Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
"This is speech."
'This is thought.'
This is flashback or dreams.
A/N: A late update. I am really sorry. I had a lot of work to do. So don't hurt me (You can't bonk me on the head via internet… Can you?). So without any more delay, I present you the third chapter of 'Red Love'.
Chapter 3: Shining Stars
It was a not so busy day at the Ichiraku ramen stand. Not many customers were there. A few people that were still eating would be leaving soon. It was like this every year around this time. The Ichiraku family, Ayame and her grandfather were working nonetheless. They would have to clear the stocks anyway. And as usual, Uzumaki Naruto sat at the counter, playing with a pair of chopsticks absently. His mind was, however, not on the ramen but on the current mission that he had completed just yesterday. A simple scroll delivery mission turned into much more.
"We have a proposition, Uzumaki Naruto."
That was a stupid proposition. He would never agree to that and he knew that they knew it too. He needed to gather some information on these guys, fast. He needed to know what their motives were and he needed to know what his roll was. But what he needed to know very clearly was how the truthful they were.
"No? What if we said we had some information about some… Uchiha Sasuke?"
Naruto clenched his hand, to the point that the chopsticks he was holding were about to break. They knew his weakness and they knew how to place the correct bates. But what…
"Here Naruto-kun!" His musings were cut short as Ayame placed a large bowl before him with a soft thud. "One miso beef with extra toppings. Enjoy. " She smiled softly.
"Thanks a lot, Ayame-nee-chan. Itadakimasu." Naruto broke his chopsticks, properly, and started eating.
But still those thoughts kept lingering in his mind. When he came back to the village and reported to Tsunade, he kept many things to himself.
"Is that everything you have? Or there is something else that I should know?" Tsunade inquired.
The soul piercing gaze that she was giving Naruto would unnerve any other man. But Naruto did not flinch. Actually, he was really tensed but tried very hard to conceal his uneasiness and doing so successfully. He always wondered about how Tsunade could detect when he was lying.
"That is all." He calmly replied.
"You are dismissed then." Tsunade sighed. She watched him turn around and make his way towards the entrance before she stopped him once again. "If you want to talk about something you can always come to me; you know that Naruto. Don't you?"
He nodded and left.
He needed to think more and probably would have to visit Jiraya. He finished his ramen and was about to leave when Ayame again handed him a cup of steaming instant ramen saying that it was on the house.
"We are clearing our stocks, Naruto-kun. Besides we are closed tomorrow." She told him. "Take care, Naruto-kun."
Tomorrow. He almost forgot what tomorrow was. He thanked her and went out in the streets absently sipping the broth from the cup.
Kurenai was out shopping. It was afternoon and she had just finished her part of 'spending of some money on herself for once' spree so that she had both her hands full, a couple of bags in each of her hands. She was feeling quite content at the moment. Sure the bags were a bit heavy but thinking about contents of those bags made her totally joyful. She had chosen some really good outfits and a few… 'infits'… as well. But fate had different plans for her as one Uzumaki Naruto bumped into her. Well, not actually bumped but came very close to doing so. They were both shinobi after all. She evaded a little, balanced herself so that she would not fall and her bags would remain intact. Naruto did the same but apparently some liquids, such as ramen broth, are hard to tame and it seemed that the said ramen broth had a tendency to get poured on whatever that was in front of it; in this case: Kurenai. For both Kurenai and Naruto, it was a disaster, but for entirely different reasons.
"Oh no! My dress!" Kurenai exclaimed.
"Ah! Oh Kami-sama! My ramen!" Naruto practically howled.
"WHAT!" Kurenai almost roared dropping her bags. All he could think of was about some stupid ramen? How dare he?
Now Naruto may be a bit dense from time to time, but this time he quickly understood. Nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than a woman's dress when something is spilled onto it; to the woman anyway.
"Oh! I meant 'Kami-sama! Your lovely dress!' Honest." Naruto quickly corrected himself. His weakness was genjutsu after all and infront of him was one genjutsu mistress. He even thought if she could intensify that glare by some jutsu or not. He hastily held out a napkin. "Here Kurenai-san, let me clean that."
But he abruptly stopped noticing Kurenai's eyes which held the expression that said 'touch there and nobody would even find your body parts'.
"Uh… I meant 'Help yourself', Kurenai-san."
Kurenai could only sigh. It was her favorite dress. And now it would be ruined if she did not get home fast enough. She could not even teleport to that distance either. She took the napkin and tried to clean the stain unsuccessfully.
"Kurenai-san, I am really sorry." Naruto's apology was genuine. "I should have been more careful. I am really sorry." He sat down and begun to pick up the scattered item placing them back in the bags.
"That's alright, I understand." Kurenai sighed again, "My dress is ruined anyway." On Naruto's quizzical look she elaborated, "The stain won't go away if I don't clean it quickly and I am pretty far from my home…"
"Well, my home is just next block. I have a washing machine. If you want you can come." Naruto offered picking up the bags ignoring Kurenai's protests. "It's the least I can do."
Kurenai gave in. She saw no harm in that and they started walking to his place. For some time neither of them spoke anything before Kurenai started a conversation again.
"You don't have a mission, today?"
"I had one in the morning. Now I have some free time."
"What do you do in your free time?"
Naruto smirked. "Me? Well, I bump into people, pick their bags up, walk them home and that kinda stuff, you know?"
"I see." Kurenai laughed a little bit. She could play the same game too. "Come to think of it, we are running into each other a lot, lately. Funny coincidence, no?"
"Nope!" Naruto confidently replied. "It's called destiny." He gave his sagely opinion.
Kurenai shook her head at his antics. The friendly banter continued and soon they found themselves inside Naruto's apartment. The place was quite livable and considering he was a bachelor teenager, it was remarkably clean. While Kurenai changed into one new dress she had just bought, Naruto put the old one into the washing machine.
"You sure have a great test of clothing, Kurenai-san." Naruto complemented.
"Why thank you. But I didn't know you could actually admire a woman's test in clothing." Kurenai returned. "After all, it doesn't have any orange."
"Aww… I'm hurt…"
It took about half an hour to clean her dress. All the time small jokes were exchanged. For Naruto, he was having a good time. He spent his most of the time alone or in Ichiraku, nowadays. So, having some company that was not actually hostile or indifferent to him was a welcome change. But all good time must come to an end. Finally, it was time. Kurenai picked up her bags and left his room. He smiled to himself and went to close the door when suddenly the door flew open and caught him in the nose making him cry out in pain.
"Oh my god! I'm so sorry! I didn't know you were so close to the door." Kurenai apologized again and again. "I left one bag behind and… Sorry."
"Don't worry about it." Naruto waved it off still clutching his aching nose. "Destiny, you see?"
Kurenai retrieved her bag and went to the door. Just before she was about to exit, she held out some cotton.
"Here," she offered, "You're bleeding, this should stop it. Too much blood loss is not good."
Naruto stared at the cottons. He could feel Kyuubi's chakra already healing him, mending his bone and closing the wounds. Did not she know it? This is nothing to him; more appropriately, nothing to Kyuubi. Before he could say anything, Kurenai put the cotton into his hand and went out of the door.
"Take care of yourself, Naruto-san."
And the door closed. She was gone before he could even formulate any answer. The day started quite normally but her last words, that single sentence, made this a memorable day of his life. He stared at the cotton again. It was a different feeling.
But damn, he liked it.
The next day
The next day brought Naruto a whole lot of misery, as it always did, each and every year. It was a little past five P.M. and the citizens of Konoha are already coming out to the street. Today was a big day after all. Naruto sat on his window still looking at the streets below. But Naruto's mind was not in that. His focus was on a piece of cotton lying on his table; a plain and simple piece of cotton that he got yesterday.
"Take care of yourself, Naruto-san."
He sighed deeply. He smiled at that memory. A minute after that incident Jiraiya had showed up at his door congratulating him for a good catch and asking him if he used a condom or not. This time Jiraiya got a broken nose and there was no one to give him any cotton. But enough of the memories, Naruto decided. He looked at the calendar to see today's date marked by a red circle. His mood considerably darkened. It was time to get out of his house before the festivities started.
Night has fallen on Konoha. Stars were shining in abundance with an occasional display of fireworks illuminating the sky. Asuma took a long drag of his cigarette as he walked down the busy streets of Konoha in a lazy pace. It was a busy night in Konoha. People were out in the streets with their families, laughing and enjoying. Children were dressed in various costumes. Vendors were giving away free food to children. He even saw some couples sitting on tree branches. He shook his head. What was so romantic about romance on a tree again? He would never know and considering the fact that his last name was sarutobi(1), it was really ironic. These people did not know life's true hardships. Some of them probably didn't even know what they were celebrating. Then again, in a shinobi village people took every excuse to celebrate very seriously. And today they had a valid excuse.
After all, today was October the tenth, the anniversary of Kyuubi's defeat.
Now, if he could find someone to celebrate with… That's when he spotted Kurenai coming out of a shop.
"Yo, Kurenai." Asuma greeted her lazily.
Kurenai turned towards him and greeted back. She was garbed in her regular work attire, nothing special. Her mood seemed gloomy. She did not share the happiness of the villagers that was running around them. It was obvious that she did not enjoy the festival, nor did she want to be a part of it.
"Want to hang out somewhere… private?" He was still hopeful, already knowing what the answer would be.
"Not today, Asuma." Kurenai declined politely. "I am not in that mood."
"Alright then," Asuma did not drag the issue. "See you later."
The reason was simple and Asuma understood it very well. While others chose this day to celebrate Kyuubi's defeat, some people chose this day to mourn. Kurenai was one of them.
Because it was the same day that she lost her family on.
Iruka was in a hurry. He knew he was late and he was damning his latest mission for that. As he ran to Naruto's apartment, he continued to pray that he would be home. But deep down, he knew that his prayers would be unanswered. He would not be there. It was same each and every year. He managed to catch him on some occasions and treated him ramen and talked to him briefly before Naruto went away. But still Iruka tried his best because he knew that he was one of the very few people who would look out for him on this day.
Upon reaching his apartment, he quickly realized that he was right. Naruto was already out.
And he had no idea where to look.
A lone figure sat atop the stone head of the Yondaime Hokage of Konoha looking over the vastness of the village and the surrounding forest. There were fireworks going on in the sky, illuminating it from time to time. The whole village below him was celebrating the defeat of the Kyuubi. It seemed really ironic to him. He had every right to celebrate today. If he was not there, this village would not have existed today in the first place. But yet he sat there, lonely and abandoned. People used to say that every birthday was special because they only come once and bring something new each time. But for him, it was same each and every year.
Uzumaki Naruto was turning twenty today and as usual loneliness was his only birthday present.
Kurenai slowly walked aimlessly. This was the one day which she feared. It brought back all the unwanted memories with severe intensity. May be she should have taken Asuma's offer to hang out in private; private as in his bedroom, but then again, she would feel like a trash afterwards. She knew Anko was doing something similar. She cursed inwardly. At least Anko liked to drink herself into oblivion which she did not like. Right now she did not want to go home either. Too many memories were connected to that place.
As she continued her inner musings, Kurenai did not notice that she was on the Hokage monument until she sensed a familiar presence. Looking past the railing that separated the pavement to the stone sculptures, she spotted the owner and she swore inwardly.
It was Uzumaki Naruto, the very last person she wanted to see right now.
Naruto and the Kyuubi were practically synonymous. She was trying to get her mind away from those memories and here she was standing behind the carrier of the very cause of those dreaded memories. Well, not exactly behind anymore as he also sensed her presence and turned to look at her. She thought of turning back and walking away but something stopped her. She remembered that he too was suffering from the hatred. Looking at him sitting here all by himself, she could not help but to feel a little bit of pity.
"Hello Naruto-san." She greeted back. "What are you doing here all alone?"
"Just sitting." There was a brief silence before Naruto spoke. "Speaking of which, should not you be celebrating today with your friends or something?" Was there a hint of bitterness in his voice?
"Don't tell me what to do or not to do. I can make that decision myself." For some reason, Kurenai took that offensively.
"Sorry." His voice was low. Naruto raised his hands in a defensive gesture and fell silent.
Kurenai sighed. She really needed to calm down. She disappeared from her spot to reappear again next to Naruto's sitting form. He tensed for a bit but calmed down when she took a seat beside him. The view from their position was a very nice one. Had it not been the situation and the day, they could have enjoyed that immensely.
"I am sorry Naruto-san. I didn't mean to snap like that."
"… It's alright." Naruto waved it off. "At least you didn't attack me right off the bat." After a slight hesitation, Naruto again asked "You do know about my condition, right?" He was pretty surprised to see someone sitting beside him on this day without any hostile intentions. It was very unlikely that she did not know but it was even more unlikely that she knew and still was interacting with him normally, on this day.
"I know." Kurenai briefly answered. "I'm old enough to know."
Naruto nodded and fell silent again. This was a first. As long as he remembered, he was always alone on this day. At first he had tried to socialize, he really did. But after some rather painful and life threatening experiences, he had learned his lesson. He gave a start when Kurenai spoke again.
"Why are you here? They're giving free food down there."
Naruto looked at her incredulously. Was she out of her mind? Kurenai seemed to sense this and immediately understood the stupidity of her question. Still one question lingered in her mind.
"You spend this day sitting here every year?" She inquired. Upon seeing him nod in affirmative she continued. "What about you teammates? Don't they invite you or come looking for you?"
Naruto shook his head and laughed slightly. Teammates. They probably did not even know where he was. Sakura had a family. She did not have time to look for him. Kakashi was probably reading his book or something. And he did not want to think about Sasuke. He would not be celebrating even if he was in the village.
"They never did. They never do." Naruto shook his head. "And as far as I can understand, they never will."
Kurenai was a bit surprised. But when she thought about what he said, it made sense. So she did not push it.
"You know what the funny thing is?" Naruto continued. "I'm sitting right on top the head of the very man who put me in this situation. You see them celebrating Kyuubi's defeat. I see them laughing at my miserable life!" At his point he growled. "What if I was not born on this day? They're celebrating the demon's defeat and yet they call me a demon." Naruto clenched his fists and spoke in a growling voice.
"Sometimes I wonder if I really should act as one; just to wipe that smirk off their faces."
Kurenai gave a start at his last sentence. She was a jounin but imagining another Kyuubi running around was too much, even for her. Naruto seemed to realize what he had said just now and immediately felt ashamed. He could see that Kurenai had a bit of fear in her eyes.
"Sorry Kurenai-san. I just got a bit… carried away." Naruto apologized, his voice normal now.
"That's alright. I can understand." She was one of those people after all. She wondered if he still remembered that incident all those years ago. "It's just that, thinking of another Kyuubi is…" She did not finish the sentence as she looked down.
"You lost someone in that attack?" Naruto asked making Kurenai nod absently.
"My mother." She was remembering her losses again.
"I am sorry." Naruto did not know what to say. Sure he was not responsible for any death that happened that day but still he felt her grief. The fact that he hated most was that he could do nothing to help her or any one else who lost their families. "I understand how you feel."
"No you don't." Kurenai answered a harshly.
Naruto's head snapped at her direction. And the he realized that she was right. How could he possible feel what she was feeling?
"You are right." He breathed out. "I never had a family to begin with."
Kurenai looked at him, berating herself for loosing her calm yet again. She knew he could not know how she felt and she understood that he could do nothing for her even if he tried. But on the other hand, she knew exactly how he felt.
"You're lucky in that matter." Kurenai gave her opinion. She saw Naruto getting enraged.
"What are you…" Naruto tried to counter. He had yearned for a family his whole life. How dare she suggest that he is lucky for not having one? But before he could finish, she cut him off.
"The pain of being alone is intense, I know that. But the pain of having someone and then loosing them is much more severe." Kurenai was looking into his eyes. "You are lucky that you did not have to experience that."
Naruto fell silent at that, all his rage suddenly gone. He knew that her words held truth. But she was not completely right.
"Didn't your parents love you?" Naruto questioned. Seeing Kurenai getting enraged he continued before she could say anything. "They did, right? Didn't they adore you? Didn't you go on picnics on Sundays? Didn't they hold you when you cried? Did not they kiss on the cuts and scratches you got while playing?" He continued with his questions, one after another. Kurenai stared at him, confused.
"At least you have some memories; memories that you will cherish for the rest of you life. Don't loose them, Kurenai-san" Naruto said quietly. "I don't have even that."
Kurenai stared at him impassively before silently standing up. As she walked away, Naruto could sense her going away but did not say anything. What could he say? He was pretty fortunate that she even spent some time with him in the first place. He could not ask for more.
It had been a half an hour that Kurenai left Naruto alone. He was started to doze off a bit when he felt the familiar presence of Kurenai.
'Don't tell me she finally came back for her revenge.'
It was unlikely but not impossible. A few drinks can do that and Naruto had various first hand experience. He tensed a bit as Kurenai appeared next to him but instead of kunai or shuriken or whatever weapons she liked to use, she was holding two packages. She set them down and opened the larger one. Much to Naruto's surprise he brought out a sealed bowl of ramen and gave it to him, taking another one for her as well. There were some appetizers too.
Naruto sat there with a bewildered expression on his face. He did not know what the hell was going on. He was pretty sure she was upset and slightly pissed off. But now she suddenly came up with some food. Either he got extremely lucky or… Naruto peeled off the cover from the bowl and closely examined the contents.
"No, Naruto-san, I did not poison the ramen or any other food items for that matter."
Naruto grinned sheepishly and scratched the back of his head. Well, one should never put his guard down. But he was still not sure what was going on. So he voiced the question.
"Uh, Kurenai-san, what's going on?" Talk about direct approach.
"Well, I have nothing to do. You have nothing to do. I don't want to go home right now and the same goes for you. So I thought we could hang out for a bit." Kurenai explained. "And besides," Kurenai pulled out a smaller package from somewhere and held that to him.
"Happy birthday, Naruto-san."
Naruto looked at Kurenai with a shocked expression. There were very few people who actually knew his birthday, forget about giving him a present. On a second thought, probably all the older village people knew. But to think one of the older people who actually experienced Kyuubi first hand giving him something willingly was beyond his comprehension. Kurenai seemed to understand his emotions and she broke him out of his reverie.
"I couldn't find anything really fancy in this short time so sorry about that. Tell me if you like it or not."
"Thank you." Naruto whispered as he accepted the present but did not open it. "I will tell you when I open it."
Kurenai smiled and then looked at the sky. "I remember," She started in a soft tone. "When I was little, I absolutely loved my birthday presents. Mom and dad both used to give me presents and it seemed that I waited for them the whole year. I still have some of them." She looked at Naruto to see him looking down at the ground.
"Thank you, Naruto-san."
Naruto looked up, confusion written on his face.
"Your words earlier: 'you have some memories which you will cherish for the rest of you life.' I did not forget them but I refused to remember them. Thank you for reminding me how precious they are." Kurenai sounded genuine. "I'm sure someday you'll find your share of memories too."
"I already found one." Naruto answered smiling.
"Then let's celebrate!" Kurenai pulled out a sake bottle from somewhere that Naruto would never know.
Naruto did not drink but what the hell? He was feeling happy. So they ate their food and drank their share of sake. Under the starry night two people sat trying to find their places in this world. As Naruto sat there, he could feel Kurenai slightly leaning onto him. Her cheeks were showing slight traces of pink signifying that the alcohol was finally taking some effect. She rested her head on his shoulder.
"Hey, Naruto…" She started a bit drowsily, "Are you still feeling lonely?"
"…No." Naruto hesitated at first but then slowly draped his hand around her, supporting her body. "I am not alone."
With a smile on his face he stared at the sky above.
Yeah, the stars were shining a little brighter today.
In the shadows cast by the trees, Asuma leaned onto a tree trunk as he continued to look at them with an unreadable expression on his face. He took a long drag of his cigarette before flicking it off. Taking a last look at the forms of Kurenai and Naruto, he vanished from the spot.
The fallen cigarette kept burning.
(1) 'Saru' means monkey.
A/N: Hmm… Third chapter is done. Many, many thanks to all the people who reviewed and gave me suggestions. I really appreciate your support for this story and your effort of leaving comments and suggestions. This chapter contains some semi serious Naruto-Kurenai interaction and raises some questions as well, such as what happened in his mission. And now that Asuma is in the picture…
There's more to come. Trust me, this story in under Romance/Angst. Romance will come and so will angst. And nervous breakdowns? Wait and see, --insert evil laughter of your favorite villain here--. Please let me know what you think with suggestions/comment/criticisms, or else --insert that laughter from before, again--.