Sakura turned back slowly. The door was open, Hinata was standing in the doorway, one hand on the doorknob, the other one fluttering in the air uncertainly like a tired bird. Sakura could read her like a book – her hesitation, her fear, her wish that nobody be hurt or unhappy, least of all Naruto.
Shikamaru was standing next to Hinata in his usual way, slouching a little, his eyes sleepy, a half-smile on his lips. He was wearing an expensive-looking dark grey suit with a charcoal tie and Sakura's heart leapt. He was so handsome and so elegant and so calm and just so... so...
She felt the corners of her eyes brimming with tears again.
The air in the room was suddenly thick with tension.
If feelings were visible like colours in the air, this room would look like a rainbow gone mad, Inner said.
Shikamaru gently pushed Hinata to one side and went straight to Sakura. He looked in her face and his eyes narrowed slightly.
"Did they give you grief because of me?" he asked. His voice was not nervous or angry, it was his usual lazy drawl, but now Sakura could see under the surface and all her senses screamed "danger".
"No," she lied at once, blindly, unhesitatingly.
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow.
"Then why are you crying?" he asked.
"I'm not," Sakura said and looked straight back at him, raising her face a little and looking up so that the tears would stay safely in her eyes.
"Then what are these?" he asked, his finger touching her cheek, the corner of her left eye. "The latest fashion? Crystal drops on your eyelashes? Aesthetically very pleasing, no doubt, but not my taste. Not on your face."
Sakura had no idea what to answer. The tension in the room went up a notch and she had no idea what was happening.
"Naruto," Shikamaru said quietly and turned to the blond man. "Don't make her cry. I won't, either."
Naruto slowly raised his eyes to Shikamaru's face and they watched each other for a moment, neither of them blinking or looking away.
Then Naruto slowly nodded, and Shikamaru repeated his movement a moment later. The air in the room trembled like air in a heatwave over the road as several people sighed silently and Sakura found she could breathe again, too.
A moment ago she had been sure that she was standing between shinobi who were ready to kill or maim each other and she had no idea what she was expected to do.
She felt a slight, cool touch on her feet. She looked down. She was standing in a pool of shadows, but they were not binding her. On the contrary. They were surrounding her like the flames of a fire. Her eyes followed the line of a thin black shadow back to Shikamaru. He had no pool of shadows around him.
She had only seen this kind of shadow once, when the Hokage and the daimyo himself were both present in a peace conference, and they both had a Nara guarding them. It was called the Wall of Shadows.
This wasn't a form of attack. It was only used for defense and was rumoured to be unpenetrable as long as the shadow user was alive, and even if the guard was killed, the shadow wall still stayed intact, did not dissolve for minutes.
Only members of the Nara clan were able to provide this kind of perfect safety, and only a handful of them because it was a very difficult and very dangerous skill to perform that could burn up its user's energy in a very short time, and left very little strength for self-defense.
All his strength is around me, she thought, amazed. He didn't care if he was attacked, only that I would be protected, no matter what.
She looked around.
They know it, too.
Everybody seemed pale and tense, except her sensei - who was, she was sure, grinning under the mask.
She looked at Shikamaru again and saw him smile back at Kakashi, a bit embarrassed.
I wish they would stop that, Inner hissed. It's like they had a language of their own called testosterone. I'm not going to go along with this "poor little woman, she doesn't need to know" routine, I'm telling you now!
Sakura absolutely agreed with her, but maybe this wasn't the moment to bring that up. She was glad that at last the killer intent in the room seemed to fall back to a normal level – normal, at least, in the circumstances, considering they were shinobi.
Better to find some kind of distraction.
She looked around and discovered, to her surprise, that Shikamaru was holding something in his hand, something she did not notice until now.
Some kind of shinobi I am, she thought guiltily. But still...
Ah-ha, Inner purred. Now we're talking.
"You brought me flowers," Sakura said slowly, uncertainly. "How nice of you."
"Hag has a knack for stating the obvious," Sai said in a voice that was meant to be chatty and personal.
"Shut up, Sai," two male voices whispered in unison.
"I just thought I would mention it," Sai said. He seemed hurt. "You know, to restart the conversation. It is a polite thing to mention something pleasant after an embarrassing moment. Like when you think that your teammate's new boyfriend is a jerk. And his penis is bigger than yours. And you want to tear his head off."
"Shut up, will you?" one of the voices said, still in a whisper, while the other one said, bored, "He's an idiot. He won't stop talking until we push his stupid sketchbook down his throat."
Sakura would have liked to carry on her own conversation with her boyfriend, which, she felt, was much more interesting and hopefully would have at least a little romantic potential to boast with later (mostly to Ino, of course - and skipping the part when all the boys were glaring at each other like actors in a bad gangster movie) but nobody seemed to care.
"You two of small penises can't tell me when to speak," Sai stated.
"My penis is long enough so I could put it around your neck and strangle you with it," one of the boys grumbled. "Oh, sorry, Hinata-chan. I didn't mean..."
"Oh, Naruto, it's all r-right... I know... I mean I know you didn't m-mean it, not that your... oh..."
Hinata's voice slowly faltered to nothing.
Sakura looked back as a reflex to see if Hinata would faint but she didn't, she just went red as a beetroot.
"Anyway, don't say the p-word in front of Hinata," Naruto said, looking at Sai with hardly suppressed anger.
"Why can't I say penis when you just said it, Naruto? Anyway, it's a medical term so it's not offensive," Sai said in a self-satisfied voice. "I asked Hag and that's what she said. She said it was a neutral expression."
"That doesn't mean that you have to use it all the time, idiot," Sasuke said.
"Just one more word and I'll beat up all of you, got it?" Sakura hissed, her patience running short. "This was supposed to be a romantic moment and you're trying to spoil it."
She looked at Shikamaru again, afraid that he would be angry but he was trying not to smile.
"It's fine," he said softly. He raised his left hand and touched her cheek, then her lips, a butterfly touch, full of tenderness. "Nothing could spoil this for me. I'm sorry if you feel..."
"No," Sakura whispered. "Nothing could spoil it for me, either. I'm so glad you're here!"
With a childish, clumsy gesture she grabbed the lapels of his suit, pulled him closer and kissed him.
Everybody in the room went silent.
Sakura let him go and took a step back, a bit uncertain but still happy.
Shikamaru's face was full of that strange warmth that she had never seen on him before the previous night.
He stepped back, too, and raised the flowers and Sakura took them, and with an automatic gesture smelled the bouquet and she smiled again at Shikamaru, she wanted to say 'thank you, how beautiful' or something like that, but...
The bouquet was big. Too big, actually.
Sakura furrowed her eyebrows.
She knew a lot about flowers. Ino loved to hear her own voice and Sakura liked to learn new things, and her memory was exceptionally good. Sakura remembered how Ino once described to her the regular first-date-bouquet - she remembered every word.
"A bouquet for a first date should be small but exquisite," Ino stated while her clever hands snipped off leaves and thorns and arranged the flowers. "Sometimes it is even better if it's not elegant, but charming and personal – if the man in question knows her favourite flowers, for example, or her favourite colours, or if the flowers are associated with an event that was important for her or for both of them. But on a regular first date, a man doesn't really know that much about the woman. So the basic rules are – you use either roses or carnations, preferably three or five of them but it should always be an odd number, and the flowers should be pink or white. If the man is sure of the lady's feelings, they may be red."
Shikamaru was sitting there in the shop, too, reading a scroll, and he looked up at Ino and snorted.
Ino put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"One day you'll be begging me to make a bouquet for your beloved, and you know what I'll say?" she said with glee. "I'll say no way, lazyass, it's out of the question!"
"Well, if you ask me, to buy anything for a first date is a waste of time and money," Shikamaru said, his dark, almond-shaped eyes shining with mischief. "One can't tell in advance if the relationship is going to work out. Anyway, most girls are smart enough not to expect anything, either. But if I ever wanted to date you, Ino, I'd definitely buy you a cactus for the first date. A big cactus."
Shikamaru could move fast if he wanted to, Sakura remembered with a smile. This was one of those occasions because Ino threw the order book at him and he ducked, and the book hit the wall behind him a millisecond later.
He knows just as much about flowers as I do, Sakura thought. He spent a lot of time with Ino in the shop when they were kids. Then why...?
She took a closer look at the bouquet. It was a swirl of colours, asymmetric in shape, but at the same time very pleasant to look at.
Like an Impressionist painting, Sakura thought. Most of the flowers were red, peach, pink and white, arranged in such a way that the transition between the shades seemed to form little spirals, but there were also small spots of yellow, purple and blue scattered between. It was a rich and peaceful sight that she could watch for hours and never feel bored or unhappy. It's like his meadow, Sakura thought and smiled.
Still, it was a very strange bouquet. Sakura had never seen one like it before. She recognized Ino's touch – her skill was unique, it was impossible to mistake her work for someone else's. But the flowers… she needed all that skill to put together such different flowers and still maintain some kind of harmony. It was a wild mixture of small flowers and long-stemmed flowers, simple garden flowers and exotic, costly flowers. Konoha had a very mild climate and most flowers blossomed throughout the year, but still there were some plants and flowers that had to be imported or specially grown in hothouses by the Yamanakas, and they didn't come cheap. Sakura, at a glance, could identify at least three of these in the swirl of colours.
There were some silk flowers in the bouquet, too, she noticed now – beautiful, quality work, but artificial.
What could be so important about a flower that if the shop didn't have it, it couldn't be replaced with another kind, something with more or less the same colour and appearance?
This wasn't just an ordinary bunch of flowers for a first date.
There was a message somewhere, hidden inside.
Sakura looked at Shikamaru but he gave no help. His eyes were smiling but his mouth was not.
She tried to remember the alphabet of flowers – once, ages ago, in pre-Sasuke and just-started-the-Academy time, Ino told her about it all.
"The rose is the key," she heard Ino's voice. It was a child's voice. "Are you listening at all, Sakura? Red rose means love. A single red rose…"
She looked down. The rose was there, the centrepiece of the whole composition. Just one. There was a yellow and a purplish flower entwined around it. The yellow was easy enough, a daffodil. It was the flower of her birth month.
The purple one…
"Aster," Ino's voice chirped in from a distance, another time and place. "My birthday flower is the aster. I was born in September. Ugly enough, don't you think?"
Shikamaru was born in September, too.
It was as if all the light in the room was lighting up the bouquet of flowers in her hand.
Love. Two people in love. One born in September, one in March.
She recognized more of the flowers now that she had the key to the code. Each flower and plant had more than one meaning, it all depended on how those meanings were combined and enhanced and accentuated…
Daisy. Innocence and loyal love. Gladiolus. Sincerity and admiration. Juniper. Protection. Red camellia. You're a flame in my heart. Fern. Sincerity. Primrose. I can't live without you.
Her heart was beating so fast that she could hardly breathe.
Alyssum. Worth beyond beauty. Moss rose. Confession. Arbutus. I love you and only you. Veronica. Fidelity.
Red chrysanthemum. Lots of it.
The whole bouquet was a confession of love. The flowers were more eloquent than any lover could ever be.
But there was something else here. Something that wasn't easily noticeable at first sight, something that was a lot more subtle and a lot more important.
There were other flowers hidden there that were suppressed, almost invisible next to the flamboyant red beauty of the love confession but once you looked carefully, they were impossible to miss.
The scent... The sweet, innocent, tentative and fearful confession of an emotion that went deeper and dangerously close to one's heart and soul.
Honeysuckle. Bonds of love. Lemon blossoms. Faithful love.
And the flowers that could be so easily overlooked… that girls always knew of but hardly ever took a close look at to recognize them if they were placed in a random bunch of flowers. Easily mistaken for something else, overlooked, forgotten…
Orange blossom. Marriage and fruitfulness. Jasmine. Attachment. Green boughs of myrtle. Love in marriage. And the whole bouquet was decorated with heart-shaped leaves of deep green.
Ivy. Fidelity and wedded love.
Sakura did not notice at first that she was crying. The tears were not hot against her face, they felt cold, so they went unnoticed. It was her heart that was so hot it burned.
She looked at Shikamaru, wanting to hope but afraid to do so, but his smile was lighting up the room more than all the sunshine in the world.
"Do you… do you really…"
She wasn't sure what she wanted to ask but there was no need as he did not let her finish.
"I didn't actually count on having an audience," he said in a slightly shaky voice. "Bother. Troublesome…"
Sakura heard the knock on the door and the excited voices on the other side of it, but her attention was wholly absorbed by the man standing next to her.
Her senses were closing down. The opening and closing of a door, Ino's shrieking ("Are we late? Are we? No? I wanted to see this!") went unnoticed, just like Chouji's grunts and Hinata's soft voice. The only person who counted, the only person who was real and alive and had sharp outlines was standing next to her, smiling, and then he was taking something out of his pocket and he was opening the small box while he was gracefully going down on one knee.
"Sakura Haruno – will you do me the unspeakable honour of giving me your hand in marriage – for eternity?"
For a moment she thought she would not be able to speak. His smile never wavered.
"Yes," she said. "Oh yes. My God, yes!"
Then she was somehow, in a strange and utterly unique and 'oh God, this has never happened to anyone before' kind of way in his arms and he was kissing her with a fervour that left them both breathless.
"Your hand," Shikamaru reminded her gently when he broke the kiss.
She was so dazed, she had no idea what he meant.
When she raised her right hand without thinking, he laughed.
"Not this one, sweetheart. The other one."
Sakura blushed and she almost dropped the bouquet – her hands were shaking. He held her hand and slowly slipped the ring on her finger then he couldn't resist and kissed her again.
"If you don't like the ring, I can buy you another one," he said. The way he looked into her eyes… Sakura was sure she would never ever be able to eat chocolate again without remembering this moment, the sweet chocolate brown of his eyes, the delicious, deep, rich lilt of his voice. "It used to belong to my grandma… she had small hands like you. But it's an old-fashioned ring… I just didn't have the time…"
Sakura raised her hand again to see the ring better and turned it this way and that so that the light would sparkle up all the gems. It was an old-fashioned ring, true – a ridiculously big diamond in the middle and small emeralds and even smaller diamonds forming a pattern of leaves and flowers around it.
She looked at him and smiled.
"Shikamaru, my darling," she said softly. "Please don't be ridiculous. I love this ring."
"That's good. Because you're going to have the whole set," Shikamaru said in a distracted way, watching the ring on her hand sparkle like fire.
"I couldn't bring them 'cause mother wants to give them to you personally as a present to wear at your wedding. Our wedding, I mean. There's a necklace and a bracelet and earrings, I think. The whole works."
"Is that where you've been?" she asked hesitantly. "At your parents' house, asking them for permission?"
Shikamaru looked at her.
"Yes, I went to see my parents, and no, I didn't ask for their permission. I just told them that I was going to marry you as soon as possible and my decision was final. They said fine, son, a good choice, congratulations. They like you, haven't I told you before? Then I had to find a ring and I thought I would have to have one of the shops opened, but then my mother said that I should take a look at my grandmother's jewels and that was that. I'm glad she was right and you like the ring. So, when do you want to get married, love?"
Sakura knew somewhere in the back of her mind that there were people sitting and standing around her in her living room and they were either watching her with their mouths open like it was the daily dose of their favourite soap opera or they were giving out noises that ranged from whimpers to shrieks but she just couldn't care.
"We can't get married tomorrow, sweetheart. I'd love to, but my parents would just kill me. Yours too, by the way. We have to have a big wedding. The whole village and then some invited and stuff. And I'm afraid I can't even offer you to choose between modern and traditional. My parents would just bite through my throat if I tried to argue against traditional. So sorry, love. I'll try to make up for it."
Sakura looked at him. For the first time in her life she could really imagine what it would be like to be walking on a cloud.
"I don't mind at all. A traditional wedding is fine with me. My mom has a really beautiful red-and-gold kimono that she got married in."
"That could be the second kimono you wear. And the third kimono will be a present from my family," Shikamaru said in a warm voice. "With my family crest… Sakura Nara."
"So I'll only have to buy a white one."
Someone cleared his throat. It was Kakashi, standing next to them, his right eye in a crinkly smile, amused, surprised… but his voice was serious.
"I think some serious congratulations are in order. I wish you both the greatest of happiness. Sakura… I don't know how to say this… you're like a daughter to me and… never mind. I just wanted to tell you that I happen to have a white kimono…it once belonged to my mother. I'd be very happy if you accepted it as a wedding present."
Sakura did something that she rarely ever did to Kakashi. She hugged him. It was only a short, impulsive gesture, and she felt Kakashi go rigid, then he sighed and his arms were closing around her, hugging her back. She never would have thought…
"Thank you, sensei," she whispered. "Thank you. I feel the same. You're too young to be my father… but you're family all right. Maybe an older brother?"
He smiled again. "My, my," he mused aloud. "I'm going to blush. I never thought you'd be so positively biased. I was sure you thought I was an old pervert."
There is a limit to general goodwill, Sakura thought.
"You are," she said. "And chronically late and infuriating in a thousand ways. But it doesn't matter. I still like you a lot. When can I see that kimono?"
"Our Sakura," Kakashi said and stepped back, probably having satisfied all his emotional needs for the next decade. "Always so practical. Well, I'll talk to your fiancé and settle a date with him when you can both take a look at the kimono and decide."
Sakura saw Kakashi's visible eye dart to Shikamaru and back to her. She looked at Shikamaru. She could argue that it was her present and she would be the one to decide, but she wanted Shikamaru to come with her. He would settle things for the best.
"Would tomorrow afternoon be convenient, Kakashi sensei?" Shikamaru asked politely. "If your present has to be cleaned or repaired, I don't want to get it done in a rush. Your gift must shine in its full splendour at the wedding."
"But she hasn't decided to wear it yet," Kakashi said in a half-questioning tone.
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows.
"But she has. Haven't you, Sakura?"
They both turned to her.
"Yes, I have," she said, smiling at Shikamaru. He knew her, really and truly knew her. He knew that Kakashi's gift wasn't just a piece of clothing, that it was a gesture that meant a lot more to her, it showed that she was family to him. The kimono being a family heirloom only made the gesture more pronounced. It was a palpable evidence of that half-sentence, "like a daughter." She would wear it, no matter what state it was in. Her sensei would never give her a gift that was less than marvelous, she was sure about that, but old silk was a very vulnerable thing and that kimono was probably very old if once it had belonged to Kakashi's mother. Shikamaru would make sure that if anything had to be done, it would get done properly and in time.
Oh, how she loved this man.
Shikamaru nodded, as if he could hear her thoughts. "That's why we have to see if there should be any repairs or changes done."
Kakashi watched them as if he saw both of them for the first time. "Children do grow up, don't they," he said in a low voice.
Shikamaru's hand gripped her waist a shade stronger.
That's it, Sakura thought. That will be my wedding present to my husband. I'll stop using birth control on the day of the wedding. He will have the children he so desperately wants.
She smiled to herself and felt Shikamaru look at her, closely, then Kakashi, too, then she saw Kakashi's questioning look, Shikamaru's almost invisible shrug.
So much about being a genius, Sakura thought. They are still men and they haven't the slightest idea what I'm thinking about. In a month I'll be a married woman, and married to Shikamaru Nara, no less. Wow. And in two months' time I might be pregnant already.
The next one to congratulate them was Chouji, pulling them both in a bear hug.
"Shika, you sly dog," he said, his deep voice rumbling with laughter.
Ino hurriedly hugged Shikamaru and patted his back, like she would pat a horse. "Good boy."
Then she all but threw herself at Sakura and shrieked, "I knew it! I knew it! And isn't this bouquet beautiful? You have no idea how difficult it was to combine all the flowers he wanted me to put into it! And there were quite a few that I couldn't find or buy anywhere! The shop was already closed and I was ready to go for a date with Chouji when Shikamaru appeared and made such a ruckus that I had to open the shop for his sake! Wow… this ring is beautiful! And you're wearing a Misaka, don't think for a moment that I haven't noticed! I hate you, Sakura! It's such a fairytale, isn't it? Chouji! Why can't you do something romantic like this?"
Sakura tried to interrupt her several times to say that she truly appreciated her work and she loved the ring, too and… but it was next to hopeless, and then there was Hinata hugging her and saying "It's so wonderful! Oh, I wish I…" and she blushed and looked at Naruto, and Chouji said in a whisper meant only for Shikamaru, "Man… if you weren't my best friend I'd so hate you now. You raised the stakes for all of us…"
Sakura turned around slowly while the others were happily and noisily talking about the wedding and decorations and about who would be best man. Sai and Sasuke were still sitting on the sofa, Sai sketching busily, Sasuke just sitting patiently, his face bored and arrogant, as usual. Naruto was standing next to them, his face distorted with conflicting emotions.
"Congratulations," he said, trying to sound happy. "It's just… it's a bit sudden… but I guess… I…"
Sakura felt a warm wave of tenderness and love for Naruto engulf her and her eyes teared up again. Naruto wanted her so much to be happy. But he wanted her so much to be happy with one particular person - if not with him, then at least with his best friend.
"Naruto," Sakura said softly. She hugged Naruto and felt him shaking. "Oh, Naruto. Please, try to understand. I know you wanted Sasuke and me to be happy together, but we weren't. We just weren't, love. But I'm happy with Shikamaru. For the first time in my life I'm really happy, I'm in love and he loves me, too. But you're still my family – you and Kakashi and Sai and Yamato… and Sasuke, too. And I'm not angry with him, see? I have no reason to. And he's not angry with me, either. Are you angry with me, Sasuke?"
Sasuke looked at her and for a moment there was something shining in those black eyes – understanding, a hint of gentleness, a spark of humour, and he said, "No. I'm not."
Naruto looked at Sasuke, then back at Sakura. He stepped back from her and nodded.
I'm not going to cry, Sakura thought. I'm not going to be sad. Not on this day. But how could I make him understand?
She felt Shikamaru's calming presence next to her before he started speaking, but he wasn't talking to her. He was talking to Naruto.
"It's true, Naruto," he said, pulling Sakura into an embrace. "I love her. I love her more than anything or anybody in this whole world. And for that sole reason I simply cannot imagine that anybody she considers important to her, be it friend or family, would not be welcome in my house."
Naruto looked up, frowning.
"He means we, that is, the original team seven and Sai and Yamato will still meet every week. Like we do now. And I'll cook. Like I always do. Only now we'll have more room. I was thinking of moving into a bigger apartment anyway. Only now I'll move in with Shika."
Shikamaru cleared his throat. "Not quite, love."
"What do you mean? You don't want me to move in with you?" Sakura asked with a frown.
"I do want you to move in with me, of course. But I think it might be better to wait until we get married. If we're lucky, the house will be ready by then."
Sakura turned to look at Shikamaru.
Now it was Shikamaru's turn to frown.
"I thought we agreed on that, sweetheart. You said you wanted a garden, didn't you? I have some spots in mind on the Nara estate you could choose from. You'll choose the location and I'll make the plans."
"Not the meadow," Sakura said decidedly. "That place is much too beautiful to be ruined by a house."
"Agreed," Shikamaru said. "I want to have a rose garden, too," he added as an afterthought and flashed a wicked smile to Sakura.
Sakura blushed vividly, much to Ino's interest.
"A rose garden? And a house, too? Choujiii!"
Chouji made a grimace toward Shikamaru. Kakashi was definitely smirking under the mask.
Naruto lost some of his worried look and was beginning to grasp the situation. "But that's great, Sakura! Shikamaru will build you a house? And we'll all be invited to the wedding?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure," Shikamaru said in a weary voice. "Man, we've been discussing this for the better part of half an hour. Glad you've joined us at last."
"Idiot," Sasuke grumbled in a half-voice. "Never listens."
There's something else to be done here, Sakura thought. She opened her arms toward Sasuke.
"Wish me happiness," she said simply and waited.
Sasuke stood up and embraced her, carefully. "I wish you both all the best," he said. He took a deep breath. "And I'm sorry."
Sakura looked at him. He wasn't very good at these things. He made an effort here, even if no one else saw this.
"It's all right," she said almost silently. "You're still a member of my team and my friend. Just like Naruto or Sai. Okay?"
Naruto joined the others who were gathering around Chouji – he produced a bottle of champagne from somewhere and Ino and Hinata were distributing the glasses.
In the loud and happy confusion of toasts, cheers, jokes and Naruto trying to talk Kakashi into taking off his mask for a moment, Shikamaru unobtrusively pulled Sakura into a corner that was slightly less busy than the rest of her living room.
Sakura watched him – this man with the dark hair and the dark eyes and the brilliant mind, the strategist who made the plans that kept Konoha safe in war and in peace, the man who was still willing to risk his life every time Konoha needed him to, and not because he wanted fame or because he had nothing to lose or because the source of his courage was ignorance but because it was his duty.
"Were you planning to do this all along?" Sakura asked.
Shikamaru did not pretend to be confused or having no idea what she was talking about.
"I started to think about marriage and such when you were still with Sasuke," he said in his usual quiet way. "Forgive me for saying so, but even putting my personal opinion and feelings aside, I still think that your marriage to him would have been a disaster, and I couldn't help thinking about how you and I were much better suited in everything like taste and lifestyle and way of thinking. I'm still a lazy guy, you know," Shikamaru said and smiled, and his smile did all kinds of strange things to Sakura's heart. "I mean, I could imagine falling in love with someone like Ino with whom I have very little in common – you know what I mean. People do that all the time. They are madly in love, and are burning with lust, and the other person is just so-o-oo wonderful – but they never really find a mutual interest, a subject they can always talk about, something that has nothing to do with sex. With you, there would be no awkward silence in the mornings. It's much easier this way."
"When I was a kid, on Sundays I always woke up later than my parents," Sakura said tentatively. "Then I smelled the coffee and I could hear them talking and laughing in the kitchen. It was... it was a sort of private time for them."
Shikamaru nodded. There was no need for further explanations.
"But why this way?" Sakura asked. "Why the flowers? Why now?"
"Why wait?" Shikamaru asked. "I knew what I wanted, I've known that for a while. Why waste our time?"
"But the flowers... Very romantic and everything, but... Was it because we talked about the alphabet of flowers?" Sakura said hesitatingly.
Shikamaru smiled again.
"I just thought that this way if you were not ready for something like this, I mean, emotionally or whatever, then you could just pretend not to notice. Or you genuinely wouldn't notice," he added after thinking for a few seconds. "I never saw anybody who could misinterpret or ignore things like you. It's almost a talent of yours."
Sakura blushed deeply.
"In fact," Shikamaru continued relentlessly, "the only thing that pushed me to hurry was that I wanted to fix things before they were broken, so to speak. I was sure that in the few hours' time we had to spend separately, you'd manage to invent a nice little conspiracy theory that would send me spinning again if I wasn't fast enough."
"It wasn't me," Sakura mumbled defensively. "It was Naruto."
They both looked at the Evil Mastermind of Conspiracy Theories who, at the moment, was trying to extricate his thumb from the neck of the empty champagne bottle.
So far, it was not a success story.
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and said sarcastically, "Good to know. You know, I was almost sure that all my teachings about strategy and tactical planning and such were wasted on Naruto. I would have sworn that to him all my advice sounded like 'blah-blah-blah-ATTACK-blah-blah-blah-KILL-blah-blah-blah-BATTLE,' etcetera, etcetera. I'm relieved to hear that he actually profited from my lessons and as to his conspiracy theory..."
"Oh, give it a rest. I didn't say it was a very good one," Sakura interrupted him angrily. "You're such a prick."
Shikamaru laughed and said sweetly, "Oh, those first terms of endearment of a soon-to-be married couple. Sai seems to have a positive influence on you. Anyway, last night I didn't hear you complain..."
Sakura stood on tiptoe and pulled him to her and kissed him forcefully. He was sweet and unbearable and funny and clever and occasionally a stupid, proud, overbearing macho prick, and he was her man and he would soon be her husband and all was well in the world.
"Sai has nothing to do with my manners," she said when she let him go. She was still reeling a bit from the kiss but she tried to seem unaffected beacuse Shikamaru didn't have to know everything. "If I want to call you names, I'll call you names and I don't need anybody's help!" Sakura continued.
Sakura looked around hurriedly, looking for something that would distract him from pursuing this discussion any further.
Sai wasn't that bad, anyway. In these last years he learned a lot about people and relationships. Sai was okay.
Speaking of Sai… He was still drawing busily. What the hell was he doing anyway?
"Hey Sai," Sakura began. Sai fitted into her team very well, she thought. They were all weird and infuriating in different ways.
"Oh, Hag," Sai said with a false smile. "I…"
"You call me Hag again and you'll lose some minor, not very important part of your body. Like your balls," Sakura said without any real stress. "What are you doing?"
He flipped his sketchbook open a few pages back and handed it to her.
It was a drawing about Shikamaru and her. Shikamaru giving her the flowers, his face a mixture of anticipation, wonder and fear. Her own face, enraptured, amazed, full of doubt and hope. The flowers were in the center of the picture but the two faces were turning toward each other.
It was a very good drawing.
Sakura turned the page. It was Shikamaru and her again, kissing, only his back and his ponytail and her arms around his neck and a tiny part of her profile showing. Even if she knew nothing about the two people in the picture it would have been clear that it was the single most important moment in their life, the way he held her close, the way her hands were grasping his shoulders.
"Oh Sai…" Sakura whispered. "These are truly beautiful. Oh God…"
"There are some more. When he does that ridiculous pose with the box and when he puts the ring on your finger. I'll make final versions of them, finish the background and stuff," Sai said, not without satisfaction. "I thought you might like to have a copy of them."
Sakura put down the sketchbook and hugged Sai in a hurry. "Oh Sai, you're wonderful!"
"Yes, yes. You don't look bad in these pictures, Hag," Sai commented. "Not as ugly as usual."
"Sai, you… you…" Sakura seethed silently. "I don't know whether to kill you or kiss you."
"Kill him," said Naruto and Sasuke at once.
"Definitely not before he finishes those drawings," Sakura said. She turned to Shikamaru. "We could hang them all in the living room."
"Your team members?" Shikamaru said, feigning disinterest. "I know that interior decoration is usually the female's prerogative but don't you think that might look awkward?"
"Idiot," Sakura said lovingly. "You only do this to rile me up," she added and kissed him.
"What, Sakura-chan? You don't hit him? Why? It's unfair!" Naruto whined.
"On the other hand," Sakura mused aloud, "I might insist on hanging some team members as decoration. But we should silence them first."
"Sounds troublesome," Shikamaru said. "I still think we'd be better off with the drawings."
"Drawings it is, then," Sakura sighed. "You always ruin my fun."
"Not always," Shikamaru whispered.
They both smiled and the sun lit up the room once more before the Earth turned a tiny bit and dusk started to stretch up the walls toward the roofs in cold, blue and gray shadows.
There is something that I see
In the way you look at me
There's a smile, there's a truth
In your eyes
What an unexpected way
On this unexpected day
Could it be this is where I belong
It is you I have loved all along
There's no more mystery, it is finally clear to me
You're the home my heart searched for so long
And it is you I have loved
It is you I have loved
It is you I have loved all along