Kakashi was multi-tasking. On his left knee, a plate of salt-fried saury from the cafeteria steamed gently. On his right knee -- and spread around the floor -- piles of mission reports sifted together like a kind of literary leaf-mulch. His hands were occupied strapping a tight ace-bandage around a sprained wrist. Clenched between his unmasked teeth, a single chopstick hung forgotten. The other was somewhere on the floor. Behind one ear, a pen streaked ink into his hair. The rest of him was consumed with feeling bone-achingly, mind-blurringly tired.
The sharp, business-like knock at the door was expected.
"Argh," Kakashi muttered wearily, shucking food and paperwork and chopstick in favour of his mask. He grabbed a half-finished report, extracting himself from the mess.
"You'll have to come back later," he said, as he cancelled the seals and opened the door. "I'm not finished ye--"
It wasn't an Intel chuunin.
"Ginta?" said Kakashi inanely. He rallied, skimming the classified mission report onto his bed, out of sight of the door. "Look, I'm really busy--"
"You need to hear this. You really need to hear this." Ginta's voice was glass-cut sharp, underscored by a full-body wave of stressed scent. "Let me in, okay, Kakashi?"
'Kakashi', not 'genius'. Ginta was already halfway through the door.
Wordlessly, Kakashi stepped back into his apartment, yanked a blanket off the bed and tossed it wholesale over the heap of paperwork on the floor. It covered everything, including his lunch. Messy, but effective. He dropped a pillow over the half-written report left on the bed. Then he looked back at Ginta.
Ginta's arms were full of folders; his eyes looked hard and blue in his blanched face. There was nothing like a smile anywhere.
Someone, Kakashi suspected, was dead.
"What happened?" he demanded.
Ginta shut the door. There was no easy way to give this kind of bad news, so he just took a steadying breath and put it to Kakashi straight. "Ryouma's missing. He left on a mission on April thirteenth, and he hasn't come back. There've already been three search teams that have come back empty handed."
Kakashi went absolutely, completely still. A full clamp-down of control so tight that his breath stopped and his skin paled. After a second, he let his held breath go, but that was all. Then, after another second of deadly calm, he spoke, voice distant and soft. "Shiori at the mission desk is probably a sociopath." He turned his stark, masked face to Ginta. "She told me he's been on three missions already this month, and I just kept missing him."
"She's probably on orders," Ginta said. "Arakaki. He's a bastard. I finally pieced it all together today, and went to see him about it. He shut me out. I figured you needed to know."
Kakashi was rock steady, planted like he was rooted in place, but the rise and fall of his chest was too fast, and his skin above the mask was too pale. "Shiroi never smelled like she was lying," he said quietly, as if he hadn't heard what Ginta'd just said.
"Maybe she wasn't. Maybe that's what they're telling the mission desk, too." Ginta touched Kakashi's elbow, half-expecting a blow. What he got was a reflexive grab. Kakashi's hand clamped around Ginta's wrist hard enough to grind bone against bone. His gaze had gone distant and fierce.
Ginta set his jaw, tensed his torso, and fought the urge to wrench his hand free. "Let go, sit down, and I'll show you what I've got, okay? I managed to get the mission report from one of the search teams. I think I've got a good idea where to start looking."
Chakra shifted like a layer of armour under skin, arctic blue and unthreatening, drawing Kakashi's attention down to the wrist he was about to crush. He released his grip instantly. Blood rushed back into white skin, making a livid red handprint around Ginta's wrist. Ginta shook his hand out.
Kakashi took a sharp step back.
The new shape of the universe made very little sense. Ryouma's mission had been on the thirteenth. Today was the--
Third. Today was the third of May. Which meant it had been exactly twenty days since Ryouma had gone out on his mission. Which meant he'd been missing for nearly three weeks, with three failed search-and-rescue attempts. No ransom demands, no diplomatic solutions, no one claiming responsibility, because Ryouma's name was still on the mission board...
Three weeks. And Kakashi hadn't noticed.
"Where?" he snapped, turning away from Ginta and seizing his mission-kit off the floor. It was half-packed, still missing scrolls and medical supplies he'd used and not replaced. His kunai pouch only had three kunai left; his shuriken holster was empty. His armour was in a heap on top of his weapons chest.
"Northeast," Ginta snapped back, sounding strung-tight between calm and fraught. "Sit down and look at this with me. I've been trying to figure it out for the last several days, but it's hard. I don't have a lot of solid data to go on, so I need you to double check this. If we do this half-assed we're not going to get anywhere."
Kakashi paused with a half-drawn sword in his hand, feeling the uneven lurch of breath in his chest.
"Bullshit. You're smarter than that." He sheathed the sword, braced it against the weapons chest, and reached for his chest-plate. He was already wearing the black underpinnings. "If you've got a report from one of the search teams, you know as much as they do already. Just give me a destination, let me get out of Konoha, then go tell Intel to take my mission back."
"Intel can figure that out for themselves, or we can send them a clone," Ginta said. He stood in one place, a counterpoint to Kakashi's frantic activity, and shifted his weight carefully from foot to foot, stretching in preparation for the run he knew was coming.
"And I don't know more than they do," Ginta continued. "I've put together my best guess from rumors and a few pieces of info I managed get from contacts who owed me favors, but all I know for certain is where his mission was supposed to take him, what he was supposed to be doing, and that he was in halfway decent shape when he left for it. And that he didn't come back and he never sent any messages. I have one mission report from one of three search teams, and what they found was fuck-all. So I need your brain on this, Kakashi, not just you haring off after a three-week-old scent-trail."
Kakashi didn't look at Ginta for even a moment. He buckled his armour tight, then started pulling stacks of sharpened steel from his weapons chest, restocking his holsters with shuriken and kunai. The metal flashed dull grey and lethal, and clanked like a death sentence. "You're not coming with me."
"Yes I am. You need me. Ryouma needs me. Needs both of us. We have a way better chance — he has a way better chance — if we work together." A chance with odds Ginta didn't want to consider, but if they were playing odds that bad, they definitely needed the edge they'd gain from pooling their resources.
Kakashi slung his sword over his shoulder, snatched up his ANBU mask, and jerked a grey cloak from behind the door. Then he turned to face Ginta, all leashed energy and fractured calm. "The last mission you went on nearly killed you. You're still on sick-leave. How does me carrying you home again help Ryouma?"
"I'm fine," Ginta said, meeting Kakashi's bright glare with his own steely intensity. "And I'm going, with you or without you. Can you see the future now? Because if you can, you should use that ability to tell us where to find Ryouma, not predict carrying me. You can come with me and take advantage of the maps I plotted and the information I gathered, or you can go your own way and get as lost as he is."
Get as dead as he is.
Kakashi looked at the ceiling, breathed out slowly through his teeth, and wasted three precious heartbeats fighting the urge to throw Ginta down a flight of stairs. It wouldn't be hard to steal those folders and bolt, not with Ginta still limping -- but Ginta would only follow, or alert Intel prematurely, and either way would end in a fight.
They couldn't afford the time.
"Fine," Kakashi grated. "But when you fall behind, I'm leaving you there. Get your armour. I'll meet you outside the Western gate."
Ginta's face showed nothing, but his scent flooded with relief. "Good. I'll pack an extra thermal blanket." For Ryouma, Kakashi assumed, and didn't argue. Ginta continued, "Do you want to let the mission desk know you're too sick to take your mission?"
Kakashi flicked two dismissive fingers. "I'll take care of it. Just get your things. And try not to be too obvious about it."
Ginta's dry look suggested he thought Kakashi was being particularly dense, but Ginta was too decent to mention it. Then he saluted crisply, fingertips brushing the faded tattoo on his left arm, and left at speed, shutting the door behind him.
Kakashi waited three long seconds, feeling his pulse hammer adrenaline through his veins, then closed his eyes, clamped his hand tightly over his mouth, and dropped into an unsteady crouch, bending forward over his knees. Let himself shake. Didn't scream.
When he stood again, his eyes were dry. He threw the blanket back on the bed, dumped his uneaten lunch into the trash, gathered the mix of reports off the floor and heaped them into a rough pile on the desk in the corner. On his way to the door, he grabbed three scrolls off the bookshelf, tucking them into his armour. One was the emergency, heavy-duty medical kit he'd taken with him the last time he'd rescued Ryouma, with the blue ice-crystal numbing powder that had done so much good.
On reflection, Kakashi decided, shaking off a thin thread of hysteria, he needed to know people who required less rescuing.
He locked his door, activated the seals, and pulled his ANBU mask on.
Then he went to lie to his village.
Ginta was already in the underpinnings of his uniform — he'd donned ANBU blacks to go confront Arakaki — and his armour was ready. Most of it was new. He even had a new mask to replace the one he'd lost on that ill-fated mission Kakashi had brought him back half-dead from. All the way dead, whispered a treacherous voice in his head, as he slipped his chest armour on and tightened straps still stiff and unyielding. Not like his old armour, with leather gone soft from years of use, and the weight molded perfectly to his body. The new vest was heavier, harder. Stronger, Quartermaster had said.
It felt like being a rookie again.
Ryouma was still a rookie. He'd joined up in December: he had more than half a year to go before he lost that rookie status. And it was Ginta's fault Ryouma had joined in the first place.
Ginta packed his medical kit, the extra blanket, all his tracking tools, extra rations. Weapons.
Then he sat down and penned a message to Arakaki.
1300 hours, May 3.
Hatake Kakashi and Sakamoto Ginta are departing via the East Sea Road with the intent to track and retrieve Tousaki Ryouma. If we have not sent word by May 7, you may presume our mission has failed and send a retrieval team for us.
Sakamoto Ginta, Jounin 10061, ANBU
He stamped his personal seal in red next to his name, then picked up his pen and added a postscript.
Hokage-sama, I apologize. Arakaki-taichou left me no choice.
He rolled it into a scroll, sealed that, and made one more stop. Genma's door.
Genma was there, still looking pale and ill and too thin, with his left hand bound up in bandages and a metal contraption that looked like it had come from the bowels of Shida's sub-basement.
"What's wrong?" Genma asked, giving Ginta a long, slow, assessing look.
"I need you to give this to Arakaki for me on the sixth." Ginta held out the scroll.
"Why? What is it? Where are you going?"
"Mission." Ginta tapped his tattoo in a half salute. "Don't ask. Just make sure Arakaki gets that on the sixth. It's important."
"Are you cleared for missions? You can't be. Raidou's not cleared yet, and I know you were hurt at least as bad as him. You're still limping." Genma took a step out the door, holding the scroll. Reaching like he might try to hold Ginta back.
"Make sure Arakaki gets that on the sixth. I'm trusting you, Genma." Ginta looked his friend in the eye, and saw amber rings thin around widening pupils.
Ginta didn't. He translocated away, leaving a swirl of dissipating vapor and a baffled, worried friend in his wake.
When he got to the Western gate, he found Kakashi there, masked and impatient. Ginta slipped his own mask over his face. "Okay, I took care of things. Let's go. We'll want to circle around to the East Sea Road to start, but maybe we should parallel it for now."
Ginta was, by ninja standards, a sensible agent -- and therefore not stupid enough to reveal Ryouma's original destination. If he stayed sensible, he'd hold those details hostage until they were miles from the village and Kakashi wasn't a flight risk.
Kakashi grunted acknowledgement, rolled his shoulders, and sent his chakra thrumming through his muscles. A fast and dirty warm up, designed for ninja with no time. The East Sea Road was only on the other side of Konoha, connecting the village to the coast.
He formed quick seals, caught hold of Ginta's armoured shoulder, and translocated them both.
When they landed in a crack of smoke, in the midst of a clearing Kakashi occasionally used for training, Ginta dry-heaved, staggered with a curse, and whipped around to glare through his mask. "Let me do my own translocations, bastard!"
Kakashi was already leaping up into a broad-limbed tree. "I get no directions, you get no warnings," he tossed over his shoulder. "Even trade."
Ginta scrambled after him. "Making me puke is a waste of your chakra and our time," he said tightly. He drew level with Kakashi on the third leap, landing shoulder-to-shoulder on a branch the width of a table. "Also, have you ever barfed into your mask? Yes? It sucks. Don't do it to other people."
Kakashi snorted. "If you can't deal with mission conditions, don't run missions."
The indrawn breath at his shoulder sounded like the prelude to a long, involved shouting match.
"Mission conditions usually--" Ginta began.
Kakashi changed gears, breaking from the standard mile-eating lope up to a hard, fast sprint. The same pace he'd used to track down Ryouma and Tsume, back in Febuary. The same pace he'd used to chase after Ginta, barely a month later.
"--involve letting capable agents do their own translocations," Ginta shouted after him. There was a swirl and flare of arctic blue chakra; Ginta speeding up, Kakashi assumed. Despite the weak ankle, Ginta was running pretty well, looking his usual lethal self in his bright, clean armour. He was probably bracing the injury with chakra.
"And I gave you directions! Parallel the East Sea Road!"
Which was exactly where they were. Kakashi ran, breathing steadily, waiting for Ginta to work that out.
Judging by the faint shadows the nearly overhead sun cast, they were east of the village now, rather than west. And Kakashi was racing east and a little north, paralleling the course of the East Sea Road. Which, fine, so he'd followed directions. That meant he'd heard them, which meant that little attempt to coerce Ginta to reveal more about their destination was just that, an attempt at coercion.
As they ran, Ginta considered whether, were he in Kakashi's place, he'd do the same thing. He probably wouldn't, he decided, not exactly, anyway, but only because forcing a translocation on someone else wasn't the first thing he'd think of as a subtle power play.
The breakneck pace, on the other hand, wasn't punishment. It was desperation. And as much as Ginta wanted to point out that they'd be better off taking a sustainable pace, given the ground they had to cover, he didn't. With three weeks already elapsed and three teams already come back empty-handed, the chances that they needed to run hellbent for leather — that even a half a day gained would make any difference — were slim, but Kakashi already knew that, Ginta was sure.
Ginta knew it too, and he still felt better running so fast he couldn't quite focus his eyes.
His leg complained, aching with every jarring footfall, but it held up. He sheared his chakra along the newly-knit bones, reinforcing the patchwork craze of healed, once-shattered tibia and fibula. He was gaining strength, had been gaining strength and stamina ever since the medics had cut the cast off at last and turned him loose to start training again, under the watchful eye of a physical therapist, and his training had paid off. They'd warned him, though, over and over, a chakra-healed fracture was not as strong as a naturally healed one. It would take several more months before his injures were as well-healed as they would have been if he'd just let time do the work.
Time was the one commodity a ninja never had enough of.
Especially not Ryouma.
So Ginta kept up, correcting the course a little north, a little more east, as they followed what he was certain was Ryouma's trail. He didn't bother looking for signs, because there would be none. The three previous search teams had come this way, after all, fanning out through the woods around them, and they were still close enough to the village that this wasn't — this couldn't have been — where Ryouma ran into trouble.
It wasn't until the sun's rays were tinting gold, sending long fingers of shadow ahead of them as they ran east, that he had to stop. He raced in front of Kakashi, crooked his arm into the ANBU sign for halt and dropped to the grassy ground under bright-leaved oaks. When Kakashi landed panting beside him, Ginta couldn't speak yet, still sucking in air with a heaving ribcage, but he gestured with three fingers: We need to scan this area.
"For what?" Kakashi demanded, on a rasping inhale. "Killer sheep? We're not even at the border."
After seven hours of running they were almost there, but not quite. Unfortunately, 'there' was only the border between Fire Country and Coal Country, which contained mountains, disgruntled goat-herders, the deep mines for which the country was named -- and not much else. On the other side was Snow Country, which was all mountains, and on the other side of that was Lightning Country. Which housed Kumogakure no sato, the Village Hidden in the Clouds.
Which was where Shiki and his partner, the torturers who'd flayed Ryouma's chest open, were from.
"For signs," Ginta gasped. "Anything the other search teams might have missed." He tilted his monkey-face mask up, revealing a face that was flushed with exertion. Sweat-soaked hair clung to his forehead. "Need to decide whether he took the bluffs path, or started following the Small Falls trail."
"You think he left us a note?" Kakashi snapped. "Or just carved an arrow on a tree somewhere? It's been three weeks." And Ryouma was a jounin, accomplished at ghosting through the world without a trace.
"You think it's better to just guess at random? Or are you giving up already?" Ginta snarled back. He dashed an armoured forearm over his face, raking sweat away, then pointed ahead, where the road forked into two trails. "Or maybe we can find something useful, like whether or not it was, for example, raining three weeks ago so he took the drier trail. Or maybe it was icy and he took the low one."
"Absolutely," Kakashi drawled acidly. "That's a brilliant idea. It's just a shame I forgot to check the weather reports for the whole region, what with having to run blind."
"Did you fail trail reading in school?" Ginta almost yelled. "Or do you maybe remember how to read trail signs? You want to give up before we've even started, that's your business. I'm looking for Ryouma, and this is the one and only point where the search teams found any sign of him." He stalked off, still breathing hard, gaze fixed on the ground.
Kakashi ground his back teeth together, biting down a fistful of responses.
I was in school for six months, asshole.
A three-weeks old trail is a dead trail.
If three search teams already ran through here, any signs are long-corrupted. And useless, if they didn't already lead to Ryouma.
Tell me where we're going!
He hated working with search-partners. Hated having less cards, less knowledge, no leverage--
Bitching was not helping.
He stripped his ANBU mask off, inhaling the cold North wind, and pulled his cloth mask down to his chin. Felt the sting of distant snow on his lips, even at this time of year. Three weeks ago he'd been in Waterfall country, almost three-hundred miles West. It had rained constantly, hard and icy. It might have sleeted here.
He bit down hard on the pad of his left thumb, ripping through the callous. Blood splattered the scrubby grass. Kakashi kicked a clump of half-dried mud over it, freed a scroll from his armour, swept a hot red line down the unfurling parchment, and called on his chakra.
Called on his dogs.
Four snapped into smokey reality, hooked by the jutsu, and landed in a semi-graceful heap in front of him. Shouma, the young leggy shepherd, found his feet first. Then the two shaggy wolfhounds. Pakkun stayed on his backside and offered Kakashi a disdainful look.
"Seriously?" he said.
Kakashi growled a brief explanation, then commands that sent the first three bolting, noses to the ground. Pakkun clambered slowly upright, liquid-brown eyes dark and serious, all attitude gone.
"Damn, kid," he rumbled. "I'm sorry."
"Go with Ginta," Kakashi said shortly, yanking his mask back up. "Bite him if you want to. Tell him I'm checking out the higher trail."
Ginta studied the grass in the meadow; most of it was close cropped and trampled flat by hundreds of cloven-hoofed feet. Clumps of sheep droppings made it clear this was a spot favored by local herders. There were no signs in the soft soil that wouldn't have been erased weeks ago, but the vegitation was worth studying. What few spring-flowering weeds the sheep had left untouched were almost all still holding their blooms in tight little buds. That meant it had been cold here, until recently.
As he walked, he recovered his breath, body cooling from the run, and temper cooling from the argument. His right leg was shaking with fatigue, aching sharply where the bones had been fractured, and he was almost light-headed from having run so fast, for so long. Kakashi had to be feeling it, too. Had to be as exhausted, if not more so. And terrified for Ryouma.
Ginta was terrified for Ryouma.
It was a thought he kept trying to turn away, but the fear had surged to the fore of his mind again and again on the run here. After three weeks, the chances of finding Ryouma alive...
Were better if Ginta stayed focused and kept looking. What had the other teams missed? The first and third teams had taken the bluffs trail, and the second had followed the Little Falls, and all three teams had concluded that there would have been no reliable path for Ryouma to have taken but those two. Evidently they'd found something they considered definitive that proved Ryouma had been here, but Ginta only had the third team's report, and all it had said on the subject was that they concurred with the prior findings that Tousaki had camped here. It didn't say what those findings were, or why they agreed.
It probably wasn't worth the time to redo that search. Take it at face-value. Ryouma camped here. Okay. And three weeks ago there was a hard enough freeze that no open flowers had survived. Ryouma was a smart ninja, and familiar with this area. As familiar as Ginta. This was Team Badass's old stomping grounds, the path to that lookout post in Snow Country where Ginta had first met Ryouma. Ryouma wouldn't take the Falls trail if it was icy, not in mid-April. Would he?
Ginta took a long, deep drink from his canteen, then pulled out a ration bar and took a sharp bite, chewing the thick, slightly sweet mouthful just enough that he could swallow it and take the next bite.
If there were some kind of proof that Ryouma had taken the lower trail... There. There, broken branches on a small cluster of saplings at the edge of the meadow. An ice storm. A recent ice storm must have broken them, for at the ends of the broken branches dangled a few, barely unfurled baby leaves. Ryouma would never have taken the Falls trail in an ice storm.
Ginta shoved the rest of the rat bar into his mouth and turned to shout to Kakashi, only to be met by a small, angry dog.
"Okay, glitter-fairy, what the hell did you say?" Pakkun demanded.
Ginta gave him a blank look. "I'm pretty sure Ryouma took the bluffs trail. In fact, I'm very sure of it. I assume since you're here, Kakashi already told you why?"
"Rookie-boy's missing, the kid's freaking out, and apparently we're doing double-date missions now. Why do you have all the details?" Pakun said, with an unstated 'why are you even here?' limning his tone.
"If I had all the details, we'd be a lot further to finding Ryouma. If I had all the details—" Ginta took a breath and pushed the anger away. "I don't have all the details. I have a tiny few, and I have them because I worked really hard to dig them out from a system that wasn't going to tell either one of us what the hell was going on. Go get Kakashi, we need to take the lower trail. Where did he go? Up?"
"He's checking out the upper trail," Pakkun said, eyeballing Ginta with a disdainful air. "I'll rephrase — why do you have some of the details, and Kakashi has none of the details? Are you keeping him on a leash, or just trying to make him insane?"
"You know as well as I—" Ginta started.
Pakkun cut him off with a rough, dismissive snort. "Actually, never mind. You're a lying ninja; I can smell it on you. Wait here." The little dog turned and ran far faster then it seemed a dog that size should be able to.
Ginta watched him go, not particularly caring what Pakkun thought of him as long as the dog brought Kakashi back and helped with the search. He swallowed another bite of ration bar while he waited for Kakashi: it sat like a lead weight in his stomach, even when he drank half his canteen dry as a chaser. And his leg was killing him, still shaking enough to slow him down.
He tried not to think about that last argument he'd had with Ryouma, while he popped the cap off of a small tin bottle, and swallowed a bitter-tangy soldier pill.
The upper trail had signs of old ice and recent sheep, but not much more. Kakashi followed it for the better part of a mile, moving at an easy trot just to keep his muscles warm, and found what looked like a kunoichi sandal-print just before Pakkun came flying up the trail.
Kakashi caught the little dog by the scruff, reflexively protecting the faded mark. "What d'you think?" he murmured. "About a week old?"
Pakkun inhaled. "Nine days, or thereabouts. Smells like the little red-headed medic, what's her name? Aoi-something or other. The one that likes to trail around Kanae-sensei."
"Someone needs to teach her to walk softer," Pakkun said scornfully. He shook his anvil-shaped head. "The glitter-bug wants you. He's all convinced your rookie took the bluffs trail."
"He's probably right," Kakashi said distantly, eyes on the track that led straight up to the mountains. "That fresh ice up there -- you see the slant of it?"
"Heavy winds," Pakkun said.
"Yeah," Kakashi agreed. "If Ryouma went that way, he'd have been blown straight off the trail. Or frozen to death--"
"Or gotten avalanched," Pakkun put in. "Where there's new ice, there's fresh snow. And we're not the first rescue team, so little miss heavy-foot would've found the body."
Kakashi didn't wince. "Exactly." He released Pakkun, turning to run back down the trail. Pakkun followed at his heels.
"I don't like your mission partner," the pug complained, when they were halfway back. He sniffed heavily. "It's not right, keeping us in the dark."
"Mm," Kakashi said, because if he agreed he'd get angry again, and then he'd have to fight the urge to kill Ginta with a rock. "He's afraid I'll leave him behind."
"Is he right?"
They ran in silence after that. Kakashi could feel the chakra-connections to his other dogs; they were already near Ginta, anxious and ready to hunt. Ginta's chakra felt calm, in the strapped-down way of a man keeping himself tightly under control. The new roiling brightness of it said he'd already taken a soldier pill.
When they were just within earshot, Pakkun spoke up again, measuring out blunt canine words like an accidental gut-shot. "D'you think the rookie's dead?"
Kakashi felt his breath stutter; saw Ginta's restrained flinch.
What was it the dog had said? You're a lying ninja, I can smell it? How much of a lie was it, Ginta wondered, to say no, he didn't think Ryouma was dead? He turned a grim face to the pug, stepping closer in the waning light. "If we thought there was no chance we'd find him alive, we wouldn't be out here trying desperately to find him," he said. His voice came out low and gravelly, underlain with everything he'd been riding since he'd first realized Ryouma was missing.
"I'm not in the habit of going AWOL or contravening Arakaki's orders, or running hundreds of miles at top speed on an injury just for the fun of it. I'm certainly not going to risk my career for a hopeless case."
He realized his voice had risen to a shout only when he felt the anxious eyes of Kakashi's other dogs on him. There was whining tension rolling from the big shepherd, and soft, nervous growls came from the hounds. Pakkun, too, was looking at him with something like concern, and Kakashi...
He flinched away from Kakashi's gaze, and lowered his voice. "We're wasting light. From what I can tell, there was an ice storm recently, and it's been cold here. Ryouma and I used to take these trails a lot, we were both stationed up here. He wouldn't have taken the Falls road in bad conditions."
Kakashi shot a meaningful look at his tracking dogs. Three canine heads snapped to attention, and then the dogs wheeled and took off down the trail, running fast and low to the ground. Pakkun glared hard at Ginta as he ran by.
I wasn't lying, Ginta thought fiercely.
Kakashi turned his blank, ANBU-masked face to Ginta, and still somehow managed to convey murderous rage. Maybe it was the set of his shoulders, or the tension in his neck. When he spoke, it was flat-voiced, very calm. Too calm. "What's after the Bluffs trail — Snow Country, or are we going through to Lightning? I need to know how to pace the run."
Ginta could see where this was going. Could see Kakashi's anger rising and rising, fueled by desperate fear, because Ryouma was Kakashi's lover, and Ginta was the one who — too many times, over and over, in too many ways over the course of their whole relationship — was standing in Kakashi's way.
With Ginta standing in for the unknown element that had taken Ryouma from Kakashi, this couldn't go anywhere good.
"Snow Country. There's a village called Yukihana, near Himawara Pass at Lightning's border. There're three different ways to get there from here that he might have taken, but he never met his contact there, and all three search teams got all the way there without finding anything. If you want to go ahead, leave me signs so I'll know which forks you've taken."
Relief shouldn't have hurt. Kakashi stood his ground, breathing stiffly through the whiplash of unwinding anger, trying to keep his mental feet under him. He knew where Yukihana was -- had been there, ever so briefly, back in the war. He knew the different paths Ginta was talking about, although he'd only run two of them before. Starting in Konoha, the shortest was still almost three-hundred miles long.
The longest was three-fifty. Between the three trails, they had over nine-hundred miles to cover.
They'd run maybe one-twenty.
Ryouma could have gotten into trouble anywhere.
"Kakashi?" said Ginta slowly. In the gathering gloom, his unmasked eyes looked grey. His weight was canted to his left side, off his injured leg. And like a roll-call, Kakashi could remember the dislocated ankle he'd had to twist back into place, the fractured tibia and fibula, the four deep infected claw marks, the broken talus bone, right in the middle of the ankle. The septic wounds, the burns, the smoke inhalation...
The raging fever that had killed him.
Kakashi grabbed a fistful of his own sweat-drenched hair, dragging his head back. Gave himself a hard shake, until he remembered how to breathe. Ginta shouldn't even be here.
Kakashi couldn't cover nine-hundred miles on his own.
Are you giving up already?
"Stick with me," he rasped. "If you can't keep up, you can ride a dog. I'm not losing Ryouma and you. Not in one week."
The change in Kakashi's demeanour was profound, and unexpected. It took Ginta a moment to understand that far from taking the information and running with it, Kakashi wanted Ginta with him. As for why...
Kakashi — who didn't have friends, who didn't want to care about anyone, or risk letting anyone get too close — admitting he couldn't bear to lose both Ginta and Ryouma... That was stunning all on its own.
And heartbreaking, because it meant Kakashi knew, and Ginta knew, that Ginta might not have been lying to Pakkun when he'd said he thought there was hope for Ryouma, but he certainly hadn't been telling the truth.
"I'll keep up," Ginta said quietly. "Maybe we can translocate, jump past the dogs, and let them track the spaces between. We'd cover more ground, and I've got chakra to spare. It'd save my leg a little."
Kakashi nodded, bringing his hands together in front of his chest, already shaping the seals for the jump. If not for the subtle shake of his shoulder when he moved, which Ginta couldn't be certain he'd really seen as twilight fell around them, Ginta would have thought there was nothing there but mission focus.
Ginta didn't touch. He wanted to. He wanted to reach out and put a hand on Kakashi's arm, just for an instant, but... But sympathy from a comrade could tear you apart inside, when you were trying desperately to keep yourself together. Instead he reached for the neck of his shirt, stretching the fabric to cover his lower face, just as Kakashi's was, under his wolf-painted ANBU mask.
"When I ran missions up here, I was always masked," he said, to answer the question Kakashi hadn't asked. "My alias was Seishi." He tipped his own ceramic ANBU mask back down. "If we go two clicks, there's a stream that comes down near the start of the bluffs. Maybe he stopped for water there." Setting his own fingers into the crook and curl of the Ram seal, he nodded once at Kakashi, and made the jump.
There was no sign of Ryouma at the stream. Or at the broad swathe of scrubby fields just before the first mountain rise, where he might have camped. The Bluffs trail cut a steep downwards path, knifing into a valley between two sheer slopes. The run was easier, but the wind was colder, funneled right into their faces.
They translocated twice more, leap-frogging the narrow mountain range and reaching a bleached-bone forest on the other side. The moon was high and clear, illuminating the trail for them.
Ginta kept up well, bracing his leg with chakra. He'd be fine for the first night, Kakashi knew, when his strength was fresh and his muscles stayed warm. It'd be later, when they stopped to rest and his leg stiffened up -- that's when they'd run into problems.
They'd deal with it later.
Kakashi pushed them hard: not as fast as he wanted, but as fast as Ginta could tolerate. There was no point going flat-out now, anyway, not with the amount of distance they had left to cover. They'd kill themselves long before they found Ryouma.
The second mountain range brought ground-snow, ice, a lowering sky, and a pack of tired dogs.
"You need to eat, you idiots," Pakkun panted at them, as Ginta slumped down on a rocky outcrop, rubbing his ankle, and Kakashi stood with his head tilted back, dragging in lungfuls of air.
Wearily, Ginta produced a ration bar and waved it ironically. Kakashi crushed a soldier pill between his teeth.
"Fantastic," Pakkun groaned. On either side of him, both wolfhounds were sprawled on their stomachs, long tongues lolling out. Their eyes were closed. Shouma was still on his feet, ears slicked back, tail hanging down, the entire length of his throat and chest flecked with foam.
Kakashi unsummoned him and the two wolfhounds, but kept Pakkun for his nose.
"I'm not running anymore," the little pug managed, between heavy breaths. "You can go hang."
Kneeling stiffly, Kakashi ran a hand over Pakkun's blood-hot ears, ruffling the short fur. "Getting old?" he grated roughly; his throat felt like it was filled with glass.
"Oh, screw you. My legs are six inches long."
"He's right," Ginta said, sounding like Pakkun looked. "The moon's almost gone, it's clouding up, and we need to rest and refuel." He found his feet again, hissing as his right leg took his weight, and limped over.
Kakashi closed his eyes. When he opened them, Ginta was holding the ration bar in front of his face.
"We're barely run a full day," Kakashi protested, but he knew it was a losing fight.
"I'm tired," Pakkun said. "Glitter-boy smells like death, you probably look like death, and it's going to rain in an hour."
"Sleet," Ginta muttered. "It's too cold for rain."
Pakkun crossed his paws over his blunt nose. "Kill me now."
Kakashi sighed, scooped Pakkun off the chilly ground with one hand -- the pug moaned, but didn't struggle -- and handed him to Ginta, relieving the other ninja of his ration bar in the same movement. "Put him on your ankle," Kakashi suggested. "He can be a heat-pack, seeing as he's not doing anything else useful."
"Hey," Pakkun growled.
"I'll put up a tent," Kakashi finished, ignoring him and staggering back to his feet.
Ginta looked at the pug, peering through the round eye holes of his mask with a weary squint before he remembered it, and pushed the mask off. Underneath, his cloth mask was clinging and drenched, quickly growing icy when the wind hit it. He'd forgotten that bit of unpleasantness that went with a concealed identity.
"You okay to stand?" he asked, and got a dismissive eyroll from the pug.
"Better than you."
Ginta set him down, quavering unsteadily when he straightened. His whole body was chilling now, as sweat evaporated and the temperature continued to fall. "It's May," he complained. "Now I remember why I was glad when I stopped taking so many missions up here."
A scroll from his pouch contained the elements he needed for a fire, which, given the dampness of the fuel around here, was going to be a necessity. He unsealed it with a burst of chakra, pushed stones into a rough ring, stacked a pyramid of kindling under a heavier log, and cast a fire jutsu. It took a little sustained chakra to get the flames to catch, but they did at last. Then he started to crouch, thought better of it when his knee threatened to buckle, and sat down flat on the cold ground.
Kakashi was busily putting up a small tent, produced from a scroll of his own. Ginta could feel Pakkun's eyes on him, but the little dog was evidently too tired to say much. He did obey Kakashi's last instruction, though, sidling over to press the warmth of his body along Ginta's right shin. Ginta winced at the touch, took a breath, and let it go.
Pakkun moved anyway, giving Ginta an understanding look, and crawled into Ginta's lap, avoiding the injured leg with obvious care.
They needed warm food, dry beds, a long rest. Ginta needed ice for his leg, not heat — he could feel it swelling against the straps of his shin guards and tabi boots — but the very thought of gathering a few handfuls of snow to pack around it just made him colder.
The scent on the wind promised the sleet would be here soon.
He thumbed open a second, smaller scroll, and carefully caught the small cook set that tumbled out. Setting the pot over the flames, he emptied his canteen into it, then took out a small cherry bark-covered canister and a little bamboo whisk, and when the water was almost boiling, made three frothy bowls of bright green powder tea.
He used the first sip of his to wash down a pair of anti-inflammatory tablets, and tried not to think about the mind-eating throb in his leg. Instead he pulled out a trio of ration bars. "I've got blueberry crisp, peach and mango, and coconut with pineapple," he told his companions. "Who wants what?"
Kakashi couldn't help his faint lip-quirk when he heard Pakkun's eager, rusty-throated yelp: "Coconut's mine!"
Peach and mango was Ginta's favourite flavour, he remembered. He'd given Ginta one in the middle of their last mission, when they'd been trapped in the tree-house and trying not to rip open old wounds.
He probably shouldn't think about that too hard.
The tent was an easy thing to set up: any ninja could do it in their sleep. Kakashi finished making sure the ground-sheet was firmly staked out, checked the outer pegs one last time to make sure they wouldn't rip out if the wind blew hard, and pulled a handful of scrolls from his armour. The ration bar Ginta had already given him was tucked in his belt: he'd eat it in a minute.
Blankets and the big med-kit were the first things he unsealed. He pulled off his ANBU mask, hooked it onto his belt, and headed back to his teammates.
Ginta offered him the blueberry ration-bar as soon as he was in reach.
"You'll make a great housewife some day," Kakashi informed him dryly, dropping a chakra-warmed blanket around Ginta's shoulders. Then he crouched, raised an eyebrow at Pakkun curled up in the other ninja's lap, but decided not to comment. "Show me your leg."
"It's fine," Ginta said instantly. He started to lift it -- presumably to demonstrate how fine a recently-shattered limb could be after sixteen straight hours of running -- and froze, turning the colour of old ice. Carefully, he lowered his leg, breathing out through his nose. "I can just see myself in curlers and a frock. Grandmother will be so pleased."
Even Pakkun's eyebrows arched. "Wow, fairy-bug, that was awful. Worst distraction ever."
"Yeah," Ginta agreed, with shaky laugh. "I should be demoted to genin for--"
His words cut off in a shallow, pained hiss as Kakashi worked his way briskly through the straps holding Ginta's shin guard in place.
"--that," Ginta finished weakly. "Ow."
"Hold still," Kakashi told him. Under his hands, Ginta was tense as steel -- hard-breathing, shaky, exhausted steel, but still as dangerous as any ninja who had someone interfering in their personal space.
"It's really fine," Ginta insisted. "I took something for it."
"Anti-inflammatories," Pakkun put in, around a jaw-locking yawn. "I recognized the bottle."
"I was going to elevate it," Ginta said, sounding peeved. "I'll keep stabilizing it when we run. It's fine."
"It's swollen," Kakashi said.
"Well, yeah, but--"
"And red. And hot to the touch."
"And you're an idiot. Shut up and drink your tea already." Kakashi opened the over-sized med-kit, already thankful he'd brought it, and went hunting. Near the bottom, tucked into one of the neatly organized compartments, he found what he was looking for. He extracted the labeled tube, fished out a long roll of compression bandage to go with it, and grabbed a flat pack as an afterthought.
Over his cup of steaming tea, Ginta regarded him with wary eyes.
"Pain-killing gel," Kakashi said, holding up the tube. "Helps the ache, won't cloud your mind -- well, not too much, anyway. And you'll be better off for it. The bandage is obvious." He laid both to one side, holding onto the flat pack. A quick set of seals filled the empty plastic bladder with water; in his hands, it became a slim oblong, about the length of a man's hand from wrist to fingertips. A second set of seals and a burst of chakra chilled the water to a still-malleable ice-slurry.
"Cold pack," Kakashi concluded. "Just as good as any canine warming device."
"Hey," said Pakkun sleepily. He'd tucked himself into tight donut-shape, curled up against Ginta's armoured stomach.
"You can keep the canine as a freebie." Kakashi tossed all three bits of medical kit into Ginta's hands. "Here. Have fun."
Both teammates cared for, he closed the kit, re-sealed it, and dragged himself to his feet. Picked up the remaining blanket, which was still warm to the touch, wrapped it around his bare shoulders, and went to collapse on the other side of the fire.
"Take your tea," Ginta said, setting the medical supplies aside and picking up the cup for Kakashi. His own was already a third drunk down, and Pakkun's had vanished into the pug almost as quickly as the coconut ration bar had. "Don't make me get up, it will disturb your dog."
"He's spoiled," Kakashi groaned. He levered himself up just enough to reach for the tea without singing his arm or catching the blanket in the fire, then settled back down into the same knee-braced posture he'd first adopted. This time with the hot tea mug steaming gently between his gloved hands.
Kakashi's eye fell pointedly on the medical supplies, but he didn't say anything. Ginta was grateful for that, for Kakashi's trust — or was it just too much fatigue? — that he could leave the actual bandaging to Ginta.
The gel, Ginta thought with a wry grimace, would have come in damn handy on their last mission. Or had they had it and he just didn't remember? There were a lot of little gaps in his recollection of the details. "You sure this stuff won't make me dopey?" He squinted at the tube, but in the firelight it was to much effort to read the small print.
Pakkun grumbled sleepily from Ginta's lap, "Would we be able to tell the difference?"
Kakashi, who had just pulled down his mask to drink his tea and was half-shielded behind his blanket, as if Ginta had never seen his unmasked face, made a fractured choking-coughing sound that might have been his best approximation of a laugh under the circumstances. "You'll be fine."
"Everyone's a comedian," Ginta said. He smeared a generous glob of the stuff along his shin, working the gel carefully over the slight but distinctive bumps below his knee where pins beneath the surface anchored bone to bone, and again over his ankle, which was too puffy to feel the pins or bone. After he got over the sheer chill of putting something wet on bare skin in the cold air, he felt a strange, warming sensation, as the gel went to work. It sank into the aches and eased them away with an almost numbing effect.
"Damn, this stuff's good. How come we didn't have any last time we went out? This should be standard issue."
"It is." Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. "For medics. I was supposed to give that kit back."
"In Feburary," Pakkun put in.
Kakashi eyed the orange ripples of firelight reflecting on his tea. "There is a very slight possibility it's out of date and your leg's going to fall off. But only if you're extremely annoying. Don't ask me — that's just how it works." Before Ginta could formulate a response, he sighed wearily, drank the rest of his tea, and curled over in an exhausted droop, with his forehead braced against his drawn up knee. "But I'm willing to take that risk."
"Eat," Ginta said quietly. Something in Kakashi's posture or voice, or maybe just in Ginta's own head, pushed the banter aside. "And then sleep. I'll take first watch." He wrapped his leg in the bandage, molded the ice pack over the worst of the swelling, pushed his pant-leg back down, and buckled the shin guard back on, using it as much to keep the ice pack in place as for any sort of protection. Then he shivered and sighed, and peeled the foil back from his ration bar.
Kakashi should have argued. Would have argued, any other day. He shouldn't be this tired already -- he'd run harder to get to Ryouma and Tsume. Run faster to reach Ginta. He'd had enough time to recover from that last rescue...
He was falling asleep sitting up.
"Okay," he said hoarsely. He ignored the surprised flicker of chakra from Pakkun, lifting his head to look at his injured mission partner. "Wake me up in three hours."
Ginta nodded. "Okay, Pakkun," he said. "You want to sleep where you are, or go keep him warm?"
Pakkun uncurled, splayed out all four legs in a full-body stretch that presented his belly comfortably to the fire, and flopped back across Ginta's lap. "If you make me move, I'll bite your testicles off."
"I'm never moving again," Ginta said hurridly. "Promise."
Kakashi snorted, hauled himself to his feet for the third time, and tried not to stumble drunkenly as he headed for the tent.
"I said to eat first!" Ginta yelled after him.
"Later," Kakashi muttered. He crawled inside the tent, lay down with a clank of armour, and yanked the blanket up over his head. Even with the recently-crushed soldier pill spilling energy and chakra through his blood, he was asleep in seconds.
"Make sure he eats when it's his watch," Ginta told Pakkun, when Kakashi had gone. He rested a hand on the pug's head, petting absentmindedly as he stared into the fire. "Is he really recovered? From our mission. My mission." He faltered, frowning. "The mission. He doesn't seem like he is. I know I'm not, not really, and I've been off-duty this whole time."
He didn't ask about Ryouma, not yet, though the questions were there. Questions that tore a hole right through him, and that he probably shouldn't ask, like: Was Kakashi in love with Ryouma? Did he know about the girl Ryouma slept with? Is that why they fought?
Pakkun turned a solemn face up to Ginta, twisting under Ginta's gloved hand. "What do you think?"
Ginta took a breath, and a moment to be sure he really meant what he was about to say. "I think," he said quietly, so quietly that the crackle of the fire was louder, "that he's trying to kill himself without actually holding a blade to his own throat."
Pakkun picked himself out of Ginta's lap, stepping carefully over Ginta's leg to sit with his back to the fire, looking up at Ginta. He seemed suddenly much older, much wearier, in a way that spoke not just of one tiring run on what was probably a hopeless rescue mission, but a lifetime of them. He seemed sad. "Kid, he's been trying to do that for years."
"Why doesn't someone stop him? I know Sandaime-sama. Why doesn't he..." Ginta trailed off, staring past the dog and the fire, towards the dark shape of the tent. Canvas rippled as a gust of wind hit it, and the first drops of icy rain spattered the ground. "Because we're soldiers. Soldiers die," he said grimly, answering his own question.
Just like Ryouma.
Pakkun sighed deeply. "Soldiers are brain-damaged. Every last one of you. What about family, huh? Or fun? Or — dammit, I don't know, one damn week without blood and death and some new name carved into that stupid rock."
Ginta looked levelly at the dog, feeling gears inside turning, meshing. "And yet you're here. Wearing that." He touched his brow, where a hitai-ate identical to Pakkun's would rest, were he not in ANBU uniform. "And so am I, and so is he. Sometimes I really don't think we have a choice."
Pakkun gave a derisive snort. "See, that's just a crap excuse. I'm here for loyalty, and also because that brain-damage thing isn't just reserved for humans. You are here because—" He hesitated, looking Ginta up and down, thoughtful and serious. "I don't know. Why are you here?"
"On this mission? Because Ryouma was — is — my friend. He's been my friend since before I even met Kakashi. And it's my fault Ryouma joined ANBU. I used to have a lot of missions up here, up in Snow, when Ryouma was stationed at the Dainichi Nyorai Temple Post. That was my staging area for almost all my missions. And he and I — we'd play cards, in the down time, and tell stories. I told him he ought to apply. I told him he'd be a good fit. And I told Arakaki he should recruit him." He could hear the bitterness, the recrimination, in his own voice.
"I'm in ANBU," he went on, "because it's the best place for me. And I'm a ninja because... because that's what I am. If I weren't, I'd probably be a monster."
Pakkun considered this, feeling his fur prickle as the fire stroked heat up his back.
"Nah," he said finally. "I don't think so."
Ginta's eyebrows twitched. In the flicking light they were bright gold. His wildfire hair looked sun-thatched. There was a wealth of skepticism buried in the sharp bone-structure of his aristocrat's face.
Pretty kid, for a human.
"Lemme guess," Pakkun said, settling comfortably on his achy haunches. "It's only the ninja-discipline that keeps you on the straight and narrow. If you hadn't been learning to break skulls and mix poisons and set leg-snapping traps from the age of — six, probably — you'd be some kind of baby-eating serial killer by now?"
Ginta's blue eyes were flat. "Something like that."
Pakkun snorted softly, a whuff of breath that ruffled his whiskers. "I swear, you ninja — you and Hatake-brat could keep a full fleet of counsellors employed between you. I don't know what kind of education you had, twinkle-toes, but here's ninken lesson number one: ninja-life does not make you more balanced. Not at all. Just look at Kakashi. You think he'd be ripping wannabe-friends apart if his dad had been a painter?"
Ginta's glassy, ironic laugh could have scoured steel. "So you know about all that? He's... There's... With Ryouma and him and me... It's complicated. And stupid. I should have been smart enough to cut and run way back in February." Thin shoulders shrugged. "But you know, it's not like I think being a ninja makes me sane. It just — it gives some direction to my — to our — insanity."
"Uh huh," said Pakkun, supremely unconvinced. "Because when you were a blue-eyed tot, I bet you dreamed of knifing throats out."
"I burned my mother with a chakra burst when I was three," Ginta said, hard-voiced, as if that was damning evidence. "If you want to tell me I'm who I am now because I've spent my entire life living with and becoming a ninja, fine. Maybe it's true. But you know what? If you took away my oath and my orders and my discipline now, I don't think I'd end up being a scroll painter. I traded any potential brush for a blade when I was five."
Pakkun wondered how likely he was to get kicked into the fire if he rolled his eyes. "No kidding. The heir of a family of high-ranking ninja, raised in a ninja village, reaching for weapons. I can't tell you the depth of my shock." He huffed, fur bristling wetly over his shoulders as the sleet gathered force, peppering down over their small camp. It steamed in the fire.
Ginta interrupted sharply, before Pakkun could add more. "That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying I know myself, and without my discipline... I scare myself."
He stiffened up all over, eyes a little wide, as if he'd just badly shocked himself. Pakkun waited to see if he had anything else to add, but Ginta sat with his mouth clamped shut, jaw blanched white at the hinges, looking young and shadowed and very much like a killer in his bloodless armour.
Very much like a tired, badly damaged boy. Just like all these other ninja-kids.
"Good," Pakkun said simply.
Ginta's head came up.
"You kill people for a living," Pakkun reminded him. "You should be scared. It'll help keep you human." He glanced over towards the tent; the canvas gleamed in the hissing firelight, bowed slightly inwards. Inside, there was nothing to see but darkness. Even with his sharp ears, Pakkun couldn't make out the faint sound of breathing. He looked back at Ginta. "You should get some sleep, glitter-bug. You look dead on your feet. I can keep the watch."
Ginta unlocked his tense jaw.
"I'd appreciate it," Pakkun added more quietly. "Kakashi could use the warmth."
"You should go keep him warm, then," Ginta said. He shivered as the icy rain pelted his face, and pulled the blanket Kakashi'd draped over him earlier higher on his shoulders. The fire popped and hissed, and a gust of wind caught the treetops, rattling the branches.
Pakkun cocked his head to the right slightly and gave Ginta an almost blank look. "Have you noticed recently how I'm twelve inches long?"
Ginta returned the flat look. "You're more tired than I am, then. Seeing as you're so much smaller."
"Hardly. I joined this party after you'd already put in a full day's run," Pakkun pointed out.
"Fine. But..." Ginta glanced towards the dark tent, then back at the sputtering fire. "The only way this fire is going to stay lit is if I keep feeding it chakra."
Pakkun didn't even have to voice the objection to that, his look said it all: I am a ninja, you know.
He could feel Pakkun's eyes boring into him.
"I'm not the one he wants in there with him," Ginta said quietly.
Pakkun gave an aggrieved sigh. "It's a good thing you're pretty, kid, because you're winning no prizes for brains." He got up, walked three steps over to Ginta, and stretched up to rest his front paws on Ginta's chest, lowering his voice. "We're three weeks late trying to save the guy he wants with him. The same stupid guy who ripped his heart all out a month ago when he left without a word. If you were anyone else, Kakashi would've knocked you out sixteen hours ago and bolted with your notes. But you're still here and he's actually listening to you, so if you ever cared about him, you need to get your butt in there and pretend like it's still true." He looked Ginta in the eye with an iron-core stare. "Or I can bite your nose off. Your choice."
Ginta shivered, but he didn't look away. "I do care. If I had to pretend, I'd have given him my notes and let him go it alone. Or not ever told him I even had them in the first place. I was prepared to do this search on my own."
Go ahead and try to scent a lie there, he thought, just try.
Not caring about the fact that Kakashi had already proved to be the one puzzle he hadn't been able to master, despite concerted effort.
He put his palms flat on the ground and pushed to his feet. His injured leg was shaky to the point of uselessness, but thanks to that gel Kakashi'd given him, the pain was a deeply distant ache, like thunder a long way off. "He said to let him sleep three hours. You can wake me instead, if you want."
When he crawled into the tent he whispered a quiet, preemptive, "It's me, Genius. Your dog wants to take first watch. Go back to sleep." Then he lay down close to Kakashi, cast a warming jutsu, and pulled the blankets up over the pair of them.
Kakashi mumbled something incoherent that might have ended in Ginta's name. He rolled towards Ginta, throwing a hand across Ginta's chest and curling his fingers around the chestplate strap, then tucked his masked chin down, with his head pressed against Ginta's shoulder. His soft breaths settled back into the rhythm of sleep.
After a moment, Ginta reached out with a hand of his own, and carefully laid it over Kakashi's arm, before he, too, closed his eyes and let sleep descend.