Neji had seen him coming, of course -- not that seeing Naruto coming was anything special, even for people who didn't possess the byakugan. The noise he always made was enough of a warning in itself.
"Hey, Neji! I've got a present for you."
... what he hadn't seen coming, was what Naruto had just deposited in his lap.
"I've got a mission, so I can't take care of it, but -- well, with your leg and all -- it will keep you busy for the next month or so, right? I know you're probably bored as hell."
The bundle squirmed, made an odd chirping noise. Neji lifted a corner of the blanket, in case the fabric had fooled his eyes or something like that.
"So -- I have to go, 'nother mission -- ANBU's running me into the ground, I swear!" He didn't sound like he actually minded. "Get better quick, okay? gottagoseeya!"
Neji looked up, but Naruto was already gone, bouncing down the corridors with the same enthusiasm he'd forced on the world when he was twelve.
The bundle chirped again, and squirmed, and tried to bite down on his finger. Neji looked down at the thing trying to claw its way free of the blanket it was wrapped in, and stared.
Naruto had given him a bird. A brownish, fluffy, pissed-off baby bird.
The idiot had forgotten to tell him where he'd gotten it, how old it was, what it needed to eat, and more important, if he even wanted it.
Neji glared at the bird. The bird glared back. From the way it pecked viciously at his fingers, Neji concluded that at least he had the reply to one of his questions; it just had to be carnivorous. Sighing, he got up, awkwardly holding the bundle under his arm, grabbed his crutch, and hobbled to the phone. Maybe one of his teammates would know how to find answers to his other questions.
"It sure is ugly," Tenten commented as she poked at the bundle of downy feathers.
"It sure is fast," Lee replied with a grin as she yelped and sucked on her bleeding finger. "I find it cute, too! Don't worry, Mister Downybutt. You're adorable. Tenten cannot recognize your true beauty."
"Stop grinning at the bird, Lee, you're making it nervous," Neji commented, and resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the nickname. "Leave it alone," he ordered, reaching out with his crutch to push the crate he'd placed the chick in under the table. Hopefully it would prevent anyone from bumping against it by accident, and the darkness would help settle down the thing.
"Ahh, you're right, nap time for Mister Downybutt," Lee sighed as he gave the crate a regretful look.
Tenten was sucking on her finger thoughtfully. Neji looked up at her. She had a cat; it was more experience with animals than Neji had ever had in his life. Pets were not encouraged on the Hyuuga compound.
"Carnivorous. Probably a bird of prey like hawks and eagles, not a vulture or an owl, seeing the shape of the beak and the claws. Can't say what species it is, though; I'd have to find a book. Did Naruto say where he found it?"
"No," Neji grunted, still annoyed at the way the blond had dashed in and out without even stopping to exchange a few words.
"It seems big, so it's probably an eagle of some sort, but I really can't tell."
"If you can drop at the library and find me the books most likely to be helpful, I'll find the info myself," Neji proposed. Tenten was busy these days, and he didn't want to make her actually research the stupid bird.
"Okay, I'll go this afternoon. It should survive on minced rat meat in the meantime, or maybe crushed insects or something..." she added, a teasing smile appearing on her face as Neji's upper lip curled faintly in distaste.
"But Neji can't hunt for his protégé while he's hurt!" Lee objected, looking heartbroken. "What a tragedy--"
"Make Hanabi do it," Tenten commented, chuckling. "I'm sure if you present it like an occasion to show off her skills in tracking and hitting small, quick prey, she'll be delighted to help."
Neji privately doubted that Hanabi-sama would ever be delighted of anything, especially not hunting rodents for him. That and he could still throw a kunai himself. It was his leg that was hurt, not his arms.
"I'll find a way," he replied sharply, and got up to walk them back out of his apartment.
Stupid bird better appreciate it, Neji growled to himself as he tried to negotiate the narrow, slippery stairs leaving the basement while leaning on his crutch, holding his kunai and three dead rats by the tail. There was no railing. Usually his balance was good enough that it was not a problem, but he had to avoid reopening the few stitches on his back as well as sparing his leg as much as possible. He really should have thought to find a bag to carry his bounty as well. These rats were surprisingly heavy.
At least there was no one close by to witness how incompetent he was being.
Neji repressed the urge to growl.
For such a shy girl, especially one who used to be terrified of him, Hinata could be surprisingly pushy when she thought that he was overworking himself. Before he knew it, Neji had been helped up the stairs, down the corridors, plopped down in a chair and was staring at his rebandaged leg, wondering how Hinata-sama had managed to do all that without giving him even one occasion to voice a complaint. She was now standing by his sink, skinning one of the rats with a surprising lack of squeamishness. He didn't ask how she'd known about the bird. It was squawking and screeching so loudly, it was a wonder none of his neighbors had come to check what was up.
"If I may ask -- how...?" she asked softly, nodding toward the crate.
"Naruto," he snapped back, still annoyed.
She didn't flinch like she would have a few years ago; she smiled, as if that explained everything. "Ah, Naruto, of course. I saw him jump over the wall, but he looked in too much of a hurry to stop."
He's stopped for Neji, though... but that was probably that he needed to drop off the thing. And even then, he hadn't stopped long.
"Do you know where he was on his last mission?" Neji asked; he didn't particularly want to make conversation, but he needed more information on the possible origin of the beast, and as Hinata was free to walk around, she probably knew more than him.
"The Grass country, I think. I can check on the native species if you want..."
"Tenten is doing that," he replied.
Hinata turned away, head lowered like a kicked puppy.
"... if you wish to search on your own anyway, though, don't let me stop you," he added for some reason he didn't quite understand.
Beaming, she started mincing up the rat.
The stupid bird was not in any of the books Tenten had brought him back. Neji had narrowed it down, sure, but there was always a detail or two that didn't match. Tail feathers of the wrong size, wrong markings, wrong eye color, wrong -- argh. Stupid bird. The closer he'd found was Grass Plains Hawk, but the bird was bigger than it should be at this age. Of course Naruto would find him a freak as a pet.
He closed the latest book and leaned back in his chair, briefly closing his eyes. Of course the shrieking started again at precisely that second. Stupid bird was telepathic like that. Neji got up, spent a minute picking up his crutch, and hobbled to the kitchen counter. A rat was awaiting mincing. It was scary how much such a little thing could devour.
Listening to its demanding chirps, Neji tried to convince himself that it was good, that it meant the little pest was healthy and strong and wouldn't need too much coddling. It had been a whole two weeks, and Neji's handling hadn't killed it yet. But then, Neji's handling was the only sort that could be used on the beast in the first place; he was the only one fast enough not to get bitten and scratched every time he put his hand in the crate. Hinata-sama and Tenten had abandoned after a few days, and he didn't let Lee try in the first place; the idiot was always too scared of hurting Mr Downybutt to hold it tight enough, and as a result the bird regularly escaped. How one chick that couldn't even fly yet could manage to evade a skilled taijutsu user in a closed room was beyond Neji's abilities to comprehend.
Well, Naruto had been right on one count. He was definitely not bored. Tired was more like it. The bird required food every four to five hours.
Sighing, he deftly pulled the box out from under the table with his crutch and grabbed the bird when it attempted to pounce on his hand, folding the wings along its body.
"Calm down, stupid thing," he muttered, filling its beak with meat. In two voracious gulps, the bird's throat was empty again and it chirped for more. Neji fed it, eyeing it warily. One thing it was actually good for was his dexterity. Finding the right moment to put food in its beak and pull his fingers out of range was a challenge, considering how erratically the chick shook its head on all sides and randomly snapped at him. Also, if he didn't feed it fast enough, it attacked the hand he was using to hold its wings closed. He had so far not managed to feed it too quickly.
"Here," said Hanabi as she threw his door open, flung a few dead rats at his sink, and crossed her arms, glaring down her nose challengingly.
Neji ignored her, because diverting his attention at this point would have meant losing a finger and he'd never had a better excuse to snub one of the members of the Head Family.
Neji had never known if Tenten had asked Hinata to suggest it to Hanabi-sama, or if she'd gotten the idea on her own, but Hanabi-sama had been hunting for him. She brought more and more rats, but somehow the little hellbeast seemed to be eating more and more, and in the end there was always just barely enough. Neji thought that Hanabi-sama saw it as a challenge : flood Neji's kitchen corner with dead rodent carcasses before his evil pet could devour them all. Hanabi had not liked not being fast enough to avoid getting clawed, and she had not liked that her father had refused to order Neji to get rid of the animal. Hyuuga-sama was too busy to take care of such a petty matter.
So now she helped feed it. Neji had never understood any of his cousins. He was not going to complain, though, as long as it was to his advantage.
"Thank you, Hanabi-sama," he said absently as he fed the beast a crunchy bit of cartilage. He didn't want to be impolite, but if he'd looked sincere, Hanabi would have died on the spot. Or tried to kill him as an imposter. Or -- well, she would kill him anyway if he started to laugh for nothing, so it was better not to imagine her face, really.
"It was no challenge at all," she replied flippantly. Since he'd kicked her ass during a training session, she lived to beat him. It was kind of -- amusing. In a not-so-amusing way. He'd dedicated his life to beating the members of the Head Family, and even now it was hard not to challenge every one of them to prove how much better he truly was, despite belonging to the Branch Family. And she'd dedicated her life to beating everyone who was stronger than her in an effort to prove that she was not as weak as her sister, that she was indeed worth being the Hyuuga heir.
"It's getting bigger," she commented with a disdainful sniff as she stepped a little closer. "It's going to end up too fat to fly."
Neji repressed a flash of annoyance. "All babies are chubby and disproportionate, Hanabi-sama. I'm sure you've seen pictures of yourself."
Direct hit! an irreverent little voice commented as a thunderous expression passed over the girl's face. For one second, he was ready to turn around, but he'd only been imagining Naruto's comment.
"I'll have you know that Mother says I was a perfect baby!" she replied, offended. "This -- this animal is certainly not perfect. It's moth-eaten and chubby and -- and loud!"
Neji hid --badly-- a smirk. "All babies are noisy, Hanabi-sama, perfect or not. And it's not moth-eaten; it's losing its baby down."
He privately agreed that it made the creature even uglier than usual. But he'd gotten used to it.
"It, it -- do you even know if it's a male or a female?" Hanabi asked, still disdainfully looking down at him. She sounded contemptuous, but he knew her enough to realize that she was actually interested. Hinata and Tenten had asked too. Why did they care? He would never understand girls.
"No, I don't," he said in a tone that also meant he didn't care. "You're free to look," he added challengingly.
She smirked, and activated her byakugan. She was sure that she could find its genitals easily enough.
Neji smirked back. He knew where to find its genitals, but he could bet that she wouldn't know how to identify them anymore than he did. Birds had nothing to do with mammals in that regard.
"... What sort of mutant is this?" she finally growled, defeated.
Neji hid his smirk. He'd been just as confused. "Male birds don't have a penis, apparently. If the patterns are close enough to other birds of prey, we'll know when it gets its adult feathers. For now it's an it."
She grunted an acknowledgement -- he was surprised to recognize the gruff sound as an imitation of her father's sounds. Somehow, on an eleven-year-old girl, it failed to look as badass as it was intended.
"It's calmer now," she commented, frowning quizzically at the chick.
Neji looked down at the bird in his lap, and realized with surprise that the little beast was indeed calmer. It was still on its back, wings and claws blocked by one of Neji's hands. Apart from its head swiveling around to look at him, then at her, it wasn't moving.
"Maybe the rat was bad and now it's going to die," Hanabi commented with relish as she leaned forward just a little bit more.
A lock of her hair fell over her shoulder.
Shrieking, the bird exploded in a flurry of movements.
Two minutes later, the ruckus finally died down. There were brownish feathers floating in the room, Hanabi's hands and her chin were sporting bleeding claw marks, and Neji was heavily leaning on the table ; when he'd tried to get on his feet, he'd forgotten his bad leg. The chick was on the floor, hissing and beating its fluffy wings threateningly at Hanabi, a lock of black hair still tangled in its beak. It was as ridiculous as getting attacked by a chicken, Neji thought absently, except that chickens didn't have beak and claws that sharp, and didn't target eyes as a matter of course.
It had almost managed to reach them, too. Hanabi was livid.
"Don't move, Hanabi-sama," he ordered tiredly as he looked around for something -- a shirt or a blanket-- to throw on top of the bird and bring it under control. If it didn't return to its box fast, he feared what the Hyuuga heiress would do to something that had the audacity to threaten her byakugan.
Chirping angrily, the bird flopped toward him and proceeded to climb his pant leg. Not the injured one, thank god, or he would have killed it himself the second he felt the strong claws drive into his skin. Surprised, he kept still, waiting for it to reach his waist so he could grab it easily. It didn't struggle much, for once. He held it against his chest, its back to him, its claws closed around his bandaged forearm, as it hissed threats at Hanabi.
"... Well. I see it recognizes its mommy," Hanabi commented snidely. Her hands were still shaking. Neji decided not to reply.
"I apologize, Hanabi-sama. I didn't think it was going to do that."
For a second, he was seized by the irrational fear that she was going to demand the beast to be executed, and caught himself tightening his hold. A mildly offended chirp made him relax, and he blinked. He really didn't give much of a damn, except that Naruto had entrusted the bird to him and he didn't like admitting that he couldn't manage to complete such an easy task.
"... Hold it better next time," Hanabi snapped, without her usual venom, and stomped out, fingering the scratch on her face.
Well, at least she didn't seem enraged enough to complain to her father.
Neji looked down at the chick wearily, and once again trained his speed and precision by untangling the hair around its beak before it could bite a chunk out of his fingers.
"You're really more trouble than you're worth," he muttered, and limped to the crate to put it away for the next few hours. Maybe it would be quiet and he could manage to catch a nap.
Neji groaned, flopped face down on his bed and tried to bury himself in his pillow.
The pillow was hard, because Neji didn't like soft things. It wasn't helpful right now.
THUD. Scratchscratchscratchscratchscratch. Thud.
... ahh. Silence. Maybe...
THUD. THUD. SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH.
"... Stupid bird," he growled sleepily, rolling out of his bed and stumbling to the table. The massive oak plank he'd put over the crate to keep the hellbeast inside was a whole hand's length away from where it had been. He pushed it off -- the underside was scored with deep claw marks -- and stepped back cautiously.
The bird hopped out of the crate, perching on the edge and glaring around balefully. It screeched, flapping its wings vigorously, then settled down, staring at him. He knew what that look meant. Foooooooood.
Grumbling under his breath, he limped to the kitchen corner. He'd managed a whole six hours of sleep this time; not so bad, really, but the wake up call could be better.
The bird hopped from its perch and fluttered after him, chirping. Food. Food food food.
Neji found a small rat -- the last one in the rat box -- and started skinning it. Lately, he'd stopped taking the major bones out and even left some skin; it didn't seem to have any adverse effect. If any, the bird's claws and beak seemed to be getting even sharper.
He felt a prick at his ankle and looked down. Big yellow eyes looked up at him. Food! the chick demanded as it climbed -- or fluttered, sort of -- up his leg. Neji had taken to wearing thick combat-cloth pants, all the time. No one who had met the bird asked why.
He lowered his hand, let it grab onto his wrist -- protected by a thick glove -- as he gave it a boost to the countertop. It was getting surprisingly heavy. Soon, he would need to find a lock for the rat box, because in a few weeks at the very last, the bird would be flying.
And then he could set it free -- get rid of it.
He stepped back, putting the rat down in the sink -- it was easier to wash off the blood and the tiny bits the bird didn't swallow like that -- and watched it perch on the faucet. It stared down at the dead rodent for a few seconds, then with a screech, let itself fall on it. Neji smirked. It was hunting its prey so seriously; it was a pity so much intensity was put into hunting something that was already dead.
Leaving the bird to its meal, Neji hobbled to the crate to clean it. His leg was healing, and his back now only sported a faint scar. Soon, he would go back to the field. Maybe in a few weeks. He didn't know what he would do if he received orders before the stupid animal was old enough to be ready to take its independence. Hanabi-sama would use it for target practice, and the bird didn't like Hinata-sama at all. Tenten's cat would object, and Lee should only be allowed to own turtles and other such slow, patient animals.
The crate cleaned and lined with litter and another of his old shirts, he turned back to the sink, in time to see the bird jump from the counter, little wings fluttering madly to slow its descent. Neji revised his assessment. In ten days the bird would manage to take off. He didn't know how long it would take before it flew well, though. But in any case, it would need exercise.
There was a thin rope lying on the table; he'd used it to tie scrolls closed, but he didn't need it anymore. Sitting to spare his leg, he dangled it negligently. Immediately, the bird's head swiveled and it zeroed in. There!! Moving!! With a screech, the bird bounced toward its target. Neji was surprised at the swiftness of the attack, but also faintly amused. The bird had misjudged the strength to apply and had rolled head over heels, getting tangled in the rope. Neji tugged gently on the other end to free the animal, but it refused to let go, beak firmly closed on it. It was still hungry.
"You can't eat that, stupid, it's not food," Neji grumbled as he tried to make it let go.
Finally, he managed to pull the slashed rope free, and put it in his pocket. If he threw it in the trash bin he had a feeling the chick would go dig it out, and the bin wasn't heavy enough to stay upright. Seeing the hellbeast trapped underneath would be amusing, no doubt, but he didn't feel like cleaning up.
The bird looked up at him, chirping disconsolately. It was still hungry. The rat had been small.
Neji frowned as he glared down at it. Five am, stupid animal, Hanabi-sama wasn't going to hunt for it if they went and asked now; she would cut it into pieces and feed it to the rats. And Neji's leg was still bothering him too much; he didn't feel like carrying the rats around like last time.
But then, maybe -- he eyed the animal thoughtfully -- maybe he could start training it to hunt for itself. At least, it couldn't hurt to try. He tied his hair back quickly, then emptied a bag of its scrolls and fitted a few kunai in the slots on the strap. It was wide enough to carry the animal through the corridors -- he didn't trust it out of his rooms, free to escape through the compound. Hyuugas didn't keep pets, but they did keep guard dogs, and he didn't want anyone to kill his bird thinking it was a spy animal.
Of course, actually getting it inside the bag was not an easy task, and at the end his leg ached and he had to shake feathers off his shredded shirt. Neji reminded himself to actually thank Hinata for the reinforced gloves next time he saw her, then frowned, disgruntled at actually having a good thought about his weak, irritating cousin. The bird was squirming and complaining loudly, which didn't get better when Neji picked up the bag and put the strap around his neck.
"Calm down, stupid thing," he muttered with annoyance as he wrapped an arm as support under the bag. It would be hard enough to use the crutch down the stairs, he didn't want to do it with a struggling bird too. It was heavy enough to put him out of balance.
He had to travel through half the compound to get to a place where Hanabi's hunting had left enough vermin to hunt. The walk calmed the animal, even though it was breathing a bit fast -- Neji could understand. If he was a flying animal, being confined in the dark, wings trapped, would make him claustrophobic too.
Finally finding a basement room that seemed likely to contain some rodents, he closed the door behind him and carefully went down the stairs, erasing his presence skillfully. Inside the bag, the bird had gone still.
Slowly, silently, he opened the flap, offering his wrist to its claws, and pulled it out. With his byakugan he could see a few rats and mice trotting here and there, but Neji and his bird hadn't been noticed yet. He doubted it could successfully hunt one of the big ones yet; they looked vicious, and some were almost as big as the chick. Maybe he could build up its skills, start off small...
The bird and him saw the lone mouse wandering in a corner of the room at the same time. Instinctively, he gave a push, just as the bird launched itself off his arm. A kunai found itself thrown out of his hand and cut the mouse's hind legs just as it was going to disappear in a hole; two seconds later the bird was on it. There was lots of screeching, and at one time the mouse almost squirmed free, but the resistance didn't last long. Neji sat down on the last step to wait, watching his bird messily devour its first live prey.
Soon the bird would hunt rats. And then, maybe, bigger animals ; wild animals. Rabbits, foxes even -- it would be big enough for that someday.
For now, it ate its mouse. The mouse was tiny. But it was a good start.
"Hey, Nejiiiii, morning!! Didja miss me?"
A kunai imbedded itself in the door with a loud thunk. There was a startled squeak.
"I. Was. Sleeping."
"It's eight am! Since when are you of all people sleeping in?" Naruto asked, laughing, as he strolled inside the room.
Neji eyed the blond ANBU balefully. How did he even dare to show his face here, beaming and bouncing and absolutely not tired after a long assignment, when Neji should have gotten nothing but rest and boredom and had instead run himself ragged caring for his present?
"I sleep in since you saw fit to gift me with a beast that does not sleep more than six hours in a row."
Naruto winced. Neji didn't see fit to mention that he'd twisted the truth ; the bird could now leave him alone up to eight hours in a row, and he'd never needed as much. Sitting up, he found a shirt, and put on his gloves in a gesture that was now as much routine as washing his teeth and cleaning his kunai in the evening.
"Ahh, sorry, didn't think about that," Naruto replied, cringing.
"You didn't think about much," Neji commented, already not that annoyed any longer. He'd gotten used to the beast -- not that he would ever admit it out loud. "I managed to care for it relatively well, but I could have done with more information."
"Yeah, well, I really didn't have the time. Where is it, by the way?"
"It's hunting your feet," Neji informed him blankly, a second before it pounced.
When Naruto yelped and jumped away, Neji smirked. But the bird was still stalking him, flapping its wings and huffing and hissing -- it was angry, very angry. That new man had nothing to do in here -- and as Naruto stumbled and jumped toward Neji to hide behind him, the bird started to get really furious. It leaped on the bedside table, then launched itself at Naruto's face, huge, sharp-as-razors claws first. Neji moved to intercept it -- Naruto stumbled gracelessly on the edge of his bed -- there was a flare of chakra...
The bird's cries of rage diminished slowly as Naruto stood at the other end of the room, as far from Neji and it as he could. The blond's face was covered in blood from five parallel cuts, scoring his forehead, cheek and jaw. One of the cuts was very close to his eye. Neji stared at his bird, at the claws he still held in his gloved hand, at the red stain on the pinfeathers.
"... what the hell..." he muttered as he replayed the chain of events in his mind. The chakra -- for a second he'd thought it was Naruto instinctively attempting a technique... but no. He activated the byakugan, scanning the bird's chakra pathways.
There was still energy gathered at the tip of its wings, rendering the pinfeathers as hard and sharp as a kunai. Neji's eyes immediately went to Naruto's face.
"Care to explain that?" he demanded, fighting to keep his voice calm.
The cuts were shallow enough that they'd already started to heal over with the freakish speed that was Naruto's trademark. Naruto took the time to wipe the blood off before he answered.
"What're you talking about?"
"It's not -- a normal animal."
Naruto gave him a puzzled blink. "Well, 'course not. I got it from a ninja from the Hidden Grass I killed. I figured if he had it... He had a big one too, and it was kinda like Kiba's dogs and Shika's deer, you know? They're kinda smart; it would almost have been like abandoning a baby to die."
Now Neji was angry at himself, for not even having envisioned the possibility that his bird wasn't from a natural species, for not even having bothered to check. He put his anger at Naruto under control; one small part of him was feeling the urge to launch the bird at his face and let it peck his eyes out.
"I suppose," he retorted curtly, "that apart from them being "kinda smart", you don't know a thing about the species?"
"... Uhh. No, not really. Hey, I fought the guy, Neji, I didn't stop to chat about how neat his little friend was! That bitch went for my eyes too, I guess it's natural for them. Oh -- yeah, I remember it cut a chain with its beak," he added with a wince.
So their beak and claws were insanely sharp. He'd already seen hints of that. And they could gather chakra in their wings to make the feathers cutting. Neji sighed and sat down on his bed, still holding the bird against his chest to keep it from attacking. It really, really didn't like Naruto. He smelled wrong.
"How big was the adult one?"
"Mm, not quite twice as big as this one, I think -- it's hard to say, I didn't see it with its wings folded a lot, and they were huge."
The bird beat its wings, as if to show them off.
"How smart, did you get an idea?"
"Well... no. Just -- more than animal-smart, and more than well-trained-smart. Neji... just take care of it like you were doing before. It seems to be fine, right? Don't worry so much."
"I'm not worrying," he snapped back.
"Sure you're not. And you're not white as milk either. Did you even leave your room once since the last time I saw you?"
"Of course I did--"
"Rrrright. So did you leave the compound?"
"Then come on, we're going for a walk. Your leg's better, right?"
"If I tell you it's not...?"
"I'll carry you, of course," Naruto grinned. "So, coming?"
"Fine," he capitulated.
Dropping the animal over the bed, he got up, found a hair band and stepped inside his sandals. His leg still hurt a little, to be truthful, but a hour or so of walk shouldn't make it worse. If he lost too much fitness, it would take ages to make himself ready for missions again.
The bird chirped, looking at him, then glaring suspiciously at Naruto. Neji frowned. He'd never left it alone in his room before, and the crate was now a little too small to lock it in for long periods of time. But he wasn't sure how it would behave outside. It was already aggressive around Naruto...
The bird chirped again demandingly, and Neji sighed. He would never know how it behaved outside if he didn't try. He found the bag he'd used a few times to carry it to its "hunting grounds" and reached out for the bird. For once, it didn't struggle too much as he stuffed it inside.
The inner courtyard was surprisingly green. He hadn't realized that they were so close to summer. He let the bird push its head through the flap to look outside, one hand on its back to keep it from squirming free.
They were halfway to the exit when another door opened on the side of the courtyard, and Hyuuga Hiashi walked out. Neji stiffened, as he always did around him, and gave Naruto a warning look before he bowed to his clan head politely.
Hiashi gave Naruto a curt nod then turned to his nephew. "Neji. Your leg seems to be healing."
"It is, Hyuuga-sama. I expect in a week I can start training again."
They kept silent for a few seconds. Neji wondered if his uncle found it as awkward as he did to make small talk with him.
"... So that is your bird?" Hiashi-sama finally commented.
The bird was staring at him unblinkingly with its yellow eyes. It was curious and a little wary. Neji made sure that it couldn't squirm free if it decided to attack. He didn't want a repeat of the Hanabi incident.
"Does it have a name?"
"No, Hiashi-sama. I didn't find it necessary to name an animal that I plan to release in the wild." It had been understood from the start that he was not going to keep it, he wasn't planning on pretending he'd forgotten. Birds of prey made bad pets anyway -- not that he could stand the stupid feather ball.
Beside him, Naruto shifted. "D'you think it can survive in the wild? I mean, it's not as if it was a wild species..."
Two Hyuuga stares and a yellow glare turned toward him. Then Hiashi looked at his nephew, arching an eyebrow in question.
"... Apparently, it's an artificially enhanced species that comes from the Hidden Grass village," Neji admitted. "We have discovered that it has a small chakra manipulation ability -- hardening of some feathers apparently."
The small chakra manipulation ability was enough to pierce holes through the bag, apparently, even though the bag was sturdy enough that Neji took it on missions sometimes. The bird's claws were tangled in the frayed holes it had scratched through. Frowning, Neji slipped a hand inside deftly, freeing the toes one after the other quickly, then closed the flap again.
"... It would probably be easier to carry it on your arm or shoulder," Hiashi commented.
"It would be in reach of my eyes," Neji opposed; not that he still thought the bird aggressive enough to attack him, but you couldn't trust birds of prey. They could be trained; they could not be tamed. "And it could try to fly off and escape."
"Tie a rope to its legs," Naruto commented.
He jumped back when Neji glared at him angrily, the bird hissing and screeching threateningly as it tried to climb out of the bag.
"No," Neji replied curtly, and left it at that.
Naruto, of course, didn't recognize the hint for what it was, and kept on talking. "I'm sure it wouldn't escape or attack you anyway. I mean, it's a ninja bird, right? They can probably be trained."
Hiashi gave Neji a considering look. Neji frowned, though he tried not to glare back warily; he always felt weird around his father's twin. Sure, the man had apologized and explained everything, but Neji had hated him for too long to be at ease around him now. And as long as their family was the way it was, they would never be simply uncle and nephew. Neji could never forget the seal of servitude he was wearing, that Hiashi and his daughters could control so easily.
"... I know you promised you would release it, but if it can be trained, then I have no objection to you keeping it, Neji," Hiashi commented quietly, startling him.
Neji noticed that his hand was on the bird's head, absently smoothing its new crest feathers between his fingers. He snatched it away quickly, as if he'd been burned. He'd never petted the stupid bird -- though, no, it wasn't petting, it was preening, because the bird couldn't do it itself -- so it was really stupid to be doing now. It was giving Hiashi the wrong impression. He shook his head, scowling. "Thank you, but I do not wish to keep it."
Naruto pouted, hands crossed behind his head casually. "You know, it's such a WAY COOL bird. I would LOVE a bird like that. It would be SO USEFUL on missions."
Neji snorted. If that was Naruto's way to subtly incite him to keep the featherbrained beast, he understood why the idiot had needed so long to leave the academy.
"Do you mean you want it back?" he asked caustically, pretending to lift the bag and give it to Naruto.
The bag tore and the bird threw itself at Naruto's face again, hissing and shrieking like a banshee. Its beak snapped closed a few millimeters away from Naruto's nose. Hiashi was holding its legs together. He'd moved so fast Neji had barely seen him. Neji resolved to train even more and reach Hiashi's level and beyond. He caught a hold of the bird's wings and forced it to fold them. He didn't want Hiashi-sama to discover about the pinfeathers thing by getting a faceful of them.
He didn't let go of the struggling animal, but it was a close thing; for the first time in a while, he hadn't actually managed to dodge the beak and the sudden pinch to his forearm startled him. Holding the bird away from his body with both hands, he stalked back toward the house.
"I'll lock it away," he promised Hiashi-sama. "Excuse me, Naruto, the walk will be for another day," he grumbled as he opened the door with one foot.
His leg hurt, he'd been bitten by the stupid bird, and the whole discussion, while apparently harmless, was leaving him with a sour taste in his mouth.
All that and his bag was good for the trash bin. Stupid bird.
The bird didn't like Neji's room anymore. It was cramped, ceiling too low, not enough high-placed perchs. The basement corridors and store rooms Neji brought it to hunt weren't much better, even despite the presence of prey. The rodent population on the Hyuuga compound was dropping drastically and soon enough it would starve.
Leaning tiredly against his bed's headboard, Neji watched as his bird launched itself from a shelf over his head and dived under the table, landing at the edge of its box. The first time he'd seen the maneuver, he'd been impressed -- the space between the box and the table was narrow -- but now it was routine. The bird almost never misjudged a straight landing anywhere in the room now, though it still had trouble with turns in flight.
Even Lee had more or less abandoned the Mister Downybutt nickname. The bird wasn't really a fledgling anymore, though it wasn't yet grown enough to be on its own. Neji should take it outside, he knew, to teach it to fly through wide spaces and between trees, but it wasn't quite ready to feed itself and he still refused to leash it. He couldn't even let it fly in the corridors ; too many of his uncles and cousins came and went, opening, closing doors at random, and he just couldn't control where the bird flew. And it wasn't as if he could teach it to come to heel like a dog, he added to himself morosely.
It was a splendid catch-22. He couldn't release the bird without teaching it how to hunt and survive outside, and he couldn't teach the bird how to survive without releasing it.
The bird made a keening sound, and then Neji felt talons on his shoulder. He refused to flinch as the large wings beat a little clumsily by his head.
The bird's eyes were darkening as it grew into an adult, not a loud yellow anymore, but a darker golden. They met his own, pupil-less eyes without flinching. The ridges over its eyes made it as if the bird was perpetually glaring, but somehow Neji knew that right now, it wasn't angry. He hadn't been pecked at, for one thing. And its crest wasn't fluffed up, and a dozen other details that he'd gotten used to interpreting just as flawlessly as he could understand human body language, even despite the total lack of similar body structure. It was weird anyway, to be nose to beak with the beast; the bird had never landed so close to his face before.
It was heavy, though, and he wasn't in the best position to support it for long. Slowly, cautiously, Neji shifted, not wanting to startle it into tightening its claws or pinching with its beak. A lock of his hair was caught under its toes, and he reached for it. Obligingly, the bird shifted, letting it fall away, then started to preen it.
Startled, Neji didn't move. He could see the large, sharp beak smoothing his hair in quick little motions, barely an inch from the side of his face. The bird was faintly annoyed; Neji's crest feathers weren't staying in place as they should. With determination, it smoothed them back again and again, until they stopped hanging in Neji's face, then turned on its perch and started on the rest of his hair. After a minute, it determined that Neji's plumage was too long in the back and utterly hopeless, and fluttered to his other shoulder, whacking him over the head with a wing and messing up his bangs in the process.
"Ow," he protested half-heartedly, bemused. The bird was now glaring at him from his other shoulder, as if he'd decided to tangle his hair again just to bother it. Chirping in annoyance, it started preening his hair again, tugging on his black locks. "Stop that, stupid, that hurts," he hissed, shrugging a little to dislodge the bird as gently as possible. He would have shooed it away, but it was too close to his face. That and it just didn't shoo; Hanabi had tried that several times, and had only gained several cuts that somehow failed to instill in her head some healthy respect for its chakra enhancements.
Huffing in annoyance, the bird tugged on his hair a few times, then apparently managed to get past the tangle. Sighing, Neji picked up a scroll. Stupid bird was entertaining itself too much to let him move. May as well pass the time.
When it wasn't scratching him or tugging as if trying to make him bald, the bird wasn't half-bad company, really.
Neji was half-asleep in his chair, though his back was still as ramrod-straight as ever. All that preening had soothed him, and now he was in that peculiar state halfway between sleep and wakefulness, where you could be aware as you dreamed. He was dreaming of the forest around Konoha -- he was running trough the branches, leaping from treetop to treetop so fast his feet barely touched the branches, the wind in his face and playing with his hair and his sleeves billowing -- and the sky was so blue and everything was perfect; he could see everything, every little movement, every small rodent, every wolf, every blade of grass and every bush and every ancient oak, and never before had he seen so much, so far, never before had it been so all-encompassing. He felt so free. It was glorious.
His head swiveled and he zeroed in on the intruder, hissing angrily as the dream of freedom shattered.
Hinata stepped closer slowly, wringing her hands worriedly. "Neji-niisan, are you asleep? I'm sorry but it's important..."
What a question. Of course he wasn't asleep, couldn't she see? Opening his eyes, he turned around and glared at her -- wait, hadn't he just...
"It's Hikari-san, Neji-niisan, she heard about your bird and she read the file Father gave me and now she--"
Neji frowned. Hikari-san was one of his aunts. She was also a bitch from hell -- a relatively honorable bitch, but a prideful bitch all the same. "Wait. You let her read a file that Hiashi-sama entrusted to you? What file?" Seeing Hinata's dismayed expression, she hadn't been supposed to let anyone else see it.
"One that Father got from ANBU on Nin-hawks from the Hidden Grass," she muttered, looking at her feet.
Stunned, Neji needed a few seconds to get past the fact that Hiashi-sama had bothered to pull strings to get that -- probably classified -- file. "... Nin-hawks. Right. Was it a classified file, Hinata-sama?" he asked, just to clarify. She nodded reluctantly, confirming his gut feeling. Why was she here, though, looking like someone had skinned her kitten? Asking him to help fix her mess? "Right. It was probably classified because we were at peace with the Grass country, and couldn't use that information on our allies. Now that they're starting a war with us, all info on Grass nins will probably be made available. The breach of security isn't..."
Hinata shook her head quickly, eyes tightly closed as if fearing being hit for interrupting. She hadn't seemed so fearful in his presence since the first Chuunin exam, at the beginning of their fight. "This isn't -- I mean -- I feel bad enough that I couldn't protect such a document, but its importance in the war isn't -- and I mean -- aunt Hikari wouldn't betray Konoha anyway, but -- I mean--"
She gasped and fell silent.
"Breathe. Good. Again. Now -- what was in that document, and why is it so bad that Hikari-san read it?"
"It was... on nin-hawks..."
Neji hissed, and the bird flapped its wings impatiently.
"It said... how to raise them, how to teach them to use their abilities..."
That could be useful, but he still didn't see what could be harmful...
"How to control them."
The bird shrieked and beat its wings again, crest puffed up in anger. Neji caught up a second later. "Control them?" Not domesticate them, or train them, but control them?
Hinata started twisting her hands even harder. "They're... they can be... rather dangerous. There's no way to keep them in cages or hindered, just no way. And they... Can't be tamed."
"Surely gifted falconers..."
"At all, Neji-niisan. They're just smart enough to resist training, and -- but I'll let you read the file later, I promise. What's important is that there's two ways to use a nin-hawk, and they're bonding with it, or... or applying a m-mark of control on it."
Neji stared at his cousin. The words made little sense; there were so many of them all at once, too many notions and he didn't really want to understand any of them. "... A mark of control."
"A seal, Neji-niisan," she whispered, brushing a thumb against her forehead. "It is said that this was the seal that inspired the -- the Bird in the Cage curse seal."
Neji saw the edges of his world turn red.
"Aunt Hikari thinks -- that is, she thinks -- it's too good an advantage to pass up. And you l-like the bird so it won't be a problem to b-bind it to you -- you already know how to care for it and-- and-- Neji-niisan!"
He didn't remember when exactly he'd jumped up on his feet, but he didn't care. He was stalking out of his room, the bird launching itself after him.
They darted down the corridor, dodging more cousins and nieces and great-uncles than Neji remembered possessing. A few times, he heard people call his name, but he was too busy fleeing the accursed burrow; rooms and studios and apartments, halls and corridors full of other members of the Branch house, full of other encaged people just like him. He was going to find freedom, find the sky --
Once, one of his cousins -- third cousin, thirty year old at least, and having belonged to the Branch House since his greatgrandfather -- caught his arm as he opened the door to the courtyard. He glared up -- down-- veins jutting out around his eyes, and his claws hit the man's forearm. He pulled his wrist free and tugged the screen door open, whizzing through the narrow opening -- no, that wasn't him -- but he was running too, running in the courtyard, jumping up the wall, leaping from the top -- following the powerful wings that for the first time could unfold fully.
And for one second they were free.
And then they landed, and Neji was alone again, as the bird circled higher and higher over the courtyard, and he was alone even when Hikari-san stormed toward him, followed by a man with a bleeding arm, and other people, so many other people. He was alone and yet not, because the sky -- just like his dream -- the sky...
"What have you done?!" she raged, she shrieked, but he didn't reply, only looked up and imagined he could see what the bird saw.
Finally, even the Byakugan couldn't keep track of the curved wings, and his strange elation weakened. There were members of the Branch House all around him, staring at him, wondering why the genius had snapped. Keenly, he felt the curse seal on his forehead, as he faced so many stares, so many seals just like his own, theirs bared for all to see. Most didn't understand what had just happened, but wanted to glare him back into the ranks anyway; they didn't like anything that could upset the aviary. But caged or not, he was a hawk, not a sparrow. They couldn't intimidate him. With an arrogance he didn't feel, he stalked back to the burrow -- his home -- only feeling a twinge of regret as he left the open courtyard for the low ceilings of the building.
For one moment, he'd touched the sky.
The classified file was on his desk. He hadn't read it. There was no need now. Putting his hands on his hips, he looked around the clean, stark room. His books were neatly put away on the shelf, where they belonged. He wouldn't trip over them any longer. The crate wasn't here to prevent him from putting his legs under the table anymore, and for the first time in months, it didn't smell like dead and rotting mice.
Nothing unnecessary, nothing out of place. He looked once again, even though he knew that it was now easy to notice whatever he could have forgotten.
He stepped to the side to allow passage a second before Hinata-sama knocked and walked in.
"I... Healing salve, Neji-niisan. I made it for you."
He regarded the jar blankly, wondering why she cared if he got hurt again. His new bag was almost full with two changes of clothes, a few scrolls and weapons. He frowned briefly, then smoothed his expression. He didn't care. "If you can find a place for it, Hinata-sama," he replied with cold politeness.
"You don't mind?" she asked as she pointed at the bag.
"I don't care."
She sighed quietly as she knelt beside his bag and opened the top flap. "... Forgive me, Neji-niisan, but recently you don't seem to care about much."
He turned away, not replying. He should have been annoyed at her nosiness, but the truth was -- no, he didn't care what she thought.
She was right. He didn't even mind that.
She was watching him. He arched an eyebrow, not so much asking why as daring her to voice whatever platitude she was formulating. For a few seconds, she met his eyes, and he was mildly surprised. But then she looked down, lips pursed, frowning faintly, and he turned away again.
"That idiot Naruto is at the gate," Hanabi announced from the door as she glared around impartially. Her older sister avoided her eyes, and Hanabi snorted, then glared up at Neji.
They hadn't talked since the last time she'd hunted for him. She'd glared a lot, and had challenged him to several fights -- all lost, but some just a little bit slower than others -- but even though he'd heard her talk -- as if it was an accident that he happened to be around and be concerned by whatever she said -- they hadn't had a real conversation since then. He didn't miss the name-calling, or the false politeness. Harsh glares and punches conveyed well enough whatever there was between them.
"I'm finished," Hinata offered quietly as she gave him his bag.
"Thank you, Hinata-sama," he muttered. He checked the straps by habit, shouldered it, and walked out, his arm brushing Hanabi's shoulder as she refused to step aside.
She turned to look up at him, tossing her hair back -- after he'd used it as a handle, she'd taken to tying it back the way he did, but there were always bangs hanging in her face. "Try to come back alive. I still have to pummel you into the ground."
He paused, then gave the briefest nod, and walked out.
Naruto, Tenten and Lee were waiting at the Hyuuga compound gate. He gave them a brief nod as a salute.
He was team leader for this mission, but Naruto was their guide, so he let him lead the way. He didn't reply much to the various attempts to engage him into actual, non-mission-related conversation.
He was out of the compound; he should have felt better. He usually did, when he was away from Konoha. This time, he couldn't feel much, not even annoyance when Lee challenged him again. There was something missing.
There was something missing, but as they walked away from Konoha, leaving the Hyuuga compound behind, he gradually stopped dwelling on it. There were other matters to take care of. Like the wild boasting competition between Naruto and Lee -- one that should have stayed between them, but that he ended up dragged in because they were weirdly a lot more interested in beating him than in beating each other. Or like Tenten's musings over the love life of this or that person, though she wasn't as annoying as the other two.
Or like the fact that he was suddenly quite hungry.
He tried to forget it. It was quite baseless; he'd eaten before leaving, and even if that was now more than hours away, he shouldn't feel hunger so soon. He should be concentrating on their surroundings inside. He hit Lee and Naruto over the head sharply and tried to stop being so distracted.
For a whole half-hour, he had total silence. It was restful. Still, food would be nice too. And he was finally starting to feel that dark cloud of depression lift -- he didn't even get that angry when he found the classified file he'd left on the desk in his bag's right pocket. Okay; that might have been false. Hinata-sama and her well-meaning interference.. She would pay. But it felt ... nice, to feel such real, sharp anger once again. Even if he was in the habit of controlling and hiding his feelings, it didn't mean that he didn't find not having any unsettling.
He tried teasing Lee, and discovered with surprise that taunting him was mildly entertaining once again. And food would be very nice. Mmm, food.
When he stopped walking, Naruto touched his shoulder. "Oi, Neji, you ok?"
Neji hissed, and caught himself jumping back, glaring -- then paused.
"You smell of fox, Naruto," he commented dazedly. The blond teenager froze and gaped at him. "You smell wrong. Like a predator. With sharp teeth. I -- don't like predators."
Dazedly, he looked around, fending off Tenten's worried touch. There was something -- he had to find ...
There was a little point in the sky. A point that had curved wings and weird markings and a sharp beak and sharper yellow eyes. A point that was hungry. Huuuungry. A point that wanted food, nownownow.
And when Lee pointed, and shrieked, "MISTER DOWNYBUTT!!!!", he wasn't even offended. He watched as his bird swooped down, stealing the piece of raw meat from his fingers; he watched it devour, feeling its fierce delight as it tore at its food awaken something inside him; and when it took flight again, his heart took flight with it.
That night, he dreamed of touching the sky again.