Mercurial Tears & Other Colors
Ino’s patience was almost completely dissolved by the time Sakura and Naruto arrived at the restaurant, but after witnessing their excited grins at seeing her, she decided it was best to feel grateful rather than annoyed.
“Sorry we’re late,” Sakura said as she hugged her, the sound of clinking dishes and silverware floating around them along with the idle chatter of the other patrons.
“It’s fine,” said Ino with sincerity, her impatience a forgotten memory already. “I won’t hold it against you guys.”
Naruto shook his head and gave her a thumbs-up. “Glad to hear. We’d deserve it, too. We honestly just got lost in a conversation and forgot about meeting you here.” He laughed with embarrassment, and Sakura frowned apologetically.
Ino gestured to their table for them to sit. “It’s totally cool, guys. Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad we can finally eat; I’m starving.”
Sakura nodded, smiling. “Me, too.”
They took their seats and continued their surface-level dialogue. It wasn’t until after their food was served that matters got deeper, which, truthfully, Ino wished would have come sooner. She had grown quite close to the two of them in the years after the war, and she thought they knew each other well by this point in their relationship. They kept one another updated about their lives and tried to maintain a regular schedule of seeing each other as much as possible. Ino and Sakura still worked at the hospital together and when Naruto wasn’t assisting Kakashi with his Hokage duties, he usually decided to join them in their free time. Yet despite Ino’s wishes of quicker vulnerability among the three of them, she knew it was her fault the conversation didn’t go the direction she wanted until she forced it to.
With her plate of noodles half-finished, Ino lowered her chopsticks and sighed. Naruto and Sakura noticed her trepidation and both exchanged similar expressions of concern.
“Something wrong?” Naruto asked before Sakura could.
Ino had been thinking of the best way to tell them all day long. She didn’t enjoy being indirect about her feelings, but fear had an odd way of making a person approach a situation differently than they usually would.
And Ino was afraid.
“I have a date tomorrow,” she almost whispered.
Their reactions, unlike their earlier expressions, were practically opposite of each other. Sakura brought her hand up to her mouth, as if she was attempting to conceal her obvious apprehension. Naruto, on the other hand, was ecstatic. He began to ask questions, his words picking up speed the more he talked. Somehow, this only made Ino pay more attention to Sakura’s silence. She noted the way she was staring intently at Naruto, like she was searching for a strange trait she never knew her friend possessed before. It was a little peculiar. She silently wished she could know what she was thinking then.
Ino tried to keep up with Naruto’s questions, but most of them were ones she couldn’t answer. She barely understood what had happened herself. While she had always considered herself a rather aggressive woman, the fact that she had actually asked him out bewildered her just as much as it would anybody. The first notion to cross her mind when she had asked him was one of strong doubt. She had done it in the crowded street almost as soon as she saw him the day before.
The sudden, impetuous decision had surfaced in her mind like a swimmer breathing for air and before she knew it, she was approaching the man with a friendly smile. The shock on his face matched Ino’s own inner amazement rather well, she thought, and they quickly exchanged the necessary information and from that point, Ino felt she had locked herself in a derisory situation. She kept convincing herself, however, it wasn’t a bad idea. He was handsome and seemed to have an overall cordial demeanor.
And, well, there was another reason she acted so impulsively: loneliness.
It wasn’t something she enjoyed thinking about, let alone talking about, so she typically refrained from contemplating beyond what she needed to, but maybe this one would work out. Her brashness had attracted him, and she entertained the idea of getting to know him more.
“What was his name again?” asked Naruto, pulling her from her stupor.
Ino blinked and placed her fingers delicately on her neck. “Oh...uh...Koya, I believe.”
Naruto frowned thoughtfully and leaned into his chair. “Koya? I don’t think I know anybody by that name...do you, Sakura?”
Sakura didn’t respond immediately, not as if she wasn’t paying attention like Naruto often was, but more because she appeared to be mentally tackling something more than just Sakura’s question. Ino could relate to that, she supposed.
“No, can’t say I do,” she replied slowly.
Her response must have mitigated Naruto’s excitement because after that he was calm. “I see. Did you find out if he was a shinobi, Ino?”
Ino shook her head. “He’s not. He didn’t carry himself like one, anyway, and I would have probably recognized him at least.”
Naruto folded his arms. “A civilian, eh? I always thought you’d be better off with some macho S-class kind of guy. But, well, as long as he’s good for you, then it doesn’t really matter, I guess.”
“Woah,” said Sakura, “let’s not get carried away here; it’s just a date.”
Naruto shrugged. “So? Don’t these things move fast once they start?”
Sakura’s strong gaze lingered on him for a lot longer than Ino had expected. There was a steadiness in Naruto’s own eyes as well. It was as if they were trying to communicate to one another with just their eyes, and it made Ino uneasy. They both knew something—she was sure of it.
Finally, they broke their looks and regarded Ino again. “Where you guys meeting up?” Naruto asked smoothly.
Ino sighed and rubbed her forehead. “We said we’d meet at one of those nicer restaurants near the south part of the village.”
Sakura must have noted her exasperation because her next words were sincere. “I hope you don’t feel bad for telling us about this, Ino. It’s hard to put yourself out there, especially for...you. So we just want you to know we both support it.”
Ino flashed a smile. “Thanks, Sakura. I know you guys mean well; I’m just tired. I got a lot to think about, I guess.”
“Of course you do,” agreed Sakura. “You wanna call it a day?”
She did. And from there, they said goodbye and Ino headed home. The walk back was short, but it felt long to her. She felt as if she was traversing her entire mind as she roamed the streets with a pensive expression, trying to unravel her coiled thoughts that seemed bound by their own complexities. And as she neared her door, she could feel those thoughts shift back towards the cryptic look between her two friends. She didn’t like the fact they had a secret.
And it definitely had to do with her. Yeah, she really didn’t like that.
It was late in the afternoon when Ino stepped out of her apartment, and she could clearly view the sun setting from the top of her steps. The low horizon dipped in blood orange paint was shying colorful, ineffable discs at her as the dark branches of the trees poked into it, like slim child fingers scratching against a beautiful canvas.
The sight reminded her of how desolate she felt.
That feeling had developed slowly over the last few years. As she began to shuffle towards the restaurant where she was to meet her date, Ino’s brooding stretched over how that development started. She supposed it had something to do with the monotony of her failed love life. Every date ended with a terrible, quiet realization she had messed it up somehow. Even if it wasn’t entirely her fault, it was partially. See, Ino was prone to saying too much, opening up too quickly, and it was this vulnerability that caused her so much distress. Because whenever the moment took over and the young, handsome man would give her that assurance that she could say whatever she wanted, she simply forgot herself. She forgot the basic, ugly truth:
Nobody wanted to hear it.
At least, not early on. People tended to forget how awful others were. Everyone wanted to believe the world wasn’t so appalling—that humans were inherently good and were constantly trying to better themselves. But humanity was hideous, and they kept trying to hide that fact from one another. Of course, they had their moments. When a couple of many years finally exposed their hearts—both ghastly and beautiful—to each other and then accepted what they shared, that was probably one of its finest moments for sure. But to get there took a long time, at least it normally did, and Ino just couldn’t seem to grasp that; she didn’t want to wait.
But this would be different, she told herself. This time she would pace herself and keep matters casual. For every time she revealed who she was to a man, they fled and she was left with the gnawing ache of knowing she was to blame. If only she had more patience, she thought, if only she remembered etiquette and waited for the right time, then maybe it would work.
She reached the restaurant right on time and found Koya waiting for her outside the entrance. When he saw her, he waved and beckoned her over.
She approached him and presented a demure smile. “Hello, Koya. I hope you didn’t wait long.”
He grinned and shook his head. “Not at all. Just got here, in fact. I hope you’re hungry.”
“Famished,” she commented as she followed him into the restaurant.
They were seated and were immediately thrown into that wondrous ride of getting to know one another. For many people, this process was seen as tedious and perhaps even a little meaningless; however, Ino always loved it. She felt as if she was discovering a new piece of the world every time she was allowed to share another’s experiences. This was also another reason why the pain of rejection ended up hurting as much as it did. In the end, it only added to the feeling of futility.
But Ino quickly forgot about all that the more she talked with Koya. The food was good and the conversation was even better. It turned out Koya was the son of a merchant in Konoha, and he owned his own shipping business. Ino learned his business had originally been one of his father’s original projects, and when Koya showed he was capable of using fine management skills, he gave his son full responsibility of the company. It seemed the continual peace of the current times had really helped with his enterprise as there was a lot of profit being made.
Ino listened to Koya’s stories of success, failure, and his own personal anecdotes with a sense of intrigue and jubilation. It didn’t take long for his brown eyes to soften while he talked, and Ino found herself insatiably drawn to them. She liked his laugh and his calm behavior. He made her comfortable. And unfortunately that was where the real tragedy began. For when she was on her floor later that night, soaked in her tears, she wouldn’t remember those eyes as soft. No, not soft at all.
“Do you like working there?” Koya asked as he finished the last morsel of his rice plate.
“The hospital? Yes, I do. I mean, it’s not always the best. There are some days that can get really hectic and even...emotional, but for the most part, it’s pretty humbling.”
“I see.” He paused. He appeared to be debating something and then added: “What do you mean emotional?”
Ino’s eyes widened slightly, and she could feel a pleasant tug on her lips. He wanted to know more. He wanted to hear more about her. There was something so pure and simple about that. It made her feel loved, and she was so greedy when it came to that feeling. It was so easy for her to not learn her lesson when she couldn’t be satisfied.
“Well, sometimes,” she started, “you get a patient that you sympathize with. Like a child or a mother or someone you feel doesn’t deserve to be there.”
“Could you give me an example?” he inquired politely.
Ino studied his expression. His eyebrows were low, and his tone was sincere. Her trusting nature was slipping in, unheeded and burdened with worn practice. She accepted it the same way she always did, as if she was merely slipping on her clothes.
“There was a little girl once,” she said. “She had suffered a terrible head injury. Normally, another specialist would have handled this case, but we were short-staffed that night.” Ino felt her stomach flip a little at the memory. She didn’t like recollecting it, but she loved the feeling of revealing her heart, her emotions—it was addicting.
“I spent hours operating on her. She was in critical condition for too long before she had even been brought to us and from a medical point-of-view, there was a very low chance of survival from the beginning. But I didn’t really care about statistical advantage back then.”
“Of course,” Koya commented tenderly.
Ino smiled sadly, thankful for his attention. “I just kept thinking about how grateful that little girl would feel if I succeeded. I mean, even if she didn’t know it, she was putting all her trust in me. If I could save her life, then she would see me as her savior. That thought kept me going, really going, I think. I probably wouldn’t have accomplished as much as I did if it wasn’t for that thought...yet…”
She paused and remained quiet for a while. Koya seemed to want to say something, but the uncertainty in her eyes must have kept him silent.
After finding the comfort level dropped too much for her not to continue, Ino said: “But it wasn’t enough.”
She couldn’t meet his gaze after that. She knew it was a mistake to have even started the story. It was too dreary, too unfair. But Ino knew what he was doing even if she wasn’t watching him—the shifting in his seat, the nervous clutch of the neck, the wary glances to the other tables around them...it was natural. Most people didn’t expect depth to rush at them all at once. Time was the ultimate buffer and nothing was really organic without it. She hated that concept, really hated it.
Finally, after the pain became too great, she looked up. She wondered if it would have been more cruel if she had been wrong because by that point she would have been hurt later on anyway. Koya was looking at another table, clear discomfiture present on his face.
Ino’s gaze dropped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Thankfully, his manners were strong enough for him to heal the situation. He shrugged and smiled thinly. “No, it’s fine. That must have been hard for you.”
His words fell loosely into the air, and she felt that familiar sensation again. And by the time the date was over, the sensation had become pronounced; it felt like a piece of paper being slowly torn apart within her, one that seemed to be getting too small.
Koya had the decency to walk her part of the ways to her home but not the whole way. No, that would be too much because then he would have more of a reason to come back. When they got to the point he deemed was too far, he turned to her with an affable smile. It looked completely different from the one she saw at the beginning of the date—this one was hollow.
“Well, I had fun,” he said.
Ino dropped both of her hands in front of her and looked down. “Yes, I did too.”
“Maybe we’ll see each other again?”
She knew from his tone that he didn’t mean that, but she gracefully replied with: “I hope so!”
The sky was black now. Little silver dots had been poked into it, but she couldn’t notice them as she rushed to her apartment. She was out of breath by the time she reached her apartment, and it wasn’t from lack of endurance.
She was painfully sick. Her stomach kept bouncing—pounding against its confines. She could feel the painful, acidic bits of bile scratching her throat as she tried to hold them down. She only managed to do so because her eyes were beginning to water and she didn’t want to vomit when she cried. Ino couldn’t handle that loss of dignity, too. She didn’t deserve any of this. She just wanted to wash away this stain, this ugly spot that grew and remained as long as no one wanted her.
Why did it work like this? Why did it have to burrow into the soul and shred its hope into pieces? Humans really were horrible, it seemed. Not just because they hurt each other, but because they allowed themselves to be hurt. They maintained their fragility even after their entire existence led to the fact that they shouldn’t. They never learned. She never learned. She kept making the same mistake. She was so stupid, so careless.
Finally, after the nausea vanished and the tears were only dried, sticky trails running down from her eyelids, Ino fell asleep, clutching her stomach tenderly as the hardwood floor of her apartment was made her temporary bed. Her sleep was dreamless so no nightmares could come crawling over to unsettle her even further, but even that little gift wouldn’t help her. What could? That night the moon peeked through her little window and bathed her in its pale light. If she had been awake, she would have cried again at the reminder that even the moon couldn’t make her feel less lonely. Maybe nothing could.
Ino heard a knock on the door. She didn’t want to answer it. She battled with the conflicting choices for a few moments, questioning if it was disgracious to just sit on her couch in solitude. It was unlocked despite the hour. She had spent the entire day in her living room, aching. If they really wanted to get in, they could. The notion of it being Koya coming to apologize almost made her get up, but she shoved that hope deep down. It was over. She was done opening up a piece of her that was only going to be hurt again later. She knew she was lying to herself though; she would open up again sooner or later. And that was why she didn’t answer the door.
Fortunately, it opened after another knock and someone stepped in. Ino didn’t look up to see who it was. She simply heard their methodical steps against the floor as they neared her. She just couldn’t look up. She couldn’t stand the sight of seeing Koya staring at her—staring at her with pity. She knew she was a mess. She didn’t need the proof in his eyes to know that. Dammit, why? Why was she such a disgrace?
“Ino?” said a soft voice in front of her.
She immediately recognized the voice and lifted her head. Her dear friend, Sakura, was looking at her, deep concern overflowing from her expression. Upon seeing her, Ino couldn’t hold in her relief. That relief released itself in the form of tears, and it made the concern increase in her friend.
“Oh, Ino! Are you OK?” She rushed to Ino and embraced her. “Why are you crying? What happened?”
Ino tried to tell her through the sobs, but it was all nonsensical. She probably sounded like an idiot and that made her want to laugh, yet it only made her cry harder. There was a sweltering guilt sizzling within her, and she cursed it along with her damn tears. Why did she feel guilty? She had done nothing wrong, but the touch of her friend holding her, comforting her, made the remorse burn.
“I fucked it up, Sakura,” she admitted quietly.
“No, Ino. No, you couldn’t have.”
Ino clutched her head tightly. “But I did! I got selfish again. I forgot about who I needed to be and ended up…”
“What?” Sakura asked with something akin to spite, but more considerate than that. She sounded like she was trying to wake someone up. “Ended up being yourself?”
This wasn’t the first time they had this conversation. Although, Ino was pretty sure Sakura knew it was far more serious this time around. She was just so vulnerable, after all, so pathetic. “He was so kind, Sakura. I trust too much, I know, bu—”
“Stop, Ino,” Sakura demanded softly, “you’re being unfair.”
Ino always appreciated how calm her friend could be even when she herself was babbling and wailing. She sniffled and reclined her head on Sakura’s shoulder. “I’m just tired of having regrets. I feel like no matter what I do, I end up blaming myself.”
Sakura brushed Ino’s blonde locks, delicately gliding her fingers from her scalp down to the tips. She then sighed, as if she was exhausted by the weight of the words she needed to say.
“I wonder if it’s impossible, Ino,” she said slowly. “To really not blame yourself at all. I don’t think we can do it.”
Ino hated that; it left a sour taste in her mouth. “But I’m stuck here. I’m stuck in a part of me that won’t let me pull out. Maybe it’s society. Maybe it’s men. Maybe it isn’t me, but I can’t be satisfied with an answer like that. It doesn’t help me. It just makes me feel more sad.”
Sakura shook her head. “Then what would satisfy you, Ino? A man who could handle whatever you threw at him? Would you stop blaming yourself then?”
“No, probably not, but it’d make me forget this guilt—if only for a little while.”
For the next several minutes, Sakura was quiet. At one point during this silence, Ino looked up and saw her conflicted expression. It was similar to the one she saw between her and Naruto in the restaurant the other day, but there was another emotion present there—one she found to be even more perplexing: shame.
Just when Ino was about to say something, to question if it was best to dwell so strongly on such an emotion, Sakura whispered: “Can you promise me that?”
Ino sat up and eyed her friend curiously, her unhappiness pushed back for the time being. “Huh?”
Sakura frowned, not in anger but in concentration. “Can you actually promise it would help?”
Ino hadn’t seen this level of earnestness from her friend in a long time. It shocked her, but more than that, it intrigued her. “That what would? A man who could handle me?”
Sakura nodded. Now, Ino was really taken back. Had she been planning this? No, she thought quickly. Her demeanor implied she had just thought of it. Somehow, Ino knew this had to do with the complex look again.
Sakura leaned in and kept that same whisper intact, but it was harsher this time, urgent. “I shouldn’t be talking about this, but I will if you promise. ”
“Promise what again?”
“That it will help.”
“I can’t,” Ino admitted.
“Because I might regret it.”
Sakura frowned again. This time Ino was certain it was because she was angry and concerned. “Fine. Then I’ll have him tell you.”
“Who?” Ino wasn’t sure she could handle this. She had spent the majority of her day in a gloomy air, so for her to switch to a different, yet just as strong emotion so suddenly was starting to wear on her.
“Stay here,” Sakura demanded as she stood up. “I need to go make this right.”
Ino had a thousand questions all at once, but the only one she asked aloud was: “Make what right?”
Sakura smiled tenderly. And it was at this point in the evening, despite all the wonderful things her friend had said, where Ino thought she looked the most beautiful. “This guilt.” She was out the door after that, and Ino was left alone again in her dreary world.