Chapter Twenty-Two

Today had been a fairly good day for Neji Hyuuga. The reviews for his exhibition were coming in floods, and for the most part they were reverent, praising his eloquence and the night-day design of the exposition. Many of the winning pieces on display had been sold for considerable prices; a few going to wealthy old-money patrons who offered enough to pay for the artist's educations and then some. A fraction of the profits went to a local orphanage on the other side of town- the press had drank that up like fine cognac- and Miyo-chan had left for Okinawa for some post-expo wind-down. After months of endless planning and meetings, he was glad to get some rest.

Running his hands through his hair, he inhaled deeply and thanked the gods for finally smoothing the paths for him. He'd been through enough, seen rejection and death and abuse, only to come out clean as a whistle. It was as though the spirits were apologizing and thus were blessing him many times over. They took, and now they were giving back.

Like giving him Hinata again. The night of the accident, they'd told him that she was dead. He'd thought he'd lost everything that he had just recently attained- a family who cared for him like their own, complete with two little sisters to look up to him, a stern but loving father, a mother whose smile could light up the world. When another social worker offhandedly informed him that Hinata had survived, he had hoped, prayed, dreamed about finding her again. When he first fell into fortune, he used a good portion of it on private investigators who scoured the island for her. About a year ago he'd finally gotten a decisive lead- she had been living in a tiny hostel in _ with only about fifteen other kids and an elderly Matron. The trail had gone cold from there- Hinata turned eighteen and virtually disappeared from the world.

The devastation at coming to yet another dead end had been irreparable. Even now, he felt little bursts of panic that she would disappear again. It had taken all of his willpower to keep himself from forcing her to give up school and live with him, to study under Miyo's tutelage like he had and stay somewhere where he could ascertain her existence.

His phone rang, nearly vibrating off of his nightstand. He picked it up unaffectedly, and then smiled smugly when the caller ID flashed across the screen.

"Hinata?" he said.

"Neji-nii-san?"

His brow furrowed. There was an unusual tremor to her voice, a high pitch she only used when she was in real trouble.

"Yes?" he said, worrisome anxiety already rising in his throat.

"I...I have something to tell you."

"This I gathered," he said. "Seeing as you've called." When his little attempt at humor failed to illicit a response, he sighed. "What is it?"

"I...I'd rather tell you in person."

Neji frowned. He was a busy man, and Hinata knew that. She'd never been demanding as a child, always tended to consider her needs last. The fact that she was willing to impose...

"Alright. I'm sending a driver to pick you up."

A pause, and then a sharp breath of panic. "U-um...actually, could you send him to The Serpent? Erm, that's where I am right now."

He furrowed his brow at her obvious lie. So she was currently somewhere she didn't want him to know about. Well, truthfully, he didn't know much about older Hinata, even if he could still read her like a book. She could be engaged in all sorts of questionable activities, although he doubted she was given her temperament.

"Fine. Be ready in half an hour," he said, letting her know that he knew something was up, and then hung up as was custom before realizing belatedly that this was his cousin, after all, so perhaps a 'good-bye' would have been appropriate. Shrugging, he dialed Saito-san's number and settled back onto his bed.


"Be ready in half an hour," he said, and then the line died.

"He's mad he's mad he's mad," Hinata said, her head growing light. "Oh god, he knows."

Sai tapped his chin thoughtfully. "How can he know? Unless his people have already dug up information on you." He shrugged. "Hunh. I guess he could. I mean, with those resources, the first thing I'd do after finding my long lost sister would be to check for a criminal record."

Hinata turned nearly green. Tossing Sai a dirty look, Sasuke loped an arm around Hinata and pulled her into his side. "Oh come on. How do you know he's knows anything? You talked for all of ten seconds."

"H-He said...to be ready in thirty minutes. S-So he knows I'm not really at the Serpent." She twiddled her thumbs nervously.

"Well, that's probably because you're a horrible liar," Sai said flatly. Sasuke ducked his head in agreement.

"Still." She sighs. "What if he...never mind. I have to let him know, right?"

But they'd already filled in her thoughts. Neji could force her to leave TABs- that, they were prepared for. After all, it was asking too much to believe that she would actually survive all four years without being discovered.

But if he were ashamed, she'd be lost. If he decided to cut off ties, she'd be broken.

If he never looked at her again- well, then she may as well die.

"It'll be okay," Sai said hopefully. "It will."


They arrived at the Serpent twenty minutes early. Saito-san's black car was already parked in front. Hinata glanced at it, then back to the entrance of the Serpent-she'd at least wanted to talk to Anko before she did this-and then sighed.

"Okay," she said, waving to Saito-san through the dark windshield, "I think I'm going now."

"We're coming with you," Sasuke said automatically.

She shook her head. "Neji-nii doesn't like you."

He shrugged. "And I don't like him. Which is precisely why I'm not letting you just step into his car and get abducted."

"Sasuke!" She ground her teeth at the accusation. "Neji-nii wouldn't-"

"You don't know him, Hinata," Sasuke half-growled, brushing the hair out of his eyes in frustration. "Maybe years ago, you did, but you aren't the same as you were then, are you? I'm coming with you. I'll trail you in a cab if I have to. Understand?"

She glared at him, long and hard. She hated when he made sense. Experience with Sasuke told her that, for a person who was so stoic, he was driven almost purely by emotion. He was the type to lose all rational thought in support of a cause he believed in, to take drastic, ugly vengeance when he felt wronged. She was the voice of reason in this relationship, the one that reigned him in when he allowed his feelings to put him out of line.

A Sasuke who actually thought things through...was a bit scary.

"Fine," she said finally, tearing her eyes away. She was changing too, she thought, her throat tight. She'd gotten bold and angry. She'd learned to be annoyed with others, but not how to hide it.

"I'm coming too," Sai quipped, "To prevent any bloodshed."

Hinata rapped gently on the passenger seat window. Saito-san's shadowed profile turned, and then nodded. "You just want to meet Neji in person."

She stepped aside as the tall driver climbed out of the driver's seat and approached them. Already, Sasuke was tensing behind her.

"Good evening, Saito-san," she said cordially. Her cousin's driver didn't reply, just bowed and opened up the door for them. "E-Erm, these guys are coming too," she added hastily.

His eyes flickered from Sasuke to Sai. "I was instructed to bring you to Hyuuga-sama," he said flatly, "Not any accompanying hoodlums."

Sasuke didn't take the bait. He'd seen the driver before at the exhibition opening, and could tell when he wasn't wanted. "If that's how you're going to be, we'll just tail you," he said with a shrug.

"Saito-san," Hinata clasped both hands together pleadingly. "I need them with me. They're my best friends. I can't do this without them."

She was playing with fire here, she knew. If Neji-nii was already wary, Saito-san explaining the guys would make him really raise eyebrows.

"As Hyuuga-sama wishes," Saito said a bit grudgingly, opening the door.

As Hyuuga-sama wishes, she repeated in her head the entire ride. Of which Hyuuga did he speak? Her cousin, or her?


Seeing Neji again was like walking out of a blazing desert and into a blizzard. At first, she was swamped purely in relief as the icy air hit her skin, but then her pores began to pucker and her ears sting and she found herself in an entirely new conundrum.

Her cousin had never been the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve- it gathered in his eyes instead. Right now, with him standing before them straight-backed and smiling thinly, she'd never seen anything so cold.

"Hinata," Neji said, eyes flickering from his cousin to the two guys flanking her, one with an expression grave as death and the other who couldn't seem to hide his excitement at being in the-Neji-Hyuuga's home. "I understood from your phone call that you wanted to discuss something with me in private. So, pray, tell me why you've brought along your friends?"

"T-They don't have to listen in," she assured him, "I just...I'm sorry."

Sasuke's eyes flashed as she apologized, like he didn't want her to be contrite about bringing uninvited strangers into her cousin's home. Not that they were strangers- Hinata could taste the tension sparking in the air between them, engendered from bad first impressions and Sasuke's general lack of decor.

"We'll talk in my office," Neji announced. He gestured toward the blue leather chairs and coffee table next to them. "Your friends can wait here."

He nodded once to indicate that he wanted her to follow his lead, and then, with a final glare in the intruder's direction, disappeared up a coil of stairs with Hinata following close behind.

"It'll be okay," she said before she reached the top. Catching Sasuke's eye for one last time, she offered a smile. He returned it uncertainly, and then, with docility she didn't know he possessed, sat down, picked up a magazine, and flipped through the pages.

"After you," Neji said, opening a sturdy oak door that seemed out of place in his otherwise very contemporary home.

Hinata nodded once, and then stepped inside. The door slammed shut behind her.

Neji wasted no time in asking questions. "Who is that guy to you?"

Hinata's eyes widened, a bit unbalanced by the razor-sharp, interrogative nature of the question.
"W-W-Which one?"

Neji scoffed. His hair was pulled up in an unusually high ponytail for his tastes, tied around the center of his head rather than the nape of his neck. This style drew attention to his bone structure, to the high cheekbones she'd observed from day one, the rather stern squareness of his jaw. His features themselves were slightly feminine, they were her features, a lot of them, but it was their backdrop that saved him from complete androgyny.

The scowl helped.

"You know precisely who I'm talking about," he said sternly. "And I know that, technically, I should have absolutely no say in your romantic life, but when your selection is so poor-"

"What the hell," Hinata said, jumping from her seat, "Do you have against my boyfriend?"

The a/c roared to life around them, and then settled to a low hum. Hinata stared up at the stricken shock on her cousin's face with a mixture of guilt and pride. Sasuke was right. Of course years apart would alter them both. The old Hinata would never have raised her voice at Neji, would never have sworn at him; the old Neji never said anything he thought might hurt her.

"Fine," Neji said, looking petulant. "Fine. But has he told you about his psychopathic brother? Wait, he doesn't have to! It's a simple Google search away!" He whipped out his cell phone, typed furiously, and then held up the screen. "Ah. 'Entire Uchiha Family Felled by Deranged Heir.' There we go. Has he told you about that?"

Hinata stared at the screen, eyes wide. "Wait...what?"

Her cousin glared at her for a solid ten seconds. Then, the anger faded, changing to calm and...disappointment?

"You've heard of Sharingan Cor., right?" Neji said slowly. Hinata nodded- they were a large technology corporation, specializing in small, personal electronics. She'd been salivating over their graphic tablets since she was thirteen. "His father was its president. The eldest son, Itachi, made primetime news for his achievements in computer programming...when he was eleven. He was a teaching assistant at Toudai's CS program by fourteen." He paused to let Hinata absorb that information. "Eight years ago, though, he suddenly snapped. Stole a pistol from his father's closet during a family reunion, and shot everyone, every single one, except for his little brother." Neji watched her carefully, reading her, and she had to
fight to keep her expression cool, to
meet his eyes.

Little things were starting to make sense now, the way he rarely let anyone close to him, how he'd protected her ferociously in the beginning, his hatred of hospital smells.

'But why didn't he tell me?' Even if she couldn't come close to comprehending the pain and conflict he would feel toward his brother, she at least knew what it was like to lose a family. She wouldn't be able to bring them back, no one could do that. But she could help him forget, maybe just a little, help him move on...

...She'd trusted him with her identity, her secrets. He hadn't trusted her with anything.

Hinata bit down the tremors of betrayal before they could crawl out of her mouth.

"Uchiha Sasuke has bounced in and out of juvenile detention for three years after that. Since, he's emerged as a sought-after actor, and he's brilliant, I can't deny that." Neji sighed. "I'm just concerned. How do you know he's even stable, Hinata?"

His eyes were sincere. He was just worried, like any big brother would be. He'd probably known who Sasuke was the moment he'd seen him at the dinner.

"Neji-nii," she said softly, clapping her hand over the screen of his phone and his hand. "I have far more pressing things for you to worry about than the mental stability of my boyfriend." She held his gaze for a minute, garnering courage from the fact that Neji had actually stopped mid-tirade to listen to her, to her, silly, fallible little Hinata.

"I'm...I'm enrolled at TABS," she said in one breath. "For the past year, I've been studying at the Tokyo Academy Art School...for boys."

She watched Neji blink owlishly, once. twice. His cell phone clattered onto the desk between them.

"E-Excuse me?" he said, turning steadily green. Concerns about his cousin's choice of boyfriend suddenly seemed frivolous. "What?"

"I've been gallivanting around as a guy at an all-boys school. And now my picture is splashed across an art magazine, and you can see my cleavage." It was a lot easier to deliver the news quickly and honestly. It kept her from chickening out and banging her head on the desk screaming out apologies for the next half an hour.

Green turned to red. Neji looked ready to explode.

Downstairs, Sai and Sasuke glanced up as the ceiling began to shake.

"You..." Neji said lowly, gripping the edge of the desk like a lifeline, "What?"

Immediately, she pushed her chair back and walked over to his side of the desk. Dropping to her knees, she braced herself and then fell forward into the most apologetic, subordinating bow she could muster.

"I'm sorry, Nii-san," she said truthfully.

Silence.

"You..." Neji inhaled deeply, letting his thoughts linger in the air for a moment before trying again. "You didn't go to be around...guys, did you?"

Hinata gaped, appalled. "No!" That was the sort of thing that girls like Ino dreamed about but were never bold enough, or desperate enough, to do. That very prospect had held her back from even applying at first.

"And this wasn't a prank? Nobody dared you to, or forced you in?"

"No," Hinata said, "This was all my decision."

"Tokyo Academy of Arts for Boys is the top-ranked art university in Asia," Neji said, so quietly that she almost missed it. "Its female counterpart is several places lower in the rankings."

Her head shot up. "Yes." Could he...did he...understand?

Her cousin looked down her, one eyebrow cocked. "We Hyuuga never did settle for less than the best, did we?" He laughed dryly, shaking his head. "But, seriously, Hinata, what the hell were you thinking? There are plenty of amazing art schools overseas. You could have-"

"It wasn't financially feasible," Hinata explained sheepishly. Neji's face went blank for a moment- of course his mind wouldn't go there. Miyo-chan was a renowned professor of the arts, and once he'd established himself, money wouldn't be an issue for him. She hadn't been stupid- she'd applied to places other than TABS. But TABS had passed her the cash. Who would she be to refuse that from the top art school in the country?

"Does TABS have a copy of your birth certificate?" Neji asked, recovered. She shook her head. "A forged one?"

"They didn't ask for it," she explained. "I just gave them my social security number. I...I don't think they do background checks on students unless they have reason to."

"So you filled a normal application, with entirely legitimate documentation," he said for clarification.

"Yes," she said firmly. "Nii-san, what are we going to do?"

This time, Neji didn't pause. "Well, obviously, you've been found out. I wouldn't be surprised if a good portion of the TABS students have already read this month's Pearl. Eventually someone you know will see your name, if the picture doesn't give you away." She sighed. The picture was a good one, but definitely her. "I'm calling the Dean this second, and withdrawing you. You'll have to give your written consent, of course. The media is likely to buzz about it, but if you just lay low, they'll eventually leave you be."

"W-Withdraw?" she knew she'd have to, but TABS was home. "I...How will I study?"

Neji looked at her as though she'd just asked him what color the sky was. "Miyo-chan and I will continue your tutelage, of course."

It was more than a fair exchange. Career-wise, studying under her cousin and Miyo-chan basically guaranteed her a degree of prestige as an artist. She'd probably be able to host her own exhibits, and if she was halfway good, get serious commissions from those within the Hyuuga circle of connections.

"So when...when the University finds out?" she said it in a whisper. He shrugged.

"If they decide to take legal action, we fight back. If you didn't send any forged documents, then admitting you would be a mistake on their part."

"So...when?" When do I have to leave? When do I have to...say good-bye?

"Saito-san will drive you back. You'll pack your belongings, and come back here. I'll call the Dean. You'll sign the consent form." He must have seen her stoic guise breaking, because he placed a gentle hand on her own assuringly. "I'm sorry it turned out this way."

"It would have happened sometime," she admitted sadly.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It would've."


Hinata couldn't talk to Sasuke the entire way back, choosing instead to effectively tell Sai their course of action while Sasuke listened. In spite of everything, she couldn't bring herself to
look at him. Part of her knew that he had the right to tell her about his past when he was ready, but that part was mute when compared to the one screaming that he didn't trust her, that even if he liked her he couldn't tell her about something as important as, um, the fact that his entire family had been massacred? By his brother?

Maybe it was good she was leaving, then. Maybe the timing for all of this was just right.

"You don't have much," Sai was saying. "We could probably roll out all of your clothes in one suitcase. Maybe box your sketchbooks? Packing shouldn't take long with three sets of hands."

Saito-san nodded, having opened the partition between his passengers and him. "Hyuuga-sama advises that you leave campus within two hours. If you need any help, I'll be here." He pulled in fluidly into the parking lot closest to Aoi. "Please make haste. I'm sure many of your classmates have made the connection by now."

They half-jogged up to the room, Sasuke holding a few flattened boxes, Sai a box tape dispenser. They got there with no issue and stepped inside, locked the door. "You heard the man," Sai said, shrugging. "Make haste."

"Pack your clothes," Sasuke said, assembling a cardboard box as he spoke. "I'll put away your books. Sai, get the sheets?"

"Yeah, do you have an extra box?"

"Here, catch."

Hinata didn't even try folding- if it was already folded, it went in neatly, if not, it was squished into spaces and corners. She tore her clothes off their hangers, didn't stop when they all spilled onto the floor with a clatter. She tried not to look at the blue walls, at the curtains, at the Dega and Dali posters on the wall (that Sasuke was taking down) at anything but her task at hand. She wasn't coming back here, ever. It was like leaving home and knowing you could never return.

By the time she'd turned away, the boys had taken care of the rest of her belongings. They were taping shut the boxes when there was a knock on the door.

They froze. And stared. Sasuke looked over at Sai meaningfully, and Sai nodded, walking forward on light feet and peeking through the peephole. Then he smiled, one of his good, natural smiles, and pushed the door open.

Anko slithered past him, and he shut it and locked it again.

"I'm guessing you saw the magazine," Hinata said a bit sardonically.

"Oh, Hana-chan," she said, enveloping Hinata in a hug. She looked fairly...normal today, low-cut cargo pants that hung off of her hips precariously, a T-shirt with a mudflap girl, eyeliner and little else in the way of makeup. She smelled like soap. "Goddamn, girl, is this a rough patch you're in."

Hinata nodded. "My cousin's sorting it out," she said softly.

"I'm sorry things turned out this way." She pulled back, framing Hinata's face with warm hands. "Don't forget about the Serpent. I've got your last paycheck right here. Come back when you can."

Hinata smiled, her eyes filling with tears, and accepted the envelope. "I guess I've been fired," she said.

"Think of it as an honorable discharge, or an extended vacation until-you-get-your-shit-together." Anko kissed her cheek gently. Then she reached into her bag, pulling out folded blue fabric. Whipping it open, it revealed itself to be a simple sundress, beaded at the waist. It barely looked like an Anko creation, if not for the beads and lack of tag she would've guessed she'd bought it from a store. "Go out with a bang, I say," she said wickedly. "Maybe take your last walk through TABS with those nice boobs of yours showing. Just a suggestion." While Hinata blubbered her thanks and turned pink, Anko draped an arm across her shoulders and squeezed once more, her expression softening. "I have to get going, but I had to see you. Call me. Write. Something!"

And she was out the door, quick as she'd come. Hinata stared at it woefully for a moment, then down at the dress in her arms (her dress-up sessions with Anko were ending as well, it seemed) and then turned to the boys with a practiced smile.

"Are we ready to get going?" She asked.

They carried down the first two sets of boxes and piled them into the trunk with no incidence. Suddenly, as they were about to mount the steps, Sai reached over and pulled her into a hug.

"I'll be seeing you," he said genially, and then sprinted off before she could stop him.

"What was that about?" Sasuke growled, disgruntled.

Hinata shrugged, equally confused.
There was only a box and a suitcase left over, but it seemed strange for him to follow her this far and then split.

And then she realized something. She and Sasuke were alone now. Just the two of them. Which was normal, they were roommates, after all, and he was her boyfriend, but right now was just not a good time. Not when she couldn't stop thinking about all of the secrets he hadn't told her. She could almost feel the panic flooding her system at these thoughts, and swallowed, trying to blink back stupid, senseless tears.

"I'll get the suitcase," she said, bounding up the stairs before he could say anything else.

He followed, leaning against the door frame and watching as she fumbled with the zippers of the suitcase.

"Is something wrong?" He said quietly, "Aside from the obvious, I mean."

Hinata turned to him in spite of herself and tried to procure a reassuring smile. She looked more like she was going to be sick. "No, it's nothing, I'm just going to miss everyone..."

He clicked closed the door. "...Really." He walked forward, and she turned resolutely back to the case, where the damn zipper had gotten stuck. She swore under her breath and knocked her head against the plastic handle once, twice.

She felt his breath disturb the hair on her nape before she felt his arms. They wound against her warmly, his chin settling on her shoulder.

"Whatever it is," he said softly, "I hope it gets better. It's okay if you don't tell me now...just...when you're ready, okay?"

It was easily the sweetest thing he'd ever said to her, and so freaking ironic. He could tell something was wrong, and he wasn't forcing an answer out of her, wasn't getting bitter because she wasn't giving him a response, was just giving her space...

"Hey," Sasuke said, turning her around by her shoulders, "Hey, it's okay." He wiped a tear off of her cheek that she hadn't even noticed had started to trail down. A deep welling rose in her chest, stronger than that constant expansion she experienced around him normally, and suddenly she felt the urge to say it, to say something stupid that she'd probably regret, but had to be said.

"Sasuke," she sighed, hiding her face in his shirt, because all this crying and blubbering was just embarrassing. "I love you."

She felt him stiffen underneath her, felt his hold suddenly lighten. A little bit of her was scared now- what if he brushed her off, what if she ended her last day at TABS with complete and utter rejection...?

"That's funny," Sasuke said slowly, and her heart instantly fell. He must have felt the way her body seized up when he'd said, because he laughed and pulled away to look at her. He was smiling, but this time the expression seemed almost too big for his face, a little dopey-ish...Naruto's kind of smile. "Because I love you, too."


About half an hour into an especially lovey-dovey goodbye make-out session, the door to their room swung open dramatically. Sasuke swore out loud, having forgotten to lock the door on their last trip up, and tried, and failed, to remove his hand inconspicuously from Hinata's thigh. Hinata buried her face in his shirt, trying to force down the skirt of Anko's gift and pull up the front at once.

"Holy shit," Naruto said, Kiba right behind him. "Holy shit, didn't mean to interrupt-!"

"That's why you fucking knock, dobe," Sasuke spat bitterly, rolling off of her. He glanced down at his girlfriend and sighed; she'd turned nearly puce with mortification and was currently attempting to bury herself under the sheets. "Hinata, we should get going, anyway."

"Okay," Hinata squeaked.

"Why the hell is Hinata wearing a dress?" Kiba asked, peering inside out of curiosity. "Oh shit, are those tits?"

"Hey, mutt," Sasuke growled, "Eyes up."

"B-B-But-!" Kiba stammered, patting his chest, "Why does he have boobs?"


Sometimes, Sasuke really liked his friends. They put up with him when he was a grouchy bastard, and entertained him on a regular basis. He'd met them at TABS' orientation and had been surprised by the fact that he was actually enjoying hanging out with people, although he'd never admit it.

Right now, though, he would like nothing more than to bash all of their heads together.

From somewhere outside the room, someone let out a wholly annoyed sigh. "That's 'cuz he's a girl, you dumbfuck." Shikamaru leisurely walked inside, hands jammed in pockets. "I saw the Pearl issue. Didn't know you were that breed of Hyuuga Hinata. Though I guess that was stupid. Neji Hyuuga's been looking for his baby sister since he was big enough to pronounce 'private investigator,' and you guys have the same, well, face."

For some reason this drove Hinata out of embarrassment. "You...knew?" Shikamaru had never shown any sign that he so much as suspected anything, always treated her like he did every one of the guys- with abject indifference.

Shikamaru shrugged. "Your proportions are all wrong for a guy. You wear boxy shirts and whatnot, but when you move, it's easy to see that you don't fill them out. And no Adam's apple to speak of." His lips quirked up in the corners. "We're in an art school, for crying out loud. I'm shocked that you managed to dupe anyone."

"Not anymore," she said with a sigh, looking back at Kiba and Naruto, who seemed seconds from foaming at the mouth. "I...I'm glad you guys came. It's...better if I can see you one last time, isn't it?"

Immediately, Kiba's face became serious. "What do you mean? You're...leaving?"

"Didn't you see the Pearl?" Sasuke said, still annoyed about the interruption.

"Well...yeah. But Hinata cross-dresses for work, so I thought-"

Hinata clutched her chest, horrified. "You thought t-they were fake?"

While Kiba clumsily tried to recover from his blunder ("No, not all, they're actually very nice and natural-looking in real life, you know, in magazines you just can never tell, what with Photoshop and airbrushing and all!") and Naruto, still catatonic, started to drool, Sasuke crossed his arms irritably. The presence of this gang of idiots reminded him that, with Hinata gone, he'd have to be putting up with them on his own.

"What are you going to do about the play?" Shikamaru said suddenly, and suddenly Hinata's face went white, bone-white.

Sasuke grit his teeth. Was she really serious? She was a hop, skip and jump away from possible expulsion and she was letting not being able to make the play bother her? "Listen, Hinata, if we don't get back in the car in the next five minutes, everything Neji's managed to work out for you will fail. These guys are here right now because they saw the article. We need to split, now."

Hinata looked up at him mournfully. "Kakashi-sensei-," she started.

"Will get over himself." He ran his hand through his hair. He needed to break that habit- the hair at his edges was already beginning to break. "You," Sasuke turned to the intruders, "get out." When they hesitated to move. He swallowed his pride. "Please," he said imploringly. "You'll see her soon."

It was a lie, one he was trying to convince himself of as well. This wasn't going to be a permanent thing. Hinata would chill in Neji's condo for about a week, and then, when things had quieted down, they'd meet up for miso again. He would steal her noodles and pull her close, and he'd insist that maybe being found out wasn't such a bad thing after all, because now he could see her legs in shorts. She would hit him, or maybe kiss him, depending on her mood, and then beg him to stop off at an ice cream parlor so that she could grab a chocolate mint cone and he nothing at all.

It was going to be okay. He wasn't losing Hinata. He wasn't.

"Please," he said hoarsely.

This time, they listened.


The walk back to Saito-san felt more like a funeral procession. The boys gathered around Hinata like mother elephants shielding their young, blocking her from view. They'd done this almost instinctively, not even looking at each other before settling into formation. Kiba dragged her suitcase behind him, and the sounds of birds chirping and wheels clanking against cobblestone were the only things breaking the silence. Sasuke held Hinata's hand tightly in his.

She'd read in a history book once that, in old Ireland, when a relative left for the States, they held a wake for the person. Death or emigration- both meant that the family would never see that person again, so why not consider them dead?

"Hyuuga-sama?" Saito-san looked at her expectantly. She blinked. They were at the car, the backseat door splayed open.

Sasuke squeezed her hand- perhaps reassuringly at first, but his grip was just a tad too tight, a bit too reluctant to loosen. At that moment, she didn't care what Saito-san told Neji when they got back; she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down to her. She could feel him stiffen under her mouth; he wasn't used to her taking initiative, but then he pulled her even closer, understanding.

Their tears melded, wet, on their cheeks.

When she got into that car, would that be it? Would she be dead to TABS forever?

"Good-bye," she whispered onto his lips, and then slid inside.


A/N: Yes, yes, I'm a cruel lady. MIA for Months! Unfortunately, I can't promise my behavior will improve this time. I've got schoolwork out the wazzoo. Children out there, don't be premed unless you really really really want to be a doctor. Or you actually happen to like things like Chemistry. Just kidding, everyone knows that chemists don't exist! Haha.

Please don't forget to review! Nothing really gets me working like reviews. This chapter was so hard to churn out, and I don't think i could've had the mojo to finish it had it not been for all of my totally awesome reviewers! I love you guys!

Also, totally check out my recently posted oneshot, Joy! It's for sophia666, who hasn't reviewed/replied just yet so I've got no idea if she likes it or not.

One chapter to go.