Her return to consciousness was slow and incremental, and as Sakura became more wakeful, the first thing she became aware of was that the bed she slept on was not her own. The mattress was lumpy, and the old bed springs creaked when she shifted her weight, but she found she was comfortable enough and did not feel any inclination to detach herself from the warmth of her blankets. Her mind still hazy with the remnants of sleep, Sakura sighed and breathed in an earthy smell reminding her of grass and trees. Shifting closer to the source of the pleasant, soothing scent, somehow familiar in a way her half-awake state could not place, Sakura felt her forehead bump against something warm and solid and then she was enveloped in the smell, taking it in with each breath.
For a few minutes, she lay there undisturbed and would have easily gone back to sleep, if her internal clock had not decided it was time to get up, uncaring of what Sakura may have wanted. Trying to fall asleep now would be futile and losing battle, Sakura knew, since she was accustomed to waking up early in the morning without the motivating of an alarm. Once her body decided it was time to get up, there was not much Sakura could do to fight it.
With a low groan of protest, she opened her eyes and was met with the sight of Naruto's back and realized the heat she felt was from him, where her forehead leaned on him, pressed against the back of his shoulder. Sakura moved to roll onto her back, turning her head to watch Naruto's side rise and fell steadily, indicating he was still asleep. Sitting up, she blinked as her vision adjusted to the dark room, yet to be touched by the first light of dawn and she looked to the clock on the table beside the bed, showing the time was approaching five-thirty. She would need to report in to Tsunade soon.
She looked once more at Naruto, his body wrapped around a pillow and his mouth opened slightly as he slumbered, and he would have seemed quite relaxed if the crease of tension in his brow had not alerted Sakura that his sleep was not as peaceful as it appeared. Crawling off the bed, Sakura removed the blanket from around her and laid it over Naruto. She hated to leave without telling him, but she also did not want to wake him when he clearly needed the rest.
Straightening and stretching her arms over her head, she felt the knots in her muscles loosen and let out a sigh of relief at the sensation. Afterwards, Sakura went into the bathroom where she had left her skirt hanging on a towel rack so it wouldn't get wrinkled and changed out of her borrowed sweatpants and smoothed the crinkles from her shirt, thinking it might be best if she stopped her house for a change of fresh clothes.
Looking at herself in the mirror over the sink, Sakura ran her fingers through her hair to detangle the snarls until she decided she was presentable enough, and a short time later, Sakura left the apartment, leaving behind a quickly scribbled note for Naruto where she hoped he would find it.
It was mid-morning before Naruto awoke, roused from sleep by a firm knocking at his door. He stumbled from the bed, steadying himself when his balance lurched hazardously and felt a pulse of pain in his skull, lifting a hand to rub at his head, as if to stave off the developing headache. Making his way to the door, Naruto cracked it open and saw Shikamaru standing on the other side, the chuunin meeting him with a solemn expression.
"Shikamaru, what do you want?" he said morosely, in a subdued tone that might have suggested something like hostility, but if Shikamaru noticed his less than approachable mood, he chose to ignore it.
"Can I come in?" he asked, and after some moments of deliberation, Naruto stepped back, pulling the door open to allow Shikamaru inside.
"I came to ask you about this," Shikamaru said, without wasting time on preamble and held out a photograph, "if there's anything about it that might bring something to mind."
Taking the photo, Naruto looked at it and felt his throat constrict. It was a picture of the message Jiraiya had carved into Fukasaku's back; 9, 31, 8 106, 7 207, 15. He hadn't paid much attention to it the first time, with the news of his master's death so fresh in his mind, and Naruto couldn't say it meant anything to him now, but he could feel there was something about it niggling at the back of his mind, something that didn't look quite right.
But it was just numbers, some code holding no significant meaning to him. Yet at the same time, this was Jiraiya's final message, his last words, so to speak. Whatever message these numbers revealed could be instrumental to defeating Pein. And right now, there was nothing that mattered more.
"Naruto," Shikamaru snapped, his voice breaking through Naruto's reflections and he lifted his gaze back to his friend, pushing his thoughts aside.
"Sorry, what where you saying?" he said apologetically.
Shikamaru sighed. "I asked you what you thought of it. Is there anything about it that rings any bells?"
Naruto shook his head helplessly, handing the photo back to Shikamaru. "No, nothing about it really seems familiar."
Heaving another sigh, this time tinted with exasperation, Shikamaru said, "Come with me."
"Where are we going?" asked Naruto.
"Just come on," he responded shortly, tucking the photograph into one of the pockets of his green flak jacket and turned for the door. Noticing a sheet of paper taped to the door, Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and reached out to take the paper in his hand. "A note from Sakura?" he said, his eyes scanning the handwriting. He gave Naruto a questioning look, curiosity peeking through his impassive expression at the panic on Naruto's face, watching as he scrambled for something to say.
"Sakura was here then?" Shikamaru said with a rare teasing note in his voice.
"It's not what you think!" Naruto burst out, frantically rushing to explain. "Nothing happened, I swear!"
Shikamaru lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Whatever, I don't really care what you two do. All it says is that she had to leave for work and to remember you have a meeting with the Hokage at four."
"Oh right, I forgot about that," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head shamefacedly.
"Of course you did," Shikamaru muttered, rolling his eyes. "You better be careful to not 'forget' again, or you're going to have two angry women to deal with, and that's just troublesome. Let's go." He returned to note to where he found it, pressing the tape so it would stay and twisted the doorknob. He could he Naruto grumbling behind him, probably hurrying to pull on his shoes, but Shikamaru kept walking at his regular, measured pace, knowing Naruto would easily catch up.
Awhile later, the two stood outside the Konoha hospital, apparently waiting for something, Naruto deduced, since it had easily been five minutes and Shikamaru had made no motion to go inside. Kicking at the dirt with the toe of his shoe, Naruto sighed. He was starting to feel jittery with impatience, not liking to stand in one place too long. As he looked around distractedly, he noticed the ground was largely dry, even after a day and a half of rain, though there were still puddles of collected rainwater in some areas, and the air was heavy and muggy, damp with moisture from the torrential rainstorm.
"Here she comes," Shikamaru said.
"Hm?" Naruto whipped his head around expectantly. "Kurenai –" he said in shock when he saw the black haired kunoichi approaching them as she left the hospital, and he immediately spotted an obvious difference in her figure which certainly was not there the last time he'd seen her. "When did your belly get so big?" he asked indelicately, not thinking as he pointed at her, specifically her burgeoning midsection. "Did you eat too much or something?"
"She's pregnant," Shikamaru corrected bluntly. "You're such a pain in the ass."
Naruto recoiled, partly out of embarrassment for his inaccurate conclusion and also in surprise. "Huh? Then…" he started to say before he trailed off, not yet fully processing the information.
Offering no reaction to Naruto's tactless comments, Kurenai turned to Shikamaru. "You need to stop coming here all the time, Shikamaru," she said patiently, with an edge of rebuke in the gentle tone of her voice.
"I can't do that, Asuma asked me to do this for him," Shikamaru said, and Kurenai smiled fondly, but Naruto thought he could see a trace of sadness in her expression. Now he was starting to understand. The baby was Asuma's, and Asuma was dead.
Kurenai nodded, smoothing her hand over the curvature of her swollen middle. "I'm sure he would appreciate it," she said.
Naruto lowered his eyes to the ground, swallowing heavily. He wondered what it was like for Kurenai, live with the reality that she would have to raise her child on her own, and knowing he or she would never be able to know their father. Naruto was well aware of what it was like to be alone, to not have any parents, but he did not know what it was like to carry such responsibility for another life.
After Kurenai bid her goodbyes, Naruto and Shikamaru watched her leave, and they stood in silence for a moment or two before Shikamaru finally spoke. "That kid'll be my apprentice one day," he said, and Naruto turned toward him curiously, not say anything.
"Asuma entrusted me with this responsibility before he died," Shikamaru continued, meeting Naruto eye to eye with a meaningful look, before gazing straight ahead once more, where he could still see the distant figure of Kurenai, moving farther away and growing smaller. "I heard about Jiraiya. I lost my master too, so don't think I don't know what you're going through, but you'll never get anywhere if you keep messing around," Shikamaru said and looked at him pointedly, and Naruto scowled back. "You're not in a position to do that anymore."
"What did you mean?" Naruto asked, his desire to understand overriding his temper.
"My master entrusted me with a lot, from small things to big things, and it's the same for you, I bet. It's about time, don't you think?" said Shikamaru.
"Time for what?"
"Well, to be the ones doing the entrusting. Someday you'll be the one treating others to ramen, and you'll be called Naruto-sensei. We can't just stay kids forever. Asuma and Jiraiya are counting on us to carry on what they can't."
Naruto thought of what he'd told Sakura the night before, about Jiraiya leaving it up to him to bring about the end of the cycle of hatred that was his master's dream to see realized. He still was no closer to a solution, but that didn't mean he could just give up on one of those 'big things' Jiraiya had entrusted him with. And his master would not want him moping around when he had things to do.
At last, Shikamaru's words found root in Naruto, blossoming with his determination and he gave Shikamaru a firm nod, which he returned, a knowing smirk tugging at one corner of his mouth. "Let's get going then; we've still got to figure this thing out." Shikamaru reached into his pocket and brought out the photograph, holding it up to Naruto.
Shikamaru took Naruto to the decryption lab, which Naruto thought looked very similar to the library Sakura and Sai liked to spend so much time in, with its shelves full of books and tomes and smelled much the same too, like old paper and stale air. A woman with strange looking glasses and unkempt light blonde hair met them there, introducing herself as Shiho and said she was there to offer any assistance they might need, but Naruto hardly paid her any attention, since she mostly seemed to be talking to Shikamaru rather than him. Once they had everything set up at a table, with the photo and some blank sheets of paper and pen for notes and such, Naruto channeled all his mental focus completely into trying to make sense of the code.
"You've been quiet for a long time," Shikamaru eventually said. "Do you have any ideas?"
"Hmm…" Naruto hummed thoughtfully.
"I've already tried the Godaime and Kakashi and they didn't know anything. I have a feeling Jiraiya left this code for you – no, that has to be it," Shikamaru rationalized, encourage him to speak out on whatever he was thinking.
"If anything caught your eye, please tell us, no matter how small it is. We're not asking for you to try to decrypt the whole thing, all we really need is a hint," Shiho said coaxingly.
"Well, it's been bugging me since I first saw it…" Naruto began, feeling a bit indecisive about what he thought was there, or if he was only seeing what he wanted, and it seemed likely to be the case, if no one else had noticed.
"What has?" urged Shikamaru.
"It's just, how come the rest is all numbers and there's just one katakana?" asked Naruto, and both Shikamaru and Shiho looked at him in absolute confusion.
"Where?" Shikamaru inquired eagerly.
"Look, right here," said Naruto, pointing to what he had first read as the number nine in the first row, as the other two leaned in for a closer look.
Shikamaru drew back with a skeptical expression. "What are you talking about? That's a number nine isn't it?"
"That's what I thought at first too, but it's not a nine," Naruto said. "It's a katakana, 'ta'."
"Now that you mention it, it does kind of look like it," Shikamaru agreed. "But that might be reaching a bit."
Shiho adjusted her eyeglasses, fixing the unusual lens on Naruto in scrutiny. "Uzumaki-san, why do you think it's a 'ta' and not a nine?"
"Well, Ero-sennin was always writing books, and while we were traveling together he would make me read his handwritten manuscripts. He wanted to know my opinion, I thought it was all pretty boring though," Naruto said, remembering how he'd hated being forced to read those manuscripts when he could have been training. "Anyway, his 'ta's were always hard to read, they looked kinda like nine's, actually."
"I see… so he had a peculiar style then," Shiho said, speaking more to herself than either of them as she grabbed a pen and a sheet of paper.
She began by writing a normal 'ta', with a long first stroke and a squared shape on top and then she demonstrated another 'ta', with a short beginning stroke and curved on top so that it lacked the corners present on the first one and resembled the number nine. "When he wrote a katakana 'ta', he would make the first stroke short, so the end of the third stroke connected with the end of the first, and the second stroke was curved. That made his 'ta' look like a nine," she said, stepping back to fiddle with her glasses. "Looks like that's the key, connecting you and Jiraiya."
"Why didn't you say something when you first noticed it?" Shikamaru asked accusingly.
"'Cause where does knowing it's a 'ta' get us?" Naruto defended, spreading his arms.
Shikamaru placed two fingers to his forehead, closing his eyes, and Naruto imagined he was cataloging this new piece of information, searching his mind for its significance, but Naruto was just drawing a blank as to what that could possibly be. "No, wait, that's it – the books you mentioned."
Shiho seemed to catch on quite quickly to what Shikamaru was saying. "That's it! You're right, Shikamaru, there must sort of hint hidden in Jiraiya's books," she said excitedly. "The numbers must be character order or number of lines… or maybe page numbers, the key must be connected to the code somehow."
"Naruto, can you think of any connection with the character 'ta' and Jiraiya's books?" asked Shikamaru.
"Um," Naruto mumbled, still feeling a bit lost but nevertheless searching his memory for anything that could prove helpful, only to come up empty.
"Okay, how many volumes has he written?" Shikamaru amended when he saw him struggling for an answer.
"I dunno, like four or five?"
"Then we'll just have to go through all of them," Shikamaru concluded.
"It's probably this one," a voice said from the direction of the window and all three of them turned to find Kakashi standing at the open window, leaning over the sill and holding up a book Naruto instantly recognized as one of Jiraiya's novels. "I was curious how things were going, and I heard your voices when I came over. I heard most of it."
"This is the book Ero-sennin wrote we were traveling," Naruto said, and recalled it was also the same book he had brought back with him months ago as a gift for his sensei, knowing Kakashi would appreciate it much more than himself.
"It's something only you could have known, Naruto. He must have left this code for you," Shikamaru said in confirmation and Naruto felt his mouth briefly twitch upwards in a smile, knowing his master, with his last breath, had trusted him to figure out this code. It seemed like such a small thing.
"The 'ta' at the beginning of the code was referring to the Tactics volumes of the Icha Icha series," explained Kakashi.
"Some codes that use books go by character order or number of lines, but the first thing to do is check the page numbers," Shiho said in her scholarly manner. "Let's see, there are six numbers separated by commas: 31, 8, 106, 7, 207, and 15. So we're talking information from six pages. First we start with page 31." She sat down at the table with her pen poised at the ready, and motioned toward Kakashi. "Open to that page."
"Page 31…" Kakashi intoned, skimming through the pages for the right one. "Got it. What now?"
"We need the first character on the page, and we want to know the meaning too, so read the whole sentence out loud."
Kakashi's laid back mien evaporated, replaced with apprehension, the visible part of his face flushing. "Er, um ‒"
"What's the problem, hurry up and read it!" Naruto erupted, aggravated to encounter any delay when they were so close to decrypting this message.
"Okay," Kakashi resigned himself dubiously.
A few minutes before four o' clock, Sakura walked through the corridor to Tsunade's office, a manila folder from Ibiki that she was told to bring directly to her master tucked under her arm. These last couple of days, she seemed to have become the unofficial liaison between the Hokage and the head of the Interrogation department, not that Sakura really minded, she liked to keep busy, and was willing to do whatever needed doing to make herself useful.
Rapping her knuckles solidly on the thick wood of the door to Tsunade's office, the sound echoing hollowly against the surface, Sakura courteously waited long enough to receive permission to proceed into the room in the form of a muffled, "Enter," from within. She pushed the heavy door open with ease and closed it behind her, nodding a greeting to her master and the toad sage Fukasaku, who sat atop Tsunade's desk.
"Thank you, Sakura," the Hokage said as she took the folder and opened it on her desk, her eyes perusing the text with a frown that grew progressively darker. After a while, Tsunade shut the file with a whoosh of air, setting it on the top of a small stack of papers. "You are welcome to wait here if you like Sakura, Naruto should be here soon. I am assuming you made sure to give him the message about the meeting?"
"Of course, Shishou," Sakura affirmed. She just hoped Naruto hadn't forgotten, or at the very least that he had seen her note, she didn't need Naruto's propensity towards forgetfulness making her look bad. Tsunade would likely know the fault was not Sakura's, but still, the principle was the same.
Five minutes past four, the doors burst open and Naruto rushed in, followed by Shikamaru, Kakashi and Shiho. Sakura could see a rigidity in Naruto's posture, his body wired and thrumming with anxious energy and his expression was no longer clouded with melancholy, but hard with resolve. She couldn't have guessed right then what he might be thinking, or what had brought out this side of him. It was difficult to reconcile this Naruto with the one she had seen just last night, lost and confused and hurting. For all intents and purposes, one might believe he appeared quite like his normal self. But for some reason, Sakura could not find it in her to feel relieved.
"You're late, Naruto," Tsunade said flatly, giving him a reprimanding glare.
"Yeah, well, I was busy with something important," Naruto said tetchily, ignoring decorum as he always did.
Shiho stepped forward to hand Tsunade a sheet of paper, inclining her upper body in a self-effacing bow before she slipped back to stand behind Shikamaru. Tsunade looked over the paper a moment and then passed it to Fukasaku.
"Hon-mono-ha-i-na-i?" the elder toad read aloud, uncomprehending.
"So, how 'bout it, do you know what it means?" Naruto questioned insistently.
"I don't know. This is too vague." Fukasaku shook his head.
"Well, do you have any thoughts on it?" Shikamaru requested Fukasaku, asking more politely.
"I've told you everything I know about Pein. It seems he can revive himself if he dies, but that's only a hypothesis. It's too dangerous to fight him right without more information."
"What about the autopsy and the interrogation?" Kakashi said.
Sakura answered, "It looks like they'll take a while longer."
"How much longer?" Naruto pressed.
"There's no way to say for sure," Sakura told him.
But it seemed that was the wrong thing to say, because Naruto leveled her with an expression of anger she had never experienced directed at her. "What's that supposed to mean? We don't have time to sit around waiting!"
Sakura felt her own temper ignite at the unwarranted assault. "I don't know about the interrogation, but the autopsy involves careful analyzing of cells and tissue. It takes time!" she shot back.
"It will be a week at the earliest," Tsunade supplemented.
"That long?" Naruto groaned, hanging his head.
"Shizune is overseeing the autopsy, she'll probably be able to move things along more quickly than usual, but we've no choice but to wait."
"I'm gonna go tell them to hurry up then," Naruto said, pivoting on his heel toward the door.
Quickly, Sakura grabbed a hold of his arm to stop him and Naruto threw her an infuriated look she refused to be intimidated by. "Don't you dare try to interfere with Shizune's work Naruto, it won't help anything."
Naruto stared at her for several seconds and she stared back, her gaze unwavering on his and she began to understand why she'd felt so unsettled before. She could see desperation in Naruto's eyes, the unspoken desire to act reflecting strongly in the blue of his irises. He could not stay back while others took action, and that was one of the qualities she so admired about him, but what worried her was the spark of a much darker driving force further below the surface, the demand for retribution.
Wrenching his arm from her grip, Naruto turned away so all Sakura could see was the line of his back. "I going to avenge Ero-sennin, I can't just keep waiting around." Hearing him speak those words again doubled Sakura's concern, but she couldn't say anything, not here.
"Naruto, now that the code has been decrypted, there is nothing for you to do here," Fukasaku said, drawing Naruto's attention and his indignation.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"There is no way you could possibly defeat Pein now," the toad sage went on, as if he had not been interrupted. "So, I came to ask you to come with me. I'll take you to Myobokuzan and train you in senjutsu, just the way I trained Jiraiya-chan."
"Will I be able to beat Pein then?" asked Naruto.
"I can't say, but the odds will be better than if you were to try as you are now. Training in the art of senjutsu will be tougher than anything you've done before. Do you think you can handle it?"
"Ero-sennin made it through, didn't he? I can't let him beat me," Naruto said tenaciously, his expression dissolved of anger, and reset with determination.
Later that evening, Sakura found herself standing once more outside Naruto's apartment, giving the door two consecutive knocks. She barely lowered her hand back to her side when she heard Naruto holler, "It's open!" from the other side, and let herself in.
She located Naruto in his room, busy packing for his trip, but he looked up when she entered and smiled welcomingly. "Hey, Sakura-chan, I was just packing some stuff for tomorrow."
"I can see that," she said lightly.
Naruto rubbed his neck. "So what're you doing here? I thought you were going to see me off in the morning?"
"I am," Sakura said with a nod. "But there's something I needed to talk to you about."
He seemed to deflate somewhat but said hesitantly, "Okay, what did you want to talk about?"
"It's… I know I can't begin to understand what you're going through. I've never lost someone who meant so much to me like Jiraiya-sama did for you, I don't know what it's like, and I won't pretend that I do," she said, shaking her head mournfully and she pushed forward before she could lose her nerve. "But since Jiraiya-sama died, something has started to change in you, you've started talking about revenge, and I know you feel you need to set things right, and I'm not saying you shouldn't, but please, Naruto, don't lose yourself to revenge. Not like Sasuke-kun. It – scares me that you could end up like that." She began to sob, and Naruto instinctively pulled her into his arms.
"I'm sorry," he said into her hair. "I didn't think when I said that. I didn't realize I was hurting you, Sakura-chan, and I promise I won't end up like Sasuke."
"I don't want you making me another promise like it's some kind of debt. I don't want you to do it for me, you need to do it for yourself," Sakura said, stepping away from him.
Naruto was not entirely sure when she meant by that, but he complied with the request and said he would anyway. "I'm sorry about last night too," he added. "When I… I guess I wasn't thinking then either," he said wryly, his tone self-deprecating.
"It's okay. I know you weren't trying to start anything, you just needed to feel comforted somehow, I won't hold that kiss against you."
"Right," he said unconvincingly, his shoulders tensing. He knew it wouldn't mean anything to her, and he knew very well she didn't feel for him the way he felt for her, but for her to verify the truth was still like a punch to the gut. "So, I'll see you tomorrow then?" he said weakly.
"Yes," Sakura agreed.
Once she was back outside, Sakura wiped away the track of her tears on the heel of her palm, and sighed quaveringly. She had thought confronting Naruto would help alleviate her worry, but as she walked home, she discovered her heart was as heavy as it had been before.
Author's Note: I am sure most (if not all) of you will notice that there is a lot of canon stuff in this chapter, I suppose I could have just skipped it, but it seemed like an awful lot to leave out, and maybe it will be helpful in refreshing the memory anyway. I just hope I was able to write it in a way that was somewhat interesting. The reason I was able to get this chapter up so quickly (for me anyway) was because I didn't do any major editing or revising, of course I tried to make sure there were no big errors, but if there is anything that perhaps doesn't quite make sense, don't hesitate to let me know. I'm still wondering if I should have tried to make that last scene longer somehow... Well, chances are that once this story is finished completely I will go back and clean it up. I'm sure if I were to go back, I would find stuff throughout that I don't like, but that's because I'm nitpicky.
The next chapter will likely take a while longer, and the reason is because I'm going to put this story on the backburner for a bit, I will still be working on it, it just won't be my singular focus. I have some other projects that I'm beginning to really feel like I'm neglecting :( And besides that, this fic will start to really diverge from canon, and it may take some time to iron out some things plot wise. I just don't want anyone to start thinking if this fic goes a while without an update that I have abandoned it. That will not happen, I am going to finish what I started, I only ask for patience.
And on a side note: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!