"Still, I think you could use a drink."

Sakura looked up. They were nearly at the end of the project and Shikamaru was not the kind of man to hand out invitations sparingly. He was always polite and easygoing (if one was willing to overlook his lack of enthusiasm over most things and sarcastic remarks on the general state of said things) but he made it very clear that while he gave a hundred percent of his talent and dedication to his work, his free time was his own to use as he wished.

In the five weeks they spent trying to figure out some of the old Nara family scrolls that were supposed to aid Sakura in dealing with a new type of nasty poison, he never invited her for anything. He hardly talked to her – outside work, that is. The moment he finished cleaning his table and putting away all the neatly labeled dishes with the latest results in their experiments, he said goodbye and left. Not a question on how she planned to spend her free time, not a word about his own. Sakura supposed that he still played shogi and watched clouds – he did not, could not change so much between fifteen and twenty -, but if he did, he did not mention it.

He was still watching her with his usual bored look, as if it didn't really matter what she answered. Sakura felt an almost irresistible urge to say no, then realized that it was pointless. The knee-jerk reaction was just a reflex that she had no reason to sustain any more. The reason of all these short but friendly refusals of dates, lunches and drinks ceased to exist six days ago.

He wasn't dead. She didn't wish him to be dead. Not after all that time she and Naruto spent wishing and hoping feverishly for him to be alive and well and return to them safely. No. If any of these thoughts cropped up, she pushed them out of her head.

On the other hand, she really wished for him to get some mild but painful and humiliating form of STD from that whore she found him with. Or maybe just some really, really embarrassing situation would do. Like getting drunk, tearful and throwing up in public. Or admitting aloud in the Green Lantern that he was gay. Or…

No. Sasuke Uchiha didn't do embarrassed. He was cold as a cucumber even when she opened the door and found him pumping some unknown black-haired girl on the livingroom floor. Not even the bedroom, mind you. And she was the one who turned tomato red and turned and fled from his house. He just looked at her coldly and said 'it was over anyway' before he turned back to the other girl.

"So?" Shikamaru asked. "I'm willing to wait patiently till you make up your mind but the bars might close by that time, you know."

His voice held none of that sarcastic tone that he used with most people – it was kind, almost gentle.

She found herself smiling.

"Sorry. I'm just a bit tired. Yes – yes, I'd like to go and have a drink with you."

He flashed her a sudden half-smile.

"Good. Get your things and let's go."

They were sipping their sake and Sakura found herself watching Shikamaru from the corner of her eye. She only dated Sasuke for four months but he monopolized her time so much that she felt now as if she had spent these months in exile.

There was a time when she and Shikamaru were friends. Close friends, even. They did some very risky missions together, shared joys and griefs. When did he turn into this silent, tall, muscular man sitting next to her on a bar stool, nursing his drink?

At least his eyelashes were just as long as they used to be. She found this thought so funny that she had to giggle.

"Hmmm?" Shikamaru turned his face toward her. "What's so funny?"

"Your eyelashes," Sakura blurted out. This sounds crazy, she thought. She could hardly suppress another giggle.

"What's wrong with them?" Shikamaru asked curiously.

"Nothing. It's just… I always thought that your lashes are perfect. Wasted on a boy, in fact. And as I looked at your profile right now, I realized they haven't changed. Oh God. I think the sake is getting into my head."

"Not yet," Shikamaru said in a matter-of-fact voice. "Your perception is valid, your eyesight 20/20. When I looked in the mirror this morning, I really did have eyelashes."

There was nothing mocking or humorous in his tone, it was a simple admission of facts but Sakura still laughed.

He really is handsome, Sakura thought. Not as handsome as Sasuke, but…

No. No. Don't think of him.

She felt a little spark of her own old self lighting up. To hell with him. There is a limit to what she would give to a man, any man. Her life, yes. Her heart, yes. Her mind and soul? Questionable but possible. But her dignity? No.

Fuck him.

She poured herself another cup of sake and drank.

"Bad news?" Shikamaru asked gently.

"You mean I look like as if I wanted to kill someone? Well, I guess you heard what happened."

"There were some rumours going around," Shikamaru admitted. His fingers were tapping a slow rhythm on the wood of the counter. "Although I don't know how much, if any, of those rumours is true."

"That depends on what you heard."

She watched his profile – calm, unmoving. Peaceful. He took a sip of his cup then said, "Rumour said you found your boyfriend, Sasuke Uchiha in bed with another woman."

Sakura snorted. "Another woman, yes. Bed, no. The livingroom floor did just fine as I could see. I hope her ass is full of splinters."

Shikamaru started to laugh then tried to mask it as a cough, but Sakura suddenly felt inclined to join in. Now that she thought of it, it was kind of funny. Funny in a grating and annoying and painful way, but funny nevertheless. Sasuke on the floor, with his naked ass sticking in the air… talk about dignity.

"So, what do you think?" Sakura asked when they returned to their drinks.

She expected one of the standard answers that her friends reacted with, ranging from "that jerk!" to "he'll come back to you, don't worry", but Shikamaru was unpredictable, as always. Behind the aloof, sleepy exterior there was a mind that was one of the sharpest in Konoha.

"Do you want my sympathy or do you want the truth?" Shikamaru asked in his usual bored voice.

Sakura didn't waste a minute thinking about that.

"Truth. I can get sympathy from anyone."

Was there a flash of acknowledgement in his eyes?

"Very well. Then my answer is, good for you. In other words, the gods love you."

Sakura spinned her sake cup slowly between her fingers.


Her voice was so small that Shikamaru had to lean closer to her.

"First of all, you have no regrets. You tried your best and it wasn't enough and that's all. It's painful, but there's not much you could do. You both gave each other a chance and it didn't work out. Second, you didn't waste a lot of time on it. There are quite a few people around who only found out that they simply couldn't bear the other person after they got married, maybe even had children. A situation like that is as close to misery as it can get. Third, you found it out in a way that left no room for lies or false hope. A clean break, in other words."

Shikamaru was playing with his sake cup, too. His hands were strong but elegant, long fingers, perfectly shaped nails.

When he spoke again, his voice was just as low as hers.

"Just think about it, Sakura. I know how you felt all those years, you and Naruto and Kakashi sensei. Worrying about him, fearing each messenger that they would bring the news of his death… It would have been a wound that never healed. But he came back. He actually asked you out. There was a chance that it would work. But it didn't. And you found it out before you were tied down in an unhappy marriage for the rest of your life. End of story."

She raised her eyes from the counter and found his. There was no pity in them and no curiosity, just silent understanding and maybe a little sadness.

She had no idea why she asked the next question.

"And what do you really think about it all?"

There was no mistaking the silent appraisal in his eyes this time. He turned toward her fully, resting his right elbow on the counter and shook his head.

"He's a moron," he said in an amused voice. "But really! Just think of it! He comes home after being a missing nin for years. His childhood sweetheart is still willing to give him a chance. He actually manages to get into a relationship with her and she's a strong, devoted, smart girl who's willing and able to help him if he only let her – but no! He lets her go for a floozy who has no assets to talk of beside her boobs! How thick can he be?"

A curl of his hair fell into his face and with an impatient gesture Shikamaru took the tie off his ponytail, shook his head so that his hair fell on his shoulders then with a swift movement he smoothed down his hair and tied it again.

Sakura was aware that her mouth somehow opened but no words came out. She quickly put the cup to her lips to mask her astonishment.

Seeing Shikamaru with his hair down was like seeing Kakashi without a mask – an experience of a lifetime.

She felt her face get hot.

Only a week ago, she told herself. Calm yourself.

But her mind could not close itself off from Shikamaru's words, just like she could not take her eyes off his face. It was true – only one side of the truth, but true nevertheless.

If she could sincerely admit to anyone why she was still willing to give a chance to Sasuke when he appeared in Konoha after all those years, it wasn't because she wanted to fall in love with him again. If they had not had that long and sometimes painful history together, if she'd met him just when he came back to the village, she probably wouldn't have fallen for him. But as things were, it was like a lingering promise fulfilled at last.

Maybe what she wanted was not Sasuke as a person. Maybe it was a concept, an ideal of romantic love. The promise that broken things do not always stay broken, that there is a way to make everything all right.

She was always a sucker for these things, Sakura thought. She never wanted to see what was there to see, obvious to anyone else. She wanted to see Tsunade as a strong, clever woman instead of an old drunkard. She wanted to see Kakashi sensei as the very best, a shinobi so dedicated to the defense of Konoha that he had simply no time left for personal relationships, instead of seeing him as the social retard he probably was. And she still saw Sasuke as the prodigy he used to be, the strong, smart and handsome young shinobi, instead of the bitter, broken and empty-eyed young man he became.

Only Naruto stayed the same – she loved him, always, but she was always pleasantly surprised when he surpassed her (minimal) expectations again and again.

Maybe expectations are a burden on a person, she mused.

"What are you thinking about?" Shikamaru asked. By now they almost finished the bottle of sake and Sakura wondered if she should go home. But it was such a long time ago that she felt so relaxed, so… so safe! She wasn't worried what Sasuke would think or how he would feel or what he would need. She didn't have to make plans or even to make an effort to keep the conversation going. Shikamaru seemed to have a different kind of silence than Sasuke did. It was a comfortable, cozy silence instead of an empty one.

"I was just thinking about expectations," she said slowly.

Shikamaru nodded. "Expectations. So, so troublesome. Personally, I avoid anything like that whenever I can. Too much stress."

It was so like him to put it like that.

"There are so many things you avoid that I'm not even sure you got a life," Sakura shot back.

Shikamaru raised his eyebrows sarcastically. "What, working twelve hours a day isn't enough of a life? You surprise me."

"Well, what do you do in your free time?" Sakura asked.

"Isn't it too late to play twenty questions now?"

"No, really. I want to know. You used to hang out with your team a lot, and when I went anywhere with Ino you were quite often around somewhere, giving us those nasty little remarks of yours about how girls only think about makeup and stuff. Now suddenly you're turning into some sort of a mystery man, and…"

Shikamaru laughed. "No secret, really. It's just... You know, with Chouji and Ino dating, I just don't want to hang out with them that much. Fifth wheel and all that. Also, I love Ino, I really do, but she's an expert at getting on my nerves. She was a natural to begin with and then she had years and years of practice…"

Sakura found herself nodding fast. Ino could still make her blood boil with a casual remark about her forehead or her bra size without even trying. It was a sure sign of how awful things got to be with Sasuke that Ino avoided talking about him whenever she could, and if she had to, she was always cheery and positive. It creeped Sakura out. Whenever her best friend turned from a nosy, loud bitch into a fairy godmother, Sakura knew that things were going very bad indeed.

"…but I still like cloud-watching. And the usual things. Reading, movies… and of course there's sex."

Sakura choked on her drink and started to cough. When she looked at Shikamaru, she felt her face getting hot again.

Shikamaru eyed her worriedly.

"I'm sorry, Sakura… You're not a virgin, are you? I mean I didn't suppose that you… Since you dated Lee and then Sasuke, I just didn't think…"

Sakura tried to regain her dignity and assured Shikamaru that she wasn't a virgin.

"Then…it's not something… mission-related, is it? Because…"

"No, no, no! No, thank God!" Sakura said hurriedly. "I don't do those types of missions, I mean… Oh…"

Shikamaru gave a long and relieved sigh. "Good. For a moment I thought…"

He looked at Sakura curiously.

"What's the problem, then? If I may be so bold as to ask. You know, just because in this enlightened age of ours the word 'sex' in itself usually does not elicit such a strong reaction."

Sakura tried to dodge the question.

"I didn't know you were dating someone."

"I'm not, " Shikamaru answered, unfazed.

"Then…" Sakura blushed again and she hated it, and she hated herself for it, too. She was nineteen years old, almost twenty, and a jounin and a grown-up woman and there was no way, no way in hell that she would want Shikamaru to think that she was still naive and childish and…

"Sakura," Shikamaru said and took her hand. "It's all right."

There was, again, no pity or contempt in his eyes. "It's a very natural thing to suppose that these things go together, but that's not always the case. But let me repeat my original question. What's wrong?"

Sakura cast down her eyes, searching for an answer. Her hands were clasped together tightly, but Shikamaru's left hand almost covered both. His hand was warm, warmer than hers. Her bare knees were safely embedded between Shikamaru's knees which were covered by the thick, rough material of the regular jounin pants. It was somehow familiar. The whole scene was familiar.

They were used to being physically close. The laboratory was small and they had enough missions together to remember each other's habits. Leaning on the other's shoulder or brushing hands and elbows was a common occurrence, even sharing a chair when taking turns at the microscope.

"Sakura. We don't have to talk about this. Sorry for asking."

Sakura again felt that little inner spark lighting up.

"No," she said slowly. "I'd like to. But maybe not here…?"

She looked around hesitantly. The bar was beginning to fill up and the level of noise was steadily increasing.

"You're right," Shikamaru said, frowning. "My place? It's actually nearer."

The street was colder than Sakura thought. They were walking side by side in comfortable silence.

"So you're not dating anyone at the moment?" she asked.

Shikamaru laughed and shook his head.

"Any reason?"

"You mean beside turning into a werewolf at every full moon? No, not much."

"Don't be such a jerk. What happened to Temari?"

It was too dark to see well but Sakura thought she saw a sad little frown.

"She's quite well, thanks. I just got a letter from her two days ago."

His voice sounded quite normal and he walked with his usual long, lazy steps but Sakura felt a pang in her heart and she knew that she made a big blunder.

"I'm sorry," she said timidly. "I didn't mean to hurt you. It's just… I like Temari and I thought…"

"No, it's okay."

He put his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "No drama. It's just… we found we wanted different things in life and considering everything we're better off as friends."

Sakura bit her tongue so as not to ask anything, but there was no need. Shikamaru went on talking.

"She didn't want a family and didn't want to get married. She's… she has problems with that."

"I know that," Sakura said. "She told me once that her mother died when she gave birth to Gaara and what a heartbreaking and sad and sordid thing it was…"

"Yeah," Shikamaru said. "The problem is, I'll be the head of my clan once my father retires or dies and I just have to get married and have children. But I'm sure you're sick of all this clan thing."

"No, it's okay. Although I have to admit that was one of the things Sasuke and I constantly argued about."

"Why? You don't want to have children either? I know he wants to revive his clan, I'm sick of hearing about it. It's such a nice night, let's not spoil it by talking about Sasuke."

"No, it's not that," Sakura said. He tried to look into Shikamaru's face but it was too dark. "It's just… I think that having children should not be like a… a shopping list, you know. A bottle of milk, tick. Half a pound of rice, tick. An eggplant, tick. Two children, preferably one boy and one girl, tick. It's not like that. Children should be born out of love and not because someone has an agenda!"

She was breathing hard, all the anger and fear she ever felt about this blazing high in her heart.

"When I get to have children, I will love them with all my heart and protect them with all I have. Even if they're weak and have no bloodline traits. Even if they are silly or careless or plain dumb, I will love them and help them and there will be no training from dusk till dawn and brainwashing them to think that if they are not the best, they are trash! I will have none of that!"

"You're completely right," he answered.

Sakura waited. "Is that all? I know I'm right!" she said, her hands still in fists.

"Oh well," Shikamaru drawled. "I was actually wondering earlier if something happened to you, if there'd been an accident at the lab or something. All evening you sounded like Hinata." Overriding the indignant shriek, he carried on. "Now I'm glad that everything is as it should be. This is the Sakura that we all love and fear…"

He was just too fast. Sakura wanted to punch him but he jumped back, laughing silently.

One minute Sakura was shaking with anger, the next minute… there was no anger. It left. Just like a patch of darkness, it melt into the night. She wanted to hold on to her anger, not let it go, just like she held on to it for years – anger was a palpable substance in her body, in her head, in her mind, fuelling her actions, pushing her to be stronger so that no one would mess with her, making her stand up against everything and everyone that she considered wrong.

"You're impossible," she mumbled and smiled.

"Why? Because I like women with a bit of willpower and an IQ over fifty? Come on!" Shikamaru said, still laughing.

"Is that all? Not a very long list, I should say."

"Mmm. Remember the family part. Young kunoichi are eager to prove themselves and they are not very keen on the idea of leaving their team and being taken off the active roster for a while."

"But that's standard procedure, isn't it?"

"Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying. I mean that's one reason why shinobi usually marry late and even then have just one child. I guess I'll either have to wait until I'm fifty or marry a civilian. Or both."

"I always wanted to have a brother or a sister," Sakura said. She remembered all the times she asked her mom why she didn't have any siblings, and how her mother always responded with 'be glad that you have a family at all'.

There were lots of kids at the academy who were orphans.

"Yeah, me too. Chouji and Ino… they are really like my brother and sister… but I always wondered what it would be like to have someone who is like me. You know."

"Yeah. You could have played shogi with them. Or go and watch clouds together," Sakura said.


Shikamaru looked almost shy.

"You really do understand, don't you."


They stopped in front of a big apartment building and went up two flights of stairs where Shikamaru fished a key out of his pocket and opened the door.

"Welcome to the lion's den."

The apartment was a little bigger than Sakura's and it was quite obvious that it belonged to a man. The dominant colours were a deep russet brown and a light shade of silver-gray. It was neat and very clean – no dust, no clutter, no pieces of clothing on the floor or the couch.

Sakura felt a little guilty when she thought of her own apartment – clothes on her bed, reminders of her early morning rush, a cup of coffee and a half-finished book on the low table, earrings and make-up things and framed photographs and scrolls on every available surface – and promised herself that she would really and truly clean her apartment the next day.

Shikamaru watched her, amused.

"It's not always this tidy, you know," he said with a half-smile. "I don't entertain much and with this project on top of my regular work, when I'm home I use only the bedroom."

Somehow Sakura didn't think that it was just for sleep.

"You know it's the first time I was invited here?" she said, trying to sound casual.

"Really? Oh, I forgot. You were out on a mission when I had my housewarming party and straight after that I decided never to have anything like that again. It took me ages to clean the apartment, but I expected that – but two days after the party Kiba and Naruto suddenly appeared and started pounding on my door in the middle of the night – half past two, to be exact – hollering that they wanted me to decide whether squirrels like ramen or tempura better."

"Squirrels," Sakura said, trying to decide whether her hearing should be checked.

"Yeah. Search me. Next day I asked them and they didn't even remember coming to see me. But the neighbours did, and they weren't happy."

"So you're saying that I'm one of the lucky few who actually made it through your door ever since," Sakura said.

"That's right. I'd ask you to swear not to disclose the whereabouts of my apartment, but as I already activated a jutsu that makes you forget all the details about my place, it's not that important."

"You forgot the traps," Sakura pointed out.

"Oh, the traps. Of course. But as I lay new ones every time I leave the apartment, you won't be able to use that information. But I'm pretty sure that you use all these precautions yourself."

"Yes. Including the explosive seals. And Naruto."


"He regularly sleeps on my couch. Believe me, you don't want to wake him."

"Makes my blood curdle," Shikamaru remarked. "You know, I'm pretty sure that there is a rule against that in the shinobi book of rules. Something on being an inhuman and unusual form of torture to be used against enemy nin."

They both smirked.

"Would you like another drink?" Shikamaru asked.

"No, thanks. I think if we carry on drinking, we'll both wake up with a terrible headache tomorrow."

"A word to the wise."

"Don't forget who my shishou is," Sakura sighed.

"Tea, then?" Shikamaru asked.

"Tea is fine."

The kitchen was just as neat as the rest of the place. Shikamaru made the tea the way he did everything else: without any semblance of a hurry but without any superfluous movements either.

He's very efficient, Sakura thought. He always knows where he's going and what he's going to do. Maybe that's why being in his company makes one feel secure.

They were sitting on the couch and sipping their tea when Shikamaru said, "You don't have to talk about anything you don't want to. But if you do, I'm listening."

Sakura was silent for a while. She still wasn't sure if asking for advice was a good idea, but she really had very few options left.

"Your usual… partners… who are they?" she asked.

Shikamaru knew at once what she meant and answered without hesitation. "ANBU, mostly. They know what they want and we both appreciate that further complications are unlikely to occur."

"And are they…uh… satisfied? I mean…"

"I think so," Shikamaru said. Then he looked at Sakura and smirked. "In fact, I'm sure. Believe me, those girls are more than able to tell you what they want… and they get it."

Sakura blushed. "Sorry… I shouldn't have asked."

"Why not, Sakura?" Shikamaru asked. "It doesn't make me feel uncomfortable. No big deal."

"But it is for me. Uh… Sex, I mean," Sakura said, fidgeting a little. There were a lot of things that one just did not talk about. Not like this. Not with a man, anyway.

She took a big breath and carried on resolutely. "I feel uncomfortable because I was wondering if that was the reason why he cheated on me. Sasuke… Sasuke and I had a big row a few weeks ago. He said… he said I was childish and immature and I was so cold in bed that he was surprised the sheets didn't get frosty overnight…"

"At least he has a sense of humour," Shikamaru said dryly, his tone clearly indicating that Sasuke Uchiha wasn't the funniest man in Konoha. "So, is it true?"

"I don't know," Sakura said miserably. "How would I?"

"Do you enjoy sex?" Shikamaru asked bluntly.

"Yes. I think I do. I mean it's good to be with someone you love…"

I just can't believe I'm talking about this, and with Shikamaru, of all people, Sakura thought. But who could she ask? Ino was out of the question this time, seeing how steadily she refused to talk about Sasuke. Kakashi sensei… he could probably provide some useful advice but asking these questions… They would both be embarrassed to death before she finished the first sentence. Sai? Come on. It would give him a lifetime of ammunition for nasty remarks.

Naruto? No, no, NO!

At least Shikamaru was intelligent. Also, his conversational skills were above that of the average shinobi. When he talked, he talked in sentences, instead of contributing a 'hn' every possible time.

"I think there's more to sex than that, even on the physical level," Shikamaru said calmly. "But most women who are not that fond of sex find an easy solution to this problem. They fake."

"I don't know how to," Sakura said. She couldn't bear looking at Shikamaru any more. There was a drop of water on the table. Or probably tea. Yes, it must be tea. He didn't get what I said, she thought, because if he did, he'd be laughing by now. Or…

A hand raised her chin and gently forced her to look up. When his eyes found hers, he curtly nodded and let her chin go, but he put his left hand on her shoulder and gave it a friendly little squeeze.

"This tiptoeing around the subject makes me dizzy," Shikamaru said drily. "Do you trust me enough to talk about this properly?"

When he posed the question like this, she found it impossible to say no.

"Yes. I trust you."

"So, if I understand you correctly, you never really enjoyed sex with Sasuke. I can't say it surprises me."

"It's a bit more complicated than that," Sakura said slowly. Shikamaru was taking this so calmly, just like they were talking about a lab project or a mission briefing. "I had the same problems with Lee."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me, either. I like Lee but he's not the most subtle of human beings. Is that all? They just don't know how to please a woman. You should have taught them. Not Sasuke, though – he is going to be a selfish little prick as long as he lives. But in general…"

Sakura sighed and shook her head. "You don't understand. I never… I mean I read about it in books… and Ino talks about her private matters quite sincerely…"

Shikamaru's eyes went wide. "Let me know if I get it wrong. Basically you're saying you never had an orgasm while having sex. But what about masturbation?"

"I don't," Sakura whispered, looking everywhere but on Shikamaru's face. "I don't even try anymore. I'm probably frigid. I read about that too…"

"No," Shikamaru cut in. "Somehow I don't think that would be the case. You enjoy being touched? Being kissed?"


"Then it's just a matter of helping your body learn how to react and to which impulses. You're just a tad late, that's all."

Sakura sat silently and kept turning the subject around in her mind. It was logical. She was a late developer. When Sasuke left, she was still a child. She longed for him and missed him, but that was all. Then Tsunade accepted her as her student and her days were spent with training and incredibly hard work, interrupted only by urgent missions and attacks on Konoha. She'd only taken up with Lee because they were both scared, so scared they just had to hold on to each other…

"Would you help me?"

She was surprised to hear her own voice but the idea seemed logical. It had to be someone she could trust and who would have the expertise to help. Shikamaru met both requirements.

Now it was Shikamaru who studied the floor very, very carefully.

"Uh… I'm sorry… I didn't mean to embarrass you…" Sakura whispered. God, she would never be able to look him in the eye again. Maybe she could ask for a long mission to the Land of Snow - or something even further out on the map…

"Don't be ridiculous," Shikamaru said and Sakura was surprised to see that he was trying very hard not to laugh. "I'm not embarrassed. I'm just trying to find out if this is an elaborate scam or if in a previous life I saved the planet or something and now I'm getting my reward."

"You mean you're willing?" Sakura asked unbelievingly.

"One of these days I'm really going to get back to Uchiha and make his life a living hell for destroying your confidence," Shikamaru snorted. He looked straight into Sakura's eyes.

"You're one of the most beautiful women in Konoha, a constant source of envy and jealousy for women and the object of unrestrained lust for men. Here I sit next to you on a Friday night on my couch and you're asking me to teach you to pleasure yourself. I wonder where the catch is. Maybe I'll have to sell my soul to the devil or something."

"I didn't know you were such a sweet talker," Sakura said, smiling in spite of herself.

"I'm so full of surprises," he said sarcastically. "So, do you want me to…?"

He left the sentence unfinished.

"Yes. Definitely. Do you think you can…?"

He shrugged. "We'll find out, won't we? Go and wash your hands."

"Why?… Oh."

"Yes. If we're doing this, we're going to do it properly."

She washed her face and her hands and combed her hair and tried not to think of anything. She was getting more and more nervous by the second.

By the time she went back to the living room, the bedroom door was open and she heard Shikamaru moving about. She stopped at the door and looked in. Shikamaru was sitting on the bed, his hands in the thinking position. When he saw Sakura, he stood up.

"Come in," he said.

She felt her heartbeat quicken. He looked different, almost a stranger. He was a head taller than she was and she could see his hard muscles under his fishnet shirt. She remembered how she saw him kill in cold blood on more than one occasion, plan an attack or a counterattack while people around him were fighting and screaming and bleeding and all the while his face had the same bored, lazy look.

Then he smiled and he was her friend again, her friend and coworker and Ino's teammate who used to sleep in school and skipped training just to watch the clouds go by.

"Frightened?" he asked and stepped closer. Sakura stepped closer, too and found herself in a hug. She put her arms around his waist and pushed her face against his chest.

"Sakura. There's no need to be afraid. I wouldn't hurt you," he said, his voice a deep rumble like thunder.

"I know… I want to, but I just can't imagine how we're going to do this and it scares me," she answered in a rush.

"Would it make it easier if there were.. rules? Rules that I would keep to so that you would know what to count on?"

She liked that. She knew she was a control freak but hey, most shinobi were. Or they turned out to be dead very soon.

"What rules?"

"Hmm. Let me think."

He sat down on the bed, carrying Sakura with him and putting her on his lap as if she were a doll.

"What we're going to engage in is called heavy petting. I guess you know what that means, " Shikamaru stated.


"So far so good. The rules. I will always ask your permission to do anything new. Any time you stay stop, I stop. If you say that was it, you don't want to go on, we stop altogether and I take you home and we forget the whole thing by tomorrow. However, if you wish me to do something, you will have to ask for it and I'll try to do it that way. Ok? I can't read your mind and we're trying to see if the sheets get really frosty… or if there's a vulcano in there, as I suspect."

Sakura laughed. "You're really trying to see me in a favourable light."

He didn't answer just put her down on top of the bed and went to switch off the overhead light, switching on the bedside lamp instead. His bedroom was big, Sakura realized as he looked around. There was a small tv in the corner, bookshelves, a chest of drawers, a music center. This was the room he really lived in. The living room was a façade, another obstacle to get through. This room was private.

There were no books in the living room, no pictures, no photos, no shogi board. He kept those here. Sakura saw a framed photo of his team, another one with Kurenai and her daughter (she had one of those pics, too – the baby looked just like Asuma sensei, but without the cigarette and the beard). Another photo with Ino and herself, Chouji between them, all of them laughing, taken at the last summer festival. There was a picture of his parents, too, and a lot of scrolls.

The room was suddenly filled with soft, melancholic music, so low that it was almost a whisper.

"Sorry, but the light has to stay on," Shikamaru said. "I have to see what I'm doing."

She giggled.

"You make it sound like a project. Or a mission."

"Well, if that helps, think of it as a mission and I'm team captain."

He rummaged in the bottom drawer and took out a light red scarf, spreading it on top of the lamp.

"That's it."

He turned toward the bed and took off his fishnet shirt. Sakura felt her panic rise.

It was just a week ago that Sasuke broke up with her in a really awful way. She spent a few days waiting for him to apologize, to explain, knowing that she would forgive him as she always did. Then she realized this time there would be no apologies, not even an explanation, not even a goodbye. They met several times since then and he didn't even talk to her. She was the one who had to tell Naruto that they broke up and then she said, no, she screamed at him to stop asking questions, to leave her alone. What, oh what on earth was she doing here in a strange bedroom?

She calmed her breathing. She would go through with this. There were lots of girls who were confident enough to spend a night with a stranger just for sex. Shikamaru wasn't even a stranger, she had known him practically all her life. And he would never harm her in any way, not in a thousand years.

Maybe it was true. Maybe Sasuke really destroyed her confidence.

God knows he destroyed a few things in his life, this wouldn't give him a moment of unease.

Shikamaru knelt on the bed and then with all the grace of a big cat he sat down behind her.

"Lean back," he said.

She slowly leaned back to his chest and felt her weight supported by him. They were sitting very close to each other, her back next to his naked chest, his arms on hers, his chin on her shoulder. Sakura felt some of the tension leave her body – it was replaced with a feeling of warmth and a ticklish little sensation in her stomach.

"Don't I have to get undressed?" she asked, looking for something to do.

"Relax. We have all night. Anyway, most of these things happen in your head first and in your body only after. We have plenty of time to find out what's good for you. "

"And what about you? Wouldn't it…?"

"Hurt, or what?" Shikamaru snickered behind her. "Don't be silly. Do you ever watch porn?"

"What? No!" She tried to turn around but Shikamaru didn't let her.

"Really. Well, just to let you know, this situation has all the story elements of a really kick-ass porn movie. But this time it's real and I'm going to enjoy every single moment of it."

His voice was deep and dangerous, his hands were slowly sliding down her arms, only the tips of his fingers touching her skin, going down… and up. Down. Up.

"Close your eyes," he whispered.

She obeyed and felt goosebumps on her skin.

"What happens in the movie?" she asked, her voice a bit shaky.

"Interested? Hmm. Let me see."

Now as he carried on stroking her arms, her hands, he started to go a bit lower with each movement, first touching her thighs just under her fingertips, then pulling back his hands so that his fingers stroked her thighs, her hips, her waist.

"First thing is, we need a real hottie as the female star. A woman that most guys would never be brave enough to ask out in real life. She's young and beautiful and with a figure that… mmm, I think my nose is bleeding."

Sakura smiled and cuddled closer to him.

"And then?"

"Well. The script says that she is so young and innocent that she just doesn't know what makes the world go round. So there's this man she asks to teach her… and he just can't believe his luck."

"And how does he do that? The teaching, I mean?"

He smelt like cinnamon and smoke, Sakura thought. It was a very pleasant smell. The soft light behind her closed eyelids, the whisper of the music in the background and Shikamaru's hot skin made her drowsy and happy. And there were those constant touches, never ceasing but always keeping the same gentle, steady rhythm…

"Well… first he asks her if he can take off her shirt… to feel her more."

There was a silence and Sakura felt her breath quicken.

"May I?" Shikamaru whispered near her ear and she said "yes". It came out raspy, needy, unlike her usual voice.

His hands were moving on her, slowly pulling down her zip then peeling away her shirt.

"God, you're so beautiful, Sakura."

His hands were now stroking her bare skin over her bra and the way he whispered those words… She could tell he meant every one of them.

"What happens then?" she asked in a whisper.

"Well, actually, it's your movie," he breathed softly into her ear. "So you tell me what happens. Who's the leading actor?"

Sakura smiled again. He was playing this game to make her feel more relaxed, more secure, and it worked.

"It should be someone like you," she whispered back. "Someone who's strong and smart and sure of himself… Someone who isn't afraid to take risks."

"I see," he said softly. "That's very… flattering."

His hands were resting on her arms, their touch familiar and strange at the same time. Sakura knew that she instinctively said what was on her mind and it was true. She knew his strength, she knew his intelligence, she knew his resolve and courage. That was nothing new. But Shikamaru also had the confidence that only experience could provide. He'd probably done this countless times. Kunoichi were not that different from civilians and Shikamaru knew how to make a woman feel wanted.

He knew what to do and wasn't afraid to do it – be it an attack or a seduction scene.

"So… can I take your shorts off, then?"

Sakura raised her hips and put her hands on her shorts but Shikamaru stopped her.

"No, not you. Let me. Right now I'm the one doing all the work, remember?"

He made it so slow that Sakura was bristling with impatience by the time he pulled her shorts under her knees and once they were off her she kicked them off the bed.

Shikamaru chuckled behind her. "Impatient, huh? Just you wait."

"So?" she asked. It made her feel uneasy that she was only in her underwear now. At least it wasn't something old and ugly. One of the things that Ino hammered into her was that if you are feeling down, you should take extra care with your looks. She was wearing the pink silk and black lace set that was a Christmas present from Ino.

"So what?" Shikamaru asked, his voice distant.

"Do you like what you see?" Sakura asked.

"I'm trying very hard not to drool on you too much, thank you for asking. Maybe I should go and have a cold shower."

"Don't you dare!" Sakura said. "You have a job to do!"

He chuckled. "So I have. Well. Hmm. Tell me what you usually think about when you touch yourself."

"Lots of things," Sakura said, suddenly feeling sad. "Mostly it was my actual boyfriend. But it never worked."

"Of course it never worked," Shikamaru sighed. "A textbook case of vicious circle. They couldn't please you so every time you thought of them you felt unhappy. Congratulations. Anything else? Did you ever have a crush on anyone you didn't know personally? An actor or a singer, perhaps... That works really well as a sex fantasy because it doesn't have a chance to clash with reality."

"Can't say I have."

They were silent for a moment, both enjoying the feel, the touch of the other's skin.

"Do you have a favourite place where you go when you want to relax?" he asked.

"Such as?"

"I don't know. Hot springs. A clearing in the forest. A big tree. I know that Kakashi sensei spends a lot of time near the Hokage monument, looking down at the village."

"Yes, he does," Sakura said, thinking about how well Shikamaru knew Kakashi. "He says it always reminds him why he loves Konoha so much. Have you got a place like that?"

"Yes. It's a meadow near my parents' house. There are some beautiful trees there and the grass is so high that when I lie down, I just disappear in it. It's like a secret place where I can always find my peace."

"That sounds wonderful," Sakura whispered. "Watching the clouds on a sunny day and hearing the grass rustle when you move and smelling the earth and grass around you… It must be really great."

He was stroking her, slowly, lovingly and Sakura felt her muscles relax.

"I have a place like that, too," she whispered.

Shikamaru didn't ask anything. He just waited patiently, his hands moving slowly on her.

"I never talked about this to anyone," she said timidly. "My parents' house has a small garden… really small. But there's a little nook where there are a lot of rose bushes. They are very old and overgrown, but there is a little clearing between them where no one can see me. In the summer I often go there and sunbathe… sometimes I just lie there naked for hours and the smell of the roses and the sunshine makes me quite dizzy and sleepy… "

"That sounds great," he said in a low voice. "I'd like to see you there… a beautiful, naked girl asleep among the roses… like a fairytale princess…"

Just thinking of the rose garden made her happier… but when Shikamaru said he would like to see her there, her mind accepted this quite easily. As in a dream, she saw herself with Shikamaru under the rose branches, both of them naked, kissing wildly, his long, dark hair falling on his shoulders, covering their faces…

"What do you feel when you feel desire?"

Sakura had no idea what kind of answer he expected.

Shikamaru sighed again.

"Most women," he said softly, "feel something around here when they feel… horny."

His thumbs were circling on her belly, around her navel.

This time she felt it. It was like lightning, very far away, buried somewhere deep inside her.

"Yes," she whispered.

"That's right," he said slowly. "I had a lover who said that when she felt really horny it was like a grip on her stomach."

Sakura felt her belly tightening.

"Where?" Shikamaru whispered.

Sakura closed her eyes again and looked inside, inside… Her body that she always handled as a weapon, toned and trained and used, gave a shy flutter in response.

"Here," she said and slowly pulled a finger down from her navel to her pantyline.

"Yesss," Shikamaru whispered. His fingers followed the same route and the lightning crackled again. Closer. Closer.

She whimpered a little and Shikamaru covered her belly with his hands, softly stroking and massaging the sensitive area.

"Why there?" Sakura asked, dazed.

"You should know, you're a medic," Shikamaru said in the same low, dark voice. "Your vagina starts here," he softly touched her mound, following the line to her navel, "and ends somewhere here, deep inside, in your womb."

She writhed a little. There was something else in his words, not only lust. Respect. Amazement. Wonder.

"So you don't think it's disgusting?"

"What do you mean? Sex? Or the female body? Of course not." His fingers were drawing small circles on her skin. "It's a miracle. Sex is a miracle. It's almost a proof of God's existence. One of the deepest forms of bliss that a human being can experience… and that's the act that's responsible for the creation of another human being. And the whole process happens in a place that is so secret and deep and dark that the new spark of life is protected and nurtured until it's ready to come to light. If this isn't a miracle I'm not sure what is."

Sakura felt strangely touched. She turned back to see his face and before she had time to think about it, she put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

He responded slowly at first, then more and more eagerly. Sakura felt his mouth open, his tongue sliding into her mouth hungrily and then her head fell on his shoulder and he was holding her and kissing her and it was sweet and made the lightning crackle through her body until it was almost painful and she couldn't think anymore.

It was Shikamaru who broke the kiss, his face flushed, his eyes sparkling.

"I think we should get back to the original project first," he said. "Then you can decide whether I'm worth investing a bit more time into."

Sakura felt dizzy. When Shikamaru asked if he could take her bra off, she could only nod without thinking. She knew she should hold on to the barriers she set between herself and the world but it felt so good to let go.

"And this is the other part that's usually very, very sensitive," he went on while his fingertips were stroking her neck and her shoulders. Sakura felt him lower his head and he blew hot air onto her right collarbone. "I'm going to kiss you here if that's all right," he said.

She nodded again. It was an automatic reaction by now. She didn't want this to end. It was just the opposite of when she tried touching herself, impatiently, hurriedly, wanting to get rid of the stress and feeling angry and disappointed that her body just wasn't going to cooperate until she just gave up the whole thing altogether.

He was showering light kisses on her shoulder while his hands were softly stroking her waist. He slightly raised her right arm and leant forward to kiss the back of her armpit, sucking in her flesh and her whole body shook violently.

"That's a spot most people don't know about," he murmured. He started stroking the underside of her breasts and his hands never ceased touching and teasing her belly, her waist, the outside of her hips, her arms, everywhere but her breasts and the area that was still covered by her panties. He was driving her mad on purpose.

Sakura remembered dimly that she could ask him to do things and she whispered "Touch me… touch my breasts…"

He hummed against her shoulder and said, "Oh, no, honey… You touch them."

She felt cheated and put her left hand on her right breast, only to feel it swatted away.

"Not like that. I'll show you," he said. "Slowly. Gently."

He laced his fingers into hers and started to caress the underside of her breast, then her ribs, her arms, then his hand guided hers back, slowly, lovingly, with the lightest of touches, kneading her breast.

When his fingers touched her nipple, she leaned into his touch and when he placed her other hand on the other breast she wanted the same sweet pain and started drawing small circles around her nipple. She felt his breath hitch and he began to suck and lick her neck and she was moaning and writhing and of course it had to be done like this, of course this was what sex was about and she wanted more, more of this.

"Your panties," he said and it was impossible to mistake the lust burning in his voice for anything else. His voice reverberated somewhere inside her and reached parts that were out of reach, forgotten, and now they were slowly waking up and turning against her, making her burn inside.

She realized he was still waiting for her answer. He was so collected, so cool, so in control. She wanted him to lose his cool, to drive him wild, just like he was doing with her. She moved her hips against his pants and he gave a deep growl.

"Take off your panties," he commanded. "Slowly."

She obeyed. She was burning, half-conscious, losing control… and she loved it.

"Yes," he said. "Now open your legs."

She obeyed again.

He wasn't satisfied with the result, he reached down and put his hands on her thighs, slowly opening her more until she was lying there open and wet and waiting and so, so hungry.

"Oh… Your colour… it's natural. Not that I had any doubts…"

She felt no need to answer.

"I'll do it first and then let you finish," he whispered.

She couldn't think anymore but when he raised his hand and touched her mouth with his index and middle fingers, she instinctively opened her mouth and sucked his fingers.

"God… you're hot as a forest fire," he said. "Now look."

She raised her head and as his hand disappeared between her legs she knew that he was looking, too. His hand was big and his fingers calloused but they were gliding so smoothly over her. He took his hand away and she was begging him not to stop but he took her hand to his mouth and his tongue was hot and his mouth was hot and then he placed her hand between her legs and held her finger and used it like a paintbrush to draw circles and arabesques and lines around her clit. It was good, it was so good, it was never ever like this before when she touched herself, it felt too sensitive, too weird, but now it was a fire spreading fast in her, and she rocked into her own touch and it was far, far away that she heard his whisper, "God, you're a dream, you're so damn beautiful," and then he put his hands on hers and made her move her fingers a little faster and then one of his fingers slipped inside her and it was so good…

She felt the lightning flare up inside her and she was falling in the darkness behind her closed eyes but it was a good kind of darkness.

When her breathing slowed down she found she was still half-lying, half-sitting next to Shikamaru and turned to look at him. She didn't know what she expected but what she got was a smile.

"So, was it worth the time?" he asked and she pulled his head down to hers and kissed him. She supposed she should be confused or ashamed or something but she just couldn't find it in herself.

Shikamaru's heart was still beating fast. Of course. And his erection was in place. Bigger than ever.

Sakura was sure that if he could to this to her with just his fingers he would probably do wonders with his… his…oh…other parts, but there was something else, something she never had the courage to ask for before.

Hell. Why not. He was not a prig, that was obvious. Maybe… just maybe…

She looked at him again and faked a shy smile. "Can I… can I still ask you to do something?"

His eyes were burning but he looked calm and his voice was even flatter than usual.

"I suppose. What would that be?"

Now she didn't have to fake being shy any more. The blush was real. "I always… always wanted to see a guy do the same… I mean… and it's unfair that you saw me but I didn't see you…"

"So you want to watch me jerk myself off? Is that it?" Shikamaru asked.

"Well…. yes."

She looked in his eyes and he nodded. "Okay. Any other wishes?"

"Not yet," she said. "But I may want to come up with a few new ones later."

He got rid of his pants without any visible sign of hurry – no underwear, she thought, interesting - and lay back on the bed.

"Touch yourself," she said and this time he was the one who obeyed.

He was touching himself in a very different way than he had been touching her. He was brusque and impatient and his face was all closed down as in pain, his mouth a firm line, and she just had to touch him and suddenly they were kissing and groping each other and then he was over her, his hand still moving fast on his own flesh and before she had any time to think about it, she blurted out "please, on me, do it on me, I want to feel it," and he threw his head back and groaned and then her belly and her breasts were covered in his seed.

It felt hot on her skin.

He looked as if he wanted to say something but then just gave her a short kiss and collapsed on the bed.

They were lying next to each other, Shikamaru on his back, his eyes closed.

Sakura wondered whether… oh, to hell with it. She dipped her index finger into a drop of semen between her breasts and tasted it. Not bad, really. Something like seawater.

Shikamaru moved and she found herself looking up into his face.

"Do it again," he said.

She tasted another drop and he broke out in a wide grin.

"What's so funny?"

"Are you sure you don't watch porn movies?" he asked.

"Of course I don't!" she answered, confused. "That would be… lewd!"

He shook his head, amused.

"I guess I should go now," Sakura said. It was suddenly very strange and frightening and she didn't know what to do. She never had any one-night stands and she supposed that was what people did after sex: said goodbye and went home.

"No," Shikamaru said. She looked at him, afraid of misunderstanding him, making a mistake.

He blushed.

"I mean, you don't have to. If you want to go home, I'll take you. But if you don't… never mind. It's probably too soon…"

He meant the breakup, probably. But Sakura suddenly found that she couldn't care less. Well, did her ex-boyfriend care? Did he? No, he didn't. In the four months she spent with him he never showed as much attention and gentleness toward her as Shikamaru did in just one night. And the night wasn't even over.

"Shut up," she said. "I want to stay. If you want me to."

He only nodded.

"No. Say it aloud. So that later there would be no misunderstanding."

He rolled his eyes. "Troublesome. Okay, okay. I want you to stay."

"Good. Do you still grant my wishes?"

"Depends on the wishes, I guess. But I'm willing to consider."

"So here is what I want," Sakura said, giving Shikamaru a serious look. "One, I want to have proper sex with you. I mean…uh. You know."

Shikamaru nodded. "I think I can decipher the hidden meaning behind your words, if need be. You will have your wish granted, fair maiden. I think it's going to be a mind-blowing experience for both of us. What's the next one?"

"You're going to ask me out. At least once," Sakura said. Her palms were getting wet and she was so nervous she could hardly speak. "Because I don't go to bed with people I never even dated. I…"

"Wait a minute," Shikamaru interrupted. "You're willing to date me?"

"Does sex destroy your ability to understand human speech?" Sakura snapped. "That's exactly what I was saying."

Shikamaru put up both his hands in mock surrender.

"Okay. Okay. Then from this moment on we're officially dating and tomorrow I'm taking you out to some fancy overpriced restaurant to make it public. I'll pick you up tomorrow at seven, wherever you are. You might still be here in my bed, mind you. But what about Sasuke Uchiha?"

"Fuck Sasuke Uchiha," Sakura said.

They were both silent for a while. It was Shikamaru who broke the silence.

"I sincerely hope that's not a wish I have to grant because I'd rather not. I don't do men," he said. Another minute passed and he added, "He's not even ANBU."