A/N: For anyone reading this, recently or across years: Thank you.
I do not own Naruto, and am making zero money off of this work.
He painted them as landscapes, for lack of anything better.
He would have preferred to paint them as themselves. He'd always been better with figure-drawing. His fingers pulled toward inking the shapes of eyes and the angles of smiles, the careful curl of hands and the flowing lines of spines and shoulders, tiny bits of self caught on paper, where Sai could study them later for clues on who he was supposed to be, on what his own eyes and smile and shoulders were lacking.
But Sasuke had caught him sketching the Sharingan, trying to capture the exact whorls of its pattern and the way its activation somehow made Sasuke's eyes both flatter and more expressive. Sasuke had caught him, somewhere on the outskirts of Fire Country and five days into their mission, and thrown what Naruto had called 'just the biggest, bitchiest fit ever , wow', which mostly consisted of flashing eyes and an upturned chin, comments more cutting than usual and one elaborate hair toss at the height of his acid-tipped remarks.
"You're upset," Sai remarked, because the books said that understanding the feelings of others was important. "Are you worried that I haven't drawn you prettily enough?"
It was a fair question, he thought. Both Sakura and Naruto had come after Sai in the past for similar reasons because, as Naruto put it, 'I am a total babe, Sai, what the fuck is this picture'.
Sasuke's facial expression constricted. Contorted.
"You are extremely aesthetically balanced," Sai explained, because the books also espoused the importance of compliments. "I would draw the rest of you—your jaw line alone is worth committing to paper. But I worry that, were I to draw you full-scale, it would disturb both your obviously fragile, easily rattled sexuality and also my own ability to sleep, as I don't know how to draw your facial expression other than 'vaguely dead inside'."
More than understanding feelings and giving compliments, Sai's books advocated the importance of honesty. So.
Yamato, who was new to the situation of Team 7 and thus unaware of many things, inhaled half of the field rations he was eating.
Sasuke nodded once, considering, and then said, "I'm going to fucking murder you," nearly as calm and pleasant as Sai had been in his assessment.
Delicately, Sai said, "Ah," because it wasn't surprising, really. So often his attempts at interaction ended up here.
But it was greatly amusing, Sasuke chasing him around the fire with a katana in his hand, as Naruto tried to stop him in between bouts of howling laughter, while Kakashi smiled politely at Yamato's distress like he was totally unaware of two of his charges attempting to kill each other and Sakura grimly assured the same frantic man that 'no, no, it's really alright Yamato-San—this is totally normal, please enjoy your dinner and ignore these morons'.
Some time ago, Naruto had looked Sai in the face and said (with that blistering insight that he so rarely allowed to show, the fathomless look of pure truth that Sai had never managed to commit to paper exactly because it was a living, burning thing that didn't translate well to the stillness of ink and scrolls) 'whatever—you stopped actually misunderstanding a lot of things forever ago. Now you just think it's funny'. And maybe there was some truth to that.
"But I was just being honest," Sai insisted, after Naruto had successfully drawn Sasuke's murderous rage to himself by fluttering his lashes and crooning out, 'Oh Sasuke, won't you come and save me with the mighty power of your aesthetically balanced jaw line'. Sakura had dragged Sai a little ways away from their campsite, into the woods surrounding them, the warm glow of their fire fading as the cool, damp earth and quiet trees took over.
"You were just being a dick," Sakura corrected.
"A dick can be honest."
Sakura ignored that with practiced finality, because she'd learned early on that Sai's absolute favorite thing to talk about was dicks mostly because it always, always earned a reaction worth observing. So, she refused to give him a reaction. Sai respected her restraint, even as he mourned the loss of surveyable data.
"There are different kinds of honesty," Sakura explained. Somewhere—two kilometers away, on the right, third lowest branch of a tree—an owl called, echoing and eerie in the dark. "And looking at pictures of yourself is a kind of honesty that not everyone is comfortable with. Especially the pictures you draw, Sai."
Sai nodded. Because of course that made sense. Hadn't he drawn himself, and his brother, faceless in his picture book, for much the same reason? Faceless had been honest to who Sai had been at the time, even if the overall effect had been distressing to those who saw it.
He wondered what his face would look like, if he drew it now. He so often avoided drawing pictures of himself. Sai lacked the practical experience of analyzing his own feelings (of being allowed to acknowledge their existence) and so often his words to explain them fell short, but he thought that his reluctance to draw his own face centered around general ideas of 'confusion' and 'uncertainty' and maybe a little bit of 'but what if I'm still faceless—what if there will never be enough of me to draw, no matter how much I observe'.
"But there are different kinds of honesty," Sakura repeated, and when Sai looked up, he found a knowing warmth in the angles of her face, the tiny curve of her smile. "I know what drawing people means to you, Sai. So, if it's too honest for us to see our faces, draw us as something else, okay?"
Sai considered. "Will it yield the same results?"
Sakura shrugged a little. "You might be surprised at what it shows when you look at something a little differently."
Sai considered again, and then dipped his head. "Thank you. When I next draw a picture of you, I will be sure to capture your forehead with all the honesty it deserves."
Sakura didn't chase him around the fire with a katana, but she did split a boulder in half with a crack that echoed through the quiet forest and startled a flurry of night animals in the undergrowth. Upon returning to the campfire, Sai thought that, were he allowed to draw Yamato's face at the current moment, he might title it something like 'Man gets first real inkling of the insanity he's surrounded himself with, and also slowly gives way to despair as he realizes there is no escape route'.
Kakashi was the first to translate into landscape. It was surprising. Sai often struggled to draw the older man because of the fabric mask he wore over his face, and also the invisible mask that he wore over his entire self. Sai was well practiced in the art of turning into a mirror, the better to reflect what the world wanted to see and keep the truth of things safe inside. He'd clocked Kakashi's carefully reflective surface within seconds of meeting the man.
As time had passed, he'd learned to find the data he sought in Kakashi's hands, his shoulders, the deadly crackle of chakra between his fingertips when one of his team was threatened even as his muscles never tensed, the tilt of his head as he processed information and drew conclusions faster than his vacant mirror-smile would ever suggest.
But Kakashi had always been more difficult to draw than Naruto, who was a teeming and wholly visible mass of observable data at all times. Or Sakura, who had masks of her own but also clung fiercely to her feelings, refusing to forsake them (it might have offered her the strength she so determinedly sought if she did—Sai had asked her once, why she didn't surrender her feelings for the strength that came with the absence of them, and Sakura had said 'the people who think that feelings are weakness never learned how to wield them right' and Sai had sat in his quiet house for a long time after that, bowed low under the weight of something unnamed). Even Sasuke, who was still more of a theoretical element to Sai than a knowable one, was easier to capture than Kakashi, because if nothing else, his anger was always visible in his hands and his hurt was always visible in his eyes.
And so it was a surprise that Kakashi was the first that Sai looked at and thought 'ah, I see'. Most likely, it was repetition that brought the realization. Because Kakashi was every desolate, empty, aching landscape they crossed in their hunt for Obito Uchiha. He was desperation, furious determination, quiet despair, a yawning hurt and somewhere in traveling westward after a failed lead across Earth Country, Sai looked at the wide expanse of wilderness around them and saw Kakashi in it, so clearly that he stopped walking for a second.
"Oh," he said.
"Keep moving, asshole," Sasuke muttered, and shoved him a little from behind.
Another team might have been quiet in the wake of their most recent failure. Might have respected Kakashi's silent frustration and allowed him the space and soundlessness to gather himself.
But other teams didn't have Naruto on them. Naruto, who danced between them like an orange and black butterfly and bellowed things like, "We'll get him next time, Kakashi-Sensei! For sure! Uchihas can't escape Team 7 forever!"
"Pfft," Sasuke said.
"What 'pfft'," Naruto demanded right back. "Aren't you here with us, Manly Jaw? Right back in the tender bosom of Team 7 where you belong!"
"Tender bosom," Yamato repeated with something like quiet horror.
"Kakashi-Sensei," Sakura sighed. "Stop letting Naruto read your books."
"But Sakura!" Naruto wailed, cantering across the bone-dry grass and dirt, skipping over weather-beaten boulders. "How else am I supposed to learn? Why don't you like the books? Is it because the women, like, faint a lot, and stuff? Because I can totally be the fainting one, if you promise to be the dashing ninja who catches my ample body and holds me close!"
"Ample body," Yamato repeated again, but grimly this time.
Sakura smiled at Naruto with 100% sweetness and said, "Faint into my arms for any reason other than extreme blood loss, and you're getting pitched into the nearest river, ample ass first."
"Boo. That's not how it goes. You can't pitch my wilting maiden self into a river, Sakura! I'm wilting! And maidenly!" Naruto trotted up to Kakashi's side and tugged on his sleeve. "Sensei, tell her that's not how it goes!"
Kakashi turned a little, looked at them for the first time since leaving Earth Country.
In his face, Sai saw heat-parched grass. Barren rocks baked by an unforgiving sun. A desolate stretch of dirt and dust dotted with scraggly trees and stubborn wildflowers, because hope could bloom even in the abandoned places, if you let it. Sai had learned that, from this team, from their leader.
"Oh," Sai said again, and caught Yamato's curious look. The edges of a curious look that Sasuke halted halfway through giving because he'd abruptly remembered that he wasn't supposed to care about Sai's existence.
Kakashi smiled a little at Naruto, and there were wildflowers in it. Tiny and purple-blue and stubborn, growing in spite of everything.
"Sometimes a maiden needs a good ample-ass dunking," he said, all sage wisdom, and Naruto wailed despondently.
That night, Sai drew with fervor, a strange urgency. By firelight, until his eyes ached and his fingers had cramped from being curled around the brush, ink staining his palms and fingertips in a way he'd honestly thought that Root had trained out of him. He drew as the others breathed quietly around him (except for Naruto who breathed, as he did all other things, obscenely loud), as they rustled through their quiet watch rotations. Sai wasn't on rotation tonight, which left him free to ink rocks and dirt and aching, searching wilderness until a pale silver dawn crept over the horizon. Until he finally looked up in the quiet morning light, finished and strangely hollowed out, like he'd just purged some insistent fire from his bones, and found Sasuke watching him across the smoldering remains of the fire.
He didn't ask. Of course, he didn't. Just got up in the slowly warming morning light, as birds started to sing overhead. Stopped to give Naruto a little 'good morning' boot to the ribs and smirk at his answering 'GURK', because their friendship continued to be strange and mostly undecipherable to anyone outside of its immediate orbit.
Sai studied the piece as the sunrise bloomed over the trees, unfurling golden-pink petals and gentle warmth. Pondered titles for a moment—'Wildflowers', maybe, if he was being whimsical. Or perhaps the more technically accurate 'Two Miles Outside of Earth Country'.
But in the end, he named the piece 'Kakashi'. Because Sakura had been right and that was what it was.
Yamato was a cave.
After Kakashi, Sai had begun searching for the others in the landscapes they traversed. He'd been absently seeking Yamato in gently rolling fields. In clear forest ponds with calm surfaces. The man was unflappable, after all. Eternally amiable, warm and kind as he gathered firewood, helped with dinner, took his turn at night watch. Impressively patient with Naruto as he coached him through training to better control the fox. Occasionally fierce in the battles they happened across—either rogue ninja obviously hired by Obito to halt their pursuit of him, or the smaller, side troubles that Naruto seemed to stumble across every time they went somewhere new.
("You told that town leader to fuck himself with his own pointy hat!" Sakura howled, as they fled from an angry mob of overstuffed town officials, their flabby faces flushed with rage and their admittedly ridiculous hats askew.
"Sure did!" Naruto said, as he ducked the ink pot someone tossed at his head.
"You can not tell a town leader to fuck himself with his own pointy hat."
Sasuke deflected a flying wig with his sword. Sai wasn't well-versed enough in the minutiae of his facial expressions to be sure, but he thought that twitching of his mouth might be 'about to laugh himself sick'. That, or 'this idiot will die as soon as hair accessories stop being thrown'.
"Then he should probably stop stealing tax revenue from the local food stores," Naruto countered, manically bright and burning, absolutely ferocious and unyielding in the way he always was when confronted with injustice.
"Pretty sure he will now," Kakashi observed mildly, as he dodged an especially well-aimed writing brush thrown like a dagger. For civilians with little to no chakra stores, some of these town officials were surprisingly adept at rage-fueled attacks. "Given that you spray-painted his misdeeds all over the town hall and courage-talked the citizens into a revolt."
Technically, Sai had been the one to paint the official's misdeeds in pretty, looping, impossible to misread letters, because art was his wheelhouse.
He was even less sure of his own feelings than he was of the facial expressions of those around him, but he thought that the fizzing, bubbling, strangely golden thing inside his chest might be…amusement. Delight. Fun.)
He'd expected to find Yamato in a serene stretch of landscape, filled with gently waving grasses and warm sunshine.
He was entirely surprised, however, to have that click of recognition upon encountering a dark, ominous, strangely forbidding cave hidden away in a wall of rock.
They'd been scouting it as a potential resting place for the night because the terrain they were currently crossing, tracking Obito's location to the other side of these towering stone walls, was an endless ocean of bare rock and relentless wind. Sai's hands and face felt chapped, reddened and dry. He was relieved to be inside the cave, even as Naruto and Sasuke needled at each other, caught up in some petty disagreement that had started in the last town they'd stopped in and then carried on for thirty-two miles of travel.
If Sai had not been explicitly forbidden from drawing pictures of his teammates as people, he might have inked them both being tossed into an active volcano and felt immediately better for it.
Even Sakura had stopped snapping at them twelve miles back, exhausted from using her chakra to heal Kakashi's shattered arm after he'd incapacitated the ninja Obito had sent after them and successfully interrogated him for Obito's current whereabouts.
(Sometimes the rogue ninja that were sent after them attacked Kakashi with brutal, obviously explicitly ordered force. Sometimes, they held back, like they'd been ordered not to hurt him. It was a strange dichotomy, and it made both the rocks and the wildflowers grow in Kakashi's face.)
And so, there Naruto was, uninterruptedly informing Sasuke that he was, "A totally wrong piece of shit."
And Sasuke was scornfully shooting back that Naruto was, "Obviously dumber than the entire fucking field of rocks surrounding them."
And then Naruto made a sound like a screeching bat, Sakura sighed in exhausted exasperation, Kakashi hissed a little through his teeth as their sudden shoving match jostled his still-tender arm a little, and then Yamato turned around with his torch held up to his face and made the most genuinely terrifying face Sai had ever seen, absent of any emotion other than the blank certainty that he could, and absolutely would, devour the souls of the unworthy and uniquely annoying.
"Boys," he said. His voice had also dropped several octaves and it rumbled a little, which was…fascinating, objectively. Horrifying, in reality.
Sasuke's eyes widened ever so slightly.
Naruto screamed loudly enough that he startled a cluster of milky-white crickets off of the cave wall.
Sai studied Yamato's face, studied the cave around them, and said, "Ah" once again.
"I think that's enough," Yamato monotone-rumbled. His eyes were extremely wide. It was very upsetting. "Don't you agree?"
His face implied that, should Naruto or Sasuke disagree, the soul-devouring would promptly commence.
Naruto made a noise like 'eep'. Sasuke couldn't agree out loud, of course, but he did retract the elbow he'd lodged into Naruto's spleen.
"Yamato-San," Sakura said with fevered, nearly rabid intensity. "Yamato-San. Teach me your technique. I will forsake the world and devote myself entirely to your instruction. I swear it."
Yamato laughed a little, the terrifying mask sliding off of his face like water.
"I think the Lady Hokage might take issue with me stealing her student," he said.
"The Lady Hokage would put your entire head through a wall for even considering it," Kakashi agreed cheerfully.
They—occasionally, very occasionally, as their movements were erratic and difficult to track—received letters from Lady Tsunade. Whenever a missive did manage to reach them, it was usually three entire pages of the Hokage calling all of them (and Naruto in particular) inventively foul names, followed by four more pages of the Hokage begging for 'Naruto or Kakashi or even that murder-faced Uchiha brat—I don't even care anymore, someone come and take this job away from me because I stopped wanting it two months and five reconstruction disputes ago'.
That night, Sai passed the hours adding his drawing of Yamato's landscape to Kakashi's. He carefully inked the innocuous face hiding dark and foreboding stone walls, the little pockets of pitch blackness mixed with little pockets of light, the clearing they'd found in the center of the cave that did in fact house a calm-watered lake with the swollen moon and millions of stars reflected in its surface, the night sky pouring in from an unexpected hole in the cave's stone ceiling.
He titled it 'Yamato' and silently resolved to look for the others in unexpected places, too.
He found Naruto in a copse of trees in the heart of an unnamed forest.
This was also confusing. Despite his intentions to look for his teammates in the unexpected places, Sai had quietly and steadfastly believed that he wouldn't find Naruto until they returned to the cobblestone streets of the Leaf Village.
But, as they traveled through a forest much darker and denser than the bright and open woodlands of Fire Country, they happened upon a little clearing. The clearing was brighter than the heavy oppressiveness of the forest around it. This was because one tree had grown taller than the rest, defiantly cutting through the canopy to let the sunlight in. Several other, smaller trees had angled themselves closer to the larger tree, seeking out the light the larger tree had broken through the darkness to find and bring back down to the earth.
He caught Sasuke watching him again that night, as they camped at the base of the bravely defiant tree. Studying Sai's sketch without bothering to disguise it, for once. Sai waited out his silent perusal and patiently wondered if he was about to get chased around the fire again.
But Sasuke didn't leap for his sword and brandish it at Sai while hissing out his offended feelings.
He just flicked Sai a quick look and said, abrupt, "You drew it too small."
"Pardon?" Sai asked.
Sasuke made an impatient sound. Whether that impatience was with Sai, or with himself, remained unclear. "The tree. It's…bigger than you've drawn it. It's more. Look at how much light it's letting in—you haven't done it any kind of justice."
Sai studied his drawing, and then studied the clearing. Yamato was on watch, and the rest of them were clustered together around the fire. But even clustered together, they'd all somehow ended up angled toward Naruto, their toes and hands and faces turned his way like tree leaves seeking the light.
"Ah," Sai said. "Of course. You're right."
Sasuke made a noise like 'hmph' and retreated back into his shell of entirely visible brooding. Sai spent a few quiet moments adjusting the dimensions of this defiant tree, making sure to accurately capture how brave it was, how bold, breaking through the canopy when none of the other trees had dared, triumphantly spreading its branches above the barrier it had broken through and letting in the light.
And then, because it really was right there for the taking, Sai looked up at Sasuke with a pleasant smile and inquired, "Would you like me to draw you…bigger, too, when the time comes? I understand that this is a fairly common request for the less…endowed."
And then the fire-chasing did indeed commence, waking up a howling Naruto when Sasuke trampled his sleeping bag with wildly furious feet, startling birds and rabbits and bats from forest around them, and only brought to a halt by a combination of Yamato's terrifying face and Sakura slapping off their chakra with a brutal application of medical jutsu.
He found Sakura in a tempestuous river on the borders of Wave.
This was less surprising than the others, really.
Once he might have likened Sakura to a field of pink-petaled flowers. A tiny, trickling stream. Something soft, sweet, and not good for much of anything except a passing consideration of 'oh, pretty'.
But he'd learned, early on, to stop seeking Sakura in the harmless places. And so, feeling that click of awareness on the banks of a river that started as something that flowed politely forward and gradually swelled into a rushing, crashing, turbulent churn of water was less abrupt than discovering Yamato in a cave or Naruto in a copse of trees so far from home.
They were limping along its banks, following its current toward a nearby town. Sai was holding Sakura up. Or maybe she was holding him up. It wasn't entirely clear, as they were both bleeding and staggering and dangerously chakra-depleted. Naruto was riding on Yamato's back, in spite of the older man's absolutely bloodless face and the obvious fracture in his lower left arm.
Obito had ambushed them just before the border of Wave. Wild-eyed and furious, he'd appeared with a small army of ninja and attacked, with words and weapons and chakra and fists.
Naruto had held the fox, held it and held it right up until Obito had snarled and blasted Sasuke out of his way, after Sasuke had stepped in front of Kakashi to stop Obito's forward momentum. Sasuke had been slow in getting up, was still leaning heavily against Kakashi's side as they made their way along the river, and Naruto had visibly fought for the control Yamato had been teaching him and just as visibly lost.
He was quiet now, his chakra-crisped skin and multiple lacerations healing slowly because Yamato had been forced to shove the fox deep and so the healing factor that went along with it was sluggish, distant, far away. Naruto was tucked against Yamato's back even though someone else could have carried him, and Sai knew it was because he only trusted himself to be near the person who could stop him right now, his hurt and fear and failure ringing in his silence like a bell.
"Just keep going," Sakura muttered, and then louder when Sasuke stumbled. "Come on. Just a little further!"
Her voice was as undeniable as the current they were walking beside. During the battle against Obito, she'd been a force just like the river—sometimes rushing, sometimes retreating, the frothy white churn of concern for her teammates eddied with pockets of darker waters that hid a dangerous, howling fury.
She'd been like a sudden quiet stretch of still water at the end, crystal blue and clear enough to see the pebbles cutting through the silty bed. Had whispered 'wait' as Sai had reached for his scrolls, his ink, for any chakra he might have had left. Because the fight had ended in total silence, with all of the ninjas incapacitated except for Obito. Who had perched above a battered Kakashi, Kakashi's vest in two white-knuckled hands, Obito's head bowed low. Obito's exhales had been hissing and furious. His inhales had been wet and ragged.
"Stop," he'd finally said. Just that, just that one word, low and rough and cracking on the vowel sound. "Stop."
And Kakashi had said back, "I won't." Unshakeable and certain in direct opposition to Obito's unsteadiness.
And Obito had just…disappeared. Made another of those rough, broken sounds and fled.
And now, they were silent and raw and hurting in his wake. Weaving together a tapestry of despondence from their individual strands of frustration and despair.
But Sakura kept pushing forward. Like the current, like the river itself. She dragged them all along until the tide of her landed them in the nearby town, where they collapsed into the nearest inn and set about fixing their hurts, physical and otherwise. Sai inked her landscape that night with a still-healing hand, fingers swollen and sore but frantic in their urge to commit the river to memory before he lost the clarity of Sakura in it.
He found Sasuke in the tavern they were thrown out of.
This also made sense, as the establishment was deep in the heart of Sand, and therefore an imposing structure nestled in an unforgiving stretch of desert. The tavern itself was all jagged edges and aggressively unwelcoming interior. Outside, the harsh expanse of sand reflected a brutal, scorching sun that burned unbearably hot in the daylight hours and disappeared at night, turning the world around them into a frigid and nearly unsurvivable hellscape.
But Sai associated him with the tavern for reasons other than how perfectly it reflected Sasuke Uchiha's chosen aesthetic.
They had been left alone at a corner table. Naruto and Yamato had gone to inquire after available rooms, Yamato looking distinctly haunted since Naruto kept bleating about 'the sand is all the way up my asshole, Yamato-Sensei—like, just scritching against my secret inner places'. Sakura had gone to inquire after food, and Kakashi had gone to smile threateningly at the locals in an attempt to ascertain Obito's whereabouts.
It might have been fine. It was actually, surprisingly difficult to travel with someone for months on end and actively maintain a boiling hatred. Somewhere along the course of their journey, Sasuke and Sai had moved past 'violent annoyance' and settled on 'mutual ambivalence'. They could now peacefully ignore each other for twenty entire minutes.
But then, a burly ninja with a cloth covering his face and the clothes of an outlaw, red-faced and hardened from sun exposure, caught sight of Sai and lumbered to his feet.
"You!" he spat, his muddy brown eyes beetled furiously.
"Me?" Sai inquired, because response to attempted conversation was only polite.
"You bastard," the ninja breathed. "You did this. You did this!"
And then he lifted up the cloth covering his face to reveal an angry, puckered scar that cut across the ninja's cheekbone and through the corner of his mouth, twisting his lips into a permanent scowl.
Sasuke lifted a single eyebrow, and angled a look at Sai that might have been something like appreciation (strictly from a professional standpoint, of course, because anything else would be unthinkable).
"Boss," said one of the ninja's party, a small and weaselly man in the same outlaw's garb. "You're sure?"
"I could never forget this bastard's face," the ninja snarled. "Never."
"Ah," Sai said. It wasn't entirely impossible, he supposed. His missions with Root were typically not the kind that worried about the targets remembering them afterward. And even in the few missions where a total elimination hadn't been ordered, Sai had worn a mask. But it had been a lot of years and a lot of missions and Sai figured there could have been at least one where he'd stopped caring enough (about the targets, about the mission, about his own well-being) to hide his face. He nodded a little, and stood, and said, "I suppose it's vengeance you're after, then?"
And then knives were being drawn and knuckles were being cracked. Sai stood his ground and kept his hands away from his scroll with the vague idea that Sakura was about to be very, very upset with him and his soon-to-be-broken face.
But when the Boss ninja launched a first kunai at Sai, it was deflected before it could get within five feet.
"Excuse me," Sasuke said. His voice was cold. He sounded eerily similar to how he had when Sai had first encountered him, back in Orochimaru's cave. "You're blocking the view."
Boss ninja stared at Sasuke incredulously. Sai thought this was very fair, as the 'view' consisted of an astoundingly mean-looking bar keep, scattered clumps of weary travelers in sun-bleached robes, and (for some reason) a rooster perched on one of the wooden stools.
"Keep quiet, kid," Boss ninja finally managed to growl. "This isn't your concern."
"But it's my view," Sasuke said, lazy and venomous. "And you're blocking it with your collective stupidity."
Boss ninja gaped, his party bellowed in outrage, and then things moved very fast. Rather, Sasuke moved very fast, darting in between the advancing outlaws and incapacitating them neatly. It would have been a pretty bit of speed and power, worth admiring, except that it riled up both the rooster and the barkeep, who bellowed above the frantic squawking about 'damn ninjas cluttering up my place with their blood feuds and assorted fuckery—if you're not here to drink away your pain like us normal people, then stay the hell out!'
The barkeep was a tiny old woman with grizzled hair and the face of a squishy prune. She wasn't even half as tall as boss ninja. Somehow, she still managed to boot Sai and Sasuke out without any visible effort. It was amazingly impressive.
"What the hell were you doing," Sasuke demanded, after they'd gotten to their feet and beaten what felt like two tons of sand out of their clothes. "You just stood there!"
Sai felt distinctly off-balance. Desperately searching for the name of what he was feeling and totally unable to find it and even more lost than usual.
"I thought…" it frustrated him, sometimes. Not having the right words to explain. Not knowing what fit this particular situation. He settled for honesty, because oftentimes, it was all he had. "I've read about this. About righting past wrongs. I did many wrongs in the service of Root, and it seemed only fair to…to…"
"To give that fucker a free shot?"
Sai stared back at him, impassive.
Sasuke snorted, low and ugly. "Moron. You don't fix shit by letting other people take you out. It's not that easy. You fix shit by being around to fix it. By sucking it up and sticking around even though it's a hundred times harder than just lying down. By taking action. By trying to do better than you did before."
His eyes were more hurt than fury at the moment. Like this was something he'd learned himself. Like this was something they shared between them. Sai blinked.
"Fuck." Sasuke kicked at a mound of sand. "No wonder. You're always so ready to be left behind. So happy to fade into the background. It's been annoying me for months. Since before we even left the Leaf."
Sai thought back to the conversation they'd had in the shadows of the makeshift hospital. About the only way they knew to belong, another shared thing between them.
Sasuke pointed a finger in Sai's face. "Like fuck you get to disappear from this team if I don't. You got that? If I have to put up with this bunch of idiots, then you and your stupid drawings and your creepy smiles have to stick around, too."
"I." Sai was used to brutal honesty. Just never directed his way, from someone outside of himself. "…Alright."
Sasuke snarled and stomped off in a seemingly random direction. After a moment, Sai followed. They wandered the street of the tiny town surrounding the tavern, bickering furiously (Sasuke) and politely (Sai) until the others found them and Sakura threw ridiculously large boulders at their head for 'getting kicked out of our only place to stay' and Naruto wailed in the background about 'how dare you get into a bar fight without me, I am amazing at bar fights'.
That night, shivering in the desert and huddling close to the fire, Sai drew Sasuke as a flat stretch of brutal sand and rock, of merciless scorching sun overhead, but a surprising softness too, in tiny patches of grass and tucked-away pools of water that quietly invited them to stay in spite of everything else demanding they leave.
"You've drawn everyone else," Kakashi observed one quiet night, when Sai was on watch and the others were all asleep.
Sai blinked over at him in the flickering light of their campfire. He'd never showed Kakashi his sketchbook. Never once caught the man watching him draw.
But then, he'd learned to stop being surprised by the sharp intensity that Kakashi hid better even than Sai ever had.
And so, Sai simply said, "Yes."
Kakashi's eye was strangely focused in the dark. He almost never looked at anyone directly. Sai understood why—it would be an inescapable thing, if he did.
"But not yourself," he said.
"No," Sai agreed, just as simply. "It is…more difficult for me. To recognize myself here."
"Is it?" Kakashi sounded mildly surprised. Faintly disappointed. Like he really was a teacher, and was supremely disappointed in his student failing to find the right answer when it was so obvious. "That's strange. I've seen you from the beginning. You've been here all along."
Sai felt his brow furrow. It was still so strange and strangely thrilling when that happened, his face moving to express his feelings without his direct permission.
"Just something to think about!" Kakashi sang out, in one of those disorienting mercurial shifts into his carefree persona. He laid down on his bedroll and, by every appearance, seemed to fall immediately asleep.
Alone in the quiet dark, Sai pondered the riddle he'd been left with. Been here all along? It didn't make sense. They'd been traveling for months. Moving from place to place. He'd found his teammates in wildly different landscapes, spanning multiple countries. How could he have been present in each of them?
And then his eyes flickered over their little campsite and he thought, Oh. Oh, of course.
He didn't go to sleep after rousing a grumbling, heavy-eyed Naruto awake for his shift. Instead, he sat atop his sleeping bag and drew with that frantic urgency he'd become so familiar with, a feeling so different from the refined and carefully controlled puzzlement of his earlier sketches.
Sai could have titled it 'Where to find home on the road'. He could have called it 'Warmer when all of us are gathered together'.
But instead, as another sunrise spilled across the sky and started the rituals of waking and eating and laughing that had become so familiar for them over this precious stretch of time, he looked at the finished drawing of their campfire, drawn warm and glowing like a beacon in the dark, made brighter by the ones who had sparked it, and called it 'Sai'.
"I think I'll draw Obito next," Sai announced, somewhere in between Sand and Mist.
Sasuke snorted. "What the fuck would that look like?"
"Yeah, Sai," Naruto agreed. "Don't you know it's super hard to get all of that Uchiha bitchery onto a simple paper? It's really more of a 'painted on a cave wall with the blood of my enemies' kind of thing."
Sasuke kicked him, Naruto kicked him back, and it looked like there might be a full brawl right there in the field until Yamato did The Face and they settled back a resentful five feet away from each other.
"I think it's super nice," Sakura said with a smile.
She'd seen his picture of the campfire shortly after he'd drawn it, and gotten suspiciously bright-eyed and watery as she'd declared a 'sudden need to gather firewood, so much firewood' and stomped away. Naruto had whispered that 'is this one of the lady-things that she and Ino are always whispering about?' and then a log had come whistling through the trees and cracked Naruto upside the head.
"And what would Obito's landscape be?" Kakashi asked, turned just a little in Sai's direction. "That lava pit from two months back? Or maybe those quicksand pits we discovered in Sand?"
"Fuck the quicksand pits," Naruto and Sasuke chanted in near-perfect unison.
"He'd be the gates, I think," Sai said, eyes on the sky overhead. "The gates of the Leaf Village."
There was a short, ringing silence.
And then, Kakashi said, "Those gates are broken."
Sai smiled. It really was a nice sky today. Soft and gray. "They can be fixed. That's what the picture would show."
Another silence. This one went on longer, and was broken only by Naruto's nervous laughter and transparently obvious question to Sakura about a jutsu technique that made Sakura immediately, loudly despairing. Only when Sasuke and Yamato had joined the fray (with a snorted 'you idiot' and a gentle 'well, that's certainly a unique way to interpret it', respectively) did Sai risk looking down.
Kakashi was mostly turned away again, toward the horizon and what they were chasing. But Sai still caught the edges of his smile.
There were wildflowers in it.
A/N: Not marking this 'Complete' as I may come back to add snippets every now and again. But for now, at least, the tale is told.