Sakura jumped up only to find her legs were trapped under something. Blinking furiously, she tried to regain her bearings. She looked around, taking in the neatly arranged rows of desks and the giggles of people who looked the same age as her. Some of them looked vaguely familiar but none of them seemed real.
"Haruno, would you like continue staring blankly at your desk or can you answer my question?"
Sakura looked up at the voice and her eyebrows scrunched. "Kurenai-sensei?" Kurenai let out an exasperated sigh, shaking her head at Sakura's reaction. "Where…" she started.
"Page 201…" a voice hissed next to her.
Sakura turned to her left, confusion dotting her face. "Ino-chan?" she asked tentatively, looking over the blond girl sitting next to her. Ino looked back with a disapproving look and pointed at the page.
Sakura looked down at the book but there was only jumbled text on the page. She put a hand to her head and tried to sort things through. She was in a school setting but she had graduated from the academy years ago. What was she doing here?
"Never mind Haruno," Kurenai stated. "It's just another demerit for you. You have detention now."
Sakura stared at her with surprise. Detention? What was she talking about?
"Nara, get up and read."
Sakura heard someone shuffle behind her and recognized the voice of Shikamaru. It lacked the usual lazy quality. She spared a glance to see if it was him and was met with a surprise. Shikamaru was wearing a neatly pressed blue suit, red tie included. His hair was neatly arranged and out of its normal ponytail.
"You are not wrong, who deem, that my days have been a dream," Shikamaru continued reading out of the book in hand. "Yet if hope has flown away, in a night, or in a day, in a vision, or in none, is it therefore the less gone?"
Sakura looked down at her own attire, finding it almost identical to Ino's. A short plaid blue skirt with a white button down shirt and a pair of loafers. Her hair was pulled back, placed into a tight bun. She gingerly lifted up the books on her desk and found they were marked all with the same logo. A fox curled up in front of roaring fire.
"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."
A bell sounded three times and the people around her started to shuffle and leave. Sakura looked up at Ino who was shaking her head.
"Really, Sakura-chan," Ino said, "if you don't pay attention in class you will fail out. You have to be more careful."
"With your detention, we'll have to reschedule our tutoring session now," Shikamaru said. "You know how busy I am, can't you be more responsible?"
Sakura blinked and looked at both of them. Were they insane? Shikamaru was acting completely opposite how he normally did. And Ino….
"It's okay, I don't mind helping Sakura-chan with her homework," Ino interrupted. "That's what best friends are for."
Ino was completely off her rocker.
"Ummm, one question," Sakura started slowly, trying to gauge their reactions. "Do either of you feel… weird?"
Shikamaru looked at her oddly and Ino let out a nervous giggle. "What are you talking about, weird?" Ino smiled. "You're the weird one today."
Shikamaru continued to stare at her and then shook his head. "I think Ino's right. Let go get lunch, maybe your blood sugar is low again."
Sakura nodded slowly and followed them, trying not to cry. Everything was so confusing. She felt like she didn't belong here, in fact she was certain she didn't. But everyone around her was acting like everything was normal. What happened to her?
She followed them into the hall and caught sight of the huge crowd moving through the building. In its center was Naruto and for a moment, Sakura's heart caught in her throat. He looked back at her with wide blue eyes that looked as confused as she was. Quickly, she made a few hand signals and he nodded in response just as the crowd pulled him away.
He had understood her. That meant that he was a part of this. She needed to talk to him.
"I… ummm… need to go talk to Naruto," she said to the two next to her. They looked at her for a moment and started laughing.
"You? Talk to the most popular senior in school?" Ino asked. "No offense, sweetie, we like you but you don't have the social standing to just walk up to the Uzumaki Naruto and talk to him."
"She's right," Shikamaru shrugged. "You know how the system is." Sakura didn't but she nodded to keep appearances normal.
"Besides, what do you want to talk him about?" Ino asked.
Sakura shook her head and shrugged. "Nothing really."
Ino walked forward and put a hand on Sakura's forehead. Instinctively, Sakura flinched, preparing for an insult but instead she was met with concern. "I think you must be falling sick. That would explain things."
Sakura was sure that would explain a lot of things. Maybe that's what this was. Some fever induced dream. And soon she would wake up and her parents would be there to chastise her for not taking better care of herself. Then she would go and meet up for ramen with Naruto and Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke… Sasuke! Maybe he was trapped here too.
She should ask them about his whereabouts but after their reaction to Naruto, she wasn't sure if that was wise.
"Sasuke-kun!" Ino cried suddenly and she was gone in a flash.
Sakura turned around just in time to see the blond wrap herself around Sasuke and plant a firm kiss on his lips. Sasuke didn't push her away and for a moment, Sakura doubted that he wasn't a part of this.
"What's the matter?" Ino said, detaching herself. "That usually brings a smile to your face everything."
Sasuke looked at her and let his lips turn up a bit. "Sorry, a lot on my mind." He looked up at Sakura and flashed her a few hand signals. She nodded firmly and he turned back to Ino. "I need to talk to Sakura for a moment."
Ino sighed. "Not about that stupid science project again. I swear, if I didn't love you so much and trust my dear best friend as much as I do, I'd think you two were having an affair behind my back."
Sakura froze but Sasuke shook his head as if to say she was crazy. Ino giggled and kissed him quickly on the cheek, skipping back to Shikamaru. "Come on, Shika-kun. Let's let them do their boring work."Shikamaru nodded slowly but watched them the entire time as Ino dragged him away.
As soon as they were gone, Sakura turned back to Sasuke, hope starting to filter back into her. But he looked at her coldly before snapping out a few terse words.
"What did you buy at the store last October?"
Sakura looked at him, perplexed until she understood what he was asking. "Three pumpkins but no pie crust."
"They always do make better lanterns," Sasuke replied, finishing the code phrase.
"Sasuke-kun, you're not part of this either," she said with relief.
"No, though what this is… I have no idea," he replied. "What happened to you?"
Sakura shook her head. "I woke up and suddenly I was in this classroom. Iruka-sensei was teaching it but… we graduated the academy already, right?"
"This isn't the academy," Sasuke replied. "It's someplace else. I'm not sure it's even real."
"A genjutsu?" Sakura asked.
Sasuke shrugged. "If it is, I can't feel anything."
Sakura closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to find the source of any foreign chakra. Instead, she felt nothing.
"I don't feel anything," she whispered, opening her eyes.
"No… Sasuke-kun… I don't feel any chakra. Not even my own."
Sasuke frowned. He closed his eyes and Sakura knew from his stance that he was attempting to activate his Sharingan. But when his eyes opened, they were normal. He cursed and attempted a few hands seals but the result was the same. Nothing.
"We need to talk to Naruto," Sakura said. "He understood my hand signals. It's not surprising, since both of us are normal."
"But… Ino said something about him being really hard to talk to."
"Not to us," Sasuke replied. "Let's go."
He started to walk and Sakura didn't have to ask where he was going. Clearly most of the inhabitants of this school were headed the same place. Indeed when they arrived in the cafeteria, there was barely room to move. They searched the crowd until Sasuke pointed in one direction to a familiar blond haired boy.
They moved quickly towards him but about twenty feet away were stopped. Sasuke looked at the people in front of him with a frown.
"Get out of my way," Sasuke said simply. The noise of the cafeteria began to die down as people turned to watch the scene.
Hyuuga Neji and Rock Lee both shifted uncomfortably. But Neji broke the silence. "You know the rules. This is the popular table. No one is allowed here without permission."
Sasuke looked at him as if he had sprouted another head. "What? What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's the rules," Lee replied. "To keep riffraff like you away," he finished, staring at Sakura. She looked confused his actions but kept her mouth shut. Sasuke didn't follow her approach to things though.
"I could care less if that was Hokage themselves sitting there," he stated, keeping his voice even and cool.
"The what?" Lee asked.
"Get lost," Neji replied, cutting the conversation quickly. "He wouldn't talk to you anyway. Especially not with that piece of trash at your side."
It took a moment for Sakura to realize he was talking about her. Somewhere, deep in her mind, she knew that she should just continue keeping quiet. But her nerves were shot, her stress level was through the roof and she was not about to take being insulted on top of everything else.
"What's wrong Neji? Got tired on picking on your poor cousin so you're looking for a new target?" she retorted. "I promise you, though, that I hit back."
The response she got was not what she expected. She expected anger, possibly a sneer or a punch. She did not expect Neji's face to crumple and his eyes to tear up.
"That's real nice, Haruno," Lee stated.
Sakura was confused but she realized whatever she had just said had silenced the entire cafeteria.
"I knew you were mean," Lee continued, "but to bring up Neji's cousin on the anniversary of her death… have you really stooped that low?"
Sakura's face paled. Hinata? Hinata was dead? She shook her head mentally. No, Hinata was fine. This place wasn't real. Back in their world, Hinata would be just fine.
"Forget it," Sasuke said suddenly, grabbing Sakura's arm. "We don't need to talk with his royal highness that much anyway."
He pulled her away and into the hallway. They walked for a bit and he quickly pushed her into the boy bathroom, not willing to hear an argument if she had one.
"Don't confront them any more," Sasuke lectured. "Obviously, we don't know the story here and the more you try to mess around them, the more of a chance we have of showing we don't belong."
Sakura nodded dumbly. "I'm sorry. It's just…" she closed her eyes and held back the tears. "This whole thing, it's almost too much. I just want to know what's going on."
"Yeah," Sasuke agreed.
"What about Naruto?" she asked.
"He'll be here in a few minutes," Sasuke replied. "While you were causing a scene, I managed to signal to him to meet us here."
"Oh," Sakura whispered, realizing that Sasuke had thought of everything. Here she was, panicking and almost in tears and he had taken control of the situation immediately.
A few seconds later, the door opened and Sasuke shoved Sakura into a stall with him. They waited there, trying to determine who had just entered.
"Guys?" came a tentative voice.
Sasuke sighed and opened the stall, letting both of them out. Naruto watched and his face lit up with joy but Sasuke kept Sakura firmly behind him.
"What did you buy at the store last October?" he asked.
Naruto's joy quickly faded. His eyes searched the ground as he tried to remember the answer. "Shit… something about pumpkin pie and…"
Sakura let out a happy sigh. "It really is him."
"You never remember the pass codes, dobe," Sasuke frowned.
But Naruto smiled. "It's really you too. You guys are the first people to be normal."
"What happened to you?" Sasuke asked.
Naruto shrugged. "I woke up in the middle of class. I had no idea where I was."
"Same thing here," Sasuke replied. "So all three of us woke up and found ourselves in the middle of a class we don't remember taking."
"Forget about taking the class," Naruto cried. "Where the hell is this school? Is it even real?
"Don't know," Sasuke replied. "It may be a genjutsu but it doesn't feel like it. Plus we have another problem."
"Yeah, no chakra," Naruto stated. "Figured that one out pretty fast." Sasuke frowned at the statement but decided not to let Naruto know it hadn't been as obvious to them.
"Guys, do any of you remember what we were doing before you woke up?" Sakura asked.
Sasuke shook his head and Naruto frowned. "I really can't remember anything from the past week to be honest."
"Let's start with what we do know," Sasuke said.
"We know our names and that we don't belong here," Naruto replied.
"I'm sixteen," Sakura added. "A chuunin but… I don't remember if I was on a mission."
"Yeah, I was chuunin too, and so was Sasuke," Naruto said. "Hey! What about Kakashi-sensei?"
"Not the real one," Sasuke answered. "He was 'teaching' my last class and he completely ignored every signal I threw to him."
"Could it be a joke?" Sakura asked. "Maybe they all got together and planned this."
"It wouldn't explain our lack of chakra," Sasuke replied.
"Can you guys read?" Sakura asked suddenly.
"Read, like words on the page, do they look normal to you?"
Naruto nodded. "Yeah, sure. Though I have no idea what the hell an oxidizing agent is"
"Why?" Sasuke continued, turning away from Naruto.
"Because for me, at least, all the words don't make sense," Sakura whispered.
"That is weird," Naruto said. "Do you think it means something?"
"I thought, maybe this was a dream because in dreams, words never look right. But if you two can see it…"
"It couldn't be a dream," Sasuke replied. "Not with all of us in it."
"Unless the other two were just dream versions too."
Naruto groaned and grabbed his head. "This is too complicated. I'm fine with thinking it's the three of us against everyone. It's usually like that anyway."
"But it's never been our friends before," Sakura pointed out.
"Our friends?" Naruto laughed. "Kiba is polite, Chouji is a star athlete and Tenten spent half of class doing her makeup. These are not our friends."
"He's right," Sasuke agreed. "But that doesn't mean we can just do anything we want."
"Huh? Why not?"
"Because if this is illusion," Sakura started, "then we need to help maintain it. If you fight against genjutsu, it only makes the illusion more powerful and eventually it will retaliate. That's when genjutsu can take a physical toll on your body."
"So play along," Sasuke added.
"Yeah, yeah," Naruto frowned.
"Oi! Naruto! What the hell is taking you so long?"
Sasuke and Sakura slipped back into their stall just as the door swung open and Chouji and Kiba walked in. Naruto laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"Too much of that meat surprise," he said and the other two laughed at him.
"We better get going, bell is going to ring and we don't want to be late," Kiba added.
"Right…" Naruto replied, hesitating with the quip about how Kiba never cared about being on time. Forget about what Sasuke said, he didn't want to piss Sakura off. She obviously wasn't handling things too well and he didn't want to add to her problems.
Sakura listened to them joking and waited for a few seconds in the silence that followed before looking up at Sasuke. He was staring at the door but she didn't think he really knew he was.
She frowned as she looked at him. Even at sixteen, his eyes were as blank as they had been the day she met him. Despite all the torment that he had gone through first with his brother then with Orochimaru, those eyes were still as cold as ever.
"That usually brings a smile to your face everything."
Ino's words fluttered through her mind as well as the image of her rival hanging on so tightly. It should have angered her. It should have brought out a string of insults. But just as she was sure Hinata was still alive, she had to be sure that Ino was not really Sasuke's anything.
It would complicate things more if she got jealous now. Considering the situation, she shouldn't even be thinking of things like that. It was childish, just like she used to do when she first joined team seven.
"Sasuke-kun?" she asked, realizing almost a minute had passed.
He blinked a bit and looked down at her with a frown. He opened the door and walked out of the bathroom. He stopped, looking up and down the empty hallway. "We need to find our next class."
"I think I have a schedule," Sakura replied, pulling the bag off her back and rifling through the papers. She pulled out a sheet with boxes on it and held it up. "Is this it?"
He was about to question her actions when he remembered she couldn't read anything. Taking it from her hand, he glanced over it. "Math, in room 1C." He looked down the hall and pointed at a door. "That's it."
"Okay," she nodded, taking the sheet back from him. "What about you?"
His eyes flickered for a moment, but Sakura couldn't place what she saw. He pulled his bag forward and shuffled around without looking until he pulled out a piece of paper. "History, across the hall from you," he said, looking at the door.
"Should we meet after class?" she asked. But he was silent and continued to stare at his door. "Sasuke-kun?"
He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "Fine, whatever."
"What's wrong?" Sakura asked.
"Nothing," he replied tersely.
"There's something wrong," Sakura stated. "I know there is."
"Just let it go. It's nothing that would affect us anyway."
Sakura shook her head. "That's not why I'm asking."
He looked at her and shook his head. "It's nothing." He turned to walk away but she grabbed his arm. He tried to shake her free but all it did was send the bag tumbling onto the ground. The contents spilled into the hall and Sakura began stammering apologies as she knelt down.
"I'll get it," he said, pushing her hand away before she could reach for some of the fallen paper.
She got a hold of pile any way. "It's my fault so just…"
His hand snapped out and grabbed her wrist. The papers that she had just collected shook as his grip tightened.
She wanted to cry out but then she saw what was wrong. A picture came loose and fluttered to the ground. She barely got a glimpse before he snatched it away. Sakura looked at him but his face was unreadable.
She turned back to the papers and collected them, knowing that the photograph had been his reason for protests. She handed him the pile and he muttered something half way between a thank you and an apology. She nodded and stood up, shifting the weight of her own bag as she watched him walk away.
The memory of the picture lingered in her mind. She understood why he was acting this way now. In that picture had been not just his smiling face but also one that bore a striking resemblance to him. Just slightly older and with creases in his face. It could only have been 'that man'.
"He's not real either," Sakura whispered. Sasuke's feet came to a halt. She looked up and tentatively continued. "It's just part of the illusion."
Sasuke's hand clenched. "I know that," he said. "So stop trying to help me."
He turned around quickly. "You never give up do you? I know it's an illusion. I know it's not real. So just let it drop. Continuing to pester me, asking me if I'm all right… it's annoying."
Sakura frowned and clenched her bag. She looked up at him, her eyes already starting to well up. "It's always annoying. You know, no matter what I do, it's just annoying to you. Even here, where everything feels like it's been reversed, there's still that one constant in the universe. That I'm always annoying you. I just never occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, I'm not like Ino and all those other girls. Maybe I actually wanted to help because I…"
Sakura stopped talking and looked up at Sasuke. He wasn't looking at her anymore but over her shoulder. Sakura turned around and came face to face with Ino.
The other girl looked at her, tears starting to fall. "Sakura-chan?" she asked weakly.
Sakura shook her head. "Ino… this isn't what you think."
"It isn't?" Ino cried. "Then explain it. Explain why it looked like you were just about to confess your…" Ino sobbed. "This isn't right. It's not supposed to be this way."
There was a low buzz and Sakura realized it was coming from her own head. "Ino… please, just listen to me…"
But the buzz didn't stop. Sakura fell to the ground hearing the thud behind her that could only be Sasuke. This is what they had been afraid of. The illusion had been bent too much. And now it was retaliating.
Sakura could only see the white wall in front of her. The buzz had rendered her deaf and now there was a crushing weight on her chest preventing her from moving. Her neck was turned and she was watching the white slowly crinkle and burn. A red liquid dripped down the wall and floor beneath her got cold. An overwhelming sense of dread filled the air and with no way to escape, Sakura could only watch as the world melted away.
Author note : Revisions made on 3/11/05 based on suggestions by Metrime and Alden-san