Ibiki frowned at the approaching coastline. “Sakamoto and Tousaki were acquaintances going back some time. Sakamoto and Hatake were mission partners. Hatake and Tousaki were also mission partners. Evidently Hatake has some charm I’ve yet to see any evidence of, in my limited experience of him, that involves making homosexuals and men with latent homosexual tendencies develop strong feelings for him. I believe Sakamoto did not in fact consummate his desires, whereas Tousaki did.” He kept his head still, but his eyes flicked to the corner studying Asuma for a reaction.
Asuma took another drag on his cigarette as the wind snatched a shower of ash away. “If that’s your way of sayin’ Ryouma and Kakashi got their funk on, pretty much,” he said with a shrug.
“Indeed. Then Tousaki was rescued by Hatake from a mission failure in which his integrity as an agent was potentially compromised. Following that, Sakamoto fought publicly with both Tousaki and Hatake, took several missions on which he took out his aggressions—” And that was something to watch. Shida-sensei said he’d had his eye on Sakamoto for a while now, as a potential asset to T&I and as a potential risk to Konoha, depending on whether he stabilized as he matured, or decompensated altogether. “—and ultimately ended with a mission failure which would have resulted in his death in the field, had Hatake failed to reach him in time.”
"I heard about that," Asuma said, sounding thoughtful. "Y'think the old man wouldn't be so bent out of shape about both of 'em trying a rescue now. Sakamoto's got a stake in it, and Hatake's got the practice."
Ibiki turned his gaze away from the sea to study his mission partner. The old man presumably meant Asuma’s father. The disrespectful tone wasn’t a shock, given what Shida-sensei had had to say about the relationship between Sarutobi Hiruzen and his son, but Ibiki hadn’t expected Asuma to be quite so forthright with his opinion on that matter.
“It seems Hatake has remarkably poor luck,” Ibiki offered. “Or makes remarkably poor choices.”
Asuma exhaled a thin cloud of smoke. “Guess it runs in the family.” Dark brown eyes caught Ibiki’s, offering a challenge of some sort.
Hatake Sakumo’s ghost still haunted the village. Ibiki smiled grimly. “So it seems. It will certainly make some factions in Konoha happy if young Hatake’s rising star is shot down by his own mistakes.”
He turned his gaze to the approaching village of Hima. There were little grey fishing shacks clustered near the water’s edge; sturdier looking stone buildings with blue tile roofs rose in stair steps up the steep slope from the shore.
“I can guess how Hatake is taking things, given that his lover—” the word twisted sour in Ibiki’s mouth “—is most likely deceased. What of Sakamoto?”
Asuma slanted a look at him. “If you’re gonna be any use in this rescue, you’re going to have to get over your urge to piss on the rainbow flag. Or at least hide it better.”
Ibiki stiffened fractionally.
“And you said it yourself,” Asuma continued. “Nasty love triangle, lost crush, probably-dead friend. Whatever Ginta’s feeling, it ain’t good.”
“Is it bad enough we’re looking at a suicide, here?” Ibiki asked neutrally, as if the question was just a logistical issue rather than lives.
“Hell if I know,” Asuma said. “Don’t know Hatake well enough, never met Tousaki, and I’ve only seen Ginta once since I’ve gotten back. He seemed kinda broken up about things, but more pissy than slit-wristed. But that was a couple weeks back, before things spiraled.”
Ibiki gave him a look that, in a less controlled man, Asuma would have called ‘incredulous’. "Before everything spiraled? From everything I've heard so far, there has been a constant escalation of fuck-uppery from the moment Tousaki entered the picture. Not that I am blaming Tousaki. He seems to be a catalyst, not a cause."
Asuma flicked his cigarette into the ocean. “Seriously, man, that stick in your ass? Get it removed. Love is messy. People’re messy. We’re here to help. Don’t make me knock your teeth down your throat.”
Ibiki arched one dark eyebrow. "I'm not sure what brought that on,” he said smoothly. “My point was that there has been no point in the evolution of this conflict-enmeshed relationship at which things were not continuing to get worse in some material way."
Asuma lifted up on his booted toes, gaining the extra inch it took to lean in and peer at Ibiki’s face. Ibiki leaned back.
“It’s like I can actually see the T&I manual in your brain,” Asuma told him. “People, ghoulface. They’re people. Not a conflict-whatever. People, doing people things. And they’re your teammates, so think about them with a piece of respect.”
Just being around Ibiki made him want to go back home and start kicking on walls. Or at least give the man a severe, undignified pantsing until his brain reengaged on a human level.
“I’m aware they’re people,” Ibiki said. “There’s no need to raise your voice.” He took a casual step back from Asuma. This, evidently, was what Shida-sensei had meant when he’d said the Hokage’s son was a hothead. It was surprising that the Professor’s son had such a diametrically opposed temperament to his father. One might chalk a certain amount of Asuma’s shoot-from-the-hip attitude and lack of restraint to a young man’s attempt to differentiate himself from his father, but Ibiki didn’t think that accounted for all of it.
“I was hoping you had greater insight into what we might expect to find when we reach them, since despite the fact that they are highly trained, highly skilled, and highly intelligent, they are making rash, erratic decisions. Sakamoto disobeyed a direct order to stand down and remain in the village. Hatake abandoned a mission.” He considered the facts for a moment. “Do you believe Sakamoto was also in love with Tousaki?”
That seemed to bring Asuma up short. He stared at Ibiki for a long moment, lost in whatever internal thought cycle that question had spawned, then shook his head as if he were trying to dispel an unwanted mental image. “What, like a threesome?” His voice came out half an octave higher than it had on his rant.
“Yes,” Ibiki said patiently. “As I understand it, it’s common practice among homosexual men to seek multiple partners at least some of the time. And you said at the beginning of this conversation that it was a messy love triangle. A triangle implies there are three sides.”
“Well, yeah, but— God, you're like a robot trying to learn human speech.” Asuma turned away to busy himself with a fresh cigarette, shielding it from the wind as he lit it. When he straightened, he blew a stream of smoke towards Ibiki like a dismissal. "No, I don't think Ginta's in love with Tousaki. Or at least, he never said so to me. I reckon they were friends that went off the rails, and Hatake, I don't know, threw his catnip in the middle, or something. Dognip, whatever."
Ibiki shrugged an acknowledgement.
"You're supposed to be in Intelligence, man,” Asuma said, thrusting his cigarette accusingly at Ibiki’s chest. “Don't they teach you not to pander to stereotypes?”
“Stereotypes exist for a reason. If you don’t know much about a person or group, they’re a smart place to start. They wouldn’t exist if there weren’t some grain of truth in them.” Ibiki took a deep breath, smelling smoke and salt air and the cold dampness of snow wafting down from the approaching pass. He could feel Asuma twitching next to him.
In an interrogation, Ibiki thought, he’d have the upper hand now. Asuma should really learn to control his emotions.
Clearly, a pantsing would be insufficient.
“Stereotypes wouldn’t exist at all if people weren’t narrow-minded pricks and actually did their damn research,” Asuma growled, irritated by the waves of quiet smugness radiating from Ibiki, with his shiny ponytail and cold eyes. “Though you’re doing a damn fine job of upholding T&I’s reputation as a breeding ground for creepy, repressed anal-retentives.”
Ibiki gave him a patient look, venting a little sigh. “Tell me, Asuma, what it is you think I should be doing instead of attempting to understand the subtleties of the men we are going to take into custody."
“Helping,” Asuma corrected. “No custody.”
Unless Hatake and Sakamoto put up a fight about it, in which case some heads would get knocked together and there’d be a short, sharp conversation about how being really stupid wouldn’t bring anyone home alive, but dammit if anyone was actually getting arrested.
“And you’re about as subtle as a brick to the head,” he added, exhaling grouchy smoke. The land was close now; close enough that they could have stepped off the boat and water-walked to the shore. Behind them, sailors were yelling about ropes and cutting sail and other boat-like things. Asuma couldn’t help stretching his shoulders, feeling the pull of healed whip scars left from the last time he’d been anywhere near a boat-like thing.
Ibiki’s dark eyes flicked towards the movement, then back to the shore. "I hope helping is all that's necessary. As far as I understood, our mission was to escort them back to Konoha. And hope that they are smart enough men to understand that there could have been a squad of ANBU hunters chasing them down instead of us.”
Asuma snorted. “‘Your boyfriend’s dead, be grateful we aren’t killing you’. Yeah, that sounds merciful.”
“From everything I’ve read about them, they are both more than intelligent enough to come to that conclusion on their own,” Ibiki said. He was starting to tire of Asuma’s hostility; there would be plenty of that from their targets when they found them.
Asuma sucked on yet another cigarette like he was trying to smoke it so hard it would burst into flame. Ibiki turned over a little piece of thought... Your boyfriend’s dead... They’d been briefed separately, and Arakaki had said Ibiki didn’t receive any information that Asuma hadn’t. That didn’t mean the reverse was true.
“Is Tousaki dead, then?” he asked.
"Three weeks gone and the best trackers in Konoha couldn't find him?" Asuma blew smoke towards the fog-shrouded coast. It felt like spring hadn’t come near Hima’s shore yet, despite the date. "Pretty good odds he ain't breathing."
“But nothing definitive?” asked Ibiki. “My understanding was if we could find evidence to prove or disprove the assumption that Tousaki was dead, we should bring that back, as long as it didn’t cause any delay in getting our primary targets safely back to Konoha.”
Asuma stared at Ibiki just long enough for his look to feel like a muted threat. "If we find Tousaki alive or dead, I'll be sure to make a note of it."
There were a lot of techniques for disengaging from a hostile subject in an interrogation, for keeping your own temper under control when they were trying to goad you. The same techniques could be turned on their heads and used to resist interrogation, as well. But it was going to be a little tiresome if Ibiki had to resort to them to be able to work effectively with his mission partner. He tilted his head, stretching his neck one way and then the other, and shrugged his shoulders, limbering up for their journey. “Do you have a problem working with me on this mission, Asuma-san?”
About six of ‘em, Asuma thought.
But none of them were a damn bit of use now, a day’s journey from home with no other back up at hand. He needed Ibiki to work with him, even if the man was a creepy, lizard-blooded automaton.
He held his thumb and forefinger close together. “Little bit,” he said truthfully, because lying was a karmic sin he actually could avoid. And Ibiki wasn’t stupid. “But you’re my only option, so it’s not like I can do a thing about it.”
Ibiki nodded. "Is it me personally, or this mission?" he asked, with all the emotion of an ice cube.
Asuma was starting to think there was something organically disconnected in Ibiki’s brain.
“I’m not real fond of either,” he said.
Ibiki gave a wry, one-sided smile that actually made his face look human for the first time. “Understood.”
The boat bumped against the dock. Ibiki swung away to head on-shore, but stilled when Asuma caught him by the cloaked shoulder, muscles hard as teak.
“Hang on,” Asuma said. “You gonna work with me?”
“Of course,” Ibiki said, all cool vowels and sharp consonants and apparent disbelief that Asuma had even asked. He pulled loose and kept moving, heading for the gangplank and their sailor contact.
Behind him, Asuma pulled a face and threw his hands up, the antithesis of subtle shinobi restraint, before striding after Ibiki, letting his boots clomp loudly on the deck.
Their contact in town turned out to be more useful than Ibiki had expected, which was helpful. Also helpful was the fact that Asuma seemed to get over his tantrum and get on with things, once there were things to do. Plied with a fresh map showing the location of a recent trail washout, a hot bowl of soup, advice about the weather (the cold rain that had started falling moments after they set foot on shore was undoubtedly a late-season snowstorm in the mountains), and the name of a medic in the Himawara Pass hamlet of Yukihana, they started the long, steep climb.
Tousaki had been headed for Yukihana; search teams had found no evidence he’d ever reached it. It made sense for Hatake and Sakamoto to go there, for the same reasons it had made sense for the real search and rescue teams to go there. As long as Sakamoto and Hatake were logical about their search, there was every reason to hope they’d come stumbling into the little village and right into Asuma and Ibiki, waiting to escort them home.
At least Asuma didn’t argue with the plan.
The trail was easy at first, but quickly deteriorated into a muddy, rocky series of switchbacks barely wide enough for two to walk abreast. There were no other travelers on the road — no doubt the icy rain and stiff wind kept wiser souls away. Ibiki kept his masked face down, and his communication with Asuma to a minimum, until they reached the destroyed section of trail they’d been warned about. Mud-filled meltwater raced across the path, carving a fresh gully between one switchback and the next.
“Shall we cut across here?” he asked, pointing to a dubiously-safe looking angle.
“That looks like a barrel of laughs,” Asuma said dryly.
“Do you see something better?” Ibiki didn’t expect a yes to that. It looked like it was a slippery chakra-walk up a forty-degree incline or fly, and as far as he knew that wasn’t a skill even the Hokage himself had, much less his prodigal son.
Asuma set his shoulders like he wanted to argue — or perhaps he was suddenly constipated — but he just shook his head. “Nope. Let’s get at it.” He eyed the path, gaze lingering on a bit of scrub that jutted out from the sodden soil. Its roots were partly exposed.
Ibiki nodded. “I see it.” He shunted chakra to his feet and started up, avoiding the hazard. The earth was as saturated as it was possible to be without liquifying: if this rain kept up, the village below was in for a mudslide.
Watching Ibiki’s ass flex its way up a mountain-side was a life experience Asuma could actually have lived without — along with the mud Ibiki kicked back behind him. Especially when they hit a forty-foot stretch of vertical wall.
“Y’mind?” he shouted up, shaking away the grit that wanted to clog the eye holes of his mask.
Ibiki paused on a slab of solid rock, waiting for him to catch up. “You'd prefer to take the lead?" he asked coolly.
“You bet I would, chuckles,” Asuma said, without stopping. He forged ahead, slip-sliding on chunks of mud that peeled away from the crumbling cliff-wall, slapping palmfuls of chakra down to steady himself when his boots skidded. The ANBU cloak around his neck flapped behind him like a lead-weighted sheet, already drenched by the rain.
Ibiki fell wordlessly into pace behind him, staying slightly to one side to avoid the showers Asuma kicked down, and shadowed Asuma up to the next plateau. The trail evened out again, becoming something that was actually hikeable with chakra-help. They kept up a sturdy pace and mostly made it to the top without incident, discounting the one time Asuma lost his footing completely, and the moment Ibiki was almost killed by an uprooting tree.
Ibiki caught Asuma; Asuma grabbed Ibiki. By silent agreement, they would never speak of it again.
At the first opportunity, Asuma collapsed face down on flat, snow-covered ground. “Urgh,” he informed the general universe. “How long was that? Felt like hours.”
Glacier-calm, Ibiki stopped next to him. “Are you alright?” he asked, and Asuma was only mollified by the way he sounded breathless, too.
Asuma turned his head, squinting up. Ibiki had his hands braced on his knees while he checked his watch.
“Five hours and fifty-seven minutes,” Ibiki said.
“You timed us,” Asuma said. “What am I saying, of course you timed us. Six hours? Kannon save me, I think my knees are melting.”
"But you're not actually injured, correct?" Ibiki asked, concerned as a stone wall. Then he surprised Asuma by holding a hand out. "Shall we get out of the sleet?"
There was having a moral objection to someone, and then there was staying on your face in a snowbank until bears came to eat you. Asuma pulled himself up, took the mud-caked, ANBU-gloved hand, and let Ibiki haul him to his feet.
“First time I’ve liked your logic,” he said. “Y’reckon the village will have pie?”
"At the inn?" Ibiki shrugged, flicking wet snow from his pony-tail. "It seems likely." He set off, pausing a half-step for Asuma to catch up to his shoulder, and continued: "I imagine pie is a topic we can actually agree on."
First one so far.
Ibiki stretched out broad shoulders, working off the kinks of a hard climb. "If Hatake and Sakamoto are taking the expected route, making the time expected of them, given Sakamoto's condition, we should have half a day to enjoy pie before they show up."
“Gives us time to track down that medic, too,” Asuma agreed. “We’re probably going to need her.”
If there was any justice in the world, she’d be pretty, curvy, and sympathetic to men half-drowned by a mountain.
They made it as far as the door of the Flower of the Mountain Inn, battling their way through snow that was falling so thick it was like a fog, before they realized pie and a rest were probably off the menu. From inside they could hear raised voices. Anxious shouting. A canine-sounding growl. Ibiki was about to suggest it was a bar brawl he and Asuma would be better off avoiding, when he heard someone say “Konoha,” and “...injured, dammit!”
He exchanged a look with his mission partner. “Think they made it here before we did?”
Ibiki pushed the door open to reveal a warm room with a half-dozen villagers ringing a middle-aged woman tending to what appeared to be an angry, snow-caked little tan dog. The dog, it turned out, was the one shouting. It yelped something high-pitched when it caught sight of two masked ANBU standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorway.
“Hatake’s summons?” Ibiki asked.
"Shida's pup! Thank God," the dog said. It lurched painfully to its feet and limped over to them, heavily winded and leaving bloody tracks on the wooden floor from cracked, frostbitten paws. "Tell me you're here to help. Kakashi an' Sakamoto are trapped, dyin' probably."
Ibiki knelt on one side of the dog, Asuma on the other. Two black-gloved hands reached out to steady the dog. Ibiki pulled his back and let Asuma do the honors. “Not here,” he said, looking at the curious faces staring at them.
The woman he’d noticed first looked up at him. “You need somewhere safe to discuss this,” she said. It wasn’t a question. At her throat, she wore a slender silver chain with a golden leaf charm dangling from it.
“We do,” Ibiki said.
“And Takei Saiyuri-sensei,” Asuma added. “Where do we find her?”
“In front of you,” the woman said. “You can come with me.”
Ibiki nodded and stood. “Takei-sense,” he said, touching his cape-covered arm in a muddy salute. Former Konoha medic, their contact in Hima had told them, who’d left the village with the Council’s blessing to take care of her elderly parents in Snow Country. This woman looked like she could easily tie a hitai-ate over her greying hair and be right back on Konoha’s payroll.
Asuma gave a quiet little sigh. “Figures,” he muttered under his breath.
“Did you say something?” asked the medic. “And I’m not your teacher, you can call me Saiyuri. You.” She pointed a hand at Asuma. “Carry our friend here.” She handed Asuma a towel to wrap the dog in. “We’ll go to my surgery. I need to put some ointment on those paws and get him warmed up.” When the dog made a low, protesting sound, she shook her head. “It will take five minutes. If your friends can’t survive five minutes, then they probably aren’t going to make it no matter what we do.”
Behind his mask, Ibiki’s mouth twitched. This mission looked like it had just deteriorated rather badly, in terms of Sakamoto and Hatake, but he liked Takei Saiyuri.
There was never any justice.
And none for Hatake and Ginta, either. Asuma cradled the little dog carefully against his chest, twitching his cloak around so the folds protected the towel-wrapped pug, and trailed after Ibiki and Saiyuri into the snow again.
It was bitterly cold outside, after the warmth inside. The dog made a throttled sound, like a barbed-wire whine.
“S’okay,” Asuma told it, trying to be as warm as possible. “What’s your name?”
The answer was almost inaudible. “P’kkun.”
“Talk when we get inside,” Saiyuri called sharply. “We’re almost there.”
She led them between two icicle-frosted buildings, around the back of a third, and then through an open-aired hallway that led into a little courtyard. It was covered in fresh-fallen snow, but someone had made sure to keep the stones clear of ice. A little brass plaque next to the door announced Takei Saiyuri: Medic in plain, sensible script.
Inside, it was warm again. No one bothered to take their boots off. Ibiki knocked snow from his, but Asuma followed Saiyuri’s directions and went straight through to an examination room, where a leather-padded table held pride of place.
He set Pakkun gently down.
“‘kay, little guy,” he said. “Better talk while she works on you, so we can multi-task.”
One ice-rimed eye opened to give him a look. “Might be little, but I’m older’n you, pup.”
Asuma split a grin that cracked his wind-bitten lower lip. “You got it, old man.”
Ibiki swept over like the wrath of Intel, cloak flapping behind him. “You said they were trapped. Where? Are there any hostiles?”
Pakkun struggled free of the towel, leaving red streaks on the white cotton and brown table, and staggered up onto his hind legs, planting his front paws on Ibiki’s armoured chest. The effort made his legs shake. “Dainichi Nyourai temple base,” he rasped. “No hostiles. There were traps. The roof came down. Sakamoto’s face is smashed in, but he was conscious when I left. Kakashi—”
His voice broke off, and his paws skidded down Ibiki’s chest. Broad hands caught and steadied the little body, careful around the narrow ribcage.
“Kakashi what?” Ibiki said, with something like gentleness in his voice.
Pakkun drew a hitching breath. “He took a bad hit when the roof came down, on his blind side. There was blood—he wasn’t waking up. And it’s cold.” He looked up at Ibiki, frantic. “Baiji’s holding the roof up. He’s another summons, big one. But he can’t hold out forever, and the whole thing’s unstable. You have to get them out of there.”
Ibiki pushed his mask back, looking Pakkun right in the eye. “We will. We’ll get them out if there’s any way to do it.” He took a breath and eased Pakkun back down onto the table, careful of his wrecked paws. “Let the doctor tend your feet now. What direction is it from here? Do you remember how far you walked?”
Pakkun curled onto the towel, taking his weight off all four feet. “South-west, I think. I could lead you back if you’ll carry me.” His voice wavered a little. “I don’t know how long. I lost track.”
Trudging through deep snow that came up past his neck, in bitter winds, scrabbling through mountain passes — it was amazing he’d made it this far at all.
“I know the base,” Asuma said. “At least, I think I know it. Ginta talked about running missions in Lightning in the war, and the brief said something about rendezvousing with Tousaki’s team near here. S’gotta be the same place.”
"Good. Then Pakkun can stay here." Ibiki looked at the little summons, managing to somehow sound like he understood; this influx of human emotion was becoming frankly alarming. "I know you want to be with your partner, but you're injured. It's better if you wait here, where it's warm."
“No,” Pakkun snapped, growl hitting bass depths. “You have to take me with you. I can show you where I got out, and I can take a message back in. You need me.”
Asuma knocked his mask to one side. “He’s got a point,” he said.
“The structure collapse is that bad?” Ibiki asked.
Pakkun’s wrinkled face took on an even more worried look. “There’s just enough room for the two of them and Baiji, an’ I crawled out of a hole I could barely fit through. You’re both too big.”
It would he easier to find the place if they had Pakkun as a guide. And if the old bunker was that badly collapsed... Ibiki had seen a caved-in concrete bunker in the hills near Kusa’s border during the war: the men and women inside had been crushed, some beyond recognition.
He turned to the medic. “Can you stabilize him enough to tolerate the journey?”
“I’m not a veterinarian,” Saiyuri said. “I’ll do what I can. At a guess, he needs to warm up, rest, eat, drink... And I need to do something about those paws.”
“Y’said five minutes, lady,” Pakkun rasped.
“It’s been two. Give me five and I can bandage your paws and give you something warm to drink,” she replied. “You. Hand me that box.” She pointed to a blue plastic bin labeled ‘cuts and abrasions’. Ibiki pulled it from the shelf and handed it over.
“You’d better tell your names,” Saiyuri said, as she slathered greasy ointment over Pakkun’s paw pads. “Give me code names if you have to, or I’ll just call you Scarface and Scruffy.”
Ibiki chuckled. He definitely liked Saiyuri. “Morino Ibiki,” he told her. “I’ll let Scruffy tell you his own name.”
“Actually, I kinda like Scruffy,” Asuma said.
Saiyuri snorted. “Scruffy it is. See that water boiler over there, Scruffy? Make a bowl of tea for my patient. Tea’s on the shelf next to the boiler. Bowls are next to the sink.”
Pakkun looked like the delay was killing him. He also looked like he was about to collapse, with his sides still pumping harder than Ibiki would have expected, and his mouth hanging open for each panting breath.
“Can you take soldier pills?” Ibiki asked him. “Or something like it?”
“Not unless you want me to throw up everywhere,” Pakkun said. “I can take some of your energy, though.”
“A chakra transfusion?” Saiyuri asked, eyebrows raised. She looked at Asuma and Ibiki. “How are you gentlemen doing for energy? You both smell like you’ve already been working hard.”
Ibiki grimaced. Before he could speak, Saiyuri added, “I’m not complaining. Honest work, honest sweat. But if soldier pills and chakra transfusions are options, then I’d rather see you top off here, before we’re in the field trying to dig your friends out of a pile of rubble in a snowstorm.”
Asuma came back with the tea for Pakkun, setting a small enamel bowl down near the dog’s head. Saiyuri was nearly done wrapping heavy cotton padding and canvas bandages around Pakkun’s feet, making neat white booties for each paw.
“I’ve got chakra to spare,” Asuma volunteered. “Caught a nap on the boat ride over. And I’m half certain he ain’t human,” he added, hooking a thumb at Ibiki, “so he can probably lend a battery.”
Ibiki nodded, ignoring Asuma’s goad. “My chakra is fine, and I’m not too fatigued, though I suggest we eat something.”
Pakkun groaned. “They are dying. We don’t have time for this crap.”
Ibiki stepped in and pressed his hands to either side of Pakkun’s ribcage. They engulfed the little dog. Beneath his palms he could feel the threads of the dog’s chakra, like slender, braided ropes. It was surprising how similar it felt to any shinobi’s chakra, and yet at the same time so different. He set his own chakra flowing down through his arms, a rising tide of current. Pakkun understood immediately, opening his own channels to receive the surge.
When Ibiki finished, Pakkun looked ten times better than he had.
Saiyuri nodded at the ANBU when she’d finished packing her medical kit and shrugged heavier clothing in. “Lead the way,” she told them. Ibiki handed Pakkun to Asuma, pulled his mask back down, and stepped out into the darkening snowstorm.
It took them until past midnight to reach the derelict temple grounds. The snow had finally stopped falling, and an eerie quiet loomed over the drift-encased temple structures. The freshly disturbed ground where the underground bunker had collapsed was entirely hidden under the thick blanket of snow.
“By that statue,” Pakkun said. He jumped down from Asuma’s broad shoulders and lurched through snow that came to his belly, towards a toppled-over stone lantern and a stern-faced Buddha. When he got there, he stuck his nose into a tiny crevice, then jerked it out again. “Kakashi’s alive. I can feel his chakra, but I can’t smell anything. It’s all dust and blood.”
“Can you get back in?” Ibiki asked. Dust and blood were all he could remember from that collapsed Kusa bunker, too. And later, the stench of decomposing corpses. It was too cold here for that.
“I’ll try. It was a hell of a squeeze getting out, an’ things might have moved.” Pakkun pulled himself away from the statue and scrambled around behind it, forging jerkily over snow-covered rocks. He skirted the broken-down temple, leading them to a sunken depression of tumbled snow and obliterated earth.
Mine collapse, was Asuma’s first thought. But smaller and neater, closer to the surface.
The little dog was sniffing around, staggering as he retraced his own tracks.
“Hey, Pakkun,” Asuma said. “What brought the bunker down?”
“Chakra trap,” the dog said instantly. “One of Ryouma’s old ones, left for Kumo-nin.”
Asuma winced faintly. At least that explained why two full-fledged jounin hadn’t managed to translocate ten feet straight up.
“Better get a move on,” he said. “Tell ‘em we’re here, and make sure Ginta’s still breathing, would you?”
“Dig fast,” Pakkun said, before tunnelling his way into a shallow drift of fresh snow and vanishing.
"No earth jutsu, then, if there are still traps." Ibiki strode to the edge of the depression, dark eyes flicking over the rough outline. "We need to know what the bunker layout was, so we can guess at where to dig. Did Sakamoto ever tell you any details about this place?"
“Not a one,” Asuma said. “Didn’t even tell me he’d been here. Just that he’d done a stint up in Lightning. But a bunker’s a bunker, right? They’re all hollowed out on the same lines.” At least, Konoha’s were. If this was a captured enemy outpost it could look like anything down there. He headed out to stand in the middle of the depression, balancing on grinding rocks. “Figure we start here and go straight down, unless you’ve got a better plan?”
Ibiki paced with his head down, working out some silent train of thought, before circling back to Asuma. "If it's built on a standard Konoha model, then it's a Y with a common area leading to a kitchen, then toilets and showers down one branch and sleeping quarters down the other. Pakkun said he thought they were in someplace tiled, that means showers.” The little dog had been downright talkative on the freezing trek over, with his cold nose shoved against Asuma’s throat. Ibiki pointed to a spot a few feet away. “ So… Here."
“Good enough,” Asuma said, and unslung his cloak from around his neck, tossing the snow-dusted weight of it aside. He pulled a scroll from his belt, flicking through the chakra necessary to unseal them. A mess of camping gear thudded to the ground: a rolled up tent, coils of rope, a dented storm-lamp, a sleeping roll, and most importantly, a sturdy shovel. “Wish I’d brought a pick-axe.”
Ibiki’s pile of stuff was, of course, neater.
"That would be handy," Ibiki agreed neutrally. He lengthened the collapsible handle on his own shovel, organized his gear into a careful cluster on one side of the ditch, and surveyed the ground with narrow eyes. "Maybe we can disable the traps if we can find any of the original seals."
“Just don’t get yourselves blown up,” Saiyuri advised, taking over Asuma’s gear. She scrabbled it together with Ibiki’s and set about lighting the twin storm-lamps, casting a brighter glow on the snow. She affixed the lamps to the temple, and turned to their tents, setting up a rudimentary shelter.
Asuma saluted her back. “Duly noted.”
Ibiki snorted very quietly, and sank his shovel deeply into the ground, jarring a screech of sound as the blade scraped stone. He heaved the chunk of earth and rubble to one side, and hacked down again.
Not about to be outdone, Asuma hurried to join him.
The sound of shovels scraping stone and wet clods of earth falling into the snow was all that broke the stillness of the night for ten solid minutes, as they worked. The smaller chunks of rubble were just starting to give way to larger ones — slabs of broken concrete bleeding rebar and broken pipes at their edges — when Pakkun re-emerged from the hole he’d vanished into. He was mud-streaked and panting, with his bandaged paws sodden and soiled.
Ibiki stopped digging and went to pull the dog up.
"Ginta's alive, just about, barely breathing. Both of 'em are barely breathing," Pakkun rasped. He trembled in Ibiki’s hands, from cold or fatigue, or both. "Baiji's tranced deep. I gave him all the chakra I could spare, but I don't think he's got much time left. The roof's starting to groan."
“We’ll dig faster,” Ibiki said. “Are there any limbs trapped?” If they had to do a field amputation to free either or both injured shinobi, it would complicate things dramatically. “And are either of them still bleeding?”
“I don’t— I don’t think so,” Pakkun said. “They’re in a pocket down there. I don’t think anything’s even broken, ‘cept Sakamoto’s face.” He shivered and gave a thin, anxious whine. “And Kakashi’s head.”
“Are they conscious?”
Pakkun shook his head.
“Alright. Do you want to rest with Saiyuri, or go back down to them?” Ibiki asked. He pressed his chakra through his hands again, giving Pakkun another jolt to make up for the energy the dog had donated to Kakashi’s other summons.
“Back down,” Pakkun said. “Keep a watch on my chakra; I’ll flare it if the ceiling starts to come down.” He opened his channels and took the chakra Ibiki gave, visibly gaining strength and sharpness as the fresh energy coursed through him. His head lifted his head to survey the hole Asuma was still digging. “I think you’re about six feet off the mark.”
“Which way?” Ibiki asked.
“Got it.” Ibiki put Pakkun down again, and watched as he disappeared back into the darkness.
Asuma had already moved to the spot Pakkun had indicated and was turning up fresh spadefuls of debris-filled soil.
“What’s the news?” Saiyuri asked, coming over to stand next to Ibiki.
“Alive, unconscious, with possibly severe head injuries,” he told her. “Nothing we didn’t already know.” He picked up his shovel.
“We know they’re still alive,” Saiyuri said quietly. “Get them out and I’ll do what I can to keep them that way.”
Ibiki touch-tapped a salute and went to dig.
In the next half hour of sweaty, frozen-fingered digging, the closest thing to a seal Asuma found was a pipe bent like half a fractured kanji. He tossed it onto an increasing heap of jagged metal, and dragged the back of his hand over his bare forehead. His mask hung discarded on his belt, scowling at the ground.
Between them they’d made it three feet down in iron-hard ground, and steam was rising from Ibiki’s uncloaked shoulders.
Asuma blew out a breath. “When these guys get themselves in trouble, they do it right.”
Ibiki glanced up, untidy tendrils of hair coming loose from his slick ponytail. He rested briefly on his shovel. “Have you seen any seals? If we could risk an earth jutsu, we’d have a better chance of getting them out before they freeze to death.”
“Better chance of blowing the whole thing sky high, too,” Asuma said, with a brief vision of rocks crashing down and blood oozing up between the cracks. “Guess at least that would be quick. How’re you on earth jutsu? My affinities are Wind and Fire.”
"I'm good with earth. Earth and Water." A wry curve edged Ibiki’s mouth. "No wonder we get along so well.”
Asuma snorted, and leapt up out of the hole. “Have at it, then. If you kill ‘em, I’ll brain you with a shovel.”
“I’ll try not to,” Ibiki said, dry as dust. He clambered out of the hole, set his shovel aside, and folded long-fingered hands into seals. A bare thread of chakra shivered against Asuma’s senses, unfolding into a miniature jutsu. Half a handful of loose dirt rose into the air, compacted itself down, and slapped against the side of the hole, reinforcing the crumbling wall.
Underneath their feet, the faint signature of Pakkun’s chakra didn’t flicker.
Asuma breathed again. “Try something bigger?”
Ibiki nodded, and cast the same jutsu again, sluicing a little more chakra through it this time. Already loosened soil rose like a snake from the ground, twisted into a thin coil, and packed itself against the side of the excavation. When that brought no flare of panicked chakra from Pakkun, and a nod from Asuma, he tried a different jutsu. Hand seals and chakra shapes combined with a press of flat palms against the raw side of the hole, and a shallow spiderweb of cracks appeared in the earth. It quaked for a moment, then collapsed, sending a cascade of rubble into the bottom. He used the first jutsu to siphon the loose soil back up again, dropping it at the rim.
There was still no sign of distress from below.
“I can widen this and keep the sides compacted and stable if you can keep digging at the center,” Ibiki said, looking up at Asuma. “That way I won’t run the risk of excavating a trap with chakra.”
Asuma flicked a two-finger salute to the temple. Not the ANBU salute, Ibiki noted. He picked up his shovel and jumped back in, resuming digging. “Just don’t drop anythin’ on me.”
The temptation to let a shower of pebbles fall was hard to resist, but Ibiki pushed it aside and set to work. Pakkun’s dire warnings — they’re barely breathing, Baiji is running out of energy, the roof is starting to groan — kept him focused on the task at hand. No Konoha shinobi, even the most foolhardy and disobedient, deserved the death that awaited Sakamoto and Hatake if they didn’t get to them in time.
It took nearly another hour of digging before they got to a layer of fractured concrete slabs that sounded hollow under Asuma’s shovel. Asuma’s shoulders were streaming sweat and his face red with a combination of effort and cold, and Ibiki’s chakra control was beginning to waver after so many repetitions of the same two jutsu over and over. He jumped down into the hole with Asuma, and working together, they excavated one edge of the slab.
By silent agreement, they crouched, put gloved hands and bare shoulders against it, and lifted. Rubble and earth clattered down into a black pocket of air as the slab moved. Ibiki groaned and shoved, putting more muscle into the lift. The slab shifted and settled. A dark, triangular hole opened into nothing.
Saiyuri brought one of the lanterns over. Distantly, Asuma heard her take a sharp breath.
Down below, cut out in the soft gold circle of light, was the hunched shoulder of a dog the size of a horse, and two bodies covered in blood. Pakkun was a soggy little shape pressed between them, his nose jammed against Kakashi’s throat.
At least, Asuma thought that was Kakashi.
Hair colour couldn’t give him the clue: there was no visible silver under the messy tangle of rough bandages and dried red-black. It looked like someone had thrown a bucket over Sakumo’s son. He was lying on his side, one hand curled loosely over his eyes, mask pulled down to his throat.
Tucked against his chest, a smaller, blonder man was mostly concealed, face hidden by the shadow of Kakashi’s shoulder. A torn silver emergency-blanket barely covered them both.
Neither one of them was moving. Any skin Asuma could see was blanched white, like winter frost.
Pakkun looked up at him and whined softly.
“Kannon,” Asuma whispered, like a reflex. He jerked his gaze up, looking at Ibiki’s set face. “I can’t feel any seals. You?”
Ibiki shut his eyes, chakra brushing Asuma’s as he extended his senses. He opened his eyes again. “No.” He hesitated, uncertain for the first time since the beginning of their mission. “Are they breathing?”
“Can’t tell.” Pakkun had said yes, but... “Get ready to yank me out if this goes wrong.”
He grabbed the concrete edge of the hole and swung himself down, trying not to step on the big dog. Baiji. There was almost no room. He crouched carefully, scooped Pakkun out of the way and tossed him up to Ibiki, and unzipped one glove at the wrist to yank it off. Kakashi’s throat was icy. Asuma’s fingers were too cold to feel a pulse.
“Dammit,” he muttered, and forced an edge of heat into his hand, pulling on the fire affinity in his blood.
The bunker failed to crash down on his head.
“Seals are burned out,” he called up. “I’m gonna try and pass Ginta up to you.”
Saiyuri’s voice came back sharply. “Be careful of his neck! Check for broken bones first.”
“Necks are fine,” Pakkun growled, muffled and raw-sounding. “Get them out.”
Ibiki knelt at the edge of the hole and passed down a length of rope. “Put this around his shoulders and pass me the end up first. Saiyuri can take it to counterbalance while you and I lift.”
“He’s not that heavy,” Asuma said, but he took the rope, and pressed his fingers under the shadow of Kakashi’s naked jaw again. This time, faintly, he could feel the beat of something living. Ginta’s skin was just as cold, but a slow, unsteady pulse flickered in his throat too. “They’re both alive, at least.”
A hoarse, broken sound hissed between Ginta’s lips as Asuma pulled him away from Kakashi.
“Definitely alive—” Asuma stopped dead.
Sakamoto’s face is smashed in, Pakkun had said. He hadn’t mentioned the broken nose, the mask of bruises, the patch of bloody gauze covering one distorted cheekbone, or the wrecked crush of a mouth that was normally animated and smiling.
Asuma swallowed and knotted the rope firmly under Ginta’s arms, then tossed the end back up to Ibiki. Ginta’s eyebrows twitched together, but he didn’t wake. A spent syringe glittered on the ground by his hand.
Very carefully, Asuma slid his arms under that deadweight, and pulled Ginta off the bed of fractured stone and tile shards.
The rope tightened. Ibiki’s hands came down through the ceiling, steadying Ginta’s head, then grasping his slim shoulders firmly as Asuma passed him up. Through the whole thing, Kakashi never moved.
As soon as Sakamoto was fully out, Saiyuri had her hands on his limp body, double checking pulse and spinal integrity, feeling roughly over dangling limbs for hidden fractures. “Get him into the tent,” she ordered.
Ibiki laid him on a fresh emergency blanket that Saiyuri had already spread on the canvas floor. There was a lot of blood. It had frozen into the folds of Sakamoto’s clothes, crinkling and falling like so much rust-red snow when Ibiki moved him.
Head wounds bled. A man could bleed to death from a simple gash to the scalp, if it was deep enough. By the looks of the distortion to Sakamoto’s face, and the sheer volume of blood he was smeared in, it was a shock the man was alive. But someone — Hatake? — had made a good effort at cleaning and bandaging the worst of Sakamoto’s injuries.
“Go,” Saiyuri said, shoving in past Ibiki. “I’ll do what I can for this one. Go get the other one out of that hole before it becomes a grave.”
By the time he got there, Asuma was already trying to lift Hatake out. The second man was harder to maneuver, much taller than Sakamoto, though only a bit heavier. Ibiki got him up just as Saiyuri came back to do the same basic triage she’d done on Sakamoto.
“Tent,” she said. “I’ll stabilize them as much as I can. You and Scruffy build me more fire.”
When Ibiki laid Hatake next to Sakamoto, the smaller man made a sound.
“He’s waking up,” Ibiki said.
“Not likely. Not yet. Get my fire going, we’re going to need it.”
Pakkun crowded into the tent and planted himself next to his bandaged, broken summoner. That was when Ibiki realized what was so very, very wrong here: both injured men were corpse-white and blood-soaked, but worse, Hatake’s face was bare. He wore no mask to cover his blue-tinged lips.
Then everything happened at once. There was a muted flare of chakra from behind Ibiki, and the shuddering thump and rushing sound of the bunker collapsing the rest of the way. Asuma yelled in surprise, evidently already out of the hole. Before Ibiki could turn to look, Hatake’s eyes snapped open — one blood-shot grey, one vibrant Uchiha red. He arched up off the floor of the tent as if he were having a convulsion, cried out in a horrified, hoarse voice, and grabbed Ibiki by the throat.
His hands, still ice cold, were as strong and unyielding as iron claws.
Ibiki threw his weight against his attacker, knocking Hatake back to the ground. He got one forearm across Hatake’s throat and shoulders, and just managed to get his other hand behind Hatake’s head, to cushion the blow as they slammed down. Sakamoto was too close; Ibiki felt his knee strike the smaller man.
He pressed harder against Hatake’s windpipe, trying to crush the strength out of Hatake before Hatake succeeded in choking him. Someone dragged Sakamoto out of the way by the legs. Hatake gagged and groaned. And finally slacked his grip.
As soon as Ibiki could pull free, he did. He sat back on his knees, coughing and sucking in moist, snow-scented air.
Asuma had damn near had his head in the hole when the dog had decided to spontaneously self-destruct. Or un-summon itself. Or whatever. Then Hatake screamed and attacked, and Ibiki attacked back, and Asuma only got to the tent in time to catch Pakkun as the little dog launched itself for Ibiki’s face.
Pakkun’s needle-sharp fangs clamped around his forearm, scraping the white-armoured gauntlet and puncturing skin.
Asuma yelped and grabbed the dog by the scruff, wrenching him off.
“What the hell?” he demanded, before focusing on Ibiki. “Did you just strangle him?”
"No." Ibiki’s careful composure was slightly ruined by the way he was panting and hoarse, and a little mauled looking. "He attacked me. And I subdued him so he wouldn't hurt me or himself or anyone else."
Asuma’s mouth dropped open.
Saiyuri got there first. “ANBU,” she snapped, like a curse. “That wasn’t subduing, that was reacting. You just choked a man with a head injury!” She was crouched near the sagging wall of the tent, shielding Ginta’s body with her own. Her gaze jumped to Asuma. “Check the boy. Make sure he’s still breathing.”
Boy, Asuma reflected, was not a word applied to scary, toothy killers very often. He gave Pakkun a warning shake, knocking the spitting-fury out of the dog, and dropped him, grabbing the bite on his arm as he went to Hatake.
“He’s breathing,” Ibiki said, before Asuma could even check. The words were raspy, but filled with the complete confidence of a man who often had to choke resistant subjects, and knew exactly how hard he could push without fatally injuring someone.
“You are the creepiest freakin’ robot ever,” Asuma said, while Pakkun snarled. Asuma gave him a look. “Knock it off, dog.”
“Check,” Saiyuri said again, pressing glowing-green hands to Ginta’s face. “And you, Ibiki, make yourself useful and build that fire.”
Silently, Ibiki lurched to his feet and left the tent.
He’d been right, though: Hatake was still breathing. Soft and rasping, eyes closed but mouth a little open, showing the points of sharp teeth through cracked, bloodied lips. He was thoroughly unconscious again, smashed down from whatever wakefulness the shock of his dog vanishing had jarred him into.
Saiyuri had been right, too. Maskless and half-dead, he did look young.
“He’s still breathing,” Asuma said. “What can I do to help?”
“Heat,” Saiyuri snapped again. “Fire, body-heat, jutsu — I don’t care what you do, just help me get them warm.”
From the nearby breaking sounds, Ibiki was ripping down part of the old wooden temple for fuel. He was more than capable of making a fire himself, but one source of naked heat would only go so far, and Asuma had fire in his blood. He dropped into a messy tailor-seat, forced half-numb fingers through seals — ox, rabbit, horse, horse, horse — and pulled on the violent half of his chakra nature. Instant warmth unfolded in the centre of his torso, welling up from the root of his chakra coils. It felt a lot like a sunrise inside skin.
He exhaled, breath clouding like steam in the frozen air, and pressed one hand to Kakashi’s throat. Kicked his foot out to rest against Ginta’s leg. Carefully, gradually, afraid of unleashing too much too fast, he let the warmth roll out, bleeding into cold bodies and the colder tent.
A wet canine tongue licked his bitten arm. He glanced aside. Pakkun had curled up next to Kakashi’s armour-bared shoulder, once more the tiny bedraggled guard.
“Y’wanna chew on Ibiki,” Asuma told him, “wait until we get home. Then you’ll have my blessing.”
Saiyuri snorted distantly. Beneath her hands, the bones in Ginta’s cheek cracked.
There was plenty of fuel for a fire, though most of it was snow-damp and riddled with rot. The abandoned temple buildings were crumbling away, covered in moss, long-forgotten by any of the faithful. Ibiki wondered about the monks who had once painted the walls orange and white, polished the wooden floors, and chanted their sutras under the watchful eyes of carven buddhas. Had they been driven out by the first ninja to make this spot a secret watchpost, or had they been in collusion with their shadowy neighbors?
His senses were still on high alert, his throat aching where Hatake had undoubtedly left finger-width bruises. Shida-sensei would have told him he deserved it for letting his guard down like an unschooled genin. A head-injured shinobi — especially a jounin like Hatake Kakashi — was a dangerous shinobi. Far more dangerous than a ninja with all his faculties, in some ways.
Dangerous to himself, too. The medic could be excused for misreading the situation, but Asuma should have recognized the situation for what it was. Recognized Ibiki’s response to it. Not that it mattered what Asuma thought of him, and at least he’d intervened before Pakkun could try to add a scar or two to Ibiki’s collection.
He broke lumber down, splintering soft wood under his hands and casting a water jutsu to draw the dampness out of it. When he had enough timber and kindling to create a long-burning bonfire, he cleared a circle in the snow and piled it close to the tents, where he set it ablaze. It smoked and popped, and then the half-dried wood caught, sending orange sparks racing skyward, and a wall of heat radiating outward.
Inside the tent, Asuma appeared to be in a meditative trance, shedding heat and chakra into both injured men. The medic seemed to be finished with Sakamoto for the moment — he was lying just as bloodless-white as he had been before, but there was a faster, more discernable rise and fall to his chest under the thin foil blanket. Saiyuri had moved on to Hatake, kneeling next to him, cradling his skull between her hands. Healing chakra cast a green-yellow glow against his bruised temples.
He still looked beyond saving. They both did.
She looked up. “You. Go back to the village. Go to the inn and ask for Imahara Yusuke. Tell him I said we need two sleds with dog teams to get a pair of injured men down. Bring them back here.”
“It would be faster if we just made clones and carried—” Ibiki started.
“They’re not stable yet. By the time you get back here with dogs and men they will be, I hope. And sleds will be safer and warmer for transporting them.”
Asuma cracked one eye open, fixing it on the medic. “So you can fix ‘em?”
“I don’t make promises like that. Not in circumstances like this,” Saiyuri said, grim-faced. “I’ll do what I can, but your boys here are going to have to meet me halfway.” She looked sharply at Ibiki. “Go.”
Ibiki saluted her, turned, and translocated a full four kilometers, cutting through nothing and pushing himself to the limits of his speed. Men who’d lost lovers and didn’t think they had anything left to live for weren’t the ones who usually met the medics even a quarter of the way. The sooner they were off that mountain and away from whatever grim reminders that place held of Tousaki for both men, the better.