It had been four days since Hinata had been checked in at the Konoha Hospital. Sakura Haruno, who had become a skilled medic-nin under the tutelage of the Fifth Hokage, instructed Hinata to rest so that the damaged chakra points in her shoulder could heal properly.
"It's not as bad as it could have been." Sakura had told Shino, "It's a good thing you were around to get the poison out in time – otherwise her arm would have been rendered useless – or worse."
Shino had nodded grimly, his expression unreadable behind the layers he usually wore. He was still thinking of that night. He had wanted to say something to Hinata… encouragement? Words would not heal her shoulder. Wish her luck? He didn't believe in luck. Hard work had made him a skilled ninja. All luck had made him was an Aburame, a creepy bug-nin. Feared and shunned by… no, not quite all. While it was true that the Aburames inspired fear and uneasiness in most other ninja, he could name two people who did not fear him. And one of them…
He had remembered her touch – so delicate, like the whisper of a moth's wings – the way she leaned against him to hear the buzzing of his kikai. And then, the kiss…
Her kiss had been so light, so innocent, and almost virginal in its purity. What could he say that would be equivalent to that?
The swarm had stirred uneasily, responding to his inner conflict.
In the end, he'd left without a word, while Hinata and Kiba were still chattering in her hospital room.
So it was that, four days later, Shino knelt on the bank of a river, a dragonfly balancing delicately on the end of his finger. The Dancing Jade Dragonfly, he identified it. Its lace-like wings blurred almost to nothing as its jewel-green body nearly hovered above his finger.
Just like her.
Kiba is coming, the swarm told him.
He glanced up, the dragonfly floating away to conduct its business elsewhere, but he had just pinpointed Kiba when…
… the dog-nin hit him with a flying tackle, sending them both tumbling into the river with a splash amid the scattering cloud of dragonflies. Acting on instinct, Shino moved to defend himself, deflecting Kiba's punches until he managed to shove his teammate off him and get to his feet. The tiny holes that his kikai used to exit him had reflexively shut tight while he was still airborne, but he was now soaked to the skin, his jackets sodden and heavy on him. Kiba's posture was that of an angry dog, his hands hooked into claws and his sharp teeth bared. If he had hackles, they would be raised. Behind him, on the bank, Akamaru reflected his master's mood, his own fangs bared in a growl.
"What on earth has gotten into you?" Shino demanded, not taking his eyes off Kiba while feeling around in the water for his glasses.
"Where the hell have you been?" Kiba returned, each word bitten off as sharply as a bark.
Shino surfaced with his glasses and put them on. He saw that Kiba was not truly angry with him… but upset about something else.
"Has something happened? Is Hinata okay?" The way Kiba's eyes narrowed told him he was on the right track.
"Pfeh. Not like you care, asshole. Where the hell have you been these past four days, anyway?"
"I've been busy." Shino knew it sounded lame.
"Too busy to visit your own goddamn teammate in the hospital?"
"I sent flowers. Twice. Ask Ino." He attempted to wring the water from his outermost jacket, with limited results. "I was told she needed to rest. I didn't want to interfere with her recovery. Now, what is this about?"
Kiba scowled at Shino's calm tones. "She's gone," he snarled.
Shino's head jerked up.
"Oh, NOW I have your attenOOF!" Kiba had good reflexes – the reflexes of a wolf, in fact. But Shino had the speed of an insect, even waterlogged, and he was on the dog-nin in an instant, his hands fiercely gripping Kiba's collar. Akamaru barked in alarm and tried to pull Shino off. Shino barely felt the nin-dog's jaws on his arm. What he felt was a focused sense of calm urgency. His kikai whirred out of him and hovered in an angry dark cloud over the three of them.
"What do you mean, she's gone?" Shino asked, very quietly.
"I mean, she's gone. She left the hospital. Sometime last night. I thought you knew."
Shino let him up, his swarm condensing back into him but still whirring in agitation. "Of course I didn't know. How could I?" Guilt bit at him like the fangs of a spider.
"She was asking about you," Kiba said, "Asking why you didn't come to visit. Yeah, she saw the flowers, and she liked them, but she wanted you there. You're part of the team, too, you know."
Shino sighed. "It's difficult to explain."
Kiba tilted his head, puzzled by Shino's sudden withdrawal. The bug-nin wasn't chatty at the best of times, but…
His nose twitched. He caught the scent of something coming from Shino – and then he understood.
"Aha," he said, "Gotcha. Hey, I understand. It's natural to get a crush on one of your teammates. Especially when it's Hina-chan – I was wondering when you'd notice how completely hot she was." Shino flushed, not a usual color for him. "Tell you what – we'll find her together, and then I'll give you twenty minutes to talk to her before I come back with the nurses."
Shino felt a wave of relief. Kiba wasn't going to rib him about this. "Thank you, Kiba."
"Yeah. Just understand this – if you break her heart I swear to god I'll rip off your testicles and feed them to my dog— are we clear?" Kiba's sudden transition from loyal hound to snarling wolf and back left Shino blinking.
"Crystal," Shino said.
Hinata pushed aside the ferocious ache in her shoulder, delivering measured punches to the air in front of her and punctuating each with a yell of power. She couldn't allow herself to be weak. Her body would heal, but she couldn't allow herself to go soft by sitting around in a hospital.
She paused, gasping for breath, doubled over with elbows on knees. She rubbed her shoulder, hoping she was only imagining the numbness in her left arm.
"Hinata." She spun at the voice, immediately in a defensive pose – and saw Shino standing there, damp but otherwise unruffled.
"Shino-kun!" She ran to him, hugged him. She was glad to see him, however awkwardly he weathered her affections. He was practically rigid in her embrace now. "What are you doing here?" she asked, stepping back to look up at him. His face was unreadable behind his upturned collar and dark glasses, in the shadows of his hood.
"Mainly, I am wondering the same thing of you," he replied in that calm way he had, "You need to go back to the hospital and rest – otherwise, your left arm will become useless."
Her gaze dropped. "You already helped me once, when you treated my shoulder – I can't disappoint you. I want to be strong for you."
"Hina-chan." His use of the familiar form of her name made her look up in surprise. He had always used formal language. "Don't be strong for me. Be strong for yourself. Only then will you become truly strong."
"I… I can't," she whispered despairingly, "I feel… so weak right now. I couldn't even dodge a kunai…" Her eyes filled with tears, and she fell to her knees in front of him, clutching her injured shoulder. She felt slightly ashamed, weeping in front of her ever-stoic teammate like this, but to her surprise he dropped to one knee in front of her and drew her close in a hug. At first she was too startled by the unexpected tenderness of the gesture to react, but then she clung to him tearfully, letting out in a gush the frustrations and fears that rose up with every injury, every knockdown, every defeat. He held her silently, apparently content to be her object of comfort. Then, almost too quietly for her to hear, he whispered something that startled her from her despair.
"You are strong inside," he whispered, "As strong as you are beautiful. And you are… very very beautiful." His words lacked the flourish of Fire Country poets she had read; in his mouth, they sounded like a simple statement of fact. She looked at him curiously, she saw, in the gap between the top of his collar and the lower rims of his dark glasses, framed by his hood, a distinct tinge of pink to his pale cheeks.
"W-what are you saying, Shino?" She had never known him to lust after the kunoichi of Konoha, and this statement, uttered as though he were commenting on the weather, left her reeling slightly.
"I am not good at talking to people," he said, "I can speak the languages of a dozen species of dragonfly, a hundred species of beetle, every variety of butterfly, ant, bee, and moth in Fire Country. I know the dance of the bees, the delicate waltz of butterflies, the aerial ballet of mating dragonflies." He sighed. "But I don't know how to talk to you. I can't even find the words."
Hinata's brow furrowed in confusion. He spoke to her regularly, coordinating the team, directing attacks in three-on-three matches in the square. He wasn't the chattiest shinobi, but he was a comforting presence, on the battlefield, in the tent, here. He was the team's anchor.
But… this was different. Suddenly he was not Shino Aburame the Bug-nin. Now, he was Shino Aburame the awkward teenager, sixteen years old, storming with hormones, and caught in the presence of a girl whom he found beautiful.
"If words will not come," she said, "Then do not speak. Simply do what you will."
He glanced away. "You'll hit me."
He reached up and unbuttoned the collar of his jacket, folding it back to expose the lower half of his face. He turned to her and, quickly, as though not wishing to lose his nerve, he pulled her close and pressed his thin lips to hers.
As kisses went, this was not the worst she'd had. It was clumsy and awkward, true, but it was also honest, and pure. His lips were cool against hers; once, Shino had explained that his lower body temperature was necessary for the health of the swarm, and even the layers of jackets he wore were more to protect the delicate larvae from burning than to keep him warm. His touch was delicate, as well-suited to handling fragile insects and performing field surgery as for soothing and comforting. As his hands cupped her face, she felt the low thrum of kikai moving through him, growing louder now as if in response to his emotions. Once, it had horrified her to know that this boy was home to millions of living insects. In recent years, however, she had come to trust him and his swarm with her very life. He tasted a bit like wild honey.
It ended too soon – he pulled away, catching his breath. She knew she was blushing at least as hard as he was – and she had never seen so much color in the bug-nin's cheeks. The swarm buzzed loudly within him; he paused, as though listening, translating, and then sighed in resignation.
"What is it?" Hinata asked, concerned. "Is something wrong? Are they upset?"
"No," he said, his lips twitching with mirth, "What you are hearing is the sound of four million Destruction Beetles… cheering me on." He glanced up sharply then, listening to the insectile messages only he could understand. He took her hands in his. His dark glasses gleamed like the eyes of an insect. "Kiba is coming, with nurses from the hospital. Hina-chan, you must go back to the hospital. Rest. Recover your strength. I will visit you, but you must do this for me."
Hinata nodded. "I promise."
"Good." He kissed her softly on the brow, buttoned his collar, and then stood up, drawing her to her feet. Still feeling a bit light-headed from recent events, she hung on to his arm for balance as they turned to meet the rescue party. As she leaned close to his side, she heard him whisper in the high dialect of Fire Country, as softly as his previous words of affection: "Watashi no ka chou-hime." My beautiful butterfly princess.