The Reinvention of Memory
Set during ch. 307. Spoilers.

It never happens like this, but sometimes Sakura wishes it had.

Sai leaves them with a polite bow. He does so in the custody of two ANBU, volunteering himself willingly for imprisonment upon their return to Konoha. The ANBU hadn't known what to do with him at first. They had stepped forward, stepped back; one of them had fidgeted, offering to run to the Village for reinforcements. She remembers the awkward looks that the older shinobi gave to each other, managing to look embarrassed through their masks.

She remembers this because there weren't enough restraints to go around.

They'd only brought enough for one.

She remembers the trials. Sasuke's betrayals coupled with the Root conspiracy, giving Konoha nothing to talk about but chaos for weeks, twin atrocities that attracted everyone's attention. Danzo had fought viciously before trying to escape; his loyalists had infiltrated the records banks, looting cabinets of restricted information and attempting to escape to a bunker outside the Village.

Sai took the stand during this, reciting his testimony with perfect calm. His voice did not change as he answered no to the first round of questions, and, just as readily, yes the second time around.

The Root-nin broke definitions of honesty. Obedience had been drilled into his blood, but only Danzo fully understood how to pull his puppet's strings. Sai concealed more than half the information through omission. It was not an overt treachery -- Sai was more than willing to reply when the right questions were asked -- but no one knew what to say.

The boy obeyed everything readily. His mind was like a soft, plowed field where every footprint left an impression, but with hundreds of tiny seeds buried inside the dirt, deep where they could not be touched. The interrogators chased rabbits instead of answers. Finally Tsunade, rubbing her temples with an expression like she had just swallowed a handful of live scorpions, rattled off one long string of clauses and subclauses to inform Sai that -- in no uncertain terms -- all his previous assignments were now nullified and she was to be considered his only superior officer.

You have been repossessed, she'd growled. By my authority as Hokage, you only work for me now. Everything else is canceled. Is that clear?

And that had been enough.

Root's remaining shinobi had not fallen completely in league with Danzo; two of the trainers had squabbled with him in the past over a simple preference in grading technique, and that quarrel had been enough for them to turn on him. They were in the minority. Though the program had been officially disbanded, many of the enlisted remained faithful to the regime, citing Sound's attack as proof of Konoha's withering defenses.

Sakura had expected cold-eyed monsters being hauled out of hidden basements, their crimes painted on their skin through tattle-tale deformity. New Orochimarus, squinting at the sun. Hissing, slimy ninjas whose words were open mockery, laughing at Tsunade and all of Konoha.

To her disappointment, one of Root's tutors was the grey-haired man who used to stop by the Yamanaka flower shop during lunch breaks. Another was a matron who kept clucking her tongue during testimony and worrying about her cats.

They were normal people. They were just like her.

What bothers Sakura later: Sai had had to ask if Root's plans were wrong.

They become an oddity: three members with a fourth lingering, and a leader who rules best by absenteeism. Kakashi is back on his feet in record time. He listens to Sakura and Naruto's reports, and -- after nodding and advising them to write up formal scrolls -- promptly disappears except to deliver mission briefings.

Sasuke is under heavy guard for the first year; he is a prisoner and accepts such a verdict readily enough. Konoha needs information on Sound that only he can provide, and though there is talk of a lighter sentence or avoiding the death penalty, Sasuke doesn't seem interested in either.

Sakura and Naruto visit his cell every day, bringing tidbits of gossip and bento boxes that have to be searched before they're pronounced clean. After all the trouble with ferreting out the remaining Root agents, along with two assassination attempts in her bed, Tsunade isn't trusting anyone.

Sai visits once; just to look at Sasuke, he says, and then turns away.

All three -- four -- of them spend time recovering.

The fight had taken them through the halls of Orochimaru's lair into one of the practice rooms, lush with weaponry and the crisped stench of oils. It had begun as an organized attack, Sakura and Naruto and Sai against the creature Sasuke had become, but by the time they had finished shattering the walls, only two of them persisted in what had turned into an all-out brawl.

Chakra had flared in bursts off Naruto's hands. Sasuke's skin had darkened; his eyes had run yellow and red, the Sharingan flickering beneath the Curse Seal's taint. Someone had knocked a torch over during the struggle. It guttered in a puddle of spilled grease on the stone floor.

There had been shadows and pictures and Naruto, snot-nosed, yelling, if you want to kill your brother so bad, we'll come with you, just stop running off. Tears had stained his cheeks with dirt streaks, mixing with the dust to make salted mud. Just take us with you, you idiot. Just take us along!

Sakura had been forced to nurse her own injuries, remembering Tsunade's advice -- that a medic stays out of conflict because they must take care of whoever's wounded. Her leg whimpered against the hasty jutsus being applied to the broken skin. Sasuke's last swing in her direction had snapped the bone.

Sai had no such limitations. He'd splashed ink everywhere, making monsters out of parchment, dripping ink on wood. Technique had protected him for a while. But he'd never fought Sasuke before, never knew to watch out for the sly hook-kicks that the Uchiha liked to throw into the mix, and that lack of experience had been the opening necessary for Sasuke to knock him unconscious.

Sasuke was too strong.

Nothing that they said had made any difference. Their protests were futile mewls; Naruto's desperate shouts, Sakura's pleading from the corner. She remembers the clatter of bamboo and metal as Naruto and Sasuke collided with a weapons rack, spilling kunai everywhere and crashing into each other, a four-armed two-winged three-tailed monster that writhed across the floor.

A series of grunts and Sasuke went flying, an uncontrolled arc through the air towards a jagged line of sword blades. One wing was hanging at a crazy angle; the other had snapped out, attempting to desperately change his course before it was too late.

Then Naruto was there, burning chakra like a comet as he dove towards the Uchiha.

Sakura remembers screaming.

When she opened her eyes, Sasuke was alive. He was standing up, unharmed, hands empty by his sides. The marks of the Curse Seal had faded away, leaving his skin as pale as milk.

And Naruto -- foolish, typical Naruto -- was twitching against the wall, impaled like a butterfly by half a dozen swords.

Just like that time on the bridge, huh? the blonde coughed. Guess... it's payback for Haku.

Sasuke had just stared without making an answer, transfixed by the metal coming out of Naruto's stomach -- as if the whole setup was just a bad joke done with rubber blades -- and something in Sakura had snapped.

She barely recalls swinging her fist. The angry pulse of her half-healed leg had been ignored. She'd knocked Sasuke over, or she must have, because her next clear memory involves shouting in his face.

"Itachi started off alone. He made his decision to leave without any of his friends." Her fists gripped his vest. His body seemed thinner when he wasn't fighting. "But even he's got a partner, and you know why? Because he knows he can't do everything by himself! Because two people are stronger than one, and the three of us can beat Itachi without you being weak and you're killing us."

She'd rolled off him before he could reply, crawling over to Naruto, trying to ignore the small twitches that the blonde's limbs were making. His nerves were jerking under pain; her own made sympathetic winces.

You're not dying, Sasuke had protested behind her. You're fine. You're both just scratched --

"Shut up!" she'd yelled, the weight of those two words like a spoiled fruit in her mouth. She'd never thought a day would come when she was willing to stand up against Sasuke, but now Naruto was gasping as his eyes rolled back, and her hands were bloody from the fists they'd been clenched into, and it was all just so stupid that she was almost tempted to let herself cry, just to see if it would solve anything.

Sasuke had scrambled back to his feet, coming up on her flank. You're supposed to be a... a medic, you can fix this, he stammered, and even as Sakura was strangely gratified by the fact that he'd been keeping up on date with them -- even though he'd pretended not to -- she felt Naruto's life pulsing wet between her fingers.

"I need supplies. I need to get these out, we have to go somewhere safe where he can rest. I can't do it alone," she'd added, finally turning her head up towards Sasuke. "Please."

Sasuke had hesitated, but the fight had already drained out of his shoulders, leaving them slack. I'll escort you back to Leaf. Then you two can stay there. Permanently, he'd added. I don't ever want to see you return.

They moved fast. Sasuke had openly discounted Sai's presence, kicking the boy with his foot until the artist had groaned awake. They'd each taken an arm between them while Sakura fussed over Naruto's torso, trying to suppress mental images of what it would do to heal his wounds without removing the blades first.

Hey, is the first thing Naruto said when he woke up, halfway to Fire Country. Thanks for not killing me, Sasuke.

The Uchiha had glanced over, flushed, glanced away. You were supposed to die from fighting me, he replied. Not... from an accident. Not from something stupid like thinking you need to save me.

They were both quiet for a little while, and then Sasuke added under his breath, Idiot.

The question of what they were supposed to do hovered like a stormcloud, growing fatter by the day. Naruto recovered surprisingly quickly, without even suffering a fever from infection, but Sakura didn't want to take chances. They trundled along grudgingly in tandem, Naruto leaning on Sasuke, Sai helping carry their supplies.

Just as they were closing in on the boundaries of Konoha, near to the routine defensive patrols, Pakkun had shown up, panting. He'd skidded to a halt on the path, round belly heaving as he whined for breath.

I've been looking everywhere for you guys. Itachi's dead.

Sasuke hadn't believed Pakkun, of course -- hadn't believed anything, ranting about how no one else was allowed to touch his brother but him, it was fate, it was destiny it was revenge. He had whirled away in a rage; he had fought Naruto again, reopening wounds, spitting bloody oaths into the wind.

Sai had watched from the treeline, his eyes moving from Uchiha to Uzumaki. He'd been strangely quiet ever since Sasuke had agreed to help carry Naruto's body through the woods. Sakura had been tempted to tell the Root-nin to leave -- not out of cruelty, but to spare his life. The shinobi in her knew that Sai was dead, that if Leaf would not execute him for treason then Root would, because Sai was sloppy enough to let himself get found out. And he hadn't even followed orders properly.

Yamato, strangely, was absent.

No one dies the day they make it home.

Sai leaves voluntarily. Sasuke is stripped of his weapons and clothes; a team of ANBU and medical staff comb him over from head to toe, cropping his hair short just in case there are needles hidden inside. He looks strange when Sakura catches a glimpse of him shaved; hair changes so much about a person's face, she thinks. Or maybe it's because he's finally back after so many years, maybe she expected something different.

Sasuke lets himself be handled without a fuss. He does not always answer when people ask him questions; sometimes it takes two or three tries, as the Uchiha stares ahead uncaringly. He isn't angry, isn't blank like the way Sai is. As far as anyone can tell, he simply doesn't care.

Lost his purpose, Kakashi murmurs, leaning forward to steal a cup of tea before Sakura realizes he's there.

She startles, asks him about Root, but he hushes her and resumes reading his book.

Konoha reapplies the bindings to Sasuke's Curse Seal, and suddenly there's debate about closing off the Sharingan too. The Hyuugas are brought in, row after row of stony expressions and black kimono. There is suggestion made of the same restraint seals that are used on their Branch House. Sakura only picks up gossip through Kakashi; Naruto flops down on the couches and sulks, arms crossed as he angrily demands to know everything that they're doing to Sasuke right now okay?

The discussions last a week.

The first time Sakura sees Sasuke after the meetings, his brow is clean. Relief slits her tendons and leaves her sagging against the door. "Oh thank goodness," she whispers, convinced that he has been left untouched for all of two seconds before he turns, and reveals the bandage on the back of his spine.

The delay had been because the elders had argued about placement, not about validity. Unlike the Branch House, if Sasuke betrays Konoha again, the elders want his brain intact for questioning, and they could not concur on the extraction of his eyes as preventative measures.

They tell me the seal will impair my nerve connections if activated, he informs her, stating the words simply, without rancor. So I won't be able to perform jutsus, or even attack someone. If they use it for too long, the paralysis will become permanent.

I... I'm sorry, Sakura, Hinata stammers when Sakura stumbles out of the security ward into fresh air, gasping aloud to shake off the sensation of smothering.

The Hyuugas are trying to reclaim all their strays. Neji is sitting on the bench beside his cousin, both of them waiting for the rest of their family. When Sakura looks over, he scowls and folds his arms, directing his lingering bitterness to the dirt. Or what's left of them. Sasuke's unlucky. The Uchiha blood remembers its roots.

She backs away when Hinata stands up and tries to hug her; pity isn't what Sakura wants right now. "We've been through worse," she declares aloud, hot-eyed, angry. "We'll get through this too."

In the end, Sai is pardoned for conspiracy by merit of following orders and eventual cooperation with the investigation. He hears the verdict without reaction; none of the authorities seem to know what to do with the boy, except to agree that no one wants him.

Danzo is no longer there to lead him, and Yamato is still gone. No one seems to notice the latter's absence, they're so busy gossiping over Root, Root and the Uchiha, the Uchiha and Sound. Naruto is whisked away by Jiraiya for what the Sannin claims is a series of routine tests of the boy's summoning jutsu -- but Sakura has her own suspicions, particularly when her teammate comes back at the end of each day rubbing his stomach grumpily, fingers unconsciously tracing a spiral on his belly.

This leaves Sakura alone for a week, alone except for Sai.

At first she takes offense to everything he says, unable to keep from bristling at the sheer insensitivity that rattles off his tongue so prettily: do you think they'll kill Sasuke? Do you think Naruto will be fine? Do you think Tsunade will last as Hokage?

After a while, Sakura realizes that Sai's problem is that he really does not know. She can tell Sai that these things are meaningful, but he doesn't register the significance except as words. She can explain that she's worried about Sasuke, and he tries to understand, but it never seems to sink in.

By the same token, he doesn't judge her, except by what might or might not be relevant to survival. It matters that her weapons are sharp, not that she gets a bad case of the hiccups whenever she eats certain foods. What's important is if she's had enough sleep to be alert the next day, not if she's developed an irrational loathing of snakes, or that she's privately afraid of giant slugs.

This indifference makes it easier, ironically, when she breaks down on the tenth day of Sasuke's trials and starts to cry.

He doesn't say anything -- maybe because he doesn't know what to say -- so he draws creatures for her instead. Black cats with cold paws, dogs that bounce around her feet and beg to fetch. The silent menagerie is comforting; she can wrap her arms around them and bury her face in their fur, pretending that the animals understand.

Sai's most beautiful sketches are the ones he never makes come to life. Feather-legged deer compete with sleek, butterfly-winged mice. It takes her a long time before she puzzles out his tendency to include monsters in the margins of his pages: he's not expressing some pent-up horror, an oblique cry for help. He's only penning what's familiar to his mind.

"Why did you learn how to make drawings into jutsu?" she asks him directly one day, reaching out to yank his sketchbook away. To anyone else, the act might be rude; to Sai, it's nothing. "You're good enough that you could put these up somewhere. They're... I mean, some of them are beautiful."

He tugs at the corner of the notebook. She holds on tighter. My art is meant to be used as a weapon -- just as I exist as a weapon, because I'm a shinobi of Leaf. If I have a talent, it must be adapted to battle. His teeth are white when he grins. 'Beautiful' doesn't matter, right?

Her fingers let go.

"You should never have been a ninja," she says slowly, and then repeats it, harder.

He looks at her for a while, before dipping his brush back into the inkwell and looping out the swirl of a cat's tail. Why else should I exist?

The final verdict is that Sasuke can remain alive in Konoha, with limited mobility. There is a scroll longer than Sakura's arms can spread that lists the objects he is not allowed to be found with -- most of them weapons of some sort, with a subsection for poisons -- and if he is discovered with any, the punishment will range from imprisonment to death. If he leaves Konoha's boundaries, he will be executed without appeal.

This spells an end to Sasuke's career as a ninja. He takes the news blandly. Ever since hearing about his brother, he's retreated inside himself, going away in a different form this time, somewhere Naruto and Sakura can't chase. He eats, he sleeps, he laughs -- blandly -- to jokes, all with the same ruthless indifference.

At times, his hand comes up, rubbing the lines etched on the back of his neck before moving down to the circle of Orochimaru on his shoulder.

Ironically, the doubled seals bring Neji to speak with him, offering quiet words of advice on how to ease the throbbing of the Hyuuga mark, the way it will hum under too much chakra. Hinata attends her cousin; the girl remains apologetic for the actions of her clan, but no one blames her, and Naruto always breaks the ice by asking if she's done anything fun lately.

No one mentions Itachi. Even months after the news and with photographic evidence, Sakura can't believe it's real.

The trouble starts when Sakura and Naruto are called up to the Hokage's office.

Sakura listens to their newest assignment with increasing unease. "We don't need anyone else," she interrupts halfway, once she realizes what Konoha is trying to do. "Sasuke's back. That's enough, isn't it?"

There are missions, Tsunade says wearily, where three members are essential. Sasuke can't leave the Village, and his loyalty is still under debate. I can't send you out there incomplete.

Then Sakura and I are just gonna have to work twice as hard to even it out! Naruto yells back, and all Sakura can do is cover her face and think about how he messed up the math.

Sasuke can't hold weapons, but he can touch books. He can read, he can study, he can pace within the confines of his nice Konoha cell and consult with Sakura and Naruto. He can discuss -- briefly -- the probabilities of various mission tactics, offering new insight from his Sound-touched perspective. The Hyuuga guard assigned to him glares at Sakura with those white, moon-cake eyes, but she's always careful to share only the most basic facts.

The Village tries to attach a third teammate to them anyway. It's not Sai -- no one can find a place for that boy to fit in, not with Root still in question -- but some random chuunin, who stutters when he's introduced and apologizes when he drops his hat. When they reject him, Konoha assigns another recruit. This time, the new member is left at the bottom of a cliff when Sakura and Naruto both walk off with all the rope; an accident, they claim. Oops.

The third chuunin suffers a similar fate. This time, frogs are involved.

After Sakura and Naruto very politely leave the fourth replacement behind on a boat adrift to sea -- and Kakashi looks the other way -- Tsunade relents. Sasuke is formally reassigned despite the clamor of the elders, and Naruto looks so satisfied over dinner that Sakura tells him she's drowning in atmospheric smugness.

Sasuke can't touch weapons but he can practice unarmed styles, readjusting to life without a Curse Seal addiction. He goes through taijutsu forms each day, sweating in his white penitent yukata. The guards all study him warily, wondering if he will develop or adapt one of the many weaponless styles out there; if he will create a new style of killing to merge with the Sharingan and break free in a bloodbath to rival Itachi's.

Gai is called in for advice. He chews on his stick of dango reflectively as he watches the Uchiha stretch in the practice yard, thick brow furrowed in concentration. The taijutsu master leaves half-finished cups of tea on the windowsills, mementos of his presence, and Naruto sticks a wad of gum to the side of one during a visit.

Sasuke admits to Sakura one day that he's not planning on rebellion, but he prefers to let them worry. She nods. She's old enough now to accept that twisted amusement is as much a part of Sasuke as the quiet way he asks to see her ankle when she twists it, even though she protests that it's been healed, that it's fine. He is arrogant enough to enjoy the taste of other people's fear. Whether that's left over from being a childhood prodigy or if Orochimaru is responsible, Sakura doesn't know, and she realizes that she's too tired to care either way.

He's back. It's enough.

Sai doesn't show any interest in making friends with Sasuke. But he attends Sakura when Naruto isn't there -- only when Naruto isn't around, because the fox-boy's become defensive of the Team ever since Sasuke returned -- and shows up outside Sakura's apartment, but never comes inside.

It's uncomfortable at first. The more that Sakura tries to interpret Sai's actions, the more she gets confused. Sai doesn't follow the normal laws of social behavior. He doesn't laugh all the time, even though he later protests that something was funny. Sometimes, he just stares, waiting.

What Sakura realizes soon enough is that Sai has no default expression -- that he has no expression at all unless he remembers to make one. His face becomes perfectly flat when he's surprised, really surprised, or just distracted: he isn't thinking about how he should react, and so nothing happens.

It's longer before she understands that Sai won't grow out of it. Can't grow out is a better phrase for it. Sai learned to develop his skills as a ninja instead of as a human being. He can hold conversations, can imitate what he knows others want, but in the end, Sai exists as his own species. He will be young forever, a social novice, even as his physical skills mature past all expectations.

There's a surprisingly large amount of information on the subject when Sakura looks, about the various uses of isolation and deprivation on young shinobi and the absolute maximum of exposure you can inflict without extinguishing the language instinct. If children are separated too young, they will never be able to communicate; slightly older, and they will never show human emotions. There are charts in the books she uncovers. It's a science.

Root has specialized in catching their subjects at just the right age, when toddlers recognize feelings, but don't realize their significance. Even after their formal disbanding, Root's trainers have found work in the Acadamy, as tutors, as specialists. They've had time to experiment.

They have been doing this for years.

And that's when it finally hits her, how not even her own Village is bloodless. Sand's treatment of Gaara had been so brutal when she'd looked at them from an outsider's perspective, but Naruto has endured his own isolation. Sai has been raised as a weapon. They all were -- each and every ninja of Leaf, reciting vows of obedience and mission priorities ever since childhood.

She'd been proud of that, once.

"I'm sorry," she blurts out suddenly one day, offering the apology over cold udon noodles and feeling dangerously similar to Hinata on a waiting bench.

Sai blinks at her, chopsticks poised in the air. For what?

"For... " Her voice trails off there. She doesn't know what can be said to make anything better; the desperation to defend Leaf might very well lead her to make the same decision someday in the future. A million explanations swirl in her mind, clashing like powder-spun stars, and she fumbles for the first one that floats to the top. "For war."

He leans closer, and she wonders, crazily, if he's going to try and kiss her -- then rationality kicks in, and she realizes he's just studying her mouth. Wondering at her expression. Capturing it in his mind, to imitate later. Categorizing her sorrow like a bug on a page, her lips frozen forever in memory like one of his drawing reference pictures.

Okay, he offers slowly, amiably, and she knows that he doesn't understand, because it doesn't matter.

Naruto is accustomed to having to prove himself; he lumps this new challenge in with all the rest. But some missions take more resources than they have. Naruto compensates through bunshin as much as he can, until Sakura grows used to two orange-clad bodies around the camp, two or three or four depending on their needs.

Sakura has a stack of scrap papers in her medkit. They're no bigger than her palm, neat squares that are useless for taking notes -- they're already covered with writing on one side. Whenever the mission goes too long, or they've ended up with more than they can handle, Sakura follows Sai's instructions, placing her palms over a square while summoning a burst of chakra. The ink responds, puffing into dust on the wind. The paper disintegrates.

And Sai comes.

He makes an excuse each time: I was in the area, I was asked to pick up something from Sakura, I was here. She requests the deception; he accepts it. Sai rarely protests. He's perpetually vulnerable to being given commands. Sakura tries to avoid treating him like an object, but it's hard, and sometimes she finds herself slipping into the habit.

One night, Naruto catches her preparing a request for help. She's tired; they're both covered in dirt from having to run away from Sound agents, and Naruto's stumbling with exhaustion. Carelessness keeps her from noticing when the blonde peeks over her shoulder; then his hand darts out to try and grab the page, swearing he'll destroy it, but Sai is already there.

Naruto rounds on him without hesitation. Why do you keep sticking around us, huh?

I'm still studying your bonds, Sai replies, unruffled.

Yeah? Well, when're ya gonna stop?

I don't know. A shrug. When you die.

"Cut it out, Naruto," Sakura orders, and then, just to be fair, "Sai too." She puffs out her cheeks, sitting down abruptly, and lies, "He's not here to give you a hand. He's here for me."

That's when she realizes that she's finally the one taking care of her team, instead of them watching out for her all the time. She's strong enough to ask for help. She's strong enough to be what they can't.

One sour note mars their tentative recoveries: Sakura has bad dreams.

Three days from the borders of Rain Country, she wakes up with a cry. Sai is on watch; Naruto is still asleep, a snoring blob whose edges turn fuzzy when seen through campfire sparks. Sai startles at the sound of her voice, jerking his head around in search of potential attackers, but there's nothing to be found.

What is it?

"Back then," she whispers, staring at the fire. "With Sasuke. I dreamed you were killed."

He makes no reaction to this, watching her steadily for several seconds, as if expecting she will speak again. I didn't think it mattered, he voices at last. There's nothing of relief in his voice; only practicality. I still don't think it does.

She has no answer to that.

After two years go by and Sasuke still has not exploded the Village, he is allowed to communicate more freely with the Team. He learns to accept Sai's creatures, largely because they provide a service to him: Sai's animals are excellent couriers, and they understand basic commands without complaint.

Their use puts Sasuke in more frequent contact with the other boy; every time Sakura sees the two together, both are short-spoken. Sasuke gives only arbitrary orders to Sai, lacking all pleasantries. Sai, for his part, seems to tolerate or even welcome this. If there is anything more to their interaction, she doesn't know, and neither see fit to enlighten her.

Sasuke sends her notes; slowly at first, listing only mission information. They arrive once a week. Clockwork. Every seven days Sakura unfolds a new letter from the cool clutch of ink-talons and scans the words, which are always printed in neat, orderly rows.

Living with Orochimaru has improved his handwriting. The first time that she receives a letter, she can't match the fine printing to the spidery scrawl of a 12-year-old, and for a minute, she has to put down the paper and remind herself that it's real.

(When she gets up the courage to ask about it, the answer isn't what she expects.

Calligraphy, he states carefully, around the rim of a cup of tea. Orochimaru made me practice calligraphy.

The idea is so bizarre that Sakura is struck dumb. She hadn't imagined that a village of the murderously insane would care for the arts.

I wasn't very good at it at first, Sasuke continues. He does not meet her eyes. I used to tip my ink jars over on purpose to get out of it. Kabuto had to show me how to copy the style Orochimaru was looking for. He was... good at that.

Why she finally blurts.

He pauses for a moment, and then shrugs. Hand-eye coordination, he mumbles, setting aside the cup, looking away, looking up at the ceiling, down at the floor. Orochimaru was vain. He wanted to make sure I was good at everything, or else I wouldn't be suitable.)

He starts off with dry reports, requesting confirmation of enemy numbers. Data is his new form of eyesight, his Sharingan to decipher the unknown. Supply routes, weather observations, all combine to give him a picture of what his two teammates are doing. He demands endless information. He's starved.

Then one day, tacked on the bottom of one letter, is a single question: How are you doing?

The next letter arrives early. I tried the new noodle parlor. The beef broth isn't so good.

Is it raining where you are today?

Has that idiot Naruto forgotten all his kunai again?

What are you reading? Sai asks, sitting down next to her in an exhalation of leather and shuriken.

She offers the page out -- I requested the afternoon off to go get a new pair of sandals -- uncertain of what his reaction will be. He scans the message twice. Naruto calls out her name; when she glances back, Sai is balancing a tiny origami crane on his palm.

Here, he tells her, depositing the message-turned-sculpture in her lap, and smiling.

When Sasuke finally agrees to go out with all three of them for dinner, Naruto celebrates by offering to pay. Just as quickly, he realizes he's broke, and excuses himself to go off begging to Jiraiya.

Sai hovers on the sidelines. He has never fully become a part of the team, but Naruto and Sasuke accept him in proximity, so long as he doesn't overstep his boundaries. Sakura rarely minds; Sai is a good listener, and sometimes he shares memories of his brother.

They haggle fruitlessly over what they want until Sai points out that a new restaurant has opened up just down the road, offering yakisoba half-off on weekdays. Sasuke considers the choice aloud. Naruto stomps his feet, begging for them to go somewhere, anywhere, as long as they get something now.

They get a table for four when they arrive.

Somehow, everything has worked out. Danzo remains on the loose, and Orochimaru has not been taken down. The Akatsuki, strangely, have gone back into hiding since their attack on Sand, and it's only a matter of time before they come back, but for now, there is peace. Of sorts.

Contentment flavors her dinner, and she pokes at the plate with her chopsticks, hesitant to eat -- as if finishing the meal would end the moment, and destroy it all. Hunger overrides her by degrees. She picks up single noodles and wolfs them down, managing to control herself until a question bubbles out of her suddenly, like a genjutsu victim remembering that they are entranced. "Have any of you seen Yamato since... ?"

The words turn the air silent. Sasuke and Naruto both turn towards her; their mouths are mirrored flat lines, and their eyes give away nothing.

Sai shrugs, and reaches across the table for the small jug of soy sauce.

When they have finished eating, Naruto scoops up the bill and flourishes it triumphantly. My treat! he crows out, just in case any of them had forgotten. And next time, you guys have to pay for me, right? Man, I'm looking forward to that!

Sakura. Naruto.

And I'm going to pick the most expensive joint in Konoha or -- eh?

Sasuke's mouth makes a curved smirk before it sobers. The words are just as soft as they were six years ago. Thank you.

It never happens like that, but years later, Sakura still has the same dreams.