Neji's missions were successful, which was only to be expected. [General on] Neji's side of things, up to the three years break.
When he arrived back at the Hyuuga residence, Hinata was telling her father about the new programs Iruka-sensei had talked about in class. Annual Sports Festival was great, sure. She was overly excited; an enemy could glean too much information from her tone; but her eyes were focused on Hiashi's.
"Excuse me, Neji-san, but we have a mission tomorrow morning! Please pack all the necessary equipment. Gai-sensei says we'll be out for two days this time! Neji-san! Did you hear me?" Lee interrupted his practice session. Neji replied that yes, he had heard him, and what time were they to meet? Lee said that six a.m. would be fine, and pulled out a short supply list. They were asked to pack a bundle of salted meat, water canteens, thin but tight-knit blankets, and a basic medical kit containing gauze, alcohol, medical tape, and an emergency supply of saccharine tablets. It was after Lee had left that Neji remembered to ask him about the mission itself. He decided to continue a light training session today, since he wanted to try out a couple of shuriken attacks.
After an early night in and early morning out, Neji met up with his new team and Gai-sensei. It would be his first mission, and it would be successful. Past successful, really. It would be enough to incite Gai-sensei to give them a C-ranked mission. (It would be his job to infiltrate, heal, and spy. He smelt like nothing, which was more appropriate than wind. He was good at his job. Lee would then exclaim, "Gai-sensei, Gai-sensei! It worked so well! I knew you were right, sensei!" and Neji wouldn't be loath to admit that it was a good experience, all things considered.)
He was too full to be surprised. Accustomed to his new schedule--"They're all getting better so quickly that I'll be getting older sooner," the Ichiraku Ramen owner murmured to a customer and they laughed-Neji walked down the street. It seemed smaller, or maybe he had gotten larger. It was just as good, he felt; he needed more space for all the work to show. It was autumn now.
The part he liked about being young is that no one panicked when he went missing for a short while. It was an in-between thing, to compare sensei's and Lee's similar backs to his own tense one.
Akamaru was just nosing one of Shino's bugs. His wet nose and the beetle's shell shone in the evening light. (In Konohagakure, night never fell until well after supper.) Shino was very proud of his insects, hovering about cautiously. Neji found them a rather engrossing work of chakra. Hinata-sama, too negligent after her own training, couldn't have possibly noticed how terrifying Shino was. Neji decided to get farther away. It was better to leave Hiashi to her affairs. Maybe Lee was willing to be target practice for his Byakuugan.
Neji overheard Shikato rebuking Shikamaru--that slackoff--on his dressage technique. Neji was heading from the Hyuuga Temple to Kurenai's favoured sparring area. He had to oversee Hinata-sama's practice. Occasionally, he would make himself known. It didn't matter; as soon as Hinata-sama executed Byakuugan, she knew he was there. Neji didn't watch Hinata train after his father left.
It was a bit strange, how everyone's clothes matched. And what was he supposed to be? Some insipid brown thing? But there were other brown things floating around. (As a child of four years, he had known he wanted to be unique, and would continue to make his own absurdity, including those of the Juin.) And it was always the same clothes, every blasted day. He didn't understand. And what! Lee was green. Their heights were also skewed.
Why did Naruto's hair stick up like Yondaime's... and Gaara's, and Kiba's? The fur on Kiba's jacket was just inconvenient. He decided that it must be fate.
A ball of orange once said, "It's my ninja way!" And he was unpleasantly stunned. He had expected something stupid, like a rebuttal, but without utterly helpless self-confidence. Where had his calculations gone wrong, made a wrong turn he couldn't find, and thus correct? Did his foresight leave when Hinata-sama turned to him with a straight posture and an offensive look in her eyes? It wasn't just the stance of their common fighting styles, he knew, but the determination. This was more like it.
He was only sure of his destiny because his senses tell him to be sure. Her resolution to change herself was not a dainty thing like sweet dango cakes or tea with honey. It was a shuriken, an ability carried by the momentum-the need of contorting chakra to her needs.
He kept his wrath in check. This little girl who thought she could still beat him, in that state--"I know it's useless."--wait. What? Then, why did she continue? Why did he continue? Stop it. She would lose and become more injured than his place of guardsman could allow. Astonishingly, Naruto was further motivated by the loss. Neji wanted to hurt them, to prove he was in the right and has always been right, to force them into his predicted outcome. So he did. He punctured Naruto's chakra wounds callously; regardless of Hinata's affection for Naruto, since Naruto was neither a Hyuuga, nor under Neji's care. (Hinata's eyes shifted to the ground at his feet to his shoulder to his left hand, and finally, above his head. Naruto regarded this as a habit and ignored it when Neji rebuked her for it.)
The loss of honour was a small thing, but it would turn out fine, because he had believed he would win. And because Neji knew he would win, he hadn't. He understood his error: maintaining the number one place was not all that mattered. Being of equal status and consequence in his mind to surface as either winner or newly ranked Chuunin had curbed his thoughts from the target.
Then that horrid smiling orange lump had jumped out, spotlighted Neji's overconfidence, and with a shout and a yell, he flew into the air and jolted Neji into stumbling. It was necessary to react. Too late, done; crack! Naruto slammed into his chin. His jaws clacked sharply and his head was rocked back. His neck was fine, he had found, but Naruto had been no less gracious to him as Neji had to Naruto.
As he lay on the makeshift bed, behind the ongoing Chuunin Exams, Hiashi entered-Uncle, father was dead, blood! Uncle killed Hizashi. And his head hurt. Stop it please, now. Hiashi closed the doors and ordered the med-nins out. Neji settled down. After his uncle gave him the scroll, he talked to Neji and Neji was gracious enough to stay still because of Naruto; Neji's indifference paused at the mention of his father and Hiashi as children.
The Uchiha was in intensive care. Naruto knew and did nothing. Neji could see Sasuke on the bed: a light blue outline thankfully diffused by the clothing and medical tubes. He was barely breathing on his own, and his eyes were blind. They'd heal though. The Uchihas had that. Neji wondered if he would go blind if he fought a Hyuuga. If anything happened to the Byakuugan he wouldn't be able to fix it. Would it get worse, though? He'd be fine. Hinata was of no consequence; she knew nothing about activating curse seals, especially the Juin.
With all this 'trust in others' infused in Konoha training, it was no wonder more than a few fell through the cracks, Neji breathed against the glass. They wouldn't let him out until he's fully recovered. He wasn't contagious, like Naruto, who was hopping all over the place like... like the orange freak he was.
Neji had never seen Gaara angry; Gaara was severely annoyed at the Chuunin Exams, but not angry. Neji didn't want to see those sand-smoothed hands reaching for a weapon.
Shut up was a good argument. It was all-purpose, like the health food over rice Hinata brought once.
Once, Shino had been right beside him, during Sarutobi's funeral. He could see a small hole in Shino's withdrawn hand. That hand had been too calm, wrapped in bandages, but Neji could see a small black hole, right under the knuckle of his index finger. There was one shapely little insect perched there, antennae twitching. Like Konoha's secrets, Neji knew there were at least a thousand more to the one he could see crawling, devouring chakra; little secrets shared within the family. It made him nervous. He didn't like being nervous, so he stared straight ahead and tried to ignore Naruto's fidgeting, who was at Shino's side.
The Kikachuu were buzzing, vibrating under his skin, and Neji stared as the hole closed up, leaving a scar two critters wide. 'Critters' scared him. They were a combination of too many angles and degrees, and running with heartbeats that made his queasy. They were just too weird. Hinata was crazy to stand behind him, eyes front: still.
That man was Uchiha Itachi. He sipped tea calmly and ignored the Akatsuki rings on their fingers. The other man was a fish. Itachi and his triple-tenketsu eyes were things that had never happened, as long as the Hyuugas were concerned.
Neji had then gone to the rescue, running with arms swung back, for that stupid Uchiha. How could anyone be so dumb was creepy, Naruto exempted. If he could, he would choke Orochimaru with his own tongue for making him use precious time to chase a loser.
Then, blast it all! He had to think things through. Stupid--chakra zipped to his fingertips--little--he searched for the weak points--idiot /thing/! And he swung, aiming to flatten those gnarly limbs of the Sound Five's spider guy. He regretted that he was too tired to make it overkill (because that fat guy who was competing with Chouji for more than weight was fattened up on his chakra). Neji glared at his hand; the birds were flying away again.
Chakra surgery was a demanding process. Thankfully, Neji was suspended in medical-nin chakra. It felt like he was floating in the nourishing fluid of a mother's womb. The pain lingered afterwards. Neji was kept in the hospital for post-surgery examination, and he slowly recovered, a team of medical-nins having successfully extracted all the poison and sutured the holes in his shoulder and chest with chakra thread. But what was particularly irksome to Neji were the long hours he spent lying on a thin bed. He figured that bedsores weren't altogether a negative thing; it just meant he was really immobile, which was ... bad. He wasn't supposed to train for two months. Two months. Were they all impervious to the fact that muscle deterioration began after two weeks of insufficient maintenance, he almost demanded. He couldn't afford to let the pigeonholes of his character rot, though. Besides, he did not plan to reside in a place which had the singular smell of sickly breath and medicine.
The nurse attended to him, replacing the intravenous sac and wiping away the dried, had-been watery fluid-gunk around the bandages. He thought she put something into the porridge. He was constantly tired. It was a tasteless, spongy sort of meat-soup that made him spit it up the first time. Under the sway of the nurse, "It's good for you. Eat up," he forced it down. It tasted like over-cooked cabbage.
Hinata came in, all "Neji-niisan" saying something about the birds. There were birds here? Never mind that. Where was the Uchiha? What happened to the ... he was tired. Hm, yes? Could you repeat that, he asked. (Hinata did not blush this time; used to him distracted, probably.)
Ah! They used his /hair/? His hair was the chakra funnel and medium and sutured his muscles back together? Well. Neji was tired and needed to find out the exact jutsu and tenketsu they used. He could find out in the morning.
The last time having someone next to him felt so certain and well, made him happy, was too long ago to remember.
That night, he imaged a lattice of sand enclosing the building, reminiscent to those chakra spider webs he thought of often, the cause of his detention. The first time it happened had been in a dream, but the following morning, there had been some grain-like, gold tinted, rough material under his pillow. Was it Sunagakure sand? He decided to stay up later the next night.
A few iridescent granules glinted in the moonlight. There was a small pile of fine, desert sand on his side table that the nurse had helped him sweep away. She had been surprised when he refused to throw it away. There was still a bit of sand in his hair and it irritated his scalp. With the hand from his unwounded arm, he scratched it cautiously.
He didn't see Gaara that night, nor the following nights, for the next fortnight. He tried to train, to no avail of his busy caretakers. He wondered how Naruto and Lee got away with it. They were training under plain daylight (!) on hospital grounds, no less. How ... annoying. He could hear them everyday, encouraging the other like true idiots, never mind the Chuunin Exams.
Gaara never showed up and he began to think it was a dream induced by the Byakuugan. That would be reasonable. Gaara was hurt like Naruto, right?
Sometimes children swore they saw things happen, like Naruto's hand twitching. (Naruto was getting whiter since he wasn't allowed to go outside without waking up first. Neji feared those rumored red chakra tails the most. He hadn't after all, come into dangerous contact with them and wasn't stupid like the Uchiha, who would have ignored Naruto and his actions. Specializing was the best way to defeat a particular enemy, and the Uchiha was just dumb. Sasuke was pulling on Naruto's tail(s, was it now?) and Neji watched as Naruto twitched in his sleep, clutching his shoulder, or in absence of Sasuke's. Neji didn't know and had cared enough to go along, minus the succinct speech. He didn't want to have anything to do with Uchihas anymore; three in his life was already difficult.) Convicting injustice with good, though implausible, made a very touching scene. A little boy said to Naruto, "We all fell short, Naruto-niisan." The comment chafed Neji.
He remembered when Naruto saw him, not as a crazed failure or a proud, vain, stupid symbol of genius, or a member of a clan (Naruto hadn't even known about!) but as something on its own, he felt ungainly, distorted, and that Naruto was certainly not in the right mind. Neji wasn't taking vaguely suicidal actions or weighing his destiny first anymore. Everything still mattered to him, of course, but it was surprising when he found himself wondering when he'd get out of bed instead of thinking about when it would stop hurting. Pain was good. It meant healing, the nurse chided him.
When he was visited by Naruto, he knew Naruto was simply not himself, laughing and saying sorry. It was after the hole in his chest had mended. Skin that stretched between the new and the old skin was oddly discolored and knotted. He chalked it up to the poison and his reactive blood. Medical-nins and nurses had exclaimed upon the speed of his (and Chouji's) recovery. (The weight Chouji lost on a hospital diet began to recover once the other genins started visiting. Asuma was seen bowlegged, disappearing soon after, and hours later, he returned with Chouji, both of them looking pleasantly full. They were round and happy, like squids and jellyfish, Neji recalled. Asuma smiled with a toothpick hanging in his mouth, "Back to your room now, quickly." And Chouji had shuffled back. The bed creaked when he was settling down.)
He was to be released in one week.
"Watch your tongue, Naruto!" that Haruno girl wheezed. Naruto almost swore at her, and then caught himself. He barely cared for her when he returned. Neji was annoyed with Naruto all the time. He always had been; Naruto was too impulsive, and Neji refused to believe how well Naruto's missions turned out. (Neji's missions were successful, which was only to be expected.)
Naruto was shifty when it came to Sasuke and much louder--colourful, really, than when he was a kid; Naruto wanted something for himself, other than becoming Hokage, and Neji was relieved in a way, because that's what normal people do. Neji, on the other hand, just wanted normal clothes, and maybe some training time. He also wished that Hinata would learn to make less sweet deserts. The sugar killed him when he drank tea.
After Sasuke left, and they had all recovered, Naruto took his empty time and scraps of Sasuke and crunched it up like a pillow. Crinkling unpleasantly where he tried to sew it together, he threw together sporadic activities into something he could control. Neji was fine when Jiraiya came and offered to take Naruto. There were no 'what ifs' because it would just be, and Neji personally thought they were going to be screwed over anyways.
These days, Neji rarely saw Naruto. He went out with different genin--it was part of his new training regime--but mostly with his team. It was important to know how to take on different sorts of enemies.
Jiraiya only took Naruto's concentration away from the most damned way of doing things to trying to kill himself, on that 'mission' to Tsunade. Neji swore that no one would ever do that to him; he would be rational, and fuck, Naruto was messed up, why didn't Neji have a reason to?
It wasn't okay to hit people, even when they said so, or is they deserved it annoyingly; nothing besides a smile and maybe a wary look was okay, but Neji hauled Naruto (he was so short) up anyways and asked him if he was crazy.
Neji liked birds: they were his version of fate, and if he believed in Buddha, he would trust nature. But he did not, because he trusted the solid thunk of kunai on wood far more than he would a god.
"You better not be showing off," Tenten said, Naruto said, and even Asuma said, to Gai. Kakashi, that dimension-traveling freak, laughed, and Neji was /discreetly/, mind you-pleased.
The first thing he did when he got back was to find some decent clothes. Then he took a sack of birdfeed out of the small warehouse by the huge compound doors and walked down to the inner gardens. Someone had let the birds out of that station.
Neji agreed to pass kunai with the man. (He felt Hinata watching, past the shouji doors, a bunch of erratic chakra nerves. It was the other way around... where did the -sama go? Neji gave her a nod and he could see the dark clump give a start. No, she hadn't really been surprised. Maybe her slow improvement-Kurenai was too accommodating towards Hinata-had been faster and less noticeable than he decided.)
It had been years since Neji play-fought Juuken with another Hyuuga. It was all formality and inclinations at first, but it seemed Hiashi never moved, and if Neji hadn't relied on the Byakuugan, the footfalls on dusty ground, the/--he might have stood a chance. He forgot Hinata. And then he couldn't see properly and his eyes hurt and his head hurt, not from any seals Hiashi made, though, and the chakra rushed and throbbed and oh! the ground was raised and his hands were--where were his hands? He couldn't feel his arms. /The Kaiten! The fricative of his name rang through the spin.
There was this blurry white-blue section between his eyelashes, and there was pain. Run in! Right there! I should have been like the Uchiha, Neji thought, I should have ... and he swung the kunai up close, executing the first spin of Kaiten. That's right! Go! A difficult, embarrassingly attentive smile and he fell, breathless, face-forward. It wasn't a physical impact, but it was very cruel and very painful.
Splayed like a fish of some sort, he didn't care anymore. Energy had to be spent for listening, for replying to Hiashi. He breathed against the strands of hair sticking to the sweat on his face, and smiled damply. He felt the light breeze running over him, shifting his shirt and pants. Neither Lee nor Tenten had ever made him try so hard. It was a good workout.
The dammar he was trying to dissolve into a concentrated sort of varnish--he had offered to help the household men apply a finish to the new room--was annoying him. It refused to smudge across the ridged washboard they used to make paints, ink, and in this case, varnish. And-oh god, his hair loosened and fell in. With hands smudged with dusty sap, he pulled his hair back. Alas! The attempt to tie his hair back into a proper pony-tail failed. Stupid hands were so sticky. Neji tried washing it off. It didn't work. The imprudent hair tie refused him. In the end, he had to call Hinata over to help him tie his hair up. She had blushed and agreed. Neji knew they were on what was considered to be good terms (in the Hyuuga household). Even Tenten and Lee had remarked on how mellow he was.
What? No. He was the same as ever; a bit more bitter, if he said so himself. It was Hiashi's fault, as it had always been his fault. Neji noticed that he just spent a day varnishing a room, doing a job which was supposed to be the help's, and he laughed to himself.
The birds in the servants' compound had been released that morning.
Neji was caught off-guard when Hinata asked for help. He agreed to train; determinism free.
She fell down again, again. Once, twice, aquiline fingers brushed past, once, twice. They never seemed to touch her. Shoulder, arm, back, nothing important. She was up again, squinting at the flash of blue, the petulant drip of movement beyond her fingertips. And she still didn't want Neji's help. She had said to not slow or risk pity, nii-san and charged. What an idiot. Alien of desire, there was no greed encompassing enough for the House.
And there was Shikamaru with his shadows too full of rationality and furious shouji lexis, playing with his shadow-hair. They were making black butterflies, and Shikamaru maintained eye contact with low, gray clouds.
Neji glanced at his Chuunin vest, wishing he had one to covet, for the sake of it and the new circle of duties; he would soon be able to bypass Naruto, the dropout, the ultimate loser, who was always in the same class as the Uchiha. Failing years at a time, he hung on and Neji would too, so he asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm watching the clouds," Shikamaru replied.
"Ah." They left it at that.
"Too agitated. Stay still. Think. Pray. I'll be back before dark. Hinata'll be over with tea soon."
Neji was learning to concentrate chakra through meditation. Hyuugas' Bloodline Limit had to be preserved through rationality, Hizashi had preached. Neji didn't care that there was nothing that he could do; Naruto was trying and it was enough. Naruto had left with Jiraiya yesterday. There was a way. He meditated in the new room for hours. It smelt like freshly cut wood. And it was on the embroidered pillow Hiashi offered him (so his knees wouldn't give out) that he fell asleep on.
The fortress smelt of dank, matted grass, and preservatives. He fancied he could feel the years of use in its walls. Neji figured that this atmosphere is as perfect as it was going to get. It was good to practice the basics. He needed to, after failing the Chuunin Exams embarrassingly, to prepare for his next one, next year. The disruptive air would keep him awake, so he plopped down and buzzed through a sutra.
Sneezing, he thumped on his numb legs and sipped cold tea.
Neji had nightmares. They were about sand, his Byakuugan vision, and green melons. It was a gift giving thing. Neji had never been so terrified that sand would get into his clothes, chafing him... and Naruto coming along with a present of a melon. Neji woke up, so startled that Hinata asked, "What was wrong, Neji-niisan?"
"It was nothing, Hinata-sama. Go back to sleep," Neji murmured. That was a terrifying thing, those Eyebrows and Eyelashes, when he first saw them. It was more... common now, he hoped; common enough for his surprised look to disappear.
He figured it was the angles. (Staring at the glowing insides of people should be prophetic, but it wasn't and Neji was glad to be relieved of epiphanies at all times of day.)
Gai was eccentricity. He made Neji lose concentration, but he was the best team leader, he supposed. Kakashi was inconsistent and Asuma and Kurenai were weak. He sometimes saw why Gai had distaste for Kakashi; Kakashi wasn't anything but a favourite of the Yondaime. Neji never saw him in the hospital.
Sometimes it was Hinata, he knew, because it couldn't be anyone else, and sometimes it could have been Gaara. Wasn't Gaara Kazekage now? The word had come a week ago, almost a year after Naruto had left. It was a lot quieter now. Shinobi from other countries never visited.
Chuunin Exams were starting again. And there would be no Naruto to foil him. He knew he would be fine, and maybe even Hinata would get in. It was only their second try. He gave in to his senses. It wasn't because of the frequent flash frames of muscle memory; he would leave that to Lee, but he knew his hands could tell him more truths than his head. He planned on leading with more than the white and blue of his Byakuugan.
Neji was strong. He worked with himself, Hyuugas, or Lee on a daily basis. He didn't want the fifth, Tsunade, to have to heal him all the time. Come to think of it, he might take Tsunade up on her med-nin program. The theory of one in each group was really genius. They could save days on missions. Of course, it was impossible for him to learn like Lee (and vise versa), to execute trilling moves like Lee, so he didn't ask after Gai first sparkled his 'nice guy' pose at Lee and pulled him aside to discuss how Lee was not allowed to ever use that move. Neji felt bested, and by a shinobi who didn't even use chakra. By then, he had enough restraint to avoid glaring at Lee and taunting him about wasting his physical experiences on unavailable chakra. He wasn't some sort of girl, though, like Tenten, who started crying as soon as she left Team 8. (Neji wasn't going to concern himself; it wasn't structured that way, and he knew he had good chakra control, the best in his group, naturally. As long as Lee never stumbled and Neji held up, he felt he would be fine, successful enough to earn an A-ranked mission soon, but maybe a C-ranked mission, just to practice chakra control with the Godaime. Neji fingered the soft spot between his collarbone and breast. It was too vulnerable.) With his head bowed, Neji knocked on Hiashi's shouji door.
The yellow warmth glowed and faded as they sat, talked, and drank tea.
One day, Neji received a new set of clothes. They were thick, cottony soft and most important of all, clean. He looked down at his khakis in shame. They were years old, scuffed and mended over and over. He tried them on. They were too big! Who knew fudging one inch had such a terrible consequence? On the way out, he caught on the shoji door and stumbled. He'd have to fix those pants first if he wasn't going to embarrass himself in front of a vendor, of all things. He decided to find a maid to tuck in the sides.
"... That is ugly, Hinata-sama." She pulled out a newly-dusted gi for him. It was hideously blue. They giggled at each other, Hinata reservedly and Neji with his mouth shut resolutely.
Trying to plan everything at once was too tiring, not to mention imprecise. It seemed that nothing came out the way he wanted; maybe he'd start to take things one at a time.
The funniest feeling he'd ever felt was inching its way up his stomach, down his intestines, and into his spine. It tugged him back like a wagon. Everybody knew this moment, that exact point on a map, where they have decided to love a real person. Once there, nothing was sacred anymore.
Hiashi quietly offered traditional Hyuuga robes to Neji and he had accepted. The next day, Neji was digging holes. The birds were dead. He remembered to take precautions: sanitize, cover hands, cover birds, and deposit properly; so Neji was digging holes. One per bird. They were training a different species of birds, warblers, perhaps? Sometimes, when Neji was the one who let the birds free, he was happy with their little wish, but he had stopped and confronted Hinata to do the same when he found half of the released ones had returned or died. Hiashi ordered this event as a D-ranked mission, and Neji volunteered to take it. More birds returned over the next month than they had when Hinata or the others were around.
It would be easier if Naruto was more selfish and Gaara would say something. Who cared, anyways? That kid was always eerily silent, it reminded him of that fat guy-Jiraiya. Neji didn't know why, but everyone was weird like that, except for Hinata. She was just Hinata, always wispy and unthreatening, morally. It suited him just fine. He liked the silence. It allowed him a bit of breathing room. Lee was too jolting, no, just impossible. He was the best partner, though. Lee had a special chakra system and Neji was going to abuse it as much as possible; it never hurt Lee to replace a couple hundred rounds of one thing or another with Neji's blue flurries.
Neji knew he couldn't do without a prodigious comment now and then. Everyone looked so, even Gaara, that pretentious little Kazekage. (Curse him for being an uncanny awkwardness.) Neji knew about Sand's Council. He learnt about them on that reunion-type mission. That was /fun/. Getting better and worse at the same time was much more confusing than taking steps. He found the ground went missing after the second step... and that made it a bit harder to take a step back. Naruto was gone, and Gaara stopped visiting after Naruto made the final comparison-no more needed to be made, because Gaara was finally a little less monstrous, according to his mother. The birds were little flurries, shedding their baby feathers in the spring. Neji wouldn't give up; if he lost to this village, he would die. He was going to die when he lost. He wasn't going to lose, ever.
He turned his fist (but only the fingers were curled, bent double) palm out and concentrated the chakra into his top four joints. The dead trunk splintered, inscribing four lines down. It would do. With both hands atop the marks, he traced out a crude figure of the Juin. (The bark irritated his hands.) On the back of this tree, he carved a thin rectangle out, small enough to be bound into his hitai-ate. It was even and marbled with the years.