At the end of the day, the Yamanaka flower shop would be sold out of their entire stock of fresh flowers. They were renowned for the high quality of their bouquets, and there was no one who knew more of the meaning behind flowers than Yamanaka Ino herself. She had the uncanny, unrivaled intuition to pick out the right flowers for her customers, perfectly matching their intentions; sometimes with a little nudge or wink: Ino was also quite curious.
As usual, she was sweeping the floor and cleaning up to prepare the store for tomorrow’s arrival of new stock, and she made sure to rinse the vases, scrubbing the rims. The only thing left to do was to swipe the counter, lock down the register and take the money out for safekeeping at home. There wasn’t much criminality in Konoha due to the high concentration of shinobis, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Ino was hungry; by the time she’d be done at the store, her mother would’ve finished dinner. Just in time! She was really in the mood for something to eat, it had been a busy day…there was only one customer left and maybe it was impolite to already start cleaning up in her presence, but Haruno Sakura always dawdled at the end of the day and Ino had stopped thinking of her as a customer a long time ago.
She had advised the girl what kind of flower to buy when Sasuke had been hospitalized, but Sakura hadn’t spend another ryou in the shop since… since forever. Sasuke had left, and she had never bothered to buy flowers for her other teammate, Naruto, who had also left. Both of them were gone, off in search for one another..in search for that what they needed to gain, to become. Stronger, tougher, better…because only men thought in terms of strength, of pure raw power, and not in terms of endearment, emotions.
What were her emotions at seeing Sakura dawdling at the shop, when everyone else had left, when there were no flowers left? She wasn’t feeling sadness or pity. Sakura wasn’t to be pitied. Her eyes were lively, brilliant even, and her lips were curled up in a smile, not wistful, but vibrant. She stood up straight, not slouching, and her voice was filled with genuine concern or happiness, depending on the situation.
She could’ve fooled everyone. Anyone. She was fooling everyone. Ino knew better. Naruto knew better, but he wasn’t here now to say something about it. He made her a promise of a lifetime, to bring Sasuke back…back to Konoha, where he belonged. Where he would accept flowers from her, and this time, without his usual grunt, but in gratitude.
Who was she fooling but herself? How could she judge Sakura for fooling everyone, when she all but did the same? Sakura was no fool. She did what she had to do, to survive, to gon with her life. She didn’t have the time to stand still and pine over him, far away, far out of her reach - it was no secret that she was training under the Fifth Hokage, and Tsunade-sama was known for her rigid methods. Maybe that was all that was keeping her together - her training, her study of medical ninjutsu, the lack of time to keep thinking of Naruto, just as much as Ino was putting so many hours into working at her parents’ store to forget about Sasuke. Forget? No, she could never forget. Her mind was taken off of it, his defection, his betrayal… she shuddered lightly. He was an S-rank missing-nin now, and who knew what was happening to him, what he was doing…
It was hard to define her feelings, it was hard to read Sakura’s feelings. For all that they had picked up their friendship again, rekindled it after the Chuunin exams, it would be a lie to say that their relationship was smooth and effortless. There was this strain, this constant presence of tension, and Ino wasn’t sure if it was because of Sasuke, or Naruto… she was just working at the store, training with her father in-between to perfect her mind-transfer-technique. Every now and then she went on a mission with her teammates, but ever since Suna and Konaha were allies again instead of adversaries, it had been quite peaceful between the nations.
Everyone was growing and aging. Ino knew she wasn’t as strong as others. She would never surpass Sasuke, Naruto, Lee, any of the Hyuuga’s, or maybe Sakura, for that matter. Their Chuunin exam was settled into a draw. If they were to repeat it right now, Ino wasn’t so sure if that would happen again…and she didn’t like to be a loser. She had her own specialties, just like everyone else. She had accepted that they were still rivals, but friendly-rivals in an ironic kind of way, not the bitter rivals they used to be when they were still fighting for Sasuke’s attention.
“Sakura,” her voice rang out, “it’s almost time.” Just a few more minutes before she would actually leave the store. For some reason, Sakura always acted in the store as if she had all the time in the world, her composure calm and collected. She was turning towards Ino, who knew and expected what was coming - a brief hug. They had developed this small gesture in the recent months, quite extraordinary for two people who didn’t have the best of friendships with each other, let alone touchy-feely personalities. The other girl had been the one to take the initiative; she had simply slipped her arms around Ino, breaking up the hug as quickly as she had initiated it. Ino had blinked, dumbfounded, and Sakura had left with a wave of her hand, smiling, wishing her a good evening.
Strange, Sakura was holding her arms up high instead of… Ino saw that she was holding a small bouquet of roses and wondered briefly when Sakura had actually picked them. She was so used to see Sakura in the store that she barely paid attention to what she was doing. Funny how people could make the transition to other rituals so soon, strange that people were strong enough to bounce back no matter what happened, sad that life went on as if nothing had happened…and the mind was still stuck in the past, thinking of the loved ones that had left.
Times were different now. Sasuke was gone, Naruto was gone. Sakura and Ino weren’t the girls they used to be during the Chuunin exams anymore. Time had moved on and stood still for them at the same moment. What had changed about Sakura, dawdling in the store with a bunch of roses pressed against her chest, as she had dawdled here before, carefully picking out daffodils? She kept her worries to herself, making everyone believe that no, she wasn’t pining over Sasuke or Naruto, making all of Konoha think she was a strong girl, on her way to become a strong woman, capable and independent.
They would both step up when duty called, but would they both step up if their heart…called out?
“How often do you think about him?”
The question shouldn’t have taken her aback, but Ino carefully waited with her answer until she knew her voice wouldn’t crack. It was a weak spot, not likely to heal up anytime soon.
“Not much,” she lied. “People move on.”
Sakura showed her smile again, but this time it was different. A knowing smile. I know you’re a fool. I know I’m a fool.
“You’re growing your hair again.”
As if stung, Ino moved her hand up to touch the long strands, her fingers raking the blond tresses. She didn’t flinch or blush; she knew Sakura had simply stated the truth.
“I just like my hair long.” Voice curt this time, and her fingers clenched around her broom. Did she really think she could defend herself against Sakura with something as weak as a broom? How could she defend herself against words anyway?
“I miss him so much.” Sakura’s voice sounded smothered, thick. She kept staring at Ino, the roses still clutched in her arms. The thorns are scratching her bare arms. Ino bites her lip. It’s been so long, and even though she was never a member of Team Seven, it still feels personal. She never had the opportunity to be up close and personal with Sasuke like Sakura had, but is it really Sasuke the other girl is talking about? It confused her, and the broom shifted around in her hand, almost dropping it.
The next second, Sakura wrapped her arms around her. Ino never saw her move and she almost flinched, gasping in shock. Did they really have much of a chance? To be with any of them, those who went away, those who had left them? Could it still be an infatuation, or a lingering fragment of what once used to be love? Another shiver, and Sakura tightened her hold on her. Another gasp, for breath.
“They will be back.” Her voice held the confidence she wasn’t feeling at the moment. Would they? Would they really come back to this, this place, after all they had gone through? Ino shook her head. This is Konoha. A ninja is tied to their country, to their city. She would always come back here. To home. To the flower shop. To Sakura.
It hardly mattered who started it. The modest, chaste hug in the beginning was what it all started, but as the rose petals caressed Ino’s face, she knew that it was another step, another moment in time. Away from Sasuke perhaps, but closer to her friend again. Her friend who cut her hair short to escape an enemy’s grasp, her friend who was prepared to give her life and everything more, just to keep him next to her, close to her.
In a way, they’re both losers and fools, even though they would never say it out loud. How much loss is there, if there’s still the chance that he’ll return? They’ll both return? The lights have died in the store, her mother hadn’t called out for dinner yet, but Ino is on the floor, her breasts exposed to the chilly temperature of the empty store, but she won’t be feeling any of the cold. Sakura’s lips, warm as melted honey, pressing against her skin, is taking every chill away. The roses are strewn everywhere, the petals raining on her bare abdomen.
She used to call her ugly, and made fun of her wide forehead.
She used to call her ‘Ino-pig”, and ignored her.
Sakura rolled over, on the floor, tugging Ino on top of her, her quick fingers snapping the tie of her ponytail, and the long strands flow over her shoulders.
“I like long hair too,” she muttered as both her hands moved up to cup her breasts, fingers gently stroking the sensitive skin.
“I’ll grow it much longer,” she answered as a tear slipped down her cheek.