Dreaming reminds her of falling.
Ino is alone in a barren, sunless land save for the howling wind and a hitai-ate she instinctively knows isn’t hers. Hers is still banded around her waist, battered and scratched but very much attached. She is far from home, and can’t remember the way back, but she knows she can’t return to the village until she finds them. Them.
The thing is, in the dream Ino knows whose hitai-ate it is. But she can never remember upon waking.
The thing is, Ino has been dreaming the same dream since the chūnin exams concluded.
“Forehead,” Ino says, “let’s go out.”
Sakura doesn’t take her eyes off the heaps of scrolls laid out in front of her. Mounds of kanji and diagrams that Ino is sure only the Hokage and Shizune can make sense of. “I can’t, Ino-pig. I’m busy.”
Ino rolls her eyes, her hands on her hips. “You said that yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that…” She trails off meaningfully, but when she gets no response, she scowls. Frustration bunches behind her ribs, small yet jutting. “If you’re not training, you’re on a mission. If you’re not on a mission, you’re just doing more training.” Huffing, she says, “and all you ever do is train these days.”
“You could at least get lunch with me,” Ino tries. “My treat.”
This time, Sakura does look up to meet her gaze. “Dango?”
Triumphant, Ino grins. “Yakisoba first.” On their way out of the library, she finds herself exhaling deeply—a sigh of relief Sakura either doesn’t notice or simply chooses not to mention. After all, it’s been almost a month since they spent time together—alone. Without senseis, teammates, parents, or Narutos present.
Speaking of Naruto—
Sometimes he tells her about a new jutsu Sakura is perfecting. Sometimes he asks her if she knows what the Hokage is putting their friend up to. Everything Naruto does is obnoxious, to say the least—but when he brings Sakura up on missions under a moon-hung sky, something twists in her chest, and she becomes irritated—annoyed—and turns away from him, lying on her side.
In truth, it’s not because he’s loud, and doesn’t know when to quit. It’s not because he’s dumb, or thick-skulled, or anything else anyone in the village has called him. It’s because it forces Ino to take notice of her surroundings, and how utterly lacking in green-eyed, pink-haired medic-nins in training they are. And that, obviously, predictably, stupidly turns into missing her.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” Naruto says with a mouthful of ramen.
“I don’t have one, idiot.” Ino focuses on picking idly at her tempura with a pair of chopsticks. They’re in some rickety old inn waiting for their client to show up, and she already can’t wait to go back home.
“Well, you gotta be in a bad mood for some reason,” Naruto replies. “I mean, I think I didn’t do anything. And Bushy-Brows—”
“Just forget it, okay?” Ino says, and gets up from the table just as Lee arrives with a pitcher. “I’m fine.”
“Sheesh,” she hears Naruto mutter under his breath, but she doesn’t turn around to see Lee hesitantly seat himself beside Naruto. She stalks out of the inn with an ache in her chest.
Of all the people she could open up to, Ino never thought it would be Lee. She has nothing against him, of course, but it’s unexpected, to say the least, when Lee approaches her as Naruto takes over lookout duty. “Ino,” he says, his eyes fierce and bright in the coming dark, “I do not know what troubles you, but I want you to know—as your teammates and friends, we are here for you.”
“Nothing’s—” she stops herself short. Swallows the nasty retort bubbling up in her throat. She waits for him to push, but Lee simply remains crouching beside her on the hillside, his presence intense but undeniably not intrusive. He is so unlike Naruto in this moment that the silence almost catches her off guard.
Ino draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. It’s not cold, not even close, but, when she thinks about it—and she can’t help it when she does—that small, sharp pain hiding behind her sternum reminds her, time and time again—
“Do you…ever miss people, Lee?”
“Ino?” Hesitation has crept into his voice. She wants to close her eyes and wish him away, but now that she’s started, she doesn’t see the point in pretending she can go back.
“I don’t mean in the way that you miss Tenten and Neji when you’re not on a mission with them,” she says, choosing her words carefully, “I mean…”
Lee is silent for a long, quiet moment before asking, “is this…about Sasuke?”
Ino’s head snaps up. Glaring at him under the crescent moon, she replies sharply, “no,” then, after a beat, softly: “no. It’s not.”
“Then what is it?”
Ino is suddenly overcome with the desire to sleep. In that moment, she wants nothing more than to put her head down and dream. Even if it’s that same dream. She’s tired. She’s homesick. Heartsick.
“…Ino,” Lee prods gently, and Ino realizes she must have fallen silent long enough for Lee to worry.
Ino opens her mouth to respond, but then Naruto is calling for them, and that’s that.
When they head back to the village, Naruto and Lee agree to race to the gates, but he falls back into step with Ino when he realizes she’s still quiet, even after their mission was hailed a success, the client safely delivered to his country’s doorstep.
Ino knows she has to preserve her energy, but she wishes she could be like Naruto, and give it her all. Even if it’s just to achieve the illusion of getting home sooner.
“Sakura,” Ino says, her voice sounding faint to her own ears.
Lee, immediately, predictably, brightens. “Ah, yes! She—”
“Lee,” Ino says, almost pleadingly. “I mean, it’s Sakura.”
“What do you—?” The way his expression shifts would have been comical had it not been for Ino’s heart feeling like it’s trying to work its way out of her ribcage. “Oh,” he says quietly. He smiles something small but genuine, and full of understanding. “I see.”
Back home, Ino dreams.
Under the stars, on top of a mountain, Sakura is standing in front of Ino. Ino tries to speak, but only flower petals come out of her mouth. Her legs won’t work, but her hands do. Her heart is in her throat. With trembling hands, Ino takes her hitai-ate from her waist and holds it out to Sakura, waiting, hoping. Sakura smiles, and laughs—a sound so familiar that it breaks the howling wind in half—and steps forward. She takes Ino’s hitai-ate and ties it around her left bicep; then, without breaking eye contact, she undoes her own and holds it out to Ino.
In the dream, Ino is crying. Her heart is beating out of her chest. And she’s laughing, relief pouring from her as she takes Sakura’s hitai-ate into her own hands.
It is warm to the touch.
Early in the morning, Ino shows up on Sakura’s doorstep.
The birds are singing. Her body is filling up with light. She is holding her breath.
It almost feels like a dream.