prompt: masks (growing up around each other, as suggested by hermionesakuragardner07, and because i was interested in what it would have been like, this is connected to the previous chapter!)

summary: they grow up at different times and at different paces, but in the end, they grow up. façades don't last forever.

Sakura is seven when Sasuke's parents die in a plane crash home from a business trip, too young to even comprehend what it's like to lose the two strongest pillars of support in her life.

Sakura is seven when Sasuke stops smiling; she is seven when she starts visiting the Uchiha home regularly; she is seven when she first meets Itachi, no more than a middle school student. Itachi is smart and cool and Sakura trails around him a lot, understands why Sasuke used to talk about him so much. (Sasuke doesn't talk much about him anymore—Sasuke just doesn't talk much anymore, period.)

"I'm Sakura," she introduces herself shyly when she first meets Itachi. "Can I call you Nii-san like Sasuke-kun does?"

The smile that ghosts across Itachi's lips is so faint she could have imagined it. "Of course. Nice to meet you, Sakura-chan." He talks so much like a grown-up that Sakura doesn't think it's fair.

She holds up a bouquet of lilies and forget-me-nots, arranged by her mother. "They're for you and Sasuke-kun. I'm sorry your parents died."

"Thank you. Can you hold onto them while I find a vase?"

"Yeah, okay."

And so Itachi finds a vase and Sakura follows him around as he rinses it out in the kitchen and fills it with water, and Sasuke wanders in like a lost boy and she runs over to him and hugs him tight as he stands like a limp rag doll in her arms. And then she remembers Itachi so she runs back to him and hugs him too, arms around his middle and just a touch too short to hear his heartbeat.

And he pats her hair like the way she's seen his mom pat Sasuke's hair sometimes, and holds on tighter.

Sakura is nine when she first approaches Itachi to ask about Sasuke.

"You like him," he says, unsure of how to speak to a child about such things.

"I love him," she corrects, and misses the way Itachi flinches at that. "What kind of girls does Sasuke-kun like?"

"He's too young to be thinking about girls right now, I think. But I think he sees you as a very good friend." Itachi brushes his hair out of his eyes. "Shouldn't you be concerned about other things too?"

"Like what?" Sakura asks. She's been concerned about nothing other than Itachi and Sasuke, ever since she saw them the way they were two years ago. Since then, she's wanted to be with them always to make sure they're okay. Itachi is like an older brother. Sasuke is like—Sasuke is like her husband-to-be.

"Like school," Itachi says idly, returning to his book. "You're smart, but if you get lazy, you won't be smart for much longer." And then he adds, "Sasuke likes smart girls."

Which, in retrospect, is a sly play on his part, but Sakura doesn't know it at the time. "Really?"


"Okay." She hugs him tight (and crumples a page in his book). "Thanks, Nii-san!"

Itachi may have never gone to any post-secondary institutions and started working straight out of high school, but that doesn't change the fact that he's ridiculously and unfairly smart.

"Okay, and then Japan invaded China, and then…what? What happened after that again?"

Sakura is gifted with the sciences. She's going to be a doctor, and she is going to be good at it, but that doesn't change the fact that she's absolutely hopeless at history.

She is sitting in Itachi and Sasuke's kitchen. Sasuke is still at school with his soccer practice, but Sakura came over anyway because even though graduation is coming up, so are finals and entrance exams and she needs to work hard. Itachi is basically a walking encyclopedia—and even more impressively, can recite information exactly like one even while reading a completely different book altogether.

"Itachi," she prompts when he doesn't answer. "What happened after Japan invaded China?"

She stopped called him Nii-san long ago, when she felt too old and silly to be calling him as such. Itachi is not her older brother, and she is not his responsibility. She needs to hold her own, because she's going to be graduating high school soon, and she's going to be a doctor. She can't depend on people anymore.

When she stopped, neither of them said anything about it. Itachi is always like that—incredibly perceptive but never acknowledging. There are a lot of things that he probably knows about her that she's never even told him—that's just how he is. Sakura is closer with Sasuke because they're the same age and go to school together, but Itachi can often see right through her even though they spend less time together.

"Sakura-chan," he says (and he still calls her that, even though sometimes she wishes he wouldn't, because she's not a child anymore), "you just wrote it down in your notebook moments ago."

"I did?" Sakura blinks, and looks down. Oh. So she did. "What do you think the chances of me doing well in this course are?"

Itachi hums, and momentarily looks up from his book. For someone who seems so disinterested in everything, he reads a lot of novels. "They will be higher if you continue to study," is his evasive answer.

"You have absolutely no faith in me," she deadpans.

"I do. Just not as much when it comes to history."

"I…" She buries her head in her hands. "I'm going to fail, aren't I?"

"It's a possibility."

Sakura throws an eraser at him. It hits him square in the chest and falls into his lap. He stares down at the offensive piece of rubber, and then redirects his gaze towards her, his eyebrows quirked at her childish display of frustration.

"Are you coming to our graduation?" she asks, deciding to change the subject.

Itachi picks up her eraser and places it beside her notebook like a rational adult. "Yes. When is it again?"

"In two weeks." It would make sense for Itachi to go. He went to their elementary school graduation too, and also their middle school graduation. He always went, no matter how busy he was, in place of his parents.

"I'm going to…" Sakura trails off, hesitant. "I think I'm going to tell Sasuke…how I feel at graduation."

He hums, and flips a page in his book. "Good luck."

"You've never believed that he feels the same way about me."

"Do you?"

"Sometimes." She stares down at her notebook, looking at the notes she's written down, but not really seeing. "But I'm never sure."

"Sasuke is…" Itachi sighs. "He is still a child. He may know how you feel, but he doesn't now how to let you down gently. He's still inexperienced with many things—he's far behind you, Sakura-chan. While you're working hard and studying for your future, he is still staying behind after school for soccer practice."

"Do you think we could ever work out? One day? He's special to me and I care about him a lot, but…I don't want to wait for him forever. I have a future planned."

Itachi takes his time answering. "No," he finally says. "I don't think you two will work out."

"Why not?"

"Because you are always ten steps ahead of him. He will only hold you back."

Sakura knows he's complimenting her, but it feels like anything but. She swallows and bows her head, refusing to let Itachi see her crestfallen expression. Because no matter how little she likes what he says, if he says it, he's probably right. Itachi is always right.

"I'm going to tell him anyway," she says, because she has always been hardheaded and she will not go down without a fight.

Itachi smiles, faintly. "I know. Good luck."

Sakura is wearing a pink dress. She is wearing a stunning sleeveless pink dress, one that makes her legs look good, and she has her hair curled into ringlets that tickle her shoulders every time she turns her head.

Sakura looks stunning tonight, and of course, like he always does, Sasuke turns her down.

"You must've known how I felt about you."

"I did." Sasuke, in his form-fitting suit, ruffles his hair uncomfortably and avoids eye contact. "But you're a very important friend to me, and I just don't see you that way—at least, not now…"

She's been there for him since before his parents died, and especially so after they died. She's always been there, supporting him even when he pushed her away, talking and filling the silences when he couldn't find the words. And she knows she shouldn't be, but she's angry more than she's upset, because she's Sakura and she is fire and she is worth more than this.

"I look good tonight," she says, the hiss of her voice caused less by hurt and more by the defiance to let the tears fall in front of him.

"You look beautiful tonight," Sasuke says quietly.

"You don't even see me."

"I do. Just…" His eyes travel up, from her feet all the way up to her eyes. "Just not the way you want me to. I can't right now. Sorry."

She shakes her head. "I can't wait anymore. I've waited all my life. I'm done waiting."

Sasuke nods once, the sadness clear in his eyes. "Okay."

Sakura wants to stay longer, wants to convince him, wants to make him finally see, but she doesn't know how to anymore—not without hurting herself more than it already hurts. She doesn't want this anymore.

So she spins on her heels and stalks out of the room, down the hall and out the doors, where the cold night air meets her skin. Her hair gets in her face and sticks to her already damp cheeks, and she roughly pushes it away. Stupid ringlets.

It's quiet outside so she lets herself cry openly, ugly wails full of years' worth of unrequited love. This only continues for a few moments though, before she hears a quiet cough.

It's Itachi. Sakura hiccups in surprise, her crying silencing at once. He's leaning against the wall of the building with his arms crossed. His hair, in its trademark ponytail, is resting on a shoulder, and he's wearing a suit as well, but looking much more like an adult than Sasuke does. Itachi resembles his father more with every passing day.

"What are you doing here?" she asks, moving to stand beside him.

"Socializing is not a hobby of mine."

She rolls her eyes, which are still damp but no longer crying. "You can laugh, you know," she says dryly. "You always knew that Sasuke didn't feel that way about me."

"Whether or not I knew should not have had an effect on the decisions you chose to make." A pause. "And I do not laugh at other people's pain, Sakura-chan."

"Sakura." She looks at him. "Don't call me Sakura-chan anymore."

His eyes are dark. "Alright. Sakura."

They stand together in another minute of silence, before her shoulders start shaking again. "Sorry," she forces out through her quiet crying. "Sorry, I just—it hits hard—I didn't expect it to hurt this much…" Even though she's always known somewhere in the back of her mind that Sasuke didn't love her that way, hearing him say it is a million times worse—because more than him not loving her that way is that it looked like he wanted to, but couldn't. There is nothing worse than that.

Sakura stands there and she cries, while Itachi stands there and listens, never uttering a single word. He doesn't offer a hand of comfort, doesn't say anything to make her feel better—he just stands there, a quiet pillar, one that she can lean on for support if she wants to. Itachi's presence is one without pressure, and for that, she is grateful.

"I was always hoping, even though I knew…"

"We all do."

She swallows the painful lump in her throat, and takes a deep, shaky breath. "I'm sorry, but I don't think I'll be visiting you guys for a while."

"That's okay. We'll be waiting."

Sakura is eighteen when she graduates high school, almost as lonely as Itachi and Sasuke were as children without their parents. She is eighteen when she decides that she can find someone better for her than Sasuke, someone who can keep up with her pace, even when she's ten steps ahead.

She is no longer Sakura-chan and Itachi is no longer Nii-san. She still texts him, occasionally, even though she doesn't feel comfortable dropping by yet. Of course, she doesn't hear a peep from Sasuke.

And she figures that now, if she were to run into Itachi's arms for support, she would have to kneel down a little to be able to hear his heartbeat, just as real as her own, even if sometimes, he seems so imaginary. Itachi knows everything, and Itachi knows her. She is no longer Sakura-chan—she is Sakura.

She is still sorry that his parents died and he is sorry that her hope with Sasuke died, but that is okay, because he is Itachi and she is Sakura and they don't have masks to hide behind anymore.

A/N: Hi guys, sorry I've been MIA for a while! After Petrichor was finished, I just…lost some steam. School is hard.

But today is October 10th, meaning it's Naruto's birthday! Yay! (I know this and I remember this because we share the same birthday, heh.)

This is unedited because I am so tired, but it should be alright, since I wrote it ages ago. Sorry for any typos though!