Notes: I originally meant to have some more stuff happen before this chapter, but I got a little (okay, a lot) siderailed by RL…so I figured it was this, or just let it hang forever. I hope it's not too rushed or too boring or anything.

Goals: I have a confession: one of my major goals for this story once it stopped being simply a series of short fight scenes between improbable matchups was to write a romance that was not a soap opera. I wanted drama, but not melodrama. I'm hoping this chapter fits with that goal, because if it does, then I may perhaps have validated that goal in all the ones that came before.

Warnings: Rated E for Everyone.

Chapter 25

Happily Ever After

Or, You Know, Not

"And then she tried to bite Shino's ear off," Tenten concluded.

It was a good thing she was getting so good at interpreting Aburame reactions, she figured, or she would have felt really awkward at the lack of laughter at the table after her story. Instead, she heard the series of small shuffling noises and low amused grunts or even a suppressed snicker down the table. Beside her, Shino grumbled something into his tea cup that Tenten couldn't catch, but his father chuckled a little louder than the others and nodded to his disgruntled son.

"I had the strong suspicion that young Sasaki Ima would be given to Inuzaka Kiba in his new genin team. He is probably the only available jounin instructor who could teach her discipline without forcing her to give up her wild ways entirely."

"He has a great deal of work ahead of him," Shino said, his composure recovered.

Tenten flashed him a grin. "Oh, I dunno, it looked to me like he was doing a pretty good job. I mean, I heard she bit her last Academy instructor's hand bad enough to need stitches. You just got chewed on a little. I call that improvement."

"If the Council wished the genin to improve her social graces, Kiba was then the worst choice," Shino responded. "Why? Consider his reaction to Sasaki Ima's actions today."

"Okay, yeah, but admit it, it was pretty funny. I was laughing too. I'm sure he'll talk to her about it later. She's a good kid, under all the teeth and bad attitude."

Shino opened his mouth to respond, but Shibi looked up from his meal suddenly and said, "Children can be a great blessing, can they not, Fujita?"

An older Aburame man from a few places down the grand table nodded. "Indeed, Honored Kao, they bring great joy and credit to a family." Tenten jumped a little, because for just a moment she had thought the speaker was looking right at her, as if he meant the words for her benefit. But then the older gentleman had turned his head and was murmuring something to the woman next to him.

Tenten's attention abruptly shifted back to Shino as she felt his fingers tense up in her hand under the table. His shoulders had turned into a hard line under his jacket, and she could just barely feel the faint buzz of agitated kikkai in his leg where it brushed against hers. Tenten blinked, startled by his sudden apparent shift in mood. From the significant way that he refused to look up at any of his family members, she got the impression that Shibi had just taken some sort of dig at him, and he definitely dind't like it.

"Of course," another Aburame said, "children also represent a great responsibility." Tenten tried not to stare, but she could have definitely sworn that he had also flashed a quick look at her before turning back to his meal…but well, he was kind of far down the table and she could be wrong. Why would they be directing these remarks at her anyway? She didn't have a new genin team to train.

"A responsibility for the entire family," Shibi agreed, setting down his rice bowl and folding his arms thoughtfully. "But if one has a good support net and the season is right, then the burden is not so great."

"Season?" Tenten asked, feeling a little lost in the conversation.

"As with insect colonies," Shibi tapped his glasses back into place with one finger. "For example: the standard reproductive cycle of the termite colony is carefully and precisely timed to coincide with the most prolific and fortuitous season."

"But when that season arrives," a female Aburame said from further down the table, "they must act quickly, before circumstances become less favorable."

Wait a second, Tenten realized. They're not looking at me.

So…it was apparently time for the Aburame heir to make his marriage contract and carry on the family legacy. Tenten bit her tongue, flooded by a multitude of conflicting emotions. They were telling him it was time to get married, weren't they? Time to get married, and have kids, and maybe start taking on the mantle of leadership in his clan. There was no way Shino didn't know exactly what was going on here.

And he hasn't said a word.

Tenten glanced down at her hand tucked into his long fingers and resisted the urge to bite her lip. Why hadn't he said anything? He didn't look terribly happy about the subject under discussion, but if he objected to it so much, why wasn't he saying anything? One of those cutting little remarks that sounded innocuous but shut the conversation down completely? He was good at those, she knew from experience. So…so not ending the conversation meant that he knew he…shouldn't. Even if he doesn't like it, Tenten thought with a sudden twist of her stomach, he knows it's true.

But he doesn't want to, and since I know he liked being with me, then maybe…maybe he knows that they don't…when they're talking about getting married and having kids and stuff…

They don't mean with me.

In her lap, Shino began tracing slow, soothing circles on her palm with his thumb, and Tenten realized that she had tensed up herself, clamping down on his hand in a panic. She forced herself to relax, knowing that there was no need to panic; at least, not yet. Chill out, she scolded herself; you know his father and grandfather like you. Maybe you've got this all wrong. Maybe he's mad about something else.

Maybe he just didn't want to get married, ever. Or…something. Maybe this whole thing was really about something entirely different, like how Shino didn't apply for a genin team either or maybe there's some big political thing going on in the clan I haven't heard about or –

"Grandson," Katsu said suddenly from the other end of the table, where he had been sitting quietly all evening.

"Grandfather," Shino acknowledged, raising his head from where he had been scowling down at his food and facing his elder.

Katsu looked up from his tea, deep-lined face serene around his glinting lenses. "I am getting old, and I want great-grandchildren." He raised his cup and waved it once imperiously in Tenten's direction. "Get on with it," he said, and calmly sipped the tea.

There was utter silence until Tenten burst into laughter.

"You don't have to, you know."

He looked up at her sharply, but Tenten merely smiled a little. "You don't have to marry me," she clarified. "I know your family is on you to get settled and carry on the bloodline and all. But you don't have to commit to me because you just happen to be dating me when they start pressuring you. It's a big choice. It's your choice."

Shino did not immediately respond. Around them, the shadows of the evening lengthened as they stood outside the main Aburame gates. Tenten admired the way the last red rays of sunset lit up the roofs and turned the sky a deep purple color, and waited patiently.

"It is not only my choice," he said at last.

Tenten whipped her head around and glared at him. "Yeah, it is. Look, I know I don't know much about clan politics or families - "

His eyebrows drew down and she could tell from the tense set of his shoulders that he was frowning, but she waved a hand dismissively, "Hey, I'm just saying I don't have any experience dealing with that stuff. But I still believe, no matter what, it's not your family's decision." She emphasized the last words carefully, hoping she wasn't being insulting or ignorant. "It's your life, your choice, and you're the one signing the contract."

"I was not referring to my family," he replied.

"Oh." Now it was Tenten's turn to frown. "Wait, what? Then who are you referring to?"

Shino glanced towards the walls of his home. Without answering, he pushed off the wall and started walking slowly down the street.

Tenten hurried to catch up, then moved quietly at his side. It was kind of funny how she had started assimilating certain behaviors around him, she thought after a moment. A couple years ago, had he made some cryptic statement like 'It's not my choice but it's not anyone else's' or whatever he was trying to say here, she probably would have pestered the heck out of him until he clarified. Or at least rambled on out loud what she thought he probably meant until, by virtue of elimination, she figured it out.

But now she just walked alongside and waited for him to answer in his own good time. He would, eventually. That was one of her favorite aspects of his character: he never left a question unanswered.

"What is the basis of a commitment?" He asked at last. Tenten waited a moment, but this one was directed at her, it seemed.

"Well, a commitment is when someone decides they're going to do something, and then they do it." She smiled at him. "I should know. My team is full of commitment junkies." He seemed to be waiting for more. Tenten thought hard for a moment. "Okay, so if commitment in general is a personal agreement, then marriage is an agreement between two people." Sudden comprehension dawned, and Shino nodded as he saw her realize what he had been driving at.

"It is a choice that I could not truly make on my own," he agreed. "At least, not anymore."

She sighed. "Dang it, you lost me again."

"How many marriages into the Aburame clan are arranged? Most of them are. Therefore, the decision to marry is a purely individual one, usually made for the sake of clan stability and the progression of our bloodline."

"I get it. Marriage is a resource for money, connections, and the next generation of shinobi, right?" He stared at her for a moment, and she shrugged. "I have a Hyuuga on my team, too, you know."

"Hm. Indeed."

Well, it made sense. Powerful the Aburame may be, but people weren't lining up in the streets to marry one as far as Tenten could see. So unless it was one of those arranged-at-birth deals she'd heard about, an Aburame typically got hitched by waking up one day, saying 'well, I think it's about time to make some babies,' and then hunting down some suitably wealthy and genetically compatible bachelor or bachelorette and drawing up a contract. It was, in some ways, purely an individual decision.

"Alright, so your clan typically views marriage as a business transaction. I'm not saying it's great, but it's practical and it's hardly a unique practice. Even the smaller shinobi clans do that kind of thing. Gotta keep the bloodline going and all." She looked up at him as they passed over a small bridge leading away from the Aburame complex and towards the outer walls of Konoha. "Is that what you meant by 'not anymore'?"

Shino nodded. It was definitely dark now, and the moon wouldn't rise for another hour or so. Even so, she could see well enough to catch the movement. Shino stopped walking abruptly, and Tenten slowed and stopped a few steps further on, turning back to face him in the dark. "All my life," he said slowly, as if he were reluctant to speak the words, "I have believed that I would marry whoever my clan chose, that she could likely be a total stranger, and that such an arrangement would be satisfactory to me."

"But now you've changed your mind?"

"I do not desire a life-long commitment to an unwilling party."

Tenten laughed softly. "Sounds reasonable. Nobody wants someone who doesn't want them in return. It's just not fair."

"No," he replied. "But fairness is perhaps one of the most difficult goals to achieve in any relationship. Why? Because it requires finding someone who not only compliments your personal qualities, but who is also willing to put up with your personal evils."

Tenten tilted her head, not fully liking the dark shade in his tone. "Clarify that one, please?"

"For example," he replied readily, pulling one hand from deep within his pocket and reaching up to pluck a long-legged spider from a nearby fence. "I am a powerful shinobi with a unique bloodline limit that allows me to control, or at least communicate with creatures such as this." He held the spider in his palm under the streetlamp light so Tenten could see it clearly. The spider sat calmly in the middle of his palm, seeming to regard her in kind.

"Okay," she said. "So you want someone also powerful and unique to match you. Got it." She blinked up at him innocently. "Are extra spiders optional, or is that more of a requirement?"

His eyebrows drew down at her in mild impatience, a sign that he was very intent on making this point and a little frustrated that she wasn't focusing on the task at hand. She sighed and gestured for him to continue. "However," he continued solemnly, "this ability is not necessarily ingratiating to the general public." The spider suddenly scuttled forward in his hand, running up his long fingers towards Tenten, and she had to resist her initial impulse to lean back.

"So she can't be freaked out by your kikkai and so on, sure," Tenten interpreted, proud that she'd managed not to twitch. "I think it's a given that no one wants to marry someone who is permanently weirded out by their partner."

"It is not merely a matter of dealing with this aspect of my life or abilities," Shino said sharply, and Tenten realized that he didn't feel he was making her understand what he really wanted her to understand. She felt a vague rush of exasperation herself. If he was going to be obscure, then he had no right to get tetchy with her for not being able to interpret the subtext.

"Okay, then what? What else are you talking about if not a lack of bug-fear?"

"I am not known to be a personable or overtly friendly individual," Shino said.

"Yeah, you're a contained person," she replied. "But you've got plenty of friends and a great family. So you must be doing something right."

"I can be curt, even cold, when I am angry or hurt, or if I deem that behavior justified," he continued, almost as if she had not spoken.

"So?" Tenten shook her head, bewildered by the turn of events. "I can be a jerk sometimes too. But I've never seen you be downright cruel or vicious or anything. So what's your point?"

"I am intelligent, and logical," he forged on, "which does, on occasion, make me a stubborn about my opinions, because I know that many of mine are solid and well reasoned."

"Yeah, you can be a mule," she agreed, folding her arms. They stood facing one another in the suddenly tense evening air, and Tenten wondered if they were having a fight and she hadn't caught on yet. "It's frustrating sometimes. Particularly when you're being an obscure, confusing mule that makes seemingly random comments."

"Yes," he agreed.

Tenten raised an eyebrow at him. "Am I supposed to be warned off, or something?"

He raised one right back at her. "Are you?"

She snorted. "Please. You occasionally annoy the hell out of me, but I happen to like your personality, Shino." She unfolded her arms and propped one hand on her hip, the other tapping her kunai pouch meaningfully. "I have from the start, or I wouldn't have spent as much time kicking your ass."

He digested that for a moment, then took a small step towards her, closing the distance. "You have been a formidable opponent."

"You bet your bugs I have," she shot back. "And anyway, it's not like you haven't been gracious about all my quirks, too."

"Have I?"

"Yeah." Now it was her turn to step forward a little; they were only about a foot apart. "I mean, when I get giddy about, you know, silly things, or irrationally worked up over stupid stuff, or whatever. You always tell me when I'm being retarded, which admittedly isn't always what I want to hear at the time, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate you caring enough to say it."

"I am...glad to hear that."

"You oughta be," she reached up one hand to tilt his glasses down slightly, just enough that he could look at her over the lenses. "And as long as we're on the subject of personal faults, let's not forget to mention that I am not as logical as you, and not always as confident, so if you're arrogant, I'm self-doubting, which is way worse. It makes me..." she hesitated, but there was really no other word for it. "...weaker."

"I disagree," he said quietly, "and I wonder why you say it. Am I supposed to be," he was closer now, close enough that she could feel his breath brush her cheek lightly as he spoke, "warned off?"

"Are you?"


"Well then."


Tenten shifted her weight, leaning up to kiss him. Just as her lips touched his, however, he spoke again. "It would appear," he murmured, "that we are fairly matched."

"Mm," she hummed in reply, exasperation rising again.

"Perhaps," he continued as she leaned in again, "moreso than I previously thought."

Tenten groaned and threw up her hands, dropping back to her heels and glaring at him. "Great. So, we getting married then, or what?"

Shino considered this for a long moment. "I'm okay with it," he replied. "If you are."

They stood staring at each other in the dim streetlights. For a long moment, the only sound was the soft rush of the wind in the nearby trees. Then Tenten put her hands back on her hips and glared.

"That," she said severely, "is the worst proposal I have ever even heard of."

"Would you like me to try again?"

"Later," she sighed, flapping a hand dismissively. "When you've had time to think about it," she added. "If you still want to."

He reached out, caught her waving hand, and twined her fingers in his. "I will not change my mind," Shino's voice sounded almost admonishing. Then his tone lightened a little. "I am a committing type of guy."

She laughed. "You know, I kind of had you pegged as one."

"I think this is the point where the movies typically end."

"Is it?"

"Yep. Big dramatic moment, then curtain down, The End, roll credits."


"I dunno. Seems to me like we're just getting to the good parts."