Title: Devotion

Author: KStar
Pairing: Sasuke/Ino, with very mild hints of Naruto/Ino and Sakura/Ino
Theme: #13, Excessive Chain
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Summary: Ino wasn't doing it for Sasuke. She was doing it for Sakura. For Naruto. For herself. But certainly not for Sasuke.

devotion n.
1. Ardent, often selfless affection and dedication, as to a person or principle.
-American Heritage Dictionary

Ino Yamanaka stood before the door, eyeing it with uneasy apprehension. Her fingers hovered over the handle, and she chastised herself for her hesitancy. Shifting slightly, she attempted to gain her bearings in the brightly lit, sterile hospital hall. Hospitals had always given her a chill, the whiteness burning her eyes and the smell of disinfectant and death assaulting her nose. Not to mention all the unwanted memories such a place held for her.

Nevertheless, Ino took a deep breath and opened the door. The dark room was a stark contrast to the bright hall, and Ino tried to blink the stars from her eyes. It contained a disheartening, despondent aura, making the young woman want to turn around and leave. However, she forced herself to walk through the threshold and closed the door behind her with an all-too-loud click. Turning, she surveyed the room distastefully, eying the carefully made bed, untouched food, and uncomfortable-looking chair. The room lacked a homely feel; the only spots of color in the drab surroundings were a single picture frame on the night table and a vase of withering zinnias on the window ledge.

A thin, sickly young man sat curled on the far edge of the windowsill opposite the flowers. His knees were drawn up close to his chest and his ebony eyes gazed at the spot in front of him, unseeing. The teenager was dressed in a plain black, long-sleeved, cotton shirt that contrasted sharply with his pale skin and wrinkled khaki shorts. His feet were bare, but he had bandages wrapped from his knees to his ankles. His hair was a mussed-up mess of midnight spikes. The boy was continually running his long, slender fingers up and down the ledge he sat on, oblivious to the world around him.

"Good afternoon, Sasuke-kun!" Ino chirped brightly and moved towards the windowsill. With one graceful motion, she thrust opened the blinds to add a stream of light to the room. Sasuke winced. Pausing for a moment in the sun's rays, she then turned her attention to the zinnias. She plucked the dying flowers from the vase and replaced them with a fresh bouquet. Smiling at Sasuke sweetly, she gestured to the white splashed with pink flowers intermingled with little blue perennials. "These are alstoremerias," she explained, pointing to the larger flowers. She swelled with pride of her vast knowledge when it came to flowers. Then, indicating the five-petalled azure flowers, she added, "And those are forget-me-nots."

Sasuke was staring at the flowers with an unreadable look. Ino's smile never wavered as she continued, "They mean-"

"Devotion and remembrance," came the Uchiha's clipped voice. It was rough and husky from disuse, and he didn't look at her. After several moments, he turned away from the flowers and gazed out the window.

The blonde kunoichi huffed, somewhat flustered. She hadn't expected Sasuke Uchiha to know a thing about flowers. Not to mention, he was actually paying attention for once. Trying to maintain what dignity she had left, Ino flipped her long wheat-colored hair over her shoulder and dragged the lone chair in the room over to the windowsill.

"I see you didn't eat again today," Ino scolded. "Sasuke-kun, you have to eat…otherwise the Godaime-sama will find a way to shove something down your throat. You don't want that to happen again, do you?"

However, the former avenger had retreated into his mind once more, and it was as if she was talking to one of the comatose patients at the hospital. It was a halfway truth. Ever since Kakashi-sama had dragged his last living student back into Konoha, kicking, screaming, crying, and covered in blood that mostly belonged the Naruto, things had significantly changed. The masked Jounin had found the young prodigy just outside the Hidden Leaf's gates, supporting a lifeless Naruto on his back and yanking a dead Itachi behind him. It took seven ANBU to rip the Uchiha off the Kyuubi's container's body.

After sixteen hours of interrogation, all Ibiki and Ino had been able to determine was that Sasuke had killed Orochimaru as well as the majority of the Akatsuki but not Itachi, was now suffering from a severe case of insanity, and somehow Naruto, Sakura, and Sai had all ended up dead. Sai had most likely died by Sasuke's hand, and Sakura's cause of death looked like a combination between chakra exhaustion and the gaping hole in her heart. Naruto's death was indeterminable, mainly because Tsunade had refused to disclose the details. Ino had seen the pictures, however.

Konoha's number one interrogator shook her head vehemently as she attempted to banish the vision of her dead friends from her mind. Sasuke, despite having a nasty cut on his face near his left eye that left an ugly scar, a noticeable limp in his right leg, a right shoulder torn to ribbons, and severe chakra exhaustion, had been in nowhere near the shape of his former teammates. Nevertheless, as surprising as it sounded, Tsunade-sama was adamant that Sasuke had not been the cause of death for Sakura or Naruto. It didn't make sense to a lot of people, but Ino trusted the Godaime's judgment. However, as a traitor, S-class missing-nin, and murderer, Sasuke should have been executed for his crimes, but the council had refused on the grounds he was the last Uchiha. Tsunade had protested that in his current state he wasn't much use to Konoha, but the council had always been a bunch of stubborn jackasses according to Ino. There really wasn't anything Jiraiya or Tsunade-sama could do.

So here Ino sat in the suffocating atmosphere of a hospital, visiting with the last living member of Konoha's supposedly most powerful clan. Yet, the Uchihas really didn't seem all that powerful when they had been taken down easily by one of their own, then that sadistic bastard had been killed saving the foolish brother he had left alive, and said brother was as mad as a hatter. Sasuke couldn't be trusted outside the hospital doors and not under direct ANBU guard. Not that the ANBU could do much when it came to Sasuke Uchiha. Somehow over the past three years, Sasuke had gained an innumerable amount of strength. When he got into one of his moods, only Jiraiya and Tsunade-sama could hold him down and inject the tranquilizer. On three separate occasions in the past five months, he had attempted to claw out his eyes, eyes that were usually an eerie crimson of the Mangekyou. And sometimes Ino walked in to find the hospital room littered with snakes and the stink of burnt flesh. Sometimes the snakes spoke to her. Other times they just watched. Sasuke had his good days and his bad days. The good days weren't exactly good, but at least he seemed to be somewhat sane. The bad days…Ino hoped it wasn't a bad day.

"Well, Sasuke-kun," she said. "My day was rather uneventful. Ibiki-sensei gave me the day off, and this morning I had to help my father with flower delivery rounds. And-"

"Naruto never visits anymore," Sasuke interrupted yet again. Ino looked at him blankly, but the former avenger was staring out the window still. "Neither does Kakashi-sensei or Sakura or…or…I miss them. I miss my team." The last part was a bare whisper. Turning towards Ino, he stared at her with haunted obsidian eyes. "When are they coming back from their mission?"

"Sakura and Naruto are not coming back, Sasuke-kun," Ino explained gently. Her hands were clasped in her lap and she stared at her knees. Shit. It was a bad day. "They aren't coming back."

"But…but…I'm sorry. I'm sorry I ran away," Sasuke persisted. "Please can you talk to them, Ino? Please tell them I'm sorry. I don't want to lose them. They're my best friends."

Ino's head snapped up, and she glared at him. Her blue eyes were cold and unforgiving. "Damn it, Sasuke! They're dead! They're dead, and they're not coming back!"

The dark-haired teenager stared at her with wide eyes. "But…I…" he sputtered.

The young kunoichi honestly did not know why she came here everyday to hear the mad ramblings of a boy that ruined her life. It certainly wasn't for Sasuke's sake. She had stopped loving him years ago. Ino was sick and tired of wasting her life away on her stupid, former crush. She didn't need to hear him go on and on about Sakura and Naruto. It had hurt her to lose them, and it ached her heart every time he brought them up. She was only punishing herself by being here.

Standing, she closed the distance between them and loomed above him, hands on her hips. Her voice dripped with venom. "I really don't understand why they ever gave a damn about you. You aren't worth shit, Sasuke. All you do is ruin other people's lives. Sakura and Naruto are fucking dead because of you. Not Orochimaru. Not your damn brother. You! It's all your fucking fault!

"I could be doing a million things right now. I could be out on a date with Shikamaru or getting dragged to barbeque with Chouji or having a girl's day out with Hinata and Tenten or working on flower arrangements or taking a mission! But no, I'm stuck here with you. I give up my entire afternoon just to sit in my former classmate's hospital room and talk to the shell of what he once was! What I really want to know is why the fuck I even bother with you! Why the hell do I care?"

"Because of Sakura…and because of Naruto," Sasuke replied quietly. His face was emotionless, and his fingers were constantly twitching as he repeated. "For Naruto and Sakura."

All at once, the anger seemed to seep from the blonde kunoichi. She fell back in the chair, and hung her head in her hands, attempting to calm herself down. He was right, of course. She was doing this for Sakura. And she was doing this for Naruto kind of, too. Because of a little red ribbon, a splash of pink hair, and an overly large forehead. Because of a loudmouth, fashion disaster, blonde boy who always irked her to no end. Because of a fight in the Chuunin exams and a rivalry that was supposed to last forever. Because of a young man who proved the village wrong by fighting his own ninja way. Because Sakura was her best friend. Because she had never gotten to know Naruto as much as she should have. Because she owed it to both of them. And maybe she was doing this for herself, too. She was trying to make it up to them and heal her own heart.

"I'm sorry, Sasuke-kun," she mumbled. "I didn't mean-"

"Yes, you did," Sasuke said simply. "Yes, you did."

His words were pained, and Ino looked up at him. Curled into an even tighter ball, he was shivering and his eyes were the horrible Mangekyou Sharingan. "I am sorry, Ino-chan," Sasuke muttered, the insanity kicking in full force. "I am sorry. And it isn't enough." His head twitched, and he repeated to himself. "No, never enough. Never strong enough." He clutched his head, pulling at his dirty locks. "No! No! NO! I'm sorry, okay? Please leave me alone! I wasn't strong enough and I'm sorry. Please go away. Go away."

In an instant, Ino was at his side. "Sasuke-kun?" she questioned softly, hesitant to touch him. She considered calling one of the nurses, but Sasuke's next words stopped her.

"I tried to fix it. Really, I did. I messed things up, and I tried to fix it," the Uchiha whimpered, hands shaking. "But Sakura wouldn't heal him. She wouldn't get up to heal him! And he wouldn't wake up. He wouldn't wake up!"

The blonde kunoichi gathered Sasuke's huddled form in her arms and rocked him back and forth. He clung to her, and Ino knew this wasn't Sasuke. This couldn't be Sasuke. Because Sasuke was the cooler-than-thou Uchiha, the number one rookie genin, the dark, handsome boy she fell in love with. She regretted her previous outburst, even if it was true. The fact of the matter was Sasuke needed her. He needed her because he had no one else left.

"Why?" came Sasuke's muffled voice. "People like Naruto aren't supposed to die. I protected him from Haku all those years ago. I saved him because Naruto was going to become the Hokage and I couldn't let his dream die. He was supposed to live forever."

Ino didn't know who Haku was, but it didn't really matter. "I know," she soothed, stroking his hair. It was true. Naruto had seemed like the kind of person who could never die. The two shinobi stayed that way for several moments.

"You aren't going to leave me are you, Ino?" Sasuke's voice broke through the silence.

Ino stilled and then relaxed. She cupped the sides of Sasuke's face until they were staring at one another in the eyes. "Never, Sasuke-kun," she said and then she kissed him.

Ino could tell herself she didn't love Sasuke anymore. That she should stop spending her every waking moment by his side. He was slowly killing her inside just as he had with Sakura, Kakashi-san, and Naruto. Slowly, he sucked the life out of his victims by his neediness, his own will survive. Everything he touched, everyone who had ever cared about him, eventually met a gruesome end. Even Orochimaru and Itachi Uchiha. It was an excessive chain that would never stop until Sasuke had been put out of his misery. Ino knew she should leave right now, save herself from the impending fate. It should be easy. She didn't love him, right? She'd be deluding herself if she said that.

Ino Yamanaka was in love with Sasuke Uchiha. She had been since the day she had met him years ago. And even if he wasn't the Sasuke she had first seen or even the Sasuke who had been her fellow ninja graduate, it didn't change the fact she cared for him. Because Sasuke was her responsibility now, damn it, and she had to take care of him when he could no longer care for himself.

Sasuke pulled away and stared at her cryptically. Ino's mouth tingled from where their lips met, and her heart was beating rapidly. The avenger opened his mouth to say something but quickly shut it. His lips twisted into a faint smirk. For a moment, he frowned and looked like the old Sasuke, the Team Seven Sasuke. Then Sasuke's eyes were glazed, and she knew he was gone again.

When Ino left the room soon afterwards, she quietly shut the door and slid to the floor with her back against the wall. Tsunade-sama was standing before her. The legendary medic-nin's face was stoic and calm, but her eyes were filled with pity and understanding. The Godaime may not have liked the Uchiha, but everyone knew Sakura and Naruto had been her favorite ninja. She and Sasuke had a quiet understanding between themselves.

Ino drew her knees to her chest, thinking of white alstoremerias and blue forget-me-nots. Devotion and remembrance. They represented her commitment to Sasuke and her memories and wish of happier times. Of a time when Team Seven was new and fresh from the academy and filled with ambitions and dreams of acceptance and friendship. Of a time before curse marks and betrayals and submitting to one's inner demon. Of a time when she was stupid and fought with Sakura and ignored Naruto and glomped Sasuke.

Looking up at the Hokage, she whispered, "Why, Tsunade-sama? Why did they have to die?"

The Godaime pursed her lips, and her eyes betrayed her true age. "I don't know," she admitted honestly. "But without them, what is there left to believe in?" Then she left, moving down the corridor, defeated and dejected, and not at all like the proud Tsunade she once was.

Ino watched her go, but did not move. She listened to Sasuke's unintelligible ramblings inside his room, and closing her eye, she could have sworn she smelled freshly bloomed cherry blossoms and hot, spicy ramen. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear what sounded like the shattering of glass.

I'm going to be the greatest Hokage.

I'm not going to lose to you anymore.

I am an avenger.

Vision blurring, Ino Yamanaka hung her head and cried.