: fear of imperfection
Around the Hyuuga estate it could observed: during fall, a very peculiar phenomenon near the dawn of every morning.
If one were to sit on the roof of the estate's eastern wall and watch the closest window, they would undoubtedly watch a sizeable flock of rather plump birds huddling about the shudders. If one stuck around longer they could also observe Hyuuga Neji flinging the window open and glaring at them. Not startling any of the waiting sparrows outside, however, they all take great care to eye him impatiently from their sparsely covered perches in the tree outside. They are almost too tame for their own good; though, they'd scatter like the birds they are if any other member of the Hyuuga Clan were to open the window.
"You're getting fat," he remarked to the nearest sparrow.
It peeped in reply, ruffling its feathers importantly.
"Aren't the lot of you supposed to fly south?"
He frowned at the bird which only blinked inky eyes uncomprehendingly at him. With a sigh he poured a handful of tiny seeds along the sill and the small flock made a show of hopping into the room and pecking at the free meal. Neji ignored them; going to his closet and finding the clothes he'd laid out for his reconnaissance mission later today. Apparently Tsunade was having a problem with an overly talkative ally somewhere in the Rain and it would mean lots if he could be bothered to go hide up a tree – in the torrential downpour – for a couple weeks and make sure said ally wasn't spouting his mouth off when he shouldn't. He grimaced as he threw his clothes on, jerking them over his shoulders.
'God, I hate the Rain.'
Neji had been living in the main house for over a year.
Only days after his promotion to jounin his uncle and clan leader had suddenly – somewhat gruffly – cleared out a room for him in the head house and relocated him there. Not certain what to make of this, the young Hyuuga pretended somewhat ineffectively he just hadn't noticed all his things jumping out of the branch family house. It made him uncomfortable (occasionally angry) when his uncle tried to…'apologize' but that hadn't had any affect whatsoever on his living arrangements.
Naturally the transition had been a little messy. It had taken the elders some time to assure themselves that – no – Neji wasn't secretly planning to murder them all and – yes – he'd matured since he was thirteen-year-old prodigy with a semi-homicidal fatalism complex. After much debate, some screaming about breaking traditions, and general domestic violence, the head family came to the decision (mostly because Haishi put his foot down on some stubborn old heads) and moved him unceremoniously into the head house.
Neji might have protested the move but he had to admit…he rather enjoyed passing the more stuck up members of his clan and watching them balk at the sight of him coming. Also, being closer to estranged members of his immediate family did have its occasional rewards – Not living alone in that particular wing of the branch house, sleeping in the middle of a two-person bed that once smelled vaguely of men's cologne, jasmine perfume and burnt hair. (His mother had always charred her bangs using Katon…)
His only regret may have been the bathrooms however. It was a running joke that everyone in the Hyuuga head family all woke nicely at dawn almost all at the same time and clogged all bathroom access for hours. Neji's room was the farthest east-facing room and therefore the first to be struck by dawn light, therefore the first to be woken by it. Dressing hurriedly, he rushed out the door, grabbed up his pre-packed travel satchel and didn't bother to knot his hair back. He'd manage that after he beat the morning toilet rush.
Sure enough, he was narrowly the first in the lavatory, a bleary looking Hanabi padding down the hall and yawning. She blinked rheumy lavender eyes and waved at him. Six years his junior, Hyuuga Hanabi was his cousin in the head family. She was also the only one brave enough to ask him to pass salt at dinner.
Neji soaked his head, quickly lathering and rinsing his long dark hair in the sink and pushing it, dripping, out of his face. He toweled the soaking mass quickly and (perhaps unwillingly) stared hard at his reflection in the looking glass. A pair of wide white-lilac colored eyes peered eerily back at him without pupil, the ring of color fused through over the opening. It was him looking back, sixteen-year-old Hyuuga Neji, clear skinned, currently expressionless, looking ready to walk out the door and be the ninja he looked like. Hanabi knocked lightly.
"You die or something?"
"Fine. I'm coming out now, Hanabi."
He quickly slipped his forehead protector on, knotting the black cloth at the base of his neck, tying the heavy metal plate just over the vulnerable slope of his forehead. It completely covered the tattoo-like like etching across the breadth of the skin there, acid green, neat and elegant. Like a four cornered pinwheel between two mirrored lines. Even today, years after coming to grips with his inner turmoil associated with that thin green design, he didn't hold any appreciable fondness of mirrors.
He let his cousin in the bathroom, grinning as she'd begun a small and rather undignified potty-dance outside the door, one she immediately stopped when he appeared. She blushed slightly when he looked at her, long sable hair sticking up in uneven lumps from the back of her head.
"Hinata's late," she said hurriedly, scooting into the open door behind him. "Scouting mission. Not back yet."
Neji inclined his head. "Scouting mission?"
Hanabi nodded vigorously, hopping from foot to foot. "Uh-huh." And slammed the door. Her voice was muffled. "Wait for me!"
He might have if she hadn't told him to do so. Since she did, Neji turned on his heel and strolled down the hall for one of the side doors. He skirted the rest of the approaching Hyuuga Clan, all still sleepy and trying to maintain dignity that didn't really exist this early in the morning. He slipped out through the front door, stopping to retrieve his shoes before stepping into one of private gardens out back. Hanabi tracked him down eventually, pulling the screen door wide and scowling at him.
"You could have waited," she grumbled, closing it behind her.
"And I could have left early for my mission," he replied, shifting the weight of his travel pack. Needlessly he asked, "What did you need, Hanabi?"
She stepped off the porch, joining him in the small inner courtyard and looked around. "Are we -?"
"No one's watching," Neji said curtly.
The ten-year-old took three measured steps back and started to shift her weight, carefully spreading her arms out in a delicate, but undeniably correct, looking stance. She looked expectantly up at him. Waiting. 'Spoiled little brat,' he thought without venom. Neji studied her weight placement critically. She tended to lean too much weight back on instinct. He nudged her front foot slightly, turning her toe out and circled her casually, making a show of looking her up and down, waiting to see if she'd second-guess her stance at the last second.
"Bato-san says my stance is perfect," she informed him challengingly.
Neji didn't remark on that, mostly because it was true – her stance was pretty much perfect – and because Hyuuga Bato was one of the clan's best Juuken teachers. He was a head family member. It wouldn't do for Neji to go around contradicting the Hyuuga's number one tutor. Bad taste and all that. Neji adjusted the angle of his cousin's arm and tilted her shoulders into a slight forward slope.
"He says I'm ready for Kaiten."
"What do you think about that?" he inquired mildly, studying how she balanced on the balls of her feet rather than the entire foot. 'You cheater. You've been skipping ahead.'
The girl struggled with the answer for a moment, repressing her frustration that Neji wasn't just going to tell her the answer she was hoping for. He held his tongue nevertheless, ghosting quick hands across his cousin's shoulders, letting his fingers show her the perfect line of centre. Years of special attention from her father and other Hyuuga elders had given her the answers all her life. She'd never been more than a single question away from getting what she wanted to know. Neji irked her with his counter questions, but she mulled it over a moment before grumbling.
"I want to know what you think."
"Why? I thought your stance was perfect." He traced out from her shoulders, fingers brushing down her arms to her elbow. He shifted them just slightly, realigning them across her body. "Keep the chakra flow clean as possible." He sat back against the stairs and nodded. "Go through a couple katas. Keep your weight on your toes, but keep your heels down or I'll push you right over."
She glared. "You will not," she said contemptuously.
He shoved her over.
Hanabi sputtered indignantly, but Neji just sat back and propped his elbows on the low porch, allowing himself a small smile. "Try to at least get five." He made a show of yanking a tangle out of his hair as she got off her butt, blushing furiously. "I don't want to get up every time you get lazy."
She gritted her teeth so hard he could pick up the tiny squeaking sounds of grating calcium. The little girl resumed her previous stance, briefly tucking her hair behind one ear. Neji watched her forehead crease into soft V's as the muscles around her eyes tensed, tightening to accommodate the veins of chakra threading their way across her temples into her optical nerve behind the eye. 'She's been practicing. She doesn't need the hand-seals anymore.'
Slowly, as if moving between silk curtains, Hanabi began to move.
Arms first in a long deliberate thrust that looked more like an offered hand, she altered her direction, sliding, shifting slowly, smoothly from one position to another. Hands rigid flats as she moved, she began to slide her feet to follow, careful to keep her weight just so, balanced painstakingly on the fore of her foot.
In his eyes, bright strings of chakra threaded like neon tube-lights through the girl's tiny body. After ten slow kata her arms began to tremble minutely. Neji lifted one brow, more for Hanabi's benefit than anything else. She caught it. The girl barely managed to stifle her tiny self-satisfied smile, just eating up the tiny glimmer of approval. Her next kata was smoother, strong with confidence. Neji hadn't asked her to do her katas while channeling her chakra into her fingers, to control the flow of her energy through the delicate network of energy paths, to spy on him while he was doing his own training katas and try to do the same thing herself.
He smirked and closed his eyes, leaning back again. She was starting to act like him. Hiashi would be furious.
He didn't open his eyes. "Yes?"
"I talked to father…about you training me in Juuken…"
The older Hyuuga sat up. "Stop it, Hanabi. I can't."
"But you do it better, everyone knows…" She stopped, casting about with Byakugan eyes. She looked at him again, still moving through her stances with fluidity to envy. "Everyone knows you do it better than that idiot Bato. Even father doesn't deny that. Why can't you teach me?"
"You know why."
"But Bato sucks."
"Hanabi," Neji said warningly.
"Well he does!" she wailed. "And he's forcing his awful habits on me. He's got this stupid routine thing he does whenever he shows me anything. He thinks it looks cool, but he just looks like a flailing duck. And he drones. I can feel my brain getting slower. He doesn't do anything like you do and I know it's wrong. Why should I learn wrong when…?"
Neji stopped her with a stern look. After she was quietly doing katas again he answered her, careful to keep his voice even and his eyes straightforward.
"Bato has perfect Juuken form. That's why. You can't learn from me because my Juuken is not correct, Hanabi. I've already told you this. You're not learning anything wrong. Be thankful Hiashi-sama arranged for Bato-san to train you in his absence." He started to sit back again, through arguing with her. "He could have just left you with endless kata routines. Now stop complaining."
Hanabi turned back to her stances. Despite this, his eyes still caught the shape of her silent, spiteful words before she put her back to him. Though Hanabi had never been bitter toward him previously, the words still pricked, drawing a warm red bead that stung him more sharply than he'd anticipated:
'You taught Hinata.'
Neji looked away at a small tree nearby, studying a dangling leaf near the top. Not so deep down Neji knew Hanabi was right; Bato was an inferior fighter. She would surpass the man before she graduated the academy, but Neji couldn't deny that the man's Juuken was – in purity of style only – superior to his. The methods Hanabi preferred to copy from her impromptu sensei – however effective in dispatching the enemy – weren't Hyuuga.
Haishi never said it aloud but during the brief time he'd trained Hinata in secret, Neji taught her bad habits. In actuality, it simply couldn't be helped. By ritual, the head family trained all the clan children in basic Byakugan control and Hyuuga style Juuken. Once it was established the kids could wield their bloodline effectively, the branch children were dropped from Byakugan training like hot-potatoes and left to fend for themselves. Branch family members, therefore, have a distinctly different Juuken style than their head family counterparts, namely, an incorrect one. And a Hyuuga heiress cannot fight like a – God-forbid – branch family member.
The jounin let her think he hadn't noticed her silent accusation for about five stances.
Softly he rejoined, "Only because no one else would."
An unreadable mixture of jealousy and shame played tag across the pale, developing angles of her face.
Unlike Hinata, with her soft effeminate features and gentle bone-structure, Hanabi was taking on a longer, thinner face-shape. It was too early to tell if this would work for her or against her in the looks department. In Hyuuga women the line between beauty and freakish was thin and until puberty passed, she was caught in the strange middle-ground. Not quite beautiful, not yet ugly. Quietly he told her to centre her weight. Otherwise she was perfect. She took this with another compromise of pride and bitterness, finally choosing to give up her argument.
"A messenger hawk is circling the estate," Hanabi mentioned casually. "One from that Sand jounin, again."
"I know. That's why I waited outside." Neji glanced overhead. "I'll head out once it delivers the message."
"Is it that the puppeteer or his sister?"
"Probably Temari," Neji reasoned, watching the growing shape of desert hawk overhead, circling lower, lazily. "She's the envoy for the Hidden Sand. If she needs a place to stay, she should just message Tenten. It's her house we always end up at."
"That girl probably likes talking to you," Hanabi smirked, leering expertly at her cousin, katas remaining flawless despite. "She has a thing for geniuses I think."
"She also has a thing for the Nara. She's just too proud to say so." He tilted his head back; standing up at the bird soared low, taking one last pass over the roof. "Yellow hawk. She needs somewhere to stay. Hanabi you should probably move. The yellow ones don't –"
"AIII!" Hanabi took cover, screaming as the giant avian dive-bombed the Hyuuga heiress, clawing and pecking furiously at the crown of her head. The back-draft of its wings thundered in the tiny garden, blowing leaves off their branches and blasting dust into fast whirls. Hanabi ran shrieking, waving her arms and bawling for her cousin to '– do something now or so help me God I'll make you sorry!'
"– like you," Neji finished monotonously. He sighed. "I'll get it."
After a struggle, some more screaming and a little coaxing on Neji's part, they finally got the bird out of Hanabi's hair and on Neji's arm where it was suppose to – supposedly trained to – have landed in the first place. The animal began pecking gently at his hand, snapping its beak to be sufficiently troublesome while the Hyuuga retrieved the letter coiled about its leg. Neji sucked briefly on his bleeding index finger, scowling a bit. Temari was fond of sending her most temperamental birds to the estate in hopes of pissing off various members of his uptight family. Plus she knew Neji had a knack with fierce, flying creatures.
"Why are you letting it near your face?" Hanabi hissed from the door. She rubbed her cheek, smearing the red across her face. "Ugh. Don't pet it, Neji! Tell that awful girl to stop sending you those psychotic birds."
"They're not psychotic, they just sense weakness," Neji informed her somewhat blithely, smoothing the hawk's head crest. "Keep practicing."
She muttered under her breath and circled away to a safe distance.
Neji sat down and offered the hawk his shoulder. Once it had gotten quite comfortable, it started combing its beak through his hair and shifting about fretfully while it tugged on his bangs. He waved it away without passion and focused on Temari's letter. Since the alliance between the Sand and Leaf had really started to take affect, with Garra taking his father's place as Kazekage and his siblings jumping ranks to jounin, the young woman had been in and out of Konoha every other month or so. Having shared a couple particularly dreadful missions with the blond previously – therefore being the only associate in Konoha in her age bracket – she'd taken to arranging her sleeping accommodations with him and his teammates. The letter read:
I know this is short notice, but I've got a mission to the Rain and a bunch of politics to talk with the Old Lady Hokage. Garra has something up his sleeve, God knows what, but I'm playing go-between like a good little ninja. She knows I'm coming. It's scheduled. I'm en route now so don't bother sending the hawk back with a message. Thanks. Oh! As a side note: My brother's tied up with his puppet troop so he can't make good on that promise to Tenten about the advanced summoning scrolls, but he promises – for real this time – to get her something decent to study. I can't believe she mastered the last three already. Tell her I'm impressed. We'll talk later.
PS: Did Suza do any damage or did you tame him too?
"One of these days I'm going to ignore her and just leave her to hang," he muttered, stroking the hawk absently as he did. The Hanabi narrowed her talcum colored eyes as she finished another stance, muttering something to the affect of 'Maybe you should…' and moving into the next one. The bird shifted, preening itself and hissing throatily to be fed. Neji would have to track down something raw and sufficiently bloody from the kitchen. The young jounin got up and found his bag, slinging it over his free shoulder. "I need to go. Heels down, shoulders aligned, remember it."
The girl's eyes widened. "You're not going in the house with that thing are you?"
"It won't hurt anyone."
"It hurt me."
"It won't hurt anyone else."
"If Bato catches you…" she said somewhat more seriously.
"It's fine," Neji promised her, one hand on the door frame. The bird, Suza, made a low cawing noise and nipped at his hair again. "Bato isn't the one I'm worried about. It's–,"
The screen door slid open.
A thin, severe looking Hyuuga woman had stepped halfway out.
Neji froze on instinct, his heart jumping like a skittish cat inside is ribcage to vanish, leaping up into his throat before he could so much as manage a 'pardon me'. Somehow she'd caught up in the door with him, smiling thinly as she always did. She grabbed his arm the elbow, meaning to pull him into the house with her before Hanabi noticed the tension between them, but Temari's hawk screeched and the impetuous hand snapped back instantaneously.
Silently Neji logged that away to thank Temari for when she arrived later. For once her scheme to piss off his family had been mutually engaging for the both of them.
Neji waited for the older woman to gather her scattered wits, dashed apart by the presence of a big, mean, hungry looking nin-hawk. Her long, dark hair – she dyed it to maintain the color - was drawn back proudly to the nape of her neck, exposing the smooth whiteness of her forehead so Neji could inspect the furrows of disapproval tilling her eyebrows together. Technically his grandmother, the woman somehow missed out on the genetic stamping process that tells grandparents to love and dote on all their grandchildren.
While she adored Hanabi, she pretended Hinata did not exist along with everyone else and pointedly despised Neji for sharing air with other members of the Hyuuga. She'd activated his curse seal on eight different occasions. More than any other two members of the clan combined. The woman drew herself up with great dignity and attempted something like a smile for Hanabi's benefit.
"Neji-kun," she greeted him pleasantly. She waved to Hanabi. "Hana-chan. Yuuki-sama is waiting for you in the breakfast hall. Why don't you get going?"
She waited until the girl had vanished through one of the other doors before resuming her previous course of action. She grabbed his opposite arm this time, putting Neji's head between her and the grouchy looking bird on his shoulder, and pulled him hard inside. She maneuvered him back against a wall and stood back to properly glare down her nose at him…which was hard because he was taller.
"What are you telling that girl?"
She delivered that thin, quavering smile. "That is 'sama', Neji-kun. Hanabi-chan cannot afford to be learning your bastardized Hakke techniques. If I catch you forcing your training on her behind the backs of the Council, I'll punish you myself. It that very clear to you?"
Her thin, papery lips trembled over her teeth, waiting eagerly to become a snarl in opposition to her current courteous smile. Neji didn't answer right away, lest he grant her authority she didn't yet have. Hyuuga Hiashi had never protested Neji's short instructional interludes with either of his daughters, so long as they were in accordance with his own teaching. Michiko took note of his pause; the hesitation to comply made those lips jump into an ugly curl.
"Do I make myself clear?"
"Hanabi asks for my opinion on her form. I'm obligated to give it, am I not?" Neji inquired, keeping his voice even.
"You are not obligated to oversee her in her morning kata routines," she replied swiftly. "And you will use the proper honorifics in accordance with your station, Neji. I will be fair to you. If I catch you either training Hanabi-chan, or using improper etiquette again, I will have to exact the consequences." Her wrinkled mouth cut up into a knife-slice of smiling teeth. "It that clear enough for you?"
Those long bony hands folded primly just below her breast, as if waiting for something to do.
Neji blandly considered the consequences that might be exacted if he flung an angry bird of prey into the old woman's face, pondering whether or not that elderly Hyuuga would have the presence of mind to form hand-seals as a hawk pecked her nose off. Instead he reached up to stroke the animal's head, calming the predatory tension that was driving it's talons into the under-armor of his shoulder. It bristled still until Neji turned his face into its wing and murmured. Michiko watched the exchange with narrow, jumpy eyes, like a woman sensing she's being spoken ill-of in a foreign language.
Neji returned his attention to her.
"I've never trained Hanabi-sama. I only give her the benefit of what experience I can offer as a member of this clan and a shinobi of Konoha. She's only asking for a second opinion." Neji lied effortlessly. (Actually, if given the authority, his cousin would drop Bato, forbid the Hyuuga prodigy to leave the estate and make him train her everyday for hours if she could. So desperate was she to be the next genius of the Hyuuga, the pedigree and prodigy of the head family, Neji wondered sometimes if he shouldn't sit down and talk with her about it. She was too desperate to be like him...and he wasn't sure why.) "Until Hiashi-sama himself forbids that too, I can't be held responsible for granting her requests."
Michiko pursed her lips and for a moment Neji thought she might just leave the conversation at that. He waited impatiently to be gone.
One of her thin, wrinkled hands - the one farthest from Suza - moved to touch his face, soft, scented fingers stroking the curve of his cheekbone. This sent ram-rod jolts of shock down his spine. She studied his face with a warm, affectionate kind of smile that defied every logic Neji had come to associate with this woman. Suza fidgeted, sensing his confusion, hissing quietly. Michiko tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear, fingers still lingering against his cheek.
"You have Hizashi's defiance," she announced, voice resounding, like a proud mother. For a moment, Neji almost thought - in a moment of psychosis only - the woman had succumbed to nostalgia, savoring the tracery of her dead son in his only child.
Then she lifted her other hand, fingers forming the familiar, dreaded seal. Neji felt his blood go absolutely cold.
"But too often you forget your place."
Neji, if pressed to explain how it felt to have the Cage Seal activated, would have said it's like a hybrid cross between having a firecracker go off inside your skull and someone ramming thumbtacks into the back of your eyes. It's always the same too, the exact same agony each time varying only in length and intent.
It's the shock of it that drives you to your knees, like being punched in the nose without warning brings reflexive tears to your eyes. Then the long, lingering searing sensation sets in, locking up your throat so you can't even breath because your still trying to scream, still trying to vocalize, to express, to purge the whirlwind of razors shredding the inside of your skull. And strangely there's this garroting wire tension through your torso, tight inside your body from abdomen to eyes, like your insides are going to snap like fishing line. Some have presence on mind to clutch their heads and scream or beg.
The rare few, like Neji, just collapse and lie still, paralyzed.
Time ticks by, blurred by in uncounted units, untallied centuries of misery. The serenity is strange, for Neji at least. Even while every synapse in his brain is crackling with acid flames, his eyes burning up, liquifying in his head, his entire being shrieking inside the chaos of his mind, he can still see clearly. Lying perfectly still, he can barely sense his body as if on the opposite end of some spectrum, limp on his back, limbs fallen at odd angles to lie where they may as a member of his family looks on, puzzled by the stillness in his torture – it has the unfortunate affect of making it easy for them to maintain the seal for a longer time.
Even then, he can see his grandmother standing over him, peering impetuously down at him, eyebrows arched high as if doubtful the seal is doing anything at all. The entire time Neji is screaming, sobbing, clawing his hands bloody against his scalp inside his head, images of anything and everything he would do if he could move to prove just how hideously she was ripping him apart, destroying him, utterly unmaking everything he was into screaming, macabre nothing...
Then it was over.
Neji jerked, gasping down a huge, shuddering breath so fast he started coughing, gagging on precious oxygen. Still coughing, he had to roll onto his side, pressing the heel of his hands against his forehead to finally, finally do something to relieve the pain.
Hyuuga Michiko nodded primly. "I hope that taught you, this time, Neji," she says, as if having slapped the back of his hand.
The woman turned away, the hem of her formal robes brushing the tips of his fingers as she moved down the hall. Neji lifted his face from the floor, glaring through the sting of saline tears, teeth set, gritting so hard his jaw ached.
"It's foolish to fight back," she called luxuriously, as if she couldn't be bothered to stop and explain things to him. "You'll see one day."
Then she was gone.
Neji levered himself up, casting around in search of Temari's hawk which had vanished from his line of sight. He thought he'd seen the bird attacking the Hyuuga woman, but the nin-hawk was smart. It would have taken off surely, hidden in the rafters overhead, flown out a window. Temari taught her birds to be fierce, but smart. There was a smell, like burnt hair lingering in the hall. Neji got to his feet and looked around. He found Suza against the wall a few yards behind him, heart burst, insides a bloated ruin of cooked meat.
Michiko had used Juuken to kill the hawk in a single hit.
No one saw him mourn it.
Saddle up, people. This is gonna be a weird and wicked ride. I've been dabbling in a Neji story for the better part of a long time and realized I should probably post it or something. Time frame is post-time skip months before Naruto's return to Konoha. Much of the plot details stem from my own silly Hyuuge/Uchiha theories so kick me in the shin if something doesn't make sense and needs clarifying. Reviews are cherished. Criticism is appreciated.