A/N: Shoujo ai, shounen ai, and . . . um, boy-girl ai? ^_^;; Eh-heh . . .

Anyway, spoilers for the chuunin exam and following events. Set before the Sound's Four get up to their tricks- probably while Itachi is looking for Naruto and a bit before he gives Sasuke his spanking. InoSaku, with a teeny bit of implied NejiLee/HinaKiba- and some NejiHina friendshippy-ness on the side, because I like that. ^_^



"Three Bouquets"



"The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all." ~ Mulan




Ino cuts the head off a half-wilted rose.


There go the leaves. She dispassionately watches them fall, like the little orphans of autumn running away from home a few weeks too early.

Hinata is standing on the other side of the counter, watching her with a troubled expression in her blank-paper eyes. Neji is behind her, watching the leaves as they settle next to the rose.

Ino looks at her decapitated flower- though it's not a flower now, just a stick of thorns- and wonders just what the hell she thinks she's doing here. Sasuke doesn't like her. Sasuke will never like her. And Sakura will never forgive her.

That hurts the most.

She watches through dull eyes as Hinata "rescues" the rose's leaves and head, asking, "C-can I please h-have these, I-Ino?"

"What for?" Ino asks tonelessly.

"I-I th-thought I c-could dry them," Hinata stammers nervously. "For po-potpourri, m-maybe. S-Since you d-don't w-want them . . ."

"Whatever." Ino reaches for the next flower. She feels like destroying something beautiful. If that weird Hinata wants to be stupid and try to make something out of the pieces, that's her problem.

Ino's fingers close around a branch and she pulls it free of the mess of flora in her parents' vases, scissors already halfway to it.

It is from a sakura tree.

She palls slightly and pauses. She had forgotten that they were blooming right now.

How could she have forgotten?

"Um, I-Ino," Hinata begins, tapping her fingers together anxiously, "c-can we b-buy something?"

"What do you want?" Ino asks in that same dull voice. This time, though, there is an undercurrent of pain to be found in it, if you know where to look. Hinata and Neji both do.

"I'm going to visit Lee is in the hospital and make sure he doesn't kill himself trying to get better," Neji tells her, his own voice truly blank. "And that loudmouth Kiba," he rolls his eyes, "managed to get into a scuffle with someone else he couldn't handle. So we're bringing them get-well-you-idiot gifts." Hinata giggles a little and then looks guilty for laughing. Neji just gives her a wry look.

Ino returns the branch to its vase and considers the idea. After a moment, she disappears among the aisles of the shop without a word, coming back a moment later with two bouquets- one huge and loud and violently colored; the other a smaller, carefully controlled riot of white petals and green leaves.

"Kiba," she says, hefting the first. "Lee." The second.

"Th-thank you, I-Ino," Hinata says with a faint smile, taking Kiba's. "T-they're perfect." Ino shrugs neutrally.

"Very nice," Neji agrees with an even fainter smile of his own as he accepts Lee's.

"I'll ring you up," Ino replies with a yawn. She can't bring herself to care today, not really. Even receiving a compliment from the usually dispassionate but always sexy Neji isn't enough to stir her. Besides, he's been nicer since Naruto kicked his ass in the chuunin exam anyway.

She is kind of curious, though, as to why Neji and Hinata are here together. Everyone had heard Neji's opinions on the main branch of the Hyuga family during the exam.

Of course, they'd also heard Naruto's promise to change the Hyuga too, and it seemed that Neji had been listening carefully to that part.

"Your h-hair l-looks nice, Ino," Hinata says softly.

"Liar," Ino accuses. Hinata flinches and Neji glares. Ino ignores him and names the price, collecting their combined money. Hinata puts up most of the money but Neji doesn't tense up. This is progress.

"They are nice flowers," Neji murmurs while Ino counts out the change.

"I suppose," she replies neutrally, and gives the change to him to spite him.

But he is Neji and he does not spite quite so easily. He just passes it to Hinata and she accepts it silently, having no interest in beginning the fight they are going to have later about it. Disgraced or not, Hinata is the heir and gets a far better allowance than Neji, who lives on a frayed shoestring budget. And maybe she doesn't like to fight, but that doesn't mean she'll just roll over.

Hinata's stubbornness is a strange thing.

Ino wants to talk to Sakura about it. It and a thousand other things.

"Th-Thank you v-very much, Ino." Hinata goes to leave and Ino watches her hips move under her clothes. The all-seeing Neji raises an eyebrow and Ino keeps staring after Hinata for a moment, feeling a brilliant flush rise to her cheeks.

"Hinata!" she blurts as a lot of things suddenly make sense. The other girl pauses and Ino sees the deliberate tilt of her hips.

She knows.

After all, she has the Byagukan. She can see everything.

"Y-Yes?" the ruin of an heir asks curiously, and Ino knows that Hinata is looking right at her even though she's facing the opposite way.

"I'm in love with Sakura, aren't I," Ino says, feeling a strange certainty steal over herself. Remembering things she's said that aren't really things "just friends" say.

Hinata shrugs very slightly. "I d-don't know," she replies slowly. "M-Maybe you should ask Sa-Sakura that?" With that, Neji touches her shoulder and they both leave. Again, Ino wonders why they're getting along so well nowadays.

Then she gets out the sakura again and starts looking for complementary flowers.

She has a very complicated apology to give and figures she may as well stack the deck.



* finale *



. : if i had a flower for each time that i have thought of you, then i could walk forever in my garden : .