“Are you okay?”
The sore throat came first. Ino was looking to Sakura with immediate concern disguised as annoyance. Sakura had just taken a drink of her tea to ease the tickle that began in the back of her throat that evolved into a slightly violent coughing fit. A less than ideal way to start dinner. The slight irritation that feathered the back of her throat would develop into a pain so deep that Sakura felt as though she had swallowed a thorn covered vine. The harshness of the thorns embedded into her throat restricted her breathing, so she stopped breathing all together. Sakura gasped once and held her breath to stop the incessant pain of moving shards in her breath.
“Hey,” Ino said sternly, placing her hand on Sakura’s arm. “Are you okay?”
A beat passed, but the coughing finally subsided while the pain lingered still. With wet eyes, Sakura nodded slightly.
“Wow, Forehead,” Ino smiled. “You had me worried.” The first good breath that filled Sakura was released as a soft laugh. ‘Forehead’ had stopped being an insult years ago. More so, it had become Ino’s way of vocalizing her affection for Sakura. Her platonic affection. Before Sakura had time to register the fact that Ino’s hand still resided on her arm or allowed her mind to spiral into a confused explication of their friendship, the waiter arrived with their meals. Their weekly dinner ensued as usual with casual gossip and teasing, aside from the three times Sakura had to excuse herself to the bathroom before she displayed another extreme coughing fit in front of her best friend. Luckily, Ino didn’t seem to mind.
Three weeks later, the blood came. Sakura was sparring with Lee when it happened. Training had already become difficult as her own labored breaths worked against her. All the while, she worked through the pain in the hopes that it would pass. Although, Sakura had never had a sore throat for more than a few days, much less a couple of weeks. Sakura moved sharply to dodge a blow from Lee. This quick movement caused her constant pain to peak. Blinding pain shot through her as though her lungs and throat had been ravaged and torn. Something warm bubbled in the back of her throat distracting her from the fight she was currently in. As fast as she had dodged, Lee had thrown a swift kick to her side. Blood appeared on her lips the moment she yelled out in shock of Lee’s attack. Unbeknownst to Lee, he did not draw blood from his friend. The blood was drawn out of unrequited love.
“Sakura!” Lee yelled as Sakura fell to the training mats.
“Nice hit, Lee.” Sakura smiled as blood dribbled down her chin. “You got me with that one.”
“We should stop here. It appears I’ve accidentally hurt you!”
Lee performed as softly during this sparring match as he always did with Sakura. Between his influx of apologies, she let him believe that his strength had been immeasurable on that particular day. It was easier to spare her sweet friend’s feelings than her own.
The petals manifested last. It would so happen that lilac petals bloomed in her mouth as she sat in a meeting with the woman who taught her of hanahaki disease to begin with. Sakura had been studying medicine under Lady Tsunade for more than three years. Only recently had she learned of hanahaki disease in her studies. People dying of flowers erupting in them because the person they love doesn’t love them back is highly uncommon, Lady Tsunade had said. Or at least, its less common now than it used to be.
Lady Tsunade recited the duties Sakura had for the day, just as she did every day. Only as Tsunade mentioned that a certain young Yamanaka might be around the office and lab to catch up on her studies, Sakura was taken back by a cough with more weight than any she had previously experienced. On instinct, she covered her mouth and allowed small, blood speckled, lilac petals to fall into her palms. Silence rang in her ears as she began to understand, well, everything. Sakura’s face burned as she hesitantly met her teacher’s softened eyes. The thorns that lived inside her nearly halted her breath as she began to cry. Whether her tears spurred from embarrassment living out her most vulnerable moment in front of the woman aspired to be or the daunting revelation that she was hopelessly in love with Ino Yamanaka, Sakura did not know.
Tears fell onto her lap where her hands rested. The salt water mingled with the deeply stained lilacs. She instinctively wanted to apologize, but what for? Sakura certainly never intended for this. After spending her short life alongside her ever strong and radiant blonde counterpart this must have been inevitable.
“How long has this happened?” Tsunade’s voice brought Sakura back to her current state of being.
“This is the first there have been flowers, My Lady.” There was a beat of silence. Lady Tsunade seemed to be choosing her next words delicately.
“Sakura,” she had never heard Lady Hokage’s voice so sad. “You do understand your options, don’t you?” Sakura knew her options all too well. She learned of them two weeks ago for goodness sake. She could confess her love or she could undergo surgery that would remove the floral disease as well as her ability to feel romantic love. At that moment in time, the latter seemed like the better option.
“How many times,” she coughed in the hopes that her voice would steady. “How many times have you performed the surgery?”
“I’ve only ever witnessed two cases of hanahaki and both forewent the surgery.” Out of seemingly nowhere, Lady Tsunade laughed. “Your sensei, Kakashi, was the worse of the two cases. Hadn’t looked Gai in the eye for four months and was already coughing up fully attached flowers when he came to me. He pulled down his mask, handed me an aster in full bloom and said, ‘What can you do about this?’ I couldn’t believe, well, I really could believe he was still so calculate even then.”
Knowing her sensei had experienced the same foolish disease brought comfort to Sakura. Although, a long-suspected confession of love to Gai-sensei might be more well received than confession of love that made Sakura feel like she had been lying to Ino about their friendship. As though she has only been friends with Ino in the hopes of being loved in return. Sakura wasn’t even sure if Ino liked girls. Sakura certainly hadn’t realized she did until now. But boy, did she apparently love a girl.
“My Lady, if you don’t mind me asking. Who was the other hanahaki case you witnessed?”
“Well, I technically didn’t witness that one. I experienced it,” She said with slight smile. It’s hard to imagine looking back on such a painful disease could cause anyone to smile. “I was visiting a village just west of the Hidden Cloud. I was only about 20 years old, still fairly young. Certainly not as young as you now. I was staying for one week. Without getting into it, I had some business that needed to be finalized. Anyway, I had been corresponding with my client’s right hand for months before I made the trip. She was smart and even in her professionality she was funny. I never had thorns, but the moment she greeted me at the front gates of the village, there were two rose petals. I swallowed them immediately. Yet, by the end of the week I was asking her to leave the village with me. And she did. She’s been my right hand ever since.” There was a small beat of silence before it dawned on Sakura.
“You got hanahaki over Lady Shizune?”
“Sakura, you are aware of your options.” The topic of conversation was somehow lighter than before. No less frightening, but lighter. If the woman that Sakura wished to be was able to overcome this, then surely, she could too. “As someone who cares for you a great deal, I urge you to think this over carefully. I’ll place your duties on someone else in the meantime. Please take as long as you need.”
Sakura nodded curtly before allowing her feet to carry her from Lady Hokage’s office.
Sakura all but dropped off the face of the village by the end of that week. Either her mind was playing tricks on her or realizing the cause of her illness caused the symptoms to grow stronger. Her days and nights were spent on the bathroom floor. She explained to her parents that it was just an aggressive case of food poisoning, that she would be better soon. More lies she was planting. Soon. She would make her decision soon. She’d give herself the weekend to sort all her feelings, every single feeling.
The toilet had become a blood clotted garden. In a truly awful way, Sakura thought it was slightly beautiful. Not just the just the lilacs that were rooted inside her, but the whole situation really. How hard could it really be?, Sakura had thought on the day she learned of hanahaki disease. You like someone, you tell them. As she stared at the light purple flowers that littered the toilet she concluded that it was really fucking hard.
“Hey Forehead! Long time no see.” Ino shot Sakura a sly look before she added the finishing touches to the bouquet that sat on the counter. The blonde-haired girl swept browning yellow petals off the counter and into the waste bucket that rested to the left of the order bar.
“You haven’t been around lately.” Ino glanced up at Sakura, concern flashing over her face for a moment so slight only Sakura could catch it. One thing that never changed over the years was Sakura’s ability to read her best friend. Hopefully the same could not be said if roles were reversed.
“Sorry about that,” Sakura laughed apologetically. “I’ve been a little sick.”
“Lady Tsunade mentioned that. You owe me a good study sesh by the way. I had to put my studies on hold to cover your duties.”
Sakura was done for. Aside from her time on missions, this past week was probably the longest time Sakura had spent away from Ino. Any time spent in the village was accompanied by either of her blonde haired best friends. Although, these past two years have been all Ino since Naruto left to train with Master Jiraiya. As she looked at Ino across the counter, Sakura knew her preplanned words would choke her to death before the thorns did.
“We only have one delivery today.” Ino said, turning to the back room. Sakura had been going on flower delivery trips with Ino ever since she could remember. Even when they were less than friends, she went because their parents forced them. Now, it was one of her favorite ways to spend a day. Ino placed her hand on Sakura’s arm and gave a light squeeze. “I’ll be right back.”
Ino’s light touch was all Sakura needed to send her spiraling. The breath caught in her throat sent a flutter all through her chest. Petals rustled, thorns pierced, and Sakura choked. Instinctively she coughed up what bloomed in her, as she had unfortunately trained herself to do. It was harder to fight it, more painful. The yellow daisies of the waste bucket were immediately drowned in red clots of lilac.
“Sakura, what is your deal?” Sakura heard Ino yell from the other room in between strangled coughs. Ino entered on the sight of Sakura kneeling before the waste bin, knuckles white on the rim with heaving shoulders. Sakura could feel Ino’s gaze falling on her, as sharp and distinct as the rusty smell that stained the air.
“Hey,” Ino said, kneeling on the other side of the waste basket. Her untied hair brushed Sakura’s hands as they gripped the rim of the waste basket firmly. Before Sakura could raise her head on her own, Ino’s hand rested on Sakura’s face. Sakura leaned into her touch, raising her eyes to meet the other’s. Ino’s voice was thick with sadness. “What is going on?”
“I love you,” Sakura said. She quickly dipped her head again, almost hoping petals would manifest to distract them both. The pain dissipated with her confession. The truth was freeing. Ino’s hand didn’t leave her cheek, but simply shifted to stay in contact.
“I love you. I’m sorry if this came as a surprise, but it’s not a surprise to me. Not anymore. At first, I didn’t know why it was you. I figured I knew love already. I thought I loved Sasuke. I mean I thought we both did. But, Ino, we were twelve. And I love you now. I am in love with you, Ino.”
“Hey Forehead, look at me.”
Sakura raised her head, blood drying at the corner of her mouth. Her tear brimmed eyes were not expecting to be met with a gaze that rivaled the sun. Ino removed her hand from Sakura’s cheek, took a blood speckled petal from her own mouth and threw it in the waste basket that rested between them. The petal of a pink cosmos.
“I’m in love with you too.”
After dousing the flower shop in air freshener to eliminate the bloody scent, the two girls left the shop. Sakura carried a bouquet of yellow tulips in her left hand and clasped her girlfriend’s hand in her right. Ino rubbed her thumb over Sakura’s knuckles. Their lunch plans became a date. The sun seemed to shine brighter in the Hidden Leaf that it had in weeks.