Title: Vanilla, Oleander, Devotion
Summary: Sometimes it's just a matter of one day after another.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. Much abuse of Bob Dylan's and Fiona Apple's lyrics.
Vanilla, Oleander, Devotion
1. You're A Big Girl Now
That Baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
When she was a kid, there were times when Ino thought she'd do just about anything just to get Sakura to be her friend again.
It's six years down the road, and nothing's changed.
On the surface, though, that doesn't seem to be the case. On the surface, Ino has Sakura and she doesn't remember a time when Sakura was ever in love with someone else. Back in the days, she would certainly never have dared imagined that the time would come when they would share an apartment and sit across each other at the dinner table and make love every night in a narrow, plaid-sheeted bed. In this sense, maybe she has it all wrong and maybe everything has changed. Maybe she can even bring herself to stop hoping for the day – maybe today, even – that Sakura would turn around in bed to greet her good morning and suddenly her face would be all highlighted and lit up with that shy, hesitant smile that would remind Ino of nothing so much as a tear-stained girl with shaggy bangs curtaining her overlarge forehead from long, long ago. Never mind that said girl has long since grown up, a big girl all the way.
Maybe what she really needs to do is not expect anything – certainly not anything as cliched and soppy-sappy as "I love you just the way you are."
Because that sure damn well isn't going to happen. Not today. Not any day.
This is what Ino knows: Every morning, she fixes herself up in the bathroom mirror, doing her lips, piecing together the intricate components of her outfit, pulling strands of stray hair into place. Fluffs the ruffle, tightens the bow. When she emerges, she always looks immaculate, which is ironic and sort of fitting when you think about it. A self-effacing contradiction.
But inside, Ino is an ogre. She paints over her boils and scales with pots of expensive rouge, covers the stench with sweet-smelling scents. If it were ever to emerge, if she ever failed to hide the marks, she knows it would all be over; Sakura would never love her again. Ino doesn't think she can stand that. Doesn't matter that what they have between them sometimes doesn't seem like all that much, too little too late, like a kiss and a band-aid covering the bullet hole, broken umbrellas lying upturned in a rainswept street, like caressing your loved one as they lie in a satin-lined coffin and knowing you'd never reach them, not ever again. None of that matters, because it's something, only a little but not nothing, a light at the end of the tunnel, weak and flickering but it's there and it gets her through the day. Human beings can endure just about anything as long as they can see a conceivable end to it.
If Sakura knew, then there wouldn't even be that much. But the thing is Ino knows this too, and that's got to count for something. To her, it counts a lot.
2. These Things First
And your long-time curse hurts
But what's worse
Is this pain in here
I can't stay in here.
Sakura knows the reason she always falls for broken people is because she's one of those over-romantic people who prefer to look for water in the desert even if there's a sparkling spring right down the block. When she was younger, she read fairytales in old leather-bound books and believed them. The Prince would always come. The Princess would be rescued from her crumbling tower. A kiss, that's the fairytale way, and she believed it was true.
These days, it just seems like a matter of one day after another. When it's good, it's fantastic, unbelievable, breath-taking and resplendent, better than any storybook tale can rightly claim. Sakura loves, and she is loved, and it seems like nothing can go wrong. Ino is flawless when she wants to be, which is most of the time, and when Sakura pulls her body into her own and kisses the hollow of her neck, she's intoxicated by what she smells there: vanilla, oleander, devotion. Ino sits up for hours watching her sleep, tracing intricate patterns on her skin with the tips of her fingers. She makes splendid meals, everything gorgeous and fragrant and sizzling hot, because Sakura never could cook a thing worth salt. She always remembers the important dates, comes up with the right gifts, delicate, elaborate hand-made things – dollhouses out of hair pins, pot-pourri made from fresh, blood red rose petals, little favors between the sheets. When it's good, Sakura even stops questioning the purpose of Ino in her life.
So she tries to tell herself that, even when it's bad, it's not completely horrible. There's someone else – there might always have been – and Sakura has known this for some time because she knows that just as she is a romantic then Ino is one of those other people. Different. Perhaps it's even medical. It's like you're looking at all the trees and she's not even in the forest.
She tries to tell herself she can deal, do the selective memory thing, forget about waiting for the other shoe to drop. Pretend that all the suspicions are fantasies and that's it's normal to imagine seeing Ino's pink lipstick on everyone she sees on the street. Dealing and smiling and putting up a good front while the space between them grows and the relationship becomes more and more crowded as the people that used to meander indistinctly in the background start slipping in through the cracks. She can do that much, as long as the fifteen feet square of their apartment remains untouched, the plaid sheets undirtied. Within those boundaries, she is happy, living through a series of beautiful sun-swimmy summer days, and that might even be enough.
But one day, Ino comes home at 2am in the morning and collapses into bed next to Sakura. As she leans over to kiss Ino, still groggy from being woken up, she smells it. The smell of a man's groin. It's there, steeped in the long lustrous rope of Ino's hair, that hair she's always liked to brush out in the morning, whose true silky length she learned one pale rainy Sunday afternoon, running her fingers through it like water. The stench of another man in her bed, and she knows Ino has crossed the line. She has brought her dirty business into the four walls of their sanctuary, into Sakura's little sacred haven. The one unforgivable thing, and she's done it.
It's time to call it quits.
3. Just Like A Woman
A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I'm going out of my mind,
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart.
Ino is in shock. She has always been so careful, always washing herself up religiously after each time, even taking care to clean and iron her clothing before she gets home. But her hair. She forgot that. She couldn't believe it. Now it's too late to do anything about it.
In the end, not enough comes to nothing at all.
It's twelve days after Sakura walked out on her that Ino ventures out for the first time. It's a drizzly night, cold and dark, the kind of rain people write about in bluesy songs, the kind that makes you want to stay in and light a fire and curl up with someone who loves you. If you had someone. Ino doesn't anymore. She doesn't particularly want to go out tonight either, but she's got to be doing something to force her body out of the bed-shaped lump it's turned into and to be moving. So she puts on her good boots and goes.
She's walking down Main Street, fast and solid, strutting in her blue denim skirt and chic pointy boots like a woman on a mission. Except the funny thing is she's got nowhere to go – it's the idea of movement, the idea of being free in her own body and doing what she wants that keeps her on her feet. After awhile, even that seems a little ridiculous.
She thinks about going down to one of her favorite haunts, a tiny café a little way off. They have good coffee there, her favorite kind of roasted beans, and for awhile back when she was going through that bistro phase, she liked the scones and cream you could get there too, never mind that they were bad for her figure. She thinks that she might like it there, just to get out of the rain.
But then she remembers that Sakura loves that place too, that she sometimes goes there just to study, that she might even be there right now. Ino doesn't want to run into her: she couldn't stand to be rebuffed again. None of it seems very likely, but the vague possibility of an encounter's enough to blow the steam off the good idea.
She walks by the club. It's the old club, the one she used to frequent back when she lived alone. She's alone now, and the bouncers would probably still recognize her, still let her in for free, most likely. Maybe that's what she needs. To lose herself in the crush of bodies, slick skin, wet whispers in her ears, words that mean nothing. It's easier than you'd think, falling back into a habit, and that's both reassuring and terrifying. Already she can taste the strong bitter burn of cheap alcohol sliding down her throat, and she thinks her hips are moving to a half-remembered rhythm – she hasn't forgotten much.
It's only when she's taken the first step towards the club entrance that she sees the vibration for what it is: a full-body shudder.
She turns around and stumbles down the sidewalk, stopping only when she has to lean against a wall and throw up. It's too hot suddenly, she has to loosen the collars of her shirt – maybe it's just her. Running her fingernails down the seams of her skirt, a blind panic rising at the back of her throat, a black wave, and then she's sinking to her knees in the gutters and vomiting again.
As she's wiping the bile from her lips, it suddenly occurs to Ino. Even through everything else that's happened, she has never felt so guilty as she does in this moment. Now, when Sakura's left, when everything is over and too late, or should be. Actions do not matter after all – nothing more than motions in time and space. Betrayal begins with a thought.
With this revelation, she begins to formulate a plan.
4. What A Cruel Thing To Pretend
When you're lost in the rain in Juarez
And it's Eastertime too
And your gravity drops
And negativity don't pull you through.
It feels odd to wake up alone. It's strange to wake up and know that she's alone and that there's no one in the kitchen making omelets and whistling off-key to the tune of the latest pop drivel. Instead, there's just the steady hum of the heater, a grey, prosaic sound that smacks of winter and howling wind. The world, in its cold way, comes alive when people feel like being dead.
The first time Sakura makes coffee for herself, she ends up making too much of it. She drinks it all anyway. Her mother would have scolded her for letting things go to waste.
Some people like to surround themselves with the paraphernalia of their failed relationships. Music boxes, photographs with the faces cut out, cardboard boxes full of mixed records that don't belong, carefully caught regret. Sakura hasn't got anything to remind her of Ino. They never even took a picture together. She thinks it's better this way.
She does remember, though, that her favorite part of Ino was always her little wrists, thin-boned and delicate, the skin so white and smooth and clear that the blue of the veins beneath stands out. Perfect, those wrists. Deceptive wrists. They make you think there's nothing wrong at all, like the person they belong to really is as pure and innocent as the fair, fair skin would have you believe. A normal person, instead of a beast masquerading under a good girl's stolen hide.
A kiss won't be enough this time. So much for the fucking fairytale way.
It might have worked if she could just convince herself that Ino was really, truly sick. A terminal case, perhaps. Incurable, in spite of all her best effort and medical expertise – that might mollify the hopeless romantic in her. Dead, even, because then she can grieve for her and move on.
Lately, Sakura's picked up the disconcerting habit of talking to herself. She started doing it when she woke up one morning and was petrified by the strange landscape of her empty house, broken floor, cracks in the furniture, the walls closing in on her. It was cold, so she turned up the heat and put on a sweater. The jumper was old, moth-bitten, and coming loose around the cuffs, and for a moment she thought she would too, would pull and pull at herself until she came undone, unraveling in rolls of yarn. Her throat was parched, but she wasn't thirsty.
Outside her (not) home, however, it's always a go-go nonstop flow. She throws herself into her work. It's actually kind of therapeutic. Workaholism becomes her. By the time she's sent the third intern running from the surgery room in bawling hysterics, Shizune decides it's time they had a little chat.
"Guys trouble?" the older woman asks sympathetically. What irony, Sakura thinks bitterly. Shizune should be the last person in the world to ask her that question. She feels like answering in her most matter-of-fact voice, "My problem is that for the second time in my life I've left the person who makes up my other half, and now everything's turning to shit." She doesn't though; it's too close to the truth.
"You should take some time off," Shizune continues. "Get out and do something. It's not good to be cooped up for too long in this place. You haven't taken a field mission in awhile, have you?"
Undoubtedly, all this will somehow make it back to Tsunade. It leads to Sakura opening her front door two days later to find Ino standing there, pale-faced, the mission scroll clutched tightly to her bosom like a shield. She even looks a little contrite, grey eyes dull and sorry. Not sorry enough. Sakura would have expected her to be devastated, completely shipwrecked and destroyed with guilt. In fact, she actually looks good. Still the same thin thighs, big eyes, peachy breasts, that edge-of-adolescence prettiness that drives men crazy. It's painfully irritating.
"What do you want?" Sakura demands coldly.
Ino flinches, like the words burn her. She opens her mouth, then closes it quickly. She looks like a fish gulping dumbly like that, taking up squares of Sakura's dry, bitter air. Sakura hates her then. She imagines Ino opening her mouth again, and instead of pearls, snakes and scorpions will come spilling out, falling around their feet. That's in the fairytale, too. After all these years back and forth, she has all the words memorized by heart, lodged in her throat like a slice of poisoned apple.
Her eyes light on the scroll. It's business, as usual. She can deal with that at least.
5. Shadow Boxer
Love is so simple, to quote a phrase,
You've known it all the time
I'm learnin' it these days.
It's a dinner party, and they are on the guest list. The men dress in crisp, ominous black suits and drink fine champagne and walk around congratulating each other in loud, obnoxious voices. The women wear lurid make-up and spread their legs. Ino's got her elegant silver gown hiked up to her mid-thighs, hanging in weird folds against her body, and she's curled up in one of the men's lap, straddling him loosely, giggling into his ears.
Across the table from them, Sakura sits with her hands knotted tightly together in her lap, back straight and rigid. Ino sneaks a glance, and notes with satisfaction that Sakura looks just like the picture of her that Ino keeps in the treasure chest of her mind, helpless, weak, a collapsed pedestal. Cast in plaster-white and frozen into place, with the spotlights on her.
When their eyes meet, Sakura doesn't turn away. There's nowhere to turn, really, every other place in this room looks the same. She might as well keep her eyes on the one familiar face. This is good, Ino thinks. Everything is going according to plan. With her eyes, she tries to convey her message, the one she's carefully constructed and rehearsed, over and over, in the dark hovel of the apartment they used to share, mouthing the words in a crazed frenzy, swallowing them like a punishment while the pieces of her life fall around her. It made her feel a little better.
Look, Sakura. Open your eyes and look.
The man under her is talking a lot, laughing. She says something that doesn't mean anything and he laughs again. This is how it always goes. The target triumphs over the attention, feeling like the center of the universe, shooting their mouth off and waxing indiscreet while she's a million miles away. It's a coping strategy that makes everything bearable. Shadow-boxing in reverse.
It's only you. It's always been just you.
She's thinking about Sakura. She's always thinking about Sakura. Every minute of every hour of every day. She's the only thing Ino's ever wanted, the only thing she's ever lost. It's not really healthy, she will admit. Maybe it's even a problem. Like maybe waking up in the middle of the night trembling and pulling a still-groggy Sakura into her arms because she dreamt she had disappeared isn't something normal people do. But the plan. It's got to work. It's her last length of rope. She doesn't dare to think about what would happen if it should break.
And Sakura… she thinks Sakura might be beginning to understand. Her face is still frozen and starkly white, but there's a strained look to it now, like she might be starting to feel uncomfortable beneath Ino's steady gaze. Maybe she's finally got it. Ino starts to smile.
Then some drunken guest – some nobody – puts a hand on Sakura's waist, and she sees red.
6. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.
Sakura clings to Ino's limp body, clasping her cold clammy hand, until the orderlies throw her out and close the ward door firmly behind her. She's refused to let the other medics clean up her cuts and scrapes, preferring to let them bleed and fester. Maybe soon they'll turn into scabs that she can pick at, to complement the black, itching mess inside her chest.
Hours pass. She's still comatose on the visitor's bench outside the emergency room when Shizune walks by, doing her round. Shizune's not a very emotional woman at the best of times, but she sits down beside Sakura and puts a tentative arm around her, rocks her gently like they're not sitting on a bench in a hospital corridor. Shizune smells like moth balls and anesthesia: solid. She tells Sakura to go home and get some rest.
Sakura nods and gets up, but instead of going home, she goes into the bathroom and washes her face, slapping cold water against her purpled cheeks. The shock is startling. She studies her reflection in the mirror, the flood of fluorescent light pouring across the sharpness of her cheekbones, turning her face into a pale, washed-out blur. Devastated, completely shipwrecked and destroyed with guilt.
Suddenly, all the strength leaks out of her body. Her knees buckle. She reaches for the edge of the sink to support herself, misjudges the distance and falls, hitting the floor in a crumpled heap. She tugs into herself and begins to shake. She thinks she might hyperventilate, she's such a mess, it's such a bad day, bad year, bad life. All the poison, all the vitriol of her anger and cruelty starts welling up, burning a hole through her stomach like sulfuric acid, like a clawed baby fighting its way out. She wants to cough up whatever strange fruit that has lodged itself in her throat, turning her heart and all the thoughts in her head to venom.
Earlier, she watched in numb shock as Ino launched herself across the banquet table and attacked the man who had his hand on Sakura. She got him in one slash of her kunai, but the bodyguards were on her in a blink. She was magnificent, beautiful and glorious, moving as though the fight were a dance and she were the only person in the room. That had always been the way with Ino, Sakura realized with a jolt. She always had to fight and hustle her way into the limelight, into the heart of Sakura's world.
She was doing wonderfully, holding off three shinobi at once, but the fourth was too much for her. The man smashed his fist into Ino's solar plexus, doubling her up like a pocket ruler. She went down, down, thrashing about on the floor. Sakura was still frozen to her seat, even though the room had broken into pandemonium, and as she stared at Ino's livid, gasping face, it was as though she could feel the pain in her own body, feel the struggle to get back her breath even through all her terror. It shot through her: the terrible, agonizing pain which was present all the time but nevertheless could not be suffered yet, because before everything else it was necessary to be able to breathe. It was that sensation that knocked her out of her dumb shock, and then she was moving too, fighting through the mass of writhing bodies, chakra and tooth and nail. She went down a few times, struggled back onto her feet and fought on. By the time she dragged the last enemy off of Ino, she was already unconscious, her face contorted and bloody.
Her body is beginning to register the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. Slowly, she pulls herself to her feet, fixes her disheveled clothes, and goes back into the hallway.
This time, when she knocks on the ward door, the nurses let her in.
Ino's lying on the bed, tubes and wires curling around her limbs. Her body looks thin and waif-like, swallowed up in the white cotton sheets. The only sound in the room is the ominous periodic beep of the monitor. They've taken away the oxygen machine, at least.
Ino's face is a mess, all puffy and swollen, blotchy with patches of yellow and purple and black, and still with a smear of rouge on either cheek. Her nose looks caved in. She's awake, and as Sakura approaches the bed, her eyes snap open. One of them is droopy and swimming in blood, but the other is startlingly clear, bright and searching and terrible. Sakura realizes that even if Ino didn't possess all her other attributes, her eyes alone would make her a beautiful woman. Eyes for kingdoms to be dissolved in, those. Sakura remembers how it felt to be under their fierce scrutiny earlier, and her insides turn to ice.
"Hey, you," Ino says weakly, smiling painfully around her dislocated jaw. The smile is plaintive and a little sheepish, and it breaks Sakura's just-mended heart.
"Hey. You shouldn't talk."
"Nah. I'm fine. Listen. I'm sorry."
She startles, biting her tongue. Her hands are shaking so hard; Ino must have noticed. "What for?"
Even in her current state, Yamanaka Ino can still manage a coy frown. "For bringing you there, of course. I shouldn't have done that. You could have been hurt."
"You were one who got hurt."
"What, this?" Ino asks, trying to laugh. It's too much and she starts wheezing, coughing up blood. Sakura holds her torso until the episode subsides. "I'll be fine in no time. You did good. You got us out."
"Yeah, me and my freakish strength," she agrees, careful to keep her tone light and measured. It's… jarring, but she has to try. She can do it. It hasn't been that long ago.
Ino smiles faintly, closing her eyes. Sakura realizes that the morphine must be kicking in. Any minute now, she'll be sound asleep. She reaches for the coverlet and pulls it around Ino, careful not to disturb her injuries.
"Why did you do that?" she asks quietly, almost to herself.
Ino's eyes spring open again. Do you even have to ask, they seem to question. Sakura looks away.
"I think," she begins, forcing her tongue around the difficult words. "I think we'll just have to find a way to live with the choices we made from now on, Ino. We're just going to have to stand it. Somehow."
Ino lets her eyes fall shut at the first 'we'. The look on her face is peaceful. The last thing she says before drifting off to sleep is a softly mumbled "That's maybe the best thing to do now, babe."