Shattered Bonds – 15

Author’s note: Early release of the next chapter of Shattered Bonds. Thanks for hanging in there with me! Posting schedule will be picking up, and I’ll be finishing all stories this year. So, woot! Please excuse any typos etc, I’m going to go over it again.

15 – The Meaning of Love

Running his thumb down the comb provided by his Sand hosts, along with every other necessity a diplomat could need, Naruto was actually considering combing his hair before dinner. He had ten minutes to kill before it was time to leave. Normally it was something he never did. But this time it seemed appealing to his distracted mind. Tonight, he wanted everything to go right.

She’d be surprised and thrilled to see him. They’d be seated beside each other, have a nice dinner, then stand to be recognized by the Sand. Together. He could just imagine the long table, the low lights, her glowing face….

Naruto took up the comb and raked it through his hair without thinking.

After dinner, while everyone was speaking, he’d slip out with her, probably to some beautiful sandstone balcony. Then he’d tell her….

Sasuke’s words came back to him. “You need to go to her. Tell her you love her and you want another chance. Start there. Don’t hide anymore. Put yourself out there.”

He vowed to himself with each stroke of the comb: This was the right time. He wouldn’t hide anymore. He’d put himself out there. He’d face it like he had every other problem in his life, by giving his best effort and tackling it head on.

Naruto admired himself in the mirror.

This was going to work. She only had a few months left here anyway…. Heck, she might even want to finish up early and come back home with him.

He replaced the comb on the counter, breathed deeply and inspected his handiwork in the mirror. His hair was tamed and orderly. He looked…respectable.

He slipped on the Sand cloak, a light silk garment sent to him by the Gaara himself, and headed out the door. One last check in the mirror and his hair was still in place, although a few licks of yellow were already rising up. Naruto combed them back into place and flipped off the light.

The door of the banquet hall atop the Kazekage’s tower slid open, revealing an elegantly appointed table, just as Naruto imagined. It was a large room overlooking the Sand village, and the lights twinkled through the round picture windows. Clusters of Sand diplomats, all similarly dressed to Naruto, pulled away from their conversations and turned curious eyes to the door. Gaara strode out of the center, arms open in welcome.

“We are so glad you are here. There are several people who want to meet you.”

Naruto nodded graciously and smiled, but a quick scan of the room showed Sakura had not yet arrived. He didn’t let his disappointment show, however, and engaged the cadre of men with a smile.

There were many rounds of introductions — names and titles and occupations that sailed over Naruto’s head, even as he was bowing to meet them — and with Gaara at his side, they worked their way through the throng of diplomats.

It wasn’t until they were being shown to their seats that the door slid open again. Naruto had begun to lose hope, but at the soft swoosh, he turned expectantly and felt his heart lift.

Even on the other side of the room, beyond the large group of men and standing at the head of the table next to Gaara, Naruto could see the top of the door sliding open and closed against the ceiling. He heard warm words of greeting and welcoming chuckles, and he had to fight the urge to stand on his toes and see over the crowd.

Just then, the sea of brown-robed diplomats seemed to part. And there she was, all rosy cheeks and pink hair above a flowing burgundy robe. Her bright eyes were searching the room, filled the hope too….

She locked eyes on him, and a brilliant smile lit her face. Naruto thought his heart would break open. She was looking for him.

She moved toward him, hands open for a happy reunion, and it all seemed perfect, just like he’d imagined…

Except the attendant who had opened the door for her followed close behind…. Too close…. And Naruto had the sinking feeling that he knew the tall young man walking just behind Sakura’s shoulder, knew him from somewhere else….

Sakura stood in front of Naruto, beaming up at him. “I think tonight was supposed to be a surprise but….” She flashed the pink note hidden in her palm, the one Naruto had left at her door only hours before.

He smiled into her face for a moment, before the young man behind her spoke.

“Naruto-kun we are so glad you’re here. Sakura said there might be a surprise guest tonight! I guess you’re it!”

Naruto smiled blankly up at man until the handsome visage and confident smile clicked in his memory.

“A-Akira, right? From the…uh…Sand?” He knew he was stating the obvious, even as the words left his lips. But he couldn’t stop himself. He was the irritatingly good looking medic from Konoha. Of course would be here too, he was from the Sand.

Akira’s smile grew even wider. “Yup! The same one! We should sit—“

Between them, Sakura still stood, watching Naruto with open curiosity.

“Should we, uh, sit?” He held out his hand in what he thought was a polite manner, although he didn’t know if it was the custom, and Sakura stepped forward to the seat with her name on the plate. Naruto noticed that her hands were now empty, the note having been tucked away before anyone could see it.

At the head of the long table sat Gaara, followed by Naruto, Sakura, Akira, then all the rest of the diplomats and heads of state.

Looking at the plates and glassware, gleaming and perfect, Naruto felt his plans slipping away from him. Gaara spoke some pleasant words to the group, but Naruto didn’t hear it. All he could think was that Sakura wasn’t alone. Not like he’d expected.

Was this guy like a…a date? If that was the case, then how would he get her alone now? They didn’t seem close, in fact, he seemed more like a puppy following her heels. That thought, and a few other unkind thoughts, did make Naruto feel a little better.

Sakura stood beside him.

“Please welcome Haruno Sakura from Konoha, our medic in residence, and Himura Akira, one of our newest medics, and resident doctor here in the Sand. They have teamed up to launch a medic-corp to service our shinobi, similar to the program that has been so successful in Konoha.”

Both bowed respectfully to the table. Gaara continued on, discussing their accomplishments, until he singled out Sakura. Akira quietly sat down as Gaara spoke of the tremendous impact she’d made on the entire village.

Naruto glanced up, and seeing the glow of pride in her cheeks, he felt suddenly ashamed. He chewed the corner of his lip as Gaara continued on about her remarkable skills as a medic and how she was continuing Lady Chiyo’s legacy.

Naruto didn’t know much about that part of her life, other than she loved it and that she was good at it.

But hearing it from another village, seeing the respect in the eyes of these men who only saw her as a professional, Naruto thought maybe he’d only been thinking of her as his teammate. His sidekick and companion. His Sakura-chan. But she had become so much more. He sat back from the table, let his shoulders relax, and looked up at her while she answered questions.

He was proud for her. She was doing what she always wanted to do. And being acknowledged for it. Naruto realized she certainly wouldn’t walk away from it, not just to go home with him.

And strangely enough, he was ok with that. She shouldn’t just up and leave. Her work here was important.

Naruto stole a sideways glance behind Sakura’s back at Akira. He was nice enough, and Naruto grudgingly admitted that their partnership really did seem to be working. Ultimately, he wished he could hate him, but Akira seemed to be completely supportive of Sakura too.

There was a flurry of applause, and Sakura sat down. Gaara introduced Naruto next and asked him how life in Konoha has been and what he’d been doing lately. Naruto answered immediately that he had been going on missions. But as he looked around the table, he realized there wasn’t much else he could say. He didn’t know anything else that was going on in Konoha except what he was directly involved in. And those were classified missions. But under the waiting gaze of the diplomats and Gaara, he knew he had to dig deep and find something else to say.

He cleared his throat. “Aaaand…I’ve been helping train some of our younger generation, you know, starting with the academy students and genins and working my way up through the ranks, helping train…you know, on missions, and stuff….” The heads of state nodded, polite but unimpressed.

The clatter of plates at the door signaled the arrival of the first course and saved Naruto from having to say more. He sat down quickly and covered his relief with a courteous bow.

The tepid applause made it clear what he already knew — his accomplishments were nothing like Sakura’s. Sure he was powerful and a hero and all that, but he hadn’t done much outside of missions. And anyone who knew him knew that. He unfolded his napkin and glanced over at her a little sheepishly, expecting her to be smirking back at him. She would know he was embellishing what were just standard missions, that only occasionally included younger shinobi and never ones that he was responsible for. That just wasn’t his style, and she knew it.

But instead Sakura was smiling proudly back at him.

Plates were delivered and the first course begun, and conversation around them picked up again. But none of the questions were for Naruto. Most of the discussion centered around Sakura and her latest innovations.

The second course was placed in front of them, the domes lifted in a flourish of steam and aroma, and everyone breathed in the scent while complimenting the dishes. Only when there was the expectant silence of a delicious first bite fell across the table, did Sakura choose her moment to speak.

“Like our esteemed Kazekage, Naruto is the best and brightest that the Leaf has to offer.”

Around her, chopsticks paused over their plates. Even Naruto stopped to look at her, confused as to where she was going.

Gaara nodded and the men offered glaze smiles, while the patiently waited to dig in to their food. They were all diplomats they were all used to this type of flattery. But Sakura added in a dramatic whisper, “And like Gaara-sama, I would not be surprised to see Naruto donning the Kage’s hat as well.” She sunk her chopsticks into a piece of braised meat and smiled conspiratorially. “Not surprised at all.”

As they began to eat, her meaning sunk in. These men were in the presence of the future Hokage. Gaara nodded heartily and tucked into his meal, and with that apparent seal of approval, the men turned to Naruto with renewed interest. Chopsticks clicked and glasses clinked and Naruto found himself on the receiving end of smiles, compliments and renewed introductions, each man eager to make a good impression on the future leader.

Breaking the steady stream of conversation, a new course was served, and Naruto took the opportunity to glance down at Sakura. She was speaking with a grey headed Sand elder who was complimenting her. She blushed and smiled and thanked him graciously, and Naruto looked down at his plate, not noticing the new delights there. He pushed a steaming dumpling with his chopstick.

He still felt connected to her, even after all the distance that had come between them. He admitted now that she would not be returning to Konoha with him. But he marveled that she would still support him, after everything that had happened…. It was just like those pink notes on his door. He knew she would always be his partner. And he would never take her support for granted again.

After another barrage of questions from the heads of state seated nearest him — questions that he was ill-equipped to answer as he was just a shinobi, questions that were much better suited for Tsunade or…well…a hokage — Naruto caught Sakura’s eye and shot her a smile. She grinned back, and it was a beautiful moment just between them, in the middle of the crowded table. But it wasn’t for long as both of their attention was pulled back into the conversation around them.

Gaara finished the evening on a pleasant note, with a thanks to their friends in Konoha, and wishes for many years of friendships (nodding to Naruto), partnerships (nodding to Sakura and Akira) and alliances (looking around the table) between them all.

Naruto watched him, impressed that Gaara handled the whole situation so deftly. He knew each diplomat’s concerns, he had a finger on the pulse of hospital, their programs and improvements, and even spoke of some of Konoha’s alliances with some authority. They may be around the same age, but Gaara’s confidence made him look like a Kage, not a mere shinobi.

Suddenly, Sakura and Akira pushed back from the table and stood, bringing a silence to the table. “We’re doing one last night drill for the current squad of med-nins,” Akira explained. “Their final exam is in the morning.”

In the round of goodbyes and goodnights, Naruto stood without thinking.

While Akira spoke, a few other diplomats stood, taking the opportunity to duck out early as well, and Sakura turned to him, smiling. “Naruto how long are you here for?”

“I leave tomorrow,” he said apologetically, then her smile fell too.


But Naruto didn’t want things to end on a low note, even if it wasn’t working out exactly as he’d planned. He wouldn’t give up.

“But don’t worry, I’ll come by the hospital, if that’s okay.” He cringed inwardly at the note of desperation in his voice that even he could hear. But he didn’t care. He wanted this too badly. “Whenever you have time. Even if you’re on break. I just want to….” Her hand swung close by and he spread his fingers to graze hers, catch them and maybe hold them for a moment—

A few of the old men grinned and nodded and leaned their heads together. Naruto could feel their eyes on them and was reminded forcefully of the old woman from her apartment building. He didn’t want to expose Sakura to any kind of gossip or ridicule, not after she was spoken of like such an equal to these men.

Naruto curled his hand back and the moment passed. “I just want to come by and see where you work.” He coughed and cocked his head to the side, puffed out his chest and did his best to sound careless. “I just, uh…y’now…want to see how this hospital compares to ours in Konoha. We’ve got some projects in the works,” he cleared his throat. “So uh, yeah, it would be handy to see what you’ve done, you know, first hand.”

Sakura smiled through her fingers. Naruto could tell she was stifling a giggle.

“I’d be happy to show you around,” she said, laughter in her voice. “Just come to the lobby at 10 a.m. Is that okay for you?”

“Perfect,” he said, beaming back at her.

Had it ended there, had he turned his head or moved slightly or stepped away, he would have called the night a success. But he didn’t turn away. And so, without her even knowing, Naruto witnessed an intimate gesture that was hidden from the rest of the table.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her, Akira ghosted his fingertips over the small of the back as she turned.

Naruto’s smile froze on his face.

It was not the movement of a coworker or a partner or a teammate. It was the simple gesture of a lover. Sakura didn’t even flinch, and he knew how finely attuned her senses were. Someone that close to her, she would have known where his hands were all the time. But she simply smiled at the table and turned with him, in unison, and they left.

Naruto watched them go with a sinking heart. That one movement, done without thinking, changed everything.

He sat back down, not really hearing the talk around him, and thought about her glowing happiness and Akira’s support, and that maybe he was just now beginning to see the full picture.

He tried to listen, but there was little to contribute. It was all diplomatic topics he knew nothing about. Conversation shifted to the growing tensions in the Waterfall country, and Naruto knew this was his cue to leave. Konoha was obviously involved, and if they asked him about it, which was inevitable, he was going to look like a fool.

He stood up suddenly, saying that he must excuse himself. They all gave him surprised looks, except Gaara who stood with him. Naruto stammered, “I am quite tired and….” Gaara filled in the rest, “And you also have a long journey tomorrow my friend. But we are glad to have had your company, even for one night.”

Naruto was grateful for him, all over again.

He returned to the beautifully appointed suites, but sleep was elusive.

The next day Naruto was up early, scanning the skyline of Sand. He watched without moving, as the soft grey light was slowly burned away, replaced by a white glare off the round roofs and deep blue shadows between the buildings. He thought the city, from this angle, looked like a carton of eggs.

Bored, he glanced back at the clock. It was time to go. Almost time. Well, close. Close enough. He’d be early. Very early, really, but at least he’d be there—

The tension he’d been holding back threatened to engulf him. He’d stayed up half the night, thinking about what he wanted to stay. He still didn’t know. But he knew he had to see her again. And say something. He hoped it would come to him.

He took a breath and calmed down. He’d leave now…but he’d walk slow.

He followed the same path he went the day before, past a building that looked like a radish. Then there was the high street, and the market, and he turned again at the building that looked like a carrot shoved in the ground. He recognized Sakura’s apartment building, and beyond it was the hospital.

It was a big complex, with multiple buildings all shoved together. But instead of the organic, windblown architecture of most of the other buildings, this one had straight edges that angled out at the top. Naruto thought it looked like a cluster of take-out boxes, all shoved up together.

Beneath the red kanji sign a set of double-doors slid open. People came and went. Naruto wiped his palms on his fatigues and entered behind a pair of chatting nurses.

The big clock in the lobby showed he was surprisingly right on time. He took a seat to wait, but it was Sakura who was uncharacteristically late. After 15 minutes, the elevator opened, and Naruto automatically looked up.

As the elevator doors slid back, Akira quick-stepped into view. Naruto thought the movement was incongruous with a long, slow elevator ride until the doors opened fully on Sakura, standing by herself. She met Naruto’s eyes with the flicker of discomfort, and he had the terrible thought that Akira might have been stepping away from a quick kiss.

Akira hopped off, passing in front of Naruto with a friendly smile, and in the next instant Sakura was stepping off the elevator, her troubled look gone. She smiled brightly, genuinely glad to see him. Naruto took comfort in that and stood, reciting Sasuke’s words in his head, particularly the part about ‘putting yourself out there. Don’t hide anymore.’

Sakura looked up at him and they both began simultaneously. “Hi—“ “I—“

They both laughed, and Naruto said “Go ahead.”

Sakura smiled. “Sorry I’m late, it’s been a busy morning,” she said in a rush. “But I’m glad you’re here! I’m glad you want to see what I’m doing. It means a lot.”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, scrubbing his neck. All night he’d planned on speaking to her immediately, jumping right to the most important part, tackling it as he would any mission. But just like during his visit with Gaara the day before, he realized maybe that wasn’t the best strategy. “Sure! Can you, uh, show me around?”

Sakura took him around the hospital, showing him all the wings and floors, programs she’d had a hand in and ones that were going to start soon. Everyone greeted her with respect and friendliness. She still looked like a Konoha nin, in her pink skirt and red vest, but the rose-colored robes she wore over top of her fatigues helped her she fit in comfortably with all the brown-robed medics around her. They recognized her as their superior, stopping to ask a question or have her sign off on a clipboard.

They toured the hospital at a brisk speed, Sakura occasionally checking the folded up watch she kept in her pocket before ushering him to another area.

Sakura breezed down the hall in front, pointing and talking quickly. She was happy, that much was sure, but sometimes Naruto thought he caught a nervous edge to her voice, a brittleness to her smile. She answered questions Naruto had not yet thought to ask. If Naruto had been trying to speak, then he wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise. He kept up with her, maintained his interest and made supportive remarks here and there. On the surface it looked like two old teammates touring the building.

But underneath it all, Naruto was getting more and more nervous. He was glad she was doing all the talking. It saved him from stumbling over his own words.

Sasuke’s voice came back to him….

“You need to go to her. Tell her you love her and you want another chance. Start there. Don’t hide anymore. Put yourself out there.”

But the farther they went, the more it became apparent that what he wanted may no longer may no longer be an option, no matter how hard he tried. She was happy and at home here, well liked and maybe even…loved.

They passed a group of medics, moving in a cluster down another wing. They waved at Sakura, then looked at her in confused concern. “Has it moved, Sakura-san? Are we supposed to go upstairs instead?” She gave them a motherly smile. “No, it’s still in the second floor conference room. Go ahead and get started without me. I’ll be there shortly.”

Naruto spoke up after they left. “Hey, listen, if you need to go, I—“

“Nah, they’re fine for a little while. Besides,” she grinned with genuine pleasure, “I haven’t shown you the best part yet!”

Naruto couldn’t help but smile back at her excitement. Just being around her again was such a delight…and a relief. It was like he’d found a part of himself he’d lost somehow. Following her down another quiet hallway, he vowed to himself that he’d never lose this again.

She took him up to the top floor. It was silent and gloomy, despite the highly glossed floors and the coordinated beauty of forgettable artwork down the walls. It felt like the patients behind the evenly spaced doors were sleeping. Or maybe…dying…. He stifled a shudder.

They padded silently down the hall to the last door in the line of sterile white ones. It was rusty and dented and strangely out-of-place, but Naruto followed without question, catching the flash of green eyes over her shoulder as she looked back at him in excitement.

He followed her up the dark steps, smelling what could only be forest air in the darkness, until Sakura pushed open the door at the top and light and sounds and sweet earthy smells burst down onto him.

Naruto inhaled without thinking and raised his hand to shield his eyes.

A big tree stretched out over him, and Naruto had to stop for a moment on the top step and remember where he was in the Sand. In a hospital. Not a forest.

But it sure smelled like one. His eyes adjusted and he took in the circular room lined with tables covered with small plants. In the middle was a huge tree. Over the top was a dome that looked like a spider’s web of metal and glass.

This must have been their greenhouse. Tools and books and labels were scattered everywhere.

“Doing a little uh…light gardening?”

Sakura laughed at him. “No, this is for the hospital. It’s medical herbs from all over the world.” She lowered her voice to whisper, “It’s even better than the one in Konoha!”

Naruto nodded, recognizing the mortar and pestles, beakers and burners as being used in medical labs.

Spilled dirt crunched beneath his feet as he walked, breathing in the soft air that smelled so much like the forests from home.

“It’s amazing, Sakura. Like a piece of Konoha in the desert. And you did all this?”

“No! I didn’t do this, it was here when I arrived. Well, it was a little overgrown. But I like to think I’ve contributed to their collection and their knowledge base….”

She walked and pointed and spoke about everything she was doing. Naruto could barely follow all the details. He didn’t know the names of half the plants she pointed to, and he certainly didn’t know what they did with them all.

But it didn’t matter. The one thing that was clear was that she was truly happy here.

He couldn’t deny it now. Whatever he hoped for, whatever he wished for…it wasn’t going to happen.

He didn’t know whether it was heartbreak or love he was feeling. It conflicted with everything he believed, that if he tried his hardest, things would just somehow work out. But if she was happy, then he wanted her to be happy. Even if that meant flipping over all of his plans and giving up his own chance for happiness with her.

But maybe he lost that a long time ago. This was what she wanted. What she’d always wanted. Maybe he was the one holding his teammates back, not the other way around. They had all moved on to do what they wanted to with their lives, but he hadn’t. Maybe it was time for him to grow up too.

She stopped ahead of him and bent to tend to a fallen plant, righting it and plucking off it the dead leaves, and Naruto looked away, unable to bear the sight of her just then.

Maybe sometimes love meant letting go.

That old out-of-balance feeling, the one he’d run from for so long, was settling in his chest again. He railed against the conflicting thoughts, telling himself they didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense in this forest room in the middle of a desert.

Naruto spied a door on the opposite side of the greenhouse that opened out onto the roof and headed for it. A breath of dry air and the sight of the brown mountains seemed like a balm in the face of the confusing scent of Konoha, of home, of things that could never be again….

He pushed the door open, closing his eyes and breathing in the smell of desert air, of dried sage and crumbling mountains. It was so starkly different than the sweet smell of woodland that it was a relief.

He walked to the edge of the building and looked over the waist-high stone wall. Sakura’s apartment building was beside them. Down one shadowy blue street he could see the awnings of the market, and far beyond he could just make out the round sides of the Kazekage’s tower.

He sighed. Sasuke’s voice came back. “…Go to her. Tell her you love her and you want another chance. Start there….”

Sakura followed him out and stood watching his profile with concern. “Is— Is something wrong?” She looked suddenly stricken. “Has something happened in Konoha? Is that why you’re here—“

He shook his head forcefully. “No! No…there’s nothing wrong there.” But he fell silent again.

“Oh, o-okay,” she said, then paused, turning to face the view, before launching into conversation again. “Well, it was such a surprise to see you last night!” The nervous edge had returned to her voice. “I’m glad you got to come by, even if it was just a for a night. Gaara often asks about you, and I’ve heard from so many people that they were so pleased to finally meet you. Just yesterday, someone said—“

Naruto shook his head. It was as if they’d switched roles.

“Sakura,” Naruto’s solemn tone startled her into silence, “I didn’t come here to see them.” His eyes pinned her. “I came here to see you.”

Naruto turned to face her, and seeing her big green eyes blinking at him, he thought for a moment that he’d like to stop. To lie and leave and pretend that none of this had ever happened. But he heard Sasuke — “Don’t hide anymore. Put yourself out there.” — and he forced himself to continue.

He finally knew what he had to do.

“I came here,” he gulped once and started again. “I came here to tell you that I thought about all the things you said. And I just wanted to tell you that…I’m sorry. You’re right. People change. And I was running away from that.”

She tipped her head, her eyes soft with sympathy, but he raised his hand before she could speak again and forced himself to continue. He hated to say it, but he had to. He ignored the off-balance feeling and pushed the words out.

“You didn’t end Team 7…I did.”

But when he finally drew his eyes up to her face, dreading the disappointment there, he was surprised to see her smiling tenderly. “Naruto, Team 7 didn’t end.” Her voice finally held a familiar gentleness he was used too. It was easy and comfortable and untied the knots inside him. “We’re just growing in different directions. But it didn’t end. We’re still a team. No matter what!”

He dared a smile back, taking in her whole face. How could he have ever pushed her away. He took a half-step toward her, closing the gap between them.

“We’ll always be teammates,” she said, looking up at him, opening her hand between them and reaching for his, a movement so ingrained in his being he was responding and lifting his hand to grasp hers, as he had done countless times growing up, before he even realized what he was doing.

She smiled encouragingly. “Please don’t ever think—“

The door to the greenhouse suddenly opened. Sakura pulled her hand back and turned to see who it was.

Feeling the dip in the air beyond his open fingers, Naruto turned away and flattened his palm on the low wall of the overlook, keeping his back to the door. Akira’s voice carried through the dry air.

“Sakura we need you— Ohayo Naruto-san! I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but Sakura, we’re ready with the medics for their field exam.”

“Oh yes! Of course! I’d lost track of time.” Sakura nodded, smiling brightly. Akira held the door open for her to come.

Naruto stared hard at the beautiful view without seeing any of it. It was simply something to rest his eyes on. This was it. She was happy and now she had to leave.

“I’ll be right there,” she was saying to Akira, but Naruto didn’t register it. His thoughts had all chased themselves to the same sad conclusion.

Sasuke had been wrong.

“Tell her you love her and you want another chance.”

He sighed. The door creaked closed.

Sakura silently studied his profile. But the closeness between them now seemed miles away.

It felt like they were back to where they started. The moment was lost. Whatever was between them was lost.

“So how long are you staying for,” she began. The easiness in her voice had flown, replaced with grown-up politeness. “I mean, do you have to leave right away? I’ll be off in a little while, maybe we could—“

Naruto shoved his hands in his pockets. He looked down at the earthen wall and shook his head. “No, I’m getting ready to leave. I have missions coming up as soon as I get back.”

“Oh,” she said, but quickly masked her disappointment. “Well, I’m so glad we got to see each other, even if it was for just a little bit.”

Naruto smiled reflexively. But he didn’t hear her. Instead he heard Sasuke. “Tell her you love her and you want another chance.”

He leaned forward and gripped the edge of the wall tightly, as if drawing strength from it, curling his fingers into it until his knuckles turned white.

“Sakura-chan, I— There’s something I want to tell you…. I—“

But when he turned to see her looking at him, so open and expectant, and he swallowed his feelings. “You look really happy. And I’m glad.”

“Oh…yeah, well,” she said, fanning her hand in front of her face in embarrassment.

The door creaked open again. Akira shook her weapons pouch, clinking the contents together and chuckling at her in what could only be good-natured chiding.

“Just one more minute,” she implored smilingly.

Naruto suddenly felt like he was back in Tsunade’s office, watching Sakura look at Sasuke and feeling distinctly on the outside. Like things were moving on without him.

But this time was different. He didn’t know when he’d see her again. Sakura wasn’t a child chasing a crush. She had grown up. And she was at home here.

“Tell her you love her and you want another chance.” 

He knew what he had to do. And his resolve finally melted away that off-balance feeling for good.

He could protect the ones he loved, but he couldn’t control them. They had to live their own lives. Sasuke and Sakura…they wanted to change. And he had to let them.

The door swung closed and Sakura turned back to him.

Before she could speak, Naruto stepped forward, folded her into his embrace and pressed his mouth to the shell of her ear.

“Sakura-chan listen, I came to tell you….” He sucked in a breath. “I came to tell you that…that I love you. And…I’m sorry I missed my chance.

He stepped back. Her face was suffused with pained surprise. It was all the answer he needed. “Naruto…I….”

“It’s okay,” he said bracingly. “You’re happy. And I’m happy for you. That’s all I wanted to say. I’m sorry I’ve been such an idiot. Go on,” he said with a too-bright smile and nodded toward the greenhouse door where Akira was just poking his head back out. “I can show myself out.”

And with that he hopped over the edge. He heard her say his name, her voice chasing him over the edge and fragmenting on the wind, and then that was it. They had gone their separate ways.