It's unseasonably cool as Ino stands in front of the memorial stone. She should have worn something a bit heavier, but old habits die hard. She shivers in satin and mesh and the wind pulls through her ponytail, skitters across the bare skin of her neck and raises goosebumps on her arms.

She wishes it were cold enough to freeze the tears in her eyes.

Her father's name is emblazoned on the stone now. Blue eyes are drawn to the characters that spell out the name of the most important man in her life, a bitterly curt epitaph. Just another addition to the hundreds that came before him, and a few that came after. Ino likes to think that her father's sacrifice prevented many more names beneath his, but it's a shallow, empty victory in her mind. She just wishes he was here.

She should be happy. She knows that much. Happy that Yamanaka Inoichi died a war hero, celebrated and revered; that he went the way he would have wanted to go, alongside his best friend and ahead of his family, fighting the good fight until the very end. He is a hero, and he's died a hero's death.

She just wishes he was here.

Maybe it's the child in her, the one that never grew up. The one that screams in her mind that 16 is too young to grow up without a father. That 16 is too young to bury the man who gave you everything, who made you who you are. She's 16 but she feels so old.

Old and young. Lost. Empty.

She's lost in grief and it feels like she's treading water, but barely. Like she grew up all these years with a life preserver that's just been snatched away as soon as the tide came in. Like she's being pulled away from shore and there's just no fucking safety net anymore. It's fucking ironic, how you never appreciate what you have until it's gone; till he spoke his last words to her, she never realized how much she needed him. And now, like so many others, he's gone.

There's a quiet hum of thunder in the background. She guesses it will be here soon, and far away, she hears the spray of rainfall that heralds a coming storm. It would explain the unusual chill in the air, anyway. She should be getting home. Her mother needs her.

But her feet are rooted to the spot like stakes in the earth, and her posture is rigid and her shoulders tremble and wouldn't he hate to see her like this, all bitter and miserable and falling apart? But he's not here anymore, and he should be, and she doesn't know what to do without Daddy.

Rain smacks the valley before she's ready for it, and she blinks tears and droplets out of her eyes before another chakra presence – soft and unalarming – makes itself known to her. Gently, like they're not trying to disturb her.

"It's not a good time, Forehead," Ino chokes out, not bothering to turn around as soft, agile footsteps in the wet earth announce the arrival of her best friend.

"I know," replies Sakura quietly.

And for a few moments, two little girls in grown-up bodies stand side by side facing a stone with too many names on it, under the chilly rain in a quiet valley. Ino knows there isn't much sense in trying not to cry anymore, because it's just Sakura. Sakura isn't going to judge her, or pity her, or condescend to her for showing her emotions, for breaking that goddamned shinobi rule about never letting anyone see how you're feeling. Kunoichi – at least the ones like them – have been breaking that rule for centuries; it's merely a matter of keeping it a secret from the right people.

So she cries. Silently and horribly, smearing her carefully-applied makeup and her nose is running and she's suddenly gasping, gasping for breath before a small, wet hand slides through hers. Fingers thread together. Smooth fingers and a callused palm. It's like a life preserver, but not quite.

"Mom needs me at the shop," she whimpers, but again, she doesn't move.

"Where do you need to be?" Sakura asks.

Right here, Forehead. Right here with Daddy. But he's NOT here. He's not anywhere. So I don't know, I don't fucking know anymore. I'm 16 and I don't know.

"He wouldn't want you to be sad, Ino." Gentle, understanding. For once, there isn't any animosity between them, none of the barbed sarcasm that makes them fabulous friends. There's just so much love in Sakura's voice, in her unhurried movements, in the stubborn way she stands next to Ino and holds her hand like she's got nothing better to do.

"I know," Ino grinds out. "I know this is exactly how he would have wanted to go. I know that. I know I'm being unfair to him and to everybody by acting like this, but…Sakura why didn't they tell us, when we were little? That being a kunoichi meant losing everything you've ever loved and having to keep a straight face while you do it?"

Sakura considers that for a few moments, before she squeezes Ino's hand a little harder.

"Because I don't think that's what being a kunoichi means, at all," she says thoughtfully. "And I don't think you think that either."

"Then what's it all for?" Ino demands, angry with herself for all this bitterness. "Because that's all I've ever learned from this. That the people who love you, the people who raise you, who help you, who make you everything you are, they go away. They go away someplace you can't follow them and you can't find them and they never told us this in the Academy. So…so now I'm alone. And they're all gone, and there's no one to take care of me anymore."

As she says the words, she starts to cry all over again. Because this isn't some existential crisis, at all, this isn't some powerful internal debate on the morality of her career. This isn't anything but the horrible grief a little girl feels when she just wants a hug from her daddy.

At no moment in her life has she ever felt this weak.

Then Sakura lets go of Ino's hand but before she can look up, she's pulled into a hug so tight she almost can't breathe, by a girl who's slightly smaller but impossibly strong. She sags a little, and her cheek rests against the soaking wet red ribbon of Sakura's hitai-ate. She remembers giving her the ribbon she wears so proudly, remembers when she used to take care of Sakura the way her daddy took care of her. Back when things were simple, when lifelong friendships could be forged in hair ribbons and cosmos, when she ran into Daddy's happy arms with the joyful news that she was number one in her class.

And Sakura holds her, tightly. A tiny little girl who's known struggle and loss and pain and anguish and heartbreak, but who stands with Ino like a rock even stronger than the memorial stone. The closest family she's ever had besides Daddy. She remembers his parting words to her, faint whispers on the howling wind, how he told her he was proud of her, that he would always be with her.

"I'm not gone," Sakura reminds her, voice muffled by Ino's soaking wet hair. "You're not alone. You never will be. Even if you're the only one left someday, you'll never really be alone."

Ino says nothing. She cries again, harder, louder. She clings to her best friend like the life preserver she wants her to be, and Sakura just holds her. Strokes her messy blonde ponytail and never has Ino felt safer, more loved, than at this moment. Sakura's love is like a hurricane, stormy and unavoidable, all-encompassing and beautiful, and Ino's drunk on it. She could stay like this forever, pouring out her grief and letting Sakura absorb it and transform it into something that's threateningly close to acceptance.

"Can I tell you a story, Ino?" Sakura asks, and she pulls back so they're looking into each other's eyes. Ino sees that she is not alone in shedding tears, and the knowledge that this strong, brave, amazing kunoichi is crying with her makes her stomach ache in affection.

"A story?" she asks skeptically, wiping the rain and the tears out of her eyes with the back of her arm, like a child.

"Once upon a time, two little girls went to school together. And one little girl was really pretty, and popular, and smart, and the other little girl…well, she needed a little extra time." Sakura smiles ironically, and Ino knows exactly what she's talking about. "But the first little girl saw something in the other little girl, and she was…she was the best friend the other girl ever had, right from the beginning. She helped her, she protected her, she laughed with her and played with her and gave her a ribbon, and the other little girl held onto that ribbon like a life preserver, and she still does, to this very day."

"Where are you going with this?" But she's giggling through her tears, giggling and crying all over again.

"Back when I was…back when I needed someone to take my hand and tell me things were gonna be okay, you were there," Sakura murmurs. "Without even a thought, you were there. You were everything I wanted to be, Ino, but beyond that, beyond how wonderful you were, and are, and always will be, you took care of me.

"And now, I'm gonna take care of you."

She says the words with finality, with the same devotion in every single one of Naruto's 'I'm gonna be Hokage' speeches, leaving no room for debate. Stubborn to a fault. Stakes in the grass. A hurricane.

It feels like coming full circle, when Sakura hugs her again. It feels like two stars dancing ahead of each other at different times in life, sometimes leading, sometimes following, finally drawing next to one another and there's equality between them now. A level playing field. It's not the Academy anymore, where Ino was queen; it's not the hospital, where Sakura is conqueror.

It's life, and it's friendship, and it's sisterhood, and it's Sakura taking up the mantle, repaying the favor, and filling a void in Ino's life.

"I…I miss my daddy, Forehead," Ino whispers. A childish longing from an almost-grown woman, whispered like a dirty swear in an empty valley in front of a memorial with one too many names on it. A slumber party secret.

"I know. I know you do. But he's proud of you, Ino. He's so proud of you. And so am I."

And with that, Sakura picks up the pieces of Ino's grief and tapes them back together. She can't replace her father in her life, but she can make it easier to go on without him. Because Ino isn't alone, and with Sakura, it's okay to cry, it's okay to yell, it's okay to fall apart. With Sakura, it's okay to forgive herself, and move on. With Sakura, it's okay to heal.

The storm passes as quickly as it came, and when Ino pulls back from their sisterly embrace, there's sunlight in her eyes and an unexpected warmth on her face, and a deep, rumbling chuckle from a very, very long time ago. Whispers on the wind, louder now that she's calmed down enough to hear them:

"I will always be with you."


note.. i like ino and sakura's friendship so much.

xoxo daisy :)