TITLE: Painting a Tree

PAIRING: Sai/Sakura

TIMELINE/SPOILERS: Shippuden, Sasuke (vs?) Sai arc.

WARNINGS: None. Some cusses maybe. PG-13?

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Naruto and any related... things. No profits are made with this fanfic.


Chapter 04 - Holes


The moon was just a slit in the night sky, but the stars made up for the lack of it.

"Everyone's wasted inside." Sakura spoke from beside him and Sai could see she was halfway down the road everyone had been. Her skin was flushed, and there was a sedated smile on her lips.

It had been Naruto's birthday, and all his friends had been invited to the party held at Sakura's apartment. Even Kakashi, Yamato, and Iruka came. Their drinking had continued on until past midnight and one by one they passed out at different spots in the apartment. Hinata had been escorted back to the Hyuuga compound by an unsurprisingly sober Neji, who had a short argument with an inebriated Tenten before he asked Sakura if she could let the girl sleep first on her bed before he came back to bring her home. Rock Lee, who had been banned from any alcohol, volunteered to take Tenten to her apartment, but Neji adamantly refused and swore he'd come back.

Ino took up a spot on Sakura's bed as well, while Shikamaru was sprawled on the couch. Everyone else were on various places— Kiba was huddled on the kitchen table with Akamaru asleep on the floor, while Chouji was on the counter with the pantry cabinets open above him. Kakashi was leaning back on the wall near the couch, while Yamato had his head on the center table. Gai had passed out on the entrance just as he was about to go home after Lee, Hinata, and Neji had left. The birthday boy, now only in his pants and red paint after trying to re-enact a Kabuki play, was slumped over on the center table with one leg poking Shino who had fallen asleep on the floor.

"Hmm…" Sakura hummed as a cool night breeze blew by. "That helps clear the head."

"You should get some rest." Sai said and Sakura only smiled at him.

He nearly fell off his perch on the small balcony as Sakura leaned closer to him and stared at his face.

"I swear I saw you drinking with us." She said. The smell of alcohol mixed with orange juice laced her breath. "But you don't look smashed."

"Alcohol is one of the downfalls of a ninja." Sai answered mechanically.

Sakura laughed. "Tsunade-shishou became a hokage." She said with a grin. "And even though they're perverts, Jiraiya-sama is one of the legendary sannin, and Kakashi's one of the top shinobi of Konoha— both of them were good enough to be candidates for the Hokage position."

Sakura continued to list people who had deficiencies and weaknesses but were among the top nins of Konoha, and many of them were from the Rookie Twelve. However, Sai was only vaguely listening, as he was entranced at the way Sakura's lips moved with her slurs and the way her voice had gone down a notch in her inebriated state. Something was stirring up inside him that was slightly different from what he usually felt whenever he was with his temperamental teammate.

Before he knew it, he was already leaning down on Sakura, his eyes glazed over, and he only realized so when Sakura poked his forehead and laughed.

"Okay, now I know you're drunk." She said with a giggle. "I think you should get off the railing before you completely lose your balance."

Sakura pulled him back inside and handed him a clean blanket and pointed at the thick rug at the foot of her bed.

"You can sleep there." She said with a smile. "I'll see you in the morning."

"How about you?" Sai asked as Sakura headed for the living room.

"Neji should be back any minute now." She answered. "As soon as he picks up TenTen, I'm taking up her space on the bed."

Sai nodded and laid on his back at the rug. There was a curious sensation inside him, like he had missed something that he wanted, and it didn't take too long for him to realize that he was feeling disappointed at not having continued what he was unconsciously doing back at the balcony.

A faint frown etched on his face. He had just tried to kiss Sakura.


O O O


"Hag, your hideous face has become even more revolting. From what I have read, eye shadows are supposed to be painted on the eyelids."

'One… Two… Three…'

"You read books on make-up?" Sakura tried to push away thoughts of thumping a certain someone.

"Yes." Sai answered as he put up a smile. "Jiraiya-sama wanted me to put make-up on the girls in the illustrations for his book, so I researched about them."

A vein popped in one of Sakura's clenched fists, but the girl managed to keep said fist by her side.

"You're still helping out that legendary pervert, huh?" Sakura said dryly.

When their team first found out about Sai's side job as Jiraiya's illustrator, four different reactions were garnered: one person didn't mind the new information— Yamato only continued to eat his barbeque; one person had an eyebrow raised up as he stared at Sai— Naruto mumbled 'figures'; one person bothered to look up from his latest volume of the book penned by Sai's new employer— Kakashi was staring at him like Christmas had come early, if such expression was even possible for the silver-haired jounin; and the last person was trembling in her seat— Sakura's face was a perfect shade of puce.

Only the reasoning that Sai appreciated the extra money as his art materials didn't come cheap stopped the girl from informing her busty mentor about the new development in Jiraiya's lucrative business.

"Please don't tell me you're peeking at bath houses with him." Sakura said with a sigh.

"I did it one time and it had been conducive to my research about female bodies." Sai answered with a smile. "But I prefer reading materials rather than staring at real people. It gave me more understanding at how and why female bodies were different from males."

Sakura nodded. At least it meant Sai wasn't joining the ero-sennin on the old man's perverted hobby.

"It's interesting how there are younger girls who are more developed than you are, hag." Sai broke Sakura's moment of peace. "I suggest you start taking female hormone pills— the reason why you're like a tree must be because of your lack of estrogens and progesterone."

A pleasant smile decorated Sakura's face.

"Thank you for your concern, Sai." She said before going infront of their cell formation and forcing Naruto to fall back in line with Sai. It was going to be a lot of hard work to reign in her temper.

Not too soon afterwards, Naruto's complaints and threats punctuated the silence of the forest they were speeding through.

The trip to their destination— a fairly large village near the center of the Land of Fire— took a little more than two days, and it was already lunch time when they arrived. The head assistant of their current employer greeted them by the gates of the village, and a red carriage pulled by two sleek black horses brought them to their employer's impressive compound.

As they were walking down a long hallway lined with decorative shoji doors the color of gold, the rumbling of Naruto's stomach caught everyone's attention. The blonde tried to laugh it off, but as his stomach gurgled once more Sakura felt bad for him. In their haste to reach the village as soon as possible, they had forgone breakfast and settled on eating fruits instead. As Naruto needed more energy than a normal nin due to the kyuubi inside him, the guy certainly wouldn't be satisfied with just a few measly pieces of apples.

"A feast is already waiting for you." The head assistant informed the three. Naruto instantly perked up. "The master and his family will be joining you for lunch."

Indeed, a feast was waiting for them. A long table good for ten people was bedecked with so much food that there was no space between the plates, bowls, and glasses. Naruto's right foot tapped impatiently on the wooden floor as the three waited for their employers to finally arrive.

The master of the house entered first— he was already in his fifties, but the pleasant smile on his face might have reduced some years off from his true age. His wife, walking beside him with her hand enclosed by her husband's, was a few years younger. She was smiling as well, but with a hint of sadness. They were followed by their son, a man around Kakashi's age, who took after his father. Last came in their daughter, whose long hair flowed at the back of her silky blue kimono.

"Thank you for answering our request." The head of the family spoke. "Before we talk about our arrangements, let us all have our meal, shall we?"

Naruto was only too eager to agree as everyone settled down on their seats. As she was often to do during missions that involved talking to the employer, Sakura sat beside Sai, leaving him farthest from the employers. Sakura had developed an acute sense of Sai tactfulness to the point that she could divert the conversation away from Sai whenever she sensed he was about to say something that would jeopardize their employer-employee relationship.

Thankfully, Sai didn't speak at all during the meal, but Sakura didn't let her guard down. Across her, Naruto was stuffing his face while trying to not look like he was doing it so. The head of the family made small talk about their village and his family, who dealt with timber and furniture-making.

"Excuse me," The son turned to Sakura, who was at his side. The servants were already serving them tea as the previous dishes were cleared. "I am Takemaru. A few weeks ago I was at Konoha for business and to visit a friend. If I'm not mistaken, I have seen you there before. It was near the hospital, if I remember correctly."

Sakura smiled. "I'm one of the head medics at the hospital." She answered. "When I'm not out on missions, I work in there."

"Ah, so you're the Godaime-sama's famed apprentice."

"She is not the only apprentice of the Godaime-sama." Sai's voice came up. Sakura immediately noticed the subtle not-too-friendly tone in his voice even though the guy was smiling at them.

"Yes," Sakura said as she grinned back at the man. "There's also Shizune-senpai, who's also one of the head medics. She specializes in poisons and antidotes."

"We would like to discuss the arrangements for the mission, Shinrin-sama." Sai spoke once more, effectively cutting Sakura and the son's conversation.

"Yes," The old man said with a smile. "As you now might know our daughter is going to marry the successor of Master Kaku, the best carpenter of the Land of Fire."

Sakura recognized the name from a few missions back. "Our team had met with Master Kaku and his son Master Monosashi before." She said. "Congratulations on your engagement." She greeted the daughter, who blushed and looked away in embarrassment."

"There's really no threat as of now." Shinrin continued. "But we wanted to make sure everything goes well with Mori's trip to Monosashi-sama's village until their marriage tomorrow. Her fiancé suggested we request for your team as he had been highly satisfied with your service."

"You can definitely count on us!" Naruto said with a wide grin.

After an hour of preparation, Mori and her parents rode in a carriage that was larger than the one used to fetch Sakura, Naruto, and Sai from the village's gates. They were escorted by ten servants and ten guards, while Sakura, Naruto, and Sai circled their perimeter while looking out for any attackers and traps.

The trip took the rest of the day, and it was already sunset by the time they reached Master Kaku's village. It was larger than the one they had come from, and it took some time before they reached Master Kaku's compound. The people bowed at the carriage and threw flowers for the bride-to-be, and Sakura inwardly felt happy for the soon-to-be-wedded couple as the people have accepted the union.

Both Master Kaku and Master Monosashi were waiting by the main house's entrance as Shinrin's family boarded off the carriage, and Sakura noticed the way Master Monosashi's stoic face relaxed as Mori gave him a small smile.

'Ino will have a fit if she saw this.' Sakura inwardly thought as she imagined her other blonde best friend gushing about the romance between Mori and Monosashi. The girl was still a big romantic.

At Master Kaku and Master Monosashi's insistence, the three nin joined them in their meal which, much to Naruto's delight, was even bigger than the one they had for lunch. Sai didn't talk much, and Sakura was relieved as she didn't have to do some damage control. Plus, she was left free to have a chat with Master Shinrin's son Takemaru, who reminded her of Iruka for his polite ways of speaking and his knowledge of a lot of things, small as they may be.

When everyone else had gone to sleep, Sakura, Naruto, and Sai checked the perimeters of the area for the guests and the masters before securing the whole compound and checking once more the area they're most concerned at. After deeming everything was secure, Naruto crawled into his futon and was knocked out within a few seconds. Sai took his sketch book and art pack with him as he left their room for the porch. It was his time to keep a watch at the compound.

"You should get some rest." Sai spoke as Sakura took her place beside him. "It's not your turn to keep watch."

"I will in a while." Sakura answered as she glanced at his sketch pad. He was finishing a sketch of a goldfish that Sakura recognized was the one at the centrepiece of their dining table. The scales were of different shades of orange, gold, and yellow, and the scales gave a faint sheen when hit by light. "It looks alive." She said.

Sai gave the tail one last stroke of a moss green pencil before writing down with fluid strokes the kanji for 'distraction' at the bottom corner of the paper.

One of Sakura's brows rose in confusion. "Distraction?" She said in askance. "Well, the goldfish was pretty, and it's the first time I've seen a fish bowl as a centrepiece for a dining table."

"Hag, my respect for you has gone down a notch." Sai spoke as he closed his sketch book. "From the several books I have read about dating, it is common courtesy to pursue one person at a time. You should be ashamed of betraying your chuunin back at Konoha."

Sakura stared at Sai.

"What are you talking about?" She said. Sakura remembered about her little lie about the chuunin back at Konoha to test if Sai was going to be mean to her— and he excessively did, but she already forgave him— but she couldn't make out what Sai was trying to tell her.

"I'm not surprised that you would go for someone older than you." Sai continued, and Sakura finally understood. "According to one statistic I read from a women's magazine, women and girls found that older guys tend to be more understanding than younger ones. In another magazine, the famous actress from that movie we watched last month dated only older men as they treated her with more respect and finesse. You must be happy that someone of the opposite sex isn't minding your ugly face or your wide forehead."

Sakura's right fist shook, but she kept it to her side and instead she grinned at Sai.

"You're mistaken, you idiot." She said. "He just reminds me of Iruka. You know, our teacher from the Academy? It's nothing like that."

"… So you are not betraying the chuunin back at Konoha."

"Well, even if I had something going on with Master Shinrin's son, it shouldn't matter to that chuunin." Sakura said with a shrug. "I turned him down when he asked me out. He… wasn't exactly my type."

Sai gave Sakura a pleasant smile that the girl knew all too well was actually fake.

"One chuunin lives to serve Konoha, then." He said.

Sakura ignored the jibe and instead pointed at the sketch pad.

"Can I see that?" She asked. Sai handed her the book, and Sakura excitedly opened it to the first page, which was a sketch of an elderly man carrying two planks of wood.

"It's nice to see you sketch people." She commented as she turned the page, which was now a colored rendition of a sweets shop with several children inside.

Sai gave her a smile. "I figured you would punch me if I didn't."

"What— I didn't force you!" Sakura said defensively as she remembered telling Sai he should try drawing people as well. "I was just suggesting you try something new!"

A small sound escaped from Sai's lips, and Sakura stared at him wide-eyed.

'Did he just laugh?' Sakura thought in shock. 'Well, it was more like he 'hn'ed, but it's still a laugh!'

Grinning stupidly, Sakura continued to leaf through the pages of the sketch book, her heart warming up as she saw sketches and paintings of people she knew— Ino showing a customer a bouquet of violet flowers; Kiba feeding Akamaru; Lee challenging a stone-faced Neji while Ten Ten rolled her eyes; Maito Guy challenging Kakashi who was ignoring him and continuing to peruse a pornographic novel; Kiba and Naruto wolfing down plates of barbeque while Choji was distracted by a new plate of noodles coming in. Many of the other sketches were of Naruto in different activities, as well as Yamato, and Kakashi.

'Eh?'

Sakura returned to the last page— the one that had the gold fish— and then to the next, which was the back of the book. She browsed through the whole thing once more, and her heart sank a bit at the realization.

"Here you go. Thanks for letting me see." She said with a strained smile. "I think I can fall asleep now."

With a mumbled 'good night', Sakura went back inside their room and covered herself with a blanket. She tried to smile brightly just as she was doing while looking at the sketches and paintings, but her face hurt, and there was an uncomfortable hole in her chest.

'Maybe he had tried, but it's in another sketch book?' She tried to reason out.

It wasn't that Sakura wanted to be drawn. It was just that, seeing as there were sketches of people whom Sai had seen, and many of those who have been friends with him, Sakura expected at least one sketch of her, no matter how small— or ugly.

And there was none.


: to be continued :


Author's Notes: Sorry for the delay. I momentarily forgot about this while I worked on Torikoshi Kurou.

Takemaru (son) - 'bamboo'+common suffix for jap boys' names; Shinrin (employer) - 'woods'; Mori (daughter) - 'forest'; Kaku (father-in-law) - 'square'; Monosashi (son-in-law) - 'ruler' (as in the measuring instrument)

Lastly: Reviews, comments, suggestions, and bursts of fangirling squee are most welcome. :) Faves and alerts are just as fine.