Notes: I needed to write something uncomplicated to make up for the craziness of the last Middle Ground chapter. This story is a response to the prompt 'Winter' at the Shino/Tenten FC, and it is going to be (at least) three parts long, because I am temporarily incapable of one-shots. And it's also probably going to end up being a series of shameless cliches. Strangely, this does not bother me nearly as much as it should.
Goals: Faster, funnier, fluffier.
Warnings: Sometimes, I write romances.
"Every mile is two in winter."
- George Herbert
It started with snow.
Tenten woke up that morning colder than she could ever recall being in her life, probably due to the fact that she was half covered in snow. Fortunately, the fact that she could still feel cold was a good sign. It meant she hadn't lost any important limbs to frostbite - yet. Tenten struggled out of her snow-covered sleeping bag and used her chakra to get on top of the building white mounds, blinking away the thick flakes that clung to her eyelashes. Crap, she thought irritably, brushing the powder from her shoulders and chest and pulling her fur-lined hood up more securely over her head. Welcome to the Glacier Country, Tenten, have a complimentary blizzard for your journey. She fished out her waxed map and checked her position by the nearest mountain peaks visible in the thick, silent sheets of falling snow. Luckily, she was only about a few hours more from her destination, a good-sized town that went by the unlikely name of Heavenly Veils.
Stuffing her sleeping bag and map back into her bag and orienting herself in the correct direction, Tenten ran lightly over the white landscape. She would have to stop using her chakra and slog through the snow like a normal traveling craftsman once she was in sight of the town. She couldn't blow her cover and reveal her shinobi abilities by staying nice and dry on top of it. But there was no reason not to cheat a little out here, where no one was around to see. Plus, it would get her there that much sooner before the nightfall. She'd been warned never to be caught outside at night in the Glacier Country's winter season, and if the bitter temperatures of last night had been any indication, she had a pretty good idea why.
As she ran, she mentally reviewed the mission scroll she had received a week ago before heading north into this frozen wasteland. A large, powerful gang called the Blue Torch was running amok in the country, ruling through a shadowy network of thugs, corrupt government officials, drug and human trafficking, and extortion. The wealthy gang also hired shinobi from villages such as Hidden Mist, Grass, and Stone to act as bodyguards for their important leaders or their caravans of smuggled items. In desperation, the ruler of Glacier Country had finally sent a message to Konoha to ask for help in destroying the gang. Months of work and several Leaf shinobi in several different undercover positions had discovered that the hub of Blue Torch's operations was centered in Heavenly Veils, where their Council controlled the gang (and through them, the country).
Tenten paused to check her map once more, taking the opportunity to read the precise, careful handwriting of the mission report from the Leaf shinobi already stationed in Heavenly Veils. Aburame Shino had been in the town for over a month now, and had successfully integrated himself into the gang as a hired shinobi guard, though he had yet to discover the exact whereabouts or identities of the five ruling members. As a footnote to the report, Shino had also written a plan to discover the exact path of several smuggling routes, which would allow the Leaf to simultaneously shut down all their smuggling operations.
"The primary export of the Blue Torch is illegal weapons sold to neighboring countries," he had written. "A skilled weapon-smith is considered a high-value item by the Council, and one found in Heavenly Veils will not be overlooked."
Thus Tenten, one of the few shinobi in Konoha who could make a kunai as well as she could throw one, found herself trudging through the frozen wastes in the middle of the worst traveling season, headed to a vicious gang's stronghold to play the part of Skilled Weapon-smith. Thanks, Aburame, she thought with a resigned sigh. What's left of my toes will be forever in your debt.
She skidded suddenly on a patch of snow-dusted ice, sliding down a few feet of the rocky slope before managing to catch herself. She shook her head and berated herself for letting her mind wander; the mountains were a dangerous place at the best of times, and this certainly was not one of those. Her near-fall had taken her around a rocky outcropping, however, and when she looked up from the ground she saw the smoke of several chimneys winding through the falling snowflakes. At last, she thought, taking a deep breath and letting herself sink into the snow up to her knees. Time to get into character, and out of the cold.
"It is a humble place," the landowner – an enormous man calling himself Boss Yan - told her in a manner indicating that anywhere he personally graced with his presence was anything but humble. "It serves its purpose, however, and I'm sure you will be comfortable."
Tenten smiled up at the huge man. "Well, I'm a humble person, sir. It'll do just fine."
Boss Yan rumbled a laugh at her, pleased with the subservient tone she had adopted as soon as she met him. He was a real giant, almost seven feet tall and rippling with muscle. They were show muscles however, Tenten saw with an experienced eye, designed to impress but not trained to do anything but lift something heavy in short repetitions for hours. Big, bulky, and slow, she thought clinically. He wasn't stupid, though, and he had made a point of telling everyone they passed on the way to the forge that this was the new weapon-smith. It had looked like just a jolly-new-neighbor act, but Tenten saw at least four of the people he'd introduced as 'friendly locals' wearing the Blue Torch emblem. By now, news of her arrival had probably already made it to the shadowy Council, and Boss Yan never had to let her out of his sight to do it. Not bad.
The building was indeed humble – most of it was taken up by the forge itself, but there was one more small room and a bathroom on one side, and a little kitchen-type area on the other. Even in the middle of the day it was cold in here, although she figured the forge at least would be cozy when it was lit and running. I'll have to sleep in the forge room, she realized, glancing at the side room and seeing that it was mostly full of supplies and scrap metal. It looked like what the previous smith had done, too. It was probably just too cold at night to sleep anywhere else but by the forge fires.
"Rent will be paid at the start of every month," Boss Yan told her, folding his arms pleasantly and smiling. "That will be collected by the enforcers."
Tenten set her pack down by the door and brushed her hood back, shaking off the snow still stubbornly clinging to her jacket. "Enforcers?"
"Oh, just local men who will swing by from time to time to make sure all's well," he said in that same ominously pleasant tone. "There will be representatives of some people who are very interested in your work, too. People who could offer you a wonderful patronage if you're smart," he added, looking down at her from his high-set, beady eyes.
"Ah," Tenten replied carefully, moving across the room to inspect the forge itself. "I see."
"And then of course there's the bodyguard."
Tenten looked up from a row of hammers sharply. "Bodyguard?" She hoped the edge to her voice could be discounted as mere surprise. Damn! A bodyguard could be a potential problem. If the gang assigned someone to watch her all the time, how could she communicate with Shino? And worse, what if this guard was knowledgeable about weapons? Then her plans to 'mark' the weapons would be in jeopardy as well.
"This is a dangerous part of the world, smith," Boss Yan was saying. "Lots of unsavories around, if you catch my drift. And the patrons I was mentioning would just hate for you to get hurt before they get a chance to see what you can do."
Unsavories, Tenten thought darkly. Yeah, and I wonder how many of them answer directly to you, Boss Yan.
"Not to worry," the gangster went on, waving a hand at someone just outside the door. "My boy here does good work. I have great confidence in him."
Another man stepped through the doorframe, and Tenten had to bite back the sudden laugh that bubbled up in her throat. Well, what a coincidence, she wanted to say. So do I.
"So I take it he'll be staying here with me then, sir?" she said instead.
"That would be best for everyone," Boss Yan agreed congenially. "Although I may have to borrow him back from time to time. You know how it is, business and all."
"Of course." Tenten bowed her head respectfully. "I guess I'd better get started then, if these patrons you mentioned are so interested in my work."
"Wonderful. Good luck, and please do your best." The gangster turned to go, flashing one more polite smile at Tenten's new bodyguard. "You as well, my boy. I'll expect you to check in with me every morning, just to keep on top of things."
"Yes, sir," Aburame Shino replied.
The door swung shut, and Tenten shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. "So tell me," she said, turning and hunting for the wood pile. "Did you set the bodyguard thing up yourself or did you let them think it was their idea?"
"The wood is stored in the kitchen," Shino told her. "You would do well to start the fires now and warm the building as much as you can. Why the rush? Because it will be nightfall in an hour."
"Really?" Tenten looked out the window in alarm, noting that it was indeed starting to get dusky outside. "It's barely afternoon!"
"The days are very short here in winter."
"Right, right, got it. Okay, so – fire, food, then weapons?"
He nodded. "Your work will be inspected by a mid-level Blue Torch official tomorrow. If he is pleased, they will send a party of…" he paused thoughtfully, "individuals, who will impress upon you the rectitude of working for them."
"Blue Torch thugs will come threaten me to work for them or else," Tenten translated dryly.
Shino nodded, leaning back against the wall by the door and watching her hauling a small pile of wood from the kitchen to the forge. "Since it is imperative to our plan that the gang does hire you," he said, "you must present an acceptable example of your work to the official."
Tenten shot a glare at him over the small, smoky fire she was coaxing into life. "I always do good work, Aburame," she told him sharply, miffed at the implication that her work was anything but excellent even when a mission didn't depend on it. After all, the Hokage wouldn't have sent her if she wasn't the most suitable for the job, right?
Shino did not reply, but his head bowed slightly as she turned with a huff back to her forge. Tenten wondered what he was thinking – if he regretted the remark, or was irritated by her reaction, or if it he'd even noticed her retort. He was a very difficult man to read, and not just because his face was mostly hidden all the time. Tenten watched him from the corner of her eye as she shucked off her heavy jacket and gloves and headed for the store room to check out her new materials. She was a little discomfited by the way he stood perfectly still - even Neji had a tendency to shift his weight or fiddle with his sleeves in an absent minded way, and Lee and Gai never even stood in one spot longer than a few seconds, let alone without moving. So he gave her very little body language to judge by, and since he didn't waste words too often, she didn't have too many vocal cues to work with either. Inspired by the chilly air and her recent trek through frozen nowhere, Tenten mentally pictured a thick, solid wall of ice around him, not only shutting him effectively off from the world but making it difficult for the world to even see him through it.
Man, and she had thought Neji was about as solitary and aloof as it got. But then, he had Gai and Lee (and herself) to constantly pester and draw him out. Shino's teammates were more likely to respect his space than insert themselves into it (well, maybe Inuzuka would, but for him it would be more about challenging Aburame, not making him act more social). Shino probably just wasn't in the habit of talking any more than necessary.
Well, he was going to have to make an effort for her sake, Tenten decided firmly as she sifted through neat piles of metals and ores. With any luck they wouldn't be up here for more than a couple months, but that was still a long time to be on her own. And 'on her own' was essentially what she would be if she respected his space as much as she imagined he expected. "So what do you think I should make for this Blue Torch official?" she called through the store room door. "It'll have to be something simple if I need it done by tomorrow."
"Knives are generally popular," he responded after moment. "Why are they preferred by smugglers? They are relatively lightweight, easily concealed, and while some countries ban citizens from carrying swords, anyone can carry a knife."
"Okay, what kind of knife?"
Shino didn't answer for a long time, long enough for Tenten to turn and stick her head back out the door and look at him. "Shino?"
"I do not know what you mean by 'kind'," he said.
"You know, are we talking throwing knife, hunting knife, long blade, curve blade, stub tang, tanto – what?"
"It does not matter."
"What?" Tenten frowned at him and turned back to the store room materials. "Of course it matters. You can't just say 'make a knife,' and leave it at that. That's like saying 'make some clothing' but not specifying what the form or function of the clothing is. That's how you end up with a sunhat when you need snowshoes, or something - whoa!" Tenten yelped as a pile of precariously balanced metal ingots suddenly cascaded down almost on her feet with a loud clatter.
Shino appeared behind her in the door way. "Are you injured?" A soft buzzing noise underscored his voice, and Tenten saw with surprise that several of his kikkai were scattered throughout the room. They had been sitting quietly at their various posts, so she hadn't noticed them until they started up their agitated buzz. The racket must have disturbed them, she figured. "Tenten, are you injured?" Shino said again, stepping a little closer.
"Huh?" She jolted back to attention and waved a hand at him. "Oh no, I'm – oh, hey, look, is that purified Amaranth Steel? Sweet! So anyway, we'll just have to guess at what kind of knives this Blue Torch guy would like and see what happens," she said over her shoulder as she waded through the little puddle of rolling metal ingots to the stack of thin, purplish-blue metal that had been hidden behind the now-scattered pile. "Unless you think you can find out what impresses him before he comes."
"I do not believe that any Blue Torch member will particularly know the difference between a hunting knife and a tanto," Shino answered. "But I will check tomorrow to see who is coming, and if he has a preference." There was a slightly admonishing note in his voice, probably because he felt she was implying his fact-finding skills wouldn't be up to the task. Tenten grinned a little to herself, because that had been exactly what she was doing. Tit for tat, Aburame, she thought. Now we're even.
He didn't respond much to her attempts at conversation after that, as she set up the forge, checked the tools, and selected her materials. He mostly just sat in a chair against the back wall with one foot propped up another chair and his hands deep in his pockets, making small noncommittal noises or answering her questions with short, efficient responses. But he gave a good impression of listening intently, so Tenten found herself enjoying the company anyway.
"Okay, I think I've got it," she told him at length. "I'm going to make a mahkaira."
"What's a makky-hair-ah?" A new voice said from the door, and Tenten glanced up to see a teenage boy and an older girl entering the forge, stomping the snow from their boots and shaking back thick headscarves. The boy was early teens, wearing shabby clothes but a fierce expression that dared anyone to comment on it. The girl was late teens though she had a petite frame that made her look younger. She was much better dressed and fairly pretty, but her face was marred by slightly too much makeup applied by an inexperienced hand. And they were both, Tenten noted, wearing the emblem of the Blue Torch.
The boy stomped over to the forge and rudely stuck his face near Tenten's hands, examining her work. "Hey now," Tenten caught his shoulder and pulled his head back from the forge before his swinging scarf could catch fire. "Watch out, this is no place to play around."
"I'm not playing," he retorted snottily. "I'm a Blue Torch, and this is my turf. I gotta make sure everybody here's on the burner."
"On the what?"
"He means you're not going to cause any trouble," the girl translated haughtily, flipping her blue-black hair back over her shoulder with a practiced move. "Gang slang. The loser thinks he's an enforcer."
"I am," the boy shot back, hands clenched. "Boss Yan said so!"
"Uh huh," the girl rolled her eyes, then focused them on the figure against the wall. "Hi, Shino," she said sweetly. "I haven't seen you around in ages. It's been so depressing and lonely."
Tenten raised an eyebrow over her head at her fellow shinobi, but his face was tilted down deeper than ever into his high collar. He made no move to respond to either of them, and Tenten fought the urge to laugh. Hiding in plain sight, she thought almost fondly. For all this girl knows, you're asleep in there. Heck, even I'm not completely sure. Although if anyone was looking at me like that – she eyed the almost sickly expression on the girl's face, a poorly executed version of wounded puppy dog eyes – I'd probably pretend to go into an immediate coma too.
Of course, just because she felt a little sympathy for his situation didn't mean she couldn't exploit the hell out it. "Oh, you know each other?" She asked sweetly. "How did you meet?"
"He works for Boss Yan," the boy told her, now poking at the largest set of tongs with a finger. Tenten reached over and snagged his wrist, pulling him away with a warning look. He scowled and stuck his hands into his pockets. "She's his niece."
"Uncle says you'll be staying at the forge now," the girl pouted at Shino, who still had not twitched a single muscle. "But you'll still come see us every day, right? Promise you won't stay away for too long?"
"Well, he'll be here quite a bit," Tenten said peaceably. "You can always swing by to say hello."
To her surprise, the girl swung around and glared daggers at Tenten. "So why does he have to stay with you?" She demanded. "And how come you're a girl? The last smith was just an old ugly guy and he didn't get a bodyguard. Why do you need one?"
Tenten resisted the urge to snap that she certainly did not need a bodyguard, but she would not be goaded into inadvertently giving up any information on herself, least of all by a soppy little girl with a bad lipstick job. "Shino has been appointed by your uncle," she said evenly. "And your uncle has the right to direct his subordinates however he chooses."
"You better be respectful," the girl muttered in a threatening way. "Shino's a fighter, he'll knock you on your ass if you try anything."
Tenten shot Shino another quick look, which he thoroughly ignored. Forget asleep, she thought, the man might well be dead in there. Feel free to cut in here, Shino, she told him mentally. She's not my groupie, I shouldn't have to deal with her.
"Aw, shut up, Yula," the boy groaned. "Don't be so retarded."
"You're retarded, Kam," the girl shot back. "Don't interrupt grownup conversations."
"So tell me," Tenten interrupted, desperately trying to keep a neutral expression on her face, "do you both live near here?"
"Why? You trying to get information on Blue Torch guys? You a spy or something?" The boy crossed his arms and gave her his fiercest expression yet, which unfortunately made him look a little bit like an irate hedgehog. The fact that his fluffy brown hair had picked up a lot of static from his head scarf and was therefore sticking out in random tufts did not help.
Tenten crossed her arms right back and said coolly, "Since you're too busy being rude to notice, I wanted to draw your attention to the setting sun. I'm new around here, but I've been told it's a bad idea to be out at night."
Kam jumped, and even the girl dragged her simpering eyes away from Shino long enough to look out the window and frown. "Crudsicles," the boy said passionately. "C'mon, Yula, the clouds are already building up. Stop making stupid faces at that guy and let's go." There was a note of worry in his voice that even his tough-guy act couldn't hide, though.
"Does it really get that bad?" Tenten asked.
"It's early in the winter season so it's not so rough now," Kam told her as Yula carefully wrapped her head scarf, leaving her pretty face as exposed in Shino's direction as long as she could. "But once midwinter sets in, there'll be really bad snow storms every night. People who get caught outside die."
"Good to know," Tenten replied. "Travel safe, you two."
"Don't get any funny ideas," the boy shot back ominously, wrapping his scarf around his face. He pointed to his eyes, then at Tenten. "I'll be watching you."
"Bye-bye, Shino," the girl trilled in a slightly muffled voice through her own scarf, "I'll miss you bunches!" And with a sudden blast of cold air from the open door, they left.
Tenten bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder.
"Don't," Shino warned.
"I'm not saying a thing," Tenten replied quickly, but she couldn't stop the smile.