Three things hit Ginta all at once: he was in a lot of pain, he was warm, and Kakashi wasn’t in contact with him any more. But someone else was — someone familiar, touching his left leg. Heat flowed into him, wrapped in a chakra-signature like dense, whisky-scented smoke. Nearby there were other flickers of life: someone like iced iron, the low-level shiver of Pakkun, and the higher-pitched pressure of an ozone-edged blade.
Kakashi was alive, then.
And so was he.
He felt the air catch and burble in his throat when he inhaled, and groaned again. His right eye wouldn’t open — when he tried he saw a shower of black and silver sparks — but the left worked. For a moment all he could see was yellow-lit canvas, and then the heat-filled touch on his leg broke away, and a dark-eyed face was leaning over his. Scruffy beard on a manly jaw, untamable hair, a nose built for strength rather than style. A hand came down on his shoulder, warm and massive, and full of that whisky-smoke presence.
“Hey, Jitterbug,” Asuma said, sounding equal parts wry and worried. “You really did it this time.”
Something had happened. Something terrible. Ginta tried to pull it together and got only as far as the cold and the dark and his face torn in pieces and his leg an aching ruin and Kakashi dying from a cracked open skull—
“Wha’ hap’n?” Ginta slurred. His jaw still felt unhinged, and Asuma didn’t look like he’d understood the question. Ginta put all his focus into forming the words. “What happened?”
"You got yourself squashed like a bug, is what,” Asuma said, sounding the same as he always did, faintly teasing, full of warmth. “And I got my ass dragged halfway around the world with an Intel ghoul to dig you out.” His voice turned more sober. “Hatake's still breathing. He's just over there. Did you guys pick up any sign of Tousaki?”
Ginta took a breath and blew it out, twitching his aching head up to try to see Kakashi. There was a foil-wrapped body with a shock of bloody silver hair showing above the blankets. A grim-looking medic bent over Kakashi, doing something with an IV. He let his head fall back down, wincing. “Nothing but an eight-month-old trap.” He looked flatly up at Asuma through his good eye. “He’s gone, Asuma. Ryouma’s just plain gone.”
Sometimes Asuma hated being right.
“Well, that sucks,” he said, dropping into a cross-legged seat by Ginta’s head, pulling his hand back. Ginta wasn’t a fan of being touched, he remembered. “How’d Hatake take it? He already tried to throttle my mission partner.”
Though that had been more about the shock of his dog vanishing and waking up to Ibiki’s ugly face, Asuma guessed.
“He what?” Ginta demanded, rusty voiced cracking. “He was awake?”
“For a sneeze, yeah,” Asuma said, leaving out all the throttling. Hatake’s throat had been bruised visibly red, but he was all over blood-coloured and the blankets covered it. “Medic reckons he’s got a cracked skull, but no bleeding. Says you smashed your eye-socket up. Cheekbone, too, looks like.”
Saiyuri gave a curt nod.
“And your nose,” Asuma added. “Didn’t do a bad job on setting it, though. You’re both hypothermic as all hell, but we’re warming you up. Don’t get squirrelly on me.”
Ginta’s eye closed for a long moment, then opened again. “Blood,” he said at random. “There was a lot of blood. I think a lot from my face. Kakashi’s head was bleeding, too.” He focused on Asuma, blue iris picking up a flicker of gold light from the torches; the only alive-looking thing in a face of chewed meat. “Don’t think I could get squirrelly if I tried. I’d probably pass out if I tried to sit up.”
That last was surprisingly linear for Ginta. Which made a nasty kind of sense, seeing as he looked like he’d had all the screwy fun beaten right out of him.
“Don’t worry about the bleeding; Saiyuri-san’s getting you patched up. She’s the medic,” Asuma explained patiently. “Do we need to worry about a break with Hatake, or is he holding it together?”
“He's…” Ginta trailed off, swallowing thickly, and started again. “I don't know. He's pretty raw. I think he wouldn't have cared a whole lot if you guys hadn't found us.”
The dead-level, hangman’s look in Ginta’s one eye made Asuma think he wouldn’t have cared a whole lot, either.
Asuma wet his lips and helped Pakkun climb back into his lap. The little pug huddled close, a mess of damp fur and blood-streaked, loosening bandages. Asuma cupped both hands around the narrow ribcage, siphoning heat into him.
“Start at the beginning,” he told Ginta.
The beginning seemed like forever ago. “The real beginning?” Ginta asked through a smile that was more grimace than delight. “Was a lot like now. Snow, hypothermia, mission gone tits up, and Kakashi summoning dogs to deal with it.”
Asuma didn’t look like he understood that at all.
“S’not important, “Ginta told him. “Just, that was when I met him. Kakashi, I mean. In... November? No, December. I already knew Ryouma, but I didn’t know he was gonna join ANBU. Also I thought he was straight. Not important, either.”
It wasn’t. Wasn’t important.
Asuma just looked down at him, steady and present. Waiting.
“They were lovers. Are lovers,” he corrected himself. “They’re lovers. Did you know that? That’s important.”
Asuma nodded. “I got the memo.”
“They had a fight. After... No before... I don’t know. A while ago. A few weeks ago. I was in the hospital and Kakashi was too, and he and Ryouma had a fight about something. Then Ryouma fucked off on a mission with some girl and slept with her and then he OD’d on soldier pills. He had a problem with them.”
Asuma nodded again. Not judging — Ryouma was hardly the only agent in ANBU to overuse soldier pills. Not touching, either. Ginta shivered, and for a minute he wished Asuma would put his hand back on him.
“Kakashi OD’d on soldier pills, too, getting me home from my mission. That’s why he was in the hospital with me. He nearly bled out because he fucked his clotting up—” Cold clenched around Ginta’s gut in a nauseating stranglehold. “You gotta tell the medic. Tell her now. That was only a few weeks ago.”
From the other side of the tent, a sharp female voice said, "I heard you. It's fine. He's clotting."
Asuma very carefully set his hand against Ginta's arm, easing the flow of heat back into him. "Stay calm, okay? Otherwise she's gonna get her grouch on."
The warmth helped. Or maybe the connection. Ginta shut his eye and concentrated on the heat spiraling into him from Asuma’s palm, the burning throb in his face, and the sharp, distracting ache in his ankle. Had he rebroken it?
When he opened his eye again, Asuma was looking at him with inscrutable concern.
Ginta felt more sick than ever.
“Ryouma came to see me, told me about the fight and the girl. He was all bruised the hell up, and I told him he’d better get his shit together and stop ODing on the pills. I was pissed at him, Asuma. It was like he was trying to stroke out or bleed out. Like Kakashi pushed himself that hard, so Ryouma had to, too, to prove himself or something, to be worthy of— I don’t know. And it was so fucked up. It was so fucked up... Everything about it, and me being in the middle of it.”
Asuma nodded, a bare hint of movement. His hand didn’t leave Ginta’s shoulder, and his eyes didn’t leave Ginta’s face.
“Then Ryouma was gone. And gone. And there was something suspicious about the whole thing. He was ‘on mission’ and then ‘classified’ and they were sending out search teams but not saying it was for him, and they were lying about it. Lying to me, to Kakashi. Said Ryouma was just taking one mission after the other, we’d just missed him, but he was missing. He was fucking missing for three weeks, and I figured it out. I went and told Arakaki about the soldier pills and everything and my suspicion and he told me to stand down. And... Kakashi’s my— Was my friend. If Arakaki and your dad couldn’t have the decency to tell the man his lover was missing, then... Then someone else had to. So I did.”
“I can guess how that went,” Asuma said. He glanced fleetingly at Kakashi, but turned his focus back on Ginta. “How’d you both end up in the hole?”
“I told Kakashi what I’d pieced together, but... I didn’t show him my maps. I made him take me with him. Because... Because if he went out here alone, he was going to just get as lost as Ryouma is. And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to lose him, too.” Ginta swallowed, tasting blood at the back of his throat.
“Worked great, didn’t it? I’m a fucking genius.”
None of that actually covered the buried alive part, but Asuma was beginning to get the picture.
“Lot of trouble to go through for a former-friend an’ someone who steals your dates,” he said, careful-voiced, testing the waters.
Ginta’s lone eye darkened, like a chip of blue ice. “Yeah,” he said, clearly remembering the one and only conversation they’d had, back when Asuma had been freshly home, and everything he probably wished he hadn’t said. “See? Genius.”
Asuma gave a sharp smile. “Not gonna argue with you. Wanna tell me how you ended up in the ground, or are you saving that part for suspense?”
"We lost Ryouma's trail at the pass. Figured he might have come up here to the old bunker. Team Badass's bunker." Lines creased Ginta’s bruised forehead, sweat beading at his temples. He made a restless movement. "He wasn't there. Hadn't been there."
“Hey, Saiyuri, did you give him any painkillers?” Asuma said, as soon as he put two and two together and came up idiot.
“Not yet,” the medic said. “There’re a handful of pre-filled morphine syringes in my pack. I assume you know how to use a needle?”
“Since I was ten,” Asuma said, giving Ginta’s shoulder a quick squeeze and carefully lifting Pakkun from his lap. He tucked the little dog down by Ginta’s side and went to the medic’s open satchel, which contained half a dozen well-organized kits. He found the morphine in the one labeled General Trauma. “How much do you want him to have?”
“One syringe,” said Saiyuri. She was kneeling by Hatake’s head, using a water jutsu and a cloth to clean the filth from his face and hair, obviously eavesdropping on everything Ginta said. “You can throw one over here, too.”
Asuma tossed a syringe across; Sayuri caught it neatly, uncapped the needle with her teeth, and pulled Kakashi’s shirt collar down enough to stick him in the upper arm. Asuma took a syringe for himself and went back to Ginta, following the same procedure.
Ginta let out a relieved sigh, wince fading a little. It took another few minutes for the drug to kick in, but he finally stopped shifting restlessly and continued, story coming in fits and starts. "We tried to make a fire. That's when it triggered. Kakashi got slammed in the head. I tried to drag him away, make a run for it, but the walls came down. One of his dogs saved us.” He drew a raspy breath. “Bashed my face in in there somewhere, too.”
“Noticed that,” Asuma said. “Saiyuri’s already got a head start on fixing you up, though. Another couple weeks an’ maybe you won’t frighten little old ladies in the street.” The nasty-ass piece of gauze that had been taped to Ginta’s cheek was gone, replaced with fresh bandaging, and the bruising was already less severe around his eye, reduced from grotesque to half a harlequin mask. Asuma had heard Saiyuri snap all the bones back into place—and he’d probably hear it again the next time he tried to sleep.
He blew out a breath.
“Okay, here’s the plan. We’re gonna get you both stable, sled-dog you back to Yukihana, and see about getting you home from there. An’ then everyone and their mother is gonna yell at you both for being total morons, but at least you’ll keep all your fingers and toes.”
“He’s gonna be okay, right?” It was a child’s question, Ginta knew, and what he wanted was a child’s reassurance. Something to plaster over his grim appraisal based on too many battlefields from too early an age: hypothermia, skull fracture, brain bleed, clotting failure from too many soldier pills too soon... He couldn’t bring himself to trust the medic’s terse report.
Asuma lifted his head to look at the medic with raised eyebrows. Ginta followed his gaze as best he could, trying to see without moving.
The medic shrugged — Ginta could hear the fabric of her coat rustle more than see the motion, but the gesture was unmistakable. "Depends on him,” she said. “I’ve done everything I can.”
"Anyone ever told you you're about the least reassuring medic ever?” said Asuma. “Give us some odds, lady."
The medic didn’t flinch. She looked steadily at Asuma for a moment, then moved so she was fully in Ginta’s line of sight, focusing directly on him. "Fifty-fifty.” No mollycoddling or comforting, just the facts. Facts a jounin should be prepared to hear. “If he survives the night, he'll probably make it.”
Ginta took a breath, closed his eye and opened it again. Nodded once, a minimal twitch of his head that was still more than enough movement to hurt. “What does he need to survive the night?”
“The same things you do: warmth, pain management, fluids and electrolytes — you’re both dehydrated.” Her assessment continued, splinter-sharp. “He’s holding his own for the moment, and there isn’t excessive swelling or any sign of a subdural bleed.”
It wasn’t the simple blanket reassurance Ginta craved, but it was one he could believe. One that held the ring of truth.
“You’re not out of the woods yet, either,” the woman said. She shifted subtly, turning her shoulders more squarely towards Ginta. “You could do with plasma replacement, if not whole blood.”
“I took blood pills. So did he,” Ginta said, feeling like he had to defend himself.
everyone and their mother is gonna yell at you both for being total morons
“And that’s why you’re here talking to us, and he’s still breathing, I’m sure,” she said. “But a blood pill is about as good a replacement as a ration bar is for a full meal. Feel how fast your heart is beating? You’re volume-depleted.”
Until she’d called his attention to it, Ginta hadn’t been thinking about his own heartbeat at all. He wasn’t sure he cared all that much even now that he was aware of it. He looked up at Asuma again, seeing subtle tension — well-masked worry. “She’s wrong. I’m... I’ll be fine.”
Sure he would be. And Asuma was a leaping tree-frog.
Amphibian or not, Asuma wasn’t in the habit of kicking a man when he was down—unless he was a ninja who deserved it—so he didn’t call Ginta on the bravado. Instead he reached out, making sure sure to telegraph the move well in advance, and squeezed Ginta’s skinny shoulder.
“Sounds like a good plan, too,” he said. “Now howsabout you kick back and get some shuteye while me an’ cheerful-san here work on getting you both down from this rock in one piece?”
The medic gave a vengeful snort.
Ginta’s eye slid shut; he jerked his chin in a fractional nod, then re-opened a slit of blue. “If he wakes up again—” He stopped, groping for words. Asuma wasn’t sure Ginta even knew what he wanted to say. After an aching moment, Ginta brushed Pakkun’s fur with broken-nailed fingertips. “Make sure Pakkun’s with him. Make sure he knows his dogs are all okay.”
“Yeah, sure,” Asuma said. “You got it. I’ll tell him you’re okay, too. Now sleep already. You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
“That’s what I always liked about you, Asuma,” Ginta said, drowsy and indistinct. “You know how to tell a good lie.” His eye closed again and his head rocked a little to one side, falling still. It took only a handful of breaths before what little animation there’d been slipped away, leaving his battered face blank, and his body lax.
Drugs and exhaustion, the universal equalizers.
The mild concussion probably helped, too.
“He out?” Saiyuri asked, softer-voiced than she’d been before.
“Like a light,” Asuma said. “How’s Hatake?”
“Well, so long as he ain’t throttling anyone,” Asuma muttered, shifting back from his crouch to drop on his ass, letting out a long breath. He pulled Pakkun into his lap again. The little dog was almost as out of it as both fallen ninja, but he hadn’t unsummoned himself. Asuma cradled him in hands that felt too big for the task, indelicate around breakable ribs and greenstick limbs, and pressed warmth into him.
Pakkun sighed quietly and went to sleep.
“Almost tempted to take a nap myself,” Asuma said dryly, glancing over the makeshift tent and spilled medical supplies. His two clones were standing silent guard at the entrance. He whistled at one of them. “Make yourself useful and tidy up.”
The clone obeyed mutely.
“You might as well sleep,” Saiyuri said, checking Ginta’s pulse and other vitals before she went back to Hatake. “Ibiki-san will be a while. I’ll wake you if I need anything.”
It was more than a little tempting. Maybe they could stuff Ibiki in a dogsled and let him nap on the way back.
“Yeah, alright,” Asuma said, easing himself down flat at Ginta’s side, careful not to jar Pakkun. He pillowed an arm beneath his head, keeping his other hand on Pakkun’s narrow back. “Give me a kick if anythin’ changes.”
“With pleasure,” Saiyuri said, sounding just very faintly amused for the first time. Or perhaps that was the wind catching her voice.
Ginta was a slight, barely breathing presence within arms-reach. Kakashi’s chakra felt like ice-melt worn down to a bleeding edge, but both of them were alive and found, even if they hadn’t found Ryouma, and that was two thirds of a job well done.
You know how to tell a good lie.
Asuma closed his eyes, wished distantly for a cigarette and a hot bath because damn, his muscles hurt, and slid into a half-aware doze, waiting for Ibiki to drag his ass back.
Ibiki got back to the village in less than a quarter of the time it had taken them to reach the temple, by the simple expedient of jumping from one translocation straight into the next. He was dripping with sweat, his fingers and toes ice-cold, and his breath harsh and raw in his throat when he arrived in the sleeping mountain hamlet. Even the most dedicated drunks had turned in, and the inn was dark and silent, shrouded in a thick blanket of fresh snow.
His uniform would probably be unwelcome this far from Fire Country. He removed his mask, pulled his cape tight around himself, and henged away all traces of his ANBU armor, replacing it with the same rough-textured traveler’s clothes he and Asuma had cloaked themselves in on their first trip into the village.
It didn’t take much effort to find the innkeeper sleeping with her husband and a yellow-eyed cat in a room next to the kitchen. He knelt next to the bed and shook the woman awake.
Predictably, she gasped.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Inkeeper-san. Do you remember I was here before? Saiyuri-san sent me,” he said softly, as non-threatening as he could be. “She told me to find Imahara Yusuke and two dog sleds to transport two badly injured men from the ruins of the old temple near the summit. Can you help me?”
In the darkness he could see her eyes flicking over his body and scarred face. Thankfully there was too much shadow for her to see the purpling bruises on his throat. She rolled over and elbowed her sleeping husband. “Wake up. Saiyuri-sensei needs help,” she said. “Needs dogs and sleds.”
“And men to drive them,” Ibiki said.
The innkeeper’s husband yawned and pushed himself upright, giving Ibiki a much more forbidding look. “Yer a ninja. But yer not a Cloud ninja.”
“I’m from the lowlands,” Ibiki agreed cautiously.
“But not from Lightning Country,” the man persisted. He got to his feet and reached for a pair of pants hanging from a hook near the bed.
Ibiki stood up to his full height. “No.”
The man looked him up and down, and nodded. “Then I’ll help ya.”
Ibiki’s fingers fell away from the seals they’d begun to form.
“Follow me,” the man said. “You said the temple ruins? Saiyuri up there in this weather?”
“And the feller who was with ya when you came to get her? What about that panicked little dog?”
“Well come on then, leggy. I’ll take ya to Imahara’s. We’ll take my team and his. Got the two fastest teams in Yukihana.”
Inuzuka and their canines came to mind when Ibiki saw the sled dogs. They were big, barrel-chested things, with wolfish-faces and thick fur, harnessed eight to a sled. Imahara was clearly more comfortable with his animals than the people, talking to them like they were his own flesh and blood. He and the innkeeper, Kawai, soon had the sleds packed with thick blankets and an assortment of bundles of things ‘Saiyuri-sensei might need.’
It had taken nearly five hours to get to the temple the first time. Now, with two expert sled-teams, a thick frosting of new snow, and no wind, they flew. Ibiki ran alongside them at first, but soon had to concede to fatigue and accept a ride in Imahara’s sled. The rising sun was just turning the snow a rosy mauve when the trees marking the site of the old shrine came into view.
Ibiki waited until they were almost at the site before he let the henge drop and broke his own cover.
Kawai noticed first. “Fire Country,” he said. “I might have known.”
Imahara laughed, calling his dogs to halt. “You should have said, stranger. Woulda given you a warmer robe to wrap up in.” He grinned and traced a spiral leaf on his forehead. “My grandpa was one.”
“So you’ll help?” Ibiki asked. For once, luck was on their side; Yukihana must have been on the receiving end of more than a few unpleasantries from Lightning Country’s forces during the war years, to still have Konoha allies in her.
“Course we’ll help. You said you had injured men, so we’d have helped even if you’d been a bunch of lying Cloud ninja. But now we’ll help and not regret it. Come on. Let’s find Saiyuri and your friends.”
Saiyuri did kick him.
Asuma lurched out of exhausted, dreamless sleep to find an unfamiliar man grinning down at him, and a general sense of looming in the corner that announced Ibiki’s return.
“Oh good,” he groaned. “You didn’t die in an avalanche.”
Saiyuri jostled his foot again. “Up and at ‘em, Scruffy.”
Ibiki gave him a bland look. “I take it you slept well,” he said, and actually cracked a yawn like a normal human being, which made Asuma stare at him. The second leg had been hard on Ibiki: he was pale (well, paler), and rumpled, with deeper shadows etched under his eyes. “Any changes I should know about?”
Asuma attempted to reconnect with the universe. “I can see right up your nose from this angle.”
“Your mental state has degraded,” Ibiki said. “Change noted.”
Asuma hauled himself to his feet, bringing Pakkun with him. The little dog didn’t stir. He raked a hand through his hair, spiking it wild, and scratched a stubbled cheek, yawning. “Snarky bastard. Ginta woke up for a while: got half a debrief out of him. No sign of Ryouma, ‘an Kakashi’s probably cracked clean in half.”
He paused, eying his hyper-literal teammate.
“Emotionally, anyway. Don’t know about how sane he is. Saiyuri patched ‘em up.” He waved his free hand by way of demonstration, gesturing to both bandaged, soft-breathing ninja. “What about you? Strangle anyone while you were out?”
"You weren't there, so I didn't need to,” Ibiki said coolly. “Saiyuri-sensei's associates here, Imahara-san and Kawai-san are friendly.” He nodded at the grinning man, who was tall, dark-haired, and surprisingly muscled for a civilian. “Imahara's grandfather served Konoha."
“And he retired near Lightning?” Asuma said, sticking out a friendly hand. “Hardcore.”
Imahara chuckled and shook his hand, grip hard-calloused and warm. "Grandfather met Grandmother up here. He said it was only fair to let her move back to the mountains she loved when he retired."
“Aww, cute,” Asuma said. “Hope she knitted him a kunai warmer. You guys know it’s freezing here, right?”
Ibiki cleared his throat pointedly. “Maybe you should get moving and help me strike this camp, then. Get your blood pumping.”
“Was he this bossy on the way up?” Asuma asked Imahara.
“Perfect gentlemen,” Imahara said.
“Figures. Here, hold this.” Asuma passed Pakkun across to the man, who cradled the little dog with the expression of someone who didn’t understand the point of a carnivore smaller than a bucket, but was still willing to help. “We’ve got sleds, right? Ready to get the boys loaded up, Saiyuri? They’re stable, right?”
“As stable as I can get them,” the medic agreed. “Start with the blond. He’ll be easier to manage.”
Asuma snorted. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew him.” He glanced aside at Hatake’s still body. “Though, on second thought, in this company...” He shook his head, and jerked his chin at Ibiki. “Get over here and give me a hand, spooks.”
“Now who’s bossy?” Ibiki asked, cracking another yawn and eying Asuma. He didn’t get an answer, but he didn’t expect one. He stepped past the other agent to get a better look at the two men they’d come to retrieve.
Hatake was snow-pale, but there was a hint of color over his cheekbones that wasn’t blood stain. He looked young, almost delicate, with his face unmasked and his pale, chapped lips parted. He breathed slowly and evenly, not stirring. It would be a loss to Konoha if the brain inside that bruised skull was damaged, or the psyche “broken in half” as Asuma had so quaintly put it.
Sakamoto looked a good deal better than he had, too, with the gore washed away and fresh bandages hiding much of the damage to his face. Pale beard stubble was tinted faintly crimson where blood still clung, but his lips were pink, not tinged blue as they had been.
Saiyuri-san nodded at the two of them as Asuma crouched at Sakamoto’s head and Ibiki picked up his legs. “Careful with that right leg,” she said. “Don’t twist anything.” She took the IV setup and the foil blanket Sakamoto had been lying on, and the three of them carried Sakamoto to Imahara’s waiting sled. When they settled him into the nest of furs and blankets, he whimpered and turned his head, but if he woke, it wasn’t for long. Saiyuri muttered something under her breath and pressed green-glowing palms to either side of Sakamoto’s skull, and he quieted.
Despite Saiyuri’s assessment, Hatake was no harder to move than Sakamoto had been. He was heavier and longer-limbed, but his breathing didn’t even hitch when they lifted him. There was no sign that there was any living consciousness in his body at all.
Imahara put Pakkun into the sled next to Hatake, all in silence. It felt funereal. Asuma’s face was grim as he checked the lashings holding the injured shinobi in their respective sleds. He made no comment when Ibiki created a pair of clones to help load Saiyuri’s medical supplies.
“We’ll finish here,” Ibiki offered, when everything but his and Asuma’s gear was stowed away. “And catch up to you.”
Kawai and Imahara nodded, but didn’t move to their sleds, waiting on the go-ahead from Saiyuri. After a moment, she nodded as well. “We’ll take them to my clinic. But I expect you’ll catch up to us before we get there.”
“Hup, dogs!” Imahara called. He stood on the trailing runners of the sled holding Sakamoto. Eight sharp-eared faces turned to look at him, as tails wagged and leather traces creaked.
“Pups!” Kawai echoed in his gruffer voice, and his own team snapped to attention.
Asuma stood next to him, watching the sleds depart, then lit a cigarette, face a little wan in the dawn light. “Well,” he said, blowing a stream of smoke into the frosty air, “that’s one job down.”
“We don’t have them home yet,” Ibiki said. He cracked his shoulders and spine while his clone set to work on repacking his tent and equipment. After a moment he pulled out a small metal case and flicked it open, offering it to Asuma. “Soldier pill? I don’t imagine we’re sleeping any time soon.”
“Cheery thought,” Asuma observed. He took a soldier pill and crunched it between his molars, presumably unbothered by the flavor due to smoke-deadened taste buds. He offered his cigarettes to Ibiki.
Was he softening a little, or just so tired he’d forgotten to be rude?
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke,” Ibiki said. “Although there are times like this when I occasionally wish I did.”
Asuma snorted and put the pack away. “Your loss.”
The remains of the bunker were still exposed for anyone to find. “You think there are any active traps left in there?” Ibiki asked. “We should probably bury it with an earth jutsu if we can.”
“S’one option,” Asuma said, taking three steps closer to the crater hacked into the ground. He looked down into the jagged hollow that had so nearly killed two people—four, if you counted the dogs. “Think I have an easier way, though.”
Ibiki lifted an ink-black eyebrow.
Asuma shaped a half-dozen familiar seals, hands moving stiffly in the renewed cold, and took a long draw on his cigarette. “Haisekishou,” he whispered, and breathed out a living ribbon of ash. It hung in the air, dense and black, then swarmed down into the ex-bunker, coating every unstable surface.
He clicked his teeth.
The ash ignited like gunpowder, splitting the air with a flash and a roar that collapsed the over-hanging shelf of stone down into the hole, and toppled the sides with it. Ibiki twitched. Asuma grinned at the other ninja over his shoulder.
“Gettin’ tired, stretch? You almost had a visible reaction there.”
"What was that?” Ibiki demanded. “Fire-based? I caught two tiger seals in there, and a horse."
It took Asuma a second to realize Ibiki was actually impressed, and then he grinned much, much wider.
“Fire jutsu,” he confirmed proudly. “Burning Ash Accumulation, if you want the technicals. Helps keep the crap out of my lungs.”
Ibiki’s eyebrow went up again, like nonverbal punctuation. “Really,” he said. “How many packs will you have to smoke again before you can do it again?”
“After the week I’ve just had? None,” Asuma said dryly. “I’ve got at least one more bang in me. After that, it depends how big an explosion I want to make. What about you? Any fancy tricks for tearing down campsites?”
“Nothing original. But I can make you think you volunteered to do all the work yourself,” Ibiki said, with a frankly alarming grin that stretched his scars sideways and showed all his teeth. He twisted long-fingered hands into seals, summoning a standard D-level earth jutsu. The walls of the crater collapsed further, and dirt from the surrounding area pressed in and packed down, making something that looked almost like a natural hollow. “Add a little grass seed, and it will look like nothing ever happened here once the snow’s done.”
Now it was Asuma’s turn to lift an eyebrow. "You in the habit of carryin' grass seed about?"
Ibiki shrugged. "Ordinarily, no,” he said, producing a small brown sack. "But I grabbed some in the village. Actually it's barley seed, I think."
In the middle of a fraught rescue, Ibiki had thought to grab barley seed.
Well, Asuma had taken a nap. It probably levelled out.
“You are a frightening man,” Asuma said, on principle, and drew a last drag from his cigarette. He crushed the butt out in the snow. “Might as well get to it. I’ll take down the tent while you’re playing green-thumb.”
Ibiki hid his smile as he turned back to the freshly churned earth and started scattering handfuls of little brown seeds. Behind him he could hear the dulcet sounds of canvas flapping and metal clinking against metal as Asuma struck and stowed the tents — a task the man had volunteered for. The power of suggestion, Shida-sensei would say, was as strong as an A-rank jutsu.
When there was nothing left to see but a bare patch of earth littered with seeds, a burned-out fire pit, and some blood-stained, well-trampled snow, Ibiki shouldered his pack. “You said you’re good with wind jutsu. Do you want to blow the snow around to cover our tracks, or should I use a water jutsu to move it?”
"Flatterer." Asuma said, but there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth when he lit another cigarette. His fingers walked through a short sequence of seals, and a little vortex twisted up, sparkling golden in the morning sun as it swept the snow bare. "Anythin' else you want to compliment me into doing?"
“I think that’s got it for now,” Ibiki said. He pulled a ration bar from his hip pouch and peeled off the foil. “Unless.... If I tell you I really like your coffee, will you be able to conjure up a thermos full?”
Asuma snorted a laugh. “Sorry, darlin’. If you want a coffee date, you’re going to have to wait until we get home.”
“Sorry yourself, I don’t date women with beards,” Ibiki answered. He took a bite of his bar — thick, gluey, and sweet, with enough of a hint of flavor that he could guess it was intended to be peanut butter — and gestured with it at Asuma. “Are you going to eat? Soon as I finish this, we should get moving. I don’t think there are any hazards on the trail, but if Hatake wakes up and is combative again, we should be there.”
"Smart guy like you can't walk an' eat at the same time?” Asuma asked. “My illusions are shattered." He started walking in the direction of the sled tracks. "Got my breakfast right here,” he added, waving his cigarette in the air as he brought it to his lips for another drag. “You know if Hatake wakes up again, Saiyuri will throttle you if you touch him."
“I’d be more than happy to leave subduing him to you this time,” Ibiki said, rubbing his bruised throat. “It’s hardly fair for me to have all the fun on this mission.”
“Because strangling is any guy’s idea of a good time,” Asuma said, dry as a desert corpse.
“There are other ways to subdue someone, that was just the most expedient and prudent at the time.”
Asuma raised an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know what your second choice would have been?”
Ibiki thought about it for a moment, and offered Asuma a cool smile. “Probably not.” It was fun to see the tiny twitch in Asuma’s expression. “But next time it will be you, not me.” He popped the last bite of rat bar in his mouth and slid his mask into place. “Shall we?”
“You just enjoy being creepy, don’t you?” Asuma said, slightly disgruntled. He picked up the pace. “Gets you off.”
There was a fractional hesitation in Ibiki’s step. He turned his masked face to give Asuma a long, silent, blank look, and the hairs on the back of Asuma’s neck went up.
Ibiki looked away and broke into a jog-trot, then a ground-eating run.
“Eargh,” Asuma muttered, resisting the urge to toss a chunk of ice at the back of that ponytailed head. There was nothing wrong with a little kink in the world, but mixing it up with missions and destroyed men was not the way to do it.
Next time it will be you, not me..
“I freakin’ hope not,” he said, dragging a vengeful inhale on the remains of his cigarette. He tossed the butt and kicked into a matching run, forcing stiff muscles into motion. “In any sense.”
Ibiki said nothing.
The sun was up and blinding before they drew level with the sleds. Imahara gave them a cheery wave from his splay-legged balance on the back of Hatake’s sled. Kawai just nodded. Both Hatake and Ginta were flat out and unconscious, barely visible beneath furs and blankets. Saiyuri was tucked in behind Ginta, absently running her fingers through his blood-crusted hair, and head-nodding just a little with weariness. Ibiki’s clones flanked the sleds, matching speed with the dogs.
With silent accord, Ibiki ran up ahead and took point, while Asuma fell in between the two sleds, equidistant between Hatake and Ginta.
It was a long, silent run back to the village.
When the snow-covered buildings were in sight, Saiyuri stirred herself. “Udan has hawks,” she said, muffled around a long yawn. “We’ll get your ninja settled in the warmth, and you can send a message home. You’re not evac-ing them without a full team.”
Up ahead, Ibiki lifted one hand in an acknowledging wave.
“Don’t suppose you have a dog-shed I can lock him in?” Asuma asked, fighting not to stumble as weariness caught up with him.
“I’ve got a floor you can both fall down on,” Saiyuri said, dry.
Asuma would have taken a row of hot spikes, provided he didn’t have to move again once he landed on them. “Good enough.”
A dip in the snow made Ibiki stagger-step. The lead dog from Kuwai’s team body-checked his thigh, knocking him back onto a steadier course. He’d gotten even less rest than Asuma had.
Not that Asuma was feeling especially sympathetic towards him, right now.
The not-quite-road into Yukihana was rutted with sled-dog tracks and human trails, which made the sleds judder. Hatake didn’t make a sound, but Ginta groaned and stirred, instantly soothed by Saiyrui’s green-glowing hands.
Asuma moved a little closer to his sled. “Three more days,” he promised. “Then you’ll be home.”
Hatake still said nothing.