This was written for kalliel over on LJ for a "make things for people in 2013" meme. I, in my infinite wisdom, procrastinated and even forgot about the meme entirely for most of the year. As a result, I had to scramble to honor the bargain and ended up coming up with this piece, which actually didn't turn out too badly. The person I wrote it for enjoyed it, at least, and that's the most important thing. I hope you enjoy it too.
They come across each other by accident. Sakura hadn't even known that Ino was back, even though Ino has already had time to clean up, and she wonders whether Ino was deliberately avoiding her or just didn't think to send word. She doesn't ask. Instead, she catches Ino's arm as they're about to pass each other on the street. Ino blinks slow like a cat and looks over at Sakura a moment too late, as though she's forgotten how to react. Her smile is unfamiliar, stretching across her face with a hesitance born of not belonging.
In return, Sakura offers her a smile of genuine welcome, warm enough that questions unasked and sympathies unvoiced burn to ash on her tongue. There is no right thing to say, not just yet, so she says nothing as she squeezes Ino's arm once in reassurance, then takes her hand and leads her on down the street, away from home.
Seconds pass in which Ino doesn't react at all to being manhandled. When she does, it is only to scoff and say, "Oh, excuse me, does her majesty require something of me?" in a pale imitation of her usual teasing tone. There isn't so much as a twitch to indicate an escape attempt; if anything, Ino leans into the touch.
They have dinner plans, the two of them, a reservation booked the morning before Ino left; it was more a hope than a promise, as any plans made before a mission are. They could still make it with time to spare, but Sakura does not guide them towards the restaurant. Ino doesn't comment on this; possibly she's forgotten. Sakura doesn't see a point in asking about that either.
As they go on, Ino uncommonly content to follow where Sakura may lead, Sakura watches Ino from the very edge of her peripheral. Rather than walk like herself, Ino copies the strides of people walking ahead or abreast of them- one, two, three steps and then switch. She holds herself like the man hurrying by with his hair all a mess, then like the old woman perusing the store windows, then like the child chasing her ball. As they leave the crowd behind them, she begins to copy Sakura movement for movement.
"Are you a pig or a monkey?" Sakura asks.
When Ino glances her way, Sakura shifts her stance and throws a swagger into her step. Ino hesitates, and Sakura feels the hand in her grasp go stiff as this new data is processed. Hardly a second goes by before Ino jolts, recognition of the mockery lighting a spark behind her eyes. It's doused before she's even managed to say, "Ugh, you still can't do it right," but at least she's carrying herself like herself now.
"Maybe it's you who doesn't do it right," Sakura suggests, tossing the comment over her shoulder like a pinch of salt.
There's another scoff, nasal and exaggerated, but no more. The silence that follows is as awkward and aware as a missed cue, and Sakura grits disappointment between her teeth.
They're at the line of the forest before Ino asks, "Not that I'm not happy to bless you with my company, but just where are you taking me?"
It's a question she normally would have asked several times over by now, but that she's asking at all lights Sakura's steps just the same. Sakura doesn't know the specifics of Ino's mission. She doesn't know what kept Ino away for nearly a month or what might have happened to make her come back looking like a doll staring out from the body of a living woman. She doesn't know anyone on the team that Ino accompanied, even in passing. She doesn't know- and she doesn't ask, and she isn't going to. Ino knows that, all of it.
"It's a surprise," Sakura sings, tugging on Ino's hand as she skips a couple steps.
"It better be good," Ino responds, just a little too much snot to balance the curiosity.
"You better be grateful," Sakura volleys back, veering off down the familiar, well-beaten path to the right.
It isn't much more of a walk after that. Within ten minutes, Sakura gives Ino's hand one last squeeze, as much playful as reassuring, before dropping the hold entirely. She pretends not to feel Ino's fingers straining after her own for an instant before Ino remembers herself, just hurries ahead to the opening of the meadow. With uncalled-for aplomb, Sakura throws her hands out and up, grinning and proclaiming, "Ta-dahh!"
Ino casts her gaze over the empty space, over the beds of flowers not yet pillaged for little girls' bouquets. To a civilian, Ino's features would barely appear to twitch; to a shinobi, more so to someone who knows Ino as well as Sakura does, they stumble through the steps of a dance unknown before coming to an uncertain halt.
"Yay," Ino says; though her cocked hip and crossed arms are unimpressed and her expression delicately pleased, her tone is blank, like she forgot what to feel.
Sakura just grins, stepping forward to take Ino by both hands and pull her into the open. She finds the most plush-looking flower bed and tugs Ino to lay in it with her.
"Y'know, forehead, this isn't much of a surprise," Ino comments; she's remembered to sound snide this time, but her face is soft and her hands are running over the flowers as though she's cataloging them.
"If you didn't know where we were going by the time we hit the path, it's a wonder you aren't surprised by everything," Sakura says, plucking a flower at random to throw at Ino's face.
Ino scrunches her nose up when the flower makes contact. Her arm moves, too late to block the playful attack. Still, it looks almost natural when she reaches to pluck it from where it's landed in her lap instead.
"Excuse me for thinking you might actually have set something up," Ino says. Her eyes flicker, and there's an instant where Sakura thinks she might ask about their dinner reservation before the flicker is gone. "Is a welcome home picnic under the stars too much to ask for?"
Sakura snorts and leans to bump Ino with her shoulder, delighted when Ino doesn't hesitate to bump back just a little harder. She points out, "I didn't even know that you'd arrived home, Ino- and the sun hasn't even set."
"It's getting there," Ino says in her defense, and almost catches herself before flicking her gaze to check the truth in her own words. "You just didn't want to put in the effort."
"You're not worth it," says Sakura matter-of-factly. She laughs as she blocks Ino's swipe for her head, shoving Ino's shoulder and then digging her hands into the flower bed to pluck up two handfuls at once.
"Such delicacy," Ino simpers, batting her eyelashes so that it's hard to say whether the twinkle in her eyes is true or reflection, "such talent."
In lieu of a response, Sakura just sticks her tongue, then turns her attention to her clump of flowers. She begins weaving them into a crown without care or concern, blooms dropped and plucked up unglanced at. Ino makes a sound of disapproval beside her and then reaches both her own hands into the fray.
"Are you making a wreath or just a mess?"
"My artist's soul can't be bound by your lack of imagination."
"Ha! What, have you been hanging around Sai-kun while I've been away?"
"Mayb- hey!" Sakura cuts herself off when Ino tugs the whole mess right out of her hands with a cry of triumph that sounds mostly like her. "Make your own, why don't you?"
"What do you think I'm doing?" Ino asks, eyeing the crown from all angles before starting in on it again. She casts her glance sideways at Sakura without missing a stride in her work and says, "Surely my surprise wasn't getting to watch you make something for yourself."
Ino smirks at this and Sakura rolls her eyes. It isn't long before her attention is caught by the way Ino's fingers dance over the crown, fixing and refining Sakura's haphazard design. Blooms continue to fall from the work, and to be picked up for addition, this time with purpose as Ino pours her knowledge and artistry into the making. The crown is not quite completed when Ino begins to slow, fingers brushing over the centerpiece blossoms of the crown.
"Cosmos," Ino says, soft but sure as the final curtain, "the prettiest flower of the spring."
Ino shakes the last of the unwanted flowers from her finished crown, calming the piece from the busy mess Sakura had made of it into something complex but cohesive and lovely, before settling it with deliberate care upon her own head. She turns to Sakura, and her smile lights up her face and eyes and whole being as she strikes a pose and says in her own voice, "I'd say I'm even more beautiful than the cosmos, though- don't you think?"
The edges of Sakura's lips waver along with her vision. She closes her eyes against the tears and lets her smile stretch wide to match Ino's. She has to swallow before she can say, "Y-yeah. Obviously."
"If it's so obvious, what did you hesitate for?" Ino demands. "And what's with that face?"
Instead of answering, Sakura laughs. Ino's immediate huff of feigned outrage only makes her chest feel even bubblier, so she laughs harder. Neither will remember later who threw the first handful of petals or who tackled who, and it doesn't matter now as they wrestle like children together in the grass, Ino's crown lost to the fray and both of them covered in flower petals like bits of confetti. Questions unasked and unanswered dissolve easily into laughter and insults until next time the curtain goes up.
Praise appreciated, concrit treasured, flames raspberried.