09.05.2006 - 11.09.2006

Summary: There is one photograph Sai keeps, and it's not his. He likes to look at it, to pretend to remember a time when (not-entirely-his) Team 7 had been happy – happy and young and invincible and together. When they could have outshone the sun. To pretend that maybe they still can. Team 7 One-shot

AN: The major premise: I don't know anything about Sai. At all. Minor premise: This entire fic has been written in Sai's point of view. Conclusion: I love syllogisms. Major tweak-age with characterization and by tweak-age, I mean butchering, and by butchering, I mean an absolute lack of. Also, tweak-ages with plot, canon, grammar, originality, ownership of Naruto (or Sasuke still, dammit), general quality of prose, and, um, not ending sentences with prepositions. But I make it up with triteness, yes, triteness and sap and manga-verse-haha-wtf and random bold words and pretentiousness and angst (ohh, the aaaangst, because it's Team Seven, ye have been warned) and run-on sentences of the first caliber that make your brains explode.

And when bits of your brain have been splattered over your keyboard, please review. They make me happy.

They would have made a great team, Sai thinks sometimes, when he's looking at the photograph that's not his. He's waiting for Sakura to get the tea and for Naruto to return from his latest sojourn (the fourth in the last half hour--something's dreadfully wrong with that boy) to the bathroom, and Sai sits in the living room and looks at the picture, the framed, precious photo that Sakura places in the spot of honor on the bookshelf and dusts every day and just stare--a long, long time, because they had been happy, then--happy and young and invincible and together. Stares because they had been together and unbroken and still a team.

They would have grown into legends, Sai thinks sometimes, looking at the photograph that's not his. He listens with half an ear as Sakura gripes about "Ino-pig" and smiles when Naruto empties his wallet onto the counter, scrounging together a few coins. They have ramen together because that is what Team 7 does, and it's Naruto's turn to pay--so he's warning them to eat less, talk more, and save him money. Sai sits on Sakura's left side and looks at the empty seat between Sakura and Naruto--left empty for some someone else. He sees how they don't glance at the stool when they seat themselves, Sakura patting the stool to the left of her, offering Sai a bright smile, Naruto pouting at not being able to sit next to his Sakura-chan, but still sitting two stools down--the one in the middle is reserved, Sai thinks, for a phantom, a specter, a memory, a friend, comrade, brother, sweetheart, traitor, teammate. Teammate.

The photograph flutters from Naruto's wallet--a folded memory, and from the way it's crinkled and worn and creased, it's a memory often revisited. Naruto snatches it back up and places it, without his usual haste or roughness or carelessness, back into that toad-resembling pouch he calls a wallet.

They could have outshone the Sannin, outshone the sun if they'd wanted, Sai thinks--never bitter, but it's 'they' he uses, and he doesn't ask himself why not 'we.' The photograph is not his, but he fingers it reverently all the same, smoothing away the dust and the grime. He doesn't know why Sakura has the boxes, or why Naruto seems to know where all the things belong. What blue shirt with the family crest on the back, what box. What scrolls with the family's fire jutsus and Sharingan techniques, which order. What bedsheets on which still lingers faintly a crisp, clean smell, how folded. They're showing him their beloved, their cherished--two old fuddy-duddies reminiscing about their youth, the good old days--

They're not sixteen yet.

He doesn't know why anyone would give this up--how anyone could walk away from this, Naruto's flashing grins and Sakura's beaming smile, Naruto's loud exuberance and Sakura's warm acceptance. He can't understand how anyone could leave it all behind, just set it down--and he hopes he never ever understands.

Except maybe Sasuke doesn't understand either. Maybe Sasuke can't sever his ties quite so thoroughly as he wishes. Maybe Sasuke can't let this go, either.

Maybe Sasuke loves them just as much.

Because he finds it funny how there are Sound-nin so close when the Akatsuki goes after Naruto. He finds it funny how they appear out of nowhere and distract the Akatsuki sufficiently that Naruto is able to flee, able to Henge diversions. He finds it funny how these Sound-nins bear no curse seals. He finds it funny, because Orochimaru is clever and cunning and had clearly stated that the Akatsuki focusing on Konoha benefited him.

The snake understands the concept of divide and conquer.

He finds it funny, because he had read the Uchiha scrolls, and Naruto is almost as important to Orochimaru as Sasuke is. Important, because Orochimaru wants the Sharingan--wants the Mangeykou. He finds it funny how Sasuke has not killed Naruto yet--how Orochimaru had stopped Sasuke, had told him to leave Naruto alive.

The snake is not stupid, and knows never to let a prey escape.

He finds it funny how Sasuke called it a "whim." He finds it funny how Naruto never got his answer--how Sasuke (monosyllabically, because that is how Uchihas speak) had managed to evade that question, hedged and hedged, replying some nothingness that tasted (faintly) of the truth, but more like deceit.

Sai wonders what twisted game Sasuke is playing. He has the feeling that it's far more complex than the one he himself had played so lately. And he thinks that Sasuke cares about the outcome of this game.

Sai remembers, when Naruto and Sakura forget, that Sasuke is as much a snake as Naruto is a toad and Sakura a slug. And snakes always have a clan.

Team 7--Hatake Kakashi's Team Seven--is beautiful. And for all the lazy drawl and unkempt appearance and indolent manner and crooked humor and scrunched slouch, for all his mistakes and failures, Kakashi is a brilliant teacher. Because Sasuke is fast--quick in body and in mind, analytical and cold, perfectly suited for stealth, for assassinations and espionage--a shinobi. And Sakura is strong--in spirit and body, warm and gentle and caring because she is brave enough to risk loving, with an eye for details and a heart for greatness and the determination to save her boys--a healer. And Naruto, bright hair and toothy grin and cheerfully irrepressible Naruto--persistent in battle and in life, who might not be the perfect ninja but would nonetheless manage to be a hero--a leader. Sasuke in death and Sakura in life and Naruto in the living.

Because Sai is an artist and he enjoys waxing poetics. So he takes that photograph, the third one, taken when they'd been so, so young--the masked smile and the happy beam and the dark scowl and the sullen glower--he takes that, because he doesn't have the memories.

He thinks, as he puts the photograph on his windowsill--he can start making them. Pictures and memories--he smiles, too.

So Naruto trains and Sakura trains and Sasuke trains. And the days become weeks and weeks become months and Sasuke still hasn't been retrieved (a dog, Sai thinks, with faint contempt, a lost puppy) and Naruto grows impatient and Sakura become anxious--and still, Sasuke does not return. They try and they fail and they train and try and fail and train--because Naruto is persistent and Sakura is strong. And Sai, because he, too, cares, and he, too, goes--Sai looks back after the battles and Sai thinks that Sasuke must be pretty quick to realize after only three years that they aren't giving up--Sai sees the faint smirk that becomes a smile and Sasuke is, in his heart of hearts, glad that those two still follow.

But the months go by--four months, five months (Orochimaru is getting tense--excited and paranoid) and the guard around Sasuke grows thicker. There's only weeks left--only days, and Naruto is threatening to go missing-nin if Tsunade-sama ("You old hag! You old, rotting, ugly hag!") doesn't let him out of the village, damn Hokage-ship. And Sakura--being told that the remains of Team 7 could not be sacrificed for a traitorous brat--sits on the roof, not sleeping, not eating, and glares.

Sai doesn't know where Kakashi goes. Sakura says something about taking up permanent residence in the corner bookstore and ruining his remaining eye (or had it been sanity?) with too much reading.

And Sai, still smiling, again fingers that photograph, taken out of its glass covering, and this time, lets it flutter to the ground.

Naruto gets bitten by a snake.

("It wasn't one of his! The teme wouldn't send them after me, I swear!")

Sakura leaves her rooftop.

("You and your corrupting debauchery are going to get out of this damn bookstore, Kakashi-baka-sensei, and tan, dammit! Stop vegetating in porn—I will frogmarch you, and then we will go get Sasuke, and then I will scream at the three of you men until your ears bleed and you melt into piles of goo at my feet—NO, I WILL NOT QUIET DOWN, YOU DAMN STOREKEEPER, I'M HAVING A HEART TO HEART SESSION HERE BEFORE I GO MISSING-NIN SO NO I DON'T CARE IF YOU'RE TRYING TO DO BUSINESS, SHANNARO!")

And Sai finds the-photograph-that-is-not-his again, tucked in his wallet (it's his turn to pay), folded with immaculate precision, corners neatly overlapping and edges straight.

Naruto picks it up, curious and nosy as ever despite depression--"What's that?"

And Sakura reaches over to pluck it from his hands, scolding as she always does. "You're so nosy, Uzumaki," with the accompanying eye twitches and threatening fist, and Naruto promptly cowers. But Sakura is curious too, so she opens it--

"Wait for me." Scrawled in a corner.

Precise, neat, orderly handwriting--Sai doesn't recognize it.

But Naruto does and Sakura does and Naruto stops eating and Sakura pales and freezes and does not cry--and they wait. Through the night and the next morning, and through lunch and through dinner--and when the owner complains about the other customers, Naruto orders another bowl--and when the other customers complains about other customers, Sakura glowers and cracks her knuckles and laughs in that freaky, insane way of hers.

It gets late and Sai's tired and they haven't slept in so long--and still, Naruto is eating ramen and Sakura is talking about--Tenten? Lee? Hinata? Who?

"--and Neji-san flips, all Byakugan and crap, and Akamaru's barking and Naruto no baka is giving the dog chocolate, the stupid idiot--"

The stars come out, clear and bright, and the three of them sit there, under that vast velvet darkness and Naruto's calling for miso, please and Sakura's still talking about...something, and Sai wonders if maybe the three of them were going to sit here forever, until Naruto grows ambidextrous hair like Jiraiya and Sakura learns youth genjutsus like Tsunade (and far away, Sasuke develops that disgusting tongue thing), waiting, waiting, waiting forever...

"Naruto, you'd better be able to pay for all this."

"Ano sa, ano sa, I'm not broke--" and he takes out his wallet and he is broke and Sakura is grumbling and Sai sighs and the owner is getting mad and Naruto's cowering again and then there's money on the counter and a tall, lean, lanky shadow is folding itself on that stool, the stool between Sakura and Naruto--a shadow thin and dark and tired and gaunt and haggard and weary and wan and familiar.

Sakura is staring at him and Naruto is grinning fiercely through his tears, and Sasuke--exhausted-looking--is paying for ramen.

"Dobe," he says, and smiles that ghostly, faint, half-smile. And he looks at Sakura and he looks a very long time and he smiles again, dark eyes soft and expressive and clear and lovely, because he has his mother's eyes. "Broke again," he murmurs, and the other two grin, because it's affectionate and he's back, and everything's all right.

And this, Sai thinks, not exactly in the circle because he never was Hatake Kakashi's Team Seven, but not hovering on the fringes anymore either, because Sasuke is gazing that piercing, direct look at him and saying "Arigato" for watching over his teammates--and Sai thinks this, this must be love.

Many apologies for the distinct lack of the word "penis."

Probably why Sai has come across as...pseudo-Sai. Ish. But we can pretend that, um, when he's talking about Orochimaru's tongue thing, he's thinking about penises. Mm-hmm. He thinking it. All the time.


Review review review. And scrape the bits of grey matter that have splattered over your keyboards for your gargantuan aneurysm. But review first.

Because that would be totally awesome. And Team Seven would want you to.