He stood near the edge of the riverbank thumbing the pebbles he had cupped in his hands as he gazed out into the water. The wind's current was strong; it blasted effortlessly through the trees and rippled over the river's glossy surface. Naruto chucked a pebble onto the water, easily ricocheted it over the surface for several meters, until in finally sunk into its dark depths. He stole a glance toward Sakura as he prepared to launch the next rock. She sat gracefully upon a white boulder, wearing a pale blue summer dress that ran just below her knees. The dress was carefully tucked under to keep the wind from blowing in out of place, but she did not seem the slightest bit concerned with that possibility. She exuded a carefree elegance, something that was becoming more characteristic of her with each passing day. Her body welcomed the windy embrace, smiling lazily and enjoying the way the wind surged over her bare limbs, and long delicate neck. Her hair seemed to dance behind her, daring to defy the natural pull of gravity. Naruto smiled sadly and wondered if Sakura had always been this lovely.
He cast the next stone into the water and watched it fly and skip over the river's surface. Lately there had been a growing silence between them. Sakura and him. They would spend long afternoons and evenings together with no more than a dozen exchanges between them. The words were becoming fewer and the moments of silence grew endless, stretching onward like a sky full of stars.
"Moments like these are bound to fade, aren't they?" Sakura said softly, just audibly over the wind's roar.
"Hm?" Naruto turned away from the riverbank, his eyes brimming with wonder.
"Peace," she answered.
He nodded. The last five years had been like a whirlwind bursting through and out their village. War had invaded their lives with the brevity of a spring, and left it with a blink of an eye, yet they had lost so much. Their childhood had lost much of the brilliance that usually shines with innocence and youth. Friends, comrades, and mentors were forever laid to rest in the depths of the earth.
"Yeah," he answered. "The moments don't last. But it's good to enjoy them while we still have them."
Sakura laughed playfully at his reply. Naruto tilted his head and stared at her with a confused and bemused expression. Lately, he had discovered that Sakura was also becoming prone to reacting in surprising and unpredictable ways. As they grew older, she was becoming more of a mystery to him.
Sakura exhaled deeply as her laugher died down and rested her head back, her lips curled up in a satisfied grin. "I was just thinking," She said, "how funny your words are compared to the Naruto I remember. When did you get so wise? Whatever happened to that oblivious boy?"
Naruto glared at the young woman. "Laugh it up, pinky, but you're going to be in a world of hurt," he threatened.
Sakura's grin grew wider. "You, know. I love to hear you talk," she said.
Naruto felt his body involuntarily stiffen. On most days their conversations dawdled with meaningless bits of information, always planted on the surface of their lives. He knew all the things to say, all the right replies; it was like a script, so perfectly rehearsed that it had become second nature. But on days like these, on days where the words were so much more, Naruto felt so suffocated. The words would not come to him. Only the same old question and he still had no answer.
"Out of all the people in Konoha Village," Sakura continued, "Naruto, you're the one that's changed the least."
Naruto blinked in surprise. "The least?"
Sakura nodded. "The least," she confirmed. If anything, Naruto had been certain that he had changed significantly from that obnoxious loud-mouthed twelve year old from what seemed like so long ago.
"I mean, come on. The mention of 'Hokage' never fails to bring a rise out of you, even when you're trying to act like this mature and collected adult. Just look at you. You already look like you could burst."
"Oh please," Naruto said waving his hand dismissively. "We're not kids anymore, ya know."
"Sure we are," Sakura countered. "Yes, we're not the kids we used to be, but we're only seventeen."
"It's hard to think of us as kids after all we've been through," he replied. Sakura shook her head with bemused exasperation. It was how she always reacted whenever she knew she was completely in the right. Of course, it also means she thinks I'm totally wrong.
A gleam of mischief sparkled in her eyes. "Ho – ka – ge," she said smirking widely as she accentuated each syllable. Naruto felt his face grow red. Am I still so transparent? He wondered.
Sakura began to climb off the boulder. She held the hem of her dress down with one hand while trying to use the other to guide her down, but it proved to be much more difficult than she'd anticipated.
"Naruto, can you help me down?" she asked as she sat herself down at the very edge of the rock.
Naruto conceded obediently to her request, inwardly laughing at Sakura's sudden girlishness. Jounin exams were already coming up after having been suspended for three years due to war, and as certain as Naruto was that Sakura would pass with little effort, it still surprised him when Sakura asked to be helped with the simplest of things.
She stretched out her arms and wrapped them around Naruto's neck just as he held her waist firmly in his hands. He pressed her body against his and closed his eyes, savoring the sensations that passed though him as her cheek pressed against his own. He did not want this moment to end. Even as he still held her, he was consumed by regret over the brevity of it. The scent of her hair, the texture of her skin, the warmth of her touch; these were things that were already being stored away into memory.
He lowered her until her bare feet were firmly grounded. His hands lamentably released her as they dropped to his sides and he stepped away putting enough space between them to leave her at ease and to satisfy his need for proximity.
Sakura smiled girlishly up at him. Another surprise. She seems so much softer today, he thought.
"You're weird," he told her, but she only beamed up at him in response, and mockingly stuck out her tongue.
"I still can't believe you're taller than me," she said as she held up her hand and measured the differences of their heights. "But not by much."
"Another sign that I haven't changed much?" he scoffed. If there was one thing that still made him sore, it was his lack of growth.
"Yes," she answered, dismissing the tone of his voice. Surprising him one last time, she took a step toward him and pressed the palm of her hand against his chest. Naruto instantly felt his blood surge wildly within him like a burst of chakra.
"But mostly it is your heart," she continued. "In everything you do, you are driven so completely by your heart."
Don't say those things to me, he begged inwardly.
"And you have touched so many with your heart..."
Why can't I be free of this?
"...because its strength knows no bounds."
Sakura dropped her hand away, her fingers trailing gently over the buttons of his white shirt. She walked passed him and continued walking toward Konoha Village. Naruto was keenly aware of her knuckles, as they had brushed like a whisper across his hand. He could still feel the imprint of her hand against his chest and he suddenly felt very cold.
Naruto picked up the slippers that Sakura had left behind and started after her, making little effort to fall into step with her.
"Sakura," he said after a moment. The young woman stopped in her tracks and turned to face him, her inquisitive eyes fixed on his.
"Sasuke," he began, not certain how to form the words. "Sasuke, he...His heart is a lot stronger than it seems. He will come back to us someday."
Naruto extended the slippers out to her. He knew little else to say or do. Sasuke, he thought. She must have been thinking about him all this time. I didn't know.
Sakura took the slippers and stepped into them.
"Sasuke," she said, almost tasting the word in her mouth, the way one does when getting a feel of something foreign. She bit her lower lip and cast her gaze downward, but her expression remained oddly neutral. Naruto could envision the wheels turning in her mind but could not phantom what sort of thoughts were coursing through her head.
Sakura looked up at him once again. "I gave up hope on him a long time ago," she said in a soft but definitive tone.
She took hold of his up turned collar and folded it down into place.
"We should go," she said as she smoothed out the wrinkles. "It's getting dark."
"We're ninjas, ya know," he told her, fighting the temptation to touch her once again.
"Fine," she said, throwing up her hands in exasperation. "But it is getting cold and you weren't even gentleman enough to bring a jacket. You should always carry a jacket since you never know when you will need to offer it to a lady."
Naruto could only chuckle at her circular reasoning.
"You're not as changed as you like to think you are," he said. "There's still a lot of the old Sakura left in you." Although he did not look her in the face as he said it, Naruto could envision the glare that Sakura was emitting in his direction.
The sun was now dying into the horizon but the wind continued to howl, its cries growing louder with the diminishing light. Must I still long for you? He wondered as they walked side by side under the red and purple sky. Can I stop longing for you? Where are my answers?