Part One: Damage and Recover.
Because… Naruto… you saved me from the darkness…
Neji's expression for a fleeting beautiful moment was serene. The light streamed across his face but didn't block his vision. It enhanced it. The light seemed to bind to highlight every glittering wing as that joyful bird flew.
If you're a bird… then I'm a bird---
The rush of blood from his stomach thrashed out his mouth violently, ending everything beautiful, pulling Neji's head back to the ground. He coughed when he wanted to breathe, feeling his blood rush between the tiny space between his teeth, over his lips and down his chin. He had never thrown up blood before today. He had never felt overcome before today and he never planned to lose again… certainly not after today.
Neji collapsed with no grace and felt his body fall into the slow rhythm of the earth.
Minna… I'll leave the rest to you…
The earth rocked him gently and the birds, the thing he hoped to make his coessential animal, fluttered and left behind a gift, a piece of hope that he could survive to become stronger, to fly one day too.
The second medical unit leader found Hyuuga Neji's body and lost his composure at the sight of the damaged boy. He swallowed hard, his eyes stretched wide as he slowly approached the body. He passed a corpse of a six armed Sound Shinobi that another member of his unit declared dead. His first kill? The leader wondered as he knelt down over the Hyuuga boy. One, two, three, eight deep wounds in his back, a deep cut to his arm, two holes through his shoulder and stomach… there's no way he could survive such a… But Hyuuga Neji was breathing, slowly, so slowly it scared the examiner. This is bad.
He performed a chakra transfer to the smaller shinobi until he was satisfied that the slow rise and fall of the boy's chest wasn't the result of his hopeful imagination.
"This will take much more than just us to treat. We must get him to Konoha and Hokage-sama right away." He told his companion.
"Hai." The other medical ninja began seal work to prepare the body.
He punched his radio and called the remaining medical ninja units to help prepare a seal to lock the destroyed teenager in suspended animation so the rough return to Konoha wouldn't ruin what was left of him.
When the seals were finished others had showed up and together a chakra life guard was wrapped around the rookie genius and between six bodies he was transferred carefully back to Konoha.
Shizune had been horrified at the condition of Neji's young body but immediately set out orders for what to do. Shizune carried the smaller boy herself to the center of the seal preparation chamber. The others were working furiously, they all knew that time was a factor. If they waited to long, this boy would surely die.
Her wrist flicked delicately and precisely marking the boy's body with the appropriate symbols, spreading them out to meet the seals that had spread throughout the entire chamber. She had never performed what she was going to attempt, but she knew she wouldn't fail, couldn't fail when something so precious as a valiant Konoha shinobi was on the line.
Shizune waited at the boy's side touching his bare forehead, fingers ghosting over that terrible seal before reaching her hand under his head and pulling his long hair over his right shoulder. She pulled a scalpel from her kit and cleanly cut off the last eight inches of the young boy's hair. She twisted the locks into two threads and held them tightly with her own chakra.
You will heal… Shizune whispered to the boy with no words. She placed her fingers into the Tori seal. "Kai!"
Neji's face became tight with pain, the animation suspension was removed. Shizune watched the boy's body react to the chakra already at work around him. He's spent his whole training placing his chakra into others; this will be a new experience for him…
The timid and kind Shizune shattered in an instant and the brave and dependable medical ninja Shizune took charge as she moved to her place. "Everyone, concentrate your chakra. If you feel weak or hesitant at any moment, switch immediately!"
Together their healing energy, a pale green chakra, began to move in distinct units. The northwest shinobi pair and the southwest pair were in charge of the open wound in Neji's middle. The other three were responsible for the gaping hole in Neji's left shoulder. The wound through his stomach had luckily missed all his vital organs but the blood loss endangered his life more than the risk of infection and system failure from the hole in his shoulder. For hours the team worked diligently, using their talents to return Neji's dead hair cells to animation and add them to his active pool. The others became fatigued, Shizune would not tolerate failure.
"It's been almost three hours… switch places with me."
Shizune's voice traveled across the room, sure that everyone could hear her. "Although we are using this child's hair as a medium, do not make a mistake on the cell ratio in the damaged part! Each strand must be affected by the chakra control!"
Shizune's eyes watched and kept detail of the success of their ninjutsu. Color was returning to the boy, his body was moving, responding. Please endure the pain a little longer, Neji-kun.
It took four hours and thirty one minutes for Hyuuga Neji's body to stabilize. Shizune's team was thoroughly exhausted and Neji probably wouldn't recover consciousness for a few hours still. He was wheeled into an open hospital room, one that already had two occupants.
"Hey," Raidou looked across the room as Hyuuga Neji's body was placed into the bed beside his companion. "That's the Hyuuga kid."
"Yeah," Genma added. "Neji."
"Is he okay?" Raidou asked the nurses pulling blankets around the boy's exhausted body.
"He'll be weak as a kitten for a few days, then have to go through intensive rehabilitation but his life isn't in danger."
"What happened to him?" Genma asked.
The nurse turned to the side and touched the boy's forehead. His curse seal stood over his pale skin. It didn't burn to touch like she had expected it to. Neji's breathing remained calm; he didn't so much as move. His chest rose shallowly and rhythmically. The nurse smiled gently and touched the boy's cheek. "He was one of the one's that went after Uchiha Sasuke."
"I know that, but what happened?"
"According to Nara Shikamaru and Inuzuka Kiba, the team was separated by the four Sound Shinobi… Hyuuga Neji was the second to be separated. The second medical unit found him with severe trauma: two completely void wounds, eight kunai wounds to the back, a deep wound to his arm as well as severe internal bleeding… for hours it was unclear if he would ever recover."
"That kid… took all of that?" Raidou asked.
"But more than that…" The nurse responded.
"More than that?" Genma asked.
"They found is opponent." The nurse replied.
"What was done to him?"
"Nothing could be done… he was in far worse condition than Neji… he was dead. According to what the medical team and the Sand Nin-aids, all of the Sound Shinobi were defeated by our genin."
Genma leaned back in his bed, his hands under his head. He turned his gaze to the side as the female nurse turned her attention to make sure Raidou was comfortable. Neji was breathing steadily, his pretty face cleaned thoroughly. His skin was moon pale still, the way Genma had first seen it nearly three months ago. Even barely animate, Genma could tell that this was a different Hyuuga Neji than the one who misunderstood his strength and what it meant to be caged.
"You soared today… didn't you kid?"
Neji woke up an hour after being in his hospital bed. It was past noon and his body felt heavy. His senses were dizzy for a few seconds, but he felt it clearly when a clay jar was pressed to his lips. He opened his mouth instinctively and felt the cool water rush through his throat. The cup was pulled back before he could choke. He blinked slowly, trying to clear his vision. He found he couldn't immediately, even though his huge eyes were facing the light again.
"I won the bet." He heard a familiar voice say. "He's awake already, Raidou."
Neji frowned. Then smiled. He knew that voice.
The moment came to him clearly as his eyes shifted and distinguished light and shadow. He was laying on his back again… just like the first time, at that moment when he remembered that voice and those words into his heart forever.
"When captured birds become wiser, they try to open their cage with their beaks. They don't give up, because they want to fly again."
"Shiranui Genma." Neji's voice was surprisingly clear.
Genma turned and looked at the boy, catching his senbou in his teeth sharply. "That's me, Neji. You shouldn't talk now. You went through something close to hell if you beat the Sound that us Jounin couldn't beat."
"Hey, didn't I just say don't talk? But, yeah kid. You and the other genin showed us the fire of Konoha's future with what you did."
Neji found that he could see solid objects close with those blurry eyes and saw the outline of Genma looking down at him. He wanted to sit up. His body felt so heavy, but he could do it, if he wanted to, he could do whatever he wanted to. That's what he believed. Neji gritted his teeth and tightened his extremely sore stomach to lean forward. He got less than an inch from the bed when a hand pressed on his forehead gently and pressed him back to the bed.
His vision cleared then and he saw Shiranui Genma looking down at him. His hand was warm on his forehead. My forehead… he's touching my…
He felt something heavy in his lap and tried to sit up and see what it was. That hand stayed there and wouldn't let him move.
"You'll set yourself a course of death that way. You can be reckless when you're not sharing a hospital room with me." Genma stated coolly.
Neji decided that at least for the moment he'd take heed to Genma's words and not try to sit up. It might be because Genma spoke gently even when he was condescending or because his body really didn't want to move. It didn't matter truly which it was. His left hand twitched as it slid up over his thigh to find the weight on his middle.
It was his forehead protector. The cloth had been washed, the metal was going cool. His fingers traced over the symbol of Konoha and found in the very center it was warm. His talented fingertips traced with hesitance the outline of a feather.
Hane? A bird feather…
He desperately wanted to see what color it was.
He was going to force his body to overcome Genma's hand when he felt a hand behind his back. It lifted him to a sitting position and the bed rose to meet his back. "Damn it, kid. Since when are you the type who can't stay still?" Genma asked.
"Gomennasai. I just wanted… to see…"
Genma rose an eyebrow as the shortened strands of Neji's hair fell just over his shoulder as his head dipped down to stare at the golden feather resting in the center of the emblem of Konoha. It stayed with me… this will… it will not disappear…
"Neji-kun, since you plan on breaking the rules for your recovery and make us assist you, we might as well break all of them and have you have a conversation."
"Don' say we!" Raidou shouted teasingly from across the room. "I want the nurse to still like me when she comes back."
"Hai, hai. If she asks you fought valiantly to over come our recklessness and were only overpowered at the last moment because of your injuries." Genma replied.
"Be sure to use those exact words!"
Genma smirked and bit again into his senbou. Neji looked up and frowned and then smiled. Very, very slightly.
"As I was saying, Neji. Got any plans for the future?"
Neji laughed breathlessly. "When captured birds become wiser, they try to open their cage with their beaks. They don't give up, because they want to fly again." He quoted perfectly.
"I've heard something like that before." Genma said coolly.
"I plan to fly again… I don't know how high… but I will definitely improve." He whispered. I must… until I see… that…
Genma shook his head gently. Apparently three months and a knockdown uppercut was all it took to destroy Neji's gasping hold on fate. Genma saw the way Neji clenched his forehead protector tightly, there was a look in his eyes. It was determined… it was hopeful. Nice eyes…
Genma turned to the door ready to apologize to the nurse and at the same time admit that it was all Raidou's planning when he realized that the nurse was already angry at another Jounin and genin pair.
"Lee-kun! You mustn't run off on your own like that! You could have been seriously injured! Tsunade-sama can't keep taking time out of her day to treat you!"
"I apologize for the trouble I caused, however I believe I made a decision for the better good of Konoha."
Gai smiled radiantly. "Beautiful words, Lee! You are truly a Konoha shinobi. You are shining!"
Lee and Gai exchanged passionate Nice Guy poses.
"Gai, you shouldn't encourage such reckless behavior! Even though his injuries were minor, he could have been hurt badly! Lee-kun, you must rest now and do not move until I say you can!"
"But I feel fine! I need to train!" Gai's youthful voice shouted.
"No buts! You will get in that bed and you will rest there until I say you're ready to train. If you move an inch before then I'll make it so you can never train again! Oswari!"
Lee's face went pale as the exasperated nurse pointed to the fourth and last hospital bed available. Lee did as he was told. The nurse hmphed and turned a dangerous eye to Gai who quickly sat in the chair beside Lee's bed. Genma considered jumping into his bed just for safety.
The nurse turned and switched out of the room, her heels clicking heavily as she stomped.
Neji listen to his sensei and genin teammate gush over each other: Gai's mission, Lee's heroics. Genma raised an eyebrow. Neji continued to look down and something became obvious to Genma. Favoritism didn't automatically extend to the obvious genius nor to others who desperately needed the attention.
"Gai." Genma called.
Gai turned at his name and saw Genma standing over a short haired, downcasted boy. "Genma."
"How's your vision?"
"My vision is perfect, Genma! I eat thirty one carrots a day to ensure I have all the beta carotene needed for exceptional sight. I also make sure to keep my eyes moisturized with only the most effective and quality eye drops available in the market: Eye perfect vision aids!" Gai's smile twinkled with perfect shine and timing. "Why do you asked?"
"Just concerned as you've been in the room for sixteen minutes and hadn't asked Neji how he was feeling." Genma replied.
Neji barely kept his voice in his throat and made sure to keep his eyes down. He knew what Gai would say and had prepared himself to say nothing then to hear what he would say.
"Of course I'm concerned with how my kawaii genin is fairing! I plan to give Neji my undivided attention after I have made sure Lee is prepared to embrace the springtime of his youth! It would be unfair of me to split my attention between my students when they both desire my undivided attention. I have been concerned for Lee since his had his operation! I could not concentrate on anything else until I could see for myself that he was cured."
"Gai sensei, you do not need to spend any more time on me. Please go to Neji-kun!" Lee volunteered.
"Lee! How very noble of you! What a great guy you are!"
Genma realized that their exchange would go on for hours, back in forth with smiles and compliments. Genma turned to Neji to see Neji's lips moving slowly, mimicking words he had heard a million times. There was no malice in his gesture, Genma understood fully then. Neji knew the routine and expected nothing of Gai's attention, probably had built up innumerable, cold defenses for such instances.
"Neji-kun, who from your family should we be expecting to visit?"
Neji did not respond.
"Will it just be your mother?"
Neji shook his head in the negative. "My mother died sixteen days before I entered the ninja academy, six years ago. I have no siblings." Neji responded slowly.
If you ask the right questions, everything becomes clear… You are a defensive person, Neji… you built up fate to make the cruel things out of your hands… Unlike everyone, even that Uzumaki kid, you didn't have anyone to tell you that you could change. The kind senseis like Iruka and Gai never offer a hand to the genius types even when they need it just as much as the 'loser' kids. Nobody's fault really, but it made a mess out of this kid for a few years now…
"What about the kunochi?"
"Tenten is vacationing with her family."
"Uncle and cousins?"
"Please do not concern yourself, Genma-sama. In sixteen seconds I will be fighting off Gai-sensei's overbearing worry. I am appreciative of…"
Gai approached six seconds ahead of schedule and showed his caring side to Neji. The thirteen year old listened and responded when he should. He was polite, his voice was clear and not once did he talk down to Gai or Lee.
Genma couldn't shake the feeling that Hyuuga Neji was watching him through Gai's body even though he hadn't enough chakra to activate his Byakugan. Genma crossed his arms over the sill of the window outside of Raidou's bed.
Birds are flying… lots of them… Which one are you kid? The one way in the front… or that last one in the back?
End of part