After Sasuke's betrayal, Ino visits Sakura. (Friendship fic; some pairings if you REALLY read between the lines... I know who I'm rooting for ;D)
Just after the hospital scene in ch.236, after Sakura's gone to see Naruto - who has clearly just gone through some gruesome healing - and just before he leaves.
by Blue Jeans
"It's not your fault, you know?" Ino tiredly murmured the words before she could stop herself. It was forward of her to assume, after such a long time, to still know the things that occupied Haruno Sakura's mind. She said it nonetheless since not knowing had never stopped her from saying anything to Sakura before.
"What is not my fault?" Sakura asked instead, skillfully avoiding the whole matter by pretending ignorance. There was... something in her voice that Ino thought she could interpret, that she understood, but the words that Sakura had used to express herself, to hide herself, they were different. Was this pink-haired girl still the one she knew those years ago? That uncertain and shy shadow that followed and mimicked her, trying to find confidence by drawing upon her brightness then, the person she had once been to Sakura?
"Naruto and..." at this Ino paused, hesitating, "Sasuke...-kun." It was so very strange. Even now the idea that Uchiha Sasuke, the boy she had given up so much for, the boy who took so much from her so effortlessly, the boy she had thought she had loved-- how could he be a traitor to the village? How could he be the same boy who was the cause of Chouji's brush with death and Shikamaru's distance that was no longer due to just laziness? How could the boy she grew up with value everything that had to do with their village, the people who cared for him, and-- and... not care? (If not care, it did not change the fact that, in the end, he betrayed them.)
"What about them?" Sakura asked blankly, turning her face away as if bored. The action was so reminiscent of the boy they both had loved that Ino felt lost for a moment, and angry the next. Sakura was trying to be someone else's shadow now, but Sasuke's shadow was dark and long and deep. It would not suit her pink-haired friend, who once cared only about boys and ribbons and foreheads that were too large to want to be the grey outlines of a soon-to-be monster. It would not do for Sakura, who had once meant so much to Ino, to want to give up everything for a boy who taught Ino how closely they lived, as shinobi, beside deaths and betrayals and the broken threads of fate.
"H-have you visited Naruto, yet?" Ino plowed on determinedly, trying to steer the subject away from Sasuke. He had never been a common ground between them, instead he was the gap that they shared, the chasm that separated them. He was the boy who was the cause for her teammates' extensive injuries, the one she could not bring herself to hate but was too angry at to forgive. Yet, she observed that Sakura's shoulder were suddenly tense before they relaxed at her question, most likely an action done through sheer force of will.
"Yeah," Sakura replied nonchalantly.
"Yeah, and?" Ino echoed in faint astonishment at her friend's careless reply, all her exhaustion, up to this point, vanishing in that moment.
"And nothing," Sakura stubbornly answered.
In the ensuing silence, the anger Ino felt recede earlier came back, a surprising fury that surged so harshly within her that Ino didn't even realize she had hit Sakura until they were both rolling on the ground and Sakura's yelp or irritation brought Ino back into her body again. It was as if she had used her family's jitsu without realizing it, but instead of possessing another person she felt possessed herself. And the buzz in the back of her brain, the emotion that had taken over her, has yet to subside long enough for Ino to stop panting from the emotion that rocked her world. Yet, slowly, she realized that her one hand was bruisingly grasping Sakura's wrist, that the pain in her jaw and the wetness on her cheek was not just due to her own tenseness or her own tears or even their scuffle. And Sakura, Sakura was not looking at her with mild eyes, but dreadfully flat eyes filled with guilt and red with unshed, salty residue. It held none of the naive heart that used to be worn on Sakura's sleeves and, now, hid itself in the confines of those shaking limbs. After everything, despite their brief bravado at the future to come, this small moment of despair still caught up to both of them.
But to know that Sakura would choose a side in the silence of her sorrow than support the one who risked death and broken friendships for her... Ino could not accept it. Not with Choji's life on the line. Not with Shikamaru's bandaged hand and tears of uncertainty that she had heard echo down the hall to haunt her footsteps. Not even with that jerk, Neji, coming through their gates with a terrifying hole through his chest that she had only heard about. None of their sacrifices seemed to move Sakura past her thoughts on Sasuke, at least, that was what it looked like to Ino. And that thought alone hurt her, because she could not find it within herself to feel anything but rage at the boy who she once had thought she would do anything for, yet she had not the courage to despise him as she thought she should.
Everything she felt... Forgiveness, in the end, had never been her strong point. Of the thousand things that had happened and will one day happen, Ino doubt she would ever be able to learn forgiveness for this act of betrayal, and she couldn't, at the moment, will herself to even try.
It hurt to look at those eyes all the more because of the things Ino now understood about herself. They showed, in that filmy, clear reflection, Ino mirroring a similar expression. "He nearly killed Chouji," Ino finally whispered accusingly, voice slowly rising with resentment that she had thought was under control. It was an anger that shimmered below the worry that had wrecked the last few hours of her life with doubts and filled her with confusion in her denial, once she found out what had happened. But in that moment, Ino faced the pain Sasuke left in his wake because he was no longer the most important person in her life, and perhaps, he never had been. Perhaps, she had simply chose him so strongly, in the end, because she had been so filled with jealous anger at Sakura's cold words that day when their friendship died. Perhaps, it was more spite than any real feelings for him except that he had been the most desired by her peers.
"You nearly killed me," Sakura said after a long pause in retaliation, but the other's half-hearted joke fell short.
Ino looked at her long and hard, until Sakura turned away again. "Don't be so dramatic," Ino finally said, playing along and breaking their early tension. She was angry but the confusion and worry was returning to ease that painful moment. "We tied in the tournament. I doubt these last few days of inactivity improved either of us. Hence," Ino concluded matter-of-factly, "I doubt I'd waste what little energy I have left trying to kill you." Ino smirked, "Unless I am mistaken and you really are as weak as you used to be, Sakura-chan."
Sakura blinked, head still turned away, but even from this angle Ino could read the surprise on Sakura's face. "I never thought you would say that."
"What?" Ino demanded.
"That you would acknowledge me," Sakura turned back and looked into Ino eyes.
And it hurt the blonde to think how far they were now. The gap was so much wider and deeper than she had thought herself. "You didn't give me a choice," Ino admitted, her smirk forcefully confident and sad and older than her age.
Sakura was silent for a long time. "I wanted to go with him," she finally said, and for a terrifying moment Ino thought Sakura meant that she was going to go pursue Sasuke, despite everything that had happened. "Naruto, when I saw him, I didn't know how to say any of the thousand things I should have said and had wanted to say. We couldn't bring Sasuke back, but I was the one who was useless. I failed both of them, Ino." Sakura smiled bravely then as she said this. "But, I'm going to get stronger. I'm not going to sit here and feel sorry for myself anymore. I'm not going to be left behind anymore."
When Sakura looked up at her, Ino could see those silent thanks directed at her for being there.
Ino thought, if this had been the Sakura she once knew, her pink-haired friend would only have been crying and no amount of screaming from her would have changed anything. Even if Sakura didn't know it, Ino could see that the other was already stronger than before. Sasuke wasn't going to come back, not unless they dragged him back by his ankles. Sasuke nearly killed half the people they knew and grew up with, and in the end, abandoned them without a backward glance. Ino could not forgive him for these things, but it was not her place to forgive.
"I want him to know," the pink-haired kunoichi finally said softly, "that he isn't alone anymore. I am not going to hold him back anymore, either." Ino wasn't sure if Sakura meant Sasuke or Naruto, but at that moment, perhaps it didn't matter. She felt Sakura push her off of her as the other rose. In that moment, there was a pang deep in her chest as she looked to her pink-haired friend. "Whatever the outcome, he won't have to do it alone anymore. We're a team! I know we can get through this together. Naruto keeps his promises but that promise involves me too." And despite everything that had happened, Ino realized then that Sasuke was not the only one that Sakura thought of or worried over. Not anymore. And despite this small change, this miniscule mentioning of Sakura's awareness of someone else's pain that was not just Uchiha Sasuke's alone or even Sakura's own, Ino was infinitely relieved.
Ino also thought that Sakura would never look as grown-up or as beautiful as in that moment. She realized suddenly that she could not protect her friend anymore, but Sakura didn't seem to want or need anyone's pity or protection anymore either. The other's blind-trust in that once obnoxious classmate saddened Ino into realizing how far down different paths they had gone. Still, this stronger Sakura had surprised her and, perhaps, from this change they can forge back the friendship they had discarded years ago. Sakura will soon discover the strength the other had never relied on but had always been there within herself, Ino was sure of this. Because as Sakura looked down at her and extended a helping hand to her, Ino could see her friend shedding all the shadows Sakura had been chasing after since childhood. For the first time, Ino thought, this is the real Haruno Sakura.
Why did I not notice that? Why did I never see who was behind that wide-forehead and those too long bangs? Had she been there all along?
Ino could not help but miss, in that split second, the Sakura who had once loved her for more than who she had been.
Note: And no, this was not a yuri.
(Oh God! Did I just spell Ino's last name wrong? A, not i! Hi there desk! Meet my forehead! -dies of humiliation-)