Written for the TenSquared community over at Live Journal using their August theme, Shifting Seasons. This doesn't necessarily have to be NejiTen. You could interpret it both romantic and non-romantic, I think.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction. But if I could…not!
Tempering Soul and Steel
Four. It is a number that signifies good luck in Konoha's culture, one that represents balance and fortune. Perhaps that is why the arrival of each new season is honored in her village. But for Tenten, it is not the coming of the seasons she respects half so much as the going of them.
Nature is a constant reminder that things do not last, that she must cherish what she has while she has it. It keeps her in reality, knowing that even though she may one day achieve a goal, she will no doubt lose its glory sooner or later.
Her team relates to the year with personality as well as preference. Neji, for example, is always most content during winter. He does not mind the cold. Tenten wonders if that is because he has so often dealt with iciness within his own family that he no longer feels it. The wintry world captures him, down to the very color of his eyes, and more than once she has watched him inwardly revel in a gentle snowfall. Most of all, she supposes that with the coming of the New Year during the winter, Neji attains a sense of new beginnings, of freedom. The kind of freedom he forever yearns for. He thinks no one notices his internal joy the same way he believes no one notices his constant pain.
Tenten has always noticed all of it.
Gai-sensei, in retrospect, finds personal delight in spring. This was never a huge surprise to her. His speeches and monologues about youth and its fires come to an unwanted climax when flowers bloom and rivers run again. The worst part is that he embellishes and adds notes on love and its splendor. Tenten wonders if this is why Maito Gai never managed to get married.
Lee, not much different from the teacher he strives to be like, practically embodies the spirit of summer. He is wild, often uncontrollable, and at times overheated – just like his favorite time of year. He sometimes cannot be seen during the sweltering days because his joy usually has him running laps through the woods to spread his "youthful determination." That, or because his trademark green mini-Gai costume makes him blend in with the healthy grass and renders him invisible.
As for Tenten, she is none of these. Winter gives her courage, spring gives her hope, and summer gives her energy, but these seasons do not bring the true soul out of her.
Autumn is the time for her. As emerald leaves morph into other gems – ruby, topaz, amber – she can feel the core of her responding. It moves her, this time that some people look upon as the world decaying around them. She is inspired by it.
And so today, in the moderate temperatures of late October, she chooses to work outside with fire and mallet. She comes out at dawn and eats a cool apple of bright scarlet while she witnesses the sun rising upon a world filled with color just waiting to burst out at the light approaching it. The earth is a wondrous thing when reduced to only those two elements; color and light. For Tenten, there is no other time better than those first breathtaking moments of a waking world, of existence opening itself.
When the sky changes from pale lavender to bright blue, there is enough light for her to begin working. She has a vision in her mind: a katana. It will be long, she knows, hammering a molten length of metal that glows from its time in her nearby fire. It is not meant for her but for someone gifted with more height. She thinks about saving it to present to Gai-sensei once she graduates to the level of Jounin, then dashes the idea away. Gai-sensei does not use swords and would see it only as a piece of art. He would hang it on the wall and look at it from time to time when he wanted to think of his "precious blossom!" And while this new weapon is bound to be a masterpiece indeed, it is destined for battle, not living room décor. On as perfect a day as this, with the fall air so full of promise, Tenten knows that this blade will know the taste and feel of blood. As will its wielder.
Perhaps once forged, the katana will tell her who is to carry it.
In the unused thicket of the training forest that she works in, Tenten is left alone for most of the day, as is her preference while making weapons. But since Konoha is a place of family, and because all good family keeps watchful eyes on all its members, guests are assured. Fortunately, her first visitor is brief. Hinata is good enough to bring her a thermos of fresh tea and a bamboo chute filled with white rice. "For…for energy," the shy Hyuuga heir as explains with a flush and downcast eyes. She is still much the nervous young girl Tenten had known from their early days as Genin but now, after maturing, she is more of a demure young woman. Her quiet nature is seen as sweet rather than unconfident, and she has fought hard to earn respect through her skills the same way Tenten has.
Perhaps Hinata is for autumn as well.
Two hours after the white-eyed girl takes her leave, Tenten is still planted at her forging bench. Her fingers have started to cramp from being so tightly wrapped around the handle of her mallet, but even the prospect of good food from a talented cook like Hinata has not taken her mind off the project that has apparently consumed her. Tenten knows, no – feels – that this sword will be perhaps the pinnacle of all the weapons she has made before and will make in years to come. Is it because of nature? The time of year? She has constructed before among falling leaves and puffy clouds, but this is the first time she can remember utterly overflowing with her own life. What causes changes like these?
She completes the ray of the blade, and the symmetry of its lightly dipping halves is perfect. She sets down the mallet to take an already-created hilt in order to attach it. The leather gloves she wears are too small and make her palms sweat underneath their protection against scalding metal. Her eyes, brown like the tree bark she uses as targets during her training, are focused upon placing the blade within the notch of the hilt. She must be precise so that the blade is angled perfectly straight, but she must also be fast enough that the bottom of the steel will cool within its cavity and firmly seal there.
As soon as it is accomplished, Tenten feels a presence and knows that whoever has entered her area purposely kept himself unknown until she could afford to be distracted. A refreshingly cool breeze carries a scent to her, and she smells nighttime even before the sun has commenced setting. It is a scent that she knows immediately, a scent that she wakes in the middle of the night to.
A smile touches her lips as softly as a lover's caress. "Neji."
The Hyuuga appears from behind a tree. Now that he isn't trying to stay silent, she hears his shoed feet crunching on the toughened leaves below them. His shirt is damp with sweat and his hair, rippling in the wind, is disheveled. He has been training. His forehead protector, however, remains straight and secure. Sturdy, like him.
"The days are shortening," he comments, forgoing any sort of greeting. He has known her long enough that "hello" has become a meaningless word that only wastes time. They are too close to each other to waste something so precious. "You won't have long before your steel will cool faster and forging will be difficult."
She nods, wincing a bit as her neck cracks with the movement. Neji's all-seeing eyes narrow in disapproval, and they shift to the untouched tea and rice, long gone cold and flavorless, that Hinata left on a nearby log. "You didn't take a break today."
"I…" Tenten considers trying to explain her actions, trying to voice the absolute power that this katana currently holds over her and will hold over her until it is completed. In the end, she knows better than to try and distract Neji from the thing he is upset by. All she does is shrug. "I've been busy."
He shakes his head minutely. She almost grins, wondering if Neji ever realizes how intimidating he can be to those who don't know him. She does not understand that the answer is no. All Neji knows is that he never can intimidate her, and that fact is both pleasing and frustrating at the same time.
"You're a kunoichi of Konoha," he says at last. "You'll always be busy." There is a secret in his voice that Tenten has accepted for a very long time, sure that it is not for her ears.
Tenten withdraws her eyes from him, not needing to look at him to see the way his mouth tightens as he thinks of how she's not eaten; how his eyes eventually relax into the calm, colorless orbs she trusts so implicitly. He can never effectively berate her while she is making weapons. There is a mutual admiration that keeps him from being angry and keeps Tenten from being offended by his protectiveness.
The sword cools after another half-hour spent working on the hilt. She has decided that this piece shall not be too elaborate. The blade goes without glaze; it will stay as pale steel rather than be stained a darker shade. The hilt she glazed last night. It shares the same gray as a rainy spring day in April. Over time, it will darken further until gray becomes black, like the sky during a blizzard.
Soon enough, she half-forgets about Neji, who watches with respectful fixation as she takes a roll of dyed linen and wraps it once, twice, thrice about the hilt. She thinks of its future user, whoever it may be, and knows that he can now safely use it without fear of his hand slipping just before a strike.
She pauses momentarily to wipe the perspiration of undivided attention from her brow. "You personalize them, don't you?" inquires Neji in the interim, voice full with patient curiosity.
She looks over her shoulder. He has remained standing, arms folded, feet widespread. He is both spectator and guard. Tenten gives him a small smile that holds a sparkle or two of mischief. "If one knows where to look," she tells him. She says nothing more, and Neji falls back into his preferred state of silence.
Returning her gaze to the katana, she seals the linen to the metal. Her smile stays. It is nearly finished, and the sun has begun its slow descent. Already, the purposeful feeling is starting to fade, and she mourns its loss. With a sharpened kunai, she raises the hilt to eye level, the butt of it facing her, and she scratches away at the underside of the protruding metal. This is an annoying task, but necessary, and in the end she is twice as fulfilled because of it.
Close to an hour passes. Neji keeps his wordless vigil over his oblivious teammate. Tenten keeps on scratching. By the time she sets down the kunai to shake out her tense hand, the moon has materialized; a stamp in the swiftly-darkening sky. Night is coming to trade places with Day. Tomorrow looms nearer, and these two in the thicket will ignore it as long as is necessary.
Tonight, it is not very necessary. By the time it is dark enough for the stars to appear, the embers of Tenten's dying work fire are all they have to light them. Neji's eyes do not require decent lighting, but he sparks the flint she used that morning to create the blaze and strengthens it again. Tenten doesn't notice until she sets her hands against her hips and arches back to stretch her spine. She would have told him it wasn't necessary.
The katana has been completed.
She strips off her leather gloves and turns to face him where he stands by the fire. He is drenched in the orange glow, his eyes shining silver in the night. She studies him with the mind of both an artist and a ninja; a better judge does not exist.
He is courageous and will become more so when the first snow falls. When the air turns sharp rather than the crisp it is now. And when wind cuts and breezes burn, Neji comes alive. And that is how it always will be, Tenten realizes.
Neji will live even if the rest of the world is dying from his winter.
But it is autumn now. The world is not yet dying, but perhaps merely laying down to sleep and to dream. Does the world change seasons because it wants to? Or does it change because it must? As everything must.
She has not tempered a sword today but a soul. Her soul. Tenten knows enough of herself to know this much. Indeed, she feels a little bit of herself gone but not lost. It is inside the sword. It is resting within steel and glaze and linen.
There is now no question of who this weapon is for. There is only one person that she could ever trust any part of her soul to.
She lifts the weapon and holds it out horizontally, the flat of it on her right hand, the hilt on her left. Neji blinks, confused, and looks from the sword to her. "Tenten." Her name is said like the fluttering wings of birds that are leaving for warmer places even as they speak.
"It's for you, Neji." She smiles as warmly as the fire beside them as she continues, "It always was." I just didn't understand that until now.
She watches her strong companion, who for once has no words. His beautiful eyes are serious as he holds out his hands and she gently places the katana into them. Gai-sensai might say that she is like a princess honoring her knight. But in reality, they are both knights, both ninja. Equals.
Neji holds up the sword, and she is pleased to discover that its length is perfect for his arm. There is a strange expression gracing his smooth features, and she hopes that he can feel her in his new weapon.
His gaze lands on the wrapped hilt and stays there. "Blue," he murmurs.
She nods, her lips curving like a bow as she too looks at the dyed linen she chose. "The color of the sky. Throughout all four seasons, the sky remains always blue. It may change briefly for a storm or a sunrise, but it will always return to being blue. It is constant. Blue represents wisdom, integrity, loyalty, confidence, power, and truth. All things needed for a victorious warrior." She raises her eyes from the sword to his. "Like you, Neji."
The Hyuuga does not reply at first. Tenten is close enough to see any possible change that may occur in his face but sees none. She finds herself wishing that his eyes reflected like everyone else's. She would like to see herself in his eyes.
A leaf falls between them. It is yellow, gold in the firelight, and with the breeze it dances along the edge of the katana Tenten has forged. It circles Neji's proud head, then dips to do the same to Tenten's narrow waist.
He smiles. She feels her breath catch, and he reaches out to lightly touch her hand. He traces the calluses on the pads of her fingers, undoubtedly thinking of how they came from both making weapons and using them. His smile even manages to spread to his eyes as he softly answers, "It is the most magnificent weapon I've ever seen. Thank you, Tenten."
He releases her hand, and she is unable to form a response to either his action or his words. The kunoichi simply watches and waits as Neji turns the katana in the light and looks underneath the hilt.
"Four circles," Neji says. "Two of them linked. The same. That's your personalization."
She nods. "Like our team." She wonders if the two that are the same in his mind will be Gai and Lee, or if…
"Or the seasons," he intones speculatively. "Linked like autumn and winter." He meets her eyes, lets his smile lessen a bit. The repeat of his thanks is clear without the words.
Tenten's eyes are inexplicably moist as she watches him walk away. Her lips spread widely at the sight of her katana, now his, safely carried in the same hand that had touched her. She has tempered two souls today.
"Like autumn and winter," she whispers to the night. Only her mind finishes what has been left unsaid.
Like you and me.