Disclaimer: The only things that belong to me are the plot, the original characters, and this particular representation of the Hyuuga and their politics.
Author's Notes: It's finally over. Thank you to all you readers who have hung in through the years. Special thanks to Kilerkki and link no miko, who have supported me from the beginning.
Chapter Nine: Fate
Neji spends his final afternoon in silence. He meditates for the most part, searching for the place within himself where he can be still, where unstable emotions cannot exist. When he finally finds it, he lies down and lets the daily noise of the compound lull him to sleep. He must be well-rested for the morning, and he will not sleep this night.
A persistent knock at his door wakes him before the cool of evening has set in. He sits up and focuses on the chakra signature outside the room. It is Hinata. "Come in."
It takes a moment for her to open the door, and when she does step inside she brings the smell of rice with her. "Neji-niisan, I brought you dinner." He hears his door slide shut, a whisper of wood-on-wood, and a few seconds later the tiny impact of a tray on his table.
"Thank you," he says. It takes him just a few steps to get to the table.
As he settles on a sitting cushion, Hinata asks, "The clothes on the table are the ones you want?" Her voice, though subdued, does not waiver.
"I'm going to move them so you can eat," she says. He hears fabric slide across wood, and a few seconds later the dishes clink softly as Hinata removes lids. The smell of warm rice and fish envelop him, and he is reminded that he has not eaten since dawn. Hinata does not guide his hands to the dishes; instead, she tells him where everything is located on the tray as she pours him tea. If he spills, she does not comment, and she does not interrupt him as he consumes his final meal.
Once he sets his chopsticks aside, Hinata speaks. "Do you want to go now?"
"Yes." He asked Hinata not to come until after the sun set, and he can put it off no longer. They both rise from the table, Hinata murmuring about taking care of the tray and the clothing she moved later. Hinata opens the door while Neji sends out his chakra so he can walk without having to hang onto her.
They do not speak as Hinata walks by his side out of the building and to the only public area of the compound that he avoided his last month. The breeze outside is barely enough to shift the leaves, but it carries the smell of funeral flowers nonetheless. He doesn't recognize the jumbled scents, and he prefers it that way.
"Here," Hinata says when she finally stops. Neji stops, too. "I'll come back at dawn."
He thanks her and then waits for her to leave; she doesn't move. In the distance, he can hear the sounds of conversation and a clan settling in for the night.
The moment stretches thin. Neji is the one to speak first. "Is there something you need, Hinata-sama?"
Hinata doesn't answer immediately, and Neji feels the beginnings of worry. Did something change while he slept? They have only a few hours left, and problems now could mean the end of everything.
"Neji-niisan," Hinata begins and stops. She tries again. "What you said earlier—I promise."
She reaches through his chakra fearlessly, to press her fingertips against the ruin of his eyes. Neji stays very still, and listens to her whisper. "Whether it is me or Hanabi, Hyuuga will change." Hinata pulls her hand back and steps away, disappearing from his view of the world. "There will never be another Hyuuga like you."
The question he has been wanting to ask since the night he faced the Elders burns in his throat. "Wait." The command escapes suddenly, and his hand twitches as if to grab a wrist he cannot see. He stills his fingers by his side.
Hinata's footsteps pause. "What is it?"
His voice back under control, Neji finally asks. "Why did you do this?" He is not arrogant enough to assume it was for him alone. He remembers her words in the hospital, about how she couldn't send Hanabi to the Branch, how she couldn't just let him die.
"I—" Hinata starts and stops. Silence drifts between them like a cloud of dust. He is close to telling her she needn't answer when she speaks again. "I know I can't change this family by myself," she says, her words quiet. "Ever since you started to change, I thought . . . I knew that you could help me."
Neji remembers yelling at her in the hospital, accusing her of throwing away the opportunity to change the family when she sacrificed her status for a month of his life. Had she felt a similar despair when she heard of his blindness?
"And then I heard what happened, and I didn't want it all to start over again, I couldn't—" she takes a deep breath "—I couldn't lose the hope that we could change."
Only after Hinata's presence has faded away does Neji settle down by his father's grave marker. The grass prickles his toes, and he remembers his father's voice and large, rough hand.
Neji, you must live.
What would Hizashi say if he were here now? Neji does not know. All he has left of his father are the twisted, imperfect memories of an anguished child and Hiashi's explanation of his twin's final choice. Would Hizashi have approved of what Neji has done with his final month?
He prays so, with a child's desperate need for approval. The intensity of the desire staggers him, making his breath catch in his throat. He smoothes his hands over his knees and regulates his breathing with the small motions.
He has no way of knowing what Hizashi would say, not with any certainty. Neji remembers what Hiashi told him of Hizashi's reasoning on the day he stepped forward to die, and for all that Neji does not doubt the veracity of the tale, he still cannot know with absolute certainty nor can he hear the words he craves, even in his imagination. (His sharpest memories are of the bitter moments with his father, and cynicism is not kind.) Speculation is only speculation—fruitless and without purpose, he tells himself as he steps back from the irrational desire. As if a dead man could have an opinion of any weight.
But the desire to know the unknowable, raw inside his head and his gut, cannot be banished and accompanies him throughout the night.
Hours later Neji is still wrestling with his irrationality when he hears footsteps nearby, jerking him from his inward contemplation. He should have sensed someone approaching before he could hear their movements. The disgust in his lapse is overshadowed by a surge of emotion he does not have time to contemplate or name. "Elder Hiroki," he says into the night. He shifts away from his father's marker and kneels to face the sound.
"Neji-kun." The Elder's amiable tone drifts closer. "It's been a while."
He can make no reply that will not embitter his throat, and tonight Neji will not be silent. "What are you doing here?" While the form is polite, the function is unmistakable.
"I can't sleep," Hiroki says, the amusement that always rankled flitting about in the now-cool air. "I thought to see what adventure the night might bring me. Perhaps it would tire my body out enough that it could be sensible again."
"What are you doing here?" Neji asks again. He fights to keep his jaw and back relaxed—he does not wish to provoke the unstable seal tonight.
Hiroki sighs, lending the smallest bit of strength to the breeze. "So suspicious."
Are you being manipulated, Neji?
"If you're here to stare, then leave," Neji says and punctuates his words by turning back to face his father's marker, dry summer grass crackling beneath him.
"Ah, but what if I'm here to confess?" The words are idle, teasing, and Neji does not believe them.
He takes a slow, calming breath to center himself again. The air is crisp over his tongue. "I'm not here for you to cleanse yourself. Unless it has anything to do with my chances tomorrow, then you don't need to be here."
The Branch grave markers quickly swallow up Hiroki's laughter. "And I suppose if I were to actually give you a confession, you'd believe I was only telling you what I thought you'd want to hear on the night before you died.
"So here are the words you want to hear from me, Neji-kun: I used your predicament for my own ends." Hiroki enunciates each syllable, like a parent teaching a child how to say a particularly difficult word.
Hiroki continues without pause. "I tried to have you executed when you nearly killed Hinata-sama. I thought it absurd for her to sacrifice her standing to give you one final month of misery."
"Are you finished?" Neji's fingers tremble as they grip his knees. He does not want to hear these things from Hiroki, whether they are true or not. He does not want the vice-like control he has been wielding over his emotions to crack further.
"Almost," Hiroki answers, the word caught in the air between them. "I thought when I first saw you that you were pitiful and barely useful."
"I am grateful Hotaru-chan has the chance to succeed you," Hiroki says relentlessly, "because I know that she needs Hyuuga to change as much as you did."
The words clatter into each other in the night air, and Neji is suddenly conscious of his nails digging into his knees and the hint of throbbing from the seal.
"You've started this change, you and Hinata-sama. It's probably too late for most of us, and it's certainly too late for you and me," Hiroki says easily to Neji's bristling back. "But I am content to see change set in motion."
The gong in the courtyard heralds the dawn. Neji turns his face to the east, breathes deep, and waits for the sun's rays to break over the compound wall and wash over his face. Hinata should be returning soon, and he savors his last moments alone.
Neither answers nor understanding came to him in the night. He isn't sure why he thought they might, but still he feels a piercing dissatisfaction that they did not. Perhaps he should have stayed with his team again, instead of by a voiceless marker, but Neji quickly shakes away those thoughts. He does not want to be plagued with regret, not when he can feel that old, familiar knot of anger and fear and hate within reach.
Early summer birds rouse and chatter as the faintest sunlight begins to warm Neji's eyelids. He listens to their cries and calls, marking the sounds they leave trailing through the air, and wonders where they head.
When he has his fill of dawn, Neji rises to his feet, feeling stiff from night air and stillness. He exhales slowly and pushes out with his chakra. The cloud of energy crackles the dry grass all around as Neji begins his normal stretching routine amongst the markers.
The moments slide through his hands like water as his body warms up from the motion and the sun. Eventually, he begins to move through a string of kata. For a countless span of time, there is nothing beyond his world but the pull of muscles and tendons, the birdcalls in the air, the morning sun's rays against his skin, and the smell of crushed blades of grass.
Hinata's presence pulls him out of his serenity and out of his kata. He bows in her direction and drops his cloud of chakra to greet her.
She approaches when he straightens from his bow. "Are you ready?" she asks quietly. Her steady voice anchors him to this early summer morning, and he finds that comforting.
Neji changes into the training clothing he left out the day before while Hinata goes to greet their friends. He dresses meticulously—not to delay, but to ensure what he can of perfection—and once he is finished, he allows Hiashi inside his room. There they discuss what to do with his possessions and the bounty that will be his for killing a missing-nin.
Before they head for the courtyard, Hiashi rests a hand on Neji's right shoulder. It is a fleeting, silent moment, but it is eloquent enough.
He can hear the crowd and feel the hum of active jutsu as he and Hiashi head toward the courtyard. Tsunade said she would bring an ANBU squad to set up a barrier so the med-nin cannot escape.
Neji follows Hiashi into the center of the training grounds, paying little attention as the crowd quiets and the Head of Hyuuga welcomes the clan, the Elders, the Hokage, and the ambassador from Cloud. Neji is focused on the cluster of chakra signatures a few meters away. There are three—two surprisingly strong, and a third between them, nightmarishly familiar.
His very blood knows the chakra that invaded his system and sparked lightning in his marrow. He waits, a count of two, three, four, but neither anger nor terror floods his thoughts. Only a memory of pain and a woman's gray eyes dart by, insubstantial in their briefness.
Hiashi finishes with his words, and Neji steps forward, settling into the familiar stance a final time: legs shoulder width apart, one forward, one back; hands held palm outward; forearms parallel to the earth. He breathes in deeply, swimming in the scent of anticipation.
Lee shouts encouragement, a sudden crack in the solemn morning, and an instant later the air thunders with countless voices.
"Release her!" Tsunade shouts, her voice cutting through the noise. Before the words are finished, the ANBU barrier encompasses the battleground. Neji expands his cloud of chakra, throwing it to his limit to mark the shapes and pressures of the world.
He barely has time to examine the hard-packed earth around him before a kunai slices into his field. He twists easily out of the way, and the fight begins.
Thank you for reading.