“Senpai, if you have a moment, could we talk?”
Kakashi turned his attention from re-reading his Icha Icha book to Sai. The younger shinobi was very calm on the surface. His Root training hadn't entirely left him even though it had been a few years since the secret squadron of Anbu was shut down for good. Kakashi could still see the nerves in Sai's dark eyes no matter how hard he fought to conceal it.
“Of course.” He patted the ground next to him in invitation. Sai sat stiffly beside him.
Sai had forgone his perch across the training field with Sakura. They had been watching Naruto spar with Sasuke. If they didn't let the two let off their excess energy somehow between missions, disaster would surely follow. Sure, the training grounds were always a complete mess afterward, but better that than the rest of the village.
The artist nin said nothing after joining Kakashi. He opted to stare intently at his teammates. Kakashi decided that maybe gentle prompting would get Sai to open up. “You said you wanted to talk?”
“Yes.” Finally Sai turned his head to face him. “I have done a lot of reading on this subject, and I am trying to implement the suggestions.”
“What subject have you been reading on?” Kakashi pressed. He set his book completely in his lap, giving his subordinate his complete attention.
“I see. So, you came to me for advice? You'd probably have better luck with Sakura. Love isn't exactly my strong suit.”
A pregnant pause hung in the air while Sai gathered his thoughts. “No. I didn't come for advice, senpai.”
“Okay, then. Did you come to recommend that I read your book?” Kakashi chuckled at the thought that his dear emotionally stunted student noticed how sad his love life was, and took it upon himself to help. It was adorable.
“No. I didn't come to do that either. I came to tell you that I am in love with you.” The matter of fact delivery was so entirely Sai that Kakashi almost didn't register the words at first.
Kakashi did not expect that. Not at all. He literally expected anything other than that. “Maa, Sai, I'm not sure what I am supposed to say here.” He scratched the back of his head in discomfort.
He and Sai had grown a lot closer over the aftermath of the war. Kakashi would often take Sai with him on missions, or he would retrieve the artist for Team 7 outings when his former students would forget to invite him. They didn't do it on purpose, but they were so entranced with the fact that Sasuke was back for good that Sai and Tenzou were sometimes an afterthought. Kakashi didn't like it. So sometimes, he would take Sai out one on one for team bonding outings, or train with him exclusively. Sai was already deadly as an Anbu, but he was becoming even more so under Kakashi's tutelage. Maybe somewhere down the line Sai had developed a crush and was mistaking it as love. It happened all the time. When he was younger, he held similar feelings for Minato.
“The book said that sometimes subtlety wasn't enough. That you have to just tell the person you love how you feel.”
“... Just how long have you felt this way?” Kakashi almost didn't want to hear the answer.
“Since the war ended.” Sai replied.
“I see. Sai, I care about you, and I trust you with my life. I'm flattered by your feelings. Really. I am, but you're my student. Us being together would be wrong.” Kakashi carefully watched Sai's face as he spoke. His expression never changed.
He didn't want to hurt Sai, but he also couldn't enter a relationship with one of his students. He would have said the same thing to Sakura, or Naruto, or heaven forbid even Sasuke if one of them had came to him with a love confession. Well, that's not entirely the truth. If one of them had come to him with that he would have rejected them on the basis that he viewed them as his children. He didn't view Sai as one of his kids, but it was still wrong.
Sai let his patented fake smile slip into place, effectively cutting himself off. Great. Kakashi felt like the world's biggest asshole. Hopefully one day Sai would see that this was for his own good.
Sai stood up abruptly. “Sai, wait-” Kakashi tried to explain himself further, but the artist raised a hand to silence him.
“Thank you for your honesty, senpai. I am sorry for making you feel uncomfortable. If you prefer, we can pretend this conversation never happened.” With that, Sai hastily made his way back to his original spot with Sakura. He almost got swept up into Sasuke and Naruto's fight since he wasn't paying attention.
“What the fuck, Sai?! We could have seriously hurt you, y'know!” Naruto bellowed. The blond was digging his fingers into Sai's shoulders out of worry.
“My apologies, Naruto-kun. Please continue your spar. I will stay out of the way.” His voice sounded flat. Even for Sai.
Even though six months had passed since that day, Kakashi still felt a little guilty about it. Sai had kept to his word that he would pretend that their conversation never happened, but it left a bit of a sour taste in Kakashi's mouth. Sai never appeared uncomfortable around Kakashi, but on the flip side, he started to decline Kakashi's invitations to train or grab a bite to eat if it was just going to be the two of them. It surprised the Copy Nin just how much that affected him.
When Sai would agree to come with him for lunch, or to go spar, the atmosphere was awkward and almost formal. Before that fateful day, spending time with Sai was one of Kakashi's favorite things to do. The artist had completely opened up around his superior. He smiled genuinely and laughed freely. It was, well, beautiful to see. Now, he was much more closed off, similar to how he was when he first joined Team 7. When he did smile at Kakashi, which anymore it wasn't often, it was that damned fake one.
Kakashi was hurting Sai by his attempt to protect him. He had done the relationship thing before, and it had ended in disaster.
He idly wondered if Iruka would ever forgive him for it. Probably not. The chunin still had trouble looking Kakashi in the eye whenever they had to interact with each other.
It was starting to look like his relationship with Sai was heading down the same road that Iruka's had gone: Cold, awkward professionalism. What made it worse was that he and Sai weren't ever together in that way, but their relationship was still crumbling to dust. Kakashi wanted his Sai back. Preferably before it was too late.
Kakashi didn't know what to do to salvage this. Even if he and Sai were to talk about this again, it wouldn't get them anywhere. If anything, it might even make things worse. The Copy Nin sighed in frustration. Maybe if he slept on it, he would come up with something. He kept his thoughts optimistic on his walk home.