Hinata stares numbly at the scroll for an interminable moment, unseeing eyes fixed on the perfect circle of wax that is keyed to her chakra, and hers alone.

She wonders distantly how long it had taken him to learn to use just the right amount of wax; she still hasn't mastered it, couldn't replicate this if she tried.

But then, he'd always been more skilled.

She focuses. Hinata doesn't attempt the Byakugan; it's taboo for reasons of honor and tradition, but more than that, he would have included failsafes to destroy the scroll if anyone tried.

The Hyuuga are insular and deeply reticent even amongst themselves, and the reading of a kinsman's last words is a sepulchral rite in which every single detail is ridden with import. The initial reading is done alone, but Clan pride demands both gravity and understated ceremony.

Each of them had vowed by the blood they carried to change the Clan. Hinata doesn't think he'll mind that she's disregarding about twenty unwritten rules of etiquette; she can feel him here, feel his presence and his eyes on her, and she smiles for him.

For him, she examines and admires every detail of the intact scroll before opening it. Hinata holds the scroll in both hands, proffered to the altar before her, and notes its perfect balance. She runs a thumb over the silk, letting her skin appreciate the texture. Her pupil- less eyes soak in the contrast of red wax against the fine, creamy material; she brings it closer and strains her eyes to their limit, being careful not to squint or bring the scroll too close for Hyuuga dignity.

She can see just a bit of a water pattern, and she gives the scroll one full, slow revolution in her hands, committing the sight to memory. She lingers on the seal.

Neji had not secured his last words to her with the image of the cursed seal on his forehead; his stamp is simple and refined, and Hinata touches the tip of one finger to it.

A perfect circle, providing a frame of reference if not limits. Two dots within it, placed diagonally to one another, evoking the Taiji symbol. And in the center, wings uplifted, head raised...

A bird. A bird in flight.

Hinata places her thumb over the bird, feeds it a sliver of chakra. The wax warms under her flesh; she pulls back her hand and the red vanishes in a flash of blue chakra, thicker in the middle and stretching out to the sides. Another bird.

The corner of her mouth twitches up in a smile. Neji had been proud of his taste ("a well- developed aesthetic sense," he'd once sniffed in rebuttal to one of TenTen's teases), but he'd had reason to be. Her cousin had been elegant in almost every aspect, effortlessly graceful in a way that made Hinata feel like a stumbling child just watching him.

However, in the past three years or so her cousin had extended a hand to help her up, and this is something Hinata will cherish for the rest of her life. Nii- san she had called him, and that is what he became.

Carefully, almost reverently, Hinata unrolls the scroll.

Again, she takes a moment to absorb the nuances, to memorize the details. She runs her eyes over the kanji without reading them- admiring the form, the precision of the brushstrokes. Neji's work is, of course, immaculate.

Her eyes flick back to the beginning.

Hinata- sama, he begins,

There is much for me to say to you before I die. The most important things, you already know; the rest doesn't really matter. Because of you and Naruto, I again know peace. Last words will be a luxury, not a necessity.

However, there are still things that I need to tell you, things you deserve to hear.

Hinata- sama, I apologize for my actions against you in our first Chuunin exam. Were Hinata not Hyuuga, she doubts she would have recognized the extremely formal language Neji utilizes. This particular apology carries particular connotations in both branches of the Hyuuga clan; it's used for transgressions of the branch house against the main, but more than that, it's used when a branch member has been shown great mercy for a grave offense.

It is correct, used perfectly; but the kanji blur as her eyes water, because Hinata had thought they were beyond this, had thought that he understood...

She takes a deep breath, leans her head back with the exhale, waits for the incipient tears to dissipate.

When she's regained her calm, Hinata returns her gaze to Neji's farewell.

I realize I should have asked your forgiveness at the time, in person. I should have asked your forgiveness in life. My neglect in doing so, however, was deliberate.

Hinata- sama, do you know how deeply your words struck me then? I can still recall them perfectly.

"You're wrong, Neji nii- san."

Had you ever said that to me before? Even if you had, it was never with that certainty. I don't think I'd ever heard you so assured.

"Because I can see that you are suffering more than me. You are the one who is confused and suffering inside the fate of the head and branch families."

No one had ever said that to me before. Your words were what I most needed- and least wanted- to hear. You were the person I most needed- and least wanted- to hear them from.

I had spent the entire match up to that point attacking every weakness I saw in you. That strike to your heart was coldly calculated in a way I doubt- or perhaps hope- you will never understand.

You stood up to me. You stood your ground, you stood back up when you shouldn't have been able to, and you pointed out my weakness- not as an attack, as I had done, but out of compassion.

That, Hinata- sama, is why I lost my head the way I did.

Your words shook my faith in fate; it took my loss to Naruto to force me to acknowledge that change is possible.

You have changed, Hinata- sama, because you have grown; but the core of who you are remains the same, and that is what will redeem this clan. I had hoped to be by your side when you succeeded Hiashi- sama, and as you effected change throughout Hyuuga, but my presence or absence will not stop this change from occurring.

You will change the clan, Hinata- sama, not because you are fated to, but because you are exactly what the clan needs. Your words were exactly what I needed.

I claimed you were unsuited to be a ninja because you are kind, and hate violence. You empathize with others too easily.

I was too much of a foolish child, lost in grief and anger, to see it then. Your kindness, empathy and reluctance to engage in violence make you an excellent shinobi; you fight to protect. You safeguard what is precious to you, at any cost.

That is why you are and will be an excellent leader. Your eyes are better than mine, Hinata- sama, and it has been an honor to fight alongside you. It has been the greatest honor of my life to have been your

Neji nii- san

Her hand trembles once, slightly, and Hinata closes her eyes as they water. She takes in a deep breath through her nose, exhales through her mouth, sets her shoulders and raises her chin, and when she opens her eyes, they are dry.

Her crying is done. There is work before her; she will not disappoint Neji, will not let his life and his lessons go to waste.

Hinata is going to live strong. Hinata is going to name her firstborn son Neji, and he will never bear a cursed seal, because Hinata is going to change Hyuuga, and by the time she is done they will all be as birds, graceful and free.