Winter never lasted long in the Leaf, but the snow melted away only to leave Hinata cold and empty inside. It had been a good two and a half months since Kiba's departure, and it had been a good two and a half months since Hinata had started pretending like she didn't care. But realization started to dawn in on her that, no, she couldn't pretend anymore. There was a limit to one's capacity when it came to dismissing things that made one feel horribly, horribly… horrible.

As if she hasn't had enough of that already.

She knew Kiba had meant well. And every time she would think about it, she couldn't help but remember what Shino had said to her, about one of them getting hurt. And she had done Kiba a great wrong, and for the past two and a half months she had tried to convince herself that it was not her fault because she, too, was hurting, and that that was an enough excuse to hurt someone else.

But she knew deep down that it wasn't. She knew she did not have the right to trample a man's feelings, especially not the man who had been more than willing to offer her his life if it meant having her move forward.

But that had been the catch. Did Kiba really love her to begin with? Had he offered that chance to make her forget by asking her to be his out of pity? He had left the Leaf to do research in Iwa and had been gone for over two years, and then he suddenly came back, all changed and different and so very much a man. And she had remained the stuttering little child, unsure of herself, unsure of her feelings. And she had taken up his offer desperately because she thought that it was the better option.

But she had always been a bad decision-maker.

One of the better displays of her bad decision-making was her choice to leave the kennels as they were, for a reason she couldn't quite understand. They lay just as they had been that snowy January evening when Kiba had lain the cards down for her, and she couldn't even do anything because Kiba didn't even need her to say her feelings out loud for him to know what she was thinking.

She had chased him away that day before Uzumaki Naruto became the most important person in the Leaf. And she had spent the first three days crying over it. She didn't know if she was crying because of Naruto or Kiba, but it hurt nonetheless. It felt like she had lost both of them at the same time. Naruto, to his dreams. And Kiba, to her selfishness.

And either way, she had wound up alone, as she had always chosen herself to be ever since Naruto married Sakura.

And it all boiled down to her choices.

Kiba had told her the reason why she never got her life moving ever since Naruto moved on with his. And it was because she chose not to.

At first, she had shown nothing but denial on her part. She plowed through her work like a madwoman, taking up more shifts in the Academy and adding a weekend shift in the hospital just keep her hands from being idle. Because every time she wasn't working, she would think about him.

And what was surprising about it was that by him, she meant animal skin jacket, rugged stance, broad shoulders, canines and smiles that always looked like smirks.

And thoughts about Kiba had confused her to no end, because she had been so used to thinking about blond hair, blue eyes and a boyish grin. And now, her mind was about to explode with anger, grief and sadness altogether.

Anger at Kiba for always being a step ahead of her when it came to her feelings.

Grief at having caused him to run off to heaven knows where.

And sadness at… at losing his companionship.

It had been one of the most fascinating yet foreign feelings Hinata had ever felt, and it had started a month after Kiba left, the same day when Naruto's face had been carved out of the Hokage Mountain. The artisans, Hinata thought, had done a very, very awful job at it. It looked nothing like him; serious, cold. She wished they had made him to smile. It wouldn't be Naruto without the smile, she thought.

But that had been the beginning of what Hinata thought to be one of the strangest things. The Hokage Mountain could clearly be seen from on top of the small hill right behind Hinata's house. The day Naruto's face was finally finished on that rock, she had gone to that hill very early in the morning, just in time when the sun rose. It had lit up Naruto's face, and Hinata had expected the pain to come flooding her chest again, as it always did when thoughts about Naruto came to mind. She stood on top of that hill, alone, for about an hour, maybe more, looking on and waiting for it.

But for some unexplainable reason, the pain didn't come.

She watched as the artisans started to climb back up that mountain to remove the ladders and suspended scaffolds left for the night. She watched them without using her Byakugan and all she could see were dark, tiny dots crawling all over Naruto's face. And she felt absolutely nothing.

It was probably the best she had ever felt since Naruto got married. The numbness was welcoming. She had stood there on that hill, enjoying the state of uncaring bliss, looking at his face, watching those cold, unmoving features on that rock.

And that was when she started to allow herself to wonder why it had to take this long for her to be able to shut her feelings for him like this.

And on the night of that same day, she began to dream.

Her dreams were composed of her running, mostly. From what, she couldn't quite tell. But in her dreams, she would always be tired and out of breath. And she would wake up feeling the exact same way she did in those dreams.

But today, this specific day in spring, two and a half months after Kiba left, she dreamed about something else. She was out in the garden, inside her fenced-up yard, tending to her gardenias. She was singing to herself when she had a faint whiff of pine trees and mint. And for a moment in that dream, she felt happy as she looked around to search for where the scent was coming from. She stood up and turned full circle to look, but all she could see was the fence around her, and a tingling sensation as if she was being watched.

And she woke up with a start to discover she had fallen asleep on her kitchen counter, and sitting in the middle of her living room, watching her with glowing eyes, was none other than Akamaru.

The nin ken had grown a lot over the years, heavy-boned with a deep chest and a wide, strong jaw. He had one paw in front of the other in a lazy stance, and his tail was swishing from left to right, those slanted eyes of his watching her with interest.

It had been a while since she had seen him. Ever since Kiba had come back to the Leaf, Akamaru had been busy with his own affairs concerning Hana's litter, though it did not surprise Hinata that he had grown into a fine specimen of an Inuzuka nin ken while she wasn't looking.

She looked over at the open window of her living room, obviously the entrance Akamaru had used to get in her house.

"What's the matter, princess? Cat got your tongue?"

Hinata gasped, for a moment wondering where that voice had come from. It didn't take her long to realize that it was Akamaru.

"You speak?" she asked shakily, pulling at the shawl wrapped around her shoulder tightly.

Akamaru let out a low growl before slowly lowering himself onto the ground, stretching out his front paws and crossing one leg over another. "You speak?" he mimicked. "You've had an Inuzuka in your team since you were a genin, and you're asking me if I speak?"

Hinata felt her cheeks grow warm as she sat up straighter on her chair. She had been aware that nin ken were capable of communicating using words once they reach a certain age, but she was not aware that Akamaru had come of that said age. His personality was sarcastic, brass and very much like his master. This fact did not surprise Hinata much.

She tried to compose herself, tried to smile. "It's been a while. How have you been?"

Akamaru let his tongue hang out of his mouth, a sign that he was finally at a relaxed state. "Winter's over, and spring's coming, and my mate is in a different country. Nothing could be lousier than that. Not to mention the fact that Kiba had run off with my young without telling me, and I have to stay here because of Hana's little ones. So I'm not fine. But thank you for asking."

Hinata swallowed hard, unsure of how to answer to a dog who was complaining to her about… doggy business. She tried to smile again, though quite uncertain. "Would you like something to drink? Have you eaten?" She thought it was polite to ask.

"Do you think I came here for snack?"

Hinata bit her lower lip, her brow furrowing. Actually, she didn't have any clue as to why he had come to see her. He hadn't shown his face back when Kiba first returned from the Hidden Stone, and she hadn't really asked Kiba about him because she just assumed that he really was busy with a new batch of pups from Hana's litter.

And now, he was here, lying down in the middle of her living room rug, reminding her so much of his human partner.

"You were asleep before I came," Akamaru said.

"Ah, yes." Hinata brushed her hair over one shoulder and proceeded to look for a deep enough bowl in her cupboard before opening her refrigerator door. "I was just resting a bit."

Akamaru sniffed loudly, turned his head to the side as if to look out of the open window. "It's not like you to leave your garden a mess. My young's kennels are dirty, and the water bowls are overturned."

Hinata paused in mid-reach for the milk carton from the bottom of her fridge, somehow not liking Akamaru's tone about how she had slacked off today. "Tomorrow is an off day for me. I was planning on cleaning up tomorrow."

And that had Akamaru letting out a sound that came close to human laughter. "That's always what's wrong with humans. They always think they have all the time in the world." He snapped his jaw closed before letting it drop back down again. "Of course, I can't blame you. One human year is equivalent to an average of nine years for us, so I guess dawdling would be natural for you."

That had Hinata frowning openly now and she abandoned the milk carton on her counter. "I don't dawdle. And I don't always think I have all the time in the world," she said defensively.

"Really? I beg to differ. You humans love to dawdle. You think that you have all the time in the world, so you tend to take things for granted. Like friendship, for one. You severe ties here and there, thinking you can just patch things up when you think you're ready." Akamaru scoffed, trained his eyes at her. "Humans are strange creatures. You are probably one of the special ones out there who are wasting a lot of that precious time that you have."

"I don't waste time!"

That had Akamaru's ears twitching in interest. "Wonderful. Get dressed then."

Hinata blinked in surprise at the sudden order. "Why?"

"It's time to walk the dog."

That had her blinking again, this time confused. "You want to go out for a walk?"

"It's a nice evening. The stars are out." He pushed himself on all fours, stretched his back and cocked his head to the side. "Come."

And that was when suspicion started kicking in. It was not for a nin ken to barge into a person's house without intended purpose. And it was not for Akamaru to ask for walks. But maybe that had been what made her want to go in the first place. She wrapped her arms around herself before nodding. "I'll get my coat."

It took her but a few minutes to get ready, fish her keys from her bag and step out into her garden, which, as Akamaru had pointed out, was a complete mess. Weeds were sprouting here and there, and dead leaves that had gotten blown inside her fence were scattered everywhere. Shio and Koshio's kennels, which she had left the way they were, stood barren and lonely under her apple trees, and their water dishes were left abandoned carelessly in the undergrowth.

Hinata felt an ache in her stomach at the sight of those kennels, and it was only then did she realize how she missed those two nin ken pups' company.

And Kiba's…

Hinata shivered. It was colder than she expected, and the light coat she had thrown on did little for her, but thinking this was probably not going to take long, she didn't bother to go back and change. She even had but a pair of geta slippers on.

Akamaru led the way on silent, padded feet, pushing open the door of her fence and looking over at her to see if she was following. They wordlessly crossed the trail that led to the main road of the village outskirts, but Akamaru didn't venture too far off the trees lining the path. He also kept sniffing here and there, as if he were looking for something.

It took a good fifteen minutes for Akamaru to guide her to a familiar place. She found herself standing in the middle of the playground behind the village Academy.

"Why here?" she asked, her eyes scanning the dark windows of the squat building, half expecting to find something that would be the reason for Akamaru to take her there.

"Why here, indeed. It's where everything began, after all," he said, sitting on his haunches. "The smell of decades ago still remains here. I can still get a clear whiff of everything. Of the people who matter to me. Of the people who matter to Kiba the most." He turned to the picket fence surrounding the small planters right under a low window which Hinata remembered to be her classroom back before she became Genin.

"You, Kiba and Shino were formed as a Reconnaissance team, because the Village would benefit from it. Though unlike the Yamanaka, Nara and Akimichi, the Inuzuka, Hyuuga and Aburame don't necessarily have a pact with each other – Hyuuga were never known to make pacts with other clans – your teachers thought it wise to team you three together. I remember you had been nervous about your teammates. I could still remember your scent then. Kurenai had been worried about how you would be able to fit in, but Shino and Kiba, though both never said or shown it openly, cared about you deeply."

Hinata felt her cheeks grow hot at the mention of Shino and Kiba's name, and she knew that it could probably because of the guilt she felt for the two of them. Shino had been mad at her, disappointed even. Ever since that day when he visited her, he hadn't shown up since, not even when he found out that Kiba had left the Leaf once more.

"I was a still a little pup when you and I were introduced, but I could already tell by smell that you were in love with Naruto, as far as how children understood the emotion. You were probably the only girl in your class who didn't fawn over the Uchiha child. And that made your scent the most unique of all in your batch, especially since your scent never changed – not even a bit – even as you grew older." Akamaru gave her a one-eyed stare, and for some reason Hinata had the feeling like he was grinning at her. "Sakura's feelings for Sasuke lasted until the beginning of the war, and her scent changed when the war ended. Naruto's scent had been easier to remember, although for humans, it would have been hard to understand. Naruto had been unbiased when it came to kindness, and was basically nice to everyone. He could send mixed signals to people. As you might already know." He ended his sentence with a knowing look.

Hinata couldn't help but look away.

Akamaru let out an amused rumbling laugh. "Oh, but it was easy to tell for me. Only humans could make things more complicated with weird rituals that make no sense to us nin ken. Like, for example, courtship. Or confessions. And pride. We nin ken find our compatible mates by mere scent alone. You, on the other hand, have the unfortunate task of finding yours by trial and error. And luck, maybe?"

And Hinata didn't know how to respond to this. She had never really thought about love from a dog's perspective, but now that she did, she felt a bit envious. Akamaru was right; humans were very unfortunate.

Akamaru stood up, used a hind leg to scratch behind one ear. "Oh, well. We must make do with what we have. And all you humans have is the ability to heal broken hearts after a love gone wrong. That, and the ability to bear with unrequited love?"

Hinata, for some reason, found the humor in that. She laughed a bit. "I'm a master of bearing with unrequited love."

"Oh? But I wasn't talking about you."

Hinata blinked. "Huh?"

"I was talking about Shino and Kiba."

Of course, what Akamaru had just said to her needed a few minutes to sink in because right now, Akamaru had said something she couldn't quite believe. And the only thing that she could utter was, "What?"

Akamaru laughed again. "You couldn't have known! You had your own unrequited love to worry about for you to realize that both your teammates had fallen in love with you, I think it was when you three turned sixteen. Neither of them said it out loud. Not to you, not to each other. Though I think they sort of had that understanding between them that you were 'theirs'. It had been a complicated thing. Love triangles always reeked the most."

And Hinata could only blush as she remembered the time when Shino had barged in on her, demanding answers about her and Kiba's relationship with her. And she could faintly hear Kiba's voice at the back of her mind saying, "You know as well as I do that we've always loved her. But this doesn't concern you anymore. Hinata's no longer ours. Hinata is mine. And I'll take full responsibility on her."

She could vaguely remember Shino's unreadable expression then, the way his shoulders sagged, the way his mouth turned down into a frown. She felt her heart clench in pain, and she hugged herself tightly, unsure of what to feel.

She had been oblivious of her teammates' feelings because she had been too caught up on her own. Was it weird to feel bad about something in the past? The only thing that she could do now was deny it. She shook her head. "That can't possibly be true…"

Akamaru made a movement that could have been an equivalent to a human shrug. "Well, for a time, it was. Shino had loved you until you were twenty one, until fate was kind enough to let him meet someone who saw him for who he was and it was only then did he allow himself to give up on you completely. He was the luckier one." He paused a bit, sighed. "Kiba wasn't as lucky."

For some reason, Hinata thought this conversation was something she shouldn't be hearing. She was already feeling bad enough. "Please don't…"

"Please don't what? Please don't tell you how much Kiba loves you?"

This was killing her. Really killing her slowly. Kiba had left the Leaf when they were twenty three. It had been the same year Naruto had married Sakura, and the same year she had withdrawn from her social circle and family. She had no one else to blame for her loss but herself, really, if one could consider it a loss. She had never had Naruto in the first place. One could never lose something that was never theirs to begin with.

But Kiba… Kiba had been hers, until recently.

And she had driven him away by clinging onto the love for a boy who belonged to someone else.

And the guilt started to kick in again. She remembered the day of Shino's wedding when Kiba had offered her the chance to forget about Naruto. He had offered himself to her almost too willingly, and something had always been off with her, and now she knew why. She had never really trusted his feelings for her. A part of her felt like he was doing it out of kindness, out of pity. She had questioned his true feelings for her.

And here was Akamaru, claiming that Kiba had loved her ever since they were sixteen… !

Akamaru seemed to sense her thoughts. "You couldn't have known. Kiba and Shino's presence had become a constant in your life that having them around was as natural as breathing for you. At twenty three, Kiba and I left for Iwa for research, and for the two years we've been away, Kiba had always thought of you. Letters from you came as they should for the first three months, and then they stopped almost instantly for a reason Kiba couldn't even begin to comprehend. That was until a letter from Naruto with a wedding invitation reached us. We couldn't have participated, of course. Not because Kiba didn't want to. He had wanted to rush home to you – not to Naruto – the moment that invitation came."

Akamaru gave her a somewhat forlorn look. "The only thing that had kept him from leaving Iwa was because I found my mate there. Research sped up relatively after that, but since nin ken only go into heat three times in two years, timing had been off. We missed her first, the second had been unsuccessful. We got lucky on the third, and she sired four pups."

Hinata found herself having a hard time breathing. So that was why Kiba had been away for so long… And the moment the pups were old enough to separate from their mother, Kiba had…

Kiba had come home to her…

Akamaru whined suddenly. "My mate has made me very happy. I miss her terribly."

Hinata took a deep breath, trying very hard not to shiver. "If you miss her, they why did you stay? Kiba's… Kiba's in Iwa right now, isn't he? You should go."

Akamaru sniffed. "I was bound for Iwa tonight, I'll have you know, since Hana's released me from my duty with the clan litter."

"Then why are you here with me?" she asked grudgingly. Honestly, if he was going to tell her uncomfortable facts about the past that she shouldn't even know, then she'd rather have him gone.

Akamaru suddenly sat up, looked at her straight in the eye and said, "Because, Hinata, tonight your scent has changed."

Unconsciously, Hinata inhaled deeply, as if to take in the nonexistent scent Akamaru was talking about. She took in as much as her lungs could take as she looked back at the window of their classroom. In her mind's eye, she saw her young self shyly reaching out a hand to pet a very tiny Akamaru on his head as she listened to the young Kiba brag about their partnership while Shino listened patiently to the side.

She saw Kiba snapping at her for not being able to properly hit the kunai target and they ended up staying until dark in the training ground until she got it right.

She saw Kiba at sixteen, teasing her about Naruto being her weakness, and then dropping the subject almost instantly when she started to hyperventilate, and he would gently rub her back to calm her down while apologizing profusely.

She saw Kiba at twenty having a turning-of-age party when he got his first taste of alcohol and liking it so much that he ended up getting so drunk that she and Shino had to support him all the way home. She remembered him pressing his cheek so close to her, asking her if he stank. And she had laughed at him, wiping a bit of drool at the side of his mouth without batting an eyelash, telling him that he smelled fine.

She saw Kiba at twenty one, when a girl from the Yamanaka clan started showing interest in him. The girl had been pretty, with her blond bob and blue eyes. Kiba had humored her to some extent, but they never really got serious. Hinata had asked him about her but never got a straight answer, telling her that he had too many things in his mind that he didn't have time to think about girls.

Come to think of it, Kiba had never even once shown interest in a woman.

And then she saw him looking rough and tall and changed after his two-year long mission from the Hidden Stone, walking in on her class like it was the most natural of things. She saw him smile at her with that insolent mouth of his, looking like some wild animal pretending he was tame.

She saw him handsome and smooth in a hakama in Shino's wedding, saving her from the truth of Naruto and Sakura's love bearing fruit, and she saw him whisking her away into the safety of the lake behind Training Ground Twenty Three, because he knew her all too well, and that water always calmed her. She saw him scolding her about her selfishness, about not even being sensitive enough to acknowledge the fact that Shino had just gotten married. And she had burst out crying, angry and jealous and miserable, because Naruto was happy with someone else while she was alone.

And then she saw him take her in for a forced kiss, his mouth hot against hers, his tongue invading her as if he had the right to. And she had taken in the breath he had provided her when she needed it, because it was the only thing she could have done at the moment. And the kiss ended and he asked her to be his, and he promised that he would make her forget.

And she had accepted it.

She had the choice to say no, but she had said yes. And for a while she had believed that it could actually work. He had managed to coax her out of her shell, to mingle with friends, to have a life outside of the little world she had created for herself.

And when Naruto's other dream came true, she had crumbled. She had blamed Kiba for it. She had blamed Naruto for it. She had blamed fate.

But in reality, she had herself and only herself to blame. She was miserable, not because Naruto had chosen someone else. She was suffering, not because Kiba had not been quick enough, effective enough at making her forget. She was miserable because…

Because you don't fucking want to.

And it was that one moment – it happened in a blink of an eye – and it was so sudden that she felt the air leave her as if she had been struck in the gut. The realization hit her, shudders wracked her body and she nearly tumbled forward when she finally – finally! – broke through that invisible barrier that she had been building around herself.

She had run after Naruto blindly, arbitrarily, choosing to grasp at something that she hadn't really, really invested much in the first place. The realization was like a bucket of cold water emptied over her head, and she cried out loudly as she whirled around to see Akamaru staring at her in satisfaction.

"It's time," was all Akamaru said, but it was enough.

Hinata felt her legs move on their own, and she broke into a run, not even stopping when she lost one of her geta slippers somewhere as she leaped over some bushes. She didn't care. She kicked the other slipper off, braced herself and launched into a jump into the clump of dark trees, landing on a branch before leaping onto the next. She knew where she was headed. She needed to get this done before anything else.

It took her half the time when Akamaru had led her to the Academy. In a matter of no time, she found herself standing in front of her fenced-in home, panting, eyes cast down, feet bare and dirty, hands clenched into fists.

Kiba had come back for her. All the while she had been watching Naruto walk in front of her, she never even once had the decency to look beside her, where Kiba had been, where he had faithfully, loyally, unconditionally stayed when even Shino had moved on. She had accepted him when he offered himself to her, irresponsibly, almost uncaringly, thinking that it was all up to him. And she hadn't even considered meeting him half-way. And all the while she had blamed him.

Hinata raised her eyes towards her fence, gathering her chakra to her palms, feeling the warmth travel from her gut, to her arms, to her fists. "I choose you," she muttered to no one in particular. "I'm sorry. I choose to look at you properly. I choose… I choose to consider you more fairly… I'm sorry… "

The chakra materialized into a glowing whitish-blue light licking through her clenched fingers, and she felt her hair rise at the gentle force emitting from her fists. She remembered the faint smell of pine trees and mint in her dream, and the numbness she felt at watching Naruto's face carved into the Hokage mountainside. And she felt a very, very light feeling within her chest as she gathered more chakra into her hands.

And for the first time in many years, she felt free.

"Because I choose to!" And she dashed forward without any hesitation, pulling her right arm back and, in one fluid motion, let her open palm fly forward against the fence surrounding her home. Wood cracked against skin. Hinata didn't stop there. She whirled to the side, letting her left hand chop against one of the main posts, splitting it in half. Hinata was already letting a roundhouse loose against the next post, and it joined the first post crashing onto the ground.

Hinata had never really been naturally destructive, but for some reason she felt the satisfaction in this. She let out a cry as she swung forward once more, fists, arms, palms, legs moving in precise movement as if she were practicing her katas. Her hair whipped her face painfully as she continued to rage, splintered wood flying here and there as she went on into demolishing the fence that she had taken refuge behind. Given, it had been Kiba who actually put it up, but it mattered little to her. She had found comfort in that physical barrier, but she had decided – made that willing choice – that she's had no more of it.

No more…

"No… more!" She let out one final scream as she swooped forward and landed a good palm against the final post, and she allowed herself to watch it crash down at her attack. Dust and debris surrounded her as she tried to catch her breath, and she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. She looked down at her bare feet, saw the dirt under her nails. She brushed the hair plastered against her forehead.

She looked up at her house, at the apple trees, at the kennels, at the weeds and upturned water dishes. Then she turned around and ended up looking straight into Akamaru's glowing eyes as he sat there on his haunches, watching her. Waiting.

Hinata felt her eyes water, her nose tickle, her throat burn. And she felt one lone tear trickle down her cheek. She wiped it away with her thumb.

"Are you ready?" Akamaru asked.

Hinata nodded silently.

"Then we ride."

And Hinata didn't even bother with her clothes. Not even her shoes, or that she only had one coat thrown over her shoulders. She leaped over Akamaru's broad back and they disappeared into the darkness of the forest surrounding the Leaf.

Iwa was north-west of Konoha. And so that was where she knew she needed to be.

A/N: Two more chapters to go!