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冬 一

31, December, 999

Sasuke is awoken by a hard thwack to his forehead and Tsunade’s voice; "Alright, up and at 'em, kiddo."

Sasuke scrubs at his eyes and scans his surroundings. Apparently his intention of resting his eyes for a minute or two in the on-call room had turned into a one hour nap in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. Tsunade’s presence hasn’t woken the resident snoring in one of the cots, but if Sasuke’s time in the hospital as a patient and Basically An Intern has taught him anything, it’s that once a resident has actually managed to get to sleep they can’t be woken up for anything but the direst of emergencies. Tsunade takes another moment to peer down at Sasuke with an arched brow before grabbing him by the collar and heaving him to his feet.

Sasuke lets out a choked yelp and bats her hands away; "Stop doing that! I’m already up, what’s going on?!"

Tsunade doesn’t break her stride, strolling out of the on-call room as she replies, "First, like I’ve said, stop wearing collars that big and I’ll stop using them as a handle. Second, what’s going on is that it’s eleven and you’re here. Come on, if we’re making it to the Naka Shrine before midnight we’re gonna have to hustle."

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "What’s at the shrine?"

Tsunade shoots him a look one part weary, two parts unimpressed; "It’s more like what isn’t at the shrine. There’s too many damn people visiting the Shrine of Six Paths for New Years so we’re hitting up your neck of the woods."

Sasuke blinks, slowly and deliberately, as they cross the threshold of the hospital and head out into the cold of the night. Is it New Years? Winter Solstice was two weeks ago, so it would have to be, but Sasuke has been in the hospital since yesterday and hasn’t had to write the date on anything for even longer so he really couldn’t say.

Sasuke runs a hand through his hair and mutters, "What do people even do on New Years?"

Tsunade smirks; "Yeah, I feel that. Only reason I remember is because Shizune started dragging me to the shrine every year once she was strong enough to actually lift my drunk ass."

Sasuke hides the smirk that image brings to his face behind his collar. He doesn’t have to hide it for long. Tsunade’s quick pace brings them to the ruins of the Uchiha District in slightly less than a half-hour. Sasuke stumbles to a halt at the threshold. A million excuses and protests that had been nebulously forming in his brain as Tsunade swept him along suddenly come together in a lightning strike as Sasuke’s stomach does a somersault. His hands and feet go cold and numb. Every breath feels like he has to drag it in, then shove it out again.

"I– Look, I don’t–"

The last time he actually passed through the gate was five years ago, next to the last Hokage. Sasuke had frozen in his tracks back then, too. Sarutobi had tried to put his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder to steady him but Sasuke had shoved it off. He’d glanced up to see more of that pity (no, not pity, guilt, but why–?) in his eyes. The jolt of frustration had given him energy enough to throw himself forward and into the closed crime scene that was his home.

"I don’t see– There’s no point in celebrating, alright? I haven’t–"

Sasuke had kept his head down so he wouldn’t have to see the shuttered shops and boarded-up homes. He’d bit down hard on his lip to stifle the impulse to say I’m home when coming through his own front door. He’d kept his sandals stubbornly on as he took the long way to his room, telling himself that this wasn’t a house anymore, nobody lived here, nobody was going to care.

"You can do whatever you want, I– I’m–"

He’d stormed past Itachi’s room, his parents’ room, and almost missed his own. He’d shoved only his clothes and his ninja tools into the too-big duffle bag the village had provided for him. He’d considered bringing some of his books, or maybe one of the pictures in the living room, but quickly tamped down the ache that brought to his throat. He didn’t need them. Those books weren’t anything useful, there was nothing in them that would help him kill Itachi. Looking at those pictures would just make him soft and sad and that kind of grief doesn’t accomplish anything. It just makes everything rot.

In the present, Tsunade’s arm comes around his shoulders and pulls him tight to her side. Sasuke flinches, mind telling him to pull away from the person touching him without permission but body leaning into the warmth. He looks up.

There’s no pity, no guilt in the eyes of the Fifth Hokage.

Tsunade remarks, voice soft, "You know, one of the reasons I didn’t want to be Hokage was the house. Sure, the Senju had our own clan compound and I had my own place once I was grown, but between Grandpa, my great-uncle, and Sarutobi-sensei, that house is where I grew up. If the thought of walking through that door and remembering all the time I spent chasing Nawaki around the dinner table was enough to make me sick, there was no way I could handle being Hokage."

Tsunade squeezes his shoulder; "If you really can’t tonight, we won’t. We’ll pack in with the Hyuuga at their shrine or just skip the whole thing and stuff ourselves with soba at the house. But New Years is a time for starting fresh. I can’t think of a better time than now to give that a shot."

Sasuke closes his eyes. He can’t remember his last New Years with his family, not in any detail. He remembers the Naka Shrine’s bell ringing, one hundred and seven times before midnight and one time after. He remembers the taste of amazake, though he doesn’t remember what cousin snuck him a sip of the alcoholic kind. He thinks he remembers his mother telling him to not run too far, but he was always running off, it could’ve been from that New Years or so many others.

Grief makes everything rot. Even memories.

Sasuke lets out a long, shuddering sigh; "Yeah… Yeah. Let’s go."

Tsunade shoots him a smile and leads them along, expertly shifting the subject; "Apparently half the reason everyone’s all over the Sage’s shrine this year is because it’s the turn of the millennium. People are expecting the moon to fall on us or the sun to go dark."

Sasuke focuses on pooling Fire Chakra in the soles of his feet to melt the snow around them so he won’t look at the buildings; "That’s ridiculous."

"You’re telling me, but people always get antsy about auspicious numbers," Tsunade snorts, "Especially when all the doomsday cults out there start throwing their hats in to the ring. Nobody loves a special number more than a doomsday cult. Anything from the Sage of Six Paths returning to judge the wicked to Jashin swallowing the innocent, if it could happen it will happen on the turn of the decade, century, millennium, etcetera."

Sasuke’s nose wrinkles in a frown as he avoids looking at the police station standing silent vigil over the scene of the crime; "Are doomsday cults that big of a problem?"

Tsunade shrugs; "Around here, not really. But their voices carry, and they wiggle their way into the ears of scared and desperate people. After Orochimaru made this hidden village feel a lot less hidden and a lot less safe, we’ve got a few more of those kicking around. They’re like weeds. If you’re not diligent about keeping them out of your garden, you’ll suddenly find they’ve taken the whole thing over."

The district thins out the closer they get to the river, houses getting smaller and trees getting taller. The Naka Shrine is closer to how Sasuke remembers it than any other building. Nobody had been here the night of the massacre. If anyone’s stolen coins from the offering box, it’s only been some enterprising crows. The wear and tear on the building comes only from having been left to it’s own devices for five years. The Naka River has frozen over, there’s no using that water to purify themselves today. Not unless they want to get frostbite.

Tsunade purses her lips as they ascend the steps, passing under the torii gate on the right side; "Remind me what kami this was dedicated to?"

"Nakano, the dragon of the Southern river," Sasuke murmurs, "He’s probably left by now."

They make it up to the bell and Tsunade checks her watch– Ten ’til midnight.

She lets go of Sasuke and stretches; "Alright, let’s get to it. Keep count for me."

Dust and cobwebs come off the bell in a shower as Tsunade rings it the first ten times. Sasuke tries to shield his face and mouth, but his eyes water and he coughs up a lung all the same. Tsunade collapses into helpless peals of laughter and Sasuke glares at her, hoping for a spiteful second that a spider will fall into her hair. She keeps ringing the bell, and as Sasuke keeps count he starts clearing the sandō of snow with bursts of Fire chakra from the soles of his feet. By the time Tsunade reaches one hundred and six rings of the bell, the path is clear for anyone who wants to leave offerings.

Nobody will. But better that they have the option and choose not to instead of not being able to at all.

Tsunade rings the bell for the one hundred and seventh time at eleven fifty-nine. She holds the rope out to Sasuke with an expectant quirk to her lips. Sasuke’s eyebrows slowly arch, his eyes going wide.

"Well? Come on, this is your patron kami, kiddo," Tsunade remarks, one hand on her hip, "If anyone should ring him into the New Year, it’s an Uchiha."

Sasuke frowns, taking the rope almost on instinct; "Like I said, he’s probably gone. Nobody’s tended this shrine in five years."

Tsunade just glances over to the river; "Sure, maybe he’s not in the shrine anymore. But the river’s still flowing. He’ll hear you."

Sasuke purses his lips, his grip tensing on the rope. He closes eyes and counts down from five. Tsunade’s watch ticks to midnight and Sasuke rings the bell.

There’s a loud crack from the sheet of ice over the river. Sasuke can suddenly hear the rushing water through the crack in the ice. It sounds almost like the purring of a great cat. Tsunade’s eyebrows have shot up, her eyes wide.

She lets out a low whistle before grinning down at him; "Congratulations on the New Year, Sasuke."

It takes Sasuke a few tries, but he finally replies, "Congratulations on the New Year, ma’am."

Tsunade reaches out and ruffles his hair with one hand. With the other, she withdraws a hefty bottle of amazake from her winter coat. Sasuke blinks in surprise at the bottle’s sudden appearance. Where she hid that… nope, never mind. None of his business, especially where his mentor is concerned.

Tsunade hands him the bottle as she sets about pulling out a pair of saké cups; "Warm this up, kid. Amazake’s not worth shit cold."

Sasuke channels Fire chakra into the palms of his hands; "Is this the alcoholic kind?"

Tsunade smirks down at him; "What do you think?"

"That Shizune would crucify you if she smelled any alcohol on my breath and she has a better nose than Tonton," Sasuke deadpans, pouring the newly-warm drink into the little cups.

"Got it in one, kiddo," Tsunade lifts her cup, "To the new millennium."

Sasuke clinks his cup against hers; "To the new millennium."

Tsunade will drag him back to the Hokage’s residence before too long. They’ll slurp up Shizune’s toshikoshi soba and listen to her vent about the crowds at the Shrine of Six Paths nearly trampling poor little Tonton. Shizune will set him up in one of the rooms for the Hokage’s family, insisting it’s much too cold for him to walk all the way back to Kakashi’s apartment, especially since Kakashi is off on a mission and he’ll be there all alone. Sasuke will stay up reading Tsunade’s medical journals with Tonton curled up at his feet, watching the lights in the village go out from the corner of his eye.

But for now, Tsunade and Sasuke sit on the steps of the Naka Shrine, drinking the sweet amazake, listening to the contented rumblings of the Naka River, and drawing the first moments of the New Year out for as long as they’ll last.

10, January, 1000

When you’ve been trapped in various and sundry glass tubes underground for a year, you quickly learn to hone in on literally any interesting or different thing you see outside them. New faces are of particular interest. And new, pretty faces? Well, that’s the jackpot.

Suigetsu watches the girl with the pink hair collect Kabuto’s research notes from the desk and shuffle them into some sort of order, clipping them to a clipboard when she’s done. Her hair’s color is just the first thing about it he notices, the second being that it looks like someone cut the back with a hacksaw. She keeps pushing her bangs up and out of her face, only for them to fall back down again and hide her big green eyes. She’s rail thin, the black tights and long-sleeved shirt she’s wearing under a too big, cheaply made yukata only emphasizing how twiggy and eminently snap-able her arms and legs are.

She bustles around the space, doing the kind of grunt work that would drive Suigetsu absolutely insane. She collects empty test tubes and washes them in the sink. She places the chemicals and powders and whatever that Kabuto took off the shelves back on it, but not before taking long looks inside the bottles, reading the labels on the outside, and making some notes. She then proceeds to take everything on the shelves off the shelves and repeat the process for all of them.

Suigetsu suppresses a bubbling snicker. Someone’s fucking with this girl, that’s for damn sure.

Regardless, she runs through whatever inventory she’s supposed to be taking surprisingly quickly. Suigetsu would have to double check his own work mid-stride, but she works with a quick and efficient confidence that’s wasted on figuring out how much silver nitrate they have left or whatever the fuck Kabuto and Orochimaru are making her do…

Wait, what the fuck are they making her do?

This is the kind of shit Kabuto used to do himself. He’s watched him do it dozens of times and lost brain cells every time at the mundanity of it all. Orochimaru also does this kind of shit himself, because this is Sound and Orochimaru isn’t stupid enough to let anyone else touch his stuff. The prisoners are put to work doing basic cleaning and maintenance, but they’re not allowed in the labs. The actual ninja of the village barely spend any time inside it, they’re too busy maintaining a presence topside to keep the peasants from revolting quite as often.

So what the fuck is she?

It’s at that moment that she finishes her inventory and turns to head for the door. She doesn’t make it all the way. Instead, she stops parallel to his tube and gives it a second glance. She turns to look at it with a brow raised. He thinks. Hard to see through all that hair in her face and– Oh, no, there she goes pushing her hair out of her face again. That eyebrow is at least halfway up that huge forehead.

Her eyes scan up and down the tube, likely watching his liquified body spin around in this green, viscous… stuff. Suigetsu doesn’t know what it is, Kabuto would never explain it to him, only that it tastes awful and he hates it. Besides, it’s not this stuff on it’s own that makes it hard (but not impossible) for him to get up into the pipes. It’s all the fucking spinning. Trying to fight the force of it and move under his own power is like trying to swim out to sea in the middle of a storm. The only benefit of having to stay liquefied most of the time is–

BONK! BONK! BONK!

The sound of the girl’s gloved finger tapping on the glass hits him like a gunshot. The vibration shakes him down to his currently liquid bones. He drags his body together as quick as he can, building himself from the organs up until a somewhat melty version of his upper torso is gripping the glass and he’s glaring at the girl.

He snaps, sharp as he can in this state, "Fucking stop that!"

She jolts back from the glass, yelping, "Sorry! Sorry sorry sorry, sorry, I–! I didn’t know you were in there!"

"Well I am," he growls, "Rule one of any aquarium, don’t tap the glass. Get it?"

She nods, quick and sharp; "Got it. Sorry. Again."

Suigetsu’s mouth flows into a frown; "Who are you?"

"I’m Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant–"

"Try again."

"… Excuse me?"

Suigetsu narrows his eyes; "This is Sound. Nobody trusts anyone else here, especially not with their research. Try again."

She frowns at him through her hair, tapping her index finger on the back of her clipboard as she holds it in front of her chest like a shield. Sea and fucking sky, this girl must be soft if she’s really this scared of a guy in a tube. She tapped on the glass, she knows how thick it is. Dumb and soft as she is yet still with the gall to dress halfway like a shinobi, you’d think she was from the Leaf Village…

Fucking– Of course.

His eyes go wide and his voice comes out in a rushed gout of bubbles; "You’re the new body?! I knew the Sound Four fucked up but not this bad, holy shit, how are you alive?"

She frowns at him; "I’m not the body. I’m Sakura Haruno, and I am Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant. Listen–"

"Listen," Suigetsu cuts her off, "Whatever they’re telling you, whatever they’ve got you doing, it’s bull. Best case, they’re yanking your chain to get some laughs out of you before you become the next meal for the snakes. Worst case, they’ve got plans," he drops his voice to a whisper, "We can get out of here. I’ll help you, you’ll help me. Whatever’s waiting for you back in Leaf can’t be worse than here."

She closes her eyes and continues tapping on her clipboard as she sighs, "I’m sorry, but I won’t be doing that."

Suigetstu twists his face into a snarl; "Listen, you’re cute but you’re fuckin’ dumb as shit if you don’t see– Will you fuckin’ stop tapping your fuckin’ clipboard it’s driving me–!"

Wait a second.

One long, drawn out, slow tap. One short tap. Another long, another short. A pause. Short tap, long tap–

Oh, fuck, god damn it, he owes Mangetsu a soda or something in Heaven, that fucking codebreaking class at the academy is actually coming in handy. How did this one work again? A combination of short and long sounds make a letter, you pause between each letter, and that makes a word or an abbreviation or something, right?

Suigetsu finally puts it together the fourth time Sakura repeats it: C A M E R A S.

What? Fucking– what? Yeah there are cameras and wiretaps all around the base but not in here, right? Kabuto does tons of shady shit in here, he wouldn’t– Wait, no, fuck that he totally would, Kabuto runs those cameras. Orochimaru’s too busy going balls deep in some science experiment or drinking himself to death most days to check any tapes he doesn’t specifically need. Of course there are cameras and wiretaps in here. Anything incriminating can easily go missing.

Okay, so she isn’t dumb as shit. Might just be plain dumb, depending on what angles those cameras are covering, but not dumb as shit.

Suigetsu scowls at her; "The fuck would you ever leave the Leaf Village for, anyway? You guys are the only ones who ever come out of the wars still sitting pretty. Too good for some cushy gig in Intelligence?"

As he speaks, he releases bubbles in the cadence of that same code: W H E R E ?

Sakura catches on quick, tapping away on her clipboard as she replies, "There’s more to life than just not starving to death. I had ambitions, but the Leaf Village is stagnant. I outgrew them."

G E N J U T S U. W E ' R E   C L E A R.

Well, that tracks. Suigetsu’s always been shit at seeing through that crap. The cameras could be anywhere in the room, then. She could be lying. She could be wrong. This is a Leaf Village code, Orochimaru and Kabuto definitely know it… Eh. Fuck it. Worst case when she tries to screw him over he screws her right back and lies about double-bluffing her. If he was willing to take a chance on Kimimaro and it got her here instead of whoever the real body was supposed to be then he might have better luck than he thought with this whole subterfuge thing.

"Yeah, sure, classic line from someone who’s never actually starved." W H O   A R E   Y O U ?

"Oh yeah? With a kekkei genkai like that, I’d guess you’re from the Land of Water. Your country harvests half the continent’s supply of fish, I hardly believe you’re doing much starving." S P Y.   A S S A S S I N.   A F T E R   O R O C H I M A R U.

"Yeah, we harvest it and then we sell it to the continent. The sea’s too fuckin’ lucrative for the daimyo to let just any old fuck fish for himself off the dock. You either need money to buy fish, money to buy the right licenses, or money to buy a boat that can take you out past the Mist Sea and back again. And guess what we don’t have a lot of thanks to getting our asses rocked in every single war?" B A L L S Y.

"And those islands aren’t really rich in farmland, are they?" N E E D   A L L I E S.

"Unless mangrove swamps have suddenly become a kind of farmland while I’ve been trapped in here, no. You want anything other than fish you pay out the ass for that too, import tax and tariffs all that crap being what it is." A N D ?

"The way Fire Country’s daimyo wields tariffs you’d think he’s trying to start another war." W I L L   H E L P   Y O U   E S C A P E.

"Who’s to say he’s not? The last one put you guys back on the top of the hill. Why not starve everyone out and kill 'em in their sleep?" A N D ?

"I defected. I am not one of them anymore." W H A T   D O   Y O U   W A N T ?

"Keep telling yourself that, honey. Anyone could clock you as Leaf from a mile away." S W O R D S.

"How?" ?

"You all live in a fuckin’ forest paradise with good land, good weather, and as much room as you want to stretch your legs. You’re the only country that’s actually been at peace these last fourteen years. You’re soft." S E V E N   M I S T   S W O R D S M E N.   T H E I R   S W O R D S.

"Considering one of us is liquid right now I wouldn’t go calling other people soft. You got to ask me all kinds of questions, now it's my turn: Who are you?" C A N   T A K E   Y O U   T O   Z A B U Z A.   F O U G H T   K I S A M E.   D I D N ' T   W I N.

"Suigetsu. First name is all you’re getting, honey." H O W?   T O   B O T H?

"Awww, I’m flattered you’re threatened enough to keep secrets from me!" H E L P   A N D   I ' L L   T E L L.

"Whatever. You’re a research assistant, right? Go assist in some research and stop bugging me." D E A L.

"I think I will. It was a pleasure to meet you, Suigetsu." T A L K   L A T E R.

Sakura trots out of the room and Suigetsu allows himself a grin he disguises as a leer. This might just be the start of a beautiful friendship.

14, February, 1000

Sasuke Uchiha hates Valentines Day.

If he’d had his way he’d just forget it existed like every other holiday he’d stopped celebrating for the last five years. But no, Valentines Day isn’t a holiday you celebrate, but a holiday you get thrust upon you. Quite literally. For his first two Valentines Days at the academy the deluge of chocolate from icky annoying girls had been a bizarre and overwhelming experience, and how Itachi and his mother would chuckle at his distress when he came home just made it worse.

After the massacre came and went like a hurricane, when all he wanted in the whole world was just to be left alone, still they persisted. Most days he arrived to the academy before the rest of his class, but no, not on Valentines Day. He’d slide open the door and they would be waiting, circling his desk like vultures. And that was just the ambitious ones. Valentines Day was, of course, a whole-day affair. He would be under constant threat of ambush, with girls coming out from behind shoe lockers and library shelves and supply closets to throw chocolate at him.

And for all they were trying so hard to prove that their affections were the strongest, deepest, truest, they all failed to realize he doesn’t even like chocolate.

Even Sakura wasn’t immune. The first three years in the academy she’d been too shy to actually give him her chocolate, lingering on the outskirts of the crowd, then running away with a squeak when she actually noticed his eyes on her. But after she and Ino stopped being friends and started being rivals she’d been just as confident as the rest, and twice as annoying somehow (because, Sasuke now realizes, he’d wanted her to be better than that).

After a while he’d just stopped coming to class on Valentines Day. None of the girls, not even Sakura, were quite brave enough to confront him at his home. And when he thinks about it, last year hadn’t been bad. None of his ancillary admirers had the free time to track him down and give him chocolate now that they were genin, and something about Sakura also giving chocolate to Kakashi and Naruto (likely on her mother’s urgings to remember her manners) had taken the edge off of her offering to him.

He remembers admiring the packaging. It was the same dark blue wrapping paper she’d later use to wrap his tantō. When they’d broken for lunch in the middle of their pointless D-Rank mission he’d made sure she wasn’t looking before unwrapping the chocolate to satisfy his own idle curiosity. The bar had been dark, nearly black, with flecks of red. He’d taken an experimental sniff and come back with bitter cacao and something spicy.

He’d stared at it, in naked shock that Sakura had actually picked up on his distaste for sweet things, then found himself staring at the back of her head. He hadn’t stared for long. Kakashi had appeared beside him, wondering if he was going to sit around staring and sniffing it or if he was actually going to eat it. Sasuke had glared up at him and shoved it into his empty bento, storming off to some other corner he could lurk in. He’d tried a bit of it when he got home that day. It wasn’t very good.

But it’s all he’s been thinking about since he woke up this morning.

Sasuke Uchiha still hates Valentines Day.

Because while the holiday is horrible when dozens of girls you don’t like swarm you like piranhas, it’s even worse when you do like one very specific girl that’s completely out of your reach.

Is this how the girls that fawned over him felt every year? Like they’d been thrown down a cavernous ravine and hit every outcropping of rock on the way down? Sasuke feels a sudden need to draft an apology letter to Ino at least, if only because she’s the only other admirer of his whose name he actually knows.

Kakashi is off on another long, drawn-out mission to the ass-end of the country with no ETA on when he’ll be back. Tsunade is in the capitol with the daimyō, handling something so sensitive and urgent it had required her to leave literally in the middle of their last training session. Today is, unfortunately, his day off from the hospital. Sasuke knows, intellectually, that this means he should take the day to train on his own. It’ll be good for his mood, too. Physical activity will get the endorphins flowing, he’ll be distracted, he’ll be busy, it’s the right move. He’s going to get up right now.

Right now.

Right now.

Any minute now.

Now.

Aaaaaaannnnnnd now.

It’s now ten thirty in the morning, and Sasuke hasn’t moved from his futon. Just as he’s contemplating trying again in two minutes (well, no, five minutes would be better– actually, no, ten minutes would make it a round number–) his door slides open and a huge, hairy weight crashes down across his chest. Sasuke’s yelp is more of a strained wheeze. Sasuke doesn’t need to look up at the face to see which dog this is; only Bull is big enough to completely fill Sasuke’s field of vision with just his flank.

"That’s not gonna get him out of bed, you big idiot," Pakkun grouses as his nails scratch across the tatami and he sits down next to Sasuke’s head, "You’re gonna make his lungs collapse."

Sasuke wriggles around, freeing his arms out from under Bull’s massive body. He concentrates his chakra in his arms and releases it as he goes to push Bull off of him. The dog goes rolling away with a whine too pathetic for such a big animal. Sasuke pulls the excess chakra away from his palms, drags it all the way up to the center of his forehead and lets it sit there, just like Tsunade taught him. It’s itchy and distracting and all he wants to do is release it, but that’s not what it’s for.

Pakkun pulls his attention from his forehead with a low whuff; "I stand corrected. You’re sitting up, so you’re up. Get dressed. You’re taking the pack out on a walk."

Sasuke frowns, but finds himself throwing the sheets off as he grumbles, "You guys are as smart as people. Can’t you take yourselves on a walk?"

Pakkun stares, unimpressed, at Sasuke; "Even if they can talk and wear headbands a roving band of eight mutts running around unsupervised doesn’t go over well with the general public. Someone will end up calling the Inuzuka and when Kakashi gets back he’ll have to deal with Tsume. And nobody wants to deal with Tsume."

Sasuke thinks back to every time he’s seen the Inuzuka matriarch. From half-remembered snippets of clan head meetings and official academy functions, he knows she’s brassy, confident, and loud. Reminds him a little of Hakumei and Tsunade, actually. Reminds him much more of Kiba.

Sasuke could probably handle at least one conversation with her. Kakashi… Sweet women like Tsubaki and Shizune can take him right to his knees in a matter of seconds. There’s no leaving him to a woman like Tsume’s discipline. He wouldn't come out of that conversation alive.

"Fine, fine," Sasuke grumbles, grabbing scattered articles of clothing and tools, "Give me five minutes."

"You’ve got two," Pakkun replies solidly before trotting out of the room. Sasuke watches his wagging tail disappear around the corner, not noticing Bull padding up to him until he settles down with a heavy thump at his side. Sasuke turns to get a face full of happy, excited bulldog-mix.

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "Why don’t you talk?"

Bull replies by licking the side of Sasuke’s face from jaw to forehead.

Sasuke is surrounded by dogs the second he leaves his room. They weave through his legs like cats and hop from paw to paw, some panting, some yipping, and some just saying "Walk? Walk? Are we going on a walk?"

Sasuke swallows hard, then shoves out through his teeth, "Yeah, we’re going on a walk–"

In a cacophony of barks, howls, and hollers, the pack go barreling out the door. Sasuke swears through his teeth and races after them, taking the stairs down to the street two at a time and shoving chakra into his legs to give himself the speed to keep pace. Pakkun makes a big show of slowing down to run parallel to Sasuke.

Sasuke calls down to the pug-mix, "Where am I supposed to take them?!"

Pakkun’s face remains neutral but his tail wags double-time as he replies, "Just focus on keeping up."

That advice proves to be both patronizing and pertinent, as the dogs quickly swerve into a forested part of the village and run up the trees. Sasuke is forced to turn on his Sharingan to keep track of all eight of them. They swerve and slalom through the trees on slightly different paths and at very different altitudes. Uhei and Urushi are the swiftest and the lightest, skipping all the way up to the canopy. Watching them first makes Sasuke feel very heavy and very slow, then makes him kick extra chakra down his legs and race up to meet them.

Sasuke’s competitive streak knows no bounds. He’s not going to let a bunch of dogs leave him in the dust.

The dogs drag him all across the Leaf Village. They bound across the rooftops downtown and Sasuke rattles shingles off them with the force of his chakra-enhanced jumps. They make it to the wall and run along it, forcing Sasuke to divert chakra to one arm to keep his balance. The dogs skirt around the Uchiha district, but the adrenaline gives Sasuke the courage to cut through it, even using some of his old shortcuts to get ahead of them.

When the dogs catch up to Sasuke they fall in step with him. Sasuke can feel the rhythm of their chakra pulsing from their paws with every footfall and hear it in their panting. He feels his own rhythms start to sync with theirs, until he’s no longer struggling to catch up with them or fighting to stay ahead, but comfortably in the center. He runs not as their human minder, but as part of the pack. Sasuke feels himself grinning as the wind bites at his face.

They bound past the academy training yard, the sight of the dogs and Sasuke distracting all the kids and ruining Iruka’s lesson. They stampede past Ichiraku Ramen, Sasuke only barely catching Teuchi and Ayame shouting a greeting. They strafe around a team of newly-graduated genin carrying a familiar cat back to the Hokage Tower and spook it out of their grasp.

It’s near sunset when the pack finally starts to slow, veering off the road toward the Naka River. They all dive down the bank, rolling down the grassy slope. Sasuke is the last to go sliding down the river bank. He comes tumbling to a halt in the middle of the heap of dogs, panting as loud and as hard as any of them. After a moment he rolls up, leaning back on his hands, face turned up to the sky. A shadow passes over him. He opens his eyes to find Hinata staring directly down into them, eyebrows up behind her bangs.

Sasuke blinks a couple times, then lamely says, "Hey."

"Uh… hi," her eyes sweep around the dogs, "Are these–?"

Urushi rolls over onto his stomach and yaps up at Hinata, "Hi! I’m Urushi! This is the pack! We’re out walking Kakashi’s boy!"

Sasuke whips around to shoot a wide-eyed, bewildered glare at Urushi while Hinata’s hands fly up to her mouth, failing to stifle a laugh.

"You are not walking me, I’m–!"

Guruko cocks her head to one side while lying on her back; "We’re not? I thought we were. Pakkun said we were. Said you were being all sad so we had to walk you like we walked Kakashi when he got sad as a puppy."

Hinata bursts into breathless laughter. Sasuke can only sputter ineffectually, trying to come up with any concrete evidence that he’s been walking the dogs instead of the other way around and finding none. Uhei, Akino, and Biscuit sniff intently at Hinata’s pants, likely smelling Akamaru. Bull drops his huge, heavy head onto Sasuke’s lap. Pakkun continues to stare blankly at Sasuke while his tail wags so fast he can hardly track it. Sasuke thought cats had the market cornered on smug, but Pakkun has proved him wrong.

Hinata folds herself down next to Sasuke and offers him a warm, weary smile; "I get it, I… V-Valentines Day is… hard, sometimes. E-especially times like… Like now."

Oh. Fuck. Right. He’s not the only person whose crush is miles away. Sasuke is getting used to these moments when he’s reminded exactly how much of a self-centered ass he can be, but he still doesn’t like them.

Sasuke rubs at the back of his neck with a wince; "How’ve you been holding up?"

Hinata shrugs, reaching out to scratch Shiba behind the ears; "I-I mean… I’ve been doing my best. I-it feels… It’s stupid, I-I know if Naruto was here I wouldn’t be able to g-give him anything, I-I’d just panic and run off, but… There’s a difference between won’t and can’t, I suppose."

Sasuke leans over, bumping Hinata with his shoulder; "No, you’d definitely give him something. If you didn’t pluck up the courage yourself I’d force you to."

Hinata grins, bumping him back; "S-so then… So would I be allowed to… force you to give Sakura something on White Day?"

Sasuke snickers, "Sure. Turnabout’s fair play."

Hinata’s smile slowly falls as she leans her head on his shoulder, and she murmurs, "Sometimes… S-sometimes I feel… bad that I miss him. It’s just… Our whole lives, I-I’ve always known exactly where he is. I-I could… tell the time by him. H-him being gone… It’s like if the Hokage Monument, o-or the academy, or Ichiraku just… disappeared. A-and I feel… It feels like I’ve been taking him for granted, that I just… expect him to always be around, b-but I still… miss him. Does that make sense?"

Sasuke presses his cheek into the top of Hinata’s head; "Yeah. Completely."

Hinata and Sasuke lean on each other and watch the last of the winter snowmelt surge downstream, surrounded by tired, contented dogs.