La Verità Dolce

Sonnie

-O-

"Thank you."

"Why are you thanking me?" Sakura's voice was quiet. She didn't glance up as she began to clean her instruments.

"For saving them," Sai clarified.

"I'd be a rather poor doctor if I didn't at least try," Sakura said archly, but it lacked her usual bite.

"I mean—" Sai mentally cursed his inability to verbally express any feeling besides contempt. In the rare moments he felt anything else, it made it exceedingly difficult to explain how he felt. "Aside from the fact a man would be dead, if Kankurou died, I'm fairly certain Shikamaru's career as a painter would be over." And with it, mine as well.

"I get the impression Kankurou will be gracious to Shikamaru when he wakes up, at least for Ino's sake." Sakura's voice was dry. "Naruto makes Lord Sabaku sound absolutely heroic."

"He was, though," Sai admitted. "Kankurou was amazing. So was Tenten. At least that's what Naruto told me. I missed the exciting parts, but I'm rather glad that I did. He's much better suited for action than I am."

"You're full of surprises tonight," Sakura remarked, giving him an unreadable look.

"I'm sure it's because you heard me say more words in the past five minutes than you have in the past five months. I'm still rattled after everything that's happened tonight; I'll return to normal tomorrow."

"Likely," Sakura agreed wryly. "You know, you've changed a lot recently. You probably hate that."

"Yes…and no." He had very nearly lost his life and saw no reason to lie at that particular moment. "It's true, I don't like change, but I'm a better artist for it, and hopefully a better person. I realized I could learn a lot from people I'd always perceived to be inferior. Of course, near-death experiences tend to put things into perspective, so I'm told, but as a doctor, I'm sure you have them every day."

Sai wondered if he said the wrong thing because he could have sworn Sakura almost looked sad for a moment. She was still mentally over-stimulated but physically drained—the hours she'd spent saving two lives left her dead on her feet, and for several minutes Sai would have sworn she'd leave it and not say anything. To his amazement she slumped into the chair next to him like a marionette with cut strings.

"I'm hardly wise," Sakura confessed suddenly. "I chose this profession for the wrong reasons. I was introduced to a young doctor when I was fifteen. He had just finished his studies and was looking for an assistant. His name was Kakashi. I was infatuated and saw a completely selfish opportunity. How special I would be: a lady doctor, can you imagine such a thing? I craved his approval and recognition of my intellect, but mostly I just wanted him to fall in love with me as hopelessly as I had fallen in love with him. I ran away from home because of a man, and it was the best and worst thing I ever did."

It was hard to imagine Sakura having any such aspect to her personality. To think of her having any egotistical motivation at all was a bit of a revelation. It seemed he learned the most about her when she was healing, and it dawned on him that what she was doing was as much for her own benefit as for others. What began as a self-centered pursuit was now her path of penance.

"Kakashi thought he was invincible. I did, too. And when he died he left me all alone in a foreign country to treat an outbreak he arrogantly thought he was immune to, I realized how foolish I'd been to count on him. Suddenly, I didn't have to worry about being good enough or smart enough. There was no man whose love and approval I needed to earn; he was dead, and I would be too if I didn't grow up. Glory meant nothing all alone in a strange place. I emerged a woman I could be proud of, but very different from the girl I used to be."

"That sounds…rather thankless," Sai mentioned tactfully, trying to find a word that wouldn't shatter their tentative peace.

Sakura hummed in agreement. "Important occupations often are. But before you get defensive, I think art is very important. It's a way of sharing ideas and culture. Naruto draws because he can't help himself, because he needs to. I'm sure you're the same. Creative types have varied personalities but that part never really changes. It's a way of expressing oneself in a world where you can't always rely on words."

Growing increasingly uncomfortable with how exposed Sakura was making him feel, Sai shrugged evasively. The doctor wasn't intimidating in the physical sense (unless she was about to put her fist in someone's eye) but she was shoving him through the emotional wringer without any idea how much it was affecting him. She talked about feelings so casually, as if this was something that everybody did.

He was considering how to ask her to stop when a loud racket outside nearly made Sai tip out of his chair. He pursed his lips meekly but decided after everything Sakura had done for him that night, he could at least answer the door while she tried to relax. Upon opening it he was nearly barreled over by Temari and Gaara (mostly the former, as the latter simply took advantage of the opening his sister made for him).

Sakura was too tired to stand, barely had the energy to sigh. She'd been expecting this. "I know why you're here, but I won't have a prognosis for you until he survives the night. I'm sorry you came all this way, but there isn't a whole lot I can tell you."

Gaara gave Temari a look that clearly conveyed that he agreed with Sakura. Temari was nowhere close to backing down, though. The blood-stained towels that Ino and Kankurou had soaked through were still wet, even though they were set aside to be discarded the following morning.

"You're just finishing up? What took so long?"

"I had to sew up Lady Ino, first," Sakura explained. "It took longer than expected."

"Why did you treat her before Kankurou? It's her fault that my brother is hurt in the first place!"

Sakura still didn't rise from her chair but the look on her face could have cowed the Pope himself. "Your brother risked his life because Ino got hurt. The authorities didn't think there was a credible threat until they'd received four separate complaints from other guests. Someone of your social standing could have brought help a lot sooner had you actually gone to the police instead of cowering uselessly outside. So if we're following your particular brand of blaming logic, maybe this is your fault."

Gaara held up his hand when Temari opened her mouth to retort. "I can see there's nothing to be gained from staying here. We'll come back tomorrow for a proper visit. Thank you, Doctor Sakura." He nodded at Sai and paused, eyes tracing the artist's face with careful scrutiny.

"Sai, I'll inform the Hyuuga family first thing tomorrow that the portrait may be postponed indefinitely depending on Shikamaru's legal and emotional state. If they elect to toss out the contract we will compensate you for your time. I have only a minor favor to ask in return—a small commission—if that would be agreeable. The details will be forthcoming. I foresee that your instructor will be indisposed for awhile but he does regard your talent highly."

Sai didn't know what to say but luckily Gaara didn't expect much in the way of a response. It was clear the late hour was taking its toll on everyone. The red-haired noble ushered his sister outside and into the waiting carriage. Despite her run-in Sakura's eyes still flashed warmly when she caught Sai's equally weary gaze.

"Shikamaru isn't a disgraced painter quite yet, I guess," Sakura's voice was gently prodding, trying to coax another bit of emotion from him. He was so exhausted not even the promise of a wealthy client could rouse his excitement. Sai could only nod numbly, offering her the weakest of smiles. As if she understood, Sakura averted her eyes, but saw the corners of her mouth turn up slightly.

-O-

Shikamaru sank into his mattress, knowing full well that sleep wouldn't come easily, if at all. He thought after Asuma died he lost the ability to be so utterly taken by surprise. He had tried so hard to rebuild his sense of security and to have it ripped away a second time was almost too much to bear. He was running out of people to lose. His students risked their lives for him, and Ino had practically given hers up. He had been too crippled by fear and surprise, and now he was wallowing in despair and self-pity.

He'd spent several years with Ino and had never known the pleasure of going to sleep beside her and waking up to her the next morning. He'd never gotten to unpin her hair or unbutton her gown or see her blush on their wedding night. They were all things he'd wanted to do so long ago, things he'd suppressed and forgotten in his campaign to erase his feelings for her. He merely thought he'd never do these things, but now he knew. The sheets beside him would continue to remain cold and she would never join him now.

The mere suggestion of visiting her at the clinic was immediately rejected. Shikamaru knew he'd just get in the way and Sakura very likely didn't want to see him. Kankurou was there and he risked running into the nobleman's family; Temari turned his stomach and assailed him with a fresh wave of guilt. He hadn't done anything improper, but the memory of every time he'd badmouthed or humiliated his wife in front of her made him feel even more unworthy.

The evening had brought a catharsis he hadn't earned. Every destructive feeling he'd poured into Ino turned out to be unfounded. He could finally let go of the poison he'd deliberately injected into every one of their encounters. Only the thought of Ino betraying his trust was able to call forth the malice he'd spent years cultivating. He was normally not inclined to hold grudges, but every morning when he woke, it was his first thought: I married the woman I loved and she's not who I thought she was.

But Shikamaru was now aware that she was. She proved it to him in blood. She suffered to preserve the existence they'd built, although it was only arguably built together. They lived separate lives—he made sure of that—but she still fought for his. Akatsuki hurt him terribly, but they'd hurt her too. The only reason she'd given up trying to clear her name was because she assumed, assumed correctly, that he'd never believe her story.

In his mind, Shikamaru recalled the sound of Hidan's weapon clearly, distinctly remembered bracing himself for the pain of the gunshot he never endured. He'd never felt so helpless watching the blood literally gush out of her, pouring down her skin and saturating her gown. She was so small (she couldn't have that much blood, how did it keep coming?) and fragile and he hadn't noticed that about her in years, how sensitive and vulnerable she let herself be around him. He'd hardened himself towards her but he never failed to hurt her feelings, even after years of his callous behavior. After seeing him at his worst Ino still loved him, and it made him more undeserving than ever.

Even if she recovers, she has no reason to stay married to me. Divorces are rarely granted, but since we never consummated the marriage it could be annulled. She could put all the misery I forced her to suffer through behind her.

Despite not getting along, Ino and Sai basically ran Shikamaru's life. He highly doubted he could rely on his apprentice to also make sure his clothing was presentable, his meals were edible, and his transportation ready. He'd normally ask Tenten to take on those types of domestic tasks if Ino were indisposed but after tonight and all she'd done for him, he wasn't sure if he could bring himself to. He hadn't been able to lift a finger for Ino while Tenten was currently undergoing treatment after picking up a sword to defend them both.

It's not like I'll have any students in the morning, Shikamaru reflected morosely. All of the rich ones will abandon me immediately, and that's the vast majority. Sai could find another position easily based on his talent. Naruto's sponsor Jiraiya can surely secure him an apprenticeship elsewhere. Tenten might just tag along with Naruto; Sakura seems to like her and could probably find her a job. The servants will flee and I'll be as alone as I deserve.

Despite his earlier expectations, Shikamaru could feel sleep beginning to blur his thoughts. He wondered how Ino could have possibly felt more tired than he did at that moment, crushed by guilt and regret and failed expectations. Ino had spent every day with the knowledge that Akatsuki had ruined the life she'd been looking forward to and she was powerless to change the mind of the one person who'd once vowed to love her. He wondered how she felt going to sleep every night like that, and how she could possibly find it in her to get up the next morning. He knew if Ino could find that strength, he would also have to.

-O-

The parchment clenched in Neji's hand was starting to bleed ink into his palm and he viciously threw the note onto his desk in disdain. Shikamaru had been a mistake, the portrait premature. It was highly probable the port deal was in ruins. Once Kankurou recovered, the siblings would likely leave Neji and Rome far behind. Shikamaru was facing a scandal and his wife was likely on her deathbed. There no mention of the painter's students, but Neji realized Gaara had probably not thought it important to him.

And it was important, Neji realized. Not necessarily Tenten's happiness, but her health. He didn't want her physically harmed, but she just had to know she couldn't get away with deceiving him. Revealing her secret in public would ruin her and place her in danger, but revealing it in private would put an end to every single one of her self-righteous little tirades. She wouldn't be able to make him feel bad once he pointed out that she'd been lying to him for months. The idea of deconstructing her belief that she was somehow better than him took the edge off his anxiety.

It wouldn't be seemly to visit her in the clinic (if indeed she was even there), nor would he be able to call upon the Nara household in the near future. He needed her to come to him somehow, although Hiashi's firm stance against her presence at the estate complicated that. She would be suspicious of any outright summons anyway; a straightforward invitation simply wouldn't do.

How can I lure her out when last night's events will surely have her guarding her security more tightly than ever? No purely selfish motivation will tempt her…

The fox statue on Neji's desk caught his eye, and with it came a minor epiphany: cousins. He almost smiled at the sudden sense of relief he felt. Feeling nothing but serene, Neji began penning a letter to Haku.

-O-

Sunlight shining on Sai's face slowly woke him, and he dared to crack an eye open once he realized he was in an unfamiliar place. He was sprawled face-down across one of Sakura's sickbeds and few feet to his left, Sakura had similarly draped herself over another in an equally ungainly fashion. Her breathing was loud—borderline snoring—and she was drooling onto the sheets. In the place of familiar criticisms, one thought managed to finalize: she was a very sound sleeper. She hadn't even taken off her shoes and her limbs were dangling over the edges.

Sakura doesn't even have a blanket, Sai realized. He managed to stand on unsteady feet, pulling his blanket off his shoulders and laying it across her haphazardly. No matter how he arranged it, he couldn't really cover any of her limbs adequately because of her positioning. Shrugging, Sai found his appetite had returned and a quick search of the clinic made it clear it contained no food. He knew Sakura, Naruto, and Tenten would likely wake and find themselves hungry as well. After all they'd done, he couldn't exactly come back with food for one.

This friendship thing is complicated and annoying. That's why money is so convenient: once you pay them, you're no longer indebted. You can't exactly put a price on someone risking their life for you. I don't even know what they would want to eat, or if they even eat at this hour.

Sai wasn't much of a cook, but he did buy most of his own food. Chouji prepared excellent dishes but they were too heavy for his tastes. A dozen jokes could be made about his preference for bland and boring flavors but he couldn't bring himself to care. He ate very little meat, a luxury that was abundantly available at the Nara estate. He knew he should probably take advantage (after all the cost of his room and board was phenomenal) yet didn't enjoy eating with the household staff.

After a quick round at the market, Sai settled on a fresh-baked loaf of wheat bread (a step up from the cheap barley variety he normally purchased), a pot of honey, a small jar of quince jam, a bushel of apples, and a bottle of milk. It was rather extravagant fare for him, but the price was of no consequence, especially after the night they all had. When he arrived back at the clinic, he found the Sabaku siblings disembarking their carriage.

True to her word, the doctor led Temari upstairs and gave her professional opinion. Kankurou would have to stay at the clinic because moving him was unwise; he was at high risk for infection and his stitches would be in danger of tearing if he attempted anything more strenuous than lying around. Sakura didn't tell Temari that she suspected Kankurou would behave much better if Ino were close by—he'd have to set a good example.

Sai put a kettle on the same stove he'd used last night to boil water for Ino's surgery. Naruto had cleaned up while he was gone but took a keen interest in the groceries he'd returned with. Tenten had taken a seat next to him, uncharacteristically quiet. The food was divided swiftly, and to Sai's surprise, Temari and Sakura quickly joined them. Even Gaara was eating, having fastidiously separated the crust from the bread.

"Where's Master Shikamaru?" Tenten finally asked, breaking the silence.

"He's probably seeking legal counsel," Sakura mused. She still had a pink mark on her cheek from her sheets, so she mustn't have been up too long before Temari and Gaara arrived. "Even though he didn't hurt anyone, everything's going to come down on him somehow, I'm sure of it."

Gaara frowned. "I don't know much about Akatsuki, being from Venice. I thought they were merely a guild."

"No one knows much about them; none willing to talk, at any rate." Sai offered neutrally.

"Perhaps Lord Hyuuga could tell us something," Temari mused. "I'm sure we wouldn't get the whole story—whatever that is—but it might shed some light on their origins and motivations."

Sakura spread a spot of jam on her bread thoughtfully. "There's a rumor circulating that Akatsuki had something to do with the disgraced Uchiha family, but it wouldn't be proper of me to pry, since one of them is a patient of mine."

Sai listened to this exchange, anxiety slowly starting to gnaw at him. He hadn't seen or communicated with Sasuke in months. He knew the young Uchiha was biding his time and would likely be doing something rather stupid and foolhardy in the near future. With Kabuto running around Rome unfettered and Orochimaru's visit imminent, it was practically a guarantee.

"I hope Lord Hyuuga doesn't decide to cancel the portrait. It's nearly finished. I mean, it'd be a shame." Tenten managed to keep the apprehension out of her voice. A thousand worries raced through her mind, and being tied to such a debacle so early in her budding career wasn't going to make her life any easier. It wasn't her most immediate concern, but it had firmly rooted itself in her mind. She knew her fellow students had similar fears.

"I expect we'll know their decision by the end of the day," Sai replied. "We can only wait."

"Perhaps they'll wait until they know Lady Ino's fate." Gaara voiced the unspoken fear they'd all been feeling. He and Temari were certainly not as invested as Sakura and Sai, but it was becoming clear that Kankurou's recovery would rely heavily on the blonde patient upstairs. She, like Kankurou, had shown no sign of waking, and her survival was far from assured. .

"So what was that commission you mentioned?" Sai asked suddenly, changing the subject. It was about as tactful as he normally was, that is to say not very subtle at all, but it was a welcome distraction.

"I need a portrait copied. Perhaps you could make it larger and adjust it a bit." Gaara turned to Naruto. "Not to diminish the service you rendered, but Sai was not made available to me when I first approached Shikamaru. I was just hoping for his input."

Reaching into his pocket, Gaara withdrew the portrait Naruto had sketched for him months prior. He had folded it into quarters, and Naruto met Sai's eyes briefly to convey mutual disdain (why did people always fold art?—what was wrong with them?) but had been smart enough to place another sheet of paper on top so it wouldn't smudge.

Sai dropped it as if it burned him, and Gaara luckily snapped it up before it hit the ground. Sakura gasped. Tenten nearly dumped tea in her lap.

"I know her." Sai, Sakura, and Tenten spoke at the same time. Naruto looked confused and Sai mentally rolled his eyes. Even after drawing her portrait for Gaara, Naruto hadn't remembered meeting her! Sai decided to bite his tongue and spare his fellow student the humiliation.

Gaara nearly choked on his tea. "All of you do?"

Sai spoke first. "You're not going to find her, though. Publish this portrait and she'll go even deeper into hiding. Lord Orochimaru is looking for her."

"I sent her to Jiraiya's household to get a job, but I heard that fell through." Sakura looked worried. "That was over a month ago. She didn't ask me for any help since then."

"Lord Hyuuga is looking for her, too. He said she's been accused of treason." Tenten lowered her eyes. "She was one of the first people I met when I came to Rome. She's so kind. I can't see how she's guilty."

Sai knew all about the alleged missing state secrets from his conversations with the Uchihas but said nothing. He was not in any way involved with Akatsuki but the Uchiha family could not exactly say the same, and he had been involved with them. Sai just wanted it all behind him, to distance himself from his bad choices. He glanced over at Tenten and saw emotions warring on her face. She was drumming her fingers on the table restlessly and realized that all eyes were on her.

Taking a deep breath, Tenten finally spoke. "I don't know Jou very well…and even though I doubt it, she very well may be guilty of all that. But I do know Lord Hyuuga. A few weeks ago he tried to run her down with a rapier. I'm not sure he meant to kill her, but her wellbeing wasn't any concern of his. I'm not sure why he's trying to find her."

"She's related to a servant or employee of his," Sai offered, finally caving. Ignoring the looks he got, he persisted. "Neji wants to get rid of her before her connection to his household becomes public. There are also…rumors about her, probably untrue, but they're equally damaging as the treason charge. Lord Gaara, you and Neji are looking for the same woman, but I don't think he realizes that yet. If you ever want to see her again, you'd better hope you find her first."