Forget-Me-Not - Shatter
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
A pure beam of light penetrates a crystal and splits into seven distinct bars. They are each a part of the whole, broken pieces that can never fuse again once separated. They are fractures of something that used to glow, now hollow and glaring even though they once came from something beautiful.
But no more.
Sometimes we see things that aren't really there. Or maybe it's that they are right there in front of us, but we're not really looking. Not because we don't want to see, but because we can't.
He won't let her. He doesn't want her to see him like this. If he's honest, he doesn't want anyone to see him like this. But he's never been an honest man.
Some things are better off forgotten, he thinks.
Ino remembered that day in shocks and bursts. Some things were starkly clear, like black and white, while others seemed fuzzy in her recollection. The details weren't necessarily important, anyway.
She was delivering flowers, she recalled. It must have been a bulk order because she was delivering to a nameless café in the western district of Konoha, a wheelbarrow and a civilian temp waiting for her outside with the large order of flowers. She made a beeline for the bar, order form in hand to confirm the purchase with the manager.
"Ah, you're from Yamanaka Flowers, right?" the male barista said when she waved him down and explained the flowers. "I'll get the manager for you. Would you mind waiting just a minute?"
"Sure," Ino said casually.
The barista disappeared in the back and left Ino to linger at the corner of the bar. She leaned her elbows on the counter and sighed. Taking the opportunity to peruse the little café, she took in the sight of a few patrons sipping espresso at the bar, while others filled the small tables armed with books and iced vanilla lattes. Most people were civilians, she realized. They were dressed casually and absorbed in their own conversations. No one paid her any mind.
In the corner of her eye, she imagined she spotted two individuals—maybe three? She couldn't quite remember. They seemed to blend into each other, dressed similarly in black and red. The bulky cloaks and straw hats obscured their faces, so she couldn't tell if she recognized them or not. They must have been foreigners, since she'd never seen anyone in Konoha dressed like that before.
"Miss? I hear you have some flowers for us."
Ino snapped her head around, all but forgetting the cloaked figures off in their dark corner. "Ah, yes, that's right. Are you Iwata Takeshi?"
"That's me. Where do I sign?" the manager said with a kind smile.
Ino handed him a pen and pointed to a dotted line. "Right here, please. Oh, and initial here."
He signed and Ino signaled to her civilian helper to start bringing in the flowers.
"Oh, just have him wheel it around back. It will be easier to unload there, and I have a couple of guys who can help."
"Alright," Ino said, relaying the message when her civilian helper brought in the first two pots of flowers.
"Thank you again, Miss…?"
"Ino. Yamanaka Ino," Ino said, flipping her still short ponytail over her shoulder. It had yet to grow out to its normal length after she'd cut it during the Chuunin exams.
It was hot outside and she felt listless even inside the café. She remembered that part vividly because it made the chill running down her spine that much more pronounced. There wasn't a draft, not in this heat, and the café had no air conditioning if the numerous ceiling fans were any indication. She shook her head, making for the exit, when that ominous prickling sent another wave of shivers up her back. She could be imagining things, but her sensitivity to chakra usually suggested otherwise. It felt like someone was watching her.
Instinctively, Ino turned around. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the dark corner where she'd seen the people in the black and red cloaks, but they were gone. The table was empty save for a pair of porcelain teacups and an empty plate with two bare dango sticks. Odd, she didn't see anyone go out. And she had been standing right by the door the entire time, so she surely would have noticed anyone trying to leave.
"Iwata-san?" she addressed the manager.
"That table in the corner," she said, indicating the offending booth. "Who were the customers? I swear they were there just a minute ago, but now the table is empty."
Iwata frowned. "I'm not sure. We get a lot of faces in here, so it's hard to keep track of them all. Were they friends of yours?"
Ino looked back at the table one last time, frowning. The chills had left her, and all she felt was heavy and hot. She shook her head. "No."
She remembered the way Sasuke looked so feeble and broken lying in his starchy hospital cot, sleeping the afternoon away with a pained frown marring his regal features. She wondered if he was having a nightmare. She wouldn't blame him; not after the surprise visit from someone who had died and been reborn a monster.
She didn't want to leave, but she'd only stumbled upon his room by accident. Ino was delivering flowers to a nurse from an anonymous admirer when they brought him in. It was very covert, as if no one wanted it to get out that Uchiha Sasuke was unconscious and half dead. Why was he so beat up? What happened?
The nurses shooed her away when they found her looking in on him. Ino didn't protest, instead deciding to get some answers. No one she knew could beat up Sasuke so badly, except maybe that creepy boy from Sunagakure she'd seen skulking around. Even then she couldn't believe Sasuke would be in such terrible shape.
"…had a run-in with Akatsuki, they say," a nurse's voice drifted to her ears as Ino made her way out of the hospital.
Who is Akatsuki?
"And the blonde boy, Uzumaki Naruto…"
"…in Room 4, I think…"
"…two of them, in red and black…"
Red and black…
"Didn't you hear? One of them was his brother, the one who killed their family."
At the mention of Sasuke's brother, Ino froze in place. Her eyes had gone wide as saucers and her blood felt like it had frosted over in her veins, sending icy ripples through her body. Itachi…here in Konoha?
"…probably came back to finish the job. That poor boy…"
Itachi had done this… She could not believe it. He was here, and it sounded like he was responsible not only for Sasuke's comatose condition, but also for an attack on Naruto. It was unfathomable. He was here.
Ino ran out of the hospital.
Sasuke was still in a coma by the time Ino and Sakura returned with their flowers, having called a truce in their love rivalry for the time being. Ino was still dazed with the news that Itachi, of all people, had returned to Konoha and put all the male members of Sakura's team in intensive care.
"He's not awake yet," Sakura's soft voice floated to her ears. She sounded sad.
"We can leave the flowers. I'm sure he'll wake up soon and see them," Ino said, not really believing her own words.
This seemed to make Sakura feel a little better, and they placed their flowers on the windowsill. Ino brought a pink rose, and Sakura a white daffodil.
A knight for her knight in shining armor, Ino thought.
"Um, I'm going to stop by Lee's room. I'll…catch up with you later," Sakura said, clutching the other white daffodil in her hands.
Ino nodded her understanding and watched the pink-haired girl go. She seemed very shaken by the turn of events—and who could blame her? The seemingly infallible Team 7 had been brought to its knees by one man.
Not a man; a monster.
Ino stared at Sasuke's bed. He was wrapped up in white bandages and swathed in starchy white hospital sheets. He almost looked dead like that. As soon as the thought had entered her mind, she shook her head to banish it and turned to leave.
She wondered if Itachi was already gone.
It wasn't until later, after the invasion of Konoha by Sand and Sound and the Sandaime Hokage's untimely death, that Ino realized what must have happened. It's funny how extreme adversity and tragedy can make people reflect on the past, reveling in details they might have otherwise overlooked or smoothed over.
Akatsuki, she'd found out, was the name of a certain criminal missing nin organization whose motives were as of yet unclear. They were the ones who had attacked Naruto and Sasuke. They were the ones Uchiha Itachi had allied himself with since his defection several years ago. They were the ones in the red and black cloaks. It was such a minor detail that Ino could not believe she remembered it at all. But like most things regarding Uchiha Itachi, she could not help but remember with startling clarity. The memory of him could never un-happen.
The red and black she'd seen in the café on the same day Sasuke and Naruto clashed with Itachi… It made her insides crawl to think that maybe, just maybe, she'd been in the same room as Itachi after so many years, and she didn't even realize it. The more she thought about it, the more she was convinced that it had to have been him. The observation of the red and black garb, and pinning them as foreigners, it all came back to her. They seemed to disappear without a trace, giving her no opportunity to detect their leave. Only skilled shinobi could have gotten away so effortlessly. And the way she'd felt uneasy, like a cold hand was running up her back the whole time they were there… Ino shook her head, willing the sensation away.
He knew it was me.
She didn't know how she knew, but she knew. It explained why they left so abruptly. If only she'd taken a better look, she might have even recognized him.
He knew I would know his face.
Perhaps her memory could not quite un-happen for him, either.
The day before Sasuke left Konoha, Ino knew something was off about him.
They never talked much, not really. He came to accept her pseudo-rivalry with Sakura for his affections, probably because he knew she didn't do it for his benefit, but for Sakura's. He didn't like being caught up in the middle of things, but that wasn't Ino's fault. Sakura chose him, so he and Ino would have to deal with it.
He was at the old playground where they'd had their first real conversation five years ago. Since then, they hadn't spoken to each other much. Sasuke never laughed the way he had that day. Looking back on that time, she couldn't remember why she decided to go to the playground. What use did Genin have for swings and sandboxes, anyway? Maybe she had been taking a shortcut to get to Sakura's house, like the first time. Sasuke's presence stopped her from completing her journey to Sakura, ever the obstacle between their friendship. Or maybe he was the bridge between them. Perhaps he was both. Like last time, she couldn't abide just passing him by without a word or two.
"Ino," he said, his tone clipped. It didn't look like he wanted to talk, but when had Sasuke ever really wanted to talk since Itachi killed their family in cold blood?
Ino took a seat on the swing next to him. "You want a push?"
He continued staring at the dusty gravel, his feet propelling his swing lightly as if blown by a light summer breeze, but there was no wind here. The playground was ensconced by thick forest on all sides save for the two paths leading into and out of the area.
"I guess you don't need one now that you're taller," she said.
He looked up at her, his dark eyes unreadable. She couldn't help but think they looked a bit tired, but the anger in them simmered just beneath the surface. Sasuke's eyes had always been different from Itachi's. It helped remind her that he wasn't him.
"I can swing on my own now." He didn't seem convinced of his own words.
"I guess," Ino said, thoughtful. "But sometimes it's easier when someone's there to give you a push, you know?"
"The way you push Sakura." He didn't try to conceal the irritation in his voice.
"It doesn't concern you."
"So you've told me. And yet, here you are."
They were silent for several moments, and Ino mimicked Sasuke's lazy swinging by digging her toes into the ground for momentum.
"You should make up with her."
Ino blinked at him, a little startled that he would seemingly care about Sakura's wellbeing. "We did, at the Chuunin exams."
Sasuke didn't look convinced as he continued to stare a hole in her face.
"She started it. I was only going along with it."
"It doesn't matter. She's weak, and she needs someone to support her."
Ino made a face at his choice of words. "You're wrong, Sasuke. Sakura is strong. She gets stronger every day. You just don't see it."
"I thought this didn't concern me."
Ino bit her lip, annoyed. What was wrong with him? Why was he being such a jerk? "It almost sounds like you wish this was about you."
"If you think I care, you're wrong."
Ino rolled her eyes, convinced that this conversation was going nowhere fast. Still, as she watched him push himself in a lazy arc, she was reminded of that day many years ago when they flew together. She wondered when Sasuke had lost his wings.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It…wasn't supposed to turn out like this."
He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he stopped swinging. "It was never supposed to turn out like this."
"Sasuke, what's wrong? Can I do anything?"
He rose off his swing moved to stand directly in front of Ino's seated form still on the swing. She looked at him—really looked at him—and thought he looked older than his thirteen years.
He turned to leave, and she watched the embroidered Uchiha fan on his black shirt as he retreated. Itachi always wore clan regalia emblazoned with the Uchiha symbol, a show of pride in his family. Sasuke carried that pride like a heavy weight on his shoulders—the last of his kind. The last that still existed. He still existed, not like the boy who had died with the smile on his face and returned a monster.
"Sasuke," Ino called out to him, standing.
He turned his head to regard her, his expression blank.
She tightened her grip on the chain holding up the old swing. "If you change your mind, I'll push you anytime. Just ask."
He didn't say anything, just nodded slightly before disappearing down the path. It was the last time she would see him for a very long time.
There were few things in this world worse than confirmation of death. Waiting for confirmation was one of them.
"Do you... Do you think they'll be back soon?"
Ino spared Hinata a glance askance, clenching her jaw at the sight of the pretty Hyuuga girl about to break into a thousand pieces of glass at the first sign of their teammates. Ino felt no better as she returned her worry stricken gaze to the treeline in the distance. Five hours they'd been waiting here and still no sign of the boys.
"They'll be here," Ino said resolutely, masking her inner turmoil and anxiety. They have to come back.
Hinata let her eyes fall, and Ino grabbed her hand. She hadn't been expecting Hinata's grip to be so firm, and she guessed that grief brought out the inner fortitude in people.
And the fragility.
Sakura stood a ways to the side near the edge of the gates, her hands clasped before her chest as though she might break into a run without this small restraint. Hard green eyes stared steadfastly at the distant forest. She looked like a statue rooted to the spot, but Ino suspected there was a lot going on inside that big heart of hers. Never one to waver when she made a decision, Ino pulled Hinata toward Sakura's spot, where she grabbed the pink-haired girl's hand too.
Sakura turned to the other two girls in surprise, as though she'd forgotten that they were still here too, waiting for their teammates to return and dreading the worst. In a show of deep understanding, Ino forced herself to smile, and Sakura's eyes watered with tears she refused to shed, grateful for the support. It was still too early to let go.
They stood there for another two hours, the three of them together, bound by love for the teammates who'd left them chase after one of their own. Looking back, Ino could remember how much her legs ached from standing all afternoon, refusing to sit in case they showed up and she needed to get to them immediately. The others, Tenten and Shino and even some of their teachers, came to keep watch with them, silent beacons of slowly dwindling hope that stubbornly refused to be snuffed out completely.
And when finally Chouji and Neji appeared on the horizon, dragging each other inch by painful inch, the floodgates opened. Sakura gasped at the sight of the dying boys barely able to keep themselves upright while Ino took off at a sprint, Tenten hot on her heels. They reached the boys just as they collapsed in a lifeless heap of blood and broken bones.
"Chouji! Oh god, Neji!"
The girls picked them up just as Gai arrived to help, letting them know that he'd sent word to the hospital. Ino felt more than saw her tears staining Chouji's dirty, emaciated face as she pulled him along as quickly as she could toward the gates of Konoha. He'd used those awful pills, she thought to herself. They'd talked about how dangerous the supplements could be, especially without backup. She wanted to scream at him and shake him awake, but right now the only thing she could do was get him into intensive care as soon as possible. His life depended on it.
A nearly dead Kiba and Akamaru showed up soon after, hauled by Kankuro's puppets. Hinata broke down at the sight of him, and Shino was quick to escort them all to the hospital. Gaara, Lee, Naruto, and Kakashi trickled in later in the evening, with Naruto looking the worst of them as he was rushed to the emergency room.
Sasuke was not among them.
Shikamaru and Temari returned relatively unharmed, but when he joined Ino at the hospital to wait for word on Chouji's surgery, she knew immediately that he was far worse off than he appeared.
"Is he... Is he going to be..."
"He'll be okay," Ino said, eyes puffy from crying earlier when she was certain Chouji would die. "Tsunade-sama says he needs food and rest." She forced a smile at the thought of Chouji, of all people, needing food.
"This is all my fault," Shikamaru said, deathly pale. "I nearly got them all killed..."
Ino would never forget the first time she saw Shikamaru cry. He withered before her like a dying flower, shrivelling in on himself as though submitting to some inner black hole. She reached for him and hugged him to her. He tried to pull away.
"Stop it, just stop!" she hissed, fresh tears prickling her eyes.
"It's all my fault," he whispered into her shoulder.
Ino pulled back enough to look him in the eye, and his anguish broke her heart. "No," she said. "No, if Sasuke hadn't left, none of this would have happened. It's not your fault."
"I was in charge of that mission, and I failed. I failed them. We didn't even bring Sasuke back in the end."
Ino bit her lip to keep it from wavering as a fresh wave of sadness threatened to overwhelm her. Sasuke was really gone, and half the Rookie Nine was bedridden as a result. "Please, don't do this, Shikamaru. You and Chouji are here, safe, and that's all that matters."
"I'm so sorry, Ino," he rasped, looking down and squeezing his eyes shut. "I'm so sorry."
Ino embraced him again, and this time he returned the hug with a strength she hadn't known him to possess. They stayed like that for a long time, finding comfort in each other as they waited for their teammate to return from the brink of death. And as they sat there together, Ino realized something.
This was his doing.
At the end of the day, it always came back to Itachi. His appearance in Konoha pushed Sasuke over the edge little by little, and the rest of them could only watch from the sidelines as he drifted deeper into his black hatred. She hated Itachi for what he'd done to Sasuke, and now she didn't know if she could ever forgive Sasuke for roping her friends into this vicious cycle. That wasn't the Sasuke she knew. That wasn't the Sasuke Sakura had fallen in love with, the Sasuke they called a close friend and ally.
This was his doing.
The day Sasuke left Konoha with the parting gift of four Rookies in critical condition, Ino began to wonder if monstrosity was a genetic trait of the Uchiha. When Chouji was out of danger and slowly getting back to his normal self, and when Sakura boldly decided to channel her desperation at losing Sasuke into a respectable apprenticeship with the new Hokage, Ino made the decision to bury the Uchiha brothers for good, for all their sakes.
As long as she could forget them, they would cease to haunt her nightmares.
Author's note: Shippuden timeskip is in the next chapter, and Itachi will be back. Obviously, I'm straying from canon a lot going forward since I don't think Itachi and Ino ever actually met in the manga? THEIR LOSS (and mine, sad day). Anyway, no, I'm not abandoning this and yes, updates will continue more frequently from now on. As I mentioned in my other recent updates, I haven't responded to reviews from the last chapters of anything due to busy times in real life, and for that I sincerely apologize. But I will absolutely get back to replying starting now, so please feel free to drop me a line! I'd love to know your thoughts on this chapter. Some of it I like, some of it I didn't like quite so much.