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Of Pirates, Princesses, and Deer Herders

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The second time Hinata fell in love, she was twenty-three. It wasn’t any less hopeless that time around.

The object of her admiration wasn’t in love with somebody else, or anything quite as dramatic as it had been with Naruto. But he was no more available than the first ill-fated focus of her admiration had been. For one, he was over twenty years her senior. If that wasn’t enough of a problem, he was also her commanding officer, a Nara (who notoriously preferred loud, brash women), and the father of one of her very good friends.

So, yes, Hinata understood quite well that she had landed herself in another no-win situation. At least this time she was experienced enough to be less obvious about it. She didn’t stutter or pass out in his presence, though if he looked at her long enough or stood too close she couldn’t do anything about her annoying blush. Her saving grace was that she tended to flush at the silliest of things, so it could be misconstrued as nerves.

Hinata couldn’t quite pin down the exact moment it had happened. She knew it had started when she, Neji, and her father traveled with Shikaku on a diplomatic mission to Cloud. It was supposed to be a way to bury the hatchet of the Hyuuga Affair, once and for all.

Before that, she didn’t think she’d ever spoken directly to Nara Shikaku, not past perfunctory greetings, anyway. She had just been promoted to jounin that month, so other than a congratulations speech and being handed the jounin vest, she hadn’t had to meet with him yet officially.

During the first day of the mission, he mostly spoke to Hiashi while Neji and Hinata stayed in the back of their small procession. On the second day, however, her father and Neji fell into a quiet discussion at dinner about a new technique Neji was attempting to learn and Shikaku sat next to her where she was reading by the fire.

“Hinata,” he greeted. “How are you enjoying being a jounin?”

“Oh, it’s a very high honor, sir,” she said, closing the book. He glanced down at the title and then back at her.

“Poetry?” 

“It was my mother’s favorite author,” she admitted in a low tone, glancing over to make sure her father was still deep in conversation with Neji. Even after all these years, he still missed his wife terribly and reminders of her tended to bring his mood down.

His eyes softened into understanding after following her gaze. Hinata supposed he really did know how her father felt since his wife had died of an illness only four years before.

“Do you like it?”

“I do.” She hesitated, then opened the book back up. “You could read it with me if you’d like?”

He blinked at her slowly, once, and she cringed and her cheeks heated. “Um, I mean. You don’t -”

“Sure.” He smiled, just a flash of teeth, but Hinata was a little surprised at how handsome he looked when he did it.

She bit her lip and ducked her head before turning to one of her favorites. They’d spent the rest of the night discussing the various poems. While Hinata wasn’t actually much of a poetry reader - she really did just like that certain author because it made her feel closer to her mother - Shikaku obviously was.

Hinata supposed she shouldn’t be surprised. If it was in a book, a Nara was probably interested in it, to the extent that they were interested in anything. They hadn’t spoken casually again until after the first day of the meetings in Cloud.

“You’re good at this.”

Hinata jumped and made an embarrassing squeaking noise. She’d been sitting on the couch in their guest quarters, idly reading a book she’d found on the shelves that were sitting against one wall. It was fiction, an adventure story featuring a young shinobi from Cloud. She’d been sucked into the narrative and hadn’t been paying attention past knowing that it was just her and her three companions in the suite.

He raised a brow at her and her attention was pulled to one of his hoop earrings when it glinted in the light. “Good at what, Shikaku-sama?” she asked after recovering herself, though she knew she was blushing from embarrassment at being snuck up on by her commanding officer.

“Diplomatic relations.”

“Ah.” She let the book close, though she kept her place with a thumb tucked between the pages. “It’s nothing, really. My father taught me, before we both decided Hanabi should be the next clan head.”

“You seem like you’d do just fine at being a clan head to me.”

Her eyes widened at the casual statement and he sat down at the other end of the couch, legs straight out in front of him and one arm slung across the back of it. She couldn’t help but follow the line of his admittedly-attractive arm. Hinata had never really thought of Shikamaru as handsome, but now that she was sitting with his father she realized that their family had a sort of easy, idle grace that worked well with their dark good looks.

He looked over just as she brought her eyes back to his face. “You’re an accomplished kunoichi and you do well in situations where you’re required to talk. Believe me, that’s half the battle,” he said wryly, looking annoyed enough that she giggled.

His lips turned up and she shifted under his intense gaze, honestly a little surprised that he was even talking to her. Though she wasn’t unintelligent, she wasn’t an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.

She certainly wasn’t a strategist. Her interests didn’t seem like they would align with his. Hinata wouldn’t consider herself a riveting conversationalist, either. She was too careful, too contained for that.

“It’s the leadership portion that I have a problem with,” she admitted after a slight hesitation.

She was sure he already knew that, probably had it marked in her file somewhere. Not suited to leadership. She did surprisingly well on solo missions and she knew she was a dependable team member. Being in charge of others always made her uncomfortable, however, and she ended up second guessing herself to the detriment of everybody involved.

He hummed. “You’re more of a nurturer. It’s not a bad thing. You make a good support or second-in-command, especially for less approachable shinobi.”

She couldn’t quite stop her smile at his praise, especially since it seemed genuine. His eyes flicked down to take in her smile as though surprised before he casually turned his attention to her book. “What are you reading?”

Her smile grew at the question, so familiar to the last time they’d spoken. She realized that maybe she wasn’t the only one who had a problem with casual conversation. “It’s fiction. Adventure. I found it on the shelf.”

“It’s good?”

“It is,” she admitted, a little nervous that he’d think she was silly for liking adventure books.

He just nodded, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Wake me when it’s time for dinner.”

Instead of feeling unsure about his abruptness - she didn’t think he was bored with her, or anything like that - she thought it was a little endearing. At the time she hadn’t lingered much on the stray thought. By the time they returned to the village, though, she had to admit that she was mildly infatuated with him.

It wasn’t like she saw him all the time after that. Hinata probably could have created situations in which they’d meet, like her girlfriends tended to do when they were interested in somebody. She chose instead to avoid him as much as possible. She’d long since stopped thinking that the ache of unrequited feelings was sweet, no matter how hard romance books may try to convince her otherwise.

Circumstances, however, saw fit to start shoving them together only a few months later. Most of it had to do with the unexpected friendship that Shikaku and Hiashi had struck up on their mission. Hinata knew her father had become much less rigid the past three years and assumed the change made them more suited to each other.

She and Neji were in the front courtyard sparring the first time she saw Shikaku after developing her crush. Their hands were moving so fast they were a blur, the sounds of their chakra-enhanced hits connecting and repelling echoing through the courtyard.

Hinata’s whole focus was on her cousin, watching for every twitch and flare of chakra as they both tried to outdo the other in the Gentle Fist Style. They circled each other, movements graceful, Hinata tiring much faster than Neji. He still outperformed her in everything but defensive jutsu, but she had stopped letting that get to her years ago.

Eventually, he got past her guard, pulling in his chakra just before he hit her sternum hard enough to send her staggering back. It winded her, but wasn’t enough to knock her down.

“I win,” Neji said, voice holding a hint of teasing, and she smiled.

“Yes, good job, Neji.”

Slow clapping pulled her attention to the other side of the courtyard. She’d seen someone come in via her Byakugan, of course, but hadn’t paid much attention once she knew he wasn’t a threat. Hinata was glad she hadn’t realized it was Shikaku watching them, or her loss would have been much faster and infinitely times more humiliating, she was sure.

Her exertion covered her blush, she hoped, when he spoke. “You’re both very impressive. Konoha is lucky to have you.”

He was wearing his usual see-through mesh shirt, standard jounin pants, and flak jacket and Hinata forced her eyes not to linger on his nicely toned arms. Were older men supposed to be this handsome, or was it just him?

“Thank you, Shikaku-sama,” she said politely.

He waved her off and she saw he had a book tucked under one arm. “Can we help you with something, Shikaku-sama?” Neji asked.

“Nah. I’m supposed to meet your father to compare notes on some of our clans’ medical techniques. I’m running a little early, though, so he’s still in a meeting. If I’m interrupting -”

“Not at all, Shikaku-sama,” Neji said. “That was our last round. We usually have tea after our spar, if you’d like to join us while you wait.”

Hinata forced her posture to stay relaxed and threaded her fingers together in front of her, only smiling encouragingly when he glanced at her as though to ask for permission. “Sure.”

He ended up showing her some of the entries in his book, which she found fascinating. Like every member of her clan, she was expected to know how to create the poultices and medicines that the Hyuuga had been passing down from generation to generation. She’d never really considered that other clans probably did something similar.

Having feelings for Shikaku was a wholly different experience than it had been with Naruto. Hinata wasn’t sure if it was that she’d matured, or if Shikaku was more well-suited to her personality. When she was around him, though, she didn’t clam up. Actually, it was the opposite - she tended to relax, almost too much, really, but he was so calm and assured that it was difficult to be nervous around him.

She left just after Hiashi appeared, heart skipping when Shikaku smiled at her, just a small thing that barely showed a flash of white teeth. She took a shaky breath once she reached her room, closed her eyes, and told herself that she’d just have to work harder at avoiding him.

Her plans were derailed when Ino, Temari, and Karui became pregnant all one right after the other. They were the children of the clan heads, which meant there were big parties to go along with every announcement. Shikaku was at all of them and he must have decided that they were friendly acquaintances, because he sought her out at each of them. Their conversations always flowed more easily than she would expect, though she was never quite sure what they had talked about after.

She didn’t let herself read too much into it, since he also sought her father and Neji out at the same parties. If she wasn’t so sure of her father’s preferences, she would almost wonder if the two of them were dating, they were in each other’s company so often. She’d even brought it up to Ino, who had blinked at her before laughing.

“Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Their children are grown and they’ve both stepped down as clan heads. They have time to actually have friends again,” Ino said in a wry tone, obviously thinking about her own lack of time to herself.

“Plus...” Ino hesitated, then forged ahead. “Well, they’re both widows. They probably feel some sort of connection due to that.”

Hinata smiled so that Ino would know she wasn’t upset by the mention of her mother. “You’re probably right.”

“Probably? Hinata, you know I’m always right,” she said in a faux-snobbish voice that had them both laughing. “Besides, it’s a better theory than your father entering a love affair with Shika’s dad. God, I can’t wait to tell him you were legitimately worried about that.”

Ino had only agreed to keep her mouth shut about it after Hinata threatened to tell Shikamaru about the short-lived but intense crush Ino had harbored for him when they were fourteen. Hinata had been the only one to notice and had used it more than once to gently convince Ino to keep any gossip surrounding Hinata to a minimum.

The very next morning she was laying on a bench under a tree in a small courtyard in the Hyuuga compound. It was a beautiful day and the only sounds were that of a small stream feeding into a koi pond a few feet away. She was on her stomach, reading a book that had stolen her attention for the past few hours.

She noticed Shikaku’s presence a second too late and he snatched the book from her hand and turned to read the back. She scrambled into a seated position and was already blushing when he started reading the summary out loud.

“Daiki had wanted Lina from the moment they first met. He loved her, but he knew in his heart that she deserved somebody younger, somebody full of vitality who hadn’t yet been crushed by the world. Somebody who wouldn’t destroy her innocence.

“Lina longed for adventure, but mostly, she longed for her pirate prince, Daiki, to return to her...”

Hinata covered her face with her hands, sure that she’d never blushed as hard as she was at that moment. Shikaku was silent for long enough that she peeked up at him from between two fingers. His eyes were bright with suppressed laughter and he was smiling broadly. Her heart started beating faster at the way it transformed his whole demeanor. She was used to his languid intensity and muted reactions, but when he was unabashedly happy he lit the space around him.

“So, you like pirates?”

She squeaked and shook her head. “N-no! It’s just - well, the description is awful, but it’s actually very, um, sweet, and there’s a lot of adventure...”

She trailed off when he laughed, eyes widening at the low, rich sound. Her breath caught and she forgot to be embarrassed. He handed the book back to her and his expression softened.

“Don’t be embarrassed. If you prefer older pirates, though, you might want to request more missions by the sea. I could make a note in your file -”

She couldn’t help it - his humor was contagious, even though it was at her expense. She laughed. “Shikaku-sama, I think that Kakashi-sama would be very put out if you started acting the matchmaker using your power as Jounin Commander.”

Shikaku made a show of looking thoughtful, slouching and putting one hand in his pocket. “Either that or he’d get ideas about asking you out. Technically, he wore an eyepatch for years -”

Hiashi stepped out into the courtyard just as she threw her book at him, shrieking with horror and laughter. Shikaku caught it and looked it over for damage. “Careful, Hinata, if you ruin it you’ll never discover if Lina’s pirate is able to plunder her innocence -”

“What in the world are you reading, Hinata?” Hiashi broke in, tone horrified.

Shikaku and Hinata’s eyes met, and then she wasn’t able to answer through her peals of laughter. Sure, Shikaku had been teasing her, but he’d been doing it in a way that made her feel like she was part of the joke, not the butt of it.

Most people were wary around her and wouldn’t dare to tease her about plundering pirates for fear of destroying her non-existent innocence or offending her. Even to her friends, she would always be the gentle Hyuuga princess, just a bit, and they acted accordingly.

Shikaku’s teasing had been...fun. It almost felt like he’d been flirting her. He waved goodbye to her and followed a still-disgruntled Hiashi to play what she now knew was a weekly Shogi match. It was then, as she sat in the sunshine hugging her book to her chest, that she realized she was in love with him.

She had decided the only thing to do about her unfortunate feelings was to try to move past them, lest they consume her. So for the first time in her life, she started saying yes to men she didn’t know particularly well when they asked her out, as long as they were respectful about it.

Somehow, all her dates ended in disaster or discomfort. The first was with a handsome waiter named Iato, who seemed a little arrogant but otherwise alright. Since Sakura and Ino were sitting with her at a cafe when he asked her out, the whole village knew about it by nightfall.

She took her time getting dressed, mostly to spite the dread that sat like a ball in her stomach. Her dress was fairly conservative, but she spent time pulling her hair back into a bun with small curled tendrils falling from it. Her makeup was more dramatic than usual. She ended up wearing a shade of lipstick Ino had given her that the woman claimed was perfect for her, but Hinata had always thought was too dark.

Iato told her she looked gorgeous and seemed to be having a hard time pulling his gaze from her. She had met him at the restaurant and they spent thirty minutes awkwardly attempting small talk (she was still not good at it) until an ANBU appeared next to her.

“Hyuuga-san. You’re needed at the tower in twenty minutes for a mission briefing.”

Hinata stood, mind already racing through what she needed to pack and just how fast she’d have to run home so that she’d have time to change.

“Wait, you’re leaving?”

Hinata blinked over at Iato, whom she had momentarily forgotten about. “Oh, yes, Iato-san. Thank you for the evening, but I have a mission.”

His lips pressed together. “It can’t wait?”

Hinata stared at him, surprised, and she was fairly certain the ANBU was judging him. “Um, no.”

Sensing that she wouldn’t be seeing him again if the affronted look on his face was any indication, she set money on the table for the meal she hadn’t had a chance to eat yet. It would be beyond rude to make him pay for a date that she’d left in the middle of. “I’m sorry I had to cut this short. Goodbye, Iato-san.”

She rearranged her resolve to accept all non-creepy date requests and added civilians to those she was allowed to turn down. By the time she reached the missions room, she was gently chiding herself for not realizing that most civilians wouldn’t understand the duty that drove a kunoichi or shinobi.

Her face broke out into a smile when she saw that her mission partners were Kiba and Shikamaru. “Hey, Hinata,” Shikamaru said, eyes taking her in quickly. “Looks like you were out, sorry to pull you away.”

Kiba whistled. “Yeah, Hinata, you’re looking good. Heard you said yes to going out with some random waiter, but I didn’t actually believe it. I thought you were allergic to dating.”

Hinata frowned and looked down at herself. She had changed back into her shorts and kimono-style blouse. When she looked up at Shikamaru in question his lips were quirked up in a way that reminded her of his father.

“Your hair and makeup. You always look nice,” he rushed to add and she smiled, sure that the fear of saying the wrong thing had been pounded into him by Temari, “but usually it’s, uh, that is -”

“Stop while you’re ahead, son,” Shikaku’s drawling voice said from behind them where the door was located, and Hinata felt that stupid blush making an appearance. Hopefully, they would attribute it to Shikamaru’s fumbling.

“If you’re trying to say I look nice, Shikamaru, thank you,” she offered and he deflated and grumbled something she couldn’t quite make out.

Shikaku brushed by her and took a seat in the formerly-empty missions desk and Hinata straightened. If he was doing the briefing, it meant the mission was important. She tried to tell herself that his brusque manner was due to him currently acting as her Jounin Commander, and wasn’t aimed at her specifically.

He glanced at her and she thought his eyes might have lingered on her face and hair, but it felt...cold. Perhaps he thought she was dressed unprofessionally. She hoped she’d have time to swing by the bathroom and wash the makeup off before they left.

It was a retrieval mission for stolen intel taken directly from the Daimyo and they wasted no time getting their parameters and rushing out the door. By the time they returned, mission a success, they were all dirty, bloody, hurting and tired, and Hinata had completely forgotten about Iato.

Her next date was with a chunin she met on an information gathering mission. They only made it twenty minutes into the movie he’d taken her to before he was called away on a mission that lasted almost two months.

Ino set her up with a man she worked with in Intelligence named Hayata. It was last minute, so she at least didn’t have to deal with the rumor mill that was the Rookie Nine and their families and significant others. He’d broken up with his girlfriend a month ago and had forgotten to change a plus one to an event to an attending alone.

Ino suggested he take Hinata, and when he agreed Hinata didn’t protest. There were no interruptions on that date. He was sweet and polite and said all the right things.

Hinata spent the whole time wishing his hair was darker and that his arms weren’t quite so big around. She also had the odd thought that he smiled too much and too widely. At the end of the night, he walked her to the front gates of the Hyuuga compound.

He was smiling down at her and she knew he was going to try to kiss her. Hinata thought she should probably let him if only to speed along her plan of forgetting Shikaku. He leaned forward and she turned her face away so that his lips brushed her cheek instead.

When he pulled back she turned back to face him, biting her lip. His smile was rueful but not upset. She opened her mouth to say something, but a throat clearing behind them had her spinning on her heel.

Shikaku and Hiashi were standing at the gates. Her father was staring down poor Hayata. Shikaku’s expression was blank, but Hinata could still feel his disapproval weighing heavily on her, though she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because Hiashi seemed less than happy with the almost-kiss.

She cleared her throat and turned back to him. “Thank you, Hayata, I had a nice time.”

His smile was strained but still kind. “I did, too. I’ll see you around, Hinata.”

She let out a breath of relief that he didn’t seem overly dejected by her lack of interest. Then she turned to face her father and Shikaku again. “Hello father, Shikaku-sama. Did you have a nice evening?”

“We did,” Hiashi said, drawing his words out. “How was your...date?”

“It was fine. Though, I think we’ll remain just friends.”

“Oh? Did something happen?”

Hinata blinked at Shikaku. His body had tensed when he asked the question. Hiashi raised a brow at him and before Hinata could help herself she giggled. To her surprise, Shikaku relaxed and his lips twitched.

“Something funny?” he asked.

“No, sorry. It’s just...” She decided that revealing her almost-suspicions that he had a romantic interest in her father all those months ago would not go over well. But the way he stood there next to her father, looking so disapproving over her date, was kind of funny. In a depressing, the-man-I-love-thinks-of-me-as-a-child sort of way.

“I’m glad you two are such good friends, is all,” she finally settled on.

They both did their best to scowl and act like they weren’t attached to each other at the hip and she pressed a kiss to her father’s cheek, feeling incredibly fond of both of them. “Good night, father, Shikaku-sama.”

“Good night,” they both said.

Hinata gave up on trying to date after that. “If it’s right, you’ll feel it,” she told her reflection one morning.

Trying to force anything would just end up hurting her and possibly somebody else in the long run. She would just have to let her feelings for Shikaku pass on their own.

When she was chosen to join a mission he was leading to help the Allied Forces deal with a large, well-organized group of missing-nin, she was resigned but ready. Inoichi and Chouji were also going so that the famous Ino-Shika-Cho team could hopefully capture and interrogate a member of the group. Hinata had been requested for surveillance and as extra firepower.

All of the anxiety she’d built up over the mission faded as soon as she caught sight of Shikaku leaning against the front gates with his usual confident, relaxed slouch. His hands were in his pockets and to her slight disappointment he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, thanks to the cold late fall weather.

Hinata had also switched to thick pants and a long-sleeved version of her usual shirt, so she supposed she couldn’t blame him. Inoichi and Chouza were standing with their backs to her, facing him.

Shikaku’s gaze flicked up and when their gazes met Hinata couldn’t stop the smile that broke out over her face. Shikaku’s lips turned up slightly on one side and he nodded hello to her before straightening.

Inoichi and Chouza both looked over at her, Chouza with his usual affable expression. Inoichi, however, was looking between them with a furrowed brow and she didn’t miss that Shikaku’s expression went blank under his regard.

Hinata’s own smile faded and she chewed on her lower lip, wondering if she’d been too enthusiastic. Was it inappropriate for them to be so friendly with one another? Had she crossed a line and not realized it? Inoichi was an observant man, and she hoped he hadn’t already picked up on her doomed feelings.

“Inoichi-sama, Chouza-sama, hello,” she said softly, looking down at the ground and clasping her hands in front of her.

“Hello, Hinata-san,” Inoichi said and when she looked up his expression had smoothed and he was smiling slightly at her. “I’m glad you were available, I hear you’ve got the farthest range of any Byakugan user alive.”

“Thank you for thinking of me.” She glanced up at Shikaku, unable to help herself. His eyes were on her, but she couldn’t read his expression.

The trip to Rain was uneventful, but more fun than she’d expected after the tense start. Inoichi, Chouza, and Shikaku had obviously been friends for a very long time, and the easy way that they teased each other had her laughing multiple times throughout the day. When Hinata took out a book to read next to the campfire, she wasn’t surprised when Shikaku spoke.

“So what is it this time? The leader of a band of highwaymen kidnapping the farmer’s daughter? The tortured shinobi finding love in a temple priestess?”

Hinata blushed under Inoichi and Chouza’s interested and amused looks, but her attention was riveted on the smirk playing across Shikaku’s face. She wasn’t sure what came over her when she said, “The lonely deer herder with a heart of gold saves a young princess who’s lost in the woods, actually.”

Shikaku’s eyes widened only for a moment, but she caught it. Triumphant, she went back to reading her book, which was in truth the biography of Hyuuga Jentu, the founder of her clan. It was silent around the fire and Hinata stared down at her page. It only took a few seconds to have her deeply regretting what she’d said. What had she been thinking, flirting so obviously?

Chouza broke the silence with a booming laugh. “You should know better than to tease a woman about her literature, Shikaku.”

“He always was a slow learner,” Inoichi added.

Hinata’s lips twitched at his grumbled reply and she relaxed. Right, if you didn’t know that Hinata was in love with Shikaku, that hadn’t been such a strange thing to say. It was mostly only her clan who remembered her as Hinata-hime, anyway. Nobody had called her that in years.

Eventually, Shikaku moved to sit next to her, reading over her shoulder and snorting at the dry text that most certainly didn’t feature any romance. She glanced over at him and smiled when he took out a notebook and started writing in it. His warmth along her side and the sound of pen on paper relaxed her.

She ignored the contemplative looks the other two members of their team kept sending them. She heard her name a few times in a whispered conversation between Shikaku and Inoichi later that night when they thought she was asleep. She decided it was best to ignore that, too.

The mission itself went well. They captured and interrogated two women out on patrol. Half of their forces were out on a job, and half were in the base. They decided to take the base while it had less personnel on-site and then lay in wait for the returning shinobi.

They took everybody in the base alive, as was the Allied Forces’ preference. Hinata had been injured slightly in the scuffle, but it was a light graze across her thigh and nothing to worry about it.

When Shikaku saw the blood staining her pants, though, his frown had been so severe she thought she was in trouble. “Sit down,” he said gruffly, then squatted in front of her after she complied.

“Shikaku-sama, I’m sorry I was injured -”

His brow furrowed and he glanced up at her. “No need to be sorry, I saw what happened. Wasn’t your fault.”

“Oh,” she said, confused, and watched when he unsealed a first aid kit and set it down on the chair next to her. They were in a small room off to the side of where their prisoners were being kept. She could hear their muffled swearing and threats and Inoichi talking to them in low tones.

Shikaku cleaned her wound gently but with efficient motions. Hinata couldn’t help the small shiver that moved through her when his fingers brushed the inside of her thigh. He paused, just long enough for her to catch it, before going back to wrapping the cut with bandages. She closed her eyes in mortification and hoped he assumed it was the clammy, cold air of the underground hideout that had caused her reaction.

Hinata spotted the second group returning three hours later, just when they’d finished setting up traps to Shikaku’s specifications. The plan went off without a hitch and they were able to capture the rest of the missing-nin. The next day a retrieval team from the Allied Forces came to collect the prisoners. Hinata wondered if all missions with the original Ino-Shika-Cho went so smoothly.

“Good job,” Shikaku said after they took off back towards home. Inoichi gave him a sideways look.

“Since when do you bother telling us we did a good job?”

Shikaku scowled. “I can be encouraging.”

“Uh huh,” Inoichi said and Hinata giggled.

It started to snow a few hours later. The temperature had been dropping steadily and they all stopped to put on their cloaks. “Are you warm enough?” Shikaku asked once they were on their way again.

She smiled at him. “I am. Thank you, Shikaku-sama. Are you?”

He sighed and looked up at the sky, which was rapidly disappearing behind the flakes falling steadily towards them. “I hate the snow.”

Hinata followed his gaze. “Really? I love it. It’s beautiful, and not as annoying as rain because it doesn’t soak you through.”

“The woman has a point,” Chouza said, looking even larger than usual beneath the folds of his cloak.

“Of course, she doesn’t have the same delicate constitution as our fearless leader,” Inoichi added.

“Disloyal. Both of you.” Hinata laughed at his put-out expression. He turned his head to look at her, a pleased, boyish smile on his face that she’d never seen on him before.

Her heart only had time to thump painfully in her chest once before he glanced at something over her shoulder. His eyes widened and he whipped his body around, the snow already on the ground flying up around him, cloak flaring.

“Down!” he yelled.

Hinata activated her Byakugan on instinct. That meant she saw everything that happened next. He grabbed her shoulders and tugged her against his chest, turning his body to shield hers just as the earth erupted into an explosion three feet from where she’d been standing.

Chouza and Inoichi were both skidding to a stop, but she saw them go flying back in the direction they’d just come from as her own feet were lifted off the ground. Rocks and debris flew past them, but she could see sharp, pointed senbon mixed in with it. She saw four of them embed themselves into Shikaku’s back, felt him stiffen even as they tumbled through the air and over the side of the rocky ledge.

Hinata tried to flip them around in an attempt to control their descent, but Shikaku had curled himself around her and she was too disoriented from the blast to fight him. Their bodies jolted when they hit the ground and though he took the brunt of it her head bounced off something hard - probably a rock - dazing her, and she lost her hold on her Byakugan.

They continued rolling and bouncing their way down the side of the mountain, Hinata trying and failing to gain purchase, tangled as she was in Shikaku and his cloak and dizzy from the hit to her head. They slammed down on a large boulder and she heard the unmistakable sound of a bone breaking, followed by a bit-off groan of pain from Shikaku, and then they were airborne again.

He lost his grip on her when they crashed into something unforgiving and slid across its slick surface, snow flying around them. Hinata lay for the count of five, blinking snow and stars out of her eyes. A moan pulled her back to reality and she scrambled to her feet, gasping when her knee protested and her stomach lurched at the sharp pain throbbing in her head.

They had come to a stop in the middle of a frozen-over river. On one side was a bank lined by dark trees. On the other was the tall, steep incline, their path of descent clear in the fresh snow. Shikaku was three feet away, struggling to get to his knees, cloak spread around him. She stumbled over to him and clumsily knelt by his side.

He looked over at her and she could tell he was in pain by the way his whole body was trembling and his shallow breaths. “You’re okay?” he said urgently, the arm that he was propping himself up on shaking violently.

“Shikaku,” she whispered and put her hand under his other arm to help him stand. He made a low, horrible sound and she snatched her hand back. That must be the broken bone she heard, then.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His eyes were squeezed shut and his head was bowed. His hair had come out of its band in the fall and she reached out and ran her fingers through it in an attempt to soothe, heart clenching at his obvious pain. “You shouldn’t have tried to protect me, you wouldn’t have been hurt so badly.”

His eyes snapped opened and she frowned at the almost-feverish glaze to them. His skin was pale and clammy and when he spoke his words were slurred. “I’ll always protect you. Can’t stand it when you’re hurt. When you came back from that mission to get the Daimyo’s intel and you were injured...I felt like an asshole for assigning it to you just to get you away from that fucking waiter.”

Her eyes widened, both at his words and at the way he was swaying. There was more than simple pain affecting him. “The senbon!”

She edged around him and looked closely at his back until she found the four offending weapons and tugged them from his body. Shikaku leaned heavily against her and she scrambled to keep them both sitting up even as she fumbled in her pouch.

She had a universal antidote that all Hyuuga shinobi carried. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped work less potent poisons out of your system if given time. She thought Shikaku would probably be worse off if the poison was one of the stronger ones that the antidote wouldn’t have an effect on. That could just be wishful thinking, though.

“Here,” she whispered and held it to his lips. She could hear the sounds of combat above but waited until he’d drunk the whole thing before activating her Byakugan.

“What - what do you see?”

“Lie down,” she said, distracted by the fight between Inoichi and Chouza happening above. “It will make it worse if your blood pressure goes up. And they’re fine,” she said soothingly. “They’re holding their own.”

He gritted his teeth but did as she said. “What are your symptoms?”

“Weakness in limbs and I’m having trouble accessing chakra. My mental facilities were going, but that’s a little clearer, now.”

“Okay. That’s -”

She tilted her head to the side when one of the five enemy fighters threw something and an explosion forced Inoichi and Chouza back. Three of them - one kunoichi and two shinobi - turned and headed their way.

Hinata glanced at Shikaku, noted the way his hand was limp at his side and the sweat beaded on his brow. He was helpless until the antidote cleared his system, which could be two minutes or two days from now, depending on the poison. Inoichi and Chouza were being kept busy above and wouldn’t be any help for a while. She took a deep breath and stood just as the three ninja blurred down the mountain to come to a stop ten feet away.

She reached up and unhooked her cloak, then threw it to the side where it would be out of her way. She felt the chill immediately but ignored it. The snow was still falling steadily, but her Byakugan, as always, afforded her perfect range of vision.

The kunoichi was tall and had a katana at her waist and silver hair cropped close to her skull. She wasn’t wearing a hitai-ate. Both men were shorter than her but compact and well muscled. One was twirling a giant shuriken around almost casually.

“Hinata - run,” Shikaku said in a rough voice and she pressed her lips together.

“Shikaku-sama, you’re not as smart as people think you are if you believe I’ll do that.”

The woman threw her head back and laughed and Hinata went into the stance for Gentle Fist, ignoring the pain in her injured knee and the blood she could feel dripping from the wound on the back of her head and soaking the collar of her shirt.

“Dammit, Hinata! That’s an order.” He struggled to get up, but his limbs still weren’t cooperating and there was a thump when his body fell against the ice.

“When I heard that the Nara Shikaku was in the area, I knew I had to come out and play. You’ve got quite the bounty on your head,” the woman, clearly the leader, said. “I have to say, I didn’t expect you to fall for that trap, but I guess the snow hid everything nicely. What do you think of my poison, hm? You should lose all the feeling in your limbs, soon. Then it’ll be easy to take your head.”

Hinata’s body grew cold at her words in a way that had nothing to do with the snow. “You won’t get through me,” she said, voice strong and confident.

Hinata would not let them touch him. She would hold out until the poison was pushed from his body or until Inoichi and Chouza could come and help. Anything less wasn’t an option.

One of the men scoffed. “Do you hear that, Rei? The little Hyuuga princess thinks we won’t get past her.” He spat and Hinata startled at the fact that they knew who she was but didn’t relax her stance.

The woman - Rei - laughed. “Oh, yes, you’ve got your own bounty, though they want you alive and it’s nothing compared to Nara’s. Still, you’ll make a nice bonus.”

“Fucking assholes,” Shikaku said and tried to sit up again.

They both knew why somebody would want a female Hyuuga alive, and it wasn’t anything pleasant or that she hadn’t heard before. Hinata knew she could take care of herself, though, and wasn’t concerned. Anybody who tried such a thing would rethink their plan quickly.

"Don't use jutsu - we don't want the ice to go and lose our bounty to the river." Rei’s hand went to her hilt and her two partners moved. The one who had spat threw the shuriken and the other ran at her from the side, a kunai in his hand. Hinata was already moving, though, creating a wall of chakra blades with her Protecting Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms technique. It would drain her chakra faster than she liked, but it was the best chance of keeping Shikaku safe while he was poisoned.

The shuriken hit and was sliced into eight pieces, which fell to the ground with a muted clatter. The second man skidded to a halt, but his momentum drove him forward and he brushed against her barrier, resulting in a long, deep slice down his arm. Rei flipped back on her hands and then to her feet. She then blurred away with a replacement jutsu that took her to the opposite bank of the river, leaving a rotted log in her place.

Hinata formed water needles in the air, pulling moisture from the snow, and sent them speeding at the two men, who swore and hurried to get out of the way. The shuriken wielder fell to his knees when a dozen needles took out his right leg. The second man managed to dodge all of them, but Hinata was forced to abandon her attack and leap over Shikaku’s prone form to land lightly on her feet between him and a charging Rei.

Hinata extended both hands, shooting her chakra out of her palms with enough force to send Rei tumbling end over end, though she managed to land on her feet. She coughed up a small amount of blood while gasping for air, obviously feeling the effects of the Vacuum Wall Palm technique.

The other man was already moving in and Hinata leaped back over a frustrated-looking Shikaku to stop him. “Eight Trigrams Thirty-Two Palms,” she said in a breathless tone.

Her arms blurred through the familiar movements, feet carrying her forward so that her fingers could reach his tenketsu points. She saw Rei and the other man move at the same time - he must be a medic because his leg was partially healed - just as she closed the fifteenth tenketsu.

Rei’s sword was descending towards Shikaku and the other man had another large shuriken in his hand. Hinata abandoned her attack again and turned, charging Rei. She barely dodged her sword and went in under it, slamming a palm into Rei’s chest and releasing chakra, sending her flying back again. This time, Hinata knew she’d done some serious damage to her internal organs.

Hinata then lifted her foot and spun her body around in a roundhouse kick that knocked the shuriken out of the man’s hand and sent waves of pain through her knee. It left her vulnerable just long enough for the third man, who still had control over his right arm, since she hadn’t been able to finish her jutsu, to slide a kunai into her side. Her breath left her in a rush as pain exploded through her senses, distracting her.

“Hinata!” Shikaku choked.

The shuriken user followed it up by backhanding her across her face and sent her sailing through the air. She hit the ice painfully and slid across the layer of snow on top, losing her hold on her Byakugan. For a long moment, she was blinded by the spray of snow and the pain.

“Oh, I think we should take him apart in pieces,” Rei purred and that was all it took to have Hinata back on her feet, Byakugan once again activated, pain forgotten.

She blurred across the surface of the ice, unheeding of her injuries, desperation beating a frantic staccato in her chest. Three pairs of eyes, focused on Shikaku a moment ago, moved to her and widened. Then she was right in the middle of them, standing over Shikaku, who was now struggling to sit up. Hinata thought it might have been two minutes since she gave him the antidote, now.

She moved into Protecting Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms again and they all gasped as her blades sliced into their skin and pushed them back. She collapsed to her knees when she was done, hand flying to her side, which was soaked in blood from the kunai wound. They were strong. The man whom she’d closed the tenketsu points on earlier wasn’t getting back up, but Rei was still standing despite the way she was coughing up blood.

The other man was having trouble putting weight on his right side and had multiple deep abrasions. Still, he seemed combat-capable and Hinata wasn’t sure how much she had left. Whatever it was, it would have to be enough.

A large hand covered her own and she glanced at Shikaku, whose face was grim. “Hinata. You can’t -”

“You can’t beat us,” Rei cut in, laughter raspy but real. “You’re good, but you were already injured and we were elite ninja when you were still in diapers. If you leave now, we’ll let you live.”

Hinata struggled to her feet again, lips pressed together and hands shaking in a mixture of fatigue and rage. “I told you. You won’t touch him.”

She glanced at Shikaku, who was propped up on his elbow, body trembling as he tried to push himself up further. He looked up at her and for the first time since she’d met him he looked afraid. She smiled at him, a small, trembling thing, then went into position again, eyes narrowed on her opponents.

“Hinata, stand down,” he said in a harsh voice.

Hinata raised her chin in the air and met Rei’s surprised expression. “No.”

“Dammit, Hinata, do you think I even care about living through this if you die in the process?” his tone was low and urgent and almost desperate.

Hinata’s next inhale was shaky. A stray thought flitted through her mind. Did that mean he loved her back? “I’m sorry, but I feel the same way, Shikaku. That’s why...I can’t leave you.”

She forced herself to put all thoughts of Shikaku to the back of her mind and relaxed her body, putting all of her focus on the two enemies in front of her. She could do this. No way were they more difficult to beat than Neji.

Chakra flared around her hands and she planted her feet. Rei and the man charged. Luckily, they were no longer trying to simply get past her, so she could focus on the fight instead of protecting Shikaku. She ducked under a swing of Rei’s sword and turned to jab at the man, who had attacked her from behind.

He barely dodged and Hinata continued her spin, letting her momentum carry her to the side. She stood and hit a tenketsu point in Rei’s arm, the one not holding the sword, and it dropped, limp. The hit cost her, though, and Rei’s sword grazed her hip, opening the skin there.

Hinata saw the man throw a kunai and flipped away. Rei followed, and the next thirty seconds were a blur of dodging both shinobi and attempting to score a hit that would drop them. Above them, Hinata could see that Inoichi and Chouza had beaten their own enemy and were making their way down the incline.

It was good timing because Hinata’s injured knee chose that moment to finally give out. She’d stepped back to avoid a kick from the male shinobi, who was quickly tiring and now only had use of one of his arms.

She fell with a gasp when her leg refused to hold her weight. Hinata saw everything that happened next with a detached clarity. She heard Shikaku call her name from where he’d managed to struggle to his knees, tone desperate in a way that made her feel as though her heart had curled in on itself in her chest. The blade of Rei’s sword was falling towards her and Inoichi and Chouza had just landed on the bank.

The chakra around her hands sputtered out and she lost hold on her Byakugan. Her vision began to swim, though all she felt was relief that she’d kept Shikaku safe until Inoichi and Chouza had arrived. He’d be fine, she had done it. She was okay with dying if she knew it meant he’d be safe...

Darkness was creeping in from the corners of her vision when the sword stopped abruptly five inches short of its target. Rei’s eyes widened then darted to look behind Hinata at Shikaku. The last thing she saw were his shadows wrapping around Rei’s throat before she gave into unconsciousness.

000

Shikaku didn’t come to visit her in the hospital. She had woken up there and it had been Hanabi in the chair next to her, tired and shaken.

It had been a close call, by all accounts. She’s lost too much blood from the wound in her side. Inoichi, Chouza, and Shikaku had run without pause all the way back to the village to get her care.

“It was very dramatic,” Ino said when she stopped by a few hours after Hinata’s family had come and gone. “Shikaku-sama made a medic cry when she tried to work on his arm instead of helping the team of medics already surrounding you. He demanded that somebody get Tsunade and Sakura to heal you. Tsunade knocked him out to get him to stop yelling. I guess he sat by your bedside with your sister, too. He left just before you woke up.”

Hinata’s eyes widened and hope lightened her mood. “Really? That - it was very kind of him to show so much concern.”

Ino raised a brow. “Uh-huh. Right. Listen -”

Hinata was saved from whatever Ino had been about to say when she was paged over the intercom. She sighed and pointed at Hinata. “I’ll be back once my shift is over. That’s...crap, eighteen hours from now, and then I have a dinner with my dad. Okay, well, you get a whole day, then I’ll be back and we’ll discuss Shikaku-sama’s...kindness.”

Hinata thought a lot while she was in the hospital, between visits from friends and family. She thought about the way Shikaku smiled at her, and his gentle teasing. She thought about the desperation in his tone when he’d said, Dammit, Hinata, do you think I even care about living through this if you die in the process?

For the first time since she’d realized she loved him, she felt hope that he could return her feelings. That hope faded, however, when he didn’t visit her that day or the next. It dwindled to nothing when she asked how he was doing when Chouza and Inoichi stopped by her hospital room.

They exchanged unreadable looks. “He’s fine, Hinata. He only had to stay a few hours. The poison wasn’t fatal and your antidote did the trick.”

“Oh,” she said and looked down at her hands. “Okay. Please give him my regards.”

Chouza’s smile was strained and she was mortified when her eyes filled with tears. They must have realized her feelings for him sometime during the mission and they were doing their best to let her down easily. If he loved her, he would have visited by now, right?

She managed not to cry until after the door clicked shut behind them. Of course, that’s when Ino decided to swing by between her rounds. She hadn’t been able to make it back before then, except to stick her head in and say hello. She took one look at Hinata’s shuddering frame and closed the door before crossing the room and pulling her into a hug.

“Hinata, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Her kind eyes and firm embrace were too much, and the whole story came pouring out of Hinata. Starting with how she’d fallen in love with Shikaku despite knowing he’d never look twice at her. Except then he had been looking twice at her. How terrified she’d been when he’d been poisoned. What he’d said to her out in the snow, as she stood bleeding out but standing between him and the missing-nin.

“I had hoped that meant that h-he loved me too, but he doesn’t,” she clung to Ino’s scrubs and sobbed. “If he did, Chouza-sama wouldn’t have looked at me like that, and he would have visited. I’m just the d-daughter of his good friend, someone he feels responsible for. Why can’t I just love somebody who will love me back?”

Ino, for her part, seemed too stunned to respond past rubbing a soothing hand up and down her back. Finally, Hinata’s tears dried and she slumped back, embarrassed by her breakdown but feeling a little better for it, despite the way it had aggravated her wound.

“Sorry,” she whispered down to her hands. “You won’t tell anyone?”

“No,” Ino drew the word out and she had a very strange expression on her face. “Hinata...you know it’s considered a major breach of etiquette for a commanding officer to make romantic gestures towards his subordinates, right?”

“I knew it was frowned upon, but -”

Ino shook her head. “It’s more than frowned upon, Hinata. It’s considered a breaking of trust between a subordinate and her CO, since it might seem as though there's no choice but to accept.”

“Do - do you think that’s why he’s not here?”

“I don’t know. From what you’ve said...I just don’t know. But, if there’s going to be a relationship between a subordinate and their CO, it has to be the subordinate who makes the first move. Do you understand, Hinata?”

Hinata froze. Her, make the first move? What if she’d read too much into it, though? It was bad enough, now, but if he actually spoke his rejection out loud...

Ino squeezed her hand. “Just think about it, Hinata, okay? I have to get back to work.”

Hinata nodded, already distracted by her whirling thoughts. Could she really put herself out there like that? Last time she’d put her heart on the line it had been broken. She wasn’t sure it would ever recover if she had to hear Shikaku say the words, ‘I don’t love you’ out loud.

000

Hinata stood on the front porch of Shikaku’s house, palms sweaty but back straight. It had been a week since her talk with Ino and she had finally admitted to herself that she had to know, one way or another.

Shikaku hadn’t stopped by the Hyuuga compound once and she missed him with a sort of deep ache that she knew wouldn’t fade until she’d gotten a clear answer on his feelings. Yes or no. Hinata could handle either answer, as long as she had one. She took a deep breath, then lifted her hand and knocked.

She knew he was home - had made sure of that before coming. Hinata didn’t think she could muster the courage to walk up those steps twice. She heard his shuffling gait and couldn’t quite stop the small smile that formed on her lips at the image of him grumbling as he made his way down the hall.

When the door opened, all of the moisture in her mouth dried up. He was wearing a simple black yukata that showed a sliver of his chest. She’d never seen him look so casual before and heat traveled up her neck and to her cheeks.

For his part, he seemed surprised to see her. “Hinata,” he said warily.

She cleared her throat. “Shikaku-sama. I was wondering if I could speak with you?”

His gaze bored into her and he lifted a hand and rubbed it across his jaw. There was a day’s growth of stubble there and it made a rasping sound against his fingers. He cleared his throat, then stepped back to let her inside.

“Of course.”

She stepped into the house. She’d been there a few times when she was younger, but she still looked around with curiosity while she removed her shoes. There were deer painted on the walls and the floors were a lovely hardwood.

He waited until she was finished and she felt his eyes on her the whole time. “Come on,” he said and she followed him into a large, comfortable room with a low table surrounded by cushions in the middle.

“Have a seat. I’ll bring some tea.”

She knelt on one of the cushions, her knee barely twinging thanks to Sakura’s healing. She took deep, steadying breaths while she waited, the sounds of Shikaku moving around in the kitchen filtering down the hall to her.

Hinata could do this. She had faced down three elite ninja not a week ago to keep Shikaku from harm. Confessing her feelings would be easy compared to that. Shikaku had always been kind to her, his rejection would be decisive but not cruel, and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t tell her father if she asked him not to.

When he returned she couldn’t help but stare. The black of the yukata fit him well. It made his eyes seem even darker than usual and she felt a clench of heat in her lower stomach when they focused on her. She licked her lips and looked down at the table when he set the tray there, gaze lingering on his long fingers while he poured her a cup of tea.

She accepted it with trembling hands and his brow furrowed. The silence drew out for a long moment before he spoke.

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine. Better, thank you. And you?”

“I wasn’t the one who was seriously injured.” His tone was strained and she reached out and lightly touched his arm before she could think better of it. He stiffened but didn’t pull away.

“This was broken. You were poisoned. I think that’s serious enough. And all because - because you were protecting me.”

She chanced a look up at his face. He had gone still and tense and she thought he might have stopped breathing. “Shikaku-sama. Thank you for protecting me.”

He looked away and let out a long breath. “It was you who ended up protecting me, in the end.”

Hinata bit her lip at his self-recrimination. “You saved me, though. If you hadn’t been able to use your jutsu, I’d be dead.”

“Don’t say that.” His tone was ragged and her eyes widened. “I can’t stand to think about what would have happened if I had regained the use of my chakra even three seconds later.”

Hinata studied him. “You - you said something to me. Before I passed out.”

He seemed resigned at her words. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable by saying it. I wasn’t completely in control of my facilities while the poison was in my system.”

Hinata wondered if that meant that he hadn’t meant the things he’d said, or if he’d simply been lacking a filter. There was only one way to find out. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable. I actually came here today to ask you...” she trailed off, courage faltering.

“To ask me what, Hinata?”

She chewed on her lip. “Did you really give me that mission to interrupt my date?” she blurted instead of continuing what she’d originally meant to say.

She blinked when his cheeks seemed to turn just the slightest bit darker. Was he blushing? It was hard to tell. “I understand if you’d like to file a complaint. It was...completely inappropriate. There was no excuse. I apologize.”

Hinata’s lips parted at the admission. Warmth spread from her chest outward and the sudden flare of hope was almost painful in its intensity. She’d expected a denial, maybe, or for him to sidestep the issue. “And...you don’t like to see me hurt?”

He pressed his lips together before he answered in a clipped tone. “I don’t.”

Hinata nodded, though it was mostly to herself. She gathered her courage to her again and met his gaze. “Shikaku-sama. Would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow night?”

He stared at her and she was fairly certain he’d stopped breathing again. Her confidence wavered when he didn’t reply after a long few beats. She’d read the situation wrong after all. He’d just been looking out for her due to his friendship with her father. For all she knew, Hiashi had asked him to interrupt her date (possibly both her dates), since he had been less than impressed with her decision to go out with a civilian.

The warmth in her chest had curdled and a sharp ache replaced it. “I - I’m sorry,” she stuttered and scrambled to her feet. “I didn’t - I won’t ask again.”

She was halfway to the door when his hand closed around her arm, just above her elbow, and he spun her around to face him. His expression was urgent now and he looked almost dangerous when he leaned into her space, scars in sharp contrast to the rest of the skin on his face and eyes glinting in the low light.

“Hinata,” he rumbled in a tone that sent shivers down her spine. “Are you asking me out?”

She bit her lip. “Yes. But you don’t have to feel bad about saying no -”

She squeaked when he leaned down and put his forehead against hers. “Why?” The gentle way he cupped her cheeks in his large palms belied the harshness of his tone. “If it’s out of pity, or because you think you have to -”

She pulled back and frowned at him, honestly confused. “What? Why would you think I would date you out of pity?”

He ran a hand across the top of his head and he looked so uncharacteristically out of sorts that she just stood there, unsure of what to do. “Hinata. I’m twice your age. You’re beautiful and talented and could have any man you wanted -”

“If that were true, I’d already have you,” she blurted, then put her fingers over her mouth, mortified.

He stared at her. “I admit, I had hoped that you felt that way,” he said, drawing his words out. “But you never sought me out. All of our interactions happened because I couldn’t - I couldn’t stay away. Even knowing that I was too old for you and too much of a cynical, ruthless bastard.”

Hinata was certain that the way she was gaping up at him couldn’t be attractive, but she couldn’t believe what he was saying. After a few seconds, she pulled herself together enough to reply.

“I avoided you on purpose. I thought that - that you’d think I was just a naive, silly young girl who had fallen in love with someone that could never want her,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to deal with your rejection, so I...”

His hands tightened minutely on her face at her words. “Love?”

She bit her lip and his eyes moved to follow the motion. His gaze seemed to be burning into her and her whole body was tingling at his proximity. “Yes. I - I love you.”

He made a low, almost-pained sound, then leaned down and kissed her. It was gentle, just a brush of his lips against hers. Her arms came up around his neck of their own accord and she pressed her body against his. The sound he made in response sent want curling through her.

The kiss became urgent after that, almost bruising in its intensity, and she opened her mouth when his tongue flicked against it and she shivered when he pressed inside. His whiskers were wonderfully rough against her cheeks and his goatee was soft on her chin. His hands slipped from her face and trailed down her sides and the touches sent heat flaring between her legs. He flattened his palms on her waist before sliding them to her back and he pressed against her, urging her closer.

She arched against him and slid her tongue tentatively into his mouth and he shuddered. The next thing she knew he had backed her up against the wall. His body caged her in and she clung to him when he moved his lips from hers and across her jaw, then down to her neck.

Goosebumps broke out across her skin and her whole body seemed to heat by a few degrees when his tongue flicked out to caress the spot just below her ear. “Oh,” she whispered and brought one hand up to settle on the back of his head, just below his ponytail.

His thigh moved to settle between her own and he pressed it forward. Pleasure clenched in her stomach when he ground against her and wetness pooled between her legs. She made a small noise when he did it again and clutched at him. She pressed closer to him and shivered when she felt his erection against her stomach.

Shikaku groaned and she did it again, this time rolling her hips against him more firmly. Hinata hadn’t had a lot of sex in her short life, but she’d done it enough times to understand the basics of what made a man feel good. Though she’d never felt so lit up from the inside from just a kiss.

Shikaku pulled back and she made a small sound of denial and tried to tug him closer again. “Hinata, we need to slow down. I don’t want to push you into something -”

Hinata put her hands on either side of his head and looked him in the eye. “Do you love me?” she asked, a little surprised at her confidence.

He didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I’ve loved you for months, it’s been torture -”

She went up on her toes and pressed her lips against his, unable to contain the bubbling joy and relief that moved through her. She pulled back and smiled up at him, ignoring the heat prickling in her eyes. “Then we don’t need to stop. I want you, Shikaku. Um, if that’s what you want.”

His hand came up to cup her cheek, his thumb moving back and forth across it. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.” The desperate pressure between her legs and the way her chest felt heavy with happiness were proof of that.

He grinned, a slow, heated smile full of promise that had her breath catching in her throat. Then his hands went down to her thighs and she squeaked when he lifted her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and clung to his shoulders.

“Well, sweetheart. If you insist.”

She laughed when he started walking down the hall, surprise and delight and love pushing the sound from her. Hinata still couldn’t quite believe this was happening, but he looked so sweet, the way he was smiling up at her, delighted at making her laugh, that she had to lean down and kiss him.

He hummed low in his throat and somehow they didn’t run into any walls as they continued to kiss while he walked. He was warm and solid beneath her and she could feel that her underwear were already soaked through, which would have been embarrassing if she couldn't feel how hard he was.

She was taken by surprise when he lowered her to the bed, having been so focused on kissing him that she hadn’t been aware of her surroundings. It was soft and she sank into it, especially when he added his weight, pressing her down and kissing her hard, wrapping her hair around his hand. By the time he pulled back they were both panting and he was looking down at her like he couldn’t believe she was real.

“Are you sure? Once we do this...it’ll be hard to get rid of me.”

Hinata smiled. “Good,” she said, then reached for the tie to his yukata.

They took their time undressing each other, kissing for a long time before he removed her shirt and she pushed the yukata off his shoulders. Shikaku was only wearing boxers beneath. She stared at the expanse of skin and spent a long time running her hands up and down his arms.

He chuckled against her bare stomach. “I thought I saw you admiring my arms a few times.”

“They, um, they’re very nice,” she said, feeling her blush, which had already made an appearance when he’d sat back and stared at her after removing her shirt, deepen.

He hummed and sat back on his heels, setting his hands on her stomach and running them up her ribcage until he was cupping her breasts through her bra. She arched up into him and he smiled. He seemed to be doing that a lot, and she was greedy for every one of them.

“Not as nice as these,” he said.

Then he reached around her to unhook her bra and she arched up to give him space. He let out a low, shuddering breath after pulling the garment off her, eyes riveted on her chest. Before she could do more than shift uncomfortably, he leaned down and flicked a tongue across her nipple.

She gasped and her hand came up and buried itself in his hair. He’d removed the band along with his yukata and the strands were thick and soft against her fingers. He glanced up at her, eyes calculating when he licked it again.

She rubbed her thighs together when she throbbed with want at the motion and he flashed her a smile before taking the whole nipple in his mouth. She dropped her head back and closed her eyes. It felt so good - so much better than anything that her two past lovers had done.

Of course, she hadn’t been in love with them, which probably had something to do with it. When he moved on to the other breast, she admitted that it also probably had something to do with Shikaku’s obvious talent. She had only a moment to feel nervous - what if she disappointed him with her own lack of experience? - before he moved his lips down her stomach until they came to the top of the skirt she’d worn that day.

“Can I?” His voice was rough and strained and when she glanced down at him her breath caught. His lips were swollen and wet, his eyes impossibly dark. His hair was framing his face and brushing his shoulders and she’d never seen anyone look so sexy before. Shikaku was, she realized, undoubtedly a man where before she'd only been with boys.

“Yes,” she whispered. His fingers found the zipper on the side and drew it down and he exhaled shakily when he tugged it off, leaving her in only her blue panties.

“Fuck,” he whispered reverently. His fingers trailed lightly down her stomach, calluses rough against the soft skin.

She arched against him when he pressed one finger down on her clit and moved it in a small circle over her underwear. It felt so good, but it wasn’t nearly enough to relieve the tension building there. “Please."

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You’re even more beautiful than I imagined. I’m going to make you feel so good.”

Before she could respond to that he was pulling her underwear down her thighs, leaving a wet trail on the inside of one leg. His breathing picked up and she watched him from under half-closed lids, her body growing even warmer under his gaze.

He moved to settle between her thighs and she blushed when he pushed them apart and stared down at her. She wasn’t used to seeing him show his emotions so plainly and his obvious appreciation and almost awed disbelief made a lump form in her throat. She was about to sit up and wrap her arms around him when he moved.

He leaned down and a pressed a kiss to her folds and she gasped. Then his tongue was moving over her in just the right way and she couldn’t do anything except push her fingers into his hair and arch against him while pleasure danced through her.

The tension was nearing its breaking point when he pushed two fingers inside of her. He groaned against her when she tightened around them and a few more swipes of his tongue was all it took before she came. He worked her through it and she felt his eyes on her while she shivered and moaned, keeping her eyes clamped shut.

By the time her muscles relaxed he was moving to hover above her. A glance down showed that he’d removed his briefs at some point. His erection jutted from the curls at the base and she reached down and ran her fingers lightly over it.

He grunted and twitched his hips forward. She licked her lips and looked up at his face. He was staring down at her, eyes warm and a small smile playing around his lips. Shikaku looked...happy, and pleased, and so obviously proud of himself.

She smiled and drew him down into a kiss and he groaned against her lips, settling between her thighs. Hinata ran her hands down his arms and back up, then trailed them along his spine, fingers playing over the dips and curves and the rough skin of old scars.

“Please,” she said again, spreading her thighs and tilting her hips up.

She’d never wanted somebody the way she wanted him, and when he slid into her for the first time tears pricked at corners of her eyes. He cupped her cheek in one hand and stilled, brows furrowed.

“Are you okay?”

She didn’t have to work for her smile. It must have shown everything she was feeling because he returned it, relaxing when he realized nothing was wrong. He leaned down and kissed her and she wrapped her arm and legs around him and arched against him. The light dusting of hair on his chest rubbed against her breasts and she shuddered at the sensation.

He moaned before pulling out and pushing himself forward again and the muscles of her abdomen tightened with the motion, tingles of pleasure fanning out from where he was moving inside of her to spread to the rest of her body. He didn’t pause that time before thrusting again, though he kept his movements languid, rolling his body against hers.

His pelvis rubbed against her still-sensitive clit and her breath hitched every time. Soon he was speeding up, breath picking up in her ear and sweat building between them. “You’re gorgeous, baby, you feel so good, you’re so wet...” he continued whispering praises in her ear while his thrusts became more and more powerful. She clung to him, desperate to have him as close as possible.

Eventually, it all became too much and she came, clamping around him in an orgasm that left her gasping in the wake of its intensity. He followed shortly after, hips flush to hers and a low groan escaping him while he twitched inside of her.

It took them a few minutes to part, and even then he pulled her against him, as though unwilling to let her go far. “Damn,” he said after a moment, and she glanced up at him.

“It’s never been like that for me before,” she admitted.

His lips turned up into a self-satisfied expression that made her giggle. “Better than a pirate could have done, do you think?”

“Much better.”

They were silent for a few minutes while he ran his fingers up and down her side. She bit her lip as the glow faded and some of her doubts came rushing back. Would he really be okay with being in a long-term relationship with her?

“Stop it,” he drawled and she blinked up at him. “I can practically hear you worrying.”

“But - but what do we do next?”

“Well, I do recall you asking me out on a date. That would be a good place to start. Then I figured I’d give it a few months to make sure you didn’t change your mind about dating an old, bitter man before proposing.”

Hinata’s jaw dropped. “Propose?” she squeaked. Then the rest of his statement registered and she frowned. “And you’re not a bitter old man. You - you’re perfect.”

She blushed bright red at her words but didn’t take them back. His smile was small and almost bashful in a way she hadn’t ever expected to see from him and he reached out and pushed her hair back from her face. “I think that’s my line.”

The rush of pleasure at his words almost overwhelmed her and she leaned up to kiss him. He returned it, cupping her cheek in one of his hands and pulling her closer by the other, which was splayed out across her lower back.

When they pulled back she studied his expression. “You would really want to marry me? Even though you already...” she trailed off, unsure if his dead wife was a subject that he was willing to discuss.

He tilted his head to the side. “I think it’s important that you know - I loved my wife, Hinata, and part of me will always miss her. But I love you, too, and I promise to never compare the two of you.”

The words were delivered with solemnity and his face was blank, but she thought she could see worry over her reaction in the tenseness around his lips and a slight furrow between his brows. She lifted her hand and lightly smoothed it out with her thumb. A moment later he grabbed it and brought it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the middle of her palm.

“I would never expect you to forget her, or expect you to love me more or anything like that. I understand. As long as you can love me and accept me for who I am, I don’t mind. You - you can even tell me about her if you want.”

Hinata meant it. Jealousy had never been something she suffered from, not in love, anyway. He pulled her against him and wrapped his arms around her. “You really are perfect,” he said.

“I’m not,” she said against his shoulder. “You have to know, that I’m not -”

“Hush. I more meant that you’re perfect for me.” He took a deep breath. “People will judge you. For the age difference.”

“I don’t mind,” she said because honestly, she’d already thought about that, extensively. “They’ll judge you, too.”

He snorted and she smiled. “And - and my family might be, well. They might be difficult about it.”

This did cause him to stiffen. “Yeah. I’m...not looking forward to telling your father,” he said almost apologetically.

“Let me speak with him -”

“No,” he said a little sharply, then softer, “No. I need to tell him myself.”

Hinata hesitated. “We could do it together.”

He pulled back and studied her. “If that’s what you want.” 

She nodded. “It’s what I want.”

Shikaku flopped back onto the pillows and groaned and she laughed when he dragged her with him so that she was curled against his side. “He’s going to kill me.”

“Well, Shikamaru probably won’t be happy with me, either,” Hinata pointed out.

“Eh, once he sees that we’re happy he’ll be fine.”

Hinata wasn’t so sure of that, but she didn’t voice her thoughts. She remembered how heartbroken he’d been after his mother’s death, and she doubted he’d be happy about one of his friends taking her place, even if that wasn't what was really happening.

“So,” Shikaku said. “About that book with the herdsman and the princess. Are there any sex scenes? Because we could reenact them -”

“Shikaku!” she squeaked and smacked him lightly. He just laughed and grabbed her hand, lacing his fingers through hers.

“I can’t believe you’re here with me, like this,” he said a few minutes later.

She glanced up at him, but could only see his profile as he stared at the ceiling. “Me, either. But I’m glad.”

He brought her hand to his lips again to kiss it and she bit her lip at the tender gesture. “Yeah, me, too.”

Hinata turned her face into his shoulder and smiled. She did have that Halloween costume from two years ago when she’d dressed up as a princess. Maybe she’d surprise him one day with it.

She breathed out and closed her eyes, melting against him. She knew things weren’t going to be easy once others found out, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Hinata had fallen in love with somebody who loved her back this time, and she wasn’t letting him go for anything.

In love, at least, it seemed like the second time was the charm.