The Kazekage was in town, which meant only one thing for Sai: a chance to make a new friend.
Sai didn't have many friends, in fact, most people found Sai to be a little...much.
Sai didn't like feeling like people didn't like him. Sai worked hard to be likeable. Being likeable is a skill, like taijutsu or ninjutsu. Sai worked hard on his skills. "You know, you shouldn't be that nervous," Sakura offered, helpfully. "Gaara-kun isn't as scary as everyone makes him out to be. He's one of Naruto's closest friends. As long as you don't give him any nicknames, you two should be fine."
Sai nodded, solemnly. "No nicknames," Sai said.
"And you can ask him about himself," Sakura said. "Just be friendly. It'll be alright."
"I will be friendly," Sai said, and he smiled his fake smile. He closed his book and waited by the bridge.
Even though Sakura had known Gaara for as long as Naruto has, and even though she said she had seen him at his most vulnerable (lying dead on the grass, with Naruto crying beside him), the Kazekage looked...well, scary. He stood, arms crossed with the wind in his face, as armed Shinobi guards flanked him from side to side.
Sai squared his shoulders and stepped forward.
"Hello," Sai said. "My name is Sai."
Gaara's eyes narrowed. Sai stuck his hand out. "Would you like to shake my hand?" Sai asked.
Sai glanced at Sakura, who was biting her lip, then back at Gaara, who seemed to be contemplating whether or not the handshake was part of some sort of ham-fisted assassination attempt. Finally, Gaara took Sai's hand and shook it.
"I notice you don't have any eyebrows," Sai said.
Gaara blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"You also have 'love' written on your forehead," Sai noted, conversationally. "Why is that?"
"Don't mind him!" Sakura said, jumping in front of Sai. "Sai's kind of an idiot. He doesn't know what he's saying--"
"But Sakura-chan, you said to comment on something interesting," Sai said.
"Shut up, Sai," Sakura hissed.
Apparently he miscalculated. Sai knew exactly how to fix it.
Rule number 37: if you reach an awkward pause in conversation, try diffusing it with a joke. Nothing disarms a stranger like a well-timed humorous comment to lighten the mood.
Sai smiled. "Your sister is very sexy," Sai said.
Sakura's eyeballs were about to pop out of her skull.
"Kidding!" Sai said, triumphant.
"Kazekage-sama!" Sakura chased after Gaara, who had stood up and swiftly left before he accidentally killed somebody. "Wait! We didn't mean to insult you! Don't leave! Please!"
Sai chased after them. "Sakura-chan! Wait! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to screw up so badly!"
They rounded a corner and nearly slammed into a wall of sand that had toppled over in front of them. They watched, dumbstruck, as the Kazekage disappeared down the alleyway.
Sai for once didn't smile. "Sakura-chan," Sai said. "Are you angry with me?"
Sakura's eyebrow twitched. Her fist was shaking with rage.
"Um. I think I ought to be going now," Sai said, and he ran before Sakura could take out her rage on him.
Sai was walking in the forest, disappointed with his last encounter, when he decided he would watch Lee train. Lee was very strong, and Sai was curious: maybe he could learn some tips. At the very least, he could learn something to help keep Sakura from beating him up.
Lee was at the training grounds, kicking a makiwara, when Sai approached. "Sai-kun. How are you?" Lee kicked the post again. Sai smiled his fake smile.
"Hello, Fuzzy Eyebrows." (Sai had heard Naruto call him that, so clearly that was okay.) "I was wondering if I could watch you train?"
"Certainly." Lee kicked the post again. "I am working on my roundhouse kick. Ever since Gai-sensei increased my weights, moving as been a little difficult."
Another kick. Sai cocked his head, puzzled. "Why would he increase your weights?" Sai asked. Lee kicked the post.
"Because I want to be stronger for the Kazekage," Lee said. Kick. "I want to show him that Konoha shinobi are strong, and that our talents are not for show." Kick.
Sai cocked his head again. "I see," Sai said. He scratched his forehead, watching Lee kick his post.
There were a few things Sai knew about Lee: that Lee was incredibly strong, so much so without his weights, and even more so if Lee was drunk. "What would happen if you took off those weights and you drank sake?" Sai asked.
"Oh. I could only do that if I were protecting many precious people." Lee kicked the post again. "And not just many precious people, but if I were protecting the entire village."
"I see." Sai was disappointed. "The Kazekage arrived this morning," Sai said. "I was just thinking, it would be quite a treat to see you spar with him. Unless that would bring back bad memories, of course."
Sai smiled his fake smile. Lee paused, then lowered his leg.
"Bad memories?" Lee said. "Why should I have bad memories?"
"Because he nearly killed you during the Chuunin exams," Sai said, smiling wide.
Lee stared. "Kazekage-sama is strong, but I can be stronger," Lee said. Sai nodded.
"Yes," Sai said. "Especially if you are drunk." Lee's eyes narrowed.
"Gai-sensei says I mustn't drink," Lee says.
"Unless it's to save many precious people," Lee added.
"That's a given."
Lee looked troubled. "Sai-kun," Lee said. "Do you...do you think I'd be able to take on Gaara?"
Sai smiled, his eyes making adorable little half-moons. "Yes."
"If...without the weights...and if I were to drink a little sake?"
Sai nodded vigorously, smiling with full force. "It is something I would love to see!" Sai said.
Lee stopped. "I wonder....I wonder if Gaara-kun would want a rematch?"
Sai smiled, happily. He liked talking to his friends.
Sai had a good idea. Well, if you asked Sakura, she would most likely say it was a bad idea, but Lee liked it, so obviously Sakura didn't know what she was talking about.
Sai's idea was: how about we go and spar with the Kazekage? Without him knowing? Just to see how quick on his reflexes he is?
Sai was very curious. Lee was too, for that matter.
"He knows we are allies," Sai said. "He shouldn't mind."
"No, he shouldn't," Lee said.
It was a very good idea.
The Guide to Human Emotions said that when a friend is feeling down, it is the duty of the other friend to try and cheer him up.
Lee was clearly down; Sai was his friend. Therefore, it was Sai's duty to cheer him up, just like it said.
Sai would cheer him up by getting him drunk with sake and having him fight Gaara.
Sai loved his little book.
"Wha--? You want to fight Gaara?"
Naruto stared at them both. Lee pumped his fist and Sai smiled his fake smile. "It would be a good experience," Sai said. "Lee said he'd like a rematch. We were thinking you could ask Gaara--"
"--if he could fight the Fuzzy Eyebrows?"
"Yes," Sai said.
Naruto looked confused. "But why would he want to fight him?"
"Because it's about honor!" Lee said. "It's about redeeming yourself! It's about THE SPRINGTIME EXPLOSION OF YOUTH!"
Naruto still looked confused. "What about Sakura-chan?"
"I was thinking we shouldn't tell her," Sai said. "She might not approve."
Naruto furrowed his brow. "So you want me to ask him?"
"Yes." Sai and Lee nodded, vigorously.
"Oh!" Naruto said. "So...if you're going to fight him, maybe I could fight him, too?"
"But you've already beaten him," Lee protested.
"Not with my new Sennin technique!" Naruto said. "Not when I stand still with the earth and pump pump pump! It'll be sand in his FACE! Dattebayo!"
"Yes!" Lee said. He pumped his fist.
"He thinks he's so cool, 'cuz he's the Kazekage, dattebayo," Naruto said. "But I'll show him! I'll be Hokage in no time sweat!"
"Except that you're still genin," Sai reminded him, helpfully.
"Even better when a genin beats a Kage, dattebayo," Naruto said.
It was one of Sai's little painted mice that found Gaara: sitting under a tree reading a book, his gourd unstrapped and leaning on the ground.
"Oi oi oi, here he is!" Naruto said. The three of them crouched behind a bush. "He thinks he's so great 'cuz he's a kage, just you see, Fuzzy eyebrows can take him no sweat!"
"What are you three idiots doing?"
They looked up and saw Sakura staring down at them, frowning. "Oh, Sakura-chan...." Naruto grinned and rubbed his head. "We were thinking of attacking Gaara."
"Not for real, not for real!" Naruto said. "Just enough to see if he can take the Fuzzy Eyebrows and his Drunken Fist! That's all!"
Gaara turned his head. "Naruto?"
"Oi! He saw us!" Naruto ducked. Gaara looked confused. Sai stepped forward.
"Gaara-sama," Sai said, and he put on his best fake smile.
"Oh." Gaara's eyes narrowed. "It's you."
"Hai." Sai nodded, smiling brightly. "I regret our meeting didn't go as smoothly the other day. I apologize for that. But I ran into Lee who is a friend of yours, and he was feeling badly about himself because he isn't as powerful as you."
"I--I didn't say that!" Lee said. Sai continued, smiling.
"I suggested sparring with you, to prove his strength. We told Naruto and he wanted to try out his new techniques on you as well." Sai smiled. "Naruto has already beaten you, but not when you're a Kage."
Gaara knitted his brow. "You...wish to fight me?"
"Oh yes," Lee said. Gaara stared.
"No," Gaara said.
"I do not wish to hurt you," Gaara said. He glanced at Naruto. "Either of you." Naruto was crestfallen. Lee's eyeballs bulged.
"You believe you are stronger than us," Lee said.
"It is not a matter of believing," Gaara said. Lee's eyebrow twitched.
"Fuzzy eyebrows, don't worry, he's just afraid we're gonna kick his butt, dattebayo!" Naruto said.
The three of them were talking, Gaara leaning against the tree while Naruto started punching the air, raging around Gaara and practically beating his chest, "I'm a sennin now! Dattebayo!" while Lee was nodding vigorously and protesting, "We would very much like to prove our strength!" It was all very curious. For all intents and purposes, Gaara should have been threatened, or at the very least annoyed. "Baka," Gaara said, but his eyes were smiling. Sai didn't understand.
"Sakura-chan," Sai said, quietly. "Why isn't Gaara angry with them?"
"He's probably amused because he's the Kazekage and they're a bunch of amateurs," Sakura said. Meanwhile, Naruto began shouting. "Hey, hey Gaara!" Naruto said, and he shoved his hand down Gaara's gourd. "Sand in your face! DATTEBAYO!"
"This is what friendship is like, isn't it?" Sai asked. Sakura nodded. Wordlessly they watched as Gaara stood and had his sand chase Lee and Naruto down the forest.
Sai felt something, like a knot squeezing in his chest. He didn't like the feeling, so he slipped away quietly, Sakura laughing and clapping her hands at the others.
Obviously, ANBU training wasn't all bad. Just mostly bad. But good for situations just like this.
There was a ruckus in the town square. "Naruto and Lee-kun are fighting the Kazekage!" Sai followed curiously as the townspeople rushed toward the training ground: Gaara was standing, arms crossed and defiant, while Naruto and Lee hurled attack after attack at him.
In the end, Gaara won, Lee being too drunk to notice the sand collapsing under his feet and Naruto being too in-touch with nature to notice that quicksand was anything bad. "We weren't giving it our all!" Lee protested. "We were afraid we'd overpower you two against one!"
"Hmph." Gaara crossed his arms. "Be glad I am your ally. And also that you're my friends."
Sai frowned. It must be nice having a friend.
Sai was sitting at the bridge, doodling a little and feeling sorry for himself, when a shadow fell on his notepad.
It was Gaara, the shadow from his gourd strapped to his back. Sai cocked his head, curiously. "How heavy is that?" Sai asked. Gaara sat beside him, hefting the gourd down.
"It isn't bad," Gaara said. "I use my jutsu to help levitate it when I'm walking. It only gets heavy when my chakra wanes."
Sai fell quiet. His ANBU training kicked in and he had to remind himself that this wasn't information he should go spreading to Danzo. He was still curious, though. "Is that the same sand you always use, or do you use fresh sand?" Sai asked.
"It's the same; but I can separate it from the blood after battle," Gaara said.
"Oh. That's very interesting," Sai said. "Kind of like sifting cat urine from a litter box."
Gaara cocked his head. "You really are clueless, aren't you?" Gaara said.
Sai smiled his fake smile. "Clueless?"
"You don't know how to talk to people," Gaara said. "Funny. My siblings often accuse me of the same thing."
"Yes." Sai nodded, then tossed a rock into the pond. "In ANBU I was taught not to feel any emotions. It makes relating to others difficult." Sai watched the ripples in the water, the stone sinking underneath. "I apologize for your lack of eyebrows," Sai said, solemnly.
"Uh...thanks," Gaara said. He still looked somewhat confused.
Well it was a start.