Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

Rated T: Due to coarse language.


"If I pulled a you on you, you wouldn't like that shit."


Waving the wand once more over lashes already curled and lathered into dusty, feathered splays of primped perfection, Sakura caps her mascara shut and haphazardly tosses it into the top drawer of her bathroom vanity. She's stalled for long enough; if she's really going to go through with this spur of the moment decision that manifested itself during an all-out tantrum last night, she really needs to get a move on it. It's the least she owes the fragments of powder blue porcelain plates now lining the bottom of the kitchen trash can.

Now is the time for action. Consequences will be for the morning.

"Sakura! Gaawwwdd, you take longer than Ino!"

"Coming!" Sniffling in quick succession to clear her nose so that she at least sounds somewhat like a normal, composed human being and most certainly not like someone who's moments away from disintegrating into a shrieking, sobbing, shaking mess. That was last night. And the night before that.

Arms crossed over her chest, Temari lounges against the wall in the narrow hallway of their shared three-bedroom apartment, boots already on feet impatiently shifting in place. Her gaze quickly lifts from the screen of her cellphone when Sakura hesitantly steps out of the bathroom.

Sakura gives her best attempt at a smile, but immediately knows it comes out all wrong when Temari's sharply painted eyes narrow in suspicion.

"Are you sure you feel up to this? You know Ino's not really going to hold it against you if you don't go."

Shoulders slumping in defeat at so quickly being called out on her farce, Sakura sighs with good humor, this time almost sounding convincing.

"Yeah, right. Ino not hold a grudge for missing her twenty-first birthday? She's made us celebrate her very existence every day this week."

"Don't remind me, my kidneys sincerely hate me already," Temari mutters, shouldering off the wall to lead the way downstairs to the kitchen where an exuberant pair of shrieks has Sakura fighting back the reflex to plug her ears.

"Ohhhhh, Hinaaattaaa," Tenten croons as Sakura rounds the corner into the overcrowded kitchen.

The heiress is her usual quivering, blushing self, eyes looking everywhere but at the two people intently staring her down with matching cat-that-got-the-canary looks.

"Ino, Tenten, what the hell are you doing now? Could you sound any more like dying banshees?" Temari scoffs, hand grabbing for the nearest bottle of opened liquor within reach despite her earlier comment to Sakura.

Ino sticks her tongue out, flicking her head in a way to send her whip-like ponytail bouncing playfully over her shoulder. On Ino it looks flawlessly natural, but Sakura knows better than to think Ino hadn't practiced that move a hundred times over.

More like a million.

Already, the blonde birthday girl has donned the articles of her privilege: a hot pink satin sash trimmed in gold to make sure everyone knows why today is the most important day of the year, and a rhinestone studded tiara perched carefully on her head in case they can't read. Sakura rolls her eyes, but she truly wouldn't have her best friend any other way.

Ino knows how to celebrate life and Sakura could really use something in her life worth celebrating right about now.

Through with teasing Hinata for the moment, Tenten turns to the rest of the group with a knowing gleam in her eye.

"Shots?"

"Shots!" Ino takes up the cry, already racing over to the laptop perched on the living room mantel to select just the right song before they begin their night of debauchery, on this, the day of her birth.

Hustling back into the kitchen on heels alarmingly tall, Ino accepts the shot glass passed to her by Temari and all the girls raise them high overhead as the speakers pulse loud enough for Sakura to feel the music resonate in her bones.

"Let this be a night of bad decisions and no regrets and may you always love and envy me," Ino toasts, knocking her shot back.

"Here's to bad decisions alright," Temari deadpans.

"And no regrets!" Tenten cheers.

Sakura clinks glasses with Hinata, thankful that at least one person in their group can be relied on to keep her head level tonight.

It certainly won't be me.

She follows the thought with two more shots.


"When the roof was on fire, you never let me know."


Sakura is slightly overwarm and her head feels just a tad too heavy for her neck to support, but she follows on the heels of Ino's entourage as they leave behind the quieter residential streets of tired, sagging duplexes rented out to too many careless students year after year. A few houses are in the midst of their own revelries, with college students cat-calling the squad of black-clad girls strolling down the sidewalk behind a high pony-tailed leader who never just walks, but struts.

Sakura fumbles distractedly with her bracelets after half catching the remark of some inebriated fool she can only assume was aimed at her due to words such as 'natural' and 'pink.'

How original.

It's not until they're approaching the rowdier apartment complexes nearer to their destination that she is truly given reason to pause as, lo and behold, who could that be playing beersbee in the scraggly front lawn across the street?

His housemate.

Suigetsu sure is awfully far from home tonight. Did Sasuke kick him and Jugo out so that he and – No!

She wasn't going to let her thoughts wander down that particular rabbit hole tonight.

Of course, as luck would have it, whatever duo Suigetsu and his teammate are playing against is a little too far past mildly intoxicated and their efforts send the Frisbee flying far and wide of the target.

Sakura can hear Suigetsu's groan of complaint that there's no way he's going to be the one to fetch the plastic disk. His partner shouts out a plea for help from the girls just as the Frisbee scitters across the lawn to rest on the sidewalk at their feet.

Sakura's eyes widen at the offending piece of scuffed up plastic.

"Sakura?"

Tenten expertly returns the Frisbee to the field of play with the flick of her wrist, but Suigetsu's attention is no longer on his so-called competition as he looks the assemblage of girls over, eyes alighting on their obvious clubbing attire.

Sakura wants to hide when his eyes return to her figure, a curious twist of his lips setting Sakura's nerves on end.

He knows.

How could he not when he shares the same apartment with him?

And now he sees me all dressed up like this. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where we're going. And he's definitely going to tell –

Sakura clenches her fists.

What do I care? I want him to know.

"And where are you fine ladies off to this evening?" Suigetsu asks, languidly approaching them. He's nothing but a snake nearing for the fatal strike as far as Sakura is concerned. However, she's spared from responding to the question pointedly directed toward her.

"No place that would let you in," Temari replies cuttingly, entirely unflinching when Suigetsu's face contorts into one of his best sarcastic snarls.

"Oh har har, bitch. Bite me."

"You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you, you sick fuck?"

"Maybe," he grins slyly. But the exchange isn't enough to divert him from Sakura's clearly uncomfortable form as she maneuvers herself to the other side of her friends, putting them between her and the boy with the too sharp teeth.

"You know, Sakura, you recovered more quickly than I'd have expected. It looks like I didn't give you enough credit."

Yet, his words seem contradicting to his expression with his eyebrows raised dubiously as though waiting for Sakura to prove him right so that he may retract his most recent statement.

"Lay off, Suigetsu! Can't you see it's my birthday? I'm not dealing with your crap tonight."

"Your birthdayyyy?" Suigetsu drawls out, his tone layered with false surprise, "I had no idea! Here, let me give you a present, dollface."

Of course, presents from Suigetsu are only ever more insults.

Thrusting his middle finger up in mock offering, Suigetsu then turns on his heel to return to the game that has temporarily gone to time-out as the other team takes a moment to compose themselves after a heaving session in the nearby shrubbery.

Ino shouts obscenities at his retreating back, but Hinata's timid insistence that they simply forget him and move on with their night tempers her into reluctant agreement.

But it's just as the group starts moving again that Suigetsu decides to land one final blow to Sakura's wavering stability.

"Hey, Sakura! I'll let Sasuke know you're doing just fine, ok?!"

Suigetsu's false cheer and sincere promise has Sakura's teeth grinding together.

Let him find out.

She doesn't care. She refuses to.


"Gold up in my, gold up in my teeth."


The music is loud, the dance floor is sticky, and Sakura can't hear what Tenten is saying directly into her ear.

"What?!" Sakura asks, over-exaggerating her expression to compensate for the poor sound quality.

Tenten rolls her eyes in defeat, instead opting to drag Sakura along by the hand, cutting a way through the swarm of bodies in a way that Sakura can only admire.

As they near the stairwell that will take them up to the balcony and rooftop bar area, Tenten releases her hold on Sakura to exuberantly mount the stairs two at a time.

She's been spending way too much time with Lee.

"I want to buy the first round of drinks tonight," Tenten explains, looking over her shoulder to make sure Sakura is following her, "We'd be waiting in line forever down on the main floor. You'll help me carry them?"

Sakura nods agreeably, suddenly finding herself in the mood to take a bath in a barrel of vodka. Maybe that'd numb her to the humiliation of that night.

"Soooo," Tenten hesitates, "How exactly are you holding up, Sakura? I didn't really think you'd come with us tonight, to be honest."

Sakura catches up and pauses on the landing leading up to the final stint of stairs.

"I…I'm trying not to think about it."

She doesn't like the way Tenten's expression saddens at this admittance, doesn't want to feel any more pathetic than she already does, and doesn't want to exhaust all her energy by putting on a show of false happiness, but right now, that's easier than staying at home and questioning everything she could do differently to make him choose her.

"Come on, let's go," Sakura tilts her head in the direction of the rooftop, taking the lead.

Tenten's assumption that the upper floor wouldn't be as crowded is barely founded as they again nudge their ways through a sea of barely shifting people. Luckily, a sweet-faced grin from Tenten earns them quick attention from the bartender who has their order filled in record time before quickly turning to the next group of girls vying for favoritism to get them prompt service. With Tenten taking the more cumbersome share of the drinks, Sakura holds a glass in each hand as they make the return trip downstairs, trying her best not to slosh the liquid whose identity she can't quite place.

"What is this stuff?" she at last asks, eyes caught on the fine flecks suspended in the glass.

"Goldschlager, duh," Tenten answers, expecting that to be answer enough.

Sakura doesn't know how she feels about consuming precious metals. She's not a doctor yet, but something tells her the human body isn't meant to digest gold. Still, given her mood this evening, she can't really say personal well-being is at the top of her priority list. What could a little more pain do? Shrugging, she takes a sip from her glass, miraculously avoiding any spills as the two girls head down the stairwell into the main area just in time for the strobe lights to inject them into a warped perception of movement as the lights zap on and off, laser-like streaks of color making Sakura's eyes spin. Even Tenten seems confounded as to how to move in conditions like this. It's as though their eyes and bodies are operating on completely different communication systems, their feet moving in the wrong directions at the wrong speed.

Thankfully, the light show ends after a few moments of staggering deception and Sakura locates the bar along with Hinata and Temari.

"Where's Ino?" Sakura questions, as Tenten struggles to pull up alongside her in the crowd to hand off drinks.

"With a distraction," Temari answers, 'distraction' being her term for boys Ino only plays with like a spider at home in its web catching flies.

Sakura has to agree it's a pretty good way to put it as Ino catches sight of her friends together, leaving her dance partner abruptly all alone in mid-grind as she sashays her way through bodies with practiced grace.

"This tiara is giving me a headache," Ino complains, slipping it from her head to hand to Sakura in exchange for her drink.

"I don't want this!" Sakura protests.

"Ah, ah, ah," Ino wags her finger admonishingly, "It's my birthday."

"The most over-rated holiday of the year," Sakura mumbles with false agitation.

"Pssshh, you know you love it, Forehead."

"I most certainly – "

"Heeeyyyy! Saakuurrraaaa-chaaann!"

There's only one person in the world Sakura knows whose voice could so distinctly penetrate over the din of the crowded club.

Naruto.

Said bouncing blond in all of his blindingly orange glory is practically on top of her when she spins around to answer his call.

"Naruto!" Sakura complains as she practically bashes her nose into his chest, "What are you doing here?"

"Hinata-chan told me you guys were headed here tonight. Oh yeah, happy birthday, Ino!" Naruto tacks on as an obvious afterthought that isn't missed by the birthday girl who merely offers a sniff of acceptance before returning to her prowl on the dance floor with Tenten and Temari following closely behind, abandoning their empty glasses.

Sakura raises an eyebrow at Hinata who is too busy studying her lap to notice.

"I didn't know you were exactly the club-going type," Sakura replies incredulously.

"Eh, not really," Naruto scratches the back of his head, "But Kiba and Shikamaru have some lame-ass assignment due at midnight they just started on, and last I checked on Choji he was still on the toilet with a bad case of the – "

"Stop," Sakura holds up her hand, "I really don't need to know."

Naruto snickers and Sakura wants to bonk him on the head for his immaturity, but refrains. Her limbs are starting to feel sluggish, not that she particularly minds. It's almost kind of relaxing to not feel so much pent up rage when she doesn't have an outlet for all her frustrations.

"So, I heard this thing from Sasuke…" Naruto begins sheepishly.

Hello, rage, my old friend.

Sakura groans, but a small part of her is touched that Naruto would check up on her, going entirely out of his way to show up here tonight just to talk to her about the issue she's been working so determinedly to turn into a non-issue if only people would drop the matter…

Yet, she recognizes the steel-like resolve in Naruto's eyes. He's not going to leave her alone about this, not when he suspects (and rightfully so) that she's hurting.

She groans again, stamping her foot slightly in frustration, "Fine. Follow me."

It takes some time to weave their way back to the stairwell as Sakura isn't nearly so adept as Tenten or Ino and Naruto might as well be walking with two left feet when it comes to navigating the dance floor painted in ever-changing lights. But eventually she leads him to the outside stairwell, stopping on the landing she and Tenten had rested at earlier. From here, they're only two stories from the ground, so rather than a skyline view, they're offered an overlook of the passersby on the sidewalk entering and exiting the club. The scent of deliciously greasy something for sell from the food trucks strategically stationed at the curb just outside the club and all the other bars lining the street has Sakura taking deep breaths of longing.

But really, food isn't the only thing she needs right now. Turning her back to the street to face Naruto, she takes another sip of her drink, biting back a smile as Naruto scrunches his face in comic scrutiny.

"I didn't think you drank?"

"Yeah, well, it's been that kind of week," Sakura runs a tired hand through her hair, offering her drink to Naruto for a taste. Curiously, he sniffs at it before taking a larger sampling than Sakura would consider polite, but she doesn't comment on it. In truth, she really doesn't have much taste for most alcohol and this particular drink has her running her tongue across her teeth periodically to check for those damned gold flecks to ensure none have gotten embarrassingly caught.

Naruto's grimace has her laughing as she sees sparkling glimmers dotting his tongue as he sticks it out in displeasure.

"Guuuhhh! That stuff is shit," Naruto whines, scraping his tongue across the roof of his mouth as though that would rid him of the offending flavor.

"It's not the greatest," Sakura agrees casually, taking another sip just to get a reaction from her amusing friend. Finally calming down, Naruto leans against the railing alongside Sakura, sharing the barely glimpsed view of the rooftop area and its many patrons.

"Soooo, about Sasuke," Naruto begins, his tone surprisingly serious, "what exactly happened?"

Sakura regards her long-time friend with apprehension, wondering just how much is necessary to re-hash when she really just wants to have her memory wiped clean of the whole event.

"How much did he tell you?"

Naruto clucks his tongue in irritation, "You know the bastard, asking him for details makes his asshole pucker. All he said was that you blew up at him for nothing – " Naruto sticks his hands up in defense to ward off Sakura's sharp gaze, "His words, not mine. And he said you two were done."

"How typical of him," Sakura all but growls, "Of course all the blame is on me."

"So what did happen?" Naruto implores impatiently. Sakura wonders if in retrospect it was such a grand idea to introduce Naruto to Cosmo magazines. It's certainly made him more gossipy and nosy to know what's going on in the lives of his close friends.

Sakura inhales loudly through her nose, trying to piece together in her mind the shortest route to answer Naruto's question with the truth. Glancing at her phone to check the time for no other reason than to stall, her heart throbs a little painfully at the reminder of her current situation as her wallpaper was hastily changed back to one of the generic factory preset options after that horrible night.

At last she calmly begins with as much nonchalance as she can muster.

"So, you recall how two days ago was our one year anniversary?"

Naruto nods attentively, mouth set in a flat line.

"Well, I decided to get really into it. I mean, this semester has been hell for the both of us with the amount of work and studying, so we've barely had any time to ourselves. But since midterms just finished up, I thought we'd finally have a slight lull so we could actually celebrate.

"So, I got Ino and Temari out of the house for the night which didn't take too much begging because Ino's been driving everyone crazy with forcing them to do anything and everything she wants. And I got everything cleaned up and made this really amazing dinner I got the recipe for from his mom after he bragged about it. He was supposed to come over and he never showed up."

Sakura pauses to finish the remainders of her drink, happy to have the glass drained but anxious to no longer have it as a distraction.

"Why not?" Naruto asks, brows furrowed in expectation that he's not going to find the reason very acceptable.

Sakura smirks, as though about to deliver the punchline.

"He forgot," she explains with a fake smile that doesn't reach her downturned eyes, "That's what he texted me at nearly midnight after I repeatedly tried calling him," Sakura's fingers turn white as she clenches her glass a little more tightly, voice turning bitter, "I was actually worried something had happened to him. Like he got in a car crash or something on the way over."

Naruto appears as though he's about to comment, but Sakura beats him to it, determined to get everything out in one go.

"But he's a liar or," Sakura gives a hiccup-like laugh, "Maybe not. It wouldn't be unlike him to actually forget about something like that," about me goes unsaid, "But I found out where he really was. He was with Karin."

The name sounds weird in her own voice. It's just two syllables and it doesn't convey nearly enough of the betrayal that she feels it should.

Naruto's nostrils flare in anger for his friend.

"I saw it online. You know, while I was worrying about everything under the moon that could have happened to him to explain why he didn't show up and why he wasn't answering any of my messages. Apparently, she had some kind of poster presentation she was giving and Sasuke decided to show up and support her," Sakura hates the tightness in her throat, constricting her voice into a petty, pitched cry, but she can't let up now, "And she must have done really well because they went out to celebrate afterward."

Rapidly, Sakura pulls up the photo on her phone, the photo she had taken a screenshot of and saved as evidence to throw in Sasuke's face if he even dared deny his actions. Not that he ever did. He didn't even recognize what he did as wrong; he didn't even see the need to disclaim what he did, much less apologize.

Sakura disgustedly angles the screen so Naruto can get a look at the image she brought up. An image showing a happy redhead dressed in a tight white blouse and a hand pressed to the chest of a blank-faced Sasuke, their obviously just delivered dinners and half-consumed glasses of wine laid out appealingly on the table before them. Sakura was glad she hadn't touched the anniversary meal she had prepared for she would have thrown it all up when coming across that picture for the first time.

Because Karin had always bothered Sakura in some small way ever since she was introduced to her. Karin, who was always texting Sasuke with questions and requests to meet up to work on homework for their shared classes. Karin, who always found a way to wriggle her way to Sasuke's side when Sakura wasn't looking. Karin, whose compliments always seemed to be concealing snarky comparisons between herself and Sakura with the aim of putting the aspiring medic down. Whether it was gushing over how thin Sakura was when Karin had to deal with fitting her annoying curves into jeans or how she was jealous over Sakura's short, easy to manage hair (always said while she curled her fingers around the ends of her own long locks). Sakura just didn't trust the girl.

But Sasuke did.

"You know I'll gladly punch him in the face for you, Sakura-chan," Naruto promises seriously, and Sakura's heart thaws ever so slightly at his loyalty, even knowing that this situation likely won't change Naruto's friendship with Sasuke – something that has always been oddly dysfunctional, yet enduring nonetheless.

And she doesn't really believe she wants it to. This is something that exists just between her and Sasuke and perhaps she always knew their relationship was destined to go up in flames. How long had she desperately and publicly pined after the Uchiha until one day he just suddenly and abruptly gave in? Maybe their relationship had only happened due to Sakura's persistence. At the time, she had seen it as a positive reflection on herself, but perhaps it was a sign that she only "won" because Sasuke gave up, not in.

"No," Sakura denies his offer, knowing it'd just make the situation even messier, "I guess I just need to move on. I mean, what was I thinking? Like Sasuke would ever actually care about me?" Sakura doesn't mean for her voice to warble so precariously, doesn't mean to let all the self-doubt show so plainly, "You know what our relationship was like," she looks at Naruto for confirmation, but only sees surprise and pity so she turns her gaze around to the street below, "He could barely find time for me and when we did hang out it was almost never one-on-one. It's like he couldn't stand the thought of being with me by himself. Like I was really that awful."

Sakura hangs her head, refusing to raise it up when she feels Naruto's arm settle around her shoulders, his side pressing against hers.

"Don't even think that way, Sakura," Naruto replies sternly, "You're amazing and Sasuke is…well, Sasuke is a moron for treating you the way he has. But I know he doesn't think so little of you. Even if he never shows it."

But Sakura doesn't want to hear it, doesn't want to hear anything that might give her hope at the possibility of everything being mended because it was all just a huge misunderstanding due to Sasuke's inability to properly communicate. He's a grown man. He doesn't get that excuse anymore. And why should she be willing to commit to a relationship when the person she's committing to can't even have the decency to at least sometimes put her first? Why should she be the one to settle for such treatment? Why is that all she deserves?

Why couldn't it have just been perfect like she had always dreamed?

"That's not good enough for me, Naruto," Sakura replies, ice chips in her tone.

"No," Naruto agrees, "I don't think it should be."

Taking the glass forgotten in Sakura's hands, Naruto sets it on the tray of a passing waiter, ignoring the employee's frown of displeasure.

Turning her toward him, Naruto envelopes Sakura in one of his famous Naruto hugs and Sakura can't find it in her to mind the suffocating arms squeezing every last bit of breath out of her lungs.

"I'm still going to kick his ass for you," Naruto affirms.

"Thanks," Sakura cracks a weak smile, hidden against Naruto's shoulder as she wipes at the moisture collecting in her eyes. Stepping back, Sakura crosses her arms against her chest, suddenly aware of the breezy night and her lack of Temari's style that always has the blonde toting a scarlet leather jacket wherever she goes.

"How about we go back inside for drinks?" Sakura suggests, "I think I'm ready to actually have some fun tonight."

"You got it!" Naruto beams.


"Your head has no right to say no.
Tonight it's "ready, set, go.""


Of course, when they do make it back to the bar, Sakura has to purchase Naruto's drink for him as he's not quite of age yet. A point that Naruto enjoys as it saves him from having to open his constantly depleted wallet.

"You're paying me back for this," Sakura tells him as she passes the beer of his choice over, watching his shit-eating grin melt into shock.

"But Sakura-chan!"

"No buts."

"N-Naruto-kun. Sakura-chan."

Turning to the timid voice that just barely penetrates the noise of the club during a transition in songs, Sakura is surprised to find her shy friend with what appears to be the same glass of Goldschlager clasped between her hands, now half full.

"Hinata!" Naruto exuberantly greets, "You're drinking that stuff too?"

At Naruto's sickened expression, Hinata blushes, looking down at her feet, and Sakura again fights the urge to slap him upside the head for not taking into account how sensitive Hinata can be.

"Sakura, there you are!"

Sakura's head whips up to see Ino boldly cutting a path through a dense cluster of dancers, not afraid to give a hip check or a soft shove where needed. Tenten, decidedly more polite about it, tries to keep up on the feisty blonde's heels.

"You lost Temari?" Sakura asks, though more for commentary than actual concern over her housemate. Out of all her friends, Temari knows best how to look after herself and handle anyone who gets a little too handsy or aggressive with her.

Ino waves off the remark, "Nah, she found her own distraction for the night. We just left to get another round of drinks to refuel. Also, if you really want to have a good laugh tonight, you should look for the bright green beast making space for himself over by the DJ's booth," Ino suggests, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder back in said direction.

"G-green b-beast?" Hinata questions uncertainly.

"Lee," Tenten answers with an exasperated sigh, "Neji must've slipped up in keeping an eye on him because Lee has definitely been drinking something."

"No way!" Naruto crows, "I've gotta see this," he says with relish, knowing how legendarily ridiculous Lee can be after so much as a sip of alcohol.

"Naruto, wait up!" Ino cries just as he turns to go check out the spectacle, "Take Hinata with you. She's never seen Lee when he gets like this."

It's a total lie, but Naruto either doesn't know or doesn't care, holding out his hand for Hinata to grab onto so he can assist in pulling the shy Hyuga through the unyielding masses.

"She's totally crushing on him right now," Ino turns to whisper in Sakura's ear, a sly grin splitting her glossed lips.

Sakura's eyes widen at this bit of news, wondering how a quiet, timid sweetheart like Hinata could find herself falling for almost her complete opposite.

But who knows? Maybe that's what the strongest sort of love is made from. How would Sakura know?

Noting the odd expression marring her best friend's face, Ino decides to tote Sakura along on her way to the bar, fearlessly tossing elbows to nudge her way beside Tenten who has already placed her order.

"Don't worry, Sakura. Dr. Ino has just the pick-me-up to prescribe for you," Ino winks, ignoring the eyebrow lift this comment earns her (as well as Sakura's pointed indication she already has a drink) as she leans over the counter to flash the male bartender her most practiced 'come hither' look. Sakura takes the moment of respite as Ino flirts her way ahead of the other waiting patrons, likely even getting a discount knowing her. Bringing out her phone, she taps her way through a list of unopened texts, most of which were sent from the girls she's with asking where she ran off to at various points in the night, one from her mom asking if she's remembering to take her vitamins (uuugghhh), and one from…

Sakura inhales sharply, thankful there's no way anyone could hear such a reaction amongst all the chatter and music. Heart racing erratically, Sakura holds her breath before opening the message, eyes greedily racing to devour every single word.

'Is this some kind of cry for attention?'

Attached is a picture of her and the other girls somewhere outside, passing under a street lamp. It was taken sometime earlier tonight during their walk to the club.

Suigetsu.

Her hands want to strangle something. Preferably the little rat that had to be a complete creep and sneak a picture of her to send back to him.

As if he has any right to keep tabs on me! As if I need to justify what I do or where I go. I'm supposed to be nothing to him and now he cares! Now he wants to fucking know what I - !

"Whoooaaa, girl, easy there," Ino says, face fretful as she turns with drinks in hand, "Your shoulders are shaking."

Sakura squeezes her eyes shut, tilting her head back as she mouths a silent 'Why?' to the ceiling.

"Look at this," Sakura grits out between clenched teeth, bringing her phone up to eye level for Ino to read.

Ino's baby blues widen in surprise, mouth dropping open.

"What a conceited ass! He thinks that you going out to have fun is some desperate attempt to make him jealous?" Ino spits. Her venom is appreciated, but Sakura doesn't want to admit how close her words hit home. In truth, that had pretty much been her line of thinking earlier in the day when still contemplating if she could piece back together the fractured segments of her dignity to risk being seen out in public at one of the bars most frequented by her fellow classmates. Although it's not as if she had planned on sending documentation of her evening to flaunt her reformed self in front of Sasuke, but the sentiment had certainly been in those half-formed, half-crazed ideas.

"Ignore that asshole," Ino advises rather brazenly, holding her drink high to accentuate her proclamation, "You're too beautiful and too smart to put up with his bullshit."

Gratefully, Sakura accepts her drink to clink with Ino's, appreciating her friend's sympathy, knowing that underneath the self-centered show Ino has been putting on the last few days, a lot of it was for the benefit of Sakura – to take some attention away from the heartbroken tragedy that just wanted some time to piece herself back together in silence. Ino had done an applaudingly good job at keeping their other well-meaning friends at bay to allow her to do this.

"Thanks, Ino," Sakura smiles sincerely this time.

"Chicks before dicks," Ino grins in return, "Now, I think you owe the birthday girl a dance."

Sakura laughs as she's dragged behind the blonde who seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to her absinthe sour.


"Crashing, hit a wall.
Right now I need a miracle."


Sakura doesn't know how it started, or how she even managed to clamber up the three foot stage without making a complete fool of herself in her current state and too short skirt, but she finds herself dancing face-to-face with Ino on the small, raised platform the DJ's booth resides on. Normally, the area is off- limits to the patrons whose less than sober dispositions tend to make them a hazard around the expensive equipment, but perhaps the two small girls were overlooked as a non-issue by the nearby bouncer keeping a close eye on them.

It's a decision the man may soon regret as others start to follow Ino and Sakura's example. But rather than demand the dancers return to the designated dancing floor, the DJ merely continues to play, switching tracks and starting up a decidedly faster-paced jazzy electro mix that has Sakura swinging her head back and forth without a care in the world for what she looks like.

Ino's drink has long since disappeared, but Sakura's hand still clings to her own, though admittedly it's mostly watered down with melted ice at this point.

"I love you, Sakura!" Ino proclaims loudly in Sakura's ear, giggling like a little girl as she leans forward into a shimmy.

Sakura laughs, being quite familiar with Ino's affectionate antics whilst drunk, and knowing she isn't far from reaching the same level.

Probably be best to cut myself off for the night at this point. Don't want to be a total wreck tomorrow.

And yet even with this thought, she knocks back her drink for one last taste before setting the glass on top of the blaring speaker at her back.

Ino takes Sakura's hand, spinning her around before Sakura uses her momentum to send Ino into her own complimentary twirl. Ino can't help but laugh throughout the whole thing, yet impressively, her feet never betray her balance despite the treacherous height of her heels. Sakura can only envy her best friend's poise; in comparison, she has to stick to flats lest she break an ankle at every outing.

"Ino!"

Tenten comes bouncing up beside them, defying the laws of physics as she manages to find space amidst the growing number of bodies joining them on the raised platform. Delighted at being reunited with her friend she hasn't seen in the last half hour, Ino throws her arms around the brunette's neck refusing to let go. Reassuringly, Tenten pats her overdramatic (and intoxicated) friend on the back, while discreetly attempting to disengage herself from Ino's desperate grasp.

Sakura can't help but laugh at Tenten's wide-eyed, silent plea for help, but her laugh soon turns into a short shriek of surprise as the embrace of gravity pulls her backward. However, when her skull doesn't meet with a painful and disastrous collision with the less than disinfected floor, she learns that gravity wasn't the only entity at work in her impromptu plunge. Attached to the other end of her arm is a guy around her age with an apologetic grin on his face.

"Sorry, I just thought you might like a dance partner," he says in answer to Sakura's half-pissed, half-confused expression, "I didn't mean to make you fall."

Then you shouldn't have pulled me.

"So, will you dance with me?" he asks good-naturedly, releasing his hold on Sakura's arm now that he's gotten her attention.

Sakura is about to tell him to get lost and rejoin her friends, but one look at the guy swaying on his feet tells her he may be in a similar state as Ino. Perhaps, while dangerous, he hadn't had any ill intentions with dragging Sakura down to floor level.

What the hell…

"Sure."

She did come here to dance and forget all her woes, after all.

Elated, the boy turns Sakura around into the dance positon she has come to expect from all males in her age range. Inwardly sighing, she resigns herself to dance in place as one hand settles on her upper arm, the other at her hip as she moves against him.

It's a positon that while appearing easy, tends to put a lot of strain on the person in front, in Sakura's experience. Her thighs are burning with lactic acid as one song bleeds into the next and her partner begins to rely on her to support more and more of his weight as his system buzzes with alcohol and his one-track mind settles on a single pursuit.

As techno turns to more bubblegum pop, Sakura's eyes catch sight of something that has her anxiety returning ten-fold.

Akatsuki.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She's not exactly on terrible terms with them, but there's one particular member of their little rag-tag gang that Sakura would rather not run into so soon after her break-up with Sasuke. And while she doesn't currently see the elder Uchiha brother, where there's one, there's more.

The Akatsuki move as a pack.

Distractedly, Sakura tilts her head away from the lips running along the outer shell of her ear.

Right now she only sees the slick-haired sexist with the foul mouth and the tanned one covered in stitch-like tattoos, but it's only a matter of time.

Snapping back to her present situation, Sakura realizes she's allowed her partner's misbehavior to reach unacceptable levels during her distraction. Drifting hands is Sakura's first sign that it may be time to ditch and run, and she cranes her head back over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of where she last saw Ino and Tenten.

Gone.

Fantastic.

And while she's at it, she spots tall, blue, and sharky making his entrance. That's essentially the lightning before the thunder as far as she's concerned.

To add to the level of fantastic-ness, a hand roves over the gauzy material covering Sakura's ribcage, settling alongside her left breast. Sakura gently moves it, resting it high on her hip as a reprisal while her eyes continue to scan for her friends and path of escape.

Her partner doesn't seem to get the hint.

Instead, his other hand that had been tracing innocuous designs on her hip and outer thigh, dips down even lower, fingering the hem of her skirt, to touch the skin beneath it.

Fucking. Hell. No.

Sakura ends it there, stomping the heel of her foot down onto his toes and shoving his offending arms away from her body. She barely hears his grunt of pain as she swiftly slips through the surrounding crowd, cutting a beeline for the ladies room to collect her frazzled nerves in. But by eleven o'clock, the club has just about reached capacity as well as optimal levels for shoes to stick to floors. The added traction trips Sakura up just as she nears the door to her sanctuary and she throws her hands out to brace herself against the wall, crashing into it with enough force to cause twin shocks of pain to shoot up her wrists.

"Fuck," Sakura curses aloud, dazedly pushing open the door to the bathroom with her hip. Inside, the lights are glaring and, in Sakura's opinion, rather unflattering, casting harsh shadows on everyone's faces. Still, dozens of women line the wall of sinks to touch up lipstick and pat down disobedient hair. Sakura waits her turn in line for one of the stalls, biding her time by taking out her phone to shoot off a few quick texts to her friends in the hope of tracking down their whereabouts.

She's not surprised when she doesn't get a reply from Ino or Temari, but even Hinata?

Where are you guys?

Her tongue is fuzzy with the lingering sensation of the absinthe and she's reminded of the gold flecks from the night's first round of indulgence. Running her tongue once more across her teeth, Sakura impatiently glares at her phone as though that would coax a response out of her preoccupied friends.

Surprisingly, it seems to work as the small, green light winks at her for attention. Opening the text, Sakura's hopes crash through the floor as her mind processes the words staring back at her.

'I don't understand you. This whole situation is completely annoying and I'd be willing to just talk to you about it if you want to meet up.'

Sakura glowers at the screen, stiff with disbelief so that she has to be prompted from the girl behind her to either enter the open stall or get out of line.

Dumbly, Sakura walks into the enclosed shelter away from prying eyes, turning the lock and leaning back against the door for a moment to compose her thoughts.

What do I even want?

She can't say, and she still doesn't know as she stomps on the handle to flush the toilet before taking her place at the sink next to a hysterically sobbing woman with mascara streaming down her face and two of her friends fluttering helplessly around, trying to calm her down with placating words that work to little effect.

It's exactly the kind of scene Sakura had done her best to avoid with her own friends, and so she can sympathize with the young woman. Resolutely, she dries her hands under the whir of the automatic blower, already formulating her response.

Stopping inside the door of the bathroom, she lights up the screen of her phone to reply with: 'It's done. I didn't choose this ending. You did. You chose it again and again. Every single time you forgot me. Every single time you ignored me. Every single time you put something else before me. I have no more words for you. There's nothing to discuss.'

Immediately, her phone vibrates back.

'Where are you?'

Damn him. Damn him and this sudden change of heart. It's too little, too late, Sasuke!

She wants to cry. She wants to scream in frustration. She wants to kick a hole in the wall and seriously considers it for a moment, but decides it's not worth the broken toes.

With clenched fists, she bulldozes her way out into the crowds, single-mindedly aiming for the bar with every intention of claiming one of the few stools for herself to sit at and wait until she either spots one of her friends or they find her first. And maybe, just maybe, get a nightcap.

She all but dives for a seat just as one becomes vacated, upsetting a few of the nearby patrons in her aggressive seizing, but she's in no mood to care about what strangers think of her less than polite behavior. Foregoing the usual tricks and charms Ino tends to employ for quicker service, Sakura drums her fingers boredly over the polished wood of the bar top, in no particular hurry to be anywhere. It's likely that her friends have migrated to the rooftop area with its pleasing stringed lights and nighttime view, but Sakura doesn't feel like expending the energy to trek all the way up there should her efforts prove fruitless. They'll come around eventually in search of her.

At last the bartender takes notice of her forlorn expression and isolated self, hesitantly approaching to take her order. Sakura decides to do something she's never bothered with before at one of these establishments and actually requests a drink menu. It's just as she's perusing the laminated list that Temari taps her on the shoulder before thrusting a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in her face.

"Hey, glad I found you. Hold onto these, will you? I wrestled them away from Shikamaru because I'm a good person looking out for his lungs. If he comes by asking for them, play dumb at all costs. Even if he resorts to begging," the blonde instructs firmly.

"W-Wha – I –"

"Thanks, Sakura," Temari replies, hurrying back the way she had come. Sakura watches as she takes the door to the outdoor patio area where the tobacco-inclined like to loiter.

Shikamaru and Kiba must've finished their project…What the hell am I supposed to do with this?

Sakura sets the half empty box of cigarettes down with distaste, storing away the neon green lighter to keep it out of sight of any bouncers looking to remind patrons of their authority.

After finally choosing something dark and heavy, Sakura receives her selected poison and half pays attention to the muted images flickering on the TV screen above the bar. Anything to keep her mind away from the phone vibrating insistently from within her wristlet.

"Whoa there, short stuff. I think I'm going to need to see some I.D."

Sakura scowls to herself, collecting the vestiges of her patience to not completely flip out on the asshole currently hassling her. All things considered, she thinks that's pretty commendable of herself.

"If that's your choice of pick-up lines to check if I'm jailbait, you really need to work on your material, cree-eee-EEE – Kisame!" Sakura stutters, cutting off her spiteful barb as she turns to actually take a look at the man addressing her.

"In the flesh," Kisame assures, grinning. He reaches over to grab Sakura's bottle, inspecting the label and noting the proof with a short whistle.

"You don't take it easy, do you, squirt?"

"You really need to work on your phrasing," Sakura remarks, reaching for the newly purchased drink which Kisame seems hesitant to return.

Who are you, my mother?

Kisame gives a bark of laughter, resting back on his elbows to keep an eye on the crowd surrounding him.

"So, drinking alone tonight?"

Sakura stiffens, wondering if Kisame could possibly know about her current situation, but decides it's unlikely, or that if he did, it's not like he'd even care enough to comment on it. Rather, it's much more likely he's interested in knowing why Sakura isn't off dancing with her friends.

Waving her hand flippantly, Sakura answers, "Oh, they're around. It's been a rough week celebrating Ino's birthday every single day. I needed a breather."

Kisame nods as though he understands although Sakura truly doubts he can fully appreciate the energy one must expend to appease Ino during her birthweek.

"Why are you here? I thought I saw Hidan and Kakuzu lurking about earlier. Didn't really peg you for the bar crawling types." Sakura muses aloud.

Kisame runs a tired hand over his face, stretching the skin around his eyes.

"Believe me, I don't want to be here, but we're searching for a certain someone and it's been passed along to us that this is one of his most frequented hangouts. Though to be honest, I think tonight is looking like a bust."

"We'll be sure to bring it up at the next meeting, yeah."

Sakura swivels around in her seat to find the grinning long-haired Akatsuki that she's more than once had to question Ino about for confirmation of unrelatedness. Behind him, she catches sight of the shorter redhead with eyes too infuriatingly pretty for a man to possess.

"Deidara. Sasori," Sakura greets with a nod, bringing her bottle to her lips for something to do. This isn't exactly a cozy situation with so many Akatsuki gathering around. Even at the best of times she's always been a bit weary of them, what with all the tales Sasuke and Naruto have informed her of since they were in middle school. She doesn't know if even half of it is true, but even if a fraction of it is, she definitely doesn't want to be on these peoples' bad side.

"Well now, didn't expect something like that to suit your tastes," Deidara hums, his one uncovered eye fixed on the bottle resting between Sakura's hands, "I pictured you as more of a…Goldschlager type, yeah."

Sakura grimaces in revulsion, "Believe me, that's already been said and done tonight."

Deidara chuckles, covertly taking in the appearance of the young woman before him, noting the typical attire all the girls her age tend to don when going out to places like this. But Sakura doesn't appear to be in the club-going mood, especially not sitting all on her own with a drink that decidedly doesn't fit into the category of dainty cocktails.

"Well, you be careful, kiddo," Kisame advises jovially, patting Sakura on the head much to her disgruntlement, "Watch your drink. Don't walk home alone. All that rigmarole. There are a lot of vile types out there who'd love to take advantage of a sweet, young girl if they see the opportunity."

Patting her hair back into place with a displeased expression at having been so ruffled, Sakura catches Sasori's droll mutter that it looks like one such type is headed over here now.

Sakura understands what he means a second later as Hidan none too gently pushes his way toward his crew and Sakura, a smirk on his face that has creepy tingles racing up Sakura's spine. The guy really needs to work on looking less like a homicidal maniac…Then again, if some of the stories are true…

"I remember you!" he announces, intense violet eyes lighting up in recognition at Sakura's huddled form, her back pressing into the bar as he draws closer, "You're the little hot piece of ass that bandaged up my hand."

Sakura's eyebrow twitches, recalling the incident around half a year ago when she had been at the student gym and heard the wailing cries of a man caught between promising every foul form of punishment his small mind could come up with, and using every profanity under the sun to cow the man he had tripped over on the basketball court.

And all over what?

A minor sprained wrist.

Sasuke, Naruto, and some of the Akatsuki had been playing on the court and when they spotted Sakura passing by on her way to the weights, they hurriedly dragged her over to do damage control. If the staff caught Hidan (and the rest of them by association) causing such a ruckus one more time, they'd likely all be thrown out for good.

So, Sakura being the benevolent soul that she is, stopped to help, enduring countless vulgarities and lewd comments. It's an incident she never wants to repeat again.

"H-Hi," Sakura squeaks out, inwardly slapping herself for sounding so meek. That's not the kind of image one should create when facing off with a predator like Hidan.

"Do you have to be so crude?" Sasori sighs disgustedly, earning a sneer from Hidan.

"Watch it, pansy ass. Just because you and blondie here have something going on the fucking side over your artsy shit, doesn't mean the rest of us hot-blooded males are going to sit around like pussies when we see a hot bitch."

Sakura has to put considerable effort into not facepalming at that little diatribe.

Could he be anymore absurdly revolting?

"What the hell, man! What the fuck are you implying, yeah?" Deidara's anger is tangible as he takes a step toward the offending loudmouth of their group, making Sakura wish she could quietly slink away unnoticed to avoid the splash zone. She really doesn't want to wash blood out of her clothes tomorrow.

"You heard me, you little bitch. You look like a fucking woman. It's no wonder you got puppet boy over here confused," Hidan baits, crossing his arms in enjoyment as he watches the younger male implode before him, forcing Kisame to step in as peacemaker and restrainer.

"I think I'm going to, uh, go," Sakura says to no one in particular, snagging her drink and sliding off the stool.

"That'd probably be wisest," Sasori agrees blandly, wishing he could do much the same.

Just as she moves past him however, he stops her with what is intended to only be a message, but sounds like more of a warning when Sakura puts it into context.

"Sakura, Itachi is looking for you. There's something he said he wanted to discuss with you."

Sakura hesitates for a moment, knowing she's just wasting precious seconds to escape the impending brawl that is likely to draw the attention of said Uchiha over to this vicinity if he's not already on his way.

"Do you know what about?"

Sasori shrugs noncommittally, "Uchihas feel the need to be importantly secretive. My guess is it has something to do with his little brat of a brother."

Uuggghhh. So do all of the Akatsuki know about this?

But Sakura is too embarrassed to ask for clarification.

Looking her straight in the eyes, Sasori retains his usual stoic expression, but there is something slightly warmer about the way he speaks and Sakura is nearly startled out of her skin to feel the soft brush of his fingers skimming across her cheek with a whisper-like tickle.

"You shouldn't let him have so much of an effect on you. It dims your beauty."

Sakura doesn't know how to react to that, stammering out something barely comprehensible as she takes her leave, citing reasons like needing to find her friends and she has an early day tomorrow.


"If you wanted me you would just say so.
And if I were you, I would never let me go."


Scratching absentmindedly at her cheek, Sakura decides her first course of action will be to track down Temari since she's the only one she has a fairly good guess as to where she'll be. Sakura follows the flow of people bottlenecking through the door to the outside patio area which is really little more than a fenced in rectangle of concrete, a few picnic tables, and some neon signs advertising the brands offered on tap.

The air is thick and mixed with the scents of fifty-some different cigarettes and Sakura can't help the reflex to cough a little at first as she tries to adjust to the reduction in air quality. Yet, her eyes do not catch hide or hair of her housemate nor her secretly not so secret crush. Pulling out her phone, Sakura sighs dejectedly at the lack of responses to the queries she had put forth from the bathroom earlier, but she does open another text from him.

'Stop acting like a child. Just tell me where you are.'

Mouth closed to dampen the sound, Sakura all but growls at the words, not even deigning them worthy of a response. She'll let him stew the rest of the night. Just like he made her do that night. Hell, maybe she won't even respond tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or the rest of her life.

Maybe Sasuke Uchiha is done being a permanent fixture in her life. Maybe it's time she does some spring cleaning despite the current season.

Hell yeah.

"Sakura."

Fuck no.

Inwardly groaning, Sakura turns around to meet the more subdued of the Uchiha brothers.

"Itachi," she acknowledges calmly, trying her best to appear as though she is completely unaware of what it is he might have to say to her. Maybe he'd catch the hint and play along.

"We need to speak about Sasuke."

Or maybe not. Fucking prodigy my ass.

"I'd really rather not," Sakura replies with fake sweetness, attempting to maneuver around the man blocking her path, but her reflexes are markedly sluggish thanks to the alcohol burning in her system.

"I really think we should," Itachi replies evenly, not one to be dismissed, "And I really think we'd have a better conversation if we removed this from the equation," he further comments, plucking the beer bottle from Sakura's hand before she even knows what he is referring to.

"Hey! I paid for that!" Sakura complains, stretching her arms out for the bottle kept infuriatingly just out of reach thanks to their damnable differences in height.

But Itachi ignores her bitter protests, chucking the half-finished beer in the trashcan.

"That is such a waste, Uchiha!" Sakura stamps her foot, surprised at how ridiculously upset she is over the matter. Just who the hell does he think he is?

"I'll compensate you," he breezily replies, earning him a seething look from the short girl who's eyeing the trashcan as though entertaining the idea she may just be able to salvage her lost purchase.

"I don't want your money," Sakura gripes heatedly, "I just want you to leave me alone!"

Itachi nods consolingly, something that only spikes Sakura's ire.

"First, we must talk. Come with me," he takes her arm, "There's no sense polluting our lungs out here any longer."

Sakura inwardly uses every cussword she's picked up from Naruto (and a few from Hidan) to peg the Uchiha with as she's led through the door and to the steps of the staircase leading to the upper balcony inside the building. It's an area reserved for private groups that normally don't include the typical drunken frat boys and girls like Sakura who don't have that much cash to waste.

Typical Uchiha.

But Sakura's silent defamation of the family name is put on hold when she feels a very flagrant and very unwanted hand grab a palm full of her rear end as she sullenly climbs the stairs alongside Itachi.

"Hey!" she snarls, raising a hand that –

Is completely unnecessary as she watches Itachi snatch a fistful of the man's collar to bodily send him tumbling down the stairs thanks to the force of the throw, gravity, and the man's less than coordinated state of mind.

Sakura shakes her head, not quite feeling enough gratitude to thank Itachi out loud, but nonetheless appreciating the gesture.

Itachi motions her on ahead of him to ward off any others feeling stupid enough to risk a grab at her, a precaution that Sakura deems completely unnecessary after that little display. A the top of the staircase, Itachi flashes the red band around his wrist to the bouncer who motions them past the black velvet rope and onto the overlooking balcony of the dance floor where Sakura has already spent most of her night.

From here, the air is a little fresher and a little cooler thanks to the lack of body heat. The floor is carpeted, saving Sakura a little energy by not having to forcefully yank her feet up with every step she takes. Itachi leads her to the far side of the balcony, permitting them a lengthwise view right down the middle of the main floor. The lighting is dimmed up here, but lacking in the chaotic whirl of frantically changing colors, something Sakura's exhausted mind is immensely relieved by.

As they lean against the railing overlooking everyone down below, Sakura's patience dwindles by the second as Itachi refuses to speak up.

What the hell is he waiting for? I didn't even want to have this conversation in the first place.

Finally snapping, Sakura decides to cut to the chase, "Look, I don't know what you expect to be resolved from this little talk, if you're here on Sasuke's behalf, or acting on your own volition to speak up for him, but whatever you have to say isn't going to change anything," Sakura continues on stubbornly as Itachi's expression remains closed off and passive, "I don't want to hear you sticking up for him. I know he's your brother and all, I get it, I do, but your brother is an ass," Sakura states, ears going red at the tips from saying this so blatantly in the face of Sasuke's big brother, "He is. And I'm tired of not being a priority in his life."

"Yes, my brother can be…difficult, as you say," Itachi agrees lightly, "But I'm not here on Sasuke's behalf to do damage control for him. I've heard his side of things, what little he was willing to divulge. Now I'm here for you. To hear what you have to say."

Sakura sighs, more than irked that Itachi seems to feel entitled to knowing whatever happens between her and his little brother, but slightly impressed that he would even bother to get her side of the story. It's not something that she would expect from the doting big brother type Itachi so easily falls into.

"It's like there's not much to tell at the same time there is enough to write a book from every single interaction Sasuke and I have had since we started dating. Yet, it all amounts to nothing. Not a single thing," Sakura emphasizes bitterly, unzipping her wristlet carelessly to retrieve her phone, the other contents falling to the floor as she yanks it out.

Sakura curses grumpily, clumsily trying to kneel down in her skirt that offers little in the way of modesty in such positions. Itachi leans down to help as well, frowning when his hand reaches out to pick up the pack of cigarettes.

Sakura looks up to meet Itachi's disapproving gaze, only to scoff at his assumptive attitude.

"Oh, get off your high horse, Itachi. I'm just holding onto them for Shikamaru."

Quickly, her fingers scrabble for the lighter and her tube of lip gloss before she turns from the railing to take a seat on one of the backless lounge sofas to sort through her belongings and ensure nothing had been lost in a fit of typical clumsiness.

Surprisingly, Itachi follows to claim his own seat next to her, watching the light catch on the sparkling gold paint Sakura had coated her fingernails in earlier in the day. When Sakura finishes, holding out a hand to reclaim the cigarettes, Itachi sets them down on his other side away from Sakura's reach.

"You still haven't told me what happened."

Sakura crosses her legs, leaning back on her wrists to fix the annoying Uchiha with a glare.

"Look, let's keep this brief. Your brother and I are done. Not that I can really say it felt like we were dating for the year we were technically together… He put other people and other things before me whenever he had the chance. This last time was the last straw. It should have happened much sooner," she finishes, looking down and away, unaware of her thumb absentmindedly rolling the sparkwheel on the lighter, igniting a small flame that she sees but doesn't comprehend the danger of.

"You no longer care for my brother?"

Sakura teases the fingers of her free hand over the flame, as she contemplates an answer.

Do I?

Sakura laughs self-deprecatingly, "I don't know if that's even the question that needs asking. What does it matter how I feel when I know he never cared for me? Did you know," she asks, without lifting her captivated gaze from the small flicker of light, "That in our entire year-long relationship, Sasuke only kissed me once?"

Itachi doesn't comment on this and the many memories of Sasuke's scornful attitude has her plunging on.

"Only on New Year's when a big group of us were at Naruto's place to celebrate. And it's not like it was his idea. Naruto and Suigetsu were mocking him about it when he didn't do anything."

Sakura's thumb lifts from the sparkwheel, extinguishing the feeble light.

"Pretty pathetic, huh?"

Still, she can't bear to meet Itachi's eyes. This doesn't even feel real to her, discussing this with him in the private, roped off area of a club at nearly 1:00 a.m. with a living sea of bobbing heads down below and the pulse of electronic swing music humming through her bones.

"It is," Itachi agrees, and it's like a slap of frigid water to Sakura's face. It's exactly what she wants to hear and exactly what she's been dreading.

I am pathetic.

"It's really pathetic that my little brother was so blind to the wonderful gift he was blessed with."

Stunned, Sakura's head snaps up, lighter clattering to the floor.

"What?" she asks, brow furrowing in confusion.

Itachi's gaze is steady as he reaches out to brush back the stray hair hanging in Sakura's eyes and Sakura, disbelieving, holds perfectly still.

What is this?

"You are something special, Sakura. I'm not here to stick up for my brother's behavior; on the contrary, I am disappointed in him. But I am sorry he made you feel less than what you are."

"Itachi? Y-You don't have to apologize for him," Sakura begins awkwardly, not knowing how to respond to such an open, bare-faced statement, especially not when it's coming from the lips of Itachi Uchiha of all people.

What all did I have to drink tonight?

Surely none of this can be real.

Itachi shakes his head slowly, "No, I suppose I don't. But regardless, I am."

Itachi rises to his feet, offering a hand to Sakura to assist her onto a pair of leaden, useless legs that seem to have forgotten how to move.

I need to get home before I do anything stupid.

"Sasuke will one day grow to regret his mistake," Itachi states casually, "I, however, will be forever grateful that he made it."

Sakura wants to ask what he means by this, wants to tell him that it's a little rude to say he's glad Sasuke hurt her the way that he did, but she never has the opportunity. And that is because Itachi allows her no time to form a single syllable before his mouth presses gently to hers in a way Sakura's first kiss could never compare.

Sasuke had been like a petulant child being forced to kiss his grandmother, with puckered lips barely making contact with Sakura's own before retreating to a safe distance. It had been over and done with in less than a blink of the eye, leaving Sakura stunned with an uncomfortable, disenchanted emptiness sitting heavy in the pit of her gut, begging for a do-over, begging for the chance to wipe the slate clean of that lackluster kiss and show Sasuke what it should really be like between them.

Now, she is equally stunned, but on the entire opposite end of the spectrum.

This is what finding your equal feels like. From the way Itachi's head bends down to the way Sakura's has to lift up, from the way his lips tingle with warmth and the desire to actually be doing what he's doing, to the way his palm cups the side of Sakura's face before slowly, and lingeringly breaking contact.

That was the do-over she wanted.

But never in all of her fantasies had she envisioned Itachi sharing it with her.

"You – I – I – " Sakura stutters, taking a step back to gain her bearings (and catch her breath), throwing a hand to her head.

"You seem surprised," Itachi chuckles, hands reaching out to gently draw Sakura closer by the hips, resting there once satisfied with her proximity.

"It's – it's – well, yeah!" Sakura blurts, fingers combing agitatedly through her bangs, "I mean, you're his brother! And you kissed me!" her voice is an accusation that has Itachi's eyes lighting up with mirth.

"I apologize if it was not to your liking," he replies as dispassionately as possible, but the slight quirk at the corner of his mouth is very telling to someone like Sakura who has dedicated years to cracking the code behind the dense, silent language of the Uchiha.

"Don't be so smug," Sakura huffs, flustered and thankful for the low lighting, "I'm just…surprised, is all."

More like shell-shocked.

"I want to be upfront with you now. I waited too long and thought I lost my chance. But know this: I will always make you a priority. You will be desired. You will be loved," he promises, kissing Sakura lightly on the forehead.

It's as though he had read the wish sewn into her heart. The wish she shared with no one. The wish that made her feel weak and vulnerable and small. The wish that Itachi is now using to tempt her with its fulfillment.

Sakura trembles for only a second, something she is certain Itachi can feel through his hands. Biting her bottom lip, Sakura's mind revs its engine, sorting through a mental dictionary for some suitable string of words.

Itachi is smart. Itachi is undeniably handsome. Itachi is older and better tempered than Sasuke. Yet, in all her years of pining after Sasuke, she had never considered his older brother. Why? Why had the possibility never crossed her mind? And what did it mean that it hadn't? What would it mean for her if she was to suddenly say exactly what Itachi seems to want to hear?

Would that make her just like Sasuke?

Would she be doing to him exactly what Sasuke had done to her?

These are the thoughts that form an icy-fingered vice that clamps stubbornly around Sakura's heart that feels as though it is straining to break free of her chest to join with Itachi's.

Just because it would feel right in the here and now doesn't mean it would in the long term. Sakura is hurting, she wants to be weak and take the first offering of love made to her. She wants to wear it like a protective shield.

She wants to.

But she doesn't.

Instead, she places her hands over Itachi's, squeezing them gently before lifting them away and holding them between their bodies.

"I need time to process this," she tells him earnestly, hoping he understands.

While she could never say she's witnessed an Uchiha visibly deflating, she supposes the slight exhale that has Itachi's shoulders lowering ever so marginally, is the closest she will ever know.

"That's fair," he responds, placing one chaste kiss across the knuckles of each of her hands before letting her free.

"I think I should find my friends now to go home," Sakura states faintly, as much to herself as to Itachi as she turns on her heel to seek the staircase down to the lower level.

Itachi remains with her, guiding her down the stairs with a warm palm pressed to her lower back that Sakura cannot claim is an unwanted sensation.

When they reach the first floor, little has changed since Sakura first trailed unwillingly behind Itachi's leading figure. She catches sight of some of the Akatsuki, though Hidan is not amongst them. Deidara, however, is either sporting a purple bruise across his high cheekbone, or is standing in a splash of lighting of such color. She can't tell for sure.

Itachi turns his back to his accomplices, sheltering Sakura from their view as his hands cup her shoulders.

"Will you be able to make it home?"

Sakura wants to snort at his concern, but refrains. It's a consideration she never received from Sasuke. But while she may not be on a level to match Ino when it comes to partying, this certainly isn't her first rodeo.

"Don't worry, once I catch up with my friends we'll call for a ride."

Itachi nods, "Let me know when you reach home."

"But I don't even have your number," Sakura raises a dubious eyebrow in question.

"You will in a moment."

Sakura nods in return before she's once again swept up in the dizzying lip lock that Itachi seems to be a perfectionist at – a thought that both worries her and peaks her curiosity.

"Good night, Sakura. Be safe."

And with that, Itachi departs for the rest of the Akatsuki who seem to have given up hope on whatever assignment originally brought them to Ino's choice of birthday venues. Sakura watches them exit the club, spots of colored light whizzing across her body as the DJ switches tracks and Sakura is left with the daunting task of tracking down the rest of her group.

Pulling out her phone, Sakura is relieved to find several texts waiting in her inbox for her attention. Opening Tenten and Hinata's numerous queries of where she had run off to and one from Naruto that simply read 'SAAAKKKUUUUURRRAAAAAA!', she's then left shaking her head at Ino's sloppy attempt at formulating a readable message, but manages to decipher 'hottie with the body' out of the mess she has to work with.

Quickly setting her fingers to work to reply back to Hinata's most recent text informing Sakura that they had all gathered outside in the smoking area, Sakura then pats her wristlet worriedly when she realizes she never retrieved Shikamaru's cigarettes.

Weeelll, hopefully he doesn't remember those.

She knows it's a slim chance to none when it comes to Shikamaru's nicotine fix.

Outside, her friends immediately jump on her arrival and Sakura practically staggers with the weight of both Tenten and Naruto clinging onto either side of her. Hinata appears to be at her limit with trying to restrain a nearly toppling over Ino from joining the dogpile on top of Sakura while Temari leans tiredly into Shikamaru's side. Shikamaru, Sakura notes with despair, looks decidedly sober and decidedly grumpy.

Uh oh.

But with the group all together, Hinata and Ino lead everyone outside to wait for the rides Hinata had submitted a request for on one of her many handy phone apps.


"And I could leave the party without ever letting you know."


When at last the three housemates topple into the entranceway of their shabby, but comfortable apartment, Sakura assists Ino in unstrapping the cumbersome, lethal weapons sheathing her feet before helping the blonde climb the stairs to collapse bonelessly into her bed. Temari decides to not even bother with the stairs and instead opts for the couch, dragging a folded up blanket across her body and calling it done.

Finished situating her friends and locking the door, Sakura enters her own room for the night to peel out of her clubbing attire for some loose, cotton pajamas. A ringing chime coming from her carelessly discarded wristlet has Sakura jumping in surprise before hastily retrieving her phone.

Sasuke…

And for the first time in her life, Sakura easily hits the button to ignore his call, smiling to herself as she does so.

She can get through this.

Opening her messages, she finds one from a new number with the simple directive to text when she makes it home.

Smile brightening even more, Sakura sends a simple 'Made it. Goodnight, Itachi.'

Turning off the lights and clambering into bed and under her many blankets and plush covers, Sakura is startled once more by the ping! of her phone just before her eyes can shut.

Good night, princess.

Sakura gasps in remembrance, hand reaching up to the tiara she had placed on her own head after Ino had foisted it off on her.

Glowing with contentment and the pull of sleep, Sakura sinks softly into slumber.


"But your brother was a good substitute for you."


The next day, Sakura is too preoccupied and neglects to answer the five text messages and two phone calls she receives from Sasuke. She couldn't exactly turn down the offer of breakfast when Itachi mentioned he'd be in the neighborhood.

Stabbing the last bite of pancake slathered in syrup and whipped cream, Sakura grins across the table to her company who watches her with a gentle smile and no shortage of amusement at just how much sugar she can easily consume. Sliding over to Itachi's side of the booth, Sakura raises her arm high, phone angled down on their upturned faces to snap a quick picture to commemorate the outing.

Lowering the phone to inspect her work, Sakura leans comfortably into Itachi's side to allow him to view the photo as well. Staring at the screen, Sakura feels both relief and heart-melting warmth pooling inside her.

At last, she has found an Uchiha who can smile back at her.


Author's Note: Uuugghh. I'm the worst. I really need to be giving some care and attention to Of Much Madness and Reason, but I also don't want to update it with some half-hearted attempt, so I'm waiting for further time and inspiration to really focus on it…that might not happen until Christmas break because I'm back in school again. Yaaayyyy. So, this was just some slice-of-life drama to get me back in the practice of writing. Inspiration drew heavily upon the following songs:

"Don't Let Me Down" – The Chainsmokers

"Gold" – Kiiara

"I Hate U I Love U" – Gnash

"Lone Digger" – Caravan Palace

Check those out if you love music on while you read. A combination of all four really helps to set the tone for the story. I hope this was an enjoyable, short read and hopefully I'll get on task soon with my unfinished story.

Reviews are excellent!