A hasty search for an escaped pig leads to something neither Ino nor Sakura would have expected. InoSaku.
"The pig is gone," Sakura said.
Ino looked up from the flowers she was arranging and found herself staring up at an intense green glare framed by white petals. "I told you I was too busy to take care of it," she said.
Sakura looked away in irritation. "I had training exercises to do!"
"Why wasn't Shizune or Tsunade taking care of it?"
This was greeted with a pause. "Sometimes they want alone time." There was something about the way she said it...was that a faint hint of a blush high on her cheeks?
Ino eyed Sakura. "What, together?"
Sakura looked away. "Together," she mumbled.
"Does Jiraiya know about this?"
Ino opened her mouth to threaten to tell him, but for just a moment, Sakura's eyes held green murder, and Ino found herself backing down. It was weirdly surprising. "All right, all right," she said. "But I don't know how the pig got out. I had all the doors closed--"
But by then Sakura had caught sight of something, and she was striding over to it. There was a low window on the far side of the flower shop's backroom, and it had been flung open.
Ino looked at it, then smiled and shrugged. "Not my problem."
"I knew I shouldn't have trusted a pig with a pig," Sakura said. She crouched down and peered out the window. "There are footsteps. Let's catch up with it."
"Now? Both of us?" Ino deftly slid another flower into the latest bouquet. It was primrose, forget-me-not, and lily-of-the-valley--an engagement bouquet, perhaps, but certainly one that spoke of love and longing. She found herself thinking of Sakura's face framed against those flowers as she reached for a piece of twine.
Sakura's hand curled around her forearm. The flowers went flying. "Now. Both of us."
They left with the forget-me-nots scattered about the floor like a fall of pale blue mist.
"You have to admit by this point," Ino said, "that this was a bad idea." She folded her arms and leveled a stark blue gaze on the other kunoichi.
"It doesn't matter if it was a bad idea," Sakura said. She crouched on the ground next to where Ton-ton's hoofprints faded out, staring at the dust as if it could offer some kind of solution. "It was the only choice. Tsunade would kill me if we lost Shizune's pig."
"If we lost the pig? You're the one who was supposed to be looking--augh!" Ino cut off as Sakura reached over and grabbed her hair.
"Maybe I'll just bring you back to them, Ino-pig," Sakura said. "I'm sure they won't be able to tell the difference."
Ino reached up, grabbed Sakura's hand, and slowly wrested it free. "Don't touch my hair," she said. Incongruously, she thought that Sakura's fingers were more calloused than she'd expected--but why was that a surprise? After all, Sakura had been working hard these past couple of years. Besides, her fingers were still as slender and graceful as ever.
"That's what you get for growing it out again," Sakura said.
Ino looked away in order to sweep her gaze about the clearing. "The pig can't be too far from here," she said. "We've already come too far from the village as it is. We need to find it and get back to the Leaf."
"The trail's gone," Sakura said.
Ino looked down at the ground for a long moment. Then she brushed some tall weeds aside, pointed to a flat rock, and then pointed at the disturbed vegetation on the other side of the rock. "It jumped onto this rock and went that way." She started to climb over the rock.
"How do you know that?"
"I'm a Yamanaka, Sakura-chan," Ino said. "We know these things about pigs."
"I'll bet you do," Sakura said.
Ino turned. "What was that?"
Sakura opened her mouth to reply--but then her expression went blank. "We're not the only ones here," she said quietly.
In a heartbeat, Ino was at her side, a kunai in her hand. She held still for a moment, listening, then said, "You're right. And they're trying to be stealthy."
"Maybe someone followed us from the village," Sakura said, but she was already pulling a black glove onto her hand. And then: "If it's just one attacker, I'll cover for you until you can get into their head, and then I'll tie them up."
"And if it's more?"
Sakura tugged the glove the rest of the way on. "Let's hope it's just someone who followed us from Leaf."
That was when the first Sound-nin fell upon them from the trees.
He carried some kind of bow, and as he plucked it, a pure tone sounded--and then what had seemed like a simple string uncoiled from the bow, turned into a deadly wire, and lashed out at Ino. She lifted her kunai to deflect it, but the knife shattered as the wire coiled around it.
"Get back!" Sakura hissed. "I can dodge better than you can!"
Ino opened her mouth to toss off a retort, but Sakura shoved her back, and hard.
When she looked up again, Sakura had the Sound-nin in a tight hold. He was still, for the moment--but it wouldn't last long. Ino lifted her hands to perform the Shintenshin while she still could--
--and then she was inside the enemy ninja's head. She-as-he went limp, and Sakura pulled out a length of rope from her pack.
"Lucky you're so well-prepared, Sakura-chan," Ino said with the Sound-nin's mouth.
Sakura tightened the knots around the Sound-nin's (Ino's) wrists. "Luck has nothing to do with it." She pulled out another length of rope.
Something flickered at the edge of Ino's borrowed vision. She barely had time to say, "Sakura, over there," and nod in that direction before she was fleeing back to her own body.
Sakura reacted with a speed that surprised Ino. She kneed the first Sound-nin sharply in the chest when he tried to rise--Ino heard bones crunch--and then spun around to face the two that had just emerged from the forest around them. She lifted her gloved fist.
Ino pushed herself to her feet. She can't do this alone, she thought, but even now, Sakura was surprising her. The other kunoichi swept one foot out at the approaching Sound-nin's legs, and as he stepped back to dodge, she planted a fist in his stomach, and he staggered. She turned her attention to the other enemy ninja.
But they were both still coming at her. I was right the first time, Ino thought. She can't handle this alone.
Ino whipped out two shuriken and spun them both at the winded Sound-nin. One nicked his cheek, but he dodged the other entirely--and now he was getting up to go after Sakura again.
Sakura turned for just a moment to look back at her--and Ino knew then that simply fighting side by side would not be enough. She had to go one step further. Strangely, she found herself more excited than afraid.
"Sakura-chan," she said, her voice suddenly very still and clear, "trust me." And she lifted her hands.
Then she was flying through the air, and then she was inside Sakura's head. The dark figure at the center of her mind rose to greet her with eyes blazing--and around her, Ino saw a shattered cage.
"You're free now," Ino said. "Whoever you are."
"You know who I am, pig," Inner Sakura said. "But you're right. Hell yeah I'm free! Naruto and Sasuke helped--" She paused, looking annoyed, and then added, "So did you. But I did it /myself/."
Ino stepped behind her. "Let's do this," she said, and she slipped her hands around Inner Sakura's waist. The...girl? phantasm? dream? was oddly warm to the touch. "This time, together. As a team."
"Whatever you say, Ino-pig--"
--and then Ino was looking out through Sakura's eyes.
But she wasn't just Sakura in here. It was the two of them, their powers melded together, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And the sum of the parts alone was certainly formidable all by itself.
Seeing Ino's body fall to the ground, one of the Sound-nin lunged for her--but the Ino-Sakura gestalt moved forward with astonishing speed, grabbed both of his arms, and snapped them. He crumpled, attempting to hug himself with arms set at terrible angles.
The remaining enemy drew some kind of nasty, whistling blade from a sheath at his side, and he lifted it to slash. But the two-in-one knocked it from his hands with a single swift motion, then crushed his windpipe with one sharp blow from the heel of her palm.
("Is that the first time you've killed?" Ino asked.
"No," said Inner Sakura.)
She knocked out the Sound-nin with the broken arms with a quick kick to the head, and then it was over.
For a long moment, she (/they/) stood there, shaking just a little. They could both feel the power inside them, unlike anything they'd ever tasted before.
Ino, though--she could feel more than that.
With her arms locked in that efficient embrace around Inner Sakura, she could feel the currents of emotion flowing through the other kunoichi like an unceasing river. The depth of her devotion to that loud, idiot teammate of hers; the intensity of her love for that pretty Uchiha bastard--
--the passion of her need to live up to the world around her, to fulfill the dreams Ino had helped her make--
This is why I love her, Ino thought, unbidden, and she was suddenly glad that Sakura could not feel her emotions.
She let go of Inner Sakura and stepped back from her, and then she fled into her own body. Standing up once more, she said, "Let's strip these bastards of anything useful, then head back to the Leaf. I'd say drag the bodies, but that'd be difficult for just the two of us."
Sakura started to nod, then stopped herself. "We still need to find Ton-ton."
"Oh, come on--" Ino started. She didn't so much stop as she did have her breath stolen from her.
The first Sound-nin Sakura had felled had somehow managed to slip the ropes from his hands, and now he had risen to his feet just behind Sakura, lifting his strange and deadly weapon.
Ino got her voice back just in time. "Sakura-chan! Look out!"
But it wasn't enough. Her feet came to life before her brain, and she was rushing into the fray, bodychecking Sakura out of harm's way, putting herself in her place. Then the wire connected with her chest, and something exploded inside her. The world went black.
Ino opened her eyes, and the first thing she saw was Sakura's face.
"What a nice way to wake up," she mumbled. "By the glare of light reflected off your huge forehead."
"I'd hit you if I hadn't just finished healing you--don't sit up!" Sakura was glaring at her--were those tear tracks running down her dirt-smudged face?
Too groggy to quite control her mind, Ino thought, She really looks beautiful like that.
"I guess I should thank you," she said. Her ribs were still aching.
"You might not want to when I'm done with you," Sakura said. She hadn't stopped glaring, and she was leaning very close now. Ino could almost feel the warmth of her breath. "I can't believe you did that!" There was just a hint of hysteria in her voice. "What makes you think you can get away with something like that? What am I to you, some little sister to be protected?"
"Not a sister," Ino blurted out, unable to stop herself. "Never a sister."
A beat, and then Sakura's eyes went wide--somehow, she knew exactly what Ino meant. Maybe it was the remnants of the bond they'd shared during the fight not long ago. Or maybe it was the way Ino's breathing had become so quick, her face so flushed, as Sakura leaned over her.
"No," Sakura said softly. "You're right. It's never been like sisters, has it?"
And maybe there was still a little anger left at the back of her eyes, but all the same, she leaned down to kiss Ino anyway, and her lips were very warm.
And as Ino reached up to wrap her arms around Sakura, a familiar pig emerged from the undergrowth and settled down to watch.