And finally: the epic and pointless Neji fic that I've been meaning to write ever since I first read his "death" scene so many months ago. This is deeply metaphorical, very detatched and kind of... slow. Just like I'd imagine life to be after living through a brutal, near death experience.

The opening and closing lines of this fic are from 'The Waves' by Virginia Woolf, pg. 152.

I wrote this for , but I ended up going over my time limit thanks to my computer freezing a lot. It took me nearly two hours, but at least half an hour of that consisted of me resetting my computer. The total time I spend writing this was probably less then ninety minutes.

A Whiter Shade of Pale
Cephied Variable

To read this poem, one must have myraid eyes. One must put aside antipathies and jealousies and not interrupt. One must have patience and infinite care and let the light sound- a spider's footsteps, a leaf on the water's surface- unfold as well. Nothing is to be rejected in fear and horror.

Neji meditates less these days and spends more time in quiet observation. He was always good at reading other's emotions- it was his perogative as a Byakugan user- however, he always had a difficult time finding a true a meaningful correlation between those emotions and the honest, human sentiment behind them.

Neji used people's emotions against them- weilded and manipulated them like a weapon. It is perhaps his greatest weapon and he will never deny that it is a useful skill, however these days Neji watches people and does not probe for their weaknesses. He searches for their strengths.

Tenten and Lee come to visit him in the hospital and for once he does not turn them away. They sit on either side of his bed, laughing and making awkward, one sided conversation. Neji says nothing. He can't reason out what sort of words he's supposed to use in this sort of situation. It's the first time he's ever noticed the way Tenten reserves certain smile especially for him, and the first time he's noticed that underneath all the posturing and empty threats, Lee does honestly wish they were friends. Despite everything that's happened, Tenten and Lee are glad that he's alive. Desperately glad, and Neji wonders momentarily what he's done to recieve such devotion from them.

The days blur together and Neji can practically feel his wounds healing, the flesh is smoothing over so quickly. When Gai comes too see him, it is early in the morning, just as the sun is rising. It's very appropiate, Neji muses, and grimly hopes that Gai will refrain from launching into one of his ridiculous speeches about youth and the stregth and passion thereof. He has a difficult time meeting the man's eyes until his teacher places one wide hand on his shoulder and says gravely, "I am proud of you, Neji."

Neji blinks and his vision flickers to see the sincere and affectionate smile on Gai's face, because as much as Gai feels that Lee is the son he never had, he loves all of his students with a sort of blind and fierce protectiveness. Not so long ago, Neji would have scoffed at his words and discredited his opinion as worthless. He would not have given any credit to the sincere worry in his teacher's eyes or understood what the intense grip on his shoulder really meant. Now he is so grateful that his chest aches and there's a peculiar little hitch in his voice when he says, as calmly and evenly as he can manage, "Thank you, sensei."

By the time they let him out of the hospital, his hair is beginning to grow back all choppy and uneven. It hangs awkwardly just above his shoulders and brushes against his cheekbones everytime he turns his head. He runs his fingers through it constantly, hating the way it falls in his face and limits his peripheral vision. It makes him edgy and catious much like the blind spot in his Byakugan does and he often wonders how Hinata manages to wear her hair like this all of the time.

Then again, the more and more he spars with his cousin the more and more he realizes that if ever there was a square peg attempting to fit itself into a round hole, it's Hinata. He cannot deny that she is strong. The talent and power is there, potential bubbling just beneath the surface like the calm before the storm, however Neji has come to realize that there is more to being a shinobi than raw talent. There is also raw intent.

It's the way she hesistates to attack; pauses between throwing her kunai. It's the look that clouds over her eyes whenever she accidently draws blood with her blade. Her small hands always reach out to wipe the red from Neji's pale skin, her eyes downcast and a furious, angry blush rising in her white cheeks, "I-I'll go get some bandages, Neji-san." she whispers, every word an apology. And Neji grimaces, because this is the sort of behaviour that makes him angrier than anything else.

"It's nothing." he says, and means it. Hinata doesn't know what a real battle wound looks like, and she doesn't know what a dead body looks like. No matter how good she gets there will always be that distinct line that seperates her from the real ninja. Hinata does not possess the ability or the willpower to take a life. Neji realizes distantly that if she continues following the path her father has laid out for her, she will eventually be forced to do so. He never wants Hinata to face that variable because he knows with a sick kind of certainty and truth that taking a life will mostly likely destroy everything inside of her that he has come to love.

He wants to grab her by the arms and shake her sometimes. Tell her that she doesn't have to be bound by destiny- that's the most important lesson he even learned from Naruto, and it's the most important one he can teach her. Next to that, mastering the Byakugan is irrelevant. He wants to tell her to renounce her position as a ninja, renounce the Hyuga family if she has to. There is something precious and irreplacable about her, as if there is something else she is meant to be doing. Something that has nothing to do with what she is doing now. But he doesn't say anything at all- he continues to teach her how to be the best ninja she can be, watching sadly as she loses a little more of herself every day.

Hanabi watches them from the house, half inside, half outside always with her arms folded behind her back and a pensive, strained look on her young face. Hinata and her sister never speak with each other and Neji tends to wonder whether or not his uncle intentionally wedged that wall of resentment between his daughters. Hanabi doesn't speak with Neji either, but she watches him constantly and Neji can't tell whether it's admiration or revulsion in her eyes when she does so.

The first words she ever says to him are: "We're the same." It snaps him out of his meditation and he stares at her solidly and darkly. She is standing there, as if expecting something. He realizes that she's waiting for him to speak- to ask her to clarify.

"What do you mean?" and she drops to her knees, spreading her fingers on the cool, evening grass.

"My Byakugan is flawless." she says softly. It's not bragging- it's a statement and Neji takes it as a truth. He has heard Hinata speak of Hanabi's talents with a detatched and sad sort of awe, "I want to be the heir." she says suddenly, meeting Neji's steady gaze, "But I will never be anything but a stepping stone. No matter how hard I train- even if I manage to make genin by the end of this year- I will never be anything but an example... a consequence for my sister. It's... frustrating."

Neji looks at her and feels his stomach clench. The Hyuga stare is always blank and often unreadable to those outside the family, but Neji can see the fire in her eyes all too clearly. It's a caged fire- quenched determination. The ambition of someone who is constantly climbing a mountain with no peak. He recognizes this fire as the same flame that once burned inside of him, eating away at him from the inside out.

"She can't do anything." Hanabi hisses bitterly, staring at the ground and ripping handfuls of grass from the earth. Empty aggression. So much power, so much talent and nothing, nowhere to channel it. She is like a dog chasing her own tail- although there is no curse seal carved into her forehead, Hanabi too is just another bird in the family's guilded cage, "Why couldn't I have been born first? It's not fair."

There is nothing to say to placate her. She is only eight years old and still views the world in terms of 'fair' and 'unfair'. There is no way to explain to her that such concepts are only relative, no way to tell her that no matter how things seem and what she is told, she does have control over her own destiny. These are lessons one must learn through experience. Instead he says to her: "Do you ever wonder if your sister feels the same way?"

The way Hanabi's eyes flash in the fading light betrays her- she hasn't. Neji is tired of house politics. He's tired of this silly sister's fued and feels himself not caring whether Hanabi learns the same lessons he did. He only wants her to forgive her sister- it's exhausting to see Hinata persecuted for crimes she doesn't even realize she's committing.

He finds himself spending more time with his team. The Hyuga mansion has become suffocating and there's a certain abandon in the way Tenten and Lee are able to laugh so easily. They speak freely about everything, and for once in his life, Neji is not irritated by their chatter. They go out to lunch together after training and sometimes they sit on the rooftops and watch the stars spin above them. These are the kinds of silly things the other teams do, and Neji supposes that they're also the silly sort of things that friends do. He had never really thought of Lee and Tenten as his friends, but he supposes that being willing to kill for, and if necessary die for someone is pretty much the same thing.

By the time the season changes, his hair is long enough to tie back. Every morning before the sun rises Neji goes to the clearing where they train, turns his Byakugan on and watches the world wake up around him. It's not so much about training anymore, but rather about awareness. The entire village is in a lull- a dreamlike, denial-laden state. No one wants to admit that tragic things have happened, and they certainly don't want to admit that there is more tradgedy just on the horizen. The word 'War' is dangling on the lips of every villager, hanging in the air between every conversation, painted on the faces of every shinobi in all of Konoha. Neji closes his eyes and watches the village through his Byakugan- the people are bright smudges of chakra in a dark, dark world. He feels uncharacteristically optomistic these days and thinks of ridiculous metaphors about beacons in the night. It's the kind of thing that Naruto would have come up with, and Neji begins to think that he misses the boy's prescence more than anything else.

He's taken to collecting stray feathers. It's a childish habit, but then again Neji didn't have much of a childhood. He had forced himself to grow up too fast, only to find that he hadn't really grown up at all. The first person he had talked to upon regaining conciousness was Tsunade's student, Shizune. She had pressed a single bloody feather into his hand, explaining to him that he had been clutching it when they found him. He had held it up to the light and studied the way the ribs of the feather were stuck and wound together with his dried blood. Somehow, it was still beautiful.

He collects feathers for the people in his life. He can't explain the rationale behind it, only that it seems suiting somehow. Shikamaru commented on the irony, his tone deadpan and amused but not unkind:

"What are you trying to do? Build yourself a set of wings?"

Neji didn't even look at him, just answered simply: "Maybe."

Shikamaru always said that he had a bad sense of humour.

He can't find the right feather for Naruto. He can't find the right emotion to identify the boy's affect on his life. He wishes that he could have seen Naruto before he left. He still hears rumours that it was for the boy's own protection, but Neji knows Naruto well enough to realize that he is chasing after an unattainable dream. He knows Naruto well enough the realize that he will chase Sasuke down until the ends of the earth no matter how the pursuit destroys them both. He does not, however, know Naruto well enough to think of anything relevant to say to him.

There is an entire world of words Neji could use, and an entire world of words he knows he shouldn't use. In the end, he knows the the only words the boy will be able to swallow without a whole lot of awkwardness and confusion is a simple: "Thank you."

Neji is smart enough to see the parallels between himself and Sasuke. He is not, however, impartial enough to attempt to understand the Uchiha. No matter how many times he tells himself that it could have been him, that he could have been just like Sasuke he still feels that pit of resentment twist like a knife. In the end, he isn't like Sasuke. Not a damn thing like him. He's been stripped of his arrogance- which was just as much a defensive mechanism as Sasuke's pride- but he's managing. Sasuke clings to his pathetic pride like a child and Naruto chases after him like he's worth it. Neji hates it it.

Life isn't easy. There is no fair or unfair, there are just circumstances and whether or not they're unbearable, they are still obstacles one must overcome. Those who succmb to their circumstances- become victims of them- are simply weak.

Neji still beats Lee without even batting an eyelash. However, he now knows that Lee is a stronger person that he could ever hope to be.

Certainly, one cannot read this poem without effort. The page is often corrupt and mud-stained and torn and stuck together with faded leaves, with scraps of verbena or geranium.

Nevertheless, Neji thinks that he finally understands what it means to be alive.

fin.