Chapter 8

She should really start walking faster. The girl sashayed her way to the left when she ought to keep going forward. Yet another detour on the path to her friend's house. She couldn't even say that she had lost herself, given that the way there was as known to her as her own. But Ino simply couldn't help but to take wrong turns here and there. Anything to delay meeting Sakura. Why did she agree to this?

As she passed through the sweet shop near the Nara quarters, the memory of a distraught Ms Haruno asking her to spend some time with the pinkette replayed inside her head. She wanted to decline, making up some excuse that she had a shift to take at the flower shop. But she didn't have the heart to do it. Especially when her own mother heard them and insisted her to go. Like everyone else, the blonde had learned of Sakura's unfortunate situation. Ino's first thoughts about that were something along the lines of: Thank fuck that wasn't me.

What kind of shitty person would think that? To her shame however, it was the truth. The Yamanaka wasn't able to deny the amount of relief she had felt, for the girl knew that she could very much be in Sakura's place right now. Ino was still barely able to register that it was Sasuke that had done it. Even when both her teammates had suffered serious injuries, she couldn't help but wonder if Sasuke was okay. Ino imagined if it had been her instead of the Haruno. She pictured the Uchiha's chidori piercing her back instead of her friend's. How would it feel like, then and after too? An annoyed sigh escaped from her. How pathetic of her, she realized. What kind of kunoichi was capable of sympathizing with a traitor? What kind of person was capable of dismissing their friends' wellbeing so easily?

Ino hated the person that had been made apparent to her. She hated what her teenage crush for Sasuke had led her to ignore. She hated the fact that she'd thought of only herself when she heard the news about her friend. She had always been the most level-headed person of her circle, why was she not acting like it? Another pang of guilt was felt in her heart when she started thinking of her 'rival'. What was Sakura's fate going to be like? The uncertainty was oppressing. The Yamanaka remembered their fight at the chunin exams, the pinkette had grown so strong and beautiful since they graduated from the academy, even if she hated to admit it. Ino hoped deep inside her that the Haruno was taking it well, that she managed to remain so strong and beautiful despite such tragedy.

Whatever her destiny would be like, Sakura would need help. It was a harsh and cruel world to be faced alone. With renewed confidence in herself, Ino vowed that she'd stand by her friend no matter what.

The blonde soon noticed the familiar two-story house. She was there.

Ino gently knocked on the door and waited. A drop of sweat slowly ran down her temple as the anticipation killed her. The door opened to reveal a short-haired woman approaching her mid-forties.

"Oh, it's you Ino. Please come in!" An excited Mebuki Haruno invited. The young genin accepted and stepped inside the Haruno's household as the lady announced the girl's presence to Sakura. The first thing she noticed was the terrible mess in the living room. Wardrobes and drawers stood side by side next to the coffe table. Vases and flowerpots were not in their usual places. Ino looked over and saw that the kitchen was in a similar state too, as dishes accumulated in the sink. The older female seemed to notice her awareness over the state of her home and quickly apologized. "Sorry about the mess. It's just that it has been difficult for me to make things more acessible to Sakura by myself."

"There's no problem at all Ms Haruno. I am happy to help you in any way I can." Oh boy, there she was lying again. She was uncomfortable, sure, but definetely not happy. Then again, perhaps-

"You're such a kind girl, Ino. Sakura is lucky to have a friend like you." Ino froze midstep. Both of her hands curled into fists as she forced a smile on her face. She really hoped that the Haruno didn't notice the tears forming on the corner of her eyes. If only she knew the truth, the girl doubted the woman would let her inside her home. "Unfortunately, I'll have to go out for a bit. But I'll be back in a couple hours." She continued while grabbing her purse. "Sakura is in the guest room and... oh! I also made some purin for you two. They're your favorite if I recall."

"Yeah..." Maybe they would help with the horrible taste in her mouth. Maybe they could help her forget the terrible person that she was. Maybe not. The widow made her way to the door and then turned.

"Thanks again so much, Ino." She expressed her gratitude and then left.

Ino's hand scraped against her small buds as she massaged her chest a bit to alliviate the tightness. Rubbing her eyes and sighing once she was over, the blonde saw the door to the guest room that she was all too familiar with. It felt like it was an eternity ago when she used to have slumber parties with Sakura. One step after another, Ino had to consciously tell her body to keep moving towards it. The Yamanaka was shaking as she touched the doorknob. Taking a deep breath, she opened and cheerfully said hello.

"Yo Sakura!" Was she fooling anyone with that? She hoped so.

"Hey..." A pink-haired girl turned to look at her and responded from her bed. That depressed tone wasn't very promising. Ino decided to provoke her friend a little. Maybe getting a normal reaction from her was the best way to go about it.

"So," the kunoichi began as she took a seat on the wheelchair next to her, "I see that your big forehead has grown larger since the last time I saw you." She started to feel her smile become genuine as she could almost hear something like 'and your pig nose as well, Ino-pig!' or 'did I hear somebody oink?'. But she was unpleasantly surprised when none of that happened. Her turquoise eyes widened as Sakura touched her forehead and asked insecurely.

"D-do you think so?"

Oh no.

Sakura's situation was worse than she'd thought.

***VIII***

It would've been the first time in days since sunlight properly greeted his face. Well, at least that part which was left uncovered. The jounin sat on a rooftop staring at the stoney faces of the Hokages as the sun started setting behind them. Out of all of them, the fourth was the one that got most of his attention. The sculptures looked so massive from that distance. Kakashi could swear that the stone carving was looking down on him with disappointment. There was this expectation that the mountain would come to life at any time and squash him like an insignificant bug. Alas, it didn't seem his wish would be granted. But that begged the question. If he already felt like that by just looking at statues, how would he handle facing his students?

Naruto would be gone in just a couple days. Perhaps it would be easier just not having him around. He glanced once more at the Yondaime's face. A sigh escaped his mouth, he had enough of sightseeing. With a single leap, Kakashi gracefully landed on a quiet alley. The jounin put his hands on his pockets and casually started walking down the street. Sakura... well. The less spoken of her the better.

He knew that, although quite unfortunate, Naruto would get over this. The boy was an expert at taking bad situations and making himself better because of them. But what happened to the Haruno... The Sharingan user shook his head. Her destiny looked very bleak. The fact that she was the student that he had neglected the most didn't help at all. This was all his doing.

Guy's reprimand from last night repeated inside his head. Reflecting now, Kakashi couldn't deny the truth in his rival's accusation. He hadn't trusted his subordinates. Not their judgement, not their potential and not their future either. It was clear as day that he hadn't given them any value at all. His memories went back to one of his first ever teammates. The Hatake conceeded, he was the worst piece of trash in Konoha. How could he even hope to be on a team ever again?

As if by coincidence, something next to a pile of garbage called his attention. A gleam that he would've otherwise ignored had it not been for how strongly it emanated when sunlight was cast on it. Approaching the shiny object, the hairs on his back stood up as it was made clear what it was. For a moment, he was not sure about what he should do. It wasn't his, he had no right to just take it. But something told him that he had no other choice. All this happened because of him, keeping it was the least he could do.

With extreme care, he picked up the wrinkled red fabric. With the headband stuffed in his left pocket, he made a promise to watch over its rightful owner.

***VIII***

A couple of little girls playing by the sidewalk stopped for a second to look at them. It was a curious sight to be sure. But they quickly ran away as a psychotic purple-wearing kunoichi stared them down. Satisfied with herself, the Yamanaka snorted and kept pushing the wheelchair.

Sakura, on the other hand, wanted to vanish. Why did she ask Ino to take her there? The cripple's embarassement only became greater as they made their way through the village. Like she had just done a couple of moments ago, her friend would sometimes send a glare to those that dared look at their general direction, as if to tell them 'yeah she is, so what?'. There were a number of times where the pinkette apologized to her for her existence. The Yamanaka didn't seem to hear any of them, or perhaps she just chose not to.

Sakura had quickly learned that the difficulties that came with her new condition were not only physical in nature. Although a bit humiliating, the children weren't really a problem. They were too young to understand, who could blame them? What really hurt her self-esteem were the people around her age or older. The young boys used to look at her nicely. Now, like the rest of them, they didn't seem to want to have anything to do with her. And it was nothing like 'Ah sorry, I don't know you'. It was more similar to 'I don't wanna catch whatever is it that you have'. For some reason, she thought of Naruto when he was younger. Was that how it felt like? She cursed herself for having been so ignorant all that time to his suffering. There it was the need again.

"I'm sorry." Sakura muttered.

"There it is, look!" Ino pointed at the nice spot atop the Hokage mountain, ignoring the pinkette. She picked up the pace and pushed her friend faster. The Haruno let out a little shriek as the sudden change in speed startled her. The young kunoichi slowed down as she got closer to the lonely wooden bench. "Phew, we made it."

Barely. A voice inside her head complemented. The Yamanaka parked her friend towards the village's skyline and took a seat next to her.

"Man, what a view! It was a great idea of you to come here." She started saying in order to prevent that awkward silence from settling in. A shy smile appeared on the jade-eyed girl as she felt a bit guilty that her plan didn't involve her friend. The purple clad ninja continued talking while Sakura worked the courage to speak up.

"H-hey Ino..." She began with some insecurity in her voice.

"Yeah?" The blonde responded. Sakura hesitated for a moment. It was obviously too rude to ask it straightaway. Her mind worked as she quickly thought of a way to do so without putting it so plainly.

"Could you get me some strawberry tea from Makuro's?" Ino looked at the cripple with confusion. Makuro's shop was almost on the other side of the village. What the hell did Sakura think she was now? The girl wasn't afraid to voice her irritation.

"Why the hell would you-" The Yamanaka quickly interrupted herself as what the apprehensive girl on the wheelchair truly wanted finally made itself clear inside her head. Her cheeks blushed a little from jumping to a conclusion so quickly. "Y-yeah, sure." Getting up from her spot and scratching the back of her skull, she asked. "Uhm, anything else I can get you?"

"No, thanks." The pinkette expressed her gratitude to the genin for understanding. And with that, the kunoichi left. Sakura could see her friend leaping from rooftop to rooftop from a distance. A sigh of envy escaped her lips.

She felt a bit bad. Ino thinking that she considered her some pack mule that had to carry her around or a servant that had to get her stuff wasn't her intention. But Sakura needed some time outside to reflect alone. The two-story house had started feeling so constricting to the point that her thoughts couldn't even develop properly. Perhaps here atop the mountain, free from the cage that had become her home, she could find some sort of clarity regarding her uncertain future. Drawing a long breath, her mind started working.

So, she began, what now?

A cool breeze blew past her and she rubbed her arms to warm herself. The cold came along with a certain anxiety. The question kept repeating itself, but she couldn't think of anything. What was left for her when she was going to be like this forever? Being a ninja was all she had known her entire life, even if she had been bad at it. Sakura remembered a small little girl promising her father that one day she'd be a great kunoichi, a heroine to the village. With her face buried in her hands to hide her crying, the pinkette wondered if he was watching her now.

Was it stupid to be so emotional over such a simple memory? Either way, Sakura couldn't think of it without turning sad. And when she stopped being sad, she grew angry. As one emotion replaced another, thoughts over her future were replaced with the person who robbed her of it. Searching inside her small purse, the weeping Haruno grabbed something that she had brought along hidden from Ino.

The gleam of her protector stood as what she had expected it would, a stark reminder of a life that would now forever stay in the past. Her sobs gradually stopped, giving way to deep seething breaths. Love and hatred were indeed emotions that were close enough to one another. But it was still impressive how quickly she had managed to arrive there. And so strongly as well. It was impossible for Sakura to understand. What went wrong? She had done everything she was supposed to. She sacrificed, she became stronger, she was even willing to submit herself to his sinister mission. What had that all meant for him?

Well, Sasuke had shown her the answer to that. He'd chosen to take everything she had given him and throw it back at her face. Or, more precisely, at her spine.

The petite girl felt her blood pumping inside the veins along her hands. Her arms were trembling. The grip around the item became strong as its metal, causing never-seen-before wrinkles on the red fabric. Images of him suffering a terrible death started to fill her imagination. She pictured him wanting to scream as she had. Seeing the light slowly leave him, as his intense dark eyes became nothing more than a a pair of lifeless orbs. With a cry of rage, the cripple threw her protector over the small protective fence at the edge of the mountain. Breathing heavily, a disturbing plan started to form inside her head.

If he wanted revenge so badly, she would give it to him.