During the lull that characterised the penultimate days of the war, Sai thought to himself that if he were to look on the other side of insanity, there Naruto would be. While the whole world went crazy around them, the improbably still-living members of Team 7 gathered behind the lines to suffer mummification by Tsunade and to gossip.
'I bet he still has our photo,' Naruto said with unshakable vehemence at the mess table, waving a heavily bandaged arm in the air at Sakura. 'Hidden somewhere and rigged with a thousand genjutsu traps, but I bet he still has it.'
'He'll have burnt it,' Sakura shook her head. 'Set it on fire with a katon, and then burnt the ashes afterwards.'
Kakashi-sensei presided over the conversation and added, with some nostalgia, 'You were all so cute back then.' As Sai struggled with that particular mental paradox, Kakashi beamed across the table at Naruto and said, 'Now feed me my gruel, oh adorable pupil mine.'
'I'm only doing this because you broke the fingers in both of your hands, Kakashi-sensei,' Naruto warned, scooping up combat rations with bad grace as he gave Kakashi a jaundiced glare. 'Try anything pervy and this goes all over your face, weirdo.'
'That will be General Hatake to you, thank you,' Kakashi said, licking the spoon just to watch Naruto flail. When he was done, though, Kakashi said bracingly, 'So, Madara.'
'Yeah,' Naruto growled, chucking the battered mess tin aside. 'Madara.' He cracked his knuckles. 'When we finally get to him, I'm going to —' Naruto made graphically illustrative hand motions.
Kakashi lounged against the table, as though Naruto hadn't just declared that he was going to beat up the unreasonably powerful instigator of the Fourth World War like it was the easiest thing to do in the world, and was equally non-committal with his next question. 'And Sasuke?'
'I'm going to beat him, duh, in a glorious battle that Guy-sensei will write epic poetry about afterwards,' Naruto scoffed, waving the question out of existence. 'Maybe I'll punch him a couple of times more than necessary, though.'
'In all likelihood,' Sai put in, 'you'll have to fight Sasuke before Madara. It would be wise to prepare for a situation where you won't be able to just approach Sasuke on your own.'
'Then I'll beat Sasuke first, before anyone else gets to him, and then mash Madara into pulp for starting this whole damn nightmare, whatever,' Naruto whined in the face of logic, a rare visitor in Konoha's camp. 'I'll tie Sasuke to a tree or something and he can wait for the fighting to be over.'
Sai asked, 'What if Sasuke dies?'
Silence blanketed the table.
Naruto exploded a second later, conveniently cutting Sakura off before she could throw a chakra-infused punch into Sai's face. 'I AM GOING TO FIND SASUKE AND NOTHING YOU CAN SAY WILL STOP ME,' Naruto chanted. 'HE's NOT GOING TO DIE BECAUSE HE'S A STUBBORN ASSHOLE. So when I find him, I'll beat the shit out of him.' Naruto's fists clenched, but his mouth was curled up into a fierce, happy grin. 'Then I'll drag his ass home to Konoha.'
Yamato, from his spectator's seat to the side, clapped politely while Kakashi coughed down something suspiciously close to laughter. Sai, furrowing his brow at the complete refusal to acknowledge reality, asked, 'Is this a coping mechanism for trauma?'
Sakura laughed, the cleanest sound that Sai had heard since the fighting started. 'No, Sai,' she told him. 'It's the beginning of healing.'
Because everyone, apparently, could invest in Naruto's wide-eyed idealism — common sense had nothing to do with this kind of faith. So, in spite of the fact that Sasuke was an S-class missing-nin allied with the common enemy of five hidden villages, Everything, according to Naruto, Was Going To Be All Right.
'Okay,' Sai said doubtfully, and they went back to fighting the war.
And, apparently fuelled by the twin engines of Friendship and Love, they won.
The war ended, and to mark the occasion Naruto'd thrown his hands in the air in celebration, grabbed Sasuke by the scruff of his neck, and brought him back to Konoha, back home, and anyone who had any issues with that could take it up with his left fist and the Rasengan that would be sitting in it.
Naruto told Sai that any Konoha villager who would turn their back on Sasuke (who "did the right thing in the end, you know.") was heartless, as though Sasuke coming to the conclusion, very late in the day, that Madara was insane and that revenge at the cost of the deaths of thousands was unlikely to bring him inner peace was worthy of commendation.
'He tried to kill you,' Sai pointed out, as they sat in the Hokage's Tower awaiting Tsunade and her judgement. 'Multiple times.' Sasuke, sitting opposite them and flanked by Kakashi and two ANBU, didn't object.
'Yeah, well, so have bunches of people,' Naruto shrugged. 'Look, Sai,' he said earnestly, 'if Konoha can't learn about forgiveness, or about how to make things work so that we don't ever have to have people spending their entire lives stewing in hatred of themselves or for others, then that whole war wasn't really good for anything, was it?'
Maybe insanity was infectious, because Sai was beginning to think that Naruto had made some degree of sense.
The meeting about Sasuke was not, precisely, a nightmare. Sai had been to nightmarish meetings before; they had usually involved physical violence, torture, and/or a reminder that people were better off sans weaknesses like emotion, faith, and trust. Shinobi were tools: they performed missions, they remained loyal, and when they failed in those tasks they were dismantled. Danzo was, admittedly, now dead, and Sai hadn't felt anything about his passing except a mild sense of vindication and a need to self-correct his perceptions of the way the universe was supposed to work. Naruto's way, he had admitted then and he would freely admit now, was better.
It helped that saving the world and ending international conflicts apparently lent a certain weight to an argument. The councillors were less than pleased, but they were old, tired, and their ways hadn't fixed anything in the past. Naruto and Sakura, on the other hand, were full of the kind of resolution that was possessed by people who had seen the worst side of death and betrayal only to come out bettered by it.
'He's alone in the world, chakra-depleted, and you're not going to set a very good example if all the people are going to get out of this is that Konoha can fight and win a war, but not save one of its own children,' Naruto huffed with his new-found eloquence.
'Okay,' Tsunade said, exasperated.
'Plus, we'll totally be here for him — what's he going to do when you've sealed his chakra, like, seven different ways? Try and fail to kill me for the bazillionth time when his present version of a katon looks like it wouldn't light a match? And then kill Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei and Neji and Shikamaru and you, Tsunade-baa-chan, and, did you just say yes?'
'Yes, brat, I did,' Tsunade sighed. The cheers that filled the room overrode the squawking the councillors were making. 'But if you mess this one up, the daimyo will get involved, and it won't end well,' she warned.
Naruto, clutching at one of Sasuke's shoulders, simply beamed. 'We're not going to mess this up,' he said, his voice close to shaking. 'This is the beginning of everything getting better.'
'Okay,' Sai said doubtfully. He didn't understand the emotion he heard in Naruto's voice — but he heard it, clear as the blue skies that stretched across the Hokage Monument outside.
The details of Sasuke's release included endless ANBU assignments and what seemed to be rehabilitation through ramen. When Tsunade dismissed them, Sakura and Naruto had linked an arm each around Sasuke and drawn him away with a declaration that a stop at Ichiraku's was going to be the start of something amazing, and left. It didn't escape Sai's notice that Naruto's chakra was wound neatly and tightly in his body, or that Sakura had armed herself more than she usually would while in Konoha, or that the both of them had still been laughing in spite of this. Team 7, reunited again.
Before he could leave the room, Tsunade made a motion with her hand and said, 'Sai, Kakashi, Yamato. Stay.'
Kakashi's eyes were on the door, but he slouched his way into a corner and awaited orders. Yamato stood at polite attention. Sai waited in his place, outranked.
'So,' Tsunade said, her eyes narrowed. Sai resisted the urge to take a step back. 'It's over. The village is still standing, even though reconstruction efforts are continuing, and we have the last of the Uchiha Clan, an S-class murderer, wandering in our midst.'
'Er,' Yamato said on behalf of everyone else in the room.
'You were all ANBU at one point or another; don't give me "er,"' Tsunade snapped. Yamato looked up in the air for a moment, and then shrugged. No one else had anything else to add, either: the best they could hope for would be to keep Sasuke contained.
Tsunade leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes against a migraine. 'It's supposed to be easier during peace time,' she snarled, though it was a far nicer snarl than the ones they'd been hearing the last half of a year. 'Kakashi!' she snapped
'Yes,' Kakashi stepped up.
'We'll go through with your idea,' Tsunade said tersely, clearly unhappy. She nodded at Sai. 'He's young, but he knows the members of Root, isn't blindingly trusting of Uchiha Sasuke, and has familiarity with Naruto's method of operation.' She sighed. 'Times being what they are, it's the best we can afford.'
What plan? Kakashi shrugged one shoulder, but Sai felt his gaze on him as Tsunade snapped, 'Step forward, Sai!'
Sai did. 'Sai,' Tsunade declared, 'From tomorrow, you are to undergo a probationary promotion ANBU captain, with the provisional position to be confirmed after evaluation from Hatake Kakashi and Yamato. Do you accept!'
'Yes, Godaime,' Sai said through the shock, instinctively rather than reactively.
'Good,' Tsunade snapped. 'Your mission is to monitor and report on Uchia Sasuke.' She pushed a new ANBU mask across the table at him. 'You're all dismissed!'
The first night after his promotion, Sai made his way back to his assigned room after debriefing the scant remaining ANBU corps and nearly had his head taken off by a trap that hadn't been there twelve hours ago.
'Your window is positioned horribly,' Kakashi waved to him from the sill. 'It provides quite an access point; you should complain to the Reconstruction Team.'
'I could have died, Kakashi-sensei,' Sai said evenly as he tried to hold off a taut chakra string from cutting into his neck and beheading him.
'That's sort of the point of traps,' Kakashi acknowledged, making no move to help. 'If no one else has tried to get you yet, I'd say ANBU's losing its edge.'
Sai gingerly edged the chakra string away from him with a kunai, watching the trap snap at the empty air with worrying speed. 'Attacking squad mates outside of training sessions could be seen as counterproductive at worst and treasonous at best,' Sai flailed in the face of Kakashi's reasoning.
'Eh, it's pretty bad if you can't survive them, I guess,' Kakashi shrugged. He had somehow meandered into Sai's room and propped himself up on the edge of a chair. Sai didn't usually have an opportunity to see Kakashi up this close: the easy grace of the jounin's movements made his spine prickle in warning.
Kakashi pointed a gloved finger at Sai's bed, upon which was laid — 'Those are my scrolls,' Sai exhaled sharply. Not just his summoning scrolls, either: there were reports that he had kept as a member of Root, and also his picture book. His ANBU mask was there, too. All of them had been triple-locked and sealed. Sai looked at Kakashi in askance. 'Is this a hazing ritual?'
'Sorry, Sai-kun,' Kakashi said, not sounding very apologetic at all. 'I'm a little paranoid sometimes.'
'You didn't like Danzo-sama, or Root,' Sai inferred carefully, watching Kakashi as he leaned back on his haunches and scratched the back of his head. The Copy-nin hadn't made too many indications of his dislike, but underneath Kakashi's chilly deference to Danzo during his brief tenure as the Sixth had been a clear sense of distaste.
'Maa,' Kakashi shrugged. 'You got me there. And I don't exactly have a perfect record with my students, what with one of them wandering off to join international criminal organisations and all. It never hurts to do things slightly more conventionally sometimes.'
It was so easy to forget that Kakashi-senpai had been ANBU for almost as long as Sai had been alive. Then he tried to come along and kill you, which both made sense and was completely unreasonable, and made Sai feel briefly jealous. The books had mentioned that emotion: jealousy, noun, a state of feeling of envy. Somewhere in Konoha, walking free, was Uchiha Sasuke. 'I see,' Sai said, voice free of inflection.
'As ex-ANBU,' Kakashi told Sai, his tone so flat he might as well have been wearing a mask, 'I'm here to ensure that you execute your responsibilities. You've witnessed the rift between normal ANBU corps operations and Root, and you know what it's going to take to stop Sasuke if he should ever go rogue.'
'Yes,' Sai agreed, standing to attention out of force of habit. Kakashi's voice commanded it.
'You've a long way to go,' Kakashi told him. 'Especially if you're to keep primary watch on Sasuke.
'Yes,' Sai said again, fighting on one hand the irrational urge to grit his teeth and on the other a deep-seated relief at this return to ANBU's modus operandi. 'I understand.'
'Good,' Kakashi pronounced, then stood to move. Even though Sai reacted, Kakashi was unbearably quick: he had Sai's arms twisted behind his back before Sai could throw up any kind of counter. 'You'll hear from me from time to time, Sai-kun,' Kakashi said, as Sai flinched, waiting for the educational blow that was sure to follow. But Kakashi did nothing, save to pat him on the shoulders. 'You're a member of my team, so I've got obligations to you as a sensei, ne?'
Sai blinked, and then Kakashi was gone.
He had so much research he had to do before these emotions were even going to begin to make any sense.
'Don't worry, it's all okay!' Sakura told Sai the first time he slammed Uchiha Sasuke's window open and vaulted in, masked as an ANBU, to pull the Sharingan user off of Naruto.
He had felt the killing intent wafting off of the both of them from all the way up on the roof, and Sasuke's muscles were bunched up so tightly under his grip that he could have caused serious damage even without using chakra. Sai edged his kunai closer to Sasuke's throat.
'This happens all the time, ANBU-san,' Sakura said as she pried at Sai's fingers. 'It's just a part of life, you know, arguments happen, ha-ha-ha.'
'What happened,' Sai asked, surveying what was left of Sasuke's room. A chair was in splinters in a corner, and there was a fist-shaped hole in one of the walls.
'You're GOING to let Sakura-chan bind up your ribs OR I WILL BREAK MORE OF THEM SO THAT YOU HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE,' Naruto yelled at Sasuke.
'Shut up, dobe,' Sasuke hissed, though he let Sai continue to restrain him. 'I'm fine.'
'That's what you say all the time, and when we let you get away with it you end up JOINING UP WITH CRAZY PEOPLE.'
'Please,' Sakura interjected with a glare, 'just a little bit louder, Naruto, I don't think the Hokage heard you.'
Sai ignored them and turned to Sasuke. 'Why do you have injuries, Uchiha.' Sasuke wasn't supposed to be in a position to receive any, not while on probation.
'It's none of your business, ANBU,' Sasuke snapped, yanking his arm out of Sai's grip. 'By which I mean,' he added before Sai could slice his neck open for resisting, 'it's classified information. Check if you want,' he said with a snide smile, extending his tongue. Sai saw the seal imprinted there, and nodded reluctantly. 'Now get out,' Sasuke snarled.
'Any further disturbances will be reported,' Sai said. 'Haruno-san, if he does not co-operate, we will escort him to the hospital where formal procedures will be carried out.'
'Just give in already,' Naruto grinned triumphantly. 'You have to admit, you don't heal up as fast as I do, and on these kinds of missions it's sort of una—' Sakura elbowed Naruto in the stomach before he could get any further. 'Whoops, sorry,' Naruto flushed. 'Classified, yeah, yeah.'
'Thank you, ANBU-san, but we won't be needing further assistance,' Sakura said politely, but she shut the window firmly after ushering Sai, who was curious but dissatisfied, out of it.
Sai had been walking through the park one night when his stomach exploded into a fury of pain. Reacting instinctively to his attacker, he summoned two animals and snarled his way through thirty furious seconds of fighting against an extremely competent taijutsu user before he was outclassed, shoved up against a tree, and threatened by a blade against his throat.
'That,' Kakashi's voice informed him, cold and smooth as ice, 'would be about how much force you would've had had to use to put Sasuke at knifepoint on one of his bad days.' The arms holding him back released Sai, who crumpled to the ground. He wiped the blood from his mouth and panted as he looked up at Kakashi. 'Remember that Sasuke's a better taijutsu user than you, too,' Kakashi added, relentless.
Sai pushed himself up to stand, even though everything hurt. 'Yes, Kakashi-sensei,' he said.
'But do you really understand what I meant, doing this?' Kakashi asked, tucking his hands into his pockets, unmistakably superior.
Sai looked at Kakashi for a long, long time before he admitted, 'No. Unless the lesson was that I can't hope to constrain Uchiha Sasuke at my current skill level.'
'Well, at least you know you're wrong.' Kakashi tossed Sai a roll of bandages, motioning sympathetically at Sai's mouth. 'See you around,' he said with a small salute, and disappeared.
Sai looked down at the roll in his hands, and then up at the empty park. 'I don't understand,' he sighed, and turned around, heading for the library. The Uchiha Clan's history was long and colourful, and might produce something of use.
'New mission!' Kakashi announced cheerfully as he transported into place atop the pile of materials that were going to be used to develop the as-yet unbuilt Training Area One.
'YOU'RE LATE,' Naruto and Sakura both yelled. 'God,' Sasuke said under his breath. Sai settled for staring at the Uchiha and not allowing his hand to stray near his shuriken.
Kakashi clapped his hands. 'It may not be the best feeling in the world to go back to D-rank missions,' he said, 'but remember that community service is very important during a post-war period.' He motioned at the blank, cleared land in front of them. 'Our job today is to set up the new long-range attack training area. Mostly it's going to be setting up targets and drawing the right boundary lines, so nothing too strenuous for your lot. Don't kill each other by accident. I'll see you all later!' And Kakashi was gone in a puff of smoke.
'I'm going to kill him,' Naruto swore, resigning himself to pulling out a dummy from the pile of materials and getting to work. 'C'mon, Sasuke, help me with the north end, unless your skinny arms can't take the weight.'
Sai watched the two of them bicker their way away. Sakura came up next to him. 'You were the ANBU that day, weren't you,' she asked without preamble. 'I could tell from your voice.'
'Most Root members don't talk while on missions,' Sai admitted with a slight nod. 'We rarely did normal ANBU duty, so we never developed an alternative speaking range.'
'If you're worried about Sasuke,' Sakura ventured, 'maybe you should try to get closer to him personally instead.'
Sai tilted his head at her. Get closer to Uchiha Sasuke? Whom, Sai knew from surveillance, refused to talk to even people he had known while in the Academy? 'I'm not sure if that would go over well.'
'Everyone still views him as a traitor. We all did at some point, didn't we?' Sakura said quietly, eyes downcast. 'Except Naruto.' She gazed at the two of them across the field. 'But now Sasuke's back, and if we're going to want to get him to have faith in us, we have to do our part of the believing.'
Sai wanted to tell her that he had no notions of a romanticised shared past to influence his current opinion of Sasuke, namely that he actually was a traitor and could easily turn one again given the right opportunity, but he'd been around Sakura enough to know that silence was sometimes better than honesty. He said nothing.
'You're going to have to work with him eventually, Sai,' Sakura told him, giving him a knowing look. 'I'll take Naruto aside later. Just try, okay?'
'Okay,' Sai said doubtfully.
Twelve dummies and two lines of conversation ("Uchiha." "Sai.") later, Sakura tugged Sai to a corner as they all convened for a rest and to whisper furiously into his ear, 'Talk to him, stupid!' before releasing him again.
'I was once a member of a cell in ANBU called Root,' Sai told Sasuke when they were chalking the border of the training area together. 'I was taught to have no emotions, and so I cannot understand why Team Kakashi is trying so hard to accept you once more. But,' he said, feeling quite accomplished at his speech, 'I want to learn.'
Sasuke stared at him. Sai had never looked him in the eye outside of combat: the lack of the Sharingan was unnerving. He forged on. 'According to many sources, it seems customary to talk about the past in these situations,' he tried. 'I was an orphan myself, but I came to acknowledge a fellow member of Root as my brother. Your brother was Uchiha Itachi, was he not?'
Kakashi held Sai back with his left arm and kicked out Sasuke's footing from out under him. 'New rule,' he told the horrified members of his team as Sasuke snarled and tried to rip Sai's head off by the neck. 'These two don't get to be alone together without supervision.'
'I don't like you very much,' Sai informed Sasuke placidly from his position on the other side of Kakashi.
The next day, Sai discovered that some of his borrowing privileges from the Konoha Library had been revoked.
'Let me see,' the librarian on duty muttered when Sai asked for the reason why. He flipped through some records and pulled out Sai's file. 'It says here that you've been banned from withdrawing anything out of the self-help stacks due to it being a "severe risk to the fabric of our society."' The librarian scanned the file some more. 'Oh, but it mentions that you're allowed to take anything out of the, um,' he blushed, 'romance and harlequin sections if you'd so like.'
Sai fled the library.
'Our mission is to find this missing-nin and bring him back dead,' Sai instructed the next ANBU team he captained. Its members were all veterans, and none of them were Root — a first assignment for Sai, but giving the order was the easiest thing he had done in weeks. 'His occaisonal partner is an S-level defector from Suna. Our instructions are to gather intelligence as the situation allows, but not to engage. Upon the event of a one-on-one encounter, flee on sight.'
They scattered into the night. Sai allowed himself the comfort of linear thinking: tracking, detecting, surrounding, dispatching.
'Where is your partner,' Sai asked when they had the missing-nin pinned and cornered.
'Dead,' the nin spat back, on the verge of dying. 'You Konoha bastards are fucking insane —'
Sai didn't let him finish. 'Find the body,' he instructed, but after a 2-hour search across a fifteen kilometre radius, the team came up with nothing except bloodstains and evidence of a battle fought within the last three days.
'Whoever did this,' Hawk surmised, 'they know how to cover a trail.'
'The nearest settled areas have not reported any unusual activity,' Raccoon concurred.
'We return to Konoha,' Sai instructed, but something nagged at him the entire duration of the trip back.
Sai conducted the next routine ANBU check on Sasuke himself. This time, though, he paused outside of the Uchiha's window, flared his chakra, and knocked on the window before entering.
'This village's paranoia is, if nothing else, encouraging,' Sasuke said to Sai, but subjected himself to inspection without further complaint. His chakra levels were stable but low. Sai narrowed his eyes at that, but reports had suggested nothing amiss in Konoha, so he noted the discrepancy but left it unmentioned.
As he was about to leave, Sasuke spoke. 'You're Sai,' he said. 'Hawk is the elder Hyuuga from the branch clan. Raccoon is someone of Inuzuka stock.'
'That information is classified,' Sai informed him, back stiff.
'You could all do a better job at chakra-signature concealment, then,' Sasuke said. 'Get out.'
'Using chakra-infused paints on the new masks to disrupt an individual's signature is innovative, but that won't completely overcome the need for additional stealth training,' Kakashi commented without warning from a corner of Sai's workshop, scaring Sai into ruining the Hound mask he was working on. 'Ara,' Kakashi clucked, dropping down to pick the ruined piece up. 'I'll keep this one as a souvenier, then,' he smiled, and disappeared.
Sai wrote on his drafting paper, more sensor wards. Many more traps.
After Yamato-taicho was found covered in indelible ink after trying to deliver Sai a routine message from the Hokage, Sai's housing lottery number mysteriously fell 15 places, putting his assignment to a newly-constructed apartment building off for another two weeks and condemning him to more time in the temporary barracks.
Cleverer traps, Sai wrote into his notebook when he walked past the jounin standby area the next day just in time to overhear Kakashi informing Yamato, with relish, 'I think I really like teaching, Tenzo.'
Three months, sixteen missions, and an uncountable number of attempts on his sanity after taking on ANBU captaincy, Sai was beginning to understand where Yamato-taicho's creepy eyes originated from: let Kakashi take you at unawares too often and, eventually, your face began to stick that way.
The books Sai'd taken out from the library before he'd been banned said that during moments of internal conflict, the best way to settle problems without involving knives or jutsu or suicide was to approach others and seek out their opinion. Since Sai couldn't kill the people he worked with, he decided to take the advice to heart. With reconstruction efforts focused on supplementing civilian housing and major public areas, the number of places where people gathered recreationally were limited. The new Ichiraku's — magically in better shape than most of the town, since keeping Naruto starved was a bad idea on any day — was usually full up with young chuunin. Jounin preferred to keep to a makeshift bar, where the sad range of non-alcoholic drinks and uninspired food menu kept most of the teams at bay.
Sai pushed the bar's door open, and spotted Yamato almost immediately. Sai took the seat next to him. 'Yamato-taicho,' he said, a little pained. 'Would you mind if we spoke a little?'
'Sai,' Yamato greeted him with some surprise. 'I didn't expect to see you here. Master,' he said to the bartender, 'I'll have another of the usual and Sai will have, um,' Yamato paused. 'Orange juice.'
'I've been in ANBU my entire life, Yamato-taicho,' Sai said quietly when their drinks arrived.
'I know, I know,' Yamato groused, and tipped half of his drink into Sai's cup. 'Here you go. Cheers!'
They toasted, Sai sipping politely while Yamato threw his drink back and called for another one. The rate at which apartment blocks were going up these days was amazing; Yamato-taicho's pay was not being raised at an equivalent rate. 'So,' Yamato slapped Sai on the back cheerfully. 'What do you need me for? I'm all ears, Sai-kun.'
'Yamato-senpai,' Sai asked, opting for frankness in the company of a fellow trauma victim. 'How did you deal with Kakashi-sensei when you were in ANBU?'
'Hello!' Yamato slammed his glass onto the countertop with flourish. The bartender snapped to attention: Yamato was an excellent customer. 'Two more rounds, please!'
'Uh,' Sai said, as an entire bottle of sake appeared before their eyes.
'So,' Yamato turned to Sai with homicidal empathy written in his eyes. 'What did he do this time?'
What hasn't he done, Sai wanted to reply, a little hysterically. ANBU wasn't exactly the friendliest of organisations, but even in Root they'd kept internal surveillance pretty civilised: simple backroom rumour-spreading or the occasional friendly kunai put in into someone's blind spot. Kakashi was just everywhere in Konoha: a chakra signature hovering outside the Hokage's window when Sai made reports; a shadow on the wall when he set up seals at Sasuke's new residence; a purposeful gust of wind at the bare edge of consciousness after he gave senior ex-Root members orders. 'And,' Sai told Yamato, 'he trapped my room the first night I was promoted.'
'Chakra strings, eh? Heh heh,' Yamato asked, more gleefully than with any sense of commiseration. There were three bottles in front of them now; the bartender had begun to turn a blind eye to Sai's drinking after he heard the words "Kakashi" and "thousand years of pain" in the same sentence. 'This is the easiest part of the initiatiation, you know,' Yamato slurred at Sai. 'You don't happen to have any brud—blood line limits, do you?' he hiccupped, squinting at Sai. 'Special abilities, arch enemies, dark horrible past, that sort of thing?'
'Dark, horrible past?' Sai said to the man whom Orochimaru had grown in a test tube.
'Everything's relative,' Yamato growled, stirring his drink petulantly with a transmuted wooden finger. 'You know, he's too good at using people, Kakashi-senpai. When he doesn't trust you, everything is a test and you can't get a break.'
'I want to be trusted,' Sai said quietly.
'But when he does trust you it's worse!' Yamato poked at Sai's drink. 'Kakashi-senpai barely trusts anyone to do anything unless they're overpowered or crazy, which apparently Kakashi-senpai can deal with. But he likes you, you know. Be careful, or next thing you know you'll end up like me.'
'Like what?' Kakashi asked from behind them.
'AGH,' went the bartender, who had been listening into their conversation. Yamato twitched violently, and Sai's fingers clenched around his glass, which was for the both of them as bad as jumping halfway across the room.
'Kakashi-senpai,' Yamato turned around to whine, which unfortunately resulted in him actually facing the Copy-nin. 'AGH!'
'It's not my blood,' Kakashi reassured him cheerfully. 'Mostly.'
Sai turned in his seat and beheld Kakashi, whose vest and shirt had been dyed a deep red. The smell was unmistakable. He also had something heavy in his left hand that looked suspiciously human-shaped.
Pieces started to come together in Sai's head.
'Is that a body-bag,' the bartender asked, rallying admirably. Half of the tables had fled the establishment; the remaining patrons were fixedly not looking their way, except for Genma, who looked like he was watching street theatre.
'Shinzo-san, sorry to cause any trouble, but until they get a new morgue set up, I was told that you were in possession of the biggest refrigeration units in the village?' Kakashi smiled, hefting up his burden and patting it fondly. 'S-class nin. Very valuable information.'
'That was the mission Tsunade-sama had you out on alone?' Yamato asked incredulously.
'All of you cute kouhai are so busy these days,' Kakashi said. 'I didn't want to disturb any of you by asking for help.'
'You're having fun doing this,' Yamato accused him.
'The units are out back,' the bartender said faintly, gesturing at the back door.
'It's good to be back,' Kakashi sighed happily.
'Welcome home, Kakashi-sensei,' Sai said politely, and grabbed Yamato by the arm the moment Kakashi disappeared beyond the doorway. 'Come on,' he said, whipping out some paper and a brush and scribbling down a message.
'What — but the bill,' Yamato objected.
'Just follow me, Yamato-taicho.'
When Kakashi came back inside, Yamato and Sai were gone, though there was a note on the counter in Sai's neat script.
PLEASE PUT THIS ON KAKASHI-SENSEI'S TAB. - SAI
Operating on the truly Hatakean principle that information was not actually classified if it could be extracted, Sai broke 14 protocol rules and pulled Sasuke's mission files from the archives. Getting in had been alarmingly easy: ANBU captains had decently high clearance to begin with, and the remaining wards were a few degrees simpler than the ones that Sai had had to set up in the ANBU workshops to keep Kakashi from driving the entire department to tears.
Whatever missions Sasuke was being sent on, they were important enough that details were not being kept in the general archives. A safe assumption would peg them at A-rank and above. What didn't need assuming was his schedule: it overlapped neatly with Sai's own ANBU assignments, explaining much. Sai returned the records to their proper places and went home thoughtful.
En route, he changed his mind, and took a detour to the bar.
'Shinzo-san,' Sai called out, standing next to the bartender's bed.
'GAH,' Shinzo screamed, bolting upright and looking about until he spotted Sai. 'ANBU-san, you scared me,' he exhaled, clutching his chest. Sai blinked; he didn't think he'd been that quiet.
'I need to look at your refrigeration units,' Sai told him.
'I don't think you can call them fridges any more,' Shinzo grumbled, pulling on a shirt and motioning for Sai to follow after him. 'I might as well go into the mortuary business at this rate. I can only take you to them, though, I can't open them anymore. They've been locked shut.'
'I recognise the handiwork,' Sai agreed, laying his hands gently on the seals bearing Kakashi's brushwork that were pasted across the units' doors. 'Kai.'
He counted the bodies, and took note of the faces.
Approaching Sasuke civilly proved a harder task to negotiate than Sai had foreseen. Tsunade kept the Uchiha on a relatively tight leash: manual labour interspersed with work at the Hokage's Tower occupied his days, and his nights were spent at the library or the hospital or anywhere where Naruto was unlikely to trail after him. This left openings limited to the occasional joint reconstruction mission.
'Would you like to go to Ichiraku with me alone, Sasuke-kun,' Sai asked Sasuke the next D-rank that Team Kakashi ended up on (sewer expansion), which was the causal factor behind the creation of an accidentally too-wide viaduct when Naruto screamed like a girl and shouted, 'SASUKE DOESN'T HAVE THOSE KINDS OF INTERESTS, SAI, DAMN IT, DON'T CREEP ME OUT LIKE THAT.'
'I meant that as a heartfelt gesture,' Sai recited firmly.
'No,' Sasuke grunted, attacking the rubble as though it had Sai's face on it.
Sai accepted momentary defeat.
'Sasuke,' Sai called up at Sasuke's window, throwing (smoothed out, small, unthreatening) pebbles (gently) at the windowpanes. He'd timed this perfectly, waiting until he spotted Sasuke returning home and giving Sasuke time to refresh himself and rest.
'It's almost midnight, what do you want,' Sasuke snarled, sticking his head out and glaring down at Sai.
'Would you like to go for a drink?' Sai invited.
'No,' Sasuke yelled, and slammed the window shut.
'Hm,' Sai pondered, wondering why this was going all wrong when he hadn't breathed a word about murder or Itachi or treason for weeks.
Ino, who lived two buildings away from Sasuke, told Chouji, who told Shikamaru, who laughed like an idiot before telling Naruto, who wept out his trauma into Sakura's sleeves, and so it was Sakura who turned up at Sai's door one evening to ask, very gently, 'Sai, is there something going on between you and Sasuke?'
'No,' Sai said, inviting Sakura inside — it was the polite thing to do, except that he had no furniture or much beyond basic rations, which left Sakura in his desk chair while Sai sat on the edge of his table.
'You've been, um, trying very hard to be on good terms with him lately, is all,' Sakura smiled at him, strained. She fiddled with her fingers, unusually nervous. 'I thought you didn't like him?'
'I don't,' Sai said honestly. 'But Kakashi-sensei says that teamwork is important, and it's been almost a year since Sasuke's return. It is doubtful that the status quo will change in the future.'
'Oh, teamwork,' Sakura laughed, giddy with relief. 'Right, right, teamwork, yes,' she said, patting Sai repeatedly on the shoulder. 'Well, if that's the case, then you don't have to do it this way.'
'How, then?' Sai blinked. 'I haven't been allowed to reference the library recently, so my methods may be inappropriate.'
'What have your methods been?' Sakura asked with morbid fascination before she could stop herself.
Sai held up a book. Its title was OPENING UP THE OTHER, and the accompanying illustration looked like something Jiraiya might have chosen. 'I haven't been able to get very far,' he confessed.
'Sasuke, like you, is a really excellent ninja,' Sakura said faintly, unable to tear her eyes away from the book. 'I think you should communicate, you know, like ninja.'
'Oh,' Sai said, a light coming into his eyes.
'Naruto-kun,' Sai said on their next D-rank. 'May I make a bet with you?'
Naruto looked at him suspiciously, holding up his shovel in self-defence. 'Is this going to be about Sasuke?'
Sai blinked. 'How did you guess?'
'Oh my god,' Naruto wailed.
'I merely want to make a bet that he still has it,' Sai said.
Naruto stopped. 'Eh? Still has what?'
'Your team picture,' Sai said.
'Oh!' Naruto said in relief. 'Right, that. Well, yeah, I'll bet you — I'll bet you ramen that he has it, but that we'll never see it.'
'Deal,' Sai smiled. 'Though,' he added, 'we could also have a bet that Sasuke's penis is larger than —'
'I'M GOING TO KILL YOU.'
It was dark in the Hyuuga compound; the kind of darkness fit for ANBU.
Neji sat upright, Byakugan activated. He relaxed when he recognised Sai. 'Yes?'
'Due to certain circumstances, I will be unable to lead our next mission. You are in charge.'
'I understand,' Neji said, and then Sai was gone.
Sai trailed his ANBU team out of Konoha a fortnight later, but doubled back after they left Leaf's borders. When he got back, Kakashi was gone, and so was Sasuke. Breaking into Sasuke's apartment was easy: the wards were ANBU wards.
There was a bingo book in one of Sasuke's drawers; non-standard issue, and all names of S-class or altogether unclassed nin. All but one had been struck out.
Since he was there, Sai took the time to be a little bit more thorough in his inspection. He smiled when he found what he hadn't known he'd been looking for.
He left Sasuke's room impeccable, except for the present he left lying on the top of the bed, untrapped and unwarded.
'Kakashi-sensei,' Sai greeted the Copy-nin from inside his own living-room. 'Welcome back.'
Kakashi stopped in his tracks in the entrance hallway, one ruined sandal half-toed off. It was the most undressed Sai had ever seen him. 'I knew someone was in here,' Kakashi said, recovering quickly, 'but I thought it was Tenzou, not you.' He sounded extremely satisfied. 'So?' he asked, stripping off his outer shirt and dumping it aside; it was completely shredded, and Sai could see where the damage had been dealt on Kakashi's back. 'Have you figured it out?'
'This last one was an S-class capable of using three elemental attacks. He had had previous encounters with jinchuuriku; enough to know more than trivial details of their power, and dangerous enough to be capable of accessing them given time and resources.' Sai stood, removing a roll of bandages from his hip pouch as he did so. 'It must have been difficult,' he indicated.
'I like to stretch myself every now and then,' Kakashi shrugged. 'You may,' he nodded permission at Sai, jerking his head towards a door. 'Towels are in the bathroom.'
Sai wet a towel and returned to the living room, where Kakashi had sliced off enough of his cowl to allow Sai to wipe the blood off of his back. Sai breathed through the actions; part of him wasn't sure he deserved this yet. 'How far is Uchiha Sasuke allowed to go on these missions?' he asked as he methodically cleaned Kakashi's wounds.
'Farther each time,' Kakashi answered lazily. 'He hasn't needed restraining in a while.'
'I see,' Sai said. He set the towel aside, and hesitated. 'May I, Kakashi-sensei?' he asked.
Kakashi threw him a look over his shoulder, unreadable. 'Yes.'
Sai placed two fingers gently on the width of Kakashi's spine at the top of his neck. Kakashi's skin was warm beneath his touch. Sai's breathing turned shallow, even though — especially because Kakashi's own inhalations and exhalations were perfectly normal, paced and steady. Sai pushed the barest amounts of chakra through his fingertips, assessing the damage and soothing.
'You've done well,' Kakashi told him.
Sai rolled the bandages across Kakashi's back and thought of many different responses.
He settled with, 'Thank you, Kakashi-senpai.'
'Sai,' an ANBU alighted outside Sai's window the next day. 'You have been ordered to the Hokage's office.'
Sai wasn't entirely surprised, although he hadn't expected Yamato to be there as well when he arrived. Sai entered quietly and stood to the side.
'Good,' Tsunade pronounced when Sai closed the door behind him. 'You're all here. Kakashi,' she said brusquely, calling him forward.
'Godaime,' Kakashi swayed vaguely to attention.
'Report!' Tsunade barked, but she was smiling. 'Since you've had your fun now.'
Kakashi's visible eye was twinkling. 'Team Kakashi, in two-man cells at least and on occasion in full four-man complement of Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto, Haruno Sakura and myself, have successfully detected and dispatched the following missing-nin: —' Kakashi withdrew a similar copy of the bingo book that Sai had found in Sasuke's room, and listed the names. 'The above missing-nin constitute Konoha's record of S-class and above defectors with past affiliation to the village. With this mission we have, as Naruto put it, "finally taken out the trash" of shinobi able to cause damage on the level of the past War. That,' he said cheerfully, 'concludes my report, Godaime-sama. It should be noted that at no point did any of my adorable students try to disembowel me,' he added for emphasis, somehow still managing to achieve the barest level of politeness in his tone.
Tsunade rolled her eyes at his performance. 'You were always a brat, Hatake, but now you've gone and spawned more of your own.'
'Yamato still has a long way to go,' Kakashi said with false modesty, batting his eyelids.
'Senpai,' Yamato sighed, long-suffering, 'I did what you asked.'
'Report, Yamato,' Tsunade instructed.
Yamato straightened. He was far more respectful. 'Under the instructions of Hatake Kakashi, I evaluated the performance of Sai during the immediate period after his promotion to ANBU captaincy. Despite initial difficulties, I am able to conclude that Sai performed his duties to the fullest of capacities.' There followed a concise report; the only thing out of the ordinary was the smile that Yamato sent Sai's way after finishing.
'Well done,' Tsunade concluded, and leaned back in her chair with a small huff of satisfaction. 'Reconstruction is proceeding well, peacetime continues, and you, Kakashi, have made your resume look quite spectacular recently.'
Yamato threw Kakashi an open stare. Sai noticed Kakashi turning what could only be described as "shifty."
'It was no great matter, Godaime,' Kakashi muttered, shuffling his feet.
'You're older now than Minato was, aren't you? Retirement seems like such an appealing option,' Tsunade purred, with a smile on her face that curved upwards towards the asymptotes of evil. Sai's eyes widened.
'I'm not suited for the position,' Kakashi said firmly. 'I read porn in front of students and am chronically late to everything and have psychiatric issues involving reluctance to move on from past failures. I torment my subordinates.'
Yamato coughed, then said brightly, 'But only to their benefit!'
'General Hatake, your division was the one with the least fatalities during the War in spite of being a combat unit,' Tsunade pointed out with glee. 'You've pushed Uchiha Sasuke, of all people, down the road of rehabilitation. And besides, the only other position you wouldn't be wasted in, you can't have.'
'I've been doing the job satisfactorily so far, have I not, Godaime?' Kakashi wasn't whining, but it was close.
'ANBU lost its head operative during the fighting, and you're so impossible to hide these days that I don't want to bother trying. Better to have you in the field that behind a mask.'
'Ah,' Kakashi beamed, happy to deflect away from any topic involving the words "Tsunade" and "retirement." 'In which case, I have the perfect kouhai for that job.'
'Kakashi-senpai,' Yamato said, pained.
'Tenzou,' Kakashi replied happily.
Tsunade cut into their bickering. 'Sai,' she beckoned. 'Step forward.'
'Godaime?' Sai asked, confused, walking up.
'Eh?' Yamato went, before realisation dawned.
'Aaah,' Kakashi said, eye curving up into a happy arch. 'You know,' he said helpfully, 'Itachi made captain at thirteen and was going places.'
'Sai,' Tsunade pronounced, 'I appoint you to — '
The whole world was crazy, Sai thought. And somehow, also, wonderful.
'Which one of you did it?' Sasuke asked as he stared up at the ceiling.
'Eh?' went Naruto from where he was replacing Sasuke's equipment for him. 'Did what?' Sakura asked, not looking up from the intricate process of re-knitting the fine bones in Sasuke's left hand. The last mission — good riddance — had been ridiculously difficult; even with Kakashi-sensei's repertoire and the both of them using the Sharingan, there had been several close calls.
'It couldn't have been the dobe,' Sasuke said, assuming they were just being obtuse and long-winded as usual, 'because he's still hopeless at anything that requires finesse and ANBU isn't that useless.'
'OI,' Naruto yelled. 'I AM NOT. Also, GO TO THE HOSPITAL next time, you oaf, we don't exactly like ANBU coming in and telling us that you're whimpering alone in your house.'
Sasuke ignored him. 'Was it you, Sakura?' He sat up to face her.
'Don't move so soon!' Sakura slapped him on the wrist. 'And I have no idea what you're talking about.'
Sasuke blinked. 'Then who?' he asked, gesturing with his good arm at his table.
'Oh my god,' Sakura gasped.
'Wow,' Naruto said, in awe.
'No one else in Team 7, then,' Sasuke glowered, staring at the hand-made picture frame that was now propping their old photograph up for display.
'No,' Naruto shook his head, still staring at the picture. 'You're wrong, there's more of us now.'
'That's Sai's handiwork on the frame,' Sakura breathed. 'And Yamato-taicho's woodcraft.'
'Damn,' Naruto said into the ensuing silence.
'What?' Sasuke said distractedly, also staring now.
'I owe Sai ramen.'