Disclaimer:Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto. There's no way I'm making money from this and absolutely no way I'm affiliated with the creative process of this series.
Author's Notes: This story is AU, set sometime after Neji was made a jounin. I don't know why this came to me, and you Neji-lovers, I hope you forgive me.
Many thanks to my outstanding beta, Kilerkki. She made the wonderful suggestion to revisit an old canon plotline with the Cloud and approved of my story since the day the line "There are no blind Hyuuga" popped into my head. She also saved me from a nightmare of grammar issues. If you haven't already, check out her stories—they're brilliant.
Also, much thanks to link no miko, Chevira Lowe, fifthgearlove, iamzuul, and other members of the Ima Made Nandomo RPG community who urged and inspired me to go through with this idea.
Chapter One: Fragments
. . . and Lee is standing there, left hand held behind his back, right hand positioned in front of him, in his characteristic fighting stance. Neji can't tell where Lee's wound is exactly, because from his position in the dirt the sun is right in his eyes, making Lee nothing but a dark silhouette against the painful light. But there's blood dripping off of Lee's fingertips and there's some on Neji, staining his pale shirt. Neji blinks and wonders whose blood it is . . .
. . . and Tenten makes a few last-minute adjustments to the positions of the weapons and scrolls she carries in her backpack. She is the top weapons specialist among the first, second, and even third year chuunin, and while Neji cannot see a method to the order and placement of the implements in her bag, Tenten obviously knows the best arrangement for her. She finally slings the bag onto her back and then their team is off, heading south from Konoha . . .
. . . and so he pivots on his right foot. "Hakkeshou kaiten!" The world is swirling crazily in a blue cloud of chakra, but Neji has long since gotten rid of any motion sickness that he might be prone to. He can feel the enemy kunai strike the chakra emitted from his tenketsu. An unfamiliar voice yells out indistinguishable words and then there's a horrible cracking sound and the world wrenches to a halt . . .
". . . and to have bandit problems," the Hokage says in a voice equal parts concern and confidence. Concern for the feudal lord and confidence because she's sending the top jounin rookie and his two chuunin teammates. Neji, Tenten, and Lee listen intently as Tsunade details the situation, Lee hardly blinking, he is so focused on her words. When she finishes, Lee salutes her enthusiastically . . .
. . . and because Neji has been caught in one before, he knows what an ambush looks like. He immediately activates his Byakugan and finds the real threat behind the feudal lord's retainers. "From B to A," he says softly to his teammates, and they know that they are dealing with high-ranking enemy shinobi. Tenten and Lee move instantly into the familiar defensive formation . . .
. . . and the recent rains have washed away almost all trace of the bandits. Neji shakes his head in irritation—another trail lost. Tenten takes her frustration out on a nearby tree trunk, embedding half a dozen kunai into the old bark. Lee has his fists clenched, and Neji hopes that his teammate won't be setting up another self-destructive challenge for himself . . .
. . . and Tenten and Neji move to cover Lee for the precious seconds it will take for him to remove his weights. With his activated Byakugan, Neji sees Tenten reach into her pack for a fuuma shuriken. His eyes give him enough warning. "Kunai!" he shouts, but Lee is still on the ground and Tenten is facing in the wrong direction. They are his responsibility, and so he pivots on his right foot . . .
. . . and Lee sputters, wiping mud off of his face. Tenten laughs and Neji smirks because it's inconceivable that Lee could have been caught unaware by Tenten's outstretched foot. "Are you sure it's not you who should be more careful?" she says innocently, turning around to admonish him. Lee scrapes the last mud off of his face and grins. Neji dodges the mud that splatters in his direction, but Tenten isn't as quick . . .
. . . and then Lee's screams stop as well. Neji commands his body to move, but it can't or it won't. He lies in the bloody mud as a Cloud-nin's face looms in front of him. She looks down at him impassively and begins to form a series of seals. Chakra gathers at her hands . . .
. . . and Neji screams, hands tearing at the seal on his forehead. His spine arches suddenly, lifting his back in an unnatural curve, and then just as abruptly snaps in the other direction. He thrashes on the ground, curled up like an infant, not breathing because he's still trying to scream. There's noise being made by others but he doesn't care because his mind is being shredded, it's burning in a fire that he can't control, his nails tear his flesh but he can't dig it out and there's blood in his eyes and it's in his mouth choking him but it's cooler than the flames that are turning his mind and his eyes to ash and it won't stop, dear gods make it stop, he's drowning in blood and fire and noise . . .
. . . and the world is swirling crazily . . .
The first thing Neji recognizes is heat. It is not the fire that scoured his soul, but rather the comforting warmth of life. He welcomes its presence. The moments stretch on endlessly, and Neji slowly becomes aware of the feather touch of the wind gliding across his face. For an eon, that is all he is, the heat and the fingers of the wind, his skin the only part of him that still exists in the physical world.
But the ages pass, and the next sensation to return is that of motion. He knows that he is moving, but the why and how escape him completely. The motion is gentle and rhythmic and it joins the heat and the wind as the cornerstones of Neji's existence. The movement reminds him that he can breathe, and he does so, savoring the smell of damp leaves that fills him and mingles with the heat and the wind and the motion.
Heat and wind, movement and wet leaves. They encase Neji in a cocoon of tranquility and he fades once more, losing himself in what he is not.
"It was a trap. The feudal lord—"
Neji hears the voices surrounding him. He knows that people are speaking, but the words don't make sense. All he knows is that the voices have taken the place of the wind, feathery touches that caress him but don't stay long enough to make sense.
"—bandits were Cloud-nin—"
Neji becomes aware of his breathing but the wet leaves are gone as well. The air should be familiar, but he can't place the stale smell.
"—for two days—"
He slowly becomes aware that the rhythmic, soothing movement has vanished, yet he doesn't mind because the absolute stillness is comforting in its own way.
"—to his eyes—"
Neji feels warm and heavy, and he immerses himself in the voices he knows but cannot comprehend.
Neji wakes up completely this time instead of skimming past the real world. His reason has returned, so he tries to open his eyes. He can't.
Immediately Neji's hands shoot to his face. His frantic fingers press at the bandages, pain flaring instantly through his head and the curse seal, making him hiss loudly. Dear gods, did they—
There. He can feel his eyes through the bandages, where they belong. Because he knows the bandages are there for a reason, Neji refrains from taking them off to look around. It is enough to feel his eyes move beneath their lids, enough to know that they are still his.
With that moment of panic fading, Neji uses the remainder of his senses. He breathes in deeply, his nose picking up the bitter odor of ointment and the stale smell of air that has been circulated far too many times. His ears relay the gentle hum of sophisticated machinery and the soft tread of approaching footsteps.
The door makes a softthunk when it slides open completely. "Neji."
Neji turns his head in the speaker's direction. "Hokage-sama?" The position is awkward, lying down on what can only be one of Konoha's many hospital beds.
The door slides shut again. A few quick footsteps and then Neji feels her hand around his wrist, checking his pulse. He manages not to flinch from the unexpected contact. She is satisfied with whatever knowledge she has gleaned from his wrist and then releases him.
Neji levers himself into a seated position. "How are Lee and Tenten?" His voice sounds oddly weak in his own ears.
He hears the sound of a stool being dragged across the floor. The stool creaks slightly as Tsunade sits on it. "They'll be fine," the Hokage says shortly, and something about her clipped tone makes Neji go very still inside.
"Do you remember what they did to you?"
Neji nods, a slight incline of the head.
Tsunade pauses there, and then takes a breath to dive straight in. "You're blind, Neji."
Neji's fingernails dig into the flesh of his palms. "I still . . . they didn't take my eyes, Hokage-sama."
"They tried," Godaime says, and Neji hears her next words in a distracted, detached way. "From what I can gather, the Hyuuga curse seal activated when the Cloud medic tried to remove your eyes. It eliminated any trace of the Byakugan and completely destroyed your retina in the process."
Neji breathes her words in and out, simple sounds in an arrangement that make sense and no sense at all. They keep coming on a breeze that he can neither see nor stop as the Hokage explains how any tampering on her part will reactive the curse seal and will undoubtedly kill him.
Neji remembers the fire that turned his soul to ash once before and knows that he will experience it one final time.
He is sitting in the same position Tsunade left him when his uncle arrives.
Neji doesn't turn to face Hiashi because the movement is unnecessary and impractical. He is incapable of sight, and both men know it. Hiashi makes very little noise, his sandaled feet placed carefully on the tiled hospital floor. He stops at Neji's left side and doesn't hesitate to pronounce the sentence they both know he has to say.
"There are no blind Hyuuga."
Hiashi is a strong and wise Clan Head, strong enough to bend the Hyuuga laws and wise enough to know when and how. But Neji knows that Hiashi is not strong enough to shatter the laws, the laws that require the cursed seal, the laws that require any blinded Hyuuga's death, the laws that would force an uncle to kill his nephew to remove the threat a blind Hyuuga represents.
The laws that the Hokage is strictly forbidden to interfere in. Neji knows that Tsunade would try to intervene, did she know the purpose for Hiashi's visit. But she doesn't know, because the last time a Hyuuga was blinded she had already disappeared from the village.
Hyuuga Hikari was a member of the Branch Family, and the possibility of her capture by enemy shinobi for use in breeding or as a wellspring of Hyuuga secrets was quickly dealt with. Neji knows that it will be the same for him, for the Main Family is the only one ever allowed to choose the manner of death.
"There are no blind Hyuuga," Hiashi repeats, but Neji still doesn't turn in his uncle's direction. Neji has faced death before, but he has never faced death with bent neck, begging for life. He will not do it now.
Hyuuga Hizashi chose to die to protect the ones he loved. Neji will not put at risk what his father died for even though he still does not understand. He has picked at the lock of his cage as best he could, and now the metal door is about to swing open to the sky.
Cloth rustles, and then Hiashi takes Neji's hand. Neji leaves his fingers limp so that his uncle can easily manipulate them into forming the other half of the seal that will bring the fire back one last time. He knows that Hiashi will put as much of his strength into the killing jutsu as he can.
Instead of fire, cool metal presses gently into his palm. Hiashi guides Neji's fingers to close around the hilt of a kunai. "One month," Hiashi says, and he lets go of Neji's hand. "The honors of the Main Family."
Neji lowers the hand holding the kunai until it rests on his thigh. Strong enough to bend, but not to break. He turns in Hiashi's direction then, for he knows how much work it took for Hiashi to convince the Elders to let the Clan Head personally train a member of the Branch Family. Tradition is the backbone of Hyuuga, and although Hiashi rules, there were times in the past when the Elders did so in all but name.
For a moment Neji is four again, and he can hear his father's voice:
"Neji, you must live."
"Hiashi-sama. Thank you."
To Be Continued
Chapter Two: Comrades