Autumn

Over the years, it seemed as everyone had changed. Some a little, some a lot. Shikamaru, now famous for his genius, still longed for the simple life of his dreams. But Hinata, the heir of the Hyuuga clan, had finally earned her place and in the process, had lost the timid shyness that had so characterized her younger self.

The same could be said for Team 7. Naruto had developed sense – some, at least – to go with his strength. He was Hokage now, as he had always said he would be. A bachelor, a slob, an idiot whose foot belonged in his mouth, and at the same time, loved and recognized by everyone in the village.

And he still loved ramen.

As for herself… well, she liked to think she was a better ninja these days. These days, she trained hard like she should have done in the past. Trained until her muscles, sore, ached with a burning fire. The Heaven needed the Earth, she would remember as she laid, almost dying with every breath.

And she still loved…

But even as time brought about these changes, for some reason, the last member of Team 7 remained untouched. He was still the same. Ten years older, but at heart, still the same, beautiful boy whose looks were well-known throughout the village. The same, brooding boy whose past haunted him like an angry spirit. The same, genius boy who didn't understand the cruelty of words or if he did, used them well for his own cruel purposes.

It was spring when he left.

The night before was one of intimacy, more tender than she could have imagined. But then again, he had always been different in the dark. Not so cold, not so angry, and always so much more gentle…

She had awoken to his silence, which was always louder than his words. Outside, the sun lit the sky and the heavenly light touched the windows of his room, making them glow. But on the inside, it was grey and on the edge of the bed, he sat, impeccably dressed and looking at the door.

I have a mission.

The bluntness should have made her flinch, but she was still too dazed from previous events to notice.

When will you be back? she had asked instead. And when the door responded instead of him, she was left lying bare in his bed, too drowsy to realize that he had not given a definite answer.

But after awakening to reality, in the days of his absence, she raged. How dare he do that to her again? How dare he!! And this kind of thinking would recall the past and the numerous times he had broken her heart, fueling her temper until her whole presence palpitated with wrath and people within near proximity cowered. Yet somehow, when she was alone, the furious cries always became cries of a different sort. Wasn't once enough? How dare he…

It was autumn when he returned.

In the days leading up this reappearance, the wind sang a different song and the leaves wore a different color and she, with a wistful, sadness that had been with her since the day he left, wondered whether he was still the same.

They brought him back on a stretcher. There was blood everywhere, covering his beautiful face like a scarlet veil and seeping through his clothes like a poison. She, who had been volunteering at the local hospital, let out a scream upon seeing him.

His eyes opened instantly at the sound. Lifting his head, she watched his mouth clench strictly, as if ready to calm her down and tell her to leave him in peace. Then, without warning, the mask crumpled. Like a wall falling away at the sight of her tears. And his head fell back as if all his strength had disappeared in an instant and he said, choked with raw emotion,

Sakura. Don't cry for me anymore.

Then he fainted.

She visited him everyday while he recovered and the familiarity of walking down linoleum halls with flowers in her hands was an old routine.

She handed him the fruit and when he took the plate willingly, she remembered another time when he had knocked her hand away with terrifying force. She watched him eat, head tilted slightly against her hand. Her elbow that was propped up on the space near his right arm. She sat closer now than she had in the past.

The acuteness with which she was studying him caught his attention.

He paused his snack. What?

The question had been bothering her for days. She took a breath. Why do you go? Naruto doesn't make you take these missions so why do you always have to leave?

He looked thoughtful for a moment before responding.

It's a way I test myself.

But the green eyes were not satisfied. That's not enough, Sasuke-kun. I don't want to see you come back like that again.

I know.

His matter-of-factness annoyed her and she flared up, her emotions getting the better of her. No, you DON'T know! I wake up everyday that you're gone, wondering whether you're injured or captured or dead. And I worry until it feels like my heart is so full of pain at the thought that you might never come back that I--

His fingers reached under her chin, tilting it upward, and he leaned forward until they were staring directly into each other's eyes. She felt a blush start and spread. They had been closer before, of course, but any form of intimacy with him always made her feel light-headed and stupid and this was no exception.

I get it. You miss me.

He was amused, she realized indignantly.

Sasuke-kun, you're not even listen--

He kissed her.

The feel of his mouth took her breath away and he kissed her with a force that could only be described as passion. 

When he was finished, he leaned back against his pillow, smirking at her expression.

Sakura, I'll come back. If I didn't, there would be no point in going in the first place.

He hadn't lost his matter-of-factness.

And she could still taste him, the taste of ripe autumn apples. Inner Sakura complained about the unfairness of his methods of persuasion. But the other part of her had been rendered to mush.

She stood up, heart fluttering, head spinning from happiness. She needed air. Walking to the window, she lifted it up to allow the breeze cool her skin. Konoha laid before her, caught in the change of seasons. She saw the yellowing of leaves and heard the laughter of children who, after a few more years, would never be children again.

… He had left everything of his childhood far behind and she had carried hers within her like a precious treasure… She was so silly… She thought she had changed so much and he had changed so little when in reality, it was the other way around…

It was time to say something. He was watching her, she knew, so she said softly,

…I know I worry too much… But it's only because I…Sasuke-kun, I… I love you.

Her voice became a whisper, so hushed, different from the days when she would loudly declare her affections. But that was because she was afraid now, of these words. The last time she had said them, he had left her in the cold without a backward glance.

…I really do love you. You know that right? Right?

And she bit her lip, so frightened that he would not understand or that he would simply not care.

From where she could not see, his face softened, torn between pain and the alien feeling of peace. From where she could not hear, he whispered I love you too. You're the only reason I come back.

Out loud, he told her, I'm not alone anymore. I have a home now. I'm not going to give it up so easily. It's stupid of you to worry like that, Sakura.

She smiled to herself at his confidence, at his unspoken promise.

Then she returned to his side and the rest of the afternoon was lost in a sea of sweet touches, soft murmurs, warm feelings of her body against his, and always the tantalizing taste of apples in her mouth…

Outside, Konoha continued to change. Colors faded and were renewed and the same went for people. Children aged until they were men and women only to bring forth more children. Things died and at the same time, things lived. That was the unbreakable cycle of Konoha. The spring always came before the autumn, always came after it.

~@@@~

…She didn't hear him enter. He had been away for so long that she had grown used to silence. But now, his breath was by her ear and his arms around her, drawing her in to him like a suffocating man wanting a breath of fresh air. The last mission had been a hard one and he had been hurt in more ways than one.

She could feel the pain in his embrace and his need in the way he clung to her. He never said anything at these times but then again, he didn't have to.

Outside, it was autumn again.

Inside, a boy never stopped breaking and a girl never stopped loving. They would always lose each other and they would always find each other and that, too, was an unbreakable cycle.

Welcome home, she said softly, healing him.

.