A/N: There is no apology big enough for how long I've let this story fester. It will be finished, no matter how long it takes, I promise you all that.
Please know that your amazing words of love and encouragement mean the world to me. They kept me writing, when every word of this new chapter seemed like a struggle.
I do not own Naruto, and am making no money from this story.
Everything was awkward.
Save for Naruto's inescapable babbling, Team Seven had never been terribly chatty. But the frigid silence that filled the cave after Sasuke's revelation was as thick as the ice in Snow Country. Everyone stayed in their respective corners and avoided eye contact. Even Naruto, though he was obviously just gearing up his next attempt to love Sasuke's pain away.
"Give this to him," Sakura said, after Naruto had left the cave and returned again. She held out Sasuke's coat, smelling of river water and the sunshine she'd dried it in.
Naruto took the coat and asked, "For swaddling purposes? Bet I could make a bitching Uchiha sushi-roll."
"If you try to make any kind of Uchiha foodstuff, he will actually use your intestines as a scarf to cover up his neck cleavage. And I will not help you. I will compliment his lovely new organ-scarf, Naruto."
Across the cave, Kakashi snorted quietly behind his book.
"Mah," Naruto protested. "Making me the Bastard-Nanny and then insulting me. So mean, Sakura."
"You were going to go outside eventually. You were doing your potty dance in the corner," Sakura explained. "And the fact that I know what your potty dance looks like means you owe me so many more favors than a little babysitting, Naruto, OK?"
"I'll dance for you anytime," Naruto leered.
Sakura punched his knees out from under him.
After he was finished wailing Sakura's cruel injustice into the dirt, Naruto sulked his way back across the cave. Sakura tugged a few kunai out of her pouch to sharpen and watched Naruto approach Sasuke from underneath her lashes.
"Hey," Naruto said, because he was the soul of sensitivity. "Sakura cleaned your coat. So, come out of your Bastard ball a little, yeah?"
From his corner, Kakashi made a sound of actual despair.
Sasuke didn't move. If anything, his spine and shoulders tightened, projecting an even stronger sense of 'Kindly fuck off and die'.
"C'mon, Bastard," Naruto wheedled, crouching down to dangle the coat over Sasuke's head. "At least sit up and insult Sakura's cleaning skills or something. How else are we supposed to know that the Sasuke hate-fire is still burning strong?"
Sakura briefly considered lobotomizing herself with the kunai instead of sharpening them.
"Yeah," Naruto said, as if Sasuke had spoken. Maybe he had-after all, Naruto had made an art form out of communicating with the clues in Sasuke's eyebrows and shoulders and facial tics. Naruto spoke fluent Sasuke and even after all these years, Sakura still considered herself barely proficient. Of course, she'd never tell Naruto that he'd surpassed her in any intelligence-related area. He'd scream his victory from the Leaf Village rooftops and then Sakura would be forced to actually murder him and Lady Tsunade would be sad or something.
Naruto added, "Totally understand not wanting to insult Sakura's cleaning. You know I'd feed you your own butt-rope and then Sakura would hurt me and Kakashi-Sensei would lurk in his corner and disapprove. Or some shit." Naruto's brow furrowed and he glanced across the cave. "Is that a thing that you do, Sensei? Behind your porn?"
"Butt-rope," Kakashi repeated flatly, and turned a page.
Naruto turned back to Sasuke with a grin and said, "I'm not allowed to roll you up like a Sasuke-noodle. Sakura said. But here's your coat anyway, Bastard. You look cold."
Sakura watched as Naruto dropped the coat along Sasuke's back, cheerfully ignoring the rigid warning of Sasuke's spine. Despite her instructions against any culinary-based swaddling, Naruto did take the time to tuck the fabric around Sasuke's ribs and shoulders.
"Didn't want to take credit for your cleaning service?" Kakashi asked over her shoulder. "And you got all those pesky bloodstains out, too."
"Stop creeping up on twitchy ninjas, Sensei," Sakura said, without looking away from the boys. "You'll get a kunai to the face someday."
"Not from you. Too polite. Naruto, maybe. If I took his ramen or insulted the color orange or something."
"The cave is cold and I could see him shaking from over here," Sakura said. "But he wouldn't take the coat from me."
"And Sasuke's been trying to stab me in the face for years, no sneakiness needed," Kakashi agreed. "So send the ninja-bulldozer. Practical, Sakura. And it doesn't sting?"
Sakura watched as Naruto finished his fussing. Softly, so softly she almost missed it, she heard Sasuke mutter, "I wasn't cold. Moron."
She smiled a little and said, "Naruto's been throwing himself at Sasuke's special wall of stupid for years, now. Longer than all of us-it wouldn't be right to try and step in front of him now. Naruto will be the one to bring him back, just like he promised, and I can help with what comes after."
Kakashi gave her a warm, crescent-eyed smile and said, "Look at you, all mature and shit."
Sakura leveled her Sensei with a flat look and said, "I believe in Naruto. I owe him that much."
"Don't you give me that look I could ROCK THE BUTT-ROPE IF I WANTED TO, SASUKE," Naruto bellowed across the cave.
Sakura stared at the ceiling for a moment and then put the kunai back in her pouch before she was tempted to toss them at Naruto's head.
They left at first light the next morning, but even then their progress was slow and struggling. Naruto took the lead, rioting his way through the trees, while Sakura took the rear. She kept a careful eye on Sasuke, who was red-faced and ready to explode from embarrassment. And on Kakashi, who was carrying Sasuke on his back and had a tendency to let him get slapped in the face with tree branches when he looked especially bitchy.
Eventually, Sasuke was going to stop caring that his Chakra was bound and try to strangle Kakashi with his hostage-ropes regardless. Sakura had a kunai handy for when it happened-although she might pretend to be interested in the foliage for a bit before intervening because fair was fair and Sasuke had eaten a lot of tree branches today.
But Sakura's grip on the kunai tightened and changed as up ahead, Naruto let out a startled squawk and plummeted off his tree branch.
"Worst ninja," Kakashi said, even as his fingers inched towards his forehead protector.
Something rustled in the trees and Sasuke kicked at Kakashi's hip a little bit.
"Put me down," he demanded.
"You can be like the mermaid on the front of my pirate ship!" Kakashi said back and Sakura could hear Sasuke's teeth grind together all the way across the trees.
They fell into a standard flanking pattern, with Sasuke between them, no matter how much it pissed him off. Sakura scanned the trees for enemies and for Naruto, because it would take more than a forty foot drop to crack that particular skull.
Naruto reached them first, scrambling up Kakashi's tree with leaves in his hair, and gasped, "Wait. Stop. Don't give Sasuke a kunai."
"He's busy," Kakashi said. "He's a mermaid."
Sakura watched Naruto's brain smack into his skull and stutter to a stop.
"I hate all of you," Sasuke hissed, soft and venomous.
"Why are we waiting?" Sakura asked, because she loved her boys but she'd also seen them banter through bleeding before and they didn't have that time.
"Not an enemy," Naruto said. "Just a dickface who likes to knock me out of trees."
"Still focused on dicks then, Naruto," Sai said, soaring into view on a wave of black ink. "How typical."
Naruto made a strangled hamster noise deep within his throat.
"Did I hear something about a mermaid?" Sai continued, and Sasuke released a dying rodent sound of his own.
"Motherfuck," Sakura sighed.
"The Hokage sent me," Sai explained, after they'd taken themselves out of the trees and back on the ground. "You missed three check-ins, so she sent me after you."
"To help us complete the mission?" Kakashi asked. He'd eased Sasuke off of his back and the boy had immediately staggered away, glaring hatefully at everything in general.
"Lady Tsunade's exact orders were, 'Godamnit Sai, go get your idiot teammates from whatever bit of shiny caught their focus. The other Kage already informed me that twelve international incidents linked to one team in a single year is an unacceptable amount, no matter how much the blonde one reminds them of a woodland creature'."
"Woodland creature," Naruto repeated, mystified.
"You prance," Sakura said helpfully.
"In my defense," Kakashi added. "I actively opposed five of those incidents."
Sakura rolled her eyes in Kakashi's direction and asked, "Sensei, you disappeared into the forest. We found you in a cave with two bags of chocolate and Jiraya-Sensei's newest book."
"That is active opposition. For me."
"I'm supposed to return you to the village," Sai finished, rolling right over Sakura's disbelieving snort. "So the Lady Tsunade can throw her pig at Naruto, I think."
"This is why the pig will always like me better," Naruto agreed.
"Sorry, Sai," Sakura said. "We were-unexpectedly detained."
"So I see. Collecting strays again, Naruto?"
Sasuke's shoulders snapped tight and straight.
"We've met before," Sai continued, stepping toward Sasuke. Sakura, who'd spent years observing Sasuke's tells, found this a supremely bad idea. Sasuke's eyes only fluttered so delicately right before he started burning faces off.
With that gentle, empty smile of his, Sai added, "You tried to kill me."
"He tries to kill a lot of people," Naruto said. "It's how Sasuke does the feelings-thing. We're working on it."
"I remember you," Sasuke said, voice pitched low and almost pleasant. No screaming here-not like he'd done in the cave, not for Sai. Sasuke's screams belonged to two people only, and Itachi was no longer alive to hear them. "You're my replacement."
"I suppose," Sai said.
"Not suppose," Sasuke corrected, and Sakura saw Kakashi shift his feet at the tiny, blade-sharp smile that slipped across Sasuke's face. "You're a carbon copy. A peg squeezed into the hole I left behind. Right down to the physical appearance."
"Fucking fuck, Sasuke," Naruto said, and stepped in between the two bristling ninja. "It's not his fault that we found a new Emo Ninja to feed and water after you left. Ease off the Bastard throttle a bit, yeah?"
Sasuke fixed Naruto with the blankest of stares. Naruto, being well-versed in such looks, smiled back with all of his teeth.
"Intriguing," Sai murmured. "To see it up close."
"Eh?" Naruto asked, turning to give Sai a squinty-eyed look of confusion.
"Your bond," Sai explained. "The one you're always howling about." Tilting his head to peer over Naruto's shoulder, Sai asked Sasuke, "Do you mind if I study you for hints of homoerotic context?"
Naruto let out the shrill, strangled screech of a bubbling teapot. Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura caught sight of Kakashi's laughter in his trembling shoulders, even though he'd hastily stuffed his book in front of his face.
"Are you serious," Sasuke said, voice flat enough to completely eliminate the question mark. It was unclear who exactly he was speaking to.
"Naruto likes dicks," Sai said. "Starting with that knowledge, it's a natural enough assumption."
"YOU NEED SO MUCH HELP," Naruto yowled. "SO MUCH HELP AND GUIDANCE. YOU NEED A FLOWCHART, SAI."
Sai's brow wrinkled the barest bit and he asked, "Do you not like Sasuke's dick, then?"
Sakura leapt in then, if only because Sasuke's face was getting red, Naruto looked one testicular mention away from an aneurism, and Kakashi was too busy laughing himself sick behind the nearest tree to help.
"Sai needs help understanding relationships between people, sometimes," she explained.
"I have a book," Sai added helpfully.
"So we're going to do the intelligent thing and ignore everything he says," Sakura finished. "No more talking about Naruto's dick, Sai."
"No. Zero mentions of Naruto's dick, Sasuke's dick, and your theories as to their relationship allowed."
Sai pouted for a moment-a miniscule pursing of his lips but he was Sakura's teammate and that meant that she knew the workings of his face-and said, "No mentions at all?"
"You may talk about my dick," Sakura said graciously.
"It is the biggest one here," Sai said, visibly brightening.
"I hate everything," Naruto informed Sasuke.
Sasuke couldn't vocalize his agreement due to the massive stick up his ass, but Sakura read it anyway in the sharp tic of his eyebrow.
When they stopped for the night, Sai sent a paper bird to the Hokage, informing her of their imminent return.
"You didn't mention Sasuke," Sakura said, watching the bird vanish between the trees in a flash of bone white and black ink.
"She would pass judgment, without anyone there to plead his case." Sai glanced across the clearing they'd stopped in for the night, where Naruto was attempting to bully Sasuke into eating. Going off of the steely clench of Sasuke's jaw, Sakura figured Naruto would shortly be wearing the dinner he was trying to force down Sasuke's throat. "It would cause trouble for Naruto."
"You're a good teammate, Sai."
He gave Sakura one of those pretty glass smiles-so empty of everything but a poor reflection that it made Sakura want to scream-and said, "Not according to my training. Or the training of the Leaf Village, actually."
"We've always done things a bit differently on Team Seven," Sakura agreed with a weary sigh. "You fit right in."
Sai kept silent. Sakura glanced down, and saw some of his paper crumpled between his fists.
Across the clearing, Naruto yelled, "Bastards need to eat, too! Open up for the ninja train, Sasuke!"
"You do, you know," Sakura said, into the appalled silence that followed Naruto's shout. "Fit."
"Like a peg in a hole?" Sai asked. "A placeholder until the real piece could be found?"
"Like someone I've wanted to punch the stupidity out of," Sakura corrected. "Like someone who's almost been smothered on away missions because he snores. Like someone who is probably slowly poisoning us because he serves food with ink-stained fingers. Like a teammate, Sai."
"Ninja teams are made of four," Sai recited, his voice perfectly flat in the way it only was when Root training was involved. "Three younger ninja and a more experienced leader. Made of four, always."
"We've always done things a bit differently on Team Seven," Sakura repeated.
"Chugga-chugga-choo-choo!" Naruto yelled.
"I will stick that fork through your eye socket," Sasuke said.
"Sometimes," Sakura continued, quietly. "Standing on the outside a little doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's so much in the middle, you know? Too loud, too hot. Not everyone can live there all the time. And the people that do-well. They need someone on the outside to help them when it burns too bright. Someone outside, but close enough to hear them if they need it."
"And who hears you? When you need it?"
Sakura's smile hurt a little but not as much as it had once. It was an old ache, and a familiar one by now.
"They do," she assured him. "Maybe not always, and that's something you learn to live with. But when you really need it? They hear you, always."
Sai studied the paper in his hands. His knuckles had eased off the folds of it, loosened so that the skin of his knuckles was no longer as pale as the parchment.
"And you don't resent it?" Sai asked. "Being there, on the outside."
Once, the question might have crumbled her. Might have broken her into tiny pieces of self-doubt and crippling failure. But she'd been in this circle of theirs long enough to understand her own proximity to the center. She'd spent years and sweat and effort creeping as close as she could to the burning in the middle without losing herself in the blaze of it. And once she'd found her place and built herself there she'd come to understand the importance of walls in containing a bonfire.
"It's a good place," she said. And because this was Sai, and he didn't understand things between people that weren't spelled out and offered, smiled and added, "A little lonely. Wouldn't mind some company."
"Maybe," Sai said, but he offered her a smile. A tiny one, and rusty still, but real.
"Good," Sakura said, and thought about touching his shoulder. But a loud squawk across the clearing caught her attention.
Over by the fire they'd built, Naruto was on his feet and executing some sort of flailing, stomping, jig of outrage. On his head was the bowl of food he'd been attempting to choo-choo train down Sasuke's throat.
And though he appeared entirely uninterested in Naruto's dance, but the air around Sasuke was all but radiating triumph.
Sai looked at Sakura.
"Do we…help?" he asked.
"No. The fork isn't actually in Naruto's eye socket like Sasuke said. Acceptable losses, Sai."
"I see," he said, and instead tilted his head like a curious bird and turned his attention to capturing the image of Naruto, bowl on his head and gyrating ferociously while Kakashi feigned an inability to hear and Sasuke almost-smirked in the background.
The next morning, as they were flitting through the trees with Sasuke strapped securely to Kakashi's back once more, Sai turned to Sasuke and offered a pleasant smile.
"I've read that giving someone a nickname fosters familiarity and friendship between the two parties. Is Manpain acceptable to you?"
Naruto ran into a tree. Face first, ran into it, and then slid all the way down like a bug on a glass door.
"What," Sasuke said, and again, it was really not a question.
"No? That's all right. I'll think of something better."
The faintest trace of horror crept across Sasuke's face at the concept of 'better'. From the ground, Naruto's braying laughter came up through the branches.
"GURK. HA. HIS FACE. SAI. YOU'RE THE GREATEST."
The barest hint of Sai's smile, the real one, curved his lips.
"You did just fine," Kakashi said, low and pleased in Sakura's ear.
"I really did, didn't I?" she agreed. Sai's smile was still as fragile as the shattered mirror it had come from, and Naruto still had the jagged look of someone holding things together by sheer force of will, and every step closer to the Leaf Village made Sasuke's eyes a little darker, a little deader.
But for now, the sun was on her face and Sakura could smile.
A/N: I really tried to introduce Sai in a way other than dick jokes but, well. Sai. Next Chapter: Naruto's POV-The Care and Feeding of Emo Ninjas. Happy Reading!