Chapter 3: Second Thoughts
The stupid rain came back. Naruto stomped in a puddle and wiped the rain out of his eyes. Cold water flooded away the warm that had settled between his toes; a shiver wracked through him. Cold. Empty.
Asuma gone, just like that.
He shook raindrops from his soaked hair and forced his feet to keep moving. He should be heading home. Yamato and Kakashi had left him. Told him to go home. Like some kind of kid.
So his boots moved and the smell of mud filled his nostrils. Rain bounced off his jacket. The relentless splashing, knocking, splatting filled his ears. Unable to put one foot a step further, he stood in it, squelching in the mud.
One bad day, and it wasn’t just how it had ended.
Training this afternoon had put him in the clutches of the kyuubi more than once. More than…more times than he could count. It had been one burning marathon of flames and failure. Then just as it had started to come together…it all fell apart again.
Because Kakashi was an idiot.
And then the news…
The burn, the ache—cold rain soaked him through and actually felt good. After lunch, he’d been halfway to fire before they’d even started…after that dream about Sakura-chan. The rage of jumbled emotion pressed on him even now, and he had to force himself not to think about her smoky green eyes, as the coming fire of the kyuubi kindled itself again behind his navel.
He sat on the park bench and thought about the rain. Cool rain that dowsed the fire.
Sakura closed her eyes and tried again. Kurenai sat across the small table from her, yakitori skewers and rice bowls pushed aside. The aroma of tea surrounded her as the sound of pouring drowned out the distant patter of the rain.
It wasn’t working.
She slid her eyes open and Kurenai handed her a mug that spread welcome heat across her hand.
“That’s better,” she said. “Relax for a second before you go again, or it’s going to get backwards. This isn’t the kind of thing that can be forced.”
They sipped tea, the cool green and bitter flavor contrasting against the heat of the water; Kurenai looked out onto her balcony garden.
She seemed distracted.
“Hm? Oh, yes, Sakura. You should try again. The secret is to close down your chakra, seal it off. For now. Everyone should be able to have daydreams in private, don’t you think?”
Sakura nodded, fervently wishing she could take back her public ones.
“Later, I’ll teach you how to keep the jutsu out. It’s not safe to sink into too many genjutsu dreams, untrained as you are, so…” Kurenai shook her head a little. “Promise me not to get seduced by them.”
Sakura blinked, she didn’t like the sound of that. “Seduced?” Did Kurenai know what she was planning? Could she read her thoughts?
Kurenai’s laugh rang like wind chimes. “You really should see your face. Genjutsu—inexperienced genjutsu, like yours—runs off the parts of your mind you might not even know about. Your inner thoughts, desires. If you give it too much play, it’s going to offer you false images, but…” She took a sip of tea and smiled. “The images will be the things you most desire, and that makes it easy to pretend the hallucinations are real. To want to spend too much time in them.”
“Most desire?” Inner Sakura swore. “Are you saying I want to…that Naruto…?” Her eyes strained they bulged so far open.
Kurenai took a sip of tea and let Sakura’s words falter before she spoke again. “I didn’t say that,” she said, her eyes unreadable, her face blank. “You did. I’m trying to warn you about too much daydreaming. Even once we seal you off and make it safe for others, it isn’t safe for you.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks twitched and she knew she blushed again—she had been doing that far too much today. “Hai.”
“So, imagine it again, and once you feel the image solidify, seal off your chakra—think about a hard shell around you. A bubble of glass holding the chakra in.”
Sakura took a deep breath and ran through the hand signs, ending on tiger. She visualized the genjutsu teapot, empty and hovering in air before her. A shimmer, the fall of petals, and the image came out of her minds’ eye to sit before her physical eyes. It had solidified. This was genjutsu, and the warm pull of her chakra, oozed out from behind her navel, bathing her, bathing the room. Her eyelids felt heavy.
She snapped the shell around her chakra and let the teapot fall; it clattered to the table in the illusion.
The thump in her genjutsu became an insistent series of knocks at the door.
Kurenai frowned in the direction of the door. “That was better,” she said as she crossed the room. “You even shattered the illusion at the same time. Good.”
The woman cracked the door open. “Shikamaru, what…?”
“I need to tell you something.” Came the muffled answer from behind the door.
Kurenai, shaken, looked back at Sakura and nodded, then stepped out the door, closing it behind her.
It was pleasant to work with someone who could give a compliment. She’d had to sweat for a year before Tsunade had given her something as simple as a “good.” And that one word of praise had been followed with a lecture of all the things she had done wrong. She liked working with the red-eyed kunoichi; she hadn’t realized working with a sensei could be this…pleasant.
Then cleared the table.
Then did the dishes.
And waited some more.
And then she helped Kurenai to the couch and made another pot of tea, unable to find words that meant anything at all.
Tears streaming down her face in the rain, she didn’t even see Naruto until it was too late to avoid him. She had kept it all in for Kurenai’s sake, but now she was a trembling, sobbing mess. She stopped and looked at him, slumped on the park bench, staring at nothing, rain streaming down his orange and black jacket.
“N-Naruto?” Was this genjutsu, or was he really there?
He startled and tried hard to put that stupid grin on his face; it looked crazy—stiff and wrong like something Sai would have read in a book. “Sakura-chan.”
She lurched toward him. Stopped. She shouldn’t hug him, that would be wrong. He didn’t have enough people to hug him, hadn’t had enough hugs in his life. She had seen him back away from touches, seen how much that closeness frightened him.
At the same time, horror for what she had been plotting, about how she would wrap him in genjutsu and use him for her own purposes…emptied all her jumbled emotions. Hollow. She felt empty and hollow. Mean.
Other targets might be able to handle what she planned to do to him, but picking on him—who knew almost nothing about touch—it was wicked.
“What are you doing out here in the rain, Naruto?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t want to go home, I guess.”
Alone. That was the part he didn’t say. He didn’t want to go home and sit there, staring at the walls.
Oh, she wasn’t just mean, she was evil to even think of using him.
Blue eyes met hers, clear but troubled. “Asuma is…”
“I know,” she whispered. “And I don’t want to go home either.” Her parents wouldn’t take it well; it always reminded them what a dangerous life their daughter led. It was hard enough to deal with death, and then it was even harder when the people who shared your life hadn’t the first clue about emotional training. “Want to take a walk?”
“Hn.” He sprung up from the bench, flinched, and rubbed his shoulder.
She narrowed her eyes, and he caught her looking. “Kyuubi,” he muttered, seeming embarrassed, his words so chewed they were barely intelligible. “Got me a lot today.”
Their feet carried them toward the center of town, and she wondered about that. “Has that been happening often?”
He shook his head. “Just this afternoon. It was hard–the jutsu, I mean. I almost gave up, and then Kakashi fixed it. And I almost had it. No, I did have it. You should have seen it, Sakura-chan, it was like…” And then his face clouded and he pouted again.
“Then Kakashi said something stupid and the whole thing blew up in my face.”
“And then? You tried again, right?”
He shook his head. “Asuma.”
The rain had let up a bit, but they were both drenched, hair dripping down their faces. Camouflage for tears.
The movie marquis flashed neon up ahead. Well, neither one wanted to go home. Why not?
“Hey, Naruto, want to see a movie? Not, like a date,” she added rapidly, too frightened of the implications of that—of getting too close when she couldn’t control her genjutsu. “I don’t want to go home either, and…and I’m not hungry, and I just drank enough tea to…fill these puddles…”
He had stepped back from her, eyes narrowed, considering. He had gotten so serious today.
Then he shrugged and grinned like an idiot. “Okay! Come on.”
She wrapped her arms over her chest and snuffled. The way he had stepped back from her. Kurenai had been wrong. That daydream had changed him.
Her breath caught, as the smell of popcorn wafted out of the theater promising frivolous fun when her heart had just shattered into a million shards of glass.
He had fought the kyuubi today, over and over and over—because of that.
Because of her.
And she had been plotting to take things further? To lie in wait and catch him unaware; let the dream spin out to completion, until he…
She shook herself, closing her chakra down, just in case.
They stood there, staring at the poster in front of the movie house…Icha Icha movie. Crap!
“Uh. S-Sakura-chan?” his voice shook.
This was a bad idea, and how long would it take before she lost control and hit him with it—sitting next to him in the dark, smelling the sweat of his training, her fingers itching to…another layer of glass—just to be safe—and her stomach fluttered.
“You know,” she said brightly, “I just remembered. I really have to get home. I have to…” But there wasn’t anything, and they both knew it.
“’Ttebayo,” he answered brightly. “See you around then, Sakura-chan.”
And he was gone in an orange flash, before she could even get out ‘good bye’ or ‘some other time.’
Inner Sakura screamed, unappeased by the cold, hard logic of going separate ways. The resulting daydream pressed her against the chilled glass of the movie poster, gasping for air as the petals swirled around her.