Author's Note: I am alive. Sort of. Merry Christmas guys! Thanks so much for all of the encouragement and support on this fic, and for the one hundred reviews. I really appreciate it.


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Chapter Six: Pain Without Gain

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It had been a week spent in mourning before Sakura returned to her usual schedule. What had prompted her miraculous recovery, or lack thereof in this case, was an invitation to join Sasuke and Naruto at Saya's photoshoot on Saturday. It was being held at the beach, and as only the bombastic blonde could, he had made it into an extravagant affair—calling upon the presence of all of their high school cliques so that they could have an impromptu reunion of sorts whilst the raven haired Uchiha's lovely girlfriend finished her work for her current project.

Sasuke had been a little morose at the news, having only wanted to spend time with his two closest friends on his one day off from job hunting, but Naruto had merely slapped him on the back and demanded that he "Yank that stick out of your ass so we can have a party!"

Sakura had smiled weakly throughout it all, half-heartedly reassuring the younger male that she was up to it even when inside she felt as fragile as glass.

"Stop being a worrywart, you dork." She had exclaimed sternly, voice carrying only the ghost of her former gusto as she scolded him for being so over the top about her recent depressive episode. He did have fair grounds, she supposed, to be so pedantic about it though.

It was merely an extension of the ongoing torment that she had been enduring these last few months watching Sasuke gradually drift further out of her reach into the arms of another woman, but she was an adult now. She couldn't afford to be so petty about her unrequited love having a love life all his own. And yet, the irrational part of her yearned for something she knew all too well she could never have, and it tore her apart inside.

Naruto had turned his dubious expression her way, mouth falling open to protest only to have Sasuke smack him over the head with a closed fist. A loud yelp left the shorter man's lips, a string of vapid and vehement curses quickly following suit as the Uzumaki male threw a nasty glare towards the source of his pain.

"What the fuck, Sasuke! That was just rude!" Said male sent a deadpan stare Naruto's way, dark eyes sparkling with the slightest touch of amusement as he held his best friend's gaze with a seriousness that stopped him dead in his tracks.

"If Sakura says she's fine, then she is. Let it go, you idiot." His tone was matter of fact, countenance defensive as he shifted his stance so that he was obscuring Sakura's wilting frame from sight.

The evident deflation in her glassy eyes was all Sasuke had needed to step in. He knew that the emotional upset of losing Noctis was still as fresh as it was the day it had occurred, but she clearly wanted to respect the dead and move on with her life. Naruto coddling her was not helping in reintegrating her back into the normality of her day to day life. Sasuke knew better than anyone else that she was as far from okay as people could be—but the true of extent of it escaped him as the pinkette in question sent him a despairing look of desperate, resigned longing from behind his turned back.

Naruto caught the fleeting glance, of course, but he could say nothing; only look on in exasperated melancholy as he bantered with his unlikely friend with as much gusto as he could muster.

"Even if you say that, we both know she's still sad. And she will be for a while. Which is why a celebration's exactly what she needs to pick herself back up again! Parties with all the people we love are the best kind to have, and it will turn that frown upside down 'ttebayo!" The blonde rebuked loudly, gesticulating wildly as he grinned up at the taller man with blue eyes that glittered with perpetual excitement.

Sasuke knew as well as Sakura did that their moronic best friend was a party animal—he was merely using her pain as an excuse to let their hair down and get funky. But for once, it was a sentiment filled with good intention, and so the pair had very little they could say to dissuade him.

"Oi teme. You said that Saya-san has a shoot at Fujizawa, right? There's a beach about ten minutes outside of that locale. Why not host it there? It could be fun." His husky baritone was steeped with suggestion, and Sakura would have smacked him for the very conspicuous glance he made between the two of them had she not felt so withdrawn.

Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest, lips parting to flat out reject his proposition when he paused, hesitant.

What if it was just what their pink haired angel needed to recompose herself? Sasuke had, at one point in his youth, despised social gatherings of any kind with a passion. Even now, he felt an inkling of distaste at the mention of such shindigs, as they were merely a tool for debauchery and drunken foolishness (both of which he was guilty of indulging in.) But if it was with peers that he was familiar with, that could bring the cheer back into Sakura's smile and a bounce into her step, then who was he to say no?

He turned on his heel, catching the pink haired woman's eye as he inclined his head in question.

"… Feel like going?" His tenor was but a soft murmur meant only for her ears, and she felt her heart jump into overdrive as he gave her a meaningful look. Sasuke's expression was carefully schooled into neutrality, but his eyes were as expressive as always, and Sakura couldn't help but nod in spite of herself.

"Well, I guess… it couldn't hurt, huh?" Sakura shifted in her spot, green eyes deceptively bright even though the indelible smudges beneath her eyes said otherwise.

Although she was of low spirits, she figured that getting out of her apartment was one way to distract her from her misery. Naruto and Sasuke meant well; the blonde attempting to take her mind off of her personal conflictions about her dark haired love by doing what he did best, and the latter by acting no differently around her than before. He treaded with the appropriate caution, of course, but he made no effort to overcompensate for her pain with pity; he didn't treat her like she was emotionally invalid like her parents currently were (as they had been babying her all week since then as if she wasn't capable of functioning anymore), and she couldn't have been more grateful for his deference.

Naruto's expression lit up at her verbal consent, and he grinned from ear to ear whilst bouncing on his spot in the café that they were having lunch in. They were still standing together, queuing up to order as they conversed with one another freely.

"Hell yes! This is gonna be great, you'll see! When was the last time we all had some quality party time together, as a group?" He chattered rapidly, voice growing louder by the second the more excited he became.

Sasuke hissed under his breath for him to shut the fuck up, Sakura blushing at the sideways glances they received from the disgruntled patrons in front and behind them. Naruto hadn't cared less, merely continuing on down his tangent as he made solid plans that both parties knew they wouldn't be able to get out of, both exhaling a quiet sigh of relief as they were finally called forward to place their orders. Sasuke hooked his fingers around hers, causing her head to snap up in surprise, cheeks rosier than ever as he pulled her forward with him; ultimately pushing Naruto behind them.

The cashier working behind the till was as starry-eyed as all of the women in the café as she took in the raven haired Uchiha's gorgeous features up close and personal, but he hardly paid her any heed, looking askance at the menu overhead as he ordered his meal with smooth and collected proficiency.

"One coffee, black—no sugar, and a crispy chicken burger."

He paused for but a moment, casting Sakura a fleeting glance before he tacked on the second half before she could even breathe a word of protest.

"And she would like a large caramel latte and a chicken Caesar wrap, hold the cheese."

Her eyes widened then. He had remembered her slight intolerance to the delicious substance that was cheese, even though she would just as easily suffer through the inevitable stomach ache just to taste its rich goodness.

Her heart fluttered once more, and she began to wonder if all of those skipped beats were leading towards cardiac arrest. Fortunately for her, when they were prompted to pay, Sakura was torn from her musings, and she quickly shoved her hand into her handbag, fishing around for her purse before Sasuke placed a tentative hand over her own. Emerald irises sought his out amidst her floundering, and he held her curious gaze with an openly softened expression dancing about his handsome features.

"It's on me, Sakura."

The pinkette puffed out her cheeks, intent on refusing his kindness—only to be met with stern resistance. There was no way she was about to get her way here, was she? Exhaling in evident defeat, Sakura sunk into his side, fatigue catching up with her after so many sleepless nights spent crying her eyes out. Concern sparked in both men's eyes, and Sasuke was quick to wrap a supporting arm around her lithe shoulders, large hand holding her in place as he handed over a substantial number of notes to the bug-eyed serving woman in front of them.

"Keep the change." Sasuke muttered succinctly, nodding in acknowledgement at the young girl before them and just barely managing to suppress a twitch when he saw the metaphorical hearts forming in her big doe eyes.

"Oi teme, couldn't you have spared some change for your best friend's lunch?" Naruto wailed despairingly, azure orbs aghast as he gaped in Sasuke's direction. Said male merely sent him a smirk over his shoulder as he stepped out of the cue with Sakura in tow, mirth seeping into his tone as he went to save them a table.

"Not a chance in hell, you freeloading dobe. The money there is a tip for the staff, not an excuse for you to be a tight-ass." And then they had sauntered off, aforementioned moron left in an absolute stupor at the extreme couple-vibes they were exuding.

It seemed he wasn't the only one affected by the display, as the people around them all openly spied on the two as they walked away in each other's arms.

You just keep digging this grave even deeper for yourself, Sasuke. Do you even fathom how boyfriend-like you're being, or have your brains rotted too much inside that overly thick skull of yours?

If Naruto could faceplant into the floor right at that moment, he probably would have. They were both as fucking dumb as each other, honestly!

As Sakura thought back on the chipper Sunday afternoon out with her boys in the middle of marking a stack of midterm re-examinations—the ones that she had had Morino-san oversee whilst she had been attending to other Sasuke-related affairs—she couldn't help but shake her head in exasperated bewilderment. How did they always make her putty in their diabolical hands?

With the pile of paperwork she had to sign off on in the wake of her rather abrupt absence, she was sure that she wasn't about to make it to the proposed beach bash this coming Saturday. And yet she had signed her soul away to the party devil himself, and there was no way out in sight. Sighing once more at the monotony of it all, the pink haired teacher dropped her pen on the desktop, rubbing her temples in a futile attempt to massage her impending migraine away as her thoughts moved on to more pressing matters.

Like having to deal with the utter perfection that was Saya strutting about in a bikini that was made to be worn by a body type like hers.

It wasn't that Sakura was unhappy in her body—quite the contrary, she was pleased by the fact that she had filled out so well considering her rather petite frame. Curves like hers were nothing to sneeze at, but when standing so near to the idealised standard for women's beauty, it was obvious that she would be self-conscious. After all, she had never made it a habit to display her body in such a crude manner in public; sex behind closed doors was one thing, but being so exposed—almost naked—in front of a successful model, in front of Sasuke…?

Well.

That was daunting in and of itself. Part of the pinkette firmly believed that even she could possibly turn Sasuke's head, if only for the shock factor of not being so scrawny and tomboyish anymore. But the larger part of her subconscious laughed derisively at the notion, brushing it off as mere whimsical fancy at best.

As if Haruno Sakura could ever capture an inkling of Uchiha Sasuke's interest. It would be a cold day in hell before that ever happened.

Gnawing on her bottom lip was the only thing she could do to stave off her desire to groan aloud in mounting frustration, eyes deeply sunken with exhaustion as she stretched out her spine and rolled her shoulders in apparent determination. She was going to get this work done even if it killed her. It was her job; she was getting paid to do this, and so she wanted to do it to perfection. Besides, it made for a successful distraction from the pressing matters of her personal life, which should, in reality, never have touched the edges of her thoughts while she was under strict working conditions anyways.

Fingers curling around her red biro marker, Sakura slouched over her leaflets once more, intent on tasking herself and sticking to it when a chipper voice piped up from behind her.

"Why hello, favourite former student of mine. I take it you're feeling better?"

Jerking up in surprise—because how the hell did he always get under her radar without her ever noticing his presence—Sakura spun around in her chair, only to be greeted by the medically masked face of her former sensei. He raised a slack hand in what appeared to be a half-assed attempt at a salute, silver hair in casual disarray as always as he stuffed the too-conspicuous orange novel in his remaining appendage into his slacks pocket.

"Yo." It was as nonplussed and indifferent as always, and relief washed over Sakura as she realised that he was acting as if nothing major had changed in her life at all in her absence, which was exactly what she had needed.

She had received nothing but sympathy from those around her when they had heard of the "loss" in her family, and while she had been grateful for their kind-hearted sentiments, it grew old very quickly when it was reiterated in a constantly perpetuating cycle.

"Good afternoon, Kakashi-sensei. I'm feeling much better; thank you for asking. I hope my leave wasn't too inconvenient for you." Sakura returned sweetly, bowing her head in subservience as he waved off her politeness with a nonchalant flick of his wrist.

"Not at all. I was thinking about giving you some time off to catch up with those morons of yours, so I suppose that was the universe's way of aligning with my intentions." Kakashi replied good-naturedly, dark eyes crinkling into a warm smile that was surely mirrored on his lips as he looked down at her.

A flicker of worry flittered across the features that were exposed to her, and Sakura felt guilt gnawing at the edges of her gut as he met her gaze with an aloofness that was mildly alarming.

"… But I see that your week away has taken its toll on you. Are you sure you're ready to be back so soon? You can take another week off if you need to." The elder man's tone was as diffident as his beloved Icha Icha trilogy was, which was not at all, as he pinned her in place with the look of a father about to scold their child.

Sakura flinched under his intense scrutiny, taking her bottom lip prisoner between her teeth once more as he allowed his concern to fully register with the quailing pinkette.

"I-I'm much better now, Kakashi-sensei. I really appreciate you taking the time to check up on me, but I really am fine now. Tired, but aren't I always? Being a languages teacher does tend to exhaust the brain quickly, after all." Sakura began softly, trailing off in a wispy laugh as Kakashi scanned her countenance for the tell-tale signs of a lie. She cut him off before he had the chance to intervene on her behalf.

"Besides, from what I hear, it's you who needs to take some time off. Doing my general administration paperwork for me, even though you had a stack the size of Suna waiting on your own desk, while I was away? It was really kind of you, sensei. Thank you so much. You really saved my hide. Again." Sakura smiled up at him, the expression dazzling and wiping away the sleep from her eyes as she stood from her seat, only to take his hand within her own seconds later.

She gave it a gentle squeeze, gratitude embedded into every line and contour of her face as she thanked him profusely for his selflessness with a deepening bow.

Flustered, and clearly caught off guard, Kakashi could only scratch the back of his head, a light dusting of pink staining his cheeks as he smiled sheepishly down at her shorter profile.

"It wasn't any trouble, Sakura. You've been so bogged down with work these last few months that I thought it was only fair to share the workload with you. As you've stated on numerous occasions, I do tend to leave the important stuff off by the wayside. I figured the least I could do for all of your hard work was to lend you a hand." His deep baritone was sheepish for the first time in a long time, and Kakashi silently marvelled over the thrall she had over him to have him so deeply abashed all of a sudden.

He wasn't used to having his acts of charity exposed so candidly, especially not to his face, and it was all a little too mortifying to face head on. As if reading the underlying embarrassment in her former sensei's tone, Sakura erected herself from her grandiose display of thanks, green eyes forever grateful as she levelled him with her warmest smile.

"All the more reason to focus on doing your own work instead of mine. But even so, I'm truly thankful for your consideration of me. And not just for the paperwork, but for covering for my absence and for taking my rostered classes as a substitute as well. You really outdid yourself, and I am blessed to have you in my life, sensei. Thank you." Sakura rebutted emphatically, voice firm with her conviction as she stood on her toes to press a kiss to his covered cheek.

His eyes widened comically, before he exhaled in apparent exasperation, his right hand coming up to ruffle her hair affectionately as he used to do when she was still a student. It was a nostalgic reminder of the good old days they had spent together in class, and she couldn't help but feel her affection for this aloof enigma grow even more so as he gazed down at her with lukewarm irises.

"It was my time to use, Sakura, and it was a pleasure none the less. Now if you will kindly excuse me, this old dog needs to go get his bone. The clouds outside call out to me."

Kakashi exclaimed conversationally, brushing off her gratitude with his trademark stoicism in the hopes of wringing from his body the lingering desire to touch her hair once more before he slipped out of the room and down the hallway with one final glance her way.

"You take care now, Sakura. If you ever find yourself in need of anything, you know where to find me."

And then he was gone, Sakura's reply dying on her lips as she merely smiled after his retreating form; a deepening warmth unravelling in her tummy as she mused over how fortunate she was to have so many people who cared about her watching her back even when she was unaware of it.


Saturday came faster than expected, in all honesty.

Sakura was so fatigued by the general concept of existing that when Naruto had tumbled into her bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, she had seriously considered skinning him alive and eating him for breakfast. But then rationality reminded her that cannibalism was both barbaric and too time consuming to deal with so early on in the day, and in her sleep-deprived mind the only thing that really mattered was not looking like a ghoul that had risen from the grave when she finally did face the music with Sasuke and Saya in turn.

So she reluctantly dragged her aching body from the sanctuary that was her bed—her one and only true love, for it was the one consistent thing she had going for her in her life right now—and crawled into the shower, hoping that the spray of wet heat would put some colour back into her pallid complexion.

Once she was adequately refreshed, hair washed and blow-dried within an inch of its life and a light touch of makeup applied to conceal some of the starker blemishes on her tired face, Sakura meandered into her room to dress.

Ino had swung by her place the night before to have dinner and catch up, bringing with her an expensive brand-made bikini that was surely too revealing for her tastes for her to wear the next day. It was white, and hugged her curves snuggly, and came with a sarong that was to be worn around her hips as a transparent defence mechanism of sorts (although the point of it was lost considering the fact that it was, in fact, see-through.)

"Pig, I really don't think this would suit me at all…" Sakura had quavered softly, anxiety seeping into her expression the longer she looked at the scanty bits of water-resistant fabric pinched precariously between the blonde's manicured fingertips.

"Of course it will, you dill!" Ino had scoffed contemptuously, brushing off her cynicism as she all but shoved the swimwear her way. Naruto had smartly made himself scarce during the exchange, busying himself in the living room with calling everyone he had invited to reaffirm their presences at the get-together the following afternoon.

"You have an incredible body, the kind every woman would turn green over, so stop your whinging and try it on already! I know you don't have anything better to wear, and you are not getting out of swimming with me tomorrow, Forehead Girl."

And thus here Sakura was, stuck in the conundrum of braving the adversity of social media body image conformity pressures with confidence or just burying herself behind the lesser of two evils.

Just as she was about to cave into her insecurities, having nearly tucked the bikini away in her dresser's top drawer, she stopped. What if, by some extreme measure upon which it was already incredibly unlikely, she really could catch Sasuke's eye, if only for a second? Wouldn't she revel in the knowledge that he had shown at least a little interest in her, even if it was entirely superficial? The pink haired woman knew that he was more likely to laugh at her than admire her, but still.

As long as the potential was there…

Inhaling shakily, Sakura dropped her towel onto the floor at her feet, stepping into the two-piecer without another thought about it. She glanced at her reflection in the floor to ceiling mirror across from her, noted the supple dips of wonton flesh that made up the bulk of her body mass, and felt anxiety creep up on her once more. This really was a bad idea.

Before she even had the chance to slip out of it, Naruto's boisterous voice rang out inside of her living room, startling her indefinitely.

"Hey Sakura-chan! Are you ready yet? Sasuke's here, and we're about to head out!"

Flustered by the mention of her love's name, Sakura stumbled over to her wardrobe, pulling out a salmon-coloured sundress and slipping it over her head before she slipped on a casual pair of sandals; grabbing the tote bag she had packed the evening before with Ino watching on with hawkish intent and hauling it over her shoulder in quick succession. She fluffed up her wavy tresses until they fell around her shoulders and neck in an eloquent mess, took a deep breath, and opened her bedroom door—advancing towards her inevitable doom with a look of maddening consternation on her face.

I'm going to lose face in front of them, I know it…!


The sunlight was as bitingly scorching as it had been for the last four months, and Sakura fretted about her fair skin feeling its burn as she stepped onto the hot sand with Naruto in tow. Sasuke had parted ways with them so that he could pick Saya up from her photoshoot once it was finished and bring her back to the festivities; Sakura sucking up her urge to cuss aloud in spite of her for taking the raven haired man away from her once again lest she say and or do something that she knew she would come to regret in the long run.

The blonde had given her fingers a tentative squeeze as he entrapped them within thick fingertips that only served to emphasise the masculine transformation he had undergone over the years he had been away for.

Unlike Sasuke's, whose were surely crafted by Michelangelo the artisan himself, Naruto's were solid and wholly masculine, a rugged slab of marble that had yet to be polished and refined. They were two sides of a vast spectrum rolled into one whenever they were together, as they had never failed to summon the attentions of the fairer sex (and more blatantly from a few men as well) when they were out and about, and there was something poetic in that sentiment that summoned a fleeting smile to the pinkette's otherwise taut lips.

They had both grown so much in five years, whilst she had remained mostly unchanged. Her hand was as tiny as it had always been, but in their palms she felt truly small for the first time, and it frightened her a little.

She had never liked feeling vulnerable in the presence of others, because she was so used to being used and abused by people who saw her as less of a human being than they were that being put into a position of inequality rose her hackles indefinitely.

She knew that they, her boys, would never dream of making her feel out of place in her own skin, but as their shadows dwarfed hers out and submerged her in darkness, she couldn't help but feel like she was drowning in their perfection. To them, she would always be the weak-willed wallflower that they had to protect at all costs—and there was an inkling of spite that rose within her whenever she was reminded of this fact.

"Hey, Sakura-chan? Are you okay?" Naruto inquired softly, so that only she could hear him, his voice a beacon of concern as he fixed her with an indescribable stare.

It was filled with raw emotion, too many to identify at once, but she knew it was primarily worry that motivated him in pulling her aside. Sakura could only smile up at him, his tanned complexion glowing in the sunlight and lighting up his features in ways that were anything but unflattering. Envy unfurled in her gut, but she was quick to smother it. He could light up the world with just his smile alone; his good looks were only another facet of him to love and appreciate in silence.

Sakura had no reason to feel jealous over him; but then again, she was rife with insecurities of late. It was hard not to feel inadequate in spite of all of the good qualities she possessed, especially since she firmly believed that she couldn't hold a candle to either of the men that she loved so dearly.

"Yeah, I'm fine Naruto. Don't worry so much. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. It must just be the heat getting to me. I haven't been out for so long it's a little disorienting is all." The pinkette responded kindly, green eyes vivid in stark contrast to her skin.

A little of their previous shine had returned to polish their glassy surface, and it summoned a cheerful grin from the man alongside her. At least she wasn't moping about in her apartment anymore. The time for grieving, although perpetual, was over. She needed to pick up the shattered pieces of her fractured composure and put them back together again, so that she could once again learn to live.

"Are you one hundred percent, A-okay with being here, Sakura-chan? We can always go back home whenever you feel you aren't up to it." Naruto tacked on shamelessly, face sheepish as he took in the stubborn set of her jaw and the subtle shift from moroseness to annoyance that played across her pretty features.

Not good.

"Worry is not your colour, Naruto, so please stop wearing it through to the very seams." Sakura rebuked with a chagrined scowl his way as he rose his hands in a defensive stance he used to adopt whenever she had threatened violence unto him as teenagers.

"Whoa there, Sakura-chan! I get the message! Please don't kick my ass in front of our friends!" The blonde proffered nervously, eyes a-skitter as he held her unwavering gaze with wary azure irises.

Before the pink haired woman could respond, a chipper, boisterous laugh boomed around them, and the pair quickly found themselves staring at the approaching form of Inuzuka Kiba, his best friend Aburame Shino trailing behind him with his hands buried firmly in his pants pockets.

"Well I don't know about you, Shino, but I'd really love to see Sakura put this idiot in his place!" The much-taller-than-Sakura-remembered-him-being Inuzuka exclaimed mockingly, tone as light as air as he fell into step with Naruto; the blonde had about a head of height over Kiba, but the brown haired man was hardly a slouch, and Sakura found herself pouting at the realisation that she was surrounded on all sides by larger people than herself.

Shino was slightly taller than his overly-vocal friend, but only marginally, and he still hid behind the glasses of his youth as he stared off to the side noncommittally. Clearly even being here was a miracle in and of itself, for he had always kept to himself in school, barely uttering two words her way in all of the years that she had known him for, and he never did attend any of the impromptu social gatherings that they had organised back in the day. Never the less he was a considerate young man, and had always offered her his silent respect, nodding to her in acknowledgment whenever they had a group project together before he hunkered down to work in peaceful quietude.

Even then, he cast her a lingering glance, his expression as neutral as ever as he gave her a thorough once over before he inclined his head slightly in greeting. Sakura smiled back at him, and he looked away, the need for formalities well and truly expended.

Kiba carried on, oblivious to their exchange as he clapped a firm hand on Naruto's shoulder in what appeared to be a show of comradery.

"It's good to see that your head's still screwed on the right way, you lame-ass dork! How's that broody boyfriend of yours doing lately?" He quipped, tone teasing as he grinned up at the disgruntled blonde with dark eyes.

Naruto visibly bristled, mouth twisting into an irritated grimace that signalled the beginnings of one of his famous bitch fits.

"Oi, shit for brains! No one likes a dog who's all bark but no bite! And teme is not in any way my boyfriend! He's nowhere near good enough for such a position!" He sniffed daintily, his voice all humour despite the maliciousness of his words.

It really went to show how well the two still got along, even after five years of absolutely no communication at all. They had been very close friends in school, after all.

Kiba laughed heartily, pulling Naruto in only to wrap his arm around his neck and yank him down so that he could hold him in a playful headlock. Said male's loud protestations fell on deaf ears, as the surrounding former classmates merely laughed at his misfortune as the brown haired male buried his closed fist in Naruto's shaggy locks and tousled them with the mechanical twisting of his wrist.

He was in the middle of jeering over his victory when he caught an eyeful of the giggling pinkette across from them, and he stopped dead in his tracks; mouth falling open in absolute surprise as he studied her features intently.

"Wait, no fucking way! Sakura? As in Haruno Sakura, tomboyish book nerd with a body flatter than an ironing board? That Sakura?" Kiba sputtered incoherently, tanned cheeks darkening with a blush the longer he took in the matured woman before him.

A part of Sakura was offended by his insensitive commentary, but then she remembered that this was Kiba that she was dealing with. He had never possessed a brain-to-mouth filter, and had always spewed out the first words that came to the front of his musings; even if they were as idiotic as he usually was.

"I'm right here, Kiba. Thanks for that. It's really flattering to know that that's what you thought of me once upon a time." The pink haired teacher seethed with a nasty glower his way, lips taut with a scowl as he quavered in his place. Good. At least her reputation for violence still preceded her.

"A-Ah, my bad Sakura! It's just, wow, uh… I mean I heard your voice, so I knew it was you, but you—you look like a whole new person. N-Not that you weren't cute in school, because you were! It's just, holy crap—these last five years have done you every service known to man. You look fantastic." Kiba placated with a flirtatious smile her way, his white canine teeth peeking out between his lips as he grinned down at her.

She was as short as ever, but good lord the body she had on her now… it made him weak in the knees, and more than a little lightheaded. How had he never noticed her until now?

Shino, who had until that point remained stoically quiet, cast his friend a look that was borderline exasperated, his lips parting to berate him for being an idiot.

"… You are a moron. You failed to acknowledge Sakura-san, just as you always do with me. She is right to be irritated with you. I always am." His tone was soft and deep, a luxury that had often been taken for granted in high school, for it was truly a rarity indeed whenever he had deigned someone worthy of his time.

Him speaking up on Sakura's behalf was progressive in and of itself, and as he turned his sights to her, she couldn't help but feel her cheeks flush slightly. What an honour it was, to have Aburame Shino spare a few of his limited words for her sake. Naruto and Kiba both wore mirrored looks of shocked disbelief, but unlike his blonde counterpart—who had never once heard the other man speak in all of the years that he had known him for—Kiba was quick to move past the obscurity of the incident.

"Oh come off it, Shino! I was surprised, okay? I didn't think Sakura would have grown up so much in such a short time! I was just paying her a compliment."

"… A very backhanded one at that." Shino digressed after a moment's deliberation, before he about-faced and sauntered off to find a shady place to relax in, not once looking back to see if his wolfish friend was following after him.

Said man only slouched in evident defeat, expression the epitome of martyrdom as he exhaled loudly into the din that had settled between the three of them.

"Man, you'd think after all this time he would at least learn to be a little more, I dunno, nice? His poor mother must cry herself to sleep over that lost cause…" Kiba mused tentatively, an exaggerated sense of faux melancholy flittering across his face as he stretched out his back and revelled in the sunlight on his bronzed skin.

He really did look great, incredibly well-proportioned and toned from keeping fit. Sakura could appreciate a good looking man when she saw one, even if he did have the emotional capacity of a teaspoon. He turned his dark stare her way, a quiet kind of admiration lingering in every line and contour of his countenance as he took her in in careful silence. After a moment or two he peeled his intent gaze away from her, expression remorseful as he opened his mouth to speak.

"I'm really sorry about that, Sakura. I always talk shit first and think later; I didn't mean anything by it, honest." His tone was sincere, and when he turned to face her fully once more, he was proper about it, posture apologetic as he scratched his cheek plaintively.

Sakura could only sigh. She had forgiven him the moment the words had left his lips, because she knew that they had been superfluous in nature and hardly of scathing intent. It had always been in Kiba's nature to be a bigmouth. It wasn't any skin off her back. She shrugged, tucking a renegade strand of hair behind her ear as she looked up into his sheepish visage with bright green eyes. The one good thing about taller people was that they blocked out the sun's rays when they stood in front of her, and she revelled in not having to stare into glaring sunlight even as she cursed her genetics to hell and back.

"Not to worry, you doofus. I'm not annoyed by it or anything, mostly because it was true once upon a time. You are forgiven." Sakura murmured sweetly, tone sagely and gentle as she summoned the most genuine smile she could manage considering her unpleasant circumstances.

Kiba's dark cheeks reddened significantly under that expression, and he had to bite his lip at the dazzling quality to her expression as she craned her neck to look up at him. Goddamn was she gorgeous as fuck

Before he could even utter a word of thanks her way, a sultry voice, eerily and gratingly familiar, sounded from not too far away, an edge of hostility lying dormant in their tone as they both turned to face the newcomer.

"Hey, Sasuke! You finally made it!" Naruto exclaimed with a jubilant grin, expression wilting slightly when he noted Saya's presence alongside him as they walked along the hot sand towards them hand in hand. It didn't last long, however, as his full-wattage grin blossomed across his features once more when he noted the straggler that was walking off to the side of the couple.

"Ohhh, Itachi-nii! It's great to see you again!" The blonde boomed loudly, tone seeping with unadulterated admiration for the elder of the Uchiha siblings as he ran over to meet with them half way.

Sakura felt her heart flutter at the mention of her love, hardly stuttering a beat at the sight of Saya as she admired the way the sunlight hit Sasuke's covered body. Unlike the other men around her, who were in varying stages of undress, the raven haired Uchiha remained impeccably pristine as ever, and his unearthly good looks were only enhanced a thousandfold with the addition of his older brother.

Itachi had been Sakura's very first crush as a little girl, and she would be forever weak to his moody stare and poster boy beauty.

He was the literal definition of prince charming, with long mahogany tresses tied back at the base of his skull that flowed sensually down his back and the darkest eyes she had ever seen in her life. They sparkled with wisdom and intellect, and were second only to Sasuke's. Whilst Itachi's were expressive, they were cautious around everyone; Sasuke's were often contemplatively broody, but an open book to her.

That contrast was one of the very factors that helped the pinkette to transition from one brother to the other—for how could she possibly hope to grow close to a man whose eyes betrayed nothing of what he was truly feeling inside?

Never the less, Sakura shared an amicable relationship with the older man, adored him as he did her, and the pull of longing in her tummy was a confused mixture of feminine appreciation and awe that stemmed from the platonic and sexual notions within her. He had always had the ability to make her insides a sticky mess of wonton desire, but this was just ridiculous.

Kiba smirked at the mounting fluster brewing within the pinkette, and slipped away to find Shino with a wordless glance over his shoulder at her preoccupied features. It was clear there was no room for him to intervene here, that she had a clear preference, and so the dark haired man slipped away with a wry smile on his lips. He couldn't ever win against an Uchiha; young or old.

Itachi's expression was as considerate as always as he looked into Naruto's eyes with the patience of a saint. Very few had ever been able to handle the blonde in full-throttle, but the elder man had always had a knack for cracking tough nuts and keeping them humoured with grace, and Naruto was no different. In fact, Itachi had a truly soft-hearted disposition, and was besotted with the younger man; for he had been a true friend to his little brother, and he would always be indebted to him for keeping him safe where he couldn't.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world. It has been far too long since I saw you and Sasuke last, and while I'm in town I'd like to touch base with you both. Mother would kill me if I did anything less." Itachi stated resolutely, tenor smooth and rich with eloquence as he smiled gently at the two boys—men, he internally corrected himself—who were his family.

Sasuke looked a little bit ruffled by the evident concern in Itachi's voice, but the pleasure of being in his presence once more overrode that. They really were as close as siblings could be, as neither had been so comfortable in the presence of others in a very long time. Naruto was likened to an excitable puppy, metaphorical tail wagging to and fro as he smiled with the brilliance of a thousand suns, whilst Sasuke was considerably tamer in his quiet joy.

Saya had remained impartial through it all, a thoughtful expression on her lovely face as she observed Itachi with the same wary awe that most women utilised when graced with his attentions. She had met his parents briefly many months beforehand when Sasuke had dropped by on his trip to Otogakure—where they now lived quite happily in retirement—but had missed the chance to be introduced to the ever-esteemed aniki that Sasuke adored so implicitly. Now, up close and personal, she could see why he was so well-liked by those around him, for he had a magnetism and charisma that rivalled that of her lover's.

The beauty was pulled from her musings when another voice entered the fray, an abased shyness to their tone making them immediately discernible from the noise projecting around them.

"You're just like fine wine, Itachi nii-san. Timeless and better looking with age, it seems."

Said man levelled the newcomer with a curious stare, turning to face her fully as she approached him before recognition flickered across his handsome features mere moments later. Itachi was genuinely taken aback. He had not expected to meet her here.

"And just like your namesake suggests, you blossomed into a beauty without compare. Hello, Sakura. It has been far too long." Itachi responded softly, the kindness of his disposition not going unnoticed to those around them.

He had visibly melted into a man who was completely at ease with his surroundings, his natural charm wafting off of him in droves as he sent Sakura his most sensual smile yet. One thing Itachi was fatally weak to was an attractive woman, but what he loved more so than even that was the fact that this very woman was so dear to his heart. He had grown up fostering a brotherly bond with both Naruto and Sakura, and he felt very strongly about them; they may not be his own flesh and blood, but he cared for them just the same. And seeing how beautifully they had both grown up, into upstanding adults with the same purity of heart as they had had twenty years ago, was truly gratifying.

Sakura's cheeks were on fire, and she was sure that they would liquefy into nothingness should he keep staring at her with the smouldering intensity that all Uchiha men had miraculously mastered.

He was just as attractive, inside and out, as he had been the last time she had seen him, and she was humbled by his praise.

"It isn't fair, you know. You just keep getting better and better to look at, and here I am, unchanged and frumpy as always." Sakura mused breathily, heart jump starting into overdrive as he reached out to brush his thumb against her jaw. He chuckled at the perpetual pout of her lips, and he couldn't help but ponder on how malleable they would inevitably be against his own even as he parted them to speak.

"Trust me when I say that you are as far from frumpy as can be. In fact, your loveliness is as such that angels would surely weep in your presence, imōto-chan."

The affectionate nickname of her youth made her heart skip a beat, and she dazzled all within vicinity of her with her brightest smile yet. It had been the right thing to do, bringing her to the beach. That was the one thought that flittered through Naruto's mind as he watched their interaction with tender eyes. Itachi had always had this aura about him that soothed the pain in others, and made them their truest self in his presence.

If anyone could lick her wounds clean, it was him.

Throughout the entirety of their exchange, Sasuke had to suppress his urge to bury his brother six feet under; an unsettling tidal wave of jealousy dragging him down with it as he watched the colour rise in Sakura's cheeks when his brother wrapped her up in a friendly embrace that was too close for comfort.

Too… cosy.

Too familiar.

Too disgusting for words.

A part of him was sure it was merely because Itachi was his brother, not hers. He should be hugging him like that, not her.

But as he observed the curling of his elder sibling's fingertips against the supple flesh of Sakura's covered body, and the deepening slouch of his imposing stature folding around hers like he belonged there (like he was a part of the puzzle that made up the pink haired woman's entire existence as he knew it), Sasuke knew that that was the furthest thing from the truth he had ever pondered upon.

Deep down, in his heart of hearts, the raven haired Uchiha subliminally recognised that that was where he wanted to be—entangled within the spider web of Sakura's light, lost in the warmth of her arms as Itachi was.

His tightening vice grip on Saya's hand was the only physical descriptor of his displeasure, but as the aforementioned woman glanced up at his handsome profile in order to gauge his expression, she found that there was only a single emotion discernible to her keen eyesight.

And it was one that chilled her to the bone and turned her blood into ice water.

Love.

It was love.

But the bigger question, the one of most import, was for who that love was so evidently pronounced for.

Tell me, Sasuke. Is it Itachi-san… or Sakura-san? Which do you care for more that you would look so forlorn on their behalf? Which of them… do you love more than me…?


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…TBC…

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Ending Remarks: And the plot thickens. If this comes off as nonsensical drivel; it is. I apologise, my writer's block it getting the better of me, so I am merely unloading in this chapter.

I will try to be more consistent next time.

Please consider leaving me a review.

Until next time!

-x-R i n-x-