Set at the end of ch. 238. Hyuuga-centric. Farsighted: the condition of having difficulties focusing on nearby objects.
Each evolutionary advancement originally began as a mutation. This rule holds equally true for ninjas. Fluke genetics combine with chakra to create fantastical monsters out of human beings; strength is measured accordingly by results, meaning that some clans exist whose members can pop their spines out of their backs and be valued for it. Others cross fish-gills with lungs. The lives of shinobi are normally too short to distinguish; only power matters, and the labeling of freaks is as analytical as mission classifications.
Like many other clans, the Byakugan originated as a disease. As a rule, the Hyuugas do not discuss this, but the truth lingers in the dusty libraries of their histories. Neji discovers it when he is eleven. Unlike another bloodline prodigy, Neji simply rewinds the red-paper scroll closed and slides it back into place, lips pressed firmly together in a disapproving, I knew it.
Degradation of the optic nerves once held a dominant trait in the Hyuuga bloodline. By the time they were twenty-five, Neji's great-many-times ancestors were all completely blind. Jutsus to control the Byakugan supplanted this loss; the very same Curse Seal that devours Branch House brains once shielded Hyuuga sight. By lacing additional chakra vessels into the eyes, it reinforced optical connections to support failing vision.
The Byakugan was an illness. Those marked by the Curse Seal were descendents whose genetics were more prone to this decay; breeding plans led to the creation of the Main House, which, over time, became a ruling class rather than a means of bloodline purification.
The Curse Seal was meant to heal. Hyuuga clan founders didn't seek to encourage an advanced jutsu, but to preserve themselves against it.
Lying underneath his futon that night, Neji mulls over the nature of irony and decides that he hates it.
At the present generation--the result of careful marriage selections--the Byakugan no longer consumes the vision of the clan wholesale. The Hyuugas have lost their pupils, ink-spot victims of a genetic war. In exchange, they have gained extraordinary sight.
The bleedover power of a full-fledged Byakugan recognizes a person's entire body as an extension of the eye. It's only when Neji needs to look through objects that the Byakugan needs to be completely activated, which means he is always aware of the glances and gestures and rude faces that occur behind his back. Neji is used to seeing everything around him; he takes it for granted most of the time, just like he forgets to focus on people directly when he talks to them.
The hardest part about the Byakugan after it has fully awoken is learning how to turn it off. Most children can't, but most never master it until they're ten. Neji suspects he's a prodigy mostly because he adapted to the trick of selective blindness at an early age, figuring out how to make the world go away when he closes his eyes, or at least pretend it doesn't exist.
For a long time, Neji wants to become even better at his Byakugan, purely out of spite. Better than any of the other Hyuuga; better than Hiashi himself, if only so Neji can throw the fact of his talent in his uncle's face. It won't change anything. Hiashi will still be the clan head, Hizashi will remain as dead as ever, and Neji will wake up in the mornings with an aching mark on his brow.
Even so, Neji wants to see further than anyone else in the clan.
Gai encourages his training. Gai, in fact, is the only one who encourages him, and even this in a horribly fair-handed way that is chock-full of declarations that hard work does just as good Lee, don't you ever forget that.
Neji's mother is a Branch House member who was assigned to oversee a clan-holding east of Konoha ten years ago. Neji's father is deceased. This makes Gai quite possibly Neji's only parent. When he first comes to this realization, Neji puts his head down between his knees and pretends that he is also dead for all of three minutes.
Gai is also to blame for Neji's social skills. That's what Neji likes to believe, at least. Kurenai is guilty of Hinata's, so Neji counts himself lucky; he could have ended up meek and mewling, fingers pressing together in a doughy flexing, not even disciplined enough to speak in Hyuuga body language.
No, Neji has learned how to stand up for himself over the years of Gai's enthusiasm. He never has to explain how he still recoils from Gai's aggressive finger pointed at his face, because Neji has the ability to go completely, perfectly still instead of flinching. Eyes not even widening; mouth flat and hard. Hyuuga features. Neji has learned them from his family, which has developed the physical dialect steadfastly alongside their jutsus.
Even though Gai doesn't understand these cues, Neji prefers to stay at the training grounds, where fingers at his face mean only another robust lecture instead of a clan-based warning. The other children go home; the lights in the Academy turn out, one by one.
Neji practices. Alone if he has to, or with Gai's barked instructions. Tenten and Lee almost always invite him out for ramen; Neji habitually refuses, working through another series of stretches and citing his family's routine as an excuse.
Eventually, Tenten and Lee leave. Gai goes with them.
Because he can see all around him, Neji is always aware of the time. It looms on the huge clock on the side of the Acadamy classrooms. It hangs in the sky, on the sun, and in the length of Neji's shadow growing over the ground. Eventually seven o'clock ticks over and Neji finally goes home, just in time to attend the seven-thirty evening patrol of the house grounds.
This all changes after the Chuunin Exam.
- - - - -
At seven-fifteen, Neji comes back from the hospital and discovers that the Branch House patrol schedule has been brutally corrected. A fat black line is drawn through his name, a worm disgracing the standardized elegance of the names and time blocks. No one else's assignment has been affected. Only his.
Initially, Neji assumes it's because no one expected him to live and that Hiashi must have scratched him off prematurely, but later on that night, a new schedule is slipped underneath the genin's door. Another set of orders. These ones tell him that he is to meet with Hiashi three times a week, and the head of the household will not tolerate tardiness.
The first time Neji walks into Hiashi's study, he does not know what to expect. He has never been allowed into his uncle's quarters before, and though he's memorized the layout of the house perfectly thanks to the Byakugan, seeing and being are two different matters entirely. Hiashi sounds equally uncomfortable; they both look in different directions without meaning to, not because eye contact is redundant for a Hyuuga, but because they want to avoid one another even with their faces.
Hiashi does all the talking. Neji sits with his hands balled on his knees, back rod-straight, eyes fixed perfectly on the floor two inches away from his tatami cushion. He listens to his uncle talk, empty words linked together like empty rooms and just as meaningful. Neji listens with half an ear; Hiashi speaks with half a mouth, and between them, they attempt a conversation.
The weather has been good. Konoha's recovery after the attack has been steady, if lacking in manpower. Talented ninjas are few--even fewer left alive and in functioning condition--and Hiashi has been thinking if it might not be better to correct the clan's training schedule.
Starting with his own nephew.
It's not just Neji who is singled out. Hinata is the second to be called back, recalled from Kurenai's stable. This change causes a muffled stir in the household when Hinata reappears--Hinata, who has been so much an exile from the Main House that she takes her meals last of all, after the adults have finished and before the Branch House is allowed to sup. Neji has never been able to start his dinners without bitterness flavoring the miso, watching the girl creep in like a mouse to steal a bowl of rice and possibly some fish before escaping.
Hiashi breaks this routine by ordering Hinata to sit beside Hanabi during meals. Hanabi is still served before her older sister, but Hinata is now third after Hiashi. Neji is privately unsettled by this change. He has always known that the clan's ugliness has distilled through the years into an art, like the fine process of draining bugs for kimono cloth dye; the family Hyuuga may look elegant to outsiders, but it only exists because of an ongoing brutality. They resemble a normal family about as well as their white eyes can look black. Hinata, gentle and hesitant, is a walking aberration to the clan's standards.
Hiashi's own father allowed for one of his sons to be regulated to the Branch House, despite their status as twins. Hizashi died as a sacrifice for the Byakugan's secrets. In comparison to this, the abandonment of Hinata hadn't been strange; her recovery, though, causes whispers.
So does Neji's training schedule.
Hanabi doesn't understand why her special hours have been cut back. She looks resentful at first, but starts breathing easier after the first week goes by. The tightness leaves her child's round features. She no longer glares at passing noises, intensely expressive in that peculiar, restrained Hyuuga fashion, and even has the energy to start talking about seeing a friend of hers over the weekend--an opportunity that never existed before.
Hinata speaks up one evening at dinner. As everyone's chopsticks freeze in shock, she politely asks for the salt.
- - - - -
Three months after Neji gets training orders slipped under his door, he finds out exactly what happened to his mother.
The news was delivered in carefully scripted calligraphy on a rice-paper roll, sandwiched between supply account digits and an elegant formality honoring the current head of the clan. It was a mistake that led the scroll to Neji's hands; the Branch House accountant whose job was to monitor trading from the outpost had passed off the report, asking Neji to deliver it to Hiashi personally during the next training session.
Neji, who had skipped lunch that day and was bored as a result, tried using the Byakugan to read the layers of the closed scroll as practice. Upon catching sight of his mother's name, he cracked the seal and unrolled the news, scouring the words again and again to make certain he had seen it properly.
Neji's mother had been missing for two months. She walked out one day of her assigned rooms and was last seen heading towards the beaches. They identified her body only by a few pieces of jewelry, hauled up in a fishing net; the corpse had been bloated with seawater, grey and mottled with decay. Ocean creatures had picked at her flesh in small nibbles until her joints had loosened and sagged away, so that half her body was still missing and was likely resting in the bellies of the fish cooked up for dinner.
Everyone at the clan-holding agreed that she had acted strangely ever since the death of Hizashi. It was only a matter of time, the report declared, after she received the recent letter from Hiashi. Something about her husband--so the rumor went. The reminder must have reawakened her grief. No, no one spoke to her about it, and now no one could even find the message.
Neji's mother chose her own means of flying free.
At eight o'clock that night, Hiashi does not have to come looking for Neji--the Byakugan shows both their locations--but he knocks once before he pushes back the door and enters his nephew's room. Neji, who is sitting with his head buried in his hands, sees Hiashi enter. Even though his eyes are covered, Neji is staring at the world with his shoulders and his back.
It's a habit, Hiashi tells him later, that Neji must have inherited genetically from his mother. Maybe, he adds after reading the news, it's not the only thing.
Neji takes this on trust, because he can't remember anything about her.
Hiashi lets him keep the scroll. After shoving the message under his pillow, Neji sits in his room and stares at the wall. He thinks about how the fish must have picked at the white orbs of his mother's deactivated Byakugan, confusing them for pearls, or possibly the moon fallen right into the sea. He wonders if his own father looked the same way upon death. If Hiashi expected Neji to return from that ill-fated mission for Sasuke. Brother, sister-in-law, nephew--all footnotes in the records, dead bodies in the report summaries.
Hiashi doesn't apologize when he finds out about the scroll's contents. Only keeps his distance, points his face away. He does not force Neji to attend practice that night; he doesn't linger, but only strides out of the room without even a farewell.
At nine o'clock, Neji finds a dinner tray set in front of his door.
Neji can't handle the clan-head behaving awkwardly around him. It doesn't make sense and Neji hates it. Hiashi has metamorphosed. Since the Chuunin Exam, he has become a different entity than Neji has always perceived while growing up; Hiashi, whose stern contempt never flags while he is discussing village business, but who now is picking his way through child-rearing with all the delicacy of a blind man.
Past midnight, sleepless, Neji gets out of bed. He does not bother to conceal himself from the sentries who patrol the clan-grounds; all the Branch House are expected to wear black while they are home, but Neji can notice them just as easily as they can see him through the walls.
It takes him several minutes to cross through the house grounds into the library. He hasn't visited for years, but memory leads him to the right section, wandering through the abandoned shelves. The medical records are smaller than he remembers, forlorn in their solitude, but Neji doesn't pause to search through them for the bloodline document. Instead, he slips the message scroll onto the same shelf, shoving it in until the wooden rod bumps against the cabinet back.
When he finishes, Hiashi is behind him, white yukata painting a ghost in the night.
I saw you coming here, the man states. His words are slow, passionless. Just like I saw you reading the scroll when it first arrived.
Neji does not move. He can't think of a way to deny what the Byakugan must have perceived, and he can't come up with an affirmation either. There isn't any reason for him to turn around--he can see Hiashi's lack of expression without trying--so Neji remains locked in place, the rough wood of the shelf echoing against the skin of his fingers.
Eventually Hiashi opens his mouth again.
Have you read the family's medical history?
At last, Neji finds that his voice works. Yes, he croaks, trying to resummon an eleven-year-old's bitterness. It flops in his throat. I have.
Hiashi's yukata rustles as he advances. Neji's birthright can track how Hiashi's arm moves, but he's still startled when it reaches over his shoulder, holding a scroll of its own. Red-paper wrapping gone pinkish-grey with age. A withered ribbon; a label, written with a medical nin's crisp print. Neji hasn't seen it for years, but he recognizes it easily.
It was a mutation that gave us the Byakugan. Hiashi's face is directed at the pyramid of records, but his fingers hover over the medical document after he returns it to its slot. And it was another mutation that turned the Binding Seal into a Curse Seal. The Hyuuga family has always followed its traditions, he continues, but deviations from this order are what actually shape us.
Finding no possible response, Neji stands motionless. He doesn't know what to say, and if he did, he's not sure how he would phrase it. There's so much about the clan that Neji hasn't thought about before; he never knew where to look, focusing on everything except what was nearby.
By the sound of it, his uncle hasn't been able to see everything either.
Seven o'clock, Hiashi announces, snapping the reminder with a cool dignity. I expect you to get enough sleep to be ready for your next training session tomorrow evening. Return to your bed.
The arm lowers. Hiashi smoothes the wrinkles of his sleeve with a tug, and then adds two halting words.
Neji doesn't turn around to watch Hiashi leave. Instead he remains planted in front of the library shelves, the scrolls branded on one side of his vision, and his uncle on the other. Their edges grow blurry as Neji tries to focus on them both at once, alternating between history and Hiashi, switching in flicks of vision in an attempt to capture the entire room with equal precision.
Eventually, finding it harder and harder to keep track of Hiashi's retreating form while simultaneously retaining the medical records, Neji gives up and chooses his uncle.