An Unforeseen Consequence
Ino was slow to awaken, her mind feeling as sluggish as if it were trapped in sticky mud. A jumble of images, her fighting Sakura, crept at the edge of comprehension, ending with soft blue eyes and a concerned face. Clearly Sakura's last punch had packed a fair amount of force, a suspicion confirmed by the lucidity brought about by the sharp lightning strike of pain as she moved her head.
She kept her eyes closed, focusing on her other senses. Something soft and comforting underneath her, almost as if she were sleeping in her own bed. The light sound of someone else breathing, just off to her left. The smell of clean sweat mingled with the comforting smell of mingled evergreen needles and seasonal tree leaves. The tangy copper of dried blood, welling from a sharp throbbing on the inside of her lower lip.
Her eyes opened to a dark blur, before her vision brightened into focus on the infuriating sight of Uzumaki Naruto. Her vision sharpened more to reveal that she was, in fact, in her room. Naruto sat in the chair normally resting in front of her desk, a tray holding a steaming pot of tea and an empty cup resting on her night table.
"Hey, you're awake!" Naruto's loud voice chimed, doing no favours for her headache. Ino felt the urge to scream at him for the lack of caution in dealing with someone who probably had a concussion, let alone for the invasion of privacy, but she didn't have the heart to voice anything against the youth's broad grin.
It was infectious enough for Ino to match, split lip and all. She winced as she levered herself up, consciousness swimming and making her feel as if she was swaying. The gentle, firm hand of Naruto's hand on her shoulder, keeping her from tumbling gracelessly onto his lap, proved it to be more than just a feeling.
"So, I lost?" Ino finally queried, struggling to balance her upright body. She got her elbows planted and managed to keep steady in a graceless slouch. The position was poor for her posture AND put a decided lack of emphasis on the parts she wanted to draw Naruto's attention to, but the gray-eyed Yamanaka lacked the energy to do more.
"No, you won!" Naruto assured her, grinning as he rubbed his jaw. Releasing his hand from her shoulder, he raised his index finger in the air, unconsciously mimicking their academy teacher as he continued. "Granny Tsunade gave you the win in that second fight because of the explosive tags. She said that Sakura would have been dead, but you'd have only been unconscious. A clear win for you."
"I think I'll avoid winning in the future," the blond admitted ruefully, feeling the ache in her jaw as she rubbed her chin. She scarcely remembered the beginning of the fight with Sakura, let alone the conclusion. Despite her efforts to the contrary, the jumbled images remained a chaotic montage with no order or flow. Her eyes met the youth watching her intently and she managed another smile. "Fake explosive tags leave Sakura covered in soot, but you can't really fake a knock out punch."
"That's why you should focus on taijutsu," Naruto smirked, clenching his fist. He threw a jab to his left and thumbed his nose. "It's better to be the one clobbering someone out than being the one clobbered. It's not like you'll ever find yourself in a situation where being able to fight well will hinder you."
"I'll admit that my skills are a little weak," Ino admitted, as much to herself as the orange-clad genin at her side. She smiled and lowered her voice just a touch, adding, "Maybe you can help me learn some grappling?"
"Sure!" Naruto agreed. The blond girl reflected that perhaps that clueless nature of his had it's positive sides. It would certainly present her with opportunities the likes of which few people ever offered. Just like an opponent who charges into an ambush without noticing the sprung traps. Naruto gave Ino a thumbs up. "The only guy who's better than me is Bushybrows and I don't think you want your hands all battered and bruised!"
"Certainly not. Though that green outfit would probably look alright on me, wouldn't it?" Ino's stare and the cast of her smirk were, perhaps, direct enough to pierce the wall of obliviousness surrounding Naruto, however briefly. After a moment of dawning comprehension, the boy blushed bright red and directed his eyes elsewhere while the silver-eyed girl chuckled.
"Anyway," Naruto coughed, his eyes not quite meeting the injured kunoichi as he stood. He strode to her open window, planting a foot on the sill. "I've got to get back to the old lady and see what she wants. I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"See you later, Naruto," Ino said with a nod, keeping her eyes on billowing curtains of her window even after the loud shinobi had departed. She had certainly made progress. Perhaps even clued the boy in to her intentions, though she wouldn't be banking on that sort of miracle. What little perception the perpetual genin possessed seemed to be focused on fighting or training. In a lot of ways, he was still the same naive little boy he'd been when he graduated from the academy. Perhaps that was the reason everyone who knew him had such faith in him. He was, in some ways, too pure for any serious guile or deception.
Her introspection was interrupted by her mother's quiet cough at the door. One of her mother's delicate fingers flicked towards the flowers sitting in a plain-looking vase. The florist in Ino groaned at an arrangement of undying passion, fervent devotion, and... embarrassingly enough, unquestioned fidelity. When the breeze shifted and the tea reeked of ginseng, Ino was left to ponder the depths of Naruto's ignorance and the astounding amount of trouble it could cause.
He saw some tea for revitalizing energy and a handful of pretty flowers. Her mother, her teacher in both Ikebana and herbology, saw something decidedly less innocent and alarming more adult.
"Ino, do we need to have a talk?" Though phrased as a question, the blond girl knew it was instead a statement of fact. As her mother sat on the edge of her bed with a stern look, searching for words, Ino was left to wonder just what sort of retribution the blond genin was due for the long, embarrassing discussion she was about to have.
Sakura was, for the first time in a great many years, experiencing an emotion so long absent from her life that it felt alien. This emotion wasn't anything pleasant, that she knew right away, but it took her nearly half the walk to the hospital to finally identify it: She was jealous, or perhaps even envious, of Ino.
It had been a long time since she'd last felt it. Around the time that she and Ino both discovered they had a crush on Sasuke. It was on that day, so long ago, that the pink-tressed girl decided to push away jealousy and envy. She'd grabbed those feelings and buried them somewhere deep and dark, somewhere she thought she'd never see them again. She thought she never would, given how amiable their relationship became after that first chunin exam.
The years since they'd rekindled their relationship had, she'd assumed, been an ample test of that resolve. Not once in the three years since they'd resumed being friends, had she ever wished she were Ino, wished that the blond girl and her own role were reversed. Perhaps with Sasuke gone that resolve had never really been tested, but she was sure she was completely beyond it.
Yet seeing the silver eyed girl smile while her head rested gently against Naruto's on the walk back from their sparring match, Sakura finally understood it was jealousy causing that uneasy feeling in her gut.
"Sakura... Even with my lousy record for gambling, I bet you're wondering why I ordered Naruto to take Ino home," Tsunade's statement could have been a thought plucked from the green-eyed girl's mind, and her slack-jawed amazement told the Sannin as much. She smiled. "I can understand your confusion, Sakura."
They walked in silence for a moment, amusement and confused amazement. Sakura's mind finally put words to the question her heart begged to ask.
"Well... if you don't mind telling me... Why did you?" Sakura finally asked, carefully keeping her voice neutral. Her mind raced as she tried to understand why she was feeling jealous. It was Naruto! Dumb, dependable Naruto!
"It's actually very simple, Sakura," Tsunade explained, shrugging her shoulders. Despite her casual gesture, the slug summoner refused to meet her apprentice's eyes. "Ino seems to have an interest in Naruto. I think they might be good for one another."
"But Naruto has always had a crush on you, and who am I to interfere with his affection for you?" Tsunade interrupted, stopping to stare Sakura directly in the eyes. In those eyes the pinkette read anger which had nothing to do with herself. Tsunade continued before the girl could answer the question. "Sakura, no man's heart is a toy. Seeing that girl's interest beside your own lack thereof, I have no reason whatsoever not to help Ino. You have to face the fact that he might not always be there when you decide that you're ready."
Sakura was stunned as her mentor blushed, quickly striding away as if she'd said more than she'd meant to say. Dawning comprehension finally sucker-punched the girl as she remembered her teammate's mentor, and his own rather strange relationship with her teacher. She hurried after her teacher. An irritated glance quelled the words on Sakura's lips, and they walked in silence for a few minutes.
Crossing a bridge away from the crowds, Tsunade stopped suddenly. She walked to the railing to watch the river flowing underneath, seeming to draw a measure of calm from the placid, gentle flow of water. When she spoke it held no heat, only remorse.
"Sakura, I don't want to see you waste your life hiding behind a wall of excuses. Neither do I want Naruto to spend his life waiting until you tear those walls down. If you're not prepared to fight for him, you have no excuse to be angry if someone else is." Despite the blond woman's gentle words, the splinter of the wooden railing beneath her deceptively gentle hand showed a lack of control the red-clad chunin had rarely seen in her teacher. The sad eyes met Sakura's own, and the young girl was amazed at the depth of pain she saw. "The way you've modeled yourself after me is a great compliment, Sakura. Please, don't take it so far that you repeat my mistakes."
Moments stretched into an eternity and Sakura finally recognized the fragile woman beneath the gruff exterior. Despite the smooth, unmarred surface she showed the world, this was a woman who had flaws which could unmake her with the slightest pressure. Sakura now saw the woman who had had to rely on a genin for protection. The woman who had lost one love to death; The woman who lost her other love to her own timidity every time she saw his smiling face.
"Tsunade, I've got too much respect for you not to model myself after you in any way I can," Sakura finally admitted, flashing her teacher a small smile. She risked placing a gentle hand on one shoulder. "I guess that means you'll have to do what you can to fix your own mistakes so I don't make the same ones, right?"
"But, there's been too much since then!" Tsunade's voice was close to panic: Like a hungry predator, Sakura pounced on it.
"You're the one telling me that it's not worth repeating mistakes, Tsunade-chan." Sakura's grin was just as smug as the strange honorific, and restored some of the fire she was so used to seeing in her idol's eyes. "Besides, you're the one who keeps telling me that no matter what, you can't give up. Why give up now that you've gained so much wisdom?"
"And I'm supposed to be the teacher," Tsunade finally growled, spinning to lean back against the railing. She flashed a smile to Sakura, and the green-eyed girl saw a serenity she would have rarely associated with Konoha's Fifth Hokage. Then the older woman jabbed Sakura's solar plexus with a scowl which didn't reach the smile in her eyes. "That doesn't let you off the hook, girl! You've still got to make a decision about the blond brat, you know."
"I've got to give it some thought... but you're right. I've got to make a decision," Sakura admitted.
In the three years they'd shared, neither the young girl or the mature woman were as close to one another as they were then. Their shared grins reflected a camaraderie which went beyond the bonds of a teacher and student: They were close friends with a similar pain and unconquerable struggle, finally released from the solitude of their emotional trap in mutual enlightenment.
Despite all that she had learned from the woman in the past and all the moments they would share in the future, both knew that this strange honesty on the bridge would be the defining moment of their relationship.
Well, I've officially wiped my hands of this story. I've had no drive to continue this whatsoever for a long time now and I'd rather leave it as it is than rush a couple of ill-concieved, half-assed chapters out the door and call that a conclusion.
Fear not, however! Agent-G has taken up my offer and decided to continue the story. In fact, he's done so well that any lingering doubts I had about farming the story out. His continuation (with some very minor alterations to the existing work) can be found listed under my Favourite Stories and it's well worth a read. Honestly, I probably couldn't have done it better myself and the quality of his version is such that I don't want to embarrass myself by trying.
Go, check his work out. It be good.