Author's Notes- Fairly quick oneshot, that will probably end up as a proper multi-chaptered fic one day, I just needed to get the idea down now. I've always wondered how Sai would cope with relationships and all the emotions that come with them, since he has a fairly weak self-identity, suppressed emotions, and hasn't been able to form normal, healthy attachments.
For anyone who doesn't know what attachment theory is, wikipedia has quite a good article on it. Like pretty much any subject in psychology, there has been years of academic snark over it, and it's probably not true that if your mother doesn't meet the hug quota by eight months old, then that's it, you will never love anyone until your serial killing career finally yields enough corpses to stitch together your very own best friend. But yeah, not having normal emotional connections at an early age is not really healthy.
Disclaimer- I don't own any of the recognisable characters or concepts. No profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
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By Sakura's fifteenth birthday, many had already predicted she would surpass the Hokage.
It happened so gradually that she never noticed. A chuunin and jounin, a doctor and surgeon, and then one day she received the invitation that she declined, from a man in a porcelain wolf mask. And then she realised she was no longer a gangly teen with scabs on her knees and hair cut short with a kunai, always waiting for someone else to come to the rescue.
They were right. She would be as beautiful as Tsunade, a more dangerous ninja, and a more talented medic.
And like Tsunade, everyone she loves keeps on dying.
The last funeral was in spring. She didn't mourn as much, this time. Each death seemed to rip something out of her like a fishhook to the heart, and there was less and less left behind to hurt.
As she approached the graves, time crawled slower and stopped. The village sounds were as tinny as a radio playing too far away. The air was quiet and still, like the cool air that stones breathe. Sensations faded and died. Her fingers sticky with sap from the flowers, spreading in that catacomb air, almost expecting to feel their hands catch hers, small and hot and always twelve years old. Sakura could be anywhere in time at moments like these. Sometimes, she could almost still hear the bells ringing.
Her memories from Team 7 were always so golden-stained, as though it had always been summer, and they had only ever played at being ninja. As though they had never came close to dying. As though they hadn't only been given Sasuke on loan, something inside him like a compass set to revenge. As though a mass of chakra hadn't seethed inside Naruto, chakra that would one day swallow him up like a raindrop into the ocean.
Sasuke's grave. She would have become a missing nin for him once, but things had changed too much when they had met again. Sakura was not Naruto. She hoped- always, she had hoped- but part of her always knew that perhaps nothing could sever the ties that bound Sasuke to his brother. And she had never known what would happen when two lives became so hopelessly tangled, whether Itachi's death would let Sasuke's own life straighten out and find its own course, or cause it to spin wildly out of control.
The flowers that she had left last time, soft and withered, a small death gone unnoticed. A bunch of simple daisies from someone who might have remembered who he could have been. They had buried him within Konoha walls in the end.
Naruto's grave, next, a few flowers from those at the academy who had known him. She had become a missing ninja for Naruto, Sakura supposed, those eight long months spent tracking him down on her own. She would not have given up on him, in the same way he had never given up on Sasuke. And Sakura knew that Naruto hadn't really given up on her either, and that in another world, she might have said yes one day.
Kakashi's grave, the earth still raw. He had been easy and charming in public, strange and wary beneath that, like a feral cat she was trying to tempt inside. And he kept coming back bruised and bleeding like a cat too, a scarred old tom getting in too many fights, until one day he didn't come home at all and it was no real surprise to her. Maybe it was too late by then to get close to Kakashi, and that was why she had to fight for every thing she had learned about him, dragging each new piece of knowledge out like a splinter that gouged up old memories in its wake.
Sakura didn't sense Sai approaching. Perhaps it was ANBU traning, and perhaps it was simply how flat Sai was sometimes, like one of his own paintings given thin life from the chakra that ran through it.
"I'm sorry about Kakashi," he said, his soft monotone seeping into the graveyard air. It was perfect, much too perfect for Sai. He'd rehearsed it from a book, maybe even spied on the funeral to see how he should act. Sakura didn't mind if it was an act. She'd had enough real sympathy to last her a lifetime.
It had been very easy to forget about Sai when she had returned to the village. She hadn't seen him before and she hadn't seen him after Team 7, and that was Root's job anyway, to work unseen. If he lived in the village, it was some overlapping Konoha outside the world she knew, somewhere they could pull strings and set scenes and only ever watch from a distance. And it was in the name, really, and Sakura considered it now, thought about tangled roots sinking into the dark places beneath the earth. And as the tree grew towards the skies, they must work unseen through earth and rock, further and further from the sun.
Sakura knew why she would die for Konoha. She would die for the damaged woman she had seen below Tsunade's moody exterior, for the strange gentleness Iruka showed even as he taught children how to kill, for the faded red ribbon that showed what lay beneath Ino's superficial front. There were as many reasons as there were people in Konoha. But Sakura didn't know how any of Root could protect a village they had never been a part of.
"It must hurt very much," Sai said.
"Yes," she said, her voice dry and dessicated as though she had forgotten how to speak, scattering like a handful of dust in the graveyard air.
Sai was silent for a moment, before he spoke again. "Do you wish you had never cared about them?"
"'Is it better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all?'" Sakura quoted, and stopped Sai before he tried to answer. "It's a very old question that you're asking. And I don't know."
In Sakura's peripheral vision she could feel Sai watching her, watching her watch the dead. Perhaps it was just the distortion in the corner of her eye, but there was something half-wistful, half-curious about his expression. His ink-coloured eyes tracked every small movement, as though putting a picture he could never see together one brush stroke at a time. Almost a little like jealousy, as though Sai envied her even the bonds that tied her to the grave. Sorrow was just another piece in a puzzle that he could never put back together.
"Sometimes when I think about Naruto, I get sad," Sai said, his tone matter-of-fact as he stood by her side.
Sakura knelt to arrange the flowers at the foot of Sasuke's grave. "Do you?" It wasn't meant to be a question, but he answered anyway.
"I don't know."
Sai's rooms troubled her, sometimes. There was little there besides clothes and weapons and ink, no family photos, no notes on the refrigerator, no mementos of any kind. Too tidy, and only because there was nothing of Sai to spill over into the space around him. It seemed little more than storage, and she thought of shining weapons, wrapped in cloth and hung in temperature-controlled rooms, stored away until they were ready to be used.
The bleak white walls bothered her, until she covered them in photos, a thin drift of normality papered over all the emptiness. The curtains were never drawn and the doors were never locked, as though Sai had no secrets, and somehow it troubled her more that he had nothing to hide. As though there was nothing behind Sai at all, another mask behind the sculpted porcelain, and it was a mask that hid the lack of anything there at all.
Sakura's fingers splayed against the glass, and just on the other side of the window she could see the streets teeming below, a toy shuriken arching against the sky, someone's nin-cat streaking across the roofs with a message, and it was all so close and so far away.
But she could keep herself busy with Sai, in the days that followed. Almost like rehabilitation, she thought, bringing him along with her whenever she went shopping, or out to see friends, or called in at the hospital. A thousand things she had never thought about perplexed him. He asked so many questions. How to act and what to say, and that was easy enough. Sai could learn rules.
The hardest question was why. There were so many things he could never grasp. Why Sakura stopped to pet a cat for no real reason. Why her voice sharpened like a whetstone sliding over a knife when she spoke to a jounin who was infatuated with her. Why she was so troubled when a ninja died on the operating table.
Sai had been on that mission. "She was badly hurt," Sai said warily, watching Sakura's expression to see if he was missing some cue, and he didn't understand why that did not matter to Sakura, why she kept turning her hands over beneath the light as though she could still see the blood cooling on her skin. "She was ANBU," Sai said, still trying. "We lose someone every ten missions," and Sakura could only remember how young the woman had looked, even through all the blood and shards of shattered porcelain.
And in the second month, a party some of the new chuunins were throwing. The music muffled and far away, a glass of something sweet and syrupy slowly warming between her hands. She watched people come, go, shape words she couldn't hear. Kiba and Shino, always an empty space between them for Hinata's pale-eyed ghost. A third chuunin tacked uncomfortably onto Udon and Moegi's team, less real to them than the memory of Konohmaru. And she was sick of it, sick of these ghosts that followed her too, needed something real and alive to tether her here, and he looked so much like Sasuke sometimes.
She turned into Sai, and reached up to cup the back of his head as she pulled him towards her.
Sai flinched beneath her touch, and then their lips met, and he was as tasteless as he was colourless, like a blank slate waiting to be written. His skin was smooth and cool as fine-grained paper, trembling like cellophane against her own. When she opened her eyes, she saw his own shifting sideways beneath the heavy lids to see what he was supposed to do. His fingers splayed awkwardly across her shoulders, skittering away like spiders as soon as they settled anywhere.
His back arched uncertainly away from her touch, and she realised that he might be ANBU, might have been raised to kill, but she could hurt him far more with just this.
And then she was seven years old and in the gutter outside her house. There were a lot of feral cats in the village, and she fed them, and sometimes asked for a kitten when the litters were born, and her mother always said they would be sad away from their brothers and sisters, which was easier than saying an outright no. And one of them was dying broken-backed in the gutter, maybe a cart or something worse, and for a long time afterwards she wondered if it was her fault for bringing them too close to humans.
Her mother told her she could cover it with a basket until her father came home. Cats like the dark, and small spaces. Her heart clenched at the thought of it dying baffled and alone without anyone to ease its death. She sat by the gutter for a long time, stroking it where it hadn't become misshapen, watching the slow breaths come shallower and shallower and the dusty eye roll slowly backwards, until she realised it wasn't fighting only because it was too far gone, that the touch of her hand could be crueller than the kick that had killed it.
Sakura never knew exactly when they became a couple. Maybe they never did. Maybe it was just that so many other people assumed it when they kept showing up together so often. It still caught her by surprise sometimes. She would slow whenever they passed a mirror and she saw them, Sai drawn in clear ink strokes, herself a violent clash of paint-spill pinks and reds and greens. She had started wearing even more colours those days, almost desperately bright, as though she could ever have enough colour for both of them.
Everyone else saw Sai's mannerisms as eccentric, but charming. They were right, mostly. Sakura couldn't really find fault with Sai. He was attractive, and talented, and he nearly always meant well. And sometimes she was still sharp with him. Sakura didn't feel too guilty, because like she told herself, it wasn't as though Sai really felt emotion anyway.
When they visited Sakura's parents, Sai was fascinated by her childhood room.
His energy was almost manic. Sakura sat cross-legged on a dusty bed too small for an adult, and watched him explore. She had never noticed half the objects here until he picked them up, turned them over, putting them down and moving on almost before he'd started. So many photographs that she had never even put most of them into albums. Hundreds of hours of her time caught in the faded ink and yellowed pages of old exercise books. In the wardrobe, her clothes breathed out the air they had trapped next to her skin, the dust that had once been part of herself.
"And this?" he had asked, moving from object to object.
A cheap painted mask. A carnival. She was fourteen, it was Kiba, he was her first sort-of boyfriend. Everyone had wore them that night. Kiba pushed his up over his hair so he could see, eyes dark and laughing as he pulled her through the stalls and the crowds of people in bright kimono, while fireworks filled the air with smoke and stars.
A withered sprig of flowers. Herself and Ino, one summer as the academy had ended for some holiday. They had been lying in the fields next to the empty school buildings, drowsy and half-drunk on the summer sun. She had stretched out against the heated ground, sometimes picking flowers, sometimes watching small insect movements among the grasses. The air had been heavy with violets, and the ghost of that day still lingered in the dry and faded petals.
An empty purple bottle. It had once contained perfume. She was six. Her grandmother no longer wore it, and it amused her to give Sakura little presents like that, to see her in costume jewellery and red lipstick. She had gone around wearing it for six months until it ran out, and thought herself sophisticated.
There was something almost feverish about Sai as he turned over these relics of her past, tracing Sakura back through the eighteen short years of history bound up in this one room. She examined these small treasures with new interest, this physical proof that a girl called Sakura had lived, had loved, had left her mark upon the world and could never be erased. A red ribbon from Ino, a dried flower from Naruto, one of Sasuke's shuriken that she had pocketed when she was ten. The bonds Sai talked about were strung around her room lighter than spiderwebs.
Sometimes, his paintings frightened her a little.
Sai didn't care much for them, and threw out entire drifts of paper at a time when his room became too full. "I can paint them again," he would say, indifferently, and he never seemed to miss any of them at all.
Sakura went through them, trying to find something spelled out in the swirls of paint that she was missing, some part of him that spilled out more easily in ink than words. The subjects were mostly innocuous. Sai was like a camera, copying what he saw. The frozen scenes on the training ground. A bird, framed for a moment in his window. The aftermath of an ANBU mission.
"Does this picture make you sad, Sai?" she would ask, finding a painting of his brother, and Sai would look from the painting to her, uncertain how he was supposed to answer.
"How does this one make you feel?" Herself, coming home in hospital whites. He painted with the eye of an artist, not a lover. Her features were not softened. The forehead a fraction too wide, her eyebrows knitted in irritation, her bare arms a little too muscled and scarred to be beautiful. Sai glanced at her, as though it was a trick question, and she shook her head and put it away with the rest, a safe and static Sakura in inks, something he would never give a title, something he could throw away and never miss.
She carried on through the drifts of paper, trying to sieve through a thousand ink strokes to find some trace of Sai filtering through. And then Sasuke's face came out of a jumble of lines, a ghost in ink and paper, and a thousand memories came back to her. The things that had impressed her when she was twelve seeming only sad now, no longer remembering how impressive it had seemed that Sasuke was an avenger, the last of his clan, the most talented ninja in the class. Instead, she thought of a silvery hail of needles he had taken for Naruto, and how he had not flinched. The long and drowsy summer evenings she spent sat awake with Kakashi, watching the two of them spar until they couldn't stand up. A whispered thank you drifting forever on heated night air.
Sai watched her without expression. She could see the differences now that others missed, how his features were a little less angular, his lips slightly fuller, his eyes more almond-shaped. But they still looked so similar sometimes.
Sai followed her train of thoughts, and glanced back at the painting. "Ah," he said, tilting his head. "We do look alike."
"You're not a replacement, Sai."
"I don't mind," he said, giving her one of his usual smiles, and carried on sorting through the paintings.
And if that was what she wanted, Sai could be a replacement. He had no identity of his own to lose. It wasn't as if he would even mind so very much. He wasn't even Sai at all, not really, only became Sai of Team 7 because someone told him to be, and Sakura didn't know how many identities he had run through before that.
Sometimes she couldn't get away from Sai. Sometimes it was almost suffocating, as though his bonds had wrapped the pair of them so tightly that they began to choke whenever they were apart, caught in closing orbits around each other.
Sakura was patient. All Sai's emotional attachments had been systematically broken whenever he had formed them. She spent hours reading accounts of war orphans who would alternately cling to carers, and spent hours silent and unresponsive in isolation. And then she cried once or twice, a dried-up monotonous sound as though she'd already used up all her tears. Sometimes for Sai, and what Root had done to him, because she didn't know if it could ever be undone, and maybe he'd have been better left alone without these bonds to tie them together in symbiosis. And sometimes she cried for herself, and for the life that she could have had with Naruto, or maybe Lee, or even Kiba. If Sakura couldn't have someone that could look after her, she'd settle for someone that could at least look after themselves.
Sai never spent the whole night with her. She never caught him asleep either, always sat upright in the kitchen with an excuse ready. He couldn't sleep. He was thirsty. He thought he heard a noise. He needed to get ready for a mission the next day. Sakura stopped asking after a while, and when she woke up in the night, she stayed in the empty bed so he could at least sleep through. She even started going along with it.
"Couldn't sleep again?" she'd ask, coming into the kitchen in the morning, and Sai would shake his head and say no, he'd only got up half an hour before she did, and she'd only call him on it sometimes and tell him she'd been lying awake all night and knew he wasn't there.
And then there was that night, when she woke from uneasy dreams to feel the heated air thrumming electrical against her skin from the open window, the sheets beside her long gone cool. The curtains whispered lightly over her bare arms as she leaned out into a warm and dangerous night.
"Sai-" she hissed as she saw him not too far away, and Sakura pulled the sheet with her as she leaned out, not wanting the neighbours to see her half-naked, trying to talk him back inside. "Sai-"
He finally noticed her, and turned sharply.
"Sai-" she said once more, her voice trailing off uselessly, and Sakura climbed up onto the window ledge and moved across the roof as quickly as she could, clinging on with nails and chakra. Her hand came down on something sharp that cut a red line across her palm, tiles carelessly knocked loose to shatter in the streets below, bruises blossoming beneath her bare knees.
He watched silently as she came, and she'd never known that eyes so dark could seem emptier than white paper. Black like night skies, and what were those skies but voids so deep that all light was swallowed up and gone? Sakura reached out, six inches and all oblivion between them, saw him flinch away from her touch, and her fingers closed on nothing at all as Sai disappeared in a swirl of ink.
Sakura sat on the roof alone, staring at her ink-stained fingers, nothing but liquid shadows where Sai had been.
When Sai came back a week later, he came through the window that Sakura had left open since that night, silently, as though he expected to find her still angry. Sakura was in the kitchen at the time. She felt him pause in the door behind her.
"I think you need to see a doctor," she said, fingers laced around her cup to steal its small heat, not turning to look at him.
"I'm not sick."
"Not that kind of doctor. Someone to help you understand your feelings a little better."
"Okay," He didn't argue it.
Sai didn't leave again, but she always waited for it. Whenever she touched him, she always hesitated, her fingers curling into empty air, because she always expected that her hands would close on nothing, Sai shattering into ink and shadows as though her touch could break him apart.
But he didn't leave again. There was only that one night when she woke and found him still there. She blinked, moonlight breaking her vision in molten silver splashes, still half-asleep, and then she sat bolt upright when she saw how silent, how still he was.
First his name, then shaking him, and an age passed before Sai blinked slowly, and she saw something uneasy shifting in his eyes as he came back to her.
"I can't remember-"
"What can't you remember, Sai?"
"I can't remember how the story ends-"
It was a moment before she remembered that sad, tattered little picture book, filled with the paintings of someone that couldn't have been more than ten or eleven at the time. The dark haired boy at one end, the blonde at the other. And how they had worked through their stories, slaying their monsters like a child's fairy tale, but they were inevitably working towards the centre and those final pages, left blank so long. She went to say something reassuring and the words caught in her throat and died, remembering the rumours they had heard about Root.
"Your brother was sick, Sai, remember? He died before you finished the book. Before-"
He shook his head, lost, and she watched him, helplessly. If he had any colour, the moonlight would have taken it that night, but Sai was always black and white like one of his own paintings, like something sketched into existence from a blueprint of the assassin they had wanted him to become. Sakura traced the dusting of dark lashes, the shadows beneath his eyes, reassuring herself that it was all real, that he wouldn't smudge away beneath her fingers this time.
Sai watched her mutely. His eyes were so black, but it wasn't fathomless like night skies after all. Just flat, like black paint over nothing at all. She thought that when he cried, he would cry ink, welling up and spilling black and glossy over his cheekbones. But Sai never cried at all.
Sakura always worried when Sai was out on an ANBU mission. She knew how much higher the mortality rate was, and thought about asking him to quit. He would, and probably wouldn't even mind so very much. Sai was only ANBU because that was all he knew. But it was an ordinary jounin mission that nearly killed him, in the end.
It was a wild and dangerous night, and they had badly underestimated the situation. Sakura ran through lashing wind and rain, eyes full of rusty water, unable to see further than a few feet. They needed to retreat already, but there was no way to share that in a storm that tore their words to shreds before they were spoken. Someone rose up like a ghost and tried to whip a kunai across her eyes, and Sakura caved in their ribcage, leaping over the shattered corpse to skid in the mud, only momentum keeping her upright.
And then she saw Sai, and Sakura went down on her knees in the mud hard, her hands already spilling over with healing chakra.
And it was too dark to even see what was wrong. But there was too much blood pulsing in dark glossy waves that had the colour and texture of ink beneath the moon, too much of his life running feverishly hot through her fingers as she was fumbling to see what damage was done somewhere in the jumble of organs and tissues and arteries that her chakra swept through.
It was too serious. Her chakra came crackling from her hands so fast her skin blistered, healing so fast she couldn't tell if she was doing more harm than good, and there was no time here to find out. Her life pouring into Sai, and she knew now why Tsunade had feared blood. If he didn't make it, she would always feel his dying blood scalded into her arms.
His eyes closed, flickered open again. They were distant, watching her from a thousand miles away.
And it was holding. The tissues were knitting together fast enough, less blood welling up between her fingers. His heart skittered wildly away beneath her palm like a bead of mercury. But the wound was slowly closing up beneath all that blood and ragged tissue, and she could feel that whatever artery it had hit was patched over, enough that it would hold until they reached a hospital.
And then Sai went into cardiac arrest.
Sakura was almost savage as she drove her weight down over and over again. Their chakra snapped and cracked together like lightning, trying to snap his dying heart out of the spasms that choked it.
"Come on, Sai!" she was almost screaming at him, as though she could keep him alive through sheer will alone. "Come on Sai, breathe!" As if he had any choice in the matter. And if he did, then he wouldn't be dying like this, because there was nothing he wouldn't come back from if she asked him.
"Come on.." her own vision beginning to blur from the draining chakra, too much of herself pouring out as though she could ever fill the void inside Sai. Sakura tried to collect her thoughts, tried to sink inside herself and find the strong and steady sound of her heartbeat, bringing the two of them into time before Sai's own heart choked and died.
And she couldn't let him die, and it did not matter if Sai couldn't love, because they were bound too tightly now. In Sai's frayed bonds, in loveliness too impossibly tangled to ever find their way back out, in tourniquets to hold each other together, to tear each other apart.
Three hours crawled by under yellow hospital lights. The chakra depletion hit Sakura hard. She slumped in a chair, her movements sticky as though she'd poured too much of herself into Sai, only a thin smear of her left in all that cold and jellied flesh. She shook with phantom chills, dull arthritic pains crawling up and down her bones. Nurses tried to talk to her, their voices distorted and faces blurring together whenever she tried to focus on them. She shook her head numbly when they offered to find her a room or some clean clothes, or to bandage the blisters on her fingers.
Sai's blood dried under the yellow lights, turned tight on her skin like a glove she would always wear. Sakura turned her stained hands over under the light, and tried to imagine washing the last of Sai away down a drain in a swirl of fever-pink water.
A medic came out, stripping off bloody gloves with a dry snap that broke through her dull stupor. Sai had survived. A transfusion for the blood loss. Some initial surgery to tidy the patching up Sakura had done, and make sure it didn't rupture. In a few weeks they could operate again to fully repair the damage and leave no weak spots.
"He'll be fine," the doctor said, a weak half-laugh shaken from Sakura, because she didn't know if Sai would ever really be okay.
He woke up some hours later. He should have looked sick, but he just looked like Sai. He never had any colour for the blood loss to steal away. His eyes were still dark and empty, like pools of ink that nothing was written in yet. His expression wasn't troubled, because Sai hadn't been raised to feel fear.
Sai turned his head sideways to look at her, with unfocused, drug-dazed eyes. Her heart spasmed painfully, strangled in whatever razorwire ties bound them together. He blinked slowly, heavy lashes sweeping across his bloodless cheekbones, and then he recognised her. And Sai smiled, a smile that cut her like the curve of a blade, because it didn't really mean anything. Sai always smiled, because that was the only expression he knew.
"I love you," he said, his voice clotted and far away.
"Sai, you-" and she wouldn't finish that sentence for his sake or for her own, just held his hand until he drifted back into safe and emotionless dreams where everything was painted in stark ink and blank paper, where there were no brilliant splashes of colour, no ties to bind them like tourniquets drawn too tight, where a girl called Sakura was another black and white portrait in a gallery with no names.
-you don't even know what love is.