Notes: I usually don't do sequels. Weird personal quirk. But this is definitely a sequel, and will inevitably cause confusion if you haven't read read my story 'The Middle Ground' first. It's a hefty read (this story won't be nearly as long), so if you don't want to, I will sum up for you: it's a Shino/Tenten story with emphasis on their lives as shinobi. This story will be a Shino/Tenten with emphasis on their lives as shinobi together.
Goals: To have a much more stable, overarching, well-written plot in this story. To stay within the character boundaries I established in Middle Ground and within canon itself – while putting them both into some unusual and sometimes dangerous situations.
Warnings: This is a sequel, so certain things have already been pre-established. Also, I don't believe in 'happily ever after' or that love conquers all. Minor swearing in this chapter, and some references to alcohol.
Rules of Engagement
There were times when Tenten felt invisible. Not the good-shinobi-hidden-in-the-leaves sort of invisible, either. The "wait, who was that chick again, you know, the one with the hair?" sort of invisible; the kind of vague, shadowy anonymity that made her want to blow things up in a big way. She could distinctly remember the forlorn, uncertain sensation of being eight years old, a nervous, brand-new student in the Ninja Academy standing by the sidelines as gangs of happy, yelling children showed off for one another and utterly ignored her. She recalled years of jealousy at Neji's countless, effortlessly gained admirers, even at Lee's loud, colorful, impossible-to-ignore force of presence. Say what you would about Lee's over the top attitude or Neji's studied rudeness, at least no one ever forgot their names. Tenten had once wished, after a lonely day and deep in a dark corner of her heart, that she could be, just once, more...well, central. Important. Hell, visible.
Of course, wishes like that, they had a tendency to backfire in one's face in the most predictable way.
Oh, Gods of Irony, Tenten thought as she pushed through the bustling Hokage's office with her cheeks aflame and her eyes staring straight ahead, what I wouldn't give to punch you in the nose. Today, for the first time in awhile, she was feeling the somewhat alien sensation of being entirely too noticeable. Today, the day before the Ceremony, she felt less like a shadow and more like – excuse the reference – a bug on a microscope.
"Hey, here for the pre-signing?" some chunin clerk she didn't recognize shouted at her from his desk as she passed, smiling widely. "Good luck with that!"
"Ooh, big day, huh?" Another jounin she distantly recognized from around the Hokage's office slapped her on the shoulder as he passed down the hallway. "Good luck, Tenten!"
Other voices called out as she walked through the halls, some even sticking their heads out of doors as she went to wave at her. "Hey, Tenten, congrats!"
"Wow, this must be an exciting day!"
"Not as exciting as tomorrow, I bet."
"You mean tomorrow night!"
"Heehee, look at her blush!"
Tenten nodded and waved vaguely, her face still frozen in the noncommittal half-smile she'd been wearing since she'd left her apartment that morning. People she rarely saw, or even total strangers went out of their way to come up and shake her hand, clap her on the back, or congratulate her. Even the cameras mounted discreetly in the hallways of the Hokage's office seemed to follow her as she made her way through the corridors and staircases towards the top office. Tenten imagined the chunin assigned to watching the security feeds pointing at her in their screens and whispering, look, that's her, gosh she seems so normal. It felt odd that so many people were even interested in her affairs; but then, shinobi dealt with death and loss so often that something cheerful and positive like this was always a nice relief. And Tenten had long ago learned that most shinobi were terrible suckers for gossip.
I wonder how Shino's holding up to all this? Tenten's fixed, fake smile softened into something much more real for a moment as she pictured his face, giggling as she imagined some stranger trying to make small talk with Aburame Shino about his personal affairs. Yeah, she could see that going well.
Thinking about Shino, of course, brought her mind sharply back to the reason she was here, and the smile abruptly dropped off her face. She considered trying to hide the sudden flush of nerves with an impassive mask, something she had learned to do quite well as a jounin shinobi. But she had finally made it to the upper floor, and there was no one in the hallway outside the Hokage's door to see her. Well, no one but the security-cameras, but Tenten had already marked both of the two cameras in the hallway and could easily turn her face so that neither of them could see her expression.
She took a moment to lean against the wall and take a deep breath. Stop being silly, she ordered herself once the first heat of embarrassment, nerves, and tightly wound anticipation had passed. This was just a review, a formality; it wasn't like anything real would happen until tomorrow.
Plus, if she loitered out here too long, someone might think she was reconsidering.
Tenten pushed off the wall, set her shoulders back and relaxed her body. Try to be more like the Hokage, Tenten told herself. Straightforward, confident, professional. Repeating the words like a mantra in her head, Tenten knocked firmly on the door.
"About time," the Hokage's voice grunted from the other side. "It's way too early for this. I haven't had a drink in, what, six hours?"
Well, two out of three was good enough, Tenten thought to herself.
"It's almost noon," Shizune muttered reprovingly as Tenten pushed the door open. Then the younger kunoichi smiled at Tenten and gestured to the chair in front of the Hokage's cluttered desk. "Hello, Tenten. I just want to be the first to offer my congratulations and well wishes for your future!"
"I doubt you're the first," Tsunade said, examining an empty sake bottle with a sour expression. "Shizune, what have I told you about scheduling appointments so damn early? You have any idea how late I was up last night listening to the blather-mouths in the decoding department whine?"
"The Aburame contract with Konoha sets a very specific time-limit to the signing of the Union Contract," Shizune scowled, putting her fists on her hips and glaring at the Hokage. "This was the latest we could wait and still technically be within that limit."
"Shizune, no one has concerned themselves about that rule for generations," Tsunade grumbled back, pointing a sharp finger at her assistant. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that if you hadn't wasted an hour going over the fine print, no one would have even remembered it."
"Lady Hokage - " Shizune sighed, but Tsunade waved her off and focused her attention on Tenten's carefully neutral face. With a quick sweep of her arm, she knocked a pile of books, a few empty bottles, and several crumpled scraps of paper onto the floor, leaving her desk cleared. Shizune opened her mouth to protest as the piles clattered across the floor, then snapped it shut with a resigned look.
"Enough of this nonsense," Tsunade said in a suddenly brisk tone. "Give me the contract, Shizune."
The assistant pulled out an elaborate scroll from a nearby shelf, and Tenten felt a little jolt in her belly as the woman carefully untied the red and gold cord and spread the paper out on the Hokage's desk. "Before I read you the stipulations of this contract," Tsunade said to Tenten, lacing her hands under her chin and regarding the jounin with assessing eyes, "I am required to ensure that you are properly sponsored. Normally, the signing party's parents sponsor their child in these things, but since you're an orphan, you need someone else."
Tenten nodded. She had read up on this stuff herself, partially to know what she was getting into, and partially out of self-defense. The last thing she wanted was to wind up looking foolish or ignorant tomorrow. The contract spread out on the Hokage's desk wasn't all the different from most major contracts in the old archives; it's rules mostly centered on the same things that all the major clans of Konoha had once required. The major difference was that few of the clans still used these contracts nowadays. In them, Tenten needed someone considered a 'trusted and proven member of Konoha society, sworn and bound to it's law' to sign under her own name, a sort of character-witness. Though the contract was upside-down and slanted away from her, Tenten could already see the neat, precise scrawl under one of the blanks at the bottom. So Aburame Shibi had already signed, meaning Shino had already had his appointment with the Hokage to hear the stipulations of the contract read. Funny, he hadn't said anything about it at dinner last night.
"So," the Hokage concluded in the extended pause, bringing Tenten sharply back from her thoughts. "Who will be signing for you?"
"Oh, well," Tenten stalled, glancing at the wall clock and biting her lip. It would break his heart if he found out he'd missed the perfect opportunity to make a well-timed dramatic entrance.
"Tenten?" The Hokage raised an eyebrow. "Who is your sponsor?"
Wait for it, Tenten thought. And...
"YOSH!" Boomed a voice from the doorway. "It appears that once again I have arrived in the very nick of time!"
Bingo, Tenten thought, smiling at the Hokage's distinctly unimpressed face. "I could think of no one better to sign for me than my sensei, Maito Gai," Tenten said serenely.
With the ease born of years of experience, Tenten took a deep breath just in time for Gai's powerful arms to snatch her out of the seat in a bone crushing hug. She tensed her rib cage to give her lungs as much space as possible and tried to breathe in quick, shallow bursts. She could last a lot longer inside a Tearful Hug of Joy this way.
"My precious and wonderful student!" Gai bellowed happily over her head, tears of unbridled delight streaming down his face. "I am honored beyond words that you have asked me to sign this most important document for you! Oh, how radiant and glorious you have grown, how truly magnificent to see you achieving this joy in the bloom of your youthful spring! How - "
"Unless you intend to suffocate her first," the Hokage's voice cut through the tirade, "put her down and get over here, Gai. You can compose epic poetry later."
With a final, loud sniffle, Gai set Tenten back on her feet and bowed to the Hokage. Tenten rubbed her bruised ribs once surreptitiously, then grinned and shrugged at the disgruntled Hokage, who was now massaging her temples and looking more hungover than before. "Here," she jabbed a pen at Gai's shining bowl cut. Shizune cleared her throat quietly, and Tsunade glanced at the piece of paper that Shizune had discretely placed under her elbow. She squinted at it, rolled her eyes, then tossed it careless aside. "Right. So, Gai. If you're certain that she is a," Tsunade peered over the side of her desk to squint at the discarded paper again, then continued, "a 'useful and loyal shinobi who will serve her new family well,' then sign under the second blank line."
"Of course, Lady Hokage, I believe that Tenten will be all this and much more! A better asset and a more lovely flower of -"
"Here," Tsunade shoved the pen into his hands and twisted the contract to point at the empty space. "Then, if you promise to keep it down, you can sit and listen while I read the clauses to Tenten."
Gai signed with a flourish, adding a little flower and a couple drawn-in sparkles around his name, eyes and nose still streaming with pride and joy. Tenten smiled at him when he was done and sat back down in her own chair. Gai all but collapsed next to her, pulling out a giant green handkerchief and blowing his nose loudly. He was loud, strange, and occasionally obnoxious, but he had been more than a teacher to Tenten since she was a pre-teen. He'd been a mentor, a dependable teammate, and in some ways, a better father than many she'd seen. He had saved her life, her teammate's lives, and taught her to value the meaning behind those actions more times than she could count anymore. Let him spout weird poetry, she thought. Let him be a little bit ridiculous. He's earned that, and more.
"Well then," Tsunade sat up straight and snapped the contract sharply, signaling that it was time to get to business. Tenten crossed her hands in her lap and tried to look attentive and calm.
"This agreement and plan of marriage," the Hokage read, "dated this fourth day of May, pursuant to Section 79 of Chapter 154B..."
Tenten watched the Hokage's face as she read, noting with a mix of gratitude and annoyance that the Hokage's eyes skimmed a few lines down every now again as she worked through the legal jargon stating (in confusing, archaic lawyer-speak) that this contract was, indeed, a contract, and the parties who signed it knew it was a contract, and the parties who signed for them knew it was a contract, and within the contract there were things which were contractually binding...
Well, alright, maybe a little skimming was in order, at least so far. Finally, though, Tsunade's voice changed from mildly bored to much more professional, and Tenten sat up straighter. Little of the clauses surprised her, mostly being about stuff like giving up her former home and agreeing to live within the 'established residence of the party of the second part," and rules that required her to be loyal and faithful and so on. There was a clause stating that Tenten would henceforth be considered the legal responsibility of her new family, and had a right to invoke their protection (and judgment) in lieu of facing Konoha law should she get into trouble, and a clause stating that deliberately concealing information that 'rendered harm or brought about harmful situations' to the clan would place her in breach of contract and subject to reprisal.
They were nearing the end of the contract when Tsunade's eyes suddenly flickered up to Tenten's face, a veiled expression in their depths before she resumed reading. Tenten felt her muscles tense in surprise as the Hokage read, "It is understood and agreed by the party of the first part entering into contractual obligation with the party of the second part that the undersigned parties shall make every effort to conceive a healthy child. The child so conceived will be submitted to the judgment of the clan, to wit, the most senior and experienced medical professional dedicated to the proliferation of the clan's bloodline for examination and evaluation purposes; and, should the child be found legitimate and suitable, both parties of the undersigned shall submit, within twenty-four hours of birth, barring exceptions made by the aforementioned medical professional, the child to the inception of the clan bloodline limit."
"Wait!" Tenten blurted, mind racing. "That part wasn't in the old records!"
"It was added some forty years ago, I believe," Tsunade said calmly, looking up at Tenten's flustered face. "When an arranged marriage went sour and the bride refused to allow her husband to touch her. If he had not been the leader of his sect during an unstable time within the clan, it might have been a purely personal affair, but since it left the sect leader with no heir, they added this law to the contract."
"So...so it means that I have to have kids, right?" Tenten said slowly, glancing over at Gai's now somber expression. "And that I have to then give them up to the clan for this inception thing."
"In a nutshell," Tsunade raised a thin eyebrow at her grimly. "Yes."
"Oh." Tenten blinked, trying to process that. "I...I didn't know."
"Tenten, if you need time to consider the implications-" Gai began in a serious tone, but Tenten shook her head.
"No, no, it's okay, I probably should have actually seen that one coming." She smiled weakly. "I mean...actually, yeah, I should have." She felt her face darken a little. "Because he should have told me."
"That was the last major clause," Tsunade said, rolling the scroll up and handing it to Shizune. "You have now been officially apprised of the rules and stipulations in this contract. I understand that you have until this time tomorrow at the actual ceremony to decide once and for all if you plan to sign it." She propped her chin up on one hand and regarded Tenten coolly. "I suggest you go home and put some serious thought into it."
"You're not seriously surprised at her reaction, are you?" Shikamaru grunted in annoyance at his underling. "It was almost two in the morning."
"She threw a bottle at my head!" The chunin exclaimed indignantly, folding his arms. "Hard."
Shikamaru clasped his hands behind his head and scowled up at the office ceiling. "You ducked, didn't you?"
"I just don't think the Hokage understands the importance of these messages!" The chunin groused. "We may have evidence of a massive underground network already operational in the cultural centers of the world. The decoding department really thinks this could be a big deal!"
"Then you are sabotaging your own efforts," Shino interjected calmly from where he was leaning on the doorframe. "How so? By presenting your findings to her at a time least likely to make her receptive to your message."
"Yeah, try talking to her when it's not an ungodly hour in the morning after a long day of meetings," Shikamaru agreed.
The chunin's shoulders drooped and he nodded despondently. "Yes, sir."
He turned to walk out of the office, but before he made it to the door, Shikamaru sighed and said, "Alright, alright, bring me the documents and I'll look 'em over. I've got a meeting with the Hokage this afternoon anyway. If I think it looks like something big, I'll go over it with her."
The chunin brightened considerably. "Yes, sir!"
"What a pain," Shikamaru muttered as the chunin left and Shino walked over to his desk. "I'm getting sick of all this troublesome desk work."
"You are the head analyst in the Hokage's office," Shino remarked, watching the chunin retreat down the hallway through the eyes of the kikkai he'd left in the hallway. "Such prestige comes with a certain responsibility."
Shikamaru snorted, closing his eyes and leaning further back in his chair. "Yeah, I know, I know. Fortunately, it also comes with the ability to delegate."
Shino raised an eyebrow. Suddenly Shikamaru's earlier request that Shino swing by to see him before picking up Tenten from the Hokage's office made sense. And the way that Shikamaru's face was now clear of even his customary scowl meant that he was very serious about whatever he wanted to discuss. Or rather, delegate. Shino considered asking what great apocalypse was looming over the village now, but decided that the sarcasm would be unbecoming. "Indeed," was all he said instead.
Eyes still firmly closed, Shikamaru nudged a stack of papers with his knee, causing the top folder to slide down from the stack and towards Shino. The folder was labeled "Data Collection," and was sealed with a special chakra-tag that only Shino or Shikamaru would be able to unlock without damaging the contents. "That's the stuff from last week's decoder meeting. If my guess is right, whatever they've come up with this week that has them all excited is probably just confirmation of what's in here."
Shino picked up the folder and stuck it carefully inside his jacket. "These are decoded messages intercepted from the Earth Country."
Shikamaru cracked an eye open to regard him. "You guessed that pretty quick."
"That chunin from the decoder department is a field agent. He was sent recently on a long trip to the Earth Country," Shino replied. "He has some family ties there, I understand."
"Which gives him the perfect cover story for a reconnaissance trip," Shikamaru agreed. "You know, most people only watch the deployment rosters for their own names. They don't keep track of every posted mission in the database."
Shino said nothing. Shikamaru scratched his ear lazily, still watching him through one half-closed eye. Then he shrugged and squinted instead at the ceiling. "Yeah, those are from the Earth Country. There's a name we've been hearing a lot of lately in the black market and among some of the bigger gangs. Something to do with stealing other people's paperwork and selling it underground. I want you to look over what we've gathered so far and draw some conclusions. We'll talk it over some more in a few weeks."
"When I return," Shino said sharply, aware that Shikamaru was deliberately glossing over a very important factor in this assignment and was unwilling to let him.
The analyst opened both eyes at last, resettling his chair fully on the ground. "Yeah."
Shino regarded him for a moment, feeling a slight wash of irritation buzz though his body, then letting it go. "I will be in the city for two weeks," he said. "Is there anything in particular you wish me to look for?"
"Just keep your eyes open," Shikamaru said evenly. "Maybe check out a few leads. Look, I'm sorry to task you on your honeymoon and all, but it's a good opportunity for a little recon with a good cover story."
Shino nodded, repressing the urge to scowl. It was a good opportunity, he knew. Shinobi Rule 46: the best cover story is a true cover story. So, he would have to spend some of his time with Tenten hunting through the dark corners of the Fire Nation capital...or rather, he would have to spend some of the time he should have been spending with Tenten doing so. The chakra seal on the folder meant this was a top secret mission – he could not share it with her. The thought was unexpectedly...disagreeable.
Shikamaru studied Shino's impassive face for a moment, but kept his observations to himself. "Great," he said at last. "So, you going upstairs to pick up Tenten?"
"No need," Shino replied, and turned his head slightly to the side to glance over his shoulder. On cue, someone rapped sharply on the door.
"Yo," Shikamaru grunted, and Tenten pushed the door open to stand framed in the doorway, one hand on her hip and her face carefully neutral. Instantly, Shino felt a little whisper of warning in his chest at that completely blank expression.
"Heard you were in here," she said in a calm voice. "You done?"
Shino kept his eyes on her face, but his kikkai ranged behind her in the hallway saw the tension in her knuckles, the way her lips were pressed just a little too tightly to be as relaxed as she seemed. Shino wondered for a moment if she already knew about Shikamaru's assignment and was displeased...and then he realized that she must have just come from the Hokage's office - from the ritual reading of the contract.
The whisper of tension in his chest became a soft hum.
"Yeah, we're done," Shikamaru drawled from his desk. "See you two later."
Shino nodded, still watching Tenten carefully. She smiled thinly at the other man and stepped out into the hallway without once making any eye contact with Shino whatsoever. "Women," Shino heard Shikamaru mutter very softly under his breath. "Good luck."
Shino fell into step alongside of Tenten, watching her in his peripherals and through the kikkai. The kikkai sensed her chakra patterns in combination with her body's physical makeup, and Shino interpreted their unique sensory input was through colors, smells, and tastes. Through the kikkai, Shino saw Tenten's chakra as a bristling, complex pattern of multi-shaded blues and greens. Her dominant scent translated to him as a mix of steel and grass, but at the moment the kikkai also registered a smell that reminded Shino of fumes rising from spilled oil on pavement – harmless enough until someone lit a match. She was definitely angry. But more worrisome than the anger was the faint underlying tang of...Shino frowned. Something bitter, like overripe lemons. Was it...fear?
"Are you alright?" He asked quietly as Tenten pushed through the outer doors of the Hokage's office building and strode out into the sunlight.
"Fine," she said shortly.
Had she been anyone else, Shino would have likely allowed the conversation to end there, reasoning that if someone wanted to tell him what was wrong, then they would do so. And if they didn't, he either didn't need to know, or could find out through his own means later. But this was Tenten, and more importantly, this was Tenten moments after reading a contract designed to bind them together for the rest of their lives. No, this was not something that Shino was willing to let go.
"You have just come from the Hokage's office," he said, keeping his voice as mild and non-confrontational as possible. He hesitated, then decided to probe. "Something there angered you."
"I am not angry!" She said sharply, throwing him a glare.
"The Hokage read you the contract," he insisted, starting to feel a little provoked himself. "And something clearly offended you."
Tenten turned her head to look at him for a moment, her face still carefully blank. "Yes, I am upset. But no, I am not offended. Can you at least wait until we're home for the rest?" Shino glanced down the street, considering the crowd of people going about their business, and weighed the distance from here to Tenten's apartment. She had a tendency to work herself up, he knew, and the longer it took before she got whatever was bothering her off her chest, the more upset she would be about it by the time they did speak. On the other hand, if this turned into some sort of fight here in the street, it would be the talk of the town in about two hours. Neither of them needed that, certainly not right now.
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Tenten waited until Shino had closed the door to her apartment, the click of the handle sounding oddly hollow in the now almost completely empty space. Moving out had been surprisingly easy, since Tenten wasn't much of a packrat (except in certain, specialized areas), and Rock Lee had made it his personal challenge to move her as efficiently and quickly as possible. As a result, all that was left in Tenten's home for the past ten years was a sleeping bag, a cooler with some food, and a few random clothes and scrolls. Tenten walked to where the largest of her scrolls sat propped against the wall and picked it up, slinging the familiar weight back over her shoulder where it belonged. She didn't think this was about to turn into a fight, not the kind that required physical weapons...but still, she felt better, more balanced with it slung over her shoulder and resting against the small of her back.
Behind her, she heard Shino shift his weight as he recognized the significance of her actions. "You are angry with me," he said in a neutral tone, but Tenten knew his voice well enough to catch the hint of agitation underneath. He hated not knowing what was going on. Well, to be perfectly honest, so did she – so in this case, turnabout is freaking fair play, she thought darkly.
Turning to face him at last, Tenten set her feet and put her hands on her hips and struggled to keep her mind clear and objective. "Yeah, I am."
Shino stood across the bare room, hands hanging at his sides and chin tilted downward, and all around her Tenten felt the eyes of the kikkai watching. He was silent, waiting for her to say her piece.
"You remember how you gave me those old contracts to look over last week?"
Shino nodded slightly.
"Did you pick them specifically?"
His eyebrows drew down in confusion, but she didn't explain. Finally, he said, "I merely selected a handful from the archives."
"So you're telling me that you didn't pick certain ones, or only ones from a certain time?" Tenten asked, raising her eyebrows.
"My selection was purely random," he replied firmly. "Why was I so caviler in my choice? Because very little has changed in those contracts over time."
"So why did you only pick old ones from a hundred years ago?" Tenten demanded. "Why not anything more recent?"
"Such documents pertaining to individuals who are still alive are private," Shino responded sharply. "I considered it courteous to avoid probing into someone else's personal affairs." He was angry now too, Tenten saw. She felt a little flash of guilt – maybe she was being unfair, attacking him without telling him why, or even how. But then she remembered the look on Tsunade's face when she'd read that last clause, and the sudden shock that Tenten could have avoided if he'd only prepared her. He should have prepared her.
She narrowed her eyes at him and went for the kill. "Then tell me that you weren't deliberately hiding the child clause from me. You know, the one that says I have to have kids?"
Shino's shoulders shifted slightly under his heavy jacket, and his head jerked up a fraction. She'd surprised him. Tenten felt her own shoulders relaxing marginally, a little of the anger dissipating. Maybe he hadn't known either...then again, his father had already signed the contract, which meant Shino had already sat before the Hokage and listened to her read the clauses. He could have told her about it last night at dinner, or this morning before she went to the office. Her lips compressed again; oh, he had better have a great reason for keeping this secret, she thought.
"Why would I attempt to hide anything regarding this contract from you?" Shino said with a note of admonishment in his voice. "Such a thing would be foolish, because you are required to know what is in it before signing."
"I know that!" Tenten snarled. "But hell, maybe you thought I would miss it when the Hokage read it, or that she would glaze over it, or something."
Another moment of silence passed, long enough that Tenten's patience began to fray around the edges. But Shino always took his time before speaking, even moreso when he thought the subject was important. So she waited, suppressing the urge to tap her foot or snap something waspish at him.
"What is it that bothers you?" Shino asked in a tight voice. "That the clause exists or that you were not forewarned?"
"Both!" She jabbed a finger at him. "One, I don't like being told that I must do something like that, something that will affect my life so completely. Two, I don't like sitting in front of the Hokage and feeling like someone just punched me in the face. And three, I really don't like feeling like you just let me walk into that punch without making any attempt whatsoever to warn me it was coming."
"So you believe that I set you up for it?" He sounded incredulous as well as angry now, and Tenten registered the faint buzz of the kikkai stirring.
"I don't know what you were doing, Shino! Why else would you completely fail to say anything? I mean, there's no way you didn't know about it. Why the hell would you leave me in the dark like that?"
"I was not hiding this from you," he said.
"Then why didn't you say anything about it?" she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. "You should have told me," she said, letting some of the hurt and confusion show.
He took a step forward, then stopped, one hand raised partially towards her. "I did not think it would be..." Shino paused, clearly hunting for the appropriate word, but Tenten cut him off.
"Important?" She snapped, more venom in her tone than she'd intended.
Shino looked at her for a long moment, then dropped his hand back to his side. "Problematic."
"It wasn't problematic," Tenten uncrossed her arms and gestured emphatically. "It was a blind-side. I mean, you showed me all those other contracts, those old documents and stuff, and led me to believe that everything in there would be in the one I was signing. But that child clause thing wasn't on a single one of those old contracts, Shino. Trust me, I'd have remembered." She shook her head and opened her mouth to say more, but Shino suddenly grabbed her waving arm and stepped closer, pulling her a step forward as well.
"Tenten," he growled, and the surprise of Shino cutting her off like that, so unlike his usual approach to an argument between them, startled her into silence. "Do you recall the exact wording of the clause?"
"The words of the clause," he repeated, and she heard his internal struggle with his emotions under the flat tone of his voice. "Do you remember exactly what was written?"
"Shino, the entire contract was written by crazy people!" Tenten twisted her wrist in his grip until her hand was tangled in his, both of their knuckles turning white. "Crazy people who lived a million years ago and spoke like drunk, sadistic assholes. It took me forever just to figure out who the 'party of the second part' was supposed to be!"
Shino took a deep breath, and through their tightly linked hands Tenten felt the agitated buzz of the kikkai under his skin calm. "It specifically states in the clause," he said carefully, "that both parties shall make every effort to conceive." He tilted his head, looking now at their hands, and his grip on her fingers relaxed but didn't let go.
Tenten stared at him, running the words through her head and then trying to match them up to the Hokage's words earlier that day. With a little jolt she realized that he was right, that it was only her own paraphrasing that had implied she was required to actually have children. After a beat, Tenten dropped her gaze too, feeling her face flush with a mixture of surprise and shame.
"Oh," she said. And then, as the full implication of Shino's words hit her, "Oh. I, um, I think I must have missed that."
"I would not have hidden such a thing from you," Shino repeated quietly, and Tenten stared at their interlocked hands for a moment before sighing.
"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."
"As am I. Why? You were right; I should have noted the change and mentioned the clause to you after my own meeting with the Hokage."
Tenten loosened her grip on his hand and rearranged her fingers to intertwine with his. "Yeah, but I shouldn't have been so quick to assume that you did it deliberately. Sometimes I forget that even a genius can make mistakes." She glanced up at him through her eyelashes, a tentative grin on her still red face. "So...it just requires the effort, huh?"
Shino met her gaze, and she felt him tracing his thumb lightly in a circle along the back of her hand. "Yes," he said in a lower, slightly rougher voice.
"Well then," Tenten bit her lip. Note to self, she thought, always read the fine print. "Guess that's different then."
"You have no objections?" he asked, and his face was suddenly too neutral, his voice too careful. His hand stilled in her own, and he seemed poised to drop it and step away.
Tenten suddenly knew that this was it, that he was giving her a final chance to walk away forever. Instead, she reached up with her free hand and brushed her fingertips over his lips, then settled her hand on the back of his neck.
"On the contrary," she tilted her head and tried to look as innocent as possible. "I'm looking forward to it."
His lips twitched into a smile, and his thumb slid again along the back of her hand, soothing and exciting her at the same time. "I see." He leaned down and rested his forehead against hers, and Tenten felt herself relaxing for the first time all day. She closed her eyes and let the tension go, but one little nagging voice in her head muttered, I hurt him. I hurt him with my suspicion and my knee-jerk accusations.
"Sorry," she whispered.
"Thank you," he said softly, and Tenten's eyes snapped open but he wouldn't let her jerk back, his hand firm on her neck in mirror-image of hers. "Why? For talking to me about it," he concluded. "For coming to me first."
"Well, why wouldn't I?" She asked quizzically. "It really only involved you and me."
Tenten regarded him for a moment. "There's going to be secrets between us, you know," she murmured.
Shino raised his head a little, and behind the reflective glasses she knew he was looking her in the eye. "Yes," he agreed.
"We're shinobi, after all," she continued. "Plus, it's not possible to know everything about anyone, no matter how long you're together or how close you are or anything."
"But stuff like this can't be a secret, even unintentionally," she finished firmly. "Stuff that involves both of us and our life together, I mean."
Shino smiled faintly at her. "Agreed."
"Good," she smiled back. "Because after tomorrow I'm your wife, and I'm told that it's traditional for wives to throw stuff at their husbands when they get out of line."
Shino's eyebrow quirked up. "You have been speaking with Nara."
"He says pans are typical, but I'm shinobi so you can possibly expect some kunai or maybe the odd exploding tag. And my aim is pretty good, you know." She laughed a little. "Just a friendly warning."
"Okay," Tenten took a deep breath, then wrapped her arms around Shino's chest and pressed a kiss against the sensitive spot behind his ear. "Then I guess I'm ready for tomorrow."
He ran his fingertips up her spine deliberately, making her arch against him in response. His other hand flicked the clasp of her heavy weapons scroll and dropped it to the ground behind her. "Good."
"Shino? Do you think all our arguments will end like this?"
"I sincerely hope so."
"...I meant will they end this quickly. And without, you know, a lot of drama and mess."
"So long as we maintain the established pattern, it is possible."
"You mean, so long as we keep talking?"
"Then I promise to chatter constantly."
"Until I stop you."
"And just how do you plan – oh."