He wakes up silently, his good hand automatically reaching for the kunai hidden underneath his pillow. A drop of ink puddles on the tip of his nose, warm with his own chakra.
The sparrow perching on the bed’s headboard opens and closes its beak in noiseless warning. Intruder, it chatters, ripples of chakra radiating from its flapping wings.
Sai banishes the summoning with a twist of his fingers and rolls out of bed, right into the waiting edge of a ninjato blade.
“Drop the knife,” the ANBU agent says, the line of his bone white Captain’s cloak limned in the faint moonlight.
Sai tilts his head up, ignoring how cold the steel feels against his goose-rippled flesh. “I don’t understand.”
“Comprehension is not required,” the agent says, bloody red fangs snarling down at Sai from the depths of his hood. He doesn’t recognize the voice. “Your presence is requested by the Hokage. Drop your weapon.”
The sound the kunai makes when it clatters on the floor is nearly deafening. The ANBU agent nods, once, and sheaths the sword in a smooth, familiar motion. Sai’s own ninjato hangs not fifteen feet from here, half-covered by a standard issue black cloak, worn and tattered at the hem.
Sai rises up from his crouch slowly, telegraphing his every move. The mask watches him impassively, betraying nothing.
The cloak flutters as the agent turns to the window, sliding it open with a gloved hand. Here, in this district, the Sandaime’s face looms largest, the scar marking the bridge of his nose now worn and weathered by the years. Tonight, his craggy face seems to be peering gravely into the room, right at Sai. The crown of his hair is still lit with the candlelight from the ceremony earlier that evening, twinkling in imitation of the stars above.
Sai swallows. A bitter tang rises up in the back of his mouth and he can almost taste the faded ink of the cursed seal on his tongue, however illogical the sensation may be.
The time has finally come.
He bows his head and lets the ANBU agent take him away.
The Hokage’s presence precedes him into the room. Sai is on his feet and bowing by the time the guards open the door and the newly sworn Hokage sweeps in, still wrapped in the ceremonial red and white robes of his office. The hems are wet with fresh blood.
Sai is careful not to meet eye contact, keeping his gaze trained firmly on the ground. The blood slowly drips from the robes and onto the floor in small, scattered puddles.
“Hokage-sama,” he murmurs.
“Leave us,” the Hokage gestures, lifting a hand towards the exit. The guards salute and retreat, with only a black-cloaked figure lurking behind him in the shadows. He gives the agent a long suffering look before settling into the chair across from Sai’s, openly setting his hands down on the broad oaken desk.
“Sit, I’ve had enough formality today to last me the next ten years,” the Hokage sighs, stretching out his long legs.
Sai bows again and slides back into his seat, mindful of the sling binding his right arm. “My congratulations on your investiture earlier this evening, Hokage-sama.”
The Hokage dips his head in acknowledgement. “Let’s cut the bullshit and not pretend that this is anything like a normal conversation. Someone tried to kill me tonight.”
Sai barely manages to control a flinch, his eyes darting towards the stained robes.
“Not mine,” the Hokage says, with a wry look. “And obviously, it was unsuccessful. The assassin has been detained and though there isn’t much information yet, preliminary intel suggests that ROOT is behind the attempt.”
Even death can not erase the mark Danzou has left on the village; Sai is living proof of his hand reaching beyond the grave, bent and bowed at the feet of the new Hokage.
Sai falls back to old habits and old ways, ruthlessly pushing aside all unnecessary thoughts and feelings. He deliberately slows down his heartbeat to an exact beat per second, regulates his breathing in a steady, deep rhythm. “What would you have me do, sir?” he asks coldly, dispassionately, as he unmakes himself into an empty vessel.
“Or rather,” he corrects, “what will be done to me?”
The Hokage is silent, his gray eyes unreadable. His hands are splayed flat on the table, in clear view, but a cloaked ANBU lurks in his shadow and he wraps himself in robes of bloody red and bone white, marked by the loyalty of ten thousand ninja. He no longer needs weapons nor hand seals to change the world.
He finally stirs, grasping the broad rim of his hat. His brown fingers leave streaks on the stiff cloth. “That,” he says steadily, “would depend on what you choose.”
Sai tilts his head, keeping the rest of body loose, still, unthreatening. Somewhere, in the back of his head, he’s calculating exit points, contingency plans, his throat willingly laid naked for a ready blade. “I wasn’t aware I had a choice.”
“Only if you want one.”
Sai’s eyes flicker toward the elongated shade behind the Hokage’s seat, the sliver of white mask visible like a dagger flashing in the night. “I don’t understand.”
“All paths lead to the same end,” the Hokage says soberly, his gray eyes crinkling at the corners. “It is, after all, only the journey that matters.” He pauses for a moment, then adds in a much more mild voice, “I’m not here to kill you.”
Sai’s shoulders tense up and a white hot fire races up his right arm in response. “With all due respect, Hokage-sama, that would be a mistake. You’ve just been attacked by a rogue element of a criminal organization gone mad after the death of my-- of its master. I am far more valuable as bait, my public execution an example to all those who dare defy your reign.”
“And what of the value of your own life?” the Hokage asks.
“I have been trained for this,” he says, touching his left hand to his heart, to his lips, to his brow, in pale imitation of ROOT’s old salute. “In this way, I serve to the last.” The right way, he does not say.
“You blind yourself by dismissing the worth of your living service,” the Hokage sighs again, curling his hands up into loose fists. “I need ninja, not corpses. Self-sacrifice only gets you so far in reality.”
There’s a pounding ache growing in his chest, beating in time to his heart, and Sai can no more force the pain away than he can stop breathing. “I don’t.” He takes in a sharp breath. “If you will forgive me, but I’m afraid I don’t follow your logic, Hokage-sama. Why are you here tonight, if not to finally settle...this matter?”
“And what matter is this?” The Hokage quirks a brow, half-hidden underneath the shadow of his ceremonial hat.
“I am a loose end,” Sai says, quiet. “The only known remnant left of Danzou-sama’s private army, apart from your would-be assassin. Since sending me off to war has failed, I only assumed that you might find use in my death in some other way. With this new development, you can use this chance to eliminate both myself and any new threats concerning ROOT.” Efficient and effective, Sai calculates that it would be a good death.
The Hokage does not say anything for a long time, the silence drawing out into a tense thread wound tight between the two of them.
As always, the Hokage breaks the quiet first. “I am a little disappointed that you measure Councilman Danzou and I by the same standards.”
Sai’s thoughts scatter like a flock of disturbed crows, black thoughts winging away on frenzied wings. The ache in his chest grows ever stronger, ever more painful. “Sir?” His voice cracks and he finds that his control is slipping away from his grasp, bending underneath the weight of his Hokage’s solemn gaze. His heartbeat quickens.
The Hokage’s eyes suddenly look very old and tired. “I don’t harm one of my own,” he says gently. “I am not Councilman Danzou. I’m not here to ask for you to sacrifice yourself, nor do I particularly require it. Only your service, willingly given. I called you here tonight to ask if you would agree to a reactivation of your commision and join the corps again to help isolate rogue operatives and sleeper agents planted within the main Corps itself, both ROOT and not.”
“To kill?” Sai asks, even though he already knows. He can already feel the familiar weight of his ninjato in hand, slick and wet with blood.
“Intel wants whatever information it can get,” Kakashi says, his gray eyes steady. “But if the situation demands it, you are to eliminate any and all targets as necessary. Do you accept?”
Sai can’t help but look at the stylized fire kanji emblazoned on the Hokage’s broad hat, stitched into the fabric of his robes. My lord, he thinks reflexively, and his bones ring with a strange resonance, even as his good hand curls into a tight fist at the thought of hunting his blinded brothers and sisters. His own death would be easier.
“If I were to--,” Sai’s breath sharpens as he struggles to shape his thick tongue around the alien words in his mouth. “To refuse,” he says slowly, careful not to cut himself on its edges. “To choose otherwise. What would happen?”
“If you refuse my request, then I will explore other options and you may continue as a ninja in the regular forces.”
Naruto banging on his door and demanding him to join for a round at Ichiraku, Sakura kissing her teeth and asking him if he has an extra roll of gauze to spare-- Sai cannot reconcile the idea of requests with Hatake Kakashi sitting in the Hokage’s office, behind the Hokage’s desk, wearing the blood of the fallen.
And yet, Sai is sitting in a chair with his back unbowed, his tongue unbound, and all of the village laid out before him at the feet of the Hokage’s Tower, all of its broken buildings and new growth, all of its wonders and its flaws, spread out in quiet slumber as it sleeps peacefully underneath the open sky.
Danzou-sama is dead and Sai is not.
“You speak of choices as a Hokage to a subordinate who has only ever known orders,” Sai says slowly, meeting Kakashi’s eyes for the first time that night. “How much are you counting on me saying yes anyway, because that is what I had been bred to do?”
A shadow flickers across the Hokage’s mask as his mouth quirks. “More than I should, especially considering how I’ve established how morally superior I am to Danzou in this conversation. But I stand by what I’ve said. I won’t order you into this and I won’t punish you for refusing. What do you choose, Sai?”
The first rosy fingers of sunlight touch upon the horizon, gilding the summer clouds with a golden warmth, softening the ragged edges of a village slowly rebuilding. A new day is dawning.
“No,” Sai says, and smiles.