows - those will come later. These promises that the two of them have crafted over the years, promises whose roots were planted the day Yamanaka Ino saw a crying girl with pink hair and decided that she needed a friend.

The kiss that brushes across Sakura’s lips is chaste. Sakura would pout at how brief it is, but she knows why Ino keeps it brief; for someone who’s seen as a social butterfly, Ino is remarkably private when it comes to her relationships. That kiss is for everyone around them. Anything deeper will be for the two of them alone.

“Would you like to stay tonight and join us for a meal?” Ino asks.

“Would you like to stay forever?” Sakura hears a Yamanaka elder shout from the crowd.

Tsunade snorts behind Sakura.

A red flush creeps up Ino’s neck. “Hana-oba!” she growls.

“Don’t Hana-oba me, girl! You have the Hokage on her knees in front of you! Make an honest woman out of her already!”

Sakura can see the mortification on Ino’s face and decides to intervene. She leans to the side to get a look at the impish elder who isn’t hard to miss with a grin on her face that reminds Sakura of Tsunade.

“I’m working on it, Hana-oba-sama,” she says.

“Don’t encourage her!” Ino hisses.

Hana cackles. “Oh, I like you.”

Sakura sees the outrage forming in Ino’s eyes. She squeezes Ino’s hands before the blonde can snap at the older woman.

“I would like to join you for dinner,” Sakura says. “May my people join yours?”

She watches Ino blink in confusion at the question.

(Will Sai have a home here? Inner asks because Sakura can’t ask the question herself in front of so many people).

Ino’s eyes widen. “Of course,” she says, smiling. “Your people will always have a home here, if they wish.” 

Sakura feels Sai’s chakra flutter behind her.

Ino holds her hand out. “Shall we?”

Sakura takes it, fighting back a grin when Ino pulls her up with ease.

(Okay, that was kind of hot, Inner says).

(Please, for the sake of our ancestors, behave , Sakura groans).

Ino must be listening out for Inner because her cheeks turn pink. She coughs, likely to keep herself from verbally responding to the voice that only she and Sakura can hear.

“Is curry okay?” she asks instead.

Sakura grins. “It’s perfect.”

“Good,” Ino says, moving so that she’s somewhat behind Sakura, “because it’s your turn to cook dinner tonight anyway.”

Sakura can’t help it. She laughs at Ino’s words because just like that, the tension in Sakura’s shoulder bleeds away.

She sees Ino’s lips twitch into a smile. “Let’s get inside, I’m sure your people would like to warm themselves by our fires,” she says.

“We welcome your hospitality,” Sakura replies.

She still knows where they are. The traditions and rituals do not end until they’ve crossed the threshold of the house (their house, Inner murmurs) together.

The two of them make their way towards the house with Ino half a step behind Sakura. 

(She's not lesser than us, Inner grumbles. She should be next to us).

Ino's hand settles on the small of Sakura's back, almost as if it's a response to Inner's remarks.

"I have you, Haruno-sama," Ino says.

Haruno-sama, not Nanadaime-sama or Hokage-sama. The message in Ino's words is clear: she will protect her future wife regardless if Sakura is the Hokage or not. 

Sakura swallows back a lump in her throat. She knows why Ino has addressed her as such but it doesn't sting any less. It's just another reminder that she is currently a clan of one, both the last Haruno and the last Haruno clan head. 

"Thank you, Yamanaka-sama," Sakura says without looking behind her.

That too is another move with a statement, her way of making it clear that she finds the protection satisfactory.

(She’s always done that, protect us, Inner says quietly).

She has. Ino has always had her back one way or another.

Sakura shifts ever so slightly as she walks so that she can press herself into Ino’s touch on her back. 

Ino’s chakra brushes against her in response.

-

Planning a wedding when you’re the Hokage and your fiance is the head of a Founding Clan is harder than fighting a god, Sakura finds. At least when she fought a god, she punched said god in the face. Between her usual responsibilities that come with being the Hokage and all the attention that planning a wedding requires, Sakura is exhausted. She does her best to power through it, but when she starts signing paperwork with a rushed drawing of a cherry blossom flower, Shikamaru sends her home. 

(She pretends to not notice that he has Naruto tailing her ANBU to make sure that she gets home safely).

When she gets home, Ino is already in bed. 

Sakura faceplants next to her. “Tadaima,” she mumbles into the covers.

She hears Ino giggle. “Rough day?”

Sakura rolls over so that she can look at Ino. Her fiance (the word sends a thrill through her still) has a warm smile on her face.

She reaches up to brush a hand against Ino’s face. “We should just elope,” she says.

Ino snorts. “You’re already dealing with one political firestorm. You want to deal with another one on top of that?” she asks.

“No,” Sakura pouts, “but I don’t want you to have to deal with this headache.”

By all accounts, Ino is dealing with this better than Sakura is. But Sakura can tell that it’s wearing on Ino, if the lines on her face and shadows under her eyes are anything to go by.

Ino shifts so that she can lay down and place her head on Sakura’s chest. “It’s not a headache for me, Forehead. I actually kind of enjoy the logistical planning part,” she says.

“Hah,” Sakura chuckles lightly. “That’s true.”

An easy silence settles over them. Sakura absently rubs Ino’s back as she listens to the blonde’s breathing.

“I still need to order armour,” Sakura says quietly, breaking the silence. “I tried to have Naruto place an order for me at TenTen’s smithy, but apparently she has so many other orders that if she’d accepted it, she wouldn’t have it finished in time for the wedding.”

Her and every other smithy in Hi no Kuni, from the sounds of it. 

“You’re not going to wear the Shodaime’s?” Ino asks.

“No. It was…fine to propose in,” Sakura says, “but I don’t want to get married in it. I can’t.”

She knows that Tsunade likely wouldn’t have a problem if she got married in it, but the Shodaime’s armour is not Haruno armour. It’s been sized to fit her, but it will never be hers . It will always be the Shodaime’s and whilst Sakura knows that people have called her his second-coming, she doesn’t want to be seen as him.

“If my parents were still alive, I would wear my dad’s armour, but…” she trails off. 

She feels Ino squeeze her hand. “I’ll figure something out, Sakura.”

Sakura raises her head to glance at Ino. “Ino…”

Her words die in her throat when she feels Ino press kisses along her jaw. 

“Let me worry about it, wife,” she hears Ino murmur.

Sakura grins lazily. “Not your wife yet.”

Ino’s chuckles. “Tell that to the rest of the world,” she husks.

Sakura’s grin widens, but she otherwise remains silent so that she can enjoy the feel of Ino’s lips against her skin.   

“Ancestors,” she sighs, “I love you, Ino.”

She feels Ino smile against her throat. “I love you too, Sakura.”

The tension in Sakura's body bleeds away. She allows herself to drift off with Ino still trailing kisses across her skin.

-

It’s the night before their wedding when Sakura comes home to a set of armour in their bedroom. 

It takes a minute for the sight to fully register with Sakura’s brain, but when it does, she feels her heart stop. 

“Dammit, I was hoping to catch you before you got upstairs,” she hears Ino mutter behind her.

“Ino, what is that?” she asks.

She can practically hear the blonde’s eyes rolling. “Armour, Forehead,” Ino deadpans.

“But where…” Sakura trails off.

Where did it come from? The set is clearly handmade and brand new. There’s no way that it came from any of the smithies in Hi no Kuni because as far as she knew, none of them had the availability to craft such a set at the moment.

(Maybe she put the order in before we proposed? Inner suggests).

Sakura inhales when she feels Ino wrap her arms around her waist. 

“I asked TenTen if she would make you a set for our wedding,” Ino says.

Sakura’s brow furrows. “But she told me she didn’t have the availability to make a set before then,” she says.

In fact, Naruto told her that TenTen had said that if Sakura wanted a set of armour, she should’ve put the order in six months ago.

“Yeah,” Ino draws out, “she lied. And she also got the rest of the smithies to lie as well because she took point on the order.”

So that’s what Ino meant when she said that she would figure something out.

Sakura doesn’t know if she should be annoyed or impressed by that. “But why?”

“Because one who marries into the Haruno Clan is expected to provide armour to their spouse, as proof that they will protect them,” Ino replies. “At least, that’s what Hana-oba told me.”

“You’re a clan head-” she tries to protest, only to fall silent when Ino presses a kiss to her cheek.

“I’m marrying another clan head, Sakura,” she points out. “You can’t seriously expect me to not follow your clan’s traditions after you’ve followed mine.”

Sakura bites her lip. In all honesty, she didn’t expect Ino to abide by the Haruno wedding traditions. She knows that few shinobi clans are willing to lower themselves by observing the traditions held by civilian clans. The Haruno were samurai once, true, but they are civilians now and she is a clan of one. 

“Besides,” Ino continues, “I wanted you to have something that was yours.”

(Ancestors and spirits of the Founders, we don’t deserve her, Inner says).

(We don’t, Sakura agrees).

“Do you like it?” Ino asks, suddenly sounding nervous.

(Like it? Inner demands. We-)

“Love it,” Sakura finishes. “I love it.” 

The overall design speaks to the traditional samurai armour worn by her ancestors, rather than the armour today. Unlike her ancestors’ armour though, this set is obviously designed with a shinobi’s movements in mind.

Sakura glances over her shoulder. “Will you help me put it on?”

She can’t stop the blush that rises to her cheeks as she asks. It’s an intimate request to make - akin to asking Ino if she can wash her hair when they bathe together. Ino clearly recognises that, because her cheeks turn pink.

“Of course,” Ino says.

They step out of the doorway and into the room. 

“Do you know how to get it on me?” Sakura asks as she sheds her haori.

“Tsunade-sama walked me through it,” Ino replies, removing the armour from the display form. “It’s bottom on up, though, right?”

Sakura nods. “It is.”

That’s how her father had put his on. It was also how her mother had done it when they’d had Sakura try her father’s armour on.

She lifts her arms so that Ino can tie the haidate in place around her waist. She raises an eyebrow when she feels her chakra sink into the metal.

“Chakra metal?” she asks.

Ino nods. “TenTen said it would be attuned to your chakra. She mentioned how it’ll end up making the armour feel lighter or something.”

It already feels lighter. Sakura remembers the weight of her father’s armour on her small frame. His haidate had nearly brought her to her knees from the weight alone. 

Sakura shivers when Ino places kisses along her wrists before sliding the kote up her arms. Her mother had done the same for her father.

For luck, her mother had said when she kissed Kizashi’s left wrist. 

And for protection, her mother had added, kissing Kizashi’s right wrist.

“For luck and protection,” she hears Ino whisper.

Sakura swallows back tears at the words. It’s an old Haruno superstition, kissing a loved one’s wrists as you armoured them. It’s supposed to be a way to catch the attention of the ancestors and remind them that the person you love has someone waiting for them at home. 

(Wonder how she knew it, Inner muses).

“Tsunade-sama mentioned that Mito-dono would do it to Shodaime-sama after she noticed the Haruno samurai on her guard doing it,” Ino explains. “I figured I would too, but if you don’t want me to-”

“No.” Sakura shakes her head. “No, you can. I just, I wasn’t expecting it.”

The last people who had kissed her wrists had been her parents and that had been right before the Chunin Exams. She’d had no idea at the time that that would be the last time either of them would do that.

(We would’ve kissed their wrists before the Crush if we had known, Inner says quietly).

She lifts her arms again so that Ino can slide the chest plate on her. She chances a glance down and feels her breath stutter in her chest.

The Haruno circle is on full display.

She doesn’t know how she missed it before. The sight of it makes the armour on her body feel real, more so than the weight of metal and cloth pressing on her body does.

“This is your armour,” Ino says. “Yours. It’s the Yamanaka’s gift to the Haruno clan, a gift from the Yamanaka Clan Head to her wife.”

Sakura watches Ino take a deep breath. 

“It’s my promise to protect you and that I will always have your back in one form or another.” Her eyes meet Sakura’s eyes. “I have you, Forehead.”

Sakura surges forward and presses her lips to Ino’s. This is the kiss that they won’t share for anyone but themselves: passionate like the rivers that rage to the north of Hi no Kuni and firm like the forests of Konoha. It’s a deeper expression of what they whisper at night when their bodies are slicked with sweat and their chests are heaving from hours of lovemaking.

I love you.

I'm here.

I will always have you.

“Give me your hand,” Sakura whispers once they break apart. 

“What?” Ino looks confused.

“Your hand. I,” Sakura swallows, “I want to attune my armour to you.”

She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s already offered the greatest weakness a person could to Ino, but this? This is the greatest offer she could make as a Haruno. Ino may be able to help her put the armour on, but she can’t help Sakura remove it. Right now, the clasps will only come undone by Sakura’s hand and chakra. If Ino adds her chakra to Sakura’s armour the way Sakura wants her to, then she will have Sakura’s life in her hands whenever Sakura wears this armour.  

She closes her eyes when Ino presses her forehead against hers. 

“Are you sure?” she hears Ino ask, voice soft. 

Sakura opens her eyes. “You’ve always had me,” she whispers. 

If Ino didn’t, Sakura never would have offered.

“Okay.” Sakura keeps her eyes on Ino’s even as she hears Ino’s hand skim against the metal of her chest plate. She imagines that she can feel it moving to settle over her heart. “Okay.”

Sakura places her hand on top of Ino’s. “Just a little bit of chakra,” she tells Ino. “I’ll take care of the rest of it.”

“Okay.”

Sakura feels Ino’s chakra flutter under their joined hands. It feels like a spring breeze - comforting and fresh and so uniquely Ino that it makes Sakura smile. She adds her own chakra to it and pulls them both across the metal covering her chest.

It’s an odd sensation, Sakura thinks, to feel chakra carving through something that you’re wearing. It doesn’t unnerve her like she thinks it would because she knows that the chakra running alongside hers means no harm. She flicks a glance to Ino’s face and notes that the blonde’s face is flushed.

(Is ours like that? She wonders).

(Inner's soft laugh is the answer she receives).

She doesn’t know how long it takes before the sound of her armour latching shut reaches her ears. She is breathing heavily and so is Ino, although Sakura doubts that either of them are breathing that way because of exhaustion.

“So…” Ino drawls. “Did it work, Forehead?”

Sakura moves their hands so that Ino’s is touching the clasps, then drops her own. “You tell me, Pig.”

She bites back a gasp a second later when she feels Ino’s chakra flare against her side and across her chest.

The latch comes undone with a click.

Sakura lets out a breath she hadn’t realised that she’d been holding. 

Ino’s chakra flares again. This time, Sakura feels it brush across her mind. She presses her forehead against Ino’s once more.

(Thank you, Ino murmurs. I love you).

(We love you too, Inner says for the both of them).

Sakura brings a hand to Ino’s face and places another kiss on Ino’s lips, softer this time. Her lips twitch into a small smile when she feels Ino kiss her back.

-

Naruto and Sai walk her down the aisle. 

It’s not her original plan; Tsunade-shishou and Tenzou-sensei were the ones who were supposed to be on either side of her. Then, Naruto found out that Shikamaru and Choji were going to be walking Ino down the aisle and insisted that he and Sai do the same for Sakura.

Her knee jerk reaction had been to say no, but now that she’s staring down the aisle with them by her side, she finds herself thankful that she said yes.

“You ready, Sakura-chan?” Naruto asks, voice low.

“Would you believe me if I said that I’ve been ready since I was six years old?” she mutters back.

“I can,” Sai says.

“Good, because it’s the truth.”

Even when she had been chasing after Sasuke, Ino had always been in her thoughts. 

(It’s always been her for us, Inner murmurs).

“Let’s do this,” Naruto says. “After you, Haruno-sama.”

He’s grinning as he says it. Sakura would roll her eyes if she didn’t feel so touched.

Sakura takes the first step forward. Naruto and Sai follow half a step behind her, staying to her right and left, respectively. 

They draw stares as they make their way down the aisle. It reminds Sakura of the day that she proposed to Ino. Weeks ago, the people of Konoha had stared at her because of the armour that she wore and the people at her back. Now, they stare for the same reason but this time, no one in the crowd has any idea who to focus on.

Sakura knows that the three of them make an interesting sight together. Naruto draws eyes and rumbles with the old set of Uzushio armour. The Uzumaki swirl is prominent on his back whilst his shoulders carry the Haruno circle - a design choice that marks him as her brother.

(The armour is a gift from Sakura, who found it buried in the archives. He teared up when she gave it to him, because his mother had worn a similar set when she first arrived in Konoha all those years ago. When Tenten offered to resize it for free so that he could make it his, he broke down sobbing).

Sai’s armour is plainer compared to either Sakura’s or Naruto’s. It's a dated standard issue set that was popular during the Second War - basic yet functional - but whispers still break out all the same at the sight of the emblem on the back: the Haruno circle with the Yamanaka bush clover inside of it.

(His petition to use both clan symbols before the wedding had ruffled more than a few feathers within the Yamanaka. Ino had ultimately granted his request, but not before first putting him through a wall.

My brother’s name was Fu, she told him. Danzo killed him the same way he killed Shin.

I can’t bring him back , Sai told her from his position on the ground. He could paint her a million pictures of the man, but he could never bring back what she lost.

I know. The sad smile on her face told him that she truly did know. You aren’t him. But you will stand for him because you came back).

Sakura's armour draws the most eyes with its blood red colour and white circle painted on the front. Whispers follow as her pure white jinbaori flutters in the breeze as she walks. There are cherry blossom petals embroidered along its hem and upon its back is the Haruno circle with the Yamanaka bush clover nestled inside. Unlike her boys, whose hair lays as it always does, Sakura's hair is tied up and held in place with tama kanzashi that once belonged to Uzumaki Mito.

(The tama kanzashi are a gift from Naruto, who said that she and Ino should have at least one thing on them that matched. Sakura cried when he gave them to her).

“Haruno Torii to Haruno Ise,” Sai mutters quietly as they walk. “Haruno Ise to Haruno Hachigen-”

Sakura’s breath sutters in her chest. “Sai, are you-”

He stops whispering. “Am I doing it wrong?” he asks. 

(No, Inner says softly).

“No,” Sakura echoes. “No, you’re doing it right.”

He gives a small nod, then resumes, “Haruno Hachigen to Haruno Hiyori-”

“Haruno Hiyori to Haruno Shinji,” Naruto says, obviously catching on to what Sai is doing.

“Haruno Shinji to Haruno Kensei,” Sai continues. 

Sakura keeps her eyes forward, ignoring the burn of tears rising in the corners of her eyes as Sai and Naruto continue to recite the names of Haruno clan leaders. She had wondered why she received a report that both Naruto and Sai had broken into the archives. Now she knows: they broke in to do this, to know the names of her foremothers and forefathers and recite her lineage as is customary of the Haruno.

(Those are our boys, Inner says).

(Yeah, they are, Sakura agrees).

She had expected to make the walk in silence with only the leaves and the spirits of her ancestors to whisper the history of the Haruno clan. Trust her boys to shatter that sad expectation.

“Haruno Kuna,” Naruto’s voice snaps Sakura from her revere, “to Haruno-”

“K-Kizashi,” Sakura stutters over her father’s name. “Haruno Kizashi to Haruno-”

“Sakura,” Sai finishes.

“This is the line of the Haruno clan, reduced but unbroken and remembered,” Naruto says evenly, like he’s spent ages memorising what to say. “They were warriors once-”

“And we shall continue to be warriors until our children no longer have a need to remember war,” Sakura finishes.

That was why, despite not being a shinobi himself, her father hadn’t died at home during the Crush. He had died in the streets of the civilian district with a sword in his hand and his wife at his back as they tried to get their neighbours to safety. They had succeeded, but they hadn’t been able to escape themselves before Orochimaru’s summon crashed through the civilian district.

Sakura takes a shuddering breath. “You both have no idea what this means to me,” she says quietly.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spots Sai’s smile. It’s shy and small, but genuine. 

“This is what family does, is it not?” he asks.

She nods ever so slightly. “Yeah, it is.”

His smile gets wider. It makes Sakura smile.

(Emotionless tool my ass, Inner grumbles).

(Danzo was a fool, Sakura says).

She doesn’t realise she’s leaking killing intent until Naruto discretely elbows her in the side. 

“Might want to rein it in, Sakura-chan, otherwise the civilians might think that you’re going to kill your future wife,” he mutters out of the corner of her mouth.

Sakura takes a deep breath. “Thanks, Naruto,” she says.

“What frustrates you, Sakura-chan?” Sai asks, voice as quiet as Naruto’s.

(Danzo trying to use our girl as a human shield, Inner growls).

“All the people here. We wanted a private ceremony but…” she trails off with a sigh. “We should’ve just eloped.”

“You’d be dealing with a whole different political shitstorm,” Naruto says matter-of-factly.

Sakura smiles. “Ino said the same thing when I mentioned it to her.”

“She’s wise,” Sai notes with a nod.

“It was a joke, I wasn’t serious about eloping,” she mutters.

(You totally were, Inner says).

“Naruto’s jokes are better,” Sai says.

Sakura keeps her eyes ahead despite the urge to give him a withering look.

Naruto lets out a small outraged sound at the backhanded compliment. “Oi, my jokes are-” 

“Stow it,” Sakura orders. “We're here.”

Both of her boys fall silent.

Sakura climbs the three short steps onto the dias, stopping only when she reaches Tsunade and Tenzou.

“Shishou,” she greets. “Tenzou-sensei.”

Both of them each carry a framed photo of her parents in their hands - her father in Tenzou's hands, her mother in Tsunade's.

Tenzou sighs. “Maa, Sakura-chan, you shouldn't call me sensei anymore. You're the Hokage and-”

“And you'll always be my sensei,” she cuts in. 

He was a better teacher than Kakashi was. For that, she will call him sensei until one of them dies.

Tsunade laughs at the put-out look on Tenzou's face.

“She's Naruto's teammate,” she says. “It's obvious she gets that from him.”

Tenzou sighs, put-out look vanishing to be replaced with a smile. “Well, I can't argue against the past and present Hokage, especially when one of them is a bride today,” he says.

Sakura returns his smile as three bells clang, signalling the arrival of the other bride.

“You really can't,” she says. 

-

Ino is breathtaking.

There’s no other way to describe it.

“Ne, Sakura-chan, you’re drooling,” Naruto whispers.

“Shut up,” she grumbles, but brings a hand to rub her face anyway just in case. 

“Ino-san is worth looking at,” Sai chimes in quietly.

(She really is, Inner says).

Sakura hums her agreement with both Sai and Inner because it’s true. With her pure white shiromuku and red uchikake catching the sunlight perfectly, Ino looks like the goddess Kaguya desired to be. From the distance that she’s at, Sakura can just make out the cherry blossoms and bush clovers embroidered across Ino’s uchikake. A top Ino’s head sits…

(There’s no way, Inner says in disbelief).

“Naruto, is that Mito-dono’s kushi?” she asks under her breath.

“Ino-chan’s gonna be family,” is his reply.

So that was why he had said that she and Ino ought to have at least one thing that matched - he’d given Mito’s kushi to Ino.

“I thought that Mito-dono’s kanzashi were considered national treasures,” Sai muses.

They are. 

Naruto shrugs. “I’m an Uzumaki and her great-grandnephew through Tsunade-oba-chan.”

That’s…a stretch, but Sakura doubts that anyone was willing to challenge him on it. She would, if only because she enjoys seeing how his mind works, but she doesn’t have the time or the chance to do so because Ino is climbing up the steps with Shikamaru and Choji by her side.

Sakura flinches when Naruto elbows her in the side, more from surprise than pain.

“Remember to breathe, Sakura-chan,” he hisses.

“It will look quite poor if you collapse on the altar before the wedding has commenced,” Sai adds.

“I hate the both of you,” she grumbles.

She doesn’t even have to look at either of her boys to know that they have cheeky grins - or the closest approximation of one, in Sai’s case - on their faces.

“Sakura,” Ino greets, a warm smile on her face.

Just like that, Sakura’s irritation bleeds away. “Ino. You, you’re more beautiful than a cosmos,” she stutters out.

She sees Ino blush. “You can’t make me cry before we’ve said our vows, Forehead,” Ino says. “Shika’s mom worked way too long on my makeup.”

Sakura almost calls bullshit because Ino wears the barest of makeup, save for a bold red lip that Sakura wants to kiss and a light dusting of blush. Then, she catches Nara Yoshino’s eye behind Ino and the eyebrow that rises in challenge, and backs down. She recognises the look that Yoshino gives her. It’s the same look that her own mother would give whenever Sakura tried to raise a challenge that she stood no chance of winning.

(Shit, now I get why Shikamaru’s terrified of his mother, Inner says).

Instead, she leans forward and brushes her lips against Ino’s cheek, pointedly ignoring Tenzou-sensei’s cough. 

“Apologies, Pig,” she murmurs.

“You’re lucky my mom’s just out of hearing range, otherwise she’d kill you, wedding day or not, Sakura,” Shikamaru groans.

“It’s all right, Shika,” Ino reassures him.

A throat clears to Sakura’s right.

It’s only her years as a shinobi that keep Sakura from startling. She glances over to see the priest overseeing the wedding.

“Hokage-sama,” he greets, bowing slightly in respect. “Yamanaka-sama.”

Both Sakura and Ino offer shallow bows in return.

“Are you both ready to proceed?” he asks.

Sakura and Ino trade small smiles. 

(We’ve been ready since we were six, Inner snarks).

“We are,” Sakura says.

“Very well.” He nods. “Haruno Sakura, who stands with you?”

“Uzumaki Naruto and Yamanaka Sai, my brothers in every way but blood,” she responds firmly. 

She will not have anyone ever question their presence by her side, especially not on her wedding day. Naruto and Sai are her boys, her brothers. 

“Senju Tsunade and Tenzou,” she continues, “stand for my parents, who themselves stand amongst my ancestors and the spirits of Konoha’s Founders.”

“Very well. Yamanaka Ino,” his voice is sharp, “who stands with you?”

“Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Choji, my brothers in every way but blood,” Ino says. “Nara Yoshino and Akimichi Chouza stand for my parents, who like the parents of my wife-to-be, stand amongst my ancestors and the spirits of Konoha’s Founders.”

Her voice is strong, but Sakura can see the grief in her eyes. She wants so badly to take Ino’s hand and give it a comforting squeeze like she always does, but the ceremony keeps her hand still. She lets her chakra brush against Ino’s instead, as a way to offer the comfort they both need without words.

“Let this ceremony be seen by the heavens then, so that the gods may share in your grief on this day,” the priest says, “and let us commence this union before them so that they may also share your joy.”

There’s something laughable about the priest invoking the gods before her, Sakura muses. She punched a god in the face to save the woman standing next to her, after all. Besides, Sakura doesn’t hold to Konoha’s gods; her family may have been with Konoha since its founding, but they have held to the spirits that they carried from Uzushio since before it fell.

She doesn’t wait long to tune the priest out. His words mean very little in the grand scheme of things. If she and Ino had their way, they would be married in the Yamanaka gardens with only their friends as witnesses instead of in public before all of Konoha. 

Sakura feels Ino’s chakra touch her mind as the priest continues to drone on. It's subtler than usual - meant more to attract Sakura’s attention than to fully touch her consciousness - but it has Sakura raising an eyebrow in a question that goes unseen by everyone but Ino all the same.

It takes a few more barely perceptible flutters of Ino’s chakra and a tiny, fond grin on Ino’s lips before Sakura finally catches on.

She glances at Ino. To anyone else, it’s a shy look given by a nervous but eager bride. For Sakura, it’s a way to catch Ino’s eye.

Sakura lets the world fall away as soon as her and Ino’s eyes meet, extending a mental hand towards the blonde who takes it without hesitation. Soon, it’s just the two of them standing in a field full of cosmoses.

“You could imagine any place, but you always seem to think of this one,” Ino notes. “Why?”

“Because we fell in love with you here,” Inner answers from behind them.

Ino startles slightly but Sakura doesn’t. She knew that Inner was lurking; different as they are, they’re two sides of the same coin, after all. This is Inner’s vision as much as it is hers. 

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

Sakura looks over in the distance when a younger version of Ino’s voice reaches their ears. She finds a younger version of herself and Ino sitting amongst the cosmos, caught up in their own little world much like she and Ino are now. The girl that Sakura once was, the civilian girl with pink hair whose strength was only supposed to be her test scores, looks absolutely besotted by the younger blonde.

“Don’t mind me, Ino-chan,” Inner says with a teasing smirk on her lips. “I’m just here to keep an eye on things while you two get lost in each other's eyes.”

“Is that what people think is happening?” Sakura asks, curious. 

“I dunno.” Inner shrugs. “Inton makes time move differently in spaces like this. It’s why I’m keeping an ear out, so that you two can pull yourselves out when you need to.”

Sakura nods whilst Ino reaches a hand out for Inner. She sees Inner blink, but nonetheless takes Ino’s hand.

Ino squeezes Inner’s hand, then pulls her close to press a kiss to Inner’s forehead. “Thank you,” Sakura hears her whisper.

Sakura can feel phantom heat on her cheeks - the only sign that Inner is blushing. She looks away, if only to give the two of them the illusion of privacy, and directs her attention back to her younger self.

Her younger self is smiling now whilst a younger Ino chatters on about something Sakura can no longer hear. She doesn’t know how much of what she sees is a memory and how much of it is wistful thinking, a way to clamp down on the regret over how much time she and Ino wasted fighting for Sasuke.

Sakura jumps when Ino wraps an arm around her waist, but easily settles to lean into the embrace. 

“We were cute as kids,” Ino muses.

I was cute, Pig,” Sakura scoffs without any real heat. “You on the other hand?”

She lets the question hang in the air, drawing a small noise of outrage from Ino.

Sakura chuckles and kisses the side of Ino’s head. “You were beautiful.”

She feels Ino bury her face against her neck. “I’m going to be so red by the time the ceremony is over, Forehead,” Ino complains, but Sakura can feel her smiling.

“You can always blame it on all the layers you’re wearing,” Sakura points out.

Ino hums, snuggling closer. An easy silence settles between them as they watch their younger selves interact. Their younger selves are still giggling, trading nonsensical conversations that Sakura and Ino can’t hear.

“They look happy,” Ino says quietly.

“They do.” They are happy because Sakura had been happy at that age. She and Ino both had been happy then.

“Do you ever…” Ino starts, then trails off.

Sakura raises an eyebrow. “Do I ever what?”

“Wonder about what things would’ve been like if we hadn’t fought?” Ino asks. “Do you think we would’ve stayed like them?”

She nods towards the two children still playing amongst the flowers as Sakura remembers them.

“I did, once,” Sakura says truthfully.

It had been the day that she and Ino had broken off their friendship in the name of pursuing Sasuke. She had awoken in a field full of Ino’s favourite flowers and cried until her whole body ached.

“Just once?” Ino asks.

“I couldn’t ask for the ribbon back,” Sakura says simply. “And then we fought and you handed me my hitai-ate like it was that ribbon and…”

And Sakura had fallen in love all over again. 

Sakura exhales. “I don’t think about the what ifs because I can’t change them,” she says. “The most I can do is move forward and thank my ancestors and the spirits of the Founders for giving me a second chance with you.”

Ino is silent for the longest time. Then, just before Sakura can start to get nervous, she hears a soft, “I wondered for a while. Then I found you that day in the Forest of Death and decided that I wasn’t going to wonder anymore.”

Sakura kisses the side of Ino’s head. “We were pretty dumb when were younger, weren’t we?” she teases. “Cute, but dumb.”

Ino scoffs. “Excuse me, you were the dumb one. I dressed like Sasuke to get your attention and it didn’t work.”

Realisation dawns on Sakura. “So that’s why you started wearing the arm warmers,” she mutters, more to herself than to Ino.

She doesn’t even have to look at Ino to know that Ino is rolling her eyes. Whatever Ino is about to say in response is cut off by Inner reappearing.

“The old temple geezer’s finished talking. Might wanna back head out,” she says.

Sakura nods in acknowledgement, then glances at Ino. “Ready?” she asks.

Ino’s hand slips into hers. “I’ve been ready since I was six, Forehead.”

Sakura grins, then kisses Ino gently. “Funny,” she murmurs against Ino’s lips, “so have I.”

-

“-seal this union, blessed by the gods as it is, and join the clans that have accompanied Konoha since its founding.”

Even before the words have fully registered with her ears, Sakura finds herself biting her tongue. It isn’t the gods who have been kind enough to bless her and Ino; it is their ancestors and the spirits of the Founders that have been kind. 

(To be fair, we did punch a god in the face, Inner points out).

“Haruno Sakura,” she straightens when the priest directs his gaze towards her, “your oaths.”

Sakura takes a deep breath, then reaches for Ino’s hand. She ignores the scolding noise that the priest makes. Instead, she keeps her focus directly on Ino. 

“Ino, weeks ago, I promised you my hands for your gardens, my forests for your people, and my mind to you,” she starts. “Now, not only do I continue to promise those things, but I vow to be here for as long as the forests of Konoha are deep, to love you, and that I have you.”

She knows that her promises sound odd to those that don’t know her or Ino, if the priest’s face is anything to go by, but she doesn’t care. All that matters to her is that Ino understands what she’s saying and the truth’s built into her words: that the only thing that will keep Sakura from Ino is the Shinigami himself.

(And even then, Sakura might still come out on top).

She squeezes Ino’s hand and lets her chakra flow between them. Slowly, thin vines wrap around their joined hands. A few moments later, morning glories, forget-me-nots, zinnias, and bluebells bloom along the vines holding their hands together.

Sakura doesn’t miss the tears sparkling in Ino’s eyes.

“I have you,” she says again. 

Always.

She doesn’t say it aloud because whilst her ancestors and the spirits of the Founders may be kinder than the gods, Sakura and Ino are still shinobi and their lives are full of uncertainty. She will say the word in silence, in whispers made in a darkened room with Ino by her side, but she will not say it in front of others. She is a god puncher, not a fool.

The priest clears his throat when it becomes apparent that Sakura is finished. “Yamanaka Ino, your oaths.”

“Sakura, I promised you that your secrets would find safety with me and that you and your people would always find refuge with my clan,” Ino says, voice steady and strong. “Now, not only do I continue to promise these things, but I vow to be by your side for as long as the forests of Konoha are deep, to have you as you have me, and to love all of you without hesitation.”

Sakura feels her heart stutter in her chest at Ino’s words. She can read underneath the underneath of what Ino is saying and hears what goes unsaid: that Ino’s love and promises extend to Inner. Ino will protect Inner the way that she protects Sakura.

“I have you,” Ino says.

There’s another disgruntled noise from the priest, who is obviously annoyed by their cryptic promises and vows to one another. It’s clear to anyone with eyes that neither woman cares about his annoyance because their words are for each other and no one else.

“Haruno Sakura, do you take Yamanaka Ino to be your wife as the Sage took his wife?” he asks.

Sakura nods. “I do.”

“Yamanaka Ino, do you take Haruno Sakura to be your wife as the Sage took his wife?”

Ino nods. “I do.”

“Do you both vow to share your joys and sorrows together and live a peaceful life with each other?”

“We do.”

He nods, the barest hint of approval on his face. “Then with the gods as heaven’s witnesses and the people of Konoha as yours, I pronounce you married.”

The priest has barely finished speaking before Sakura surges forward to kiss Ino.

Later, Ino will help Sakura remove her armour and Sakura will ask to wash Ino’s hair. They’ll fall into bed together and Sakura will whisper her thanks to her ancestors and the spirits of the Founders in between kisses to Ino’s heated flesh. She’ll hold Ino close as Ino falls apart underneath her, relishing the way Ino’s nails dig into her back, and repeatedly tell the blonde that she loves her. She’ll try - and fail - not to cry when Ino flips their positions to trail gentle kisses down her body and eventually, they’ll fall asleep together as the sun rises over Hokage Rock, more content in each other’s arms then they ever have been.

But that will be later.

Right now, Sakura wraps her free arm around Ino and kisses her with everything that she has. Even with the tears running down her cheeks and the salt that she can taste on Ino’s lips, Sakura decides that this kiss is perfect.

Because it is.