Kakashi ran tired hands over his face and through his hair, wondering what the hell was taking so long. The lost sense of time was maddening. At least in the penitentiary on the surface keeping track of the day was easy when you could look out your own cell and watch the sun and the moon sliding across the sky, and you could even use the shadows cast by the bars as a sad sort of sundial. When the shadow of the third bar from the right hit the crack in the concrete near the edge of the bunk, you knew dinner was on the way. But down here where there were no windows or clocks, judging the time was difficult. He could guess from how hot and tired his eyes had become that it was moving well into the night, and it had certainly been several hours since he'd last seen Shikamaru, although how many hours he couldn't say exactly.
But time-keeping was a problem he planned to resolve soon enough. He just needed Sakura with him before he could do anything more, but judging from how long it had been since Shikamaru had left, he was beginning to doubt that he'd get to see her at all. Even if Shikamaru had decided it was worth getting in trouble for them, he wasn't in a position of high authority amongst the prison employees. If someone above Shikamaru had noticed him attempting to arrange a conjugal visitation for two badly behaved prisoners without a marriage certificate…?
A clatter of footsteps approaching in the corridor outside made Kakashi sit bolt upright. He dared to hope…
He was not reassured when only Shikamaru entered.
"Was there a problem?" Kakashi asked.
"Only the typical ones you can expect when making an illegal arrangement," Shikamaru said darkly as he moved forward to unlock Kakashi's cage. "You're lucky no one gives a shit about prisoners in this place. Practically interchangeable as far as most are concerned, so if anyone asks, you two are Mr. And Mrs. Takahashi. I had to use a few genjutsu to fool the overseers, but I managed to secure one of the conjugal rooms. Sakura's waiting there now."
Kakashi hesitated. "Does she seem… alright to you?"
Shikamaru knew exactly what he meant. "I think she believes you intend to ravage her."
"Don't you mean 'ravish'?"
"No. She probably wouldn't mind that."
With a sigh, Kakashi allowed himself to be escorted out of the cage and into the corridor. They passed through several gates and walked by many guards, but none seemed to think anything was out of place when they saw Kakashi. He suspected that Shikamaru was working a mild genjutsu – just enough to divert suspicion but not strong enough to be detected. A lot of the guards here were well verse on how to detect such tricks.
The conjugal chambers lay uncomfortably close to the guards quarters, partly because he knew they doubled as interrogation rooms. There were several perfectly good unused rooms elsewhere that could have been used for conjugal visits, but for some strange reason, it was always the interrogation rooms that couples were directed into.
Ok, it wasn't that strange a reason, or really all that surprising, Kakashi thought, as they finally stopped beside a bolted door and Shikamaru swiftly unlocked it to push it open. Revealed behind it was a pink-clad Sakura with her face and hands pressed up against a mirror on the opposite wall. She turned indignantly the moment she heard their entrance.
"Why is there a two-way mirror in here?" she demanded in naïve outrage.
Shikamaru looked at Kakashi as if to say, 'she's all yours', and quickly slipped out of the room again, bolting the door behind him.
"Sakura, come away from the mirror," Kakashi beckoned, before tacking on an insincere, "darling."
Sakura regarded him warily, as if she didn't entirely trust his motives for this arrangement. It made him want to sigh again as he moved toward the make-shift bunk in the corner of the room and began stripping off the blankets. "Don't look at me like that," he told her as he measured the thickest woolen blanket against his arm. "It's the only thing I could think of."
"I don't know," she said suspiciously. "This is just the kind of pervy thing your mind would leap to."
"My pervy mind is what is going to get us out of here, so just play along for now," Kakashi said, dragging the blanket over to the mirror and reaching up to hook it over a couple of loose electricity cables above it. As he did this, the light in the room dipped and flickered. Sakura gazed up at the lonely bulb above her with consternation.
"Does this mean you have a plan?" she asked.
"Is it a good one?"
"Will it even work?"
"In theory. But probably not." He stood back and looked at his handiwork. "There we go. Nice and private now."
"That's great," Sakura said, looking at the blanket now covering the two-way mirror. "But I saw how suspicious the overseers were. I only give us about an hour before someone realizes we're not supposed to be in here together and comes to separate us."
"That's alright," Kakashi said dismissively. "We won't even need five minutes."
Sakura smothered a giggle with her hand. Kakashi glanced at her. "What?"
"Some wives might find that kind of disappointing," she sniggered.
"And you said I was kind of pervy?" Kakashi said innocently, handing her one of the bed sheets. "Here. Tear this into five even strips."
"Why?" Sakura asked.
"Because I said so," he replied as he started tearing up his own sheet.
"This seems like vandalism…" Sakura said hesitantly.
"Gosh, really? We might have to stage a break out to distract them from this horrible act of wanton destruction," Kakashi said with deceptive lightness.
"Alright, point taken," Sakura grumbled and began ripping the sheet into strips as even as she could manage. It was only now that she could no longer access her chakra that she realized how much she had come to depend on it for a little helping hand every now and then. Pickle jars, heavy laundry baskets, fallen comrades – all a doddle when you could turn bursts of super-strength on and off like a light switch. But suddenly she found herself tearing a cotton sheet that had snagged halfway through, and it was only when Kakashi caught the other end that she managed to free the strip. It was humiliating. She felt like such a girl.
"I look forward to getting these cuffs off," she said, rubbing her sore wrists. "I've never felt so weak and helpless."
"It didn't stop you from putting that woman in the infirmary," Kakashi pointed out.
"That was nothing. I just used her own weight against her like you taught us, but even then she still managed to get me pretty good." She fingered the papery stitches holding the split skin of her forehead together. It felt like it was weeping again. "Ow…"
Kakashi paused in his work. "Let me see," he said softly, and Sakura obliged him as he stepped forward to examine the wound. "It looks worse than it did the last I saw you. Did they even clean it?"
Why were his hands always so warm? And why did it always feel so nice when he touched her, even when it was just to hold her chin up and trace his thumb around the edge of her blackening eye? Her pulse fluttered anxiously when he leaned in for a closer look. Firm but gentle. That was the way to describe his hands. But firm and gentle was Kakashi all over.
"That's another thing," she went on, trying to distract them both. "The nurses in this place are terrible. They can't even heal a bruise, and I swear I saw a jar of leeches in one of the cupboards…"
"They're prison nurses," Kakashi said. "They're not paid well enough to take that much pride in their work."
"It looks worse than it is, Kakashi," she reassured him. "All head wounds are like that, but I'll heal it in a split second the moment these cuffs come off. Does your plan involve anything like that?"
"We could steal a key off one of the key-holding guards, I suppose," he ruminated. "But you need an accompanying jutsu to unlock the seal, and for that you need chakra, which is something we lack. And to be honest, we need to stay out of the guards way for this to stand even a remote chance of being pulled off."
Sakura sighed. "This isn't going to be easy, is it?"
"No. Only about three people have ever escaped from this particular prison."
"And we stand a chance because…?"
"I know the layout of this place better than most of the prisoners combined. That alone gives us a good edge, but that's not our only advantage."
Kakashi helped her tear the last of the sheet in twain and said with rather a lot of self-assuredness for someone looking so tired and dirty and imprisoned, "I am Hatake Kakashi, and you are Haruno Sakura. With my brains and your monstrous personality, we're as good as unstoppable."
Sakura wasn't reassured. She looked anxiously down at the strips of rough fabric in her hands. "Now what?"
"Tie them around your waist," he said, doing just that with his own strips of cloth.
"How does that help anything?" she demanded.
"I really don't have time to explain, so just humor me."
With a put-upon scowl, Sakura wrapped the strips twice around her waist and tied them in a bow behind her back. She looked down at herself and waited for it to become apparent how any of this was useful to anyone.
"See?" Kakashi said.
"Oh, yes," Sakura said flatly. "We'll surely skip to freedom now! You're a genius."
"I detect sarcasm, but you'll understand soon enough." Kakashi looked around the room. "Now we just need a…"
He didn't complete the thought though, as he began wandering back and forth, examining what little lay within the room. Besides the bed and the drainage pit in the corner of the room, the only other object in the room was a metal table. But this was bolted to the ground when Kakashi went over to give it a kick, and completely immovable. So instead he went back to the bed and lay on his back as he began rifling around underneath it.
"What are you doing now?" Sakura asked, not liking that Kakashi seemed determined not to explain anything to her. "You could at least give me a-"
She broke off when a loud snap echoed around the room and half the bed began to sag. Kakashi wriggled out, holding up a rusted metal tube. "Got it," he said cheerfully enough. "This'll do nicely."
Sakura gasped in exasperation. "For what?"
"You'll see," he said and moved towards the door, giving it a loud rap with his knuckles.
Footsteps approached on the other side. "What?" Shikamaru could be heard asking.
"We're out of lube," Kakashi called.
"I better come in and give you a refill, I suppose?"
"Thank you," Kakashi said graciously, taking up position behind the door with the metal bar raised above his shoulder.
Too late, Sakura twigged what he was planning and glared at him. "Don't you dare!" she hissed. But the key was already turning in the lock and the bolts were sliding back. Sakura covered her eyes, unable to watch, yet still managed to peek through her fingers to see the whole thing. Shikamaru, with a resigned sort of expression, stepped inside and closed his eyes. A moment later, Kakashi swung the bar and knocked him unceremoniously to the floor.
"Oh, yeah," Shikamaru said weakly from the floor, crusty with sarcasm. "Didn't see that coming at all."
Kakashi calmly nudged his legs aside with his foot and shut the door again. "Sorry," he said apologetically to the fallen younger man. "But we can't let them think that you gave in too easily."
"By all means, beat me around the head some more, if you like," Shikamaru offered. "It's clearly for my own good."
"That won't be necessary," Sakura interjected before Kakashi could take him up on it. She crouched down to examine the white mark on Shikamaru's cheek. There was a deep gouge where the sharp, rusted edge of the bar had struck him, but his skin seemed to be in too much shock to bleed yet. But he would bleed, and he would bleed a lot, and there would be a terrible scar if this wasn't looked at by a proper medic. "Looks severe enough to me," she said, glaring at Kakashi. "But Shika, you have to promise me to go to the hospital. Don't go to those barmy dark age nurses down the corridor. They'll probably just tie a toad to your chin."
"Where do you want us to stash you?" Kakashi asked him considerately.
"The bed would be nice."
Sakura took him by the feet and Kakashi took him under the shoulders, and together they managed to drag him across the room to lever him up onto the moth-eaten foam mattress. He didn't look completely happy with the arrangement, and the gash on his cheek was finally beginning to fill with blood. "You took the sheets?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes," Kakashi said, lifting Shikamaru's hand to start unclipping something on his wrist. "And now we're taking your watch. Sakura, get his kunai."
Sakura obeyed blithely, freeing the sharp tool from the pouch on his leg and feeling only incrementally less helpless with it in her hand.
"Good," muttered Kakashi, looking at his new watch. "We have ten minutes till the guards switch shifts."
"How is that good?" Sakura asked.
"Everyone's tired, bored and paying more attention to the time than the job," Kakashi said, confiscating the kunai from her. "But it also means the guards will be moving around a lot more than usual, so we'll have to work fast. Shikamaru, just stay here and look unconscious."
"No problem, but I'm also supposed to be relieved in ten minutes. So you'll have about fifteen minutes before someone raises the alarm," said Shikamaru. "Maybe twenty. They're kinda lazy around here."
"No, that's just you," Sakura reminded him.
Sakura glanced as Kakashi to see him attacking the foam mattress with the kunai. "Now what are you doing?" she hissed.
He came away with four roughly rectangular lumps of foam the size of bricks, and handed two to Sakura. "Slip these into your belt," he said, as he did just that.
Sakura complied, but was no more enlightened than she was before. "Floatation devices?" she guessed.
Kakashi shook his head. "I'd explain but we have to get moving if we're going to beat the guards' switchover. Come on." He was moving towards the door.
Sakura looked back hesitantly at Shikamaru. "Sorry," she said to him guiltily. "But thank you."
His cheek oozed. "Don't mention it," he muttered, letting his head drop against the flea-bitten pillow – either faking unconsciousness or truly unconscious, it was hard to tell.
"Sakura," Kakashi said more sharply, "Come on."
Outside, the corridor stretched in two short directions, with the left leading to a T-junction and the right bending into darkness. There were no guards to see, but Sakura knew there were a few stationed just out of sight around the corners. There was no way they could go that didn't mean running into a barred gate and its accompanying guard.
"This way," Kakashi said, taking Sakura's hand and moving towards the darker end of the corridor where the lights were mostly broken.
"There's a guard down there," Sakura whispered warningly. That was the way Shikamaru had brought her after all.
"I know," he whispered back, stopping short of the corner. "We're not going down there, we're going up through here."
He pointed to the ceiling and Sakura followed his finger doubtfully. Just above them was a square hole in the roof of the tunnel, covered by a thick grill with four enormous bolts holding it in place. Sakura stared at it and wondered exactly how Kakashi thought they were getting through there.
"I want you get on my shoulders and undo the bolts with this," Kakashi said quietly, handing her the kunai. "Make as little noise as possible."
"We need a flat-head screwdriver," she pointed out. "Not a kunai."
"You'll have to use the edge," Kakashi told her. "Unfortunately I forgot to steal the flat-head screwdriver that Shikamaru always carries around with him."
Point taken. "What's up there?" she asked.
"Later," he said. "We need to get moving."
He crouched down and Sakura obligingly climbed onto his shoulders. She didn't even for a moment feel precarious or unsafe as he rose, he was so disciplined and strong. He only had to hold her knees lightly and Sakura's only worry became the stiff, rusted bolts of the grill above her.
Each of the four bolts appeared to be screwed directly into the rock, which thankfully muffled the sound of metal as she began to laboriously rotate them loose. It was certainly not easy. The kunai hadn't been designed for this; it's blade was too fine and slim to properly fit the grooves on the head of each bolt, forcing her to keep one hand on the looped hand and the other on the tip of weapon, helping to keep it straight as she turned it.
More than once she nicked herself, but Sakura didn't dare utter even a gasp of pain, even when the blood was beginning to accumulate into a thin stream that ran down to her elbow and dripped off onto her thigh. Since Kakashi's head was positioned quite nicely between her thighs, he noticed straight away.
"You ok?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said, her hand slipping once more and narrowly missed gouging herself again. "It's just not easy."
"You're doing great," Kakashi assured her. "By the way, how's this no-underwear business suiting you? I find it quite liberating."
Sakura slapped the top of his head as hard as she dared and resumed her work with a red face.
The first and second bolt came loose, if a little too slowly, but it was the third one that gave Sakura the most trouble. No matter how she pressed with the kunai, it refused to turn. Sakura heaved until sweat began to sting her face.
It was no use. "It won't turn," she whispered. "It's too rusty."
"Doesn't matter. You only need to undo three. Try the last one."
Her cut fingers were beginning to throb painfully as she got to work on the fourth bolt, scraping away as much rust as she could before attempting to unscrew it. It gave her heart to see that the grill was already wobbling slightly.
"Mayaki-san! How are you!"
Sakura nearly jumped out of her skin. A loud voice had echoed through the corridor, emanating from one of the passages just out of sight. A second voice cheerfully answered, sounding far too close for comfort.
"Guards are changing," Kakashi whispered warningly. "Hurry up. They'll be coming this way in a second."
A second? Sakura drew in a shaky breath and twisted as hard and fast as she could. The bolt was coming loose, but her hand would keep slipping!
Kakashi's grip was getting incrementally tighter on her knees, transferring some of the nervousness that he was always good at keeping out of his voice and face. Sakura knew she had to remain calm in order to keep twisting at an efficient speed.
The bolt came loose sooner than she expected, so rusted that it broke in half and slipped through her fingers to clatter noisily on the floor.
Neither of them dared even breathe.
"What was that?"
"Did you hear that?"
The two guards suddenly fell quiet, and a moment later, footsteps could be heard. Kakashi tapped her thigh twice, warning her to go. Sakura didn't need to be told – she reached up and spun the square grill out of the way, its last bolt acting as its pivot. Kakashi boosted her up and she disappeared into the hole with the silence and stealth of a ferret – one that promptly brained itself on the low roof of the new passage.
Kakashi was close behind, jumping to catch the inside edge and drag himself up with slightly less finesse and ease than Sakura, thanks to his larger frame. The moment his feet were through, Sakura reached down and dragged the grill back into place, and both of them hung in silence, waiting for the inevitable shout that would let them know they'd been seen.
It was horribly dark in this new narrow tunnel that was barely big enough to fit a crawling man. The only light came from the grill, and Sakura looked up to see the slatted lines landing across Kakashi's face, showing her that he looked just as tense and grim as she felt.
Movement below caught her attention again and she looked down over the tops of two heads. They were looking around, peering around the corners and then shrugging at each other.
"So did you hear that the new Rounders Captain used to coach the Cloud team?"
"Do you think he'll be any good?"
"Nothing short of a miracle could make the Konoha team win a game, so probably not."
Kakashi tapped her hand and gestured for her to follow him. It seemed that the two men below were stopping for quite a lengthy chat, and neither Kakashi nor Sakura felt compelled to stay and listen now that it was clear they hadn't been detected.
They carefully and quietly crawled away down the dark tunnel until near pitch-blackness engulfed them. Only when the voices of the guards faded to an indistinct murmur behind them did they stop and take stock of the situation.
"How are your hands?" Kakashi asked.
"Fine," Sakura said impatiently. "But that was a close one."
"I agree, but we're on schedule so far." She could hardly see him, but she heard him sigh and flop onto his back. "Now comes the hard bit."
"Trying to remember the way around these damn vents in the dark."
Sakura looked around. Far off behind them was the little square of light shining on the low roof of the passage where they had come through, and ahead of them was nothing but darkness. "What are these tunnels?" she asked. "Purpose built escape routes?"
He chuckled. "The prison is so far underground that its effectively sealed off from the surface. Air has to get down here somehow. And occasionally they're used for delivering sleeping gas to the whole prison when there are particularly bad riots."
"Do these lead to the surface?" she asked hopefully.
"Not really. There are traps all over the vents to stop prisoners doing exactly what we're doing, and all the vents leading to the surface are far too narrow for even you to ferret your way up."
"Oh," Sakura murmured, disheartened. "So what's the plan of action?"
"We just need to relocate to another part of the prison, and we'll go from there. But remember, if we set off one of the traps, we will likely get blown to bits. And if we still somehow manage to survive that, we'll be swarmed with guards within seconds."
Sakura sighed. "I hope you know what you're doing."
He nodded in sympathy. "So do I."
It was slow progress through the dark. Kakashi wanted to cover as much ground as possible before someone discovered they were missing, but he could not afford to rush this. It had been a long time since he'd seen the schematics for these vents, and even longer since he'd helped track down one of the prisoners who had attempted to escape this way. Occasionally they passed over another grate and sometimes he could orientate himself if he recognized the corridor or the room below, but generally most of the corridors and the rooms looked the same, and these vents were laid out in systematical symmetry that made it difficult for him to remember which path contained a trap and which was safe.
He got lost several times, but he never bothered to inform Sakura. It would only worry her. The first time he knew it had happened was when he looked down through one of the periodic grills and realized he was looking into the employee lounge where several guards were lounging about drinking coffee and snoozing. Discreetly, he pretended he had meant to come this way, and quietly adjusted his route. They hadn't come across any explosion tags yet, so they were making remarkably good progress anyway.
Eventually he noticed that the vent they were crawling through was beginning to slant upwards until they were shuffling up a very steep incline indeed.
"It's not far now," he whispered to Sakura through the pitch darkness. "But this is the hard bit… I want you to go first."
"I'm not your canary," she retorted.
"The tunnel is going to get very steep," he warned. "The rock is extremely slippery and it won't surprise me if we fall. So if that happens, wouldn't you rather be the one on top?"
Sakura thought. "I suppose…"
"Sorry, you'll have to wriggle past…"
He pressed himself to the side of the tunnel, but that still didn't leave much room. If either of them had been any bigger, it would have been impossible. Sakura tentatively turned her body sideways like him and dragged herself an inch at a time past him, obviously trying to avoid as much bodily contact as possible. It didn't entirely work. Her soft breasts squashed against his belly, his chest, and – god help him – his face. The drag of her body against his was so deliciously that he may have accidentally on purpose leant into her a bit to make her progress even more difficult, and yes, he was going to hell, but he already knew that, so what did it hurt?
Even through the darkness he knew she was blushing, and as soon as Sakura could, she scrambled out from beside him and shot off up the tunnel like a fox. Kakashi had half a mind to grab her by the ankles, put the escape plan on hold, and enjoy a nice break from all the work. But the speed at which Sakura was moving away from him gave the impression that she wouldn't like that. She would kiss him perhaps, like she did between the bars, or like the did the night before in their cell, but that was about as far as she was willing to go.
He sighed and clambered after her, realizing he had to maintain a modicum of restraint around this girl. Which would be difficult, considering that they would be indefinitely stuck with each other should this caper turn out a success.
Sakura couldn't keep up the speed for long when the tunnel took a sudden vertical turn. The vents had not been cut with care, and there were a lot of jagged dips and protrusions that made for decent handholds, but the rock was as slippery and slimy as ever, and once or twice there was a gasp as one of their hands of feet lost its grip. They took it virtually an inch at a time, blindly running their hands over the rocky sides in search of any potential grip, with Sakura muttering warnings down to Kakashi to watch out for a particularly slimy bit.
At one point Sakura lost both handholds and began to fall – stopped only by her foot landing on Kakashi's head. It was touch and go whether or not Kakashi would lose his grip in the same jolt too, but somehow he managed to cling on, and the journey resumed – Sakura taking even more care over selecting her grips than before.
"How long do we have to keep climbing?" she whispered down to him.
"We're nearly there," he lied. "Keep going."
"This would be so much easier with chakra," she moaned.
Even Kakashi's arms were beginning to shake with fatigue before long and he had to stop a few times to try and gather his energy, or allow for Sakura to gather hers. There was a faint breeze running through this tunnel, and it chilled the both of them. As Sakura commented, it was bad enough climbing a slippery vertical shaft with no chakra without being blown numb by a cold gush of air too. Her hand was giving her trouble, Kakashi realized, though she was determined not to let him know, despite how obvious her little hisses of pain were.
It was a relief to hear Sakura's soft cry of relief when the tunnel leveled out again. She disappeared into a side tunnel off the vertical shaft and immediately collapsed onto her back, panting and laughing. Kakashi crawled up and flopped beside her, listening to the breathless noises she made in his ear.
"Let's not do that again," she gasped.
"If you say so."
Sakura laughed again and, probably without realizing, reached an arm around his neck to pull him into a kiss. She had to be high from the adrenalin to instigate so easily, but Kakashi didn't care. He was a little giddy himself from the nerve-wracking climb where even the slightest slip could lead to the biggest plummet in his life. Sakura's sweet lips played with his and all to easily he got carried away on a tide, forgetting where they were and who they were in order to enjoy kissing the soft, eager woman beneath him. He was unable to stop himself from touching her – her messy hair, he clothed shoulders, her bare arms with skin the texture of silk. He couldn't quite get at her breasts, pressed as they were against his chest in this tight space, so he settled for indulging in his favorite body-parts, smoothing his hands across her hips and thighs.
He wished he could see her. But perhaps it was the darkness that made this seem so unreal and dreamlike. Sakura's sighs seemed to echo all around him, and she was so responsive when he kissed her throat just there. Her knee lifted to wrap her leg around his and he gave into the temptation to sink his hand into her prison-issue pants and give her a bottom a good sound grope. She wasn't wearing any underwear like himself. There wasn't much stopping him from…
That was Sakura. She'd noticed the third presence in this tunnel, pressing insistently against her thigh. Kakashi forced himself to stop and pressed his forehead to the cold rock over Sakura's shoulder. "Sorry," he muttered.
"No, I was just surprised…" she whispered. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Sorry," he felt compelled to say again. He attempted to move off her, but Sakura's fingers twisted into his shirt, preventing him.
"I didn't say stop," she said.
"I don't mind… if you want to, you know…"
Alarm bells rung in the back of Kakashi's head all over again. "I don't think that's wise…" he whispered to her.
"Oh, please," she tugged at his shirt. "It won't take a minute and I think we really need to get this off our chests…"
Well that sorted it. "Definitely not," Kakashi said, promptly crawling off her and away down the tunnel to gain some respectable distance. "If we ever do that, we're going to do it long and slow on a nice soft bed, and then possibly fast and hard a few times against a wall, but definitely not short and disappointing in the middle of a prison break."
Sakura picked herself up behind him. "Ok," she said, contriving to sound a little disappointed. But now they both felt vaguely rejuvenated, as their imperative to get out of here had just increased tenfold. Already Kakashi was thinking of cozy cottages in the middle of the country and soft mattresses of goose feathers where he was obliged to make love to his pretend wife every night.
But why were alarm bells still ringing in his ears?
He stopped and listened. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Sakura stopped to listen too. Her hearing may not have been as sharp as his, but even she could detect the distant trill of a bell. "Is that-"
"I think we've been discovered," he said in a low voice. "They could be trailing us, and they'll be able to move much faster, so we need to move it. Follow me."
He set off down the tunnel as fast as a man on his knees could. Occasionally he thought he heard the echo of distant voices and thumps somewhere else in this network of ventilation tunnels, but he did his best to ignore them. They weren't far off from there goal now.
They passed a grille looking down on a storage room, and Kakashi knew they were on the right track. Just one more turn…
Another grille and another square of light shone up from the floor of the tunnel. Kakashi peered down and sighed with relief. "We're here," he told Sakura, "and thank god no one's around."
The bolts of the grille were inaccessible from this side, and Kakashi was forced to resort to drawing up his leg and slamming his foot down against the slatted grate. It shook and clattered. He waited and listened for any sign that the noise had alerted someone unseen below, and when there was nothing, he felt confident to try again.
It took fifteen blows for the grille to even budge. Sakura winced at the horribly loud screech of metal against rock as Kakashi grabbed the grille and wrested the bolts out of their sockets. Crumbs of stone could be heard cascading on numerous objects below, and a few moments after that, the grille came loose and landed with a series of clangs and clatters.
In the ringing silence that followed – punctuated only by the distant alarm – Sakura whispered, "A little louder and you might have woken the dead."
"Just one more hurdle now," Kakashi said, before dropping down out of sight into the room below. Sakura scooted forward to peer after him and was surprised at the number of pipes threaded across the room below, completely obscuring the floor entirely. She dropped down onto a wide green one beside Kakashi and looked around.
"A boiler room?" she asked.
"Sort of," he whispered back, and then he was off, slipping away along the pipe like a cat with one careful foot in front of the other and two hands slightly out for balance. Sakura quickly hurried after him, noting that these pipes seemed to be running over several rooms, with some pipes branching off to disappear into walls and ceilings while others appearing to crisscross over their path. It was getting warmer up here too, she noted.
"Don't step on that pipe," Kakashi warned her, as she was about to hop across to an adjacent gray pipe. "It's hot."
"But this one's making too much noise," she whispered, wincing is the pipe they were treading on began to groan and creak under their combined weight.
"The engineer's have gone home for the night," he said. "There's no one to hear, Sakura."
They passed over several rooms and work areas until finally Kakashi dropped into the last room where the last of the pipes conglomerated. The first thing Sakura should have noticed was the rather large brick oven taking up half of the room which several of the pipes fed into, but she was too busy staring at the abundance of long cardboard boxes.
"So we're going to mail ourselves out of here?" she guessed vaguely. "These boxes are roughly body-sized."
Kakashi just looked at her. "I wouldn't recommend crawling into one of those."
"Someone might mistake you for a cadaver and throw you in here," he said, as he pulled open the enormous metal door of the oven.
A mild wave of heat washed over Sakura even from where she stood, and she peered into the tomb-like chamber within the oven. "Ah," she said flatly. "So this is the crematorium?"
"It must have been used this morning," Kakashi said grimly, holding a hand to gauge the temperature inside. "I was afraid of this, but at least it's not as bad as it was during the war. The enemy nin were kept down here and they were dropping dead every day, killing themselves or being tortured to death. This thing used to be on all the time."
"Only with Hatake Kakashi could you a history tour along with your prison break," Sakura said drolly. "I assume there's a point to us admiring a furnace?"
"This is our way out."
Kakashi began untying the ripped sheets from around his waist in order to wind them around his hands. "In the back of the furnace there's a chimney flue that leads to the surface, and hopefully-"
"Kakashi, you're a genius!" Sakura cried and wrapped her arms tightly around him while he struggled to wrap one of the cloth strips over his nose and mouth. "You know that, don't you?"
"Yes," he said, sounding slightly pleased. "I figured it was probably used recently, so hopefully these sheets will make do as temporary oven-mitts. The floor in there is hot enough to blister your soles right off. Have you still got the foam squares?"
"Yes," she held them up.
"Good. Tie them to your feet, wrap up your hands and tie the last strip over your mouth. It's very dirty and smoky in there, so you'll need it to breathe."
Well, now it made sense. Sakura hastened to obey, but felt faintly exasperated that Kakashi only ever bothered to explain his schemes half the time. She looked up at him to tell him so but closed her mouth when she noticed half his face was covered, like hers, with the torn cloth. It had been a week since she'd last seen him wear a mask, and in that week she had probably gotten to know Kakashi better than she had after five years of tutelage. She was used to looking at his open face and reading the hidden expressions. Covered, she almost felt like the least seven days had evaporated and she was looking back at the man he'd been before; that taciturn, indifferent, infuriatingly cold man who kept a good many emotional miles from everyone around him.
For a moment Sakura was rendered unable to speak to him. She'd suddenly forgotten how. This was Kakashi-sensei. Not Kakashi.
"What's the matter?" he asked, noticing her dismayed gaze.
She shook her head. "Nothing. I just-"
Sakura broke off immediately, because they both heard it. A soft warbling creak of feet treading on a weakened pipe. Kakashi's hand landed on her shoulder and silently urged her towards the furnace. There was nothing for it. No time to hesitate. She crawled in, immediately scalded her knees, and shuffled forward on foamy pads that were already bleeding heat.
It was like walking into a sauna. The heat was incredible. It made her gasp and pant straight away and sweat sprang from every inch of her skin and prickled her scalp. And it got ten times worse when Kakashi closed the door quietly after them.
"The flue," he hissed. "Now."
Sakura wasn't even sure how she made it to the back of the tiny chamber without flopping over and letting herself start cooking. The chimney was there – funneled through a narrow gap in the bricks of the ceiling. Sakura was only just slim enough to fit through herself, and she scraped off most of her elbows in the process. Kakashi wouldn't fit, but he didn't seem all that opposed to tearing a few of the heat-weakened bricks out to widen the gap, and then they were both crawling up the ragged, dirty shaft to only god knew where. There was soot in Sakura's eyes. Corpse soot. She couldn't see. Her clothes became plastered to her body and her fingers slipped on the grimy bricks.
If she'd thought the vertical ventilation shaft was bad, this was at least a hundred times worse. Every second Sakura thought she was going to slip and fall and drag Kakashi down with her, and then they would fry on the hot floor of the furnace before either of them had the chance to gather their energy again.
But there was moonlight! And the faintest, tiniest, most blissful whiff of cool air on her face.
"Kakashi!" she exclaimed excitedly as she surged up the last few feet, literally tasting freedom on her tongue –
Her head crashed into an unseen barrier. Stars flickered before her eyes and she would have fallen if Kakashi hadn't pushed her back up with his hand on her ass. If she hadn't been seeing stars she would have kicked him in the nose for that.
"What's wrong?" he panted. He couldn't see around her.
Sakura rubbed her head slowly, trying to focus her gaze above her. There was the night sky, and all the real twinkling stars with the moon just peeking out from behind the black silhouette of a tree. But after a moment her gaze adjusted and refocused on the obstacle a few inches in front of her nose.
Bars. Six of them.
"It's blocked," she said weakly, reaching up to grasp the bars and give them a firm shake. There wasn't even the faintest of rattles.
"What do you mean its blocked?" Kakashi sounded surprised, and that was not good. This hadn't been a factor in his plan, and now they were stuck. Unable to go forward, unable to turn back. They couldn't tolerate the heat down there twice without fainting, and it wasn't exactly cool at the top of the chimney either. The hot air was being dragged up around them like a vacuum, and hardly any of the crystal cool air outside could reach them, despite being only inches away.
"What are we going to do?" Sakura asked, with increasing panic. "They've put bars across the opening."
"Are there any exploding tags?" Kakashi asked. "Traps?"
Sakura looked around, but it was hard to tell. It was so dark, and the heat was making her so dizzy and thirsty. "I don't think so."
"Damn… we might have been able to use one to blow open a hole, but…" She heard him shifting his grip on the bricks below her. "Sakura, you'll have to break them yourself."
"I can't," she said, nearly laughing.
"You'll have to."
"I can't!" she cried again, in case he hadn't understood the first time.
"And you will have to," he replied, equally hard. "Those cuffs are made to incapacitate even S-class types, but there have always been exceptions that not even these cuffs could hope to contain. Sakura, if anyone can break through chakra seals, it would be you. You have the best chakra control in the village, you know that. Do you remember the time I taught you to walk up a tree? You did it first time. I've never known of anyone who could do that."
"That doesn't matter!" Sakura protested. "Two of the vital chakra points in my wrists are sealed and you can't control chakra when its blocked, no matter how good you are!"
She almost heard Kakashi growl. "It's not like we have much to lose! Bypass the blocks. And for heaven's sake hurry, I think I'm on fire."
She hoped he was joking, but he was right anyway. It wasn't like they had much to lose by trying. Sakura clung to the bars above her with her left hand and clutched its cuff with her right. It was the right wrist that she needed to concentrate on. The seal was working there, and she could feel it stemming the flow of chakra around her body like a dam stopped a river in its tracks. It was an old jutsu, honed and perfectly unsurpassable.
But it was untrue that the chakra was frozen in place. A dam could stop a river, but waves would still lap at its side, and the water was never still behind it – slowed and stripped of its force and power, but it still swirled and eddied. Waiting. And if all the water in that reservoir surged forward at the same time with the same force, not even the dam could hold it back.
"I think I can do it," she said quietly, feeling inside her for those stagnant channels of chakra that were almost impossible to detect right now. She could push and pull at them… just a little… and slowly gain momentum.
It was difficult to concentrate, when hot air was threatening to fry your brain and you had so many cuts, bruises, and burns that your whole body just felt like one big ache. Sakura focused inwards, ignoring the fact that she could barely breathe or feel her fingers. Her arms tingled with shifting chakra. But it was gaining momentum. Each tiny shove was harder than the last and already she could feel the pain in her wrist at the sealed chakra points squeezed and buckled.
She alarmed Kakashi quite a lot when the chakra broke through and she gave a soft shout of pain and triumph. Her fingers tightened on the left cuff and the metal twisted and crunched beneath them, breaking apart.
"Are you alright?" Kakashi called up in concern.
"I did it!" she cried, panting with exertion and more exhausted than ever. The chakra block that she'd overcome only seconds ago was back up and stifling as ever, but her left hand was now free. She summoned her chakra and tore the second cuff away, and with hands that felt lighter than ever, she heaved and pushed at the bars until they snapped and bent.
They were free.
Fresh air had never smelt so sweet, and Sakura had never appreciated it before, but wasn't the view of a horizon unbroken by bars the most beautiful sight in the world? Once out on the grass she turned to help pull Kakashi up after her, before carefully breaking his cuffs too.
He looked amazed at his own bare wrists, although they looked as raw and scraped as hers. "I can't believe you actually did that," he said, bewildered.
"You said I could," she said, tugging down her sooty mask to grin at him. "You were right!"
He pulled down his own mask to smile back, and she nearly laughed at the black band of soot across his eyes on an otherwise clean face. "You look like a raccoon," he told her, reaching up to smudge his thumb across her cheek.
"I was about to say the same to you." She preferred him far more without anything covering his face. As odd and superficial as it sounded, he was her Kakashi when she could see him smiling at her like he was now. And for a moment too long she smiled stupidly back, and that was when they both realized that whatever else had happened to them this week, they'd both fallen quite hard.
She wished he would kiss her again, and for a second she thought he might until he forcibly lowered his hand from her face and took her wrist instead. "We need to move fast now," he said. "Most escapees get caught within the first twenty-four hours, so we have to be quick and smart."
"We should get some supplies first," Sakura said, looking up the slope, on the other side of which lay the Hokage monument and the entire village below it. "Food, water, clothes, hair tongs-"
"We can't risk it. They'll have staked out our homes if they know we're gone."
"Kakashi, look at us," she said pointedly. "Have you ever seen two such suspicious looking people? We look like… like…"
"Odd that, don't you think?"
"You'll have to trust me, Sakura," he said, moving his grip on her wrist to hold her hand. "The safest thing right now is to just run. Personal hygiene will have to wait."
Sakura didn't know what else to say. She didn't really feel that strongly about looking suspicious. She just felt that if they were going to run away from Konoha, they could at least take some things with them so it didn't feel like they were leaving it behind so completely. Just some clothes maybe. Or a picture?
"Can't we at least say goodbye to our friends?"
"You'll see them again. Probably sooner than you think," he cajoled. "But right now, we have to go."
And once they got going, Sakura had to admit that it felt good to run. After a week being caged up, frog marched, and being subjecting to cramped little vents, running felt liberating. And every stride was another stride away from that ghastly prison and the people who had put them there. Sakura laughed a little as she realized it was turning into a race. It cheered her up. How often did she get to mess around in the woods in the middle of the night with a her stuffy team leader? After a while she even stopped expecting to hear the sound of rushing hunter-nin closing in on them.
Where they were going was open to interpretation. Their first agenda was simply to put distance between themselves and Konoha. But what then?
It was safe to say that the idyllic little country farmhouse with the stinky chickens and noisy goats was pure fantasy. There were too many important things at stake right now to just bunk off to a quiet corner of the world, even if they could tolerate the kind of boredom and menial work that would entail. And most importantly they had nothing. No money, no clothes, and as far as they were concerned, no identity. They would be on Konoha's most wanted list by tomorrow. Bulletins would be sent out to all towns and villages, and some god-awful pictures of theirs would probably be pasted onto every lamp post in the Fire country.
Perhaps that was exaggeration, but pretty soon they'd have to stay away from people or get some bloody good disguises, because a pink-haired girl and a white-haired, scarred man were very identifiable people.
They ran until neither of them had the energy to run anymore, and then they both came to a panting halt beside an uprooted tree. Kakashi leaned against the bark with his hands on his knees while Sakura sat down in the grass and moss beneath, resting her forehead against her knees as she tried to catch her breath. A myriad of problems irritated her. She was desperately hungry, more than a little too cold, and the grimy soot all over her skin and hair was itching to buggery. But she didn't dare complain because Kakashi was undoubtedly feeling exactly the same and bearing with it patiently.
"We can't keep this up," Sakura wheezed. "We don't even have anywhere to go."
An own hooted somewhere overhead and Kakashi cast an eye around the dark forest and the woodland path that glimmered in the moonlight below them. "The safest thing right now," he said, "is to probably head to Suna and apply for asylum. While they decide whether or not to send us back, we'll at least have time to get ourselves sorted out of the reach of hunter-nin. We can go from there."
"Oh god." Sakura thumped her head against her knees. "Suna's a long way away."
"Better than sitting around in the fire country just waiting to be caught. Konoha hunter nin are infamously persistent and ruthless. I know, because I helped train half of them."
"And what happens then?" she asked. "After Suna?"
"Providing there are no cosy little farms for sale at a reasonable price…?" Kakashi sighed. "We'll deal with that when we get to it. You can't plan too far ahead in situations like this. Our goal for now is to get to Suna. Everything else will have to wait."
"I've never been a fugitive before," Sakura whispered. "TV makes it look a bit more glamorous. They never mentioned having to run around in cold, damp woods with no underwear on and dead people in you hair."
"I'm sure there's a river around here somewhere that you could wash in…" Kakashi began.
Freezing cold water in the middle of the night with no towels or change of clothes? "No thanks," Sakura uttered contritely. "I thought breaking out of prison meant your situation impoved."
"Thinking of breaking back into prison?"
"Right now? Yes."
"You'll just have to be patient. When we next come across a town, we can get washed and find new clothes. How are your pick-pocketing skills?"
"Well, you're a criminal on the run now, so you're obliged to develop some."
Sakura stared glumly into the darkness. "What were we thinking? This'll never work…"
After a long moment with nothing but the rattle of leaves to fill the silence, Kakashi sighed and eased himself down beside her. His arm came around her, forcing her to lean into him, and Sakura couldn't deny she was thankful for the warmth, as well as just the contact with another human to let her know she wasn't as alone as she felt. "I'll look after you," he said, probably thinking that was a heroic, cool thing to say.
"Shut up," she said, embarrassed. "You know perfectly well I'll be the one looking after you." And to prove it she reached out a hand to his skinned elbow and began healing him.
"Don't waste your energy on me, Sakura," he chided, drawing her hand away.
"What should I waste it on then?" she asked.
"Well, if you're that concerned about neglecting me, you could just kiss me."
"I could," she hedged, startled. "But I don't think I smell very nice right now…"
"Neither do I."
"I might get confused and try to eat you. I'm that hungry."
"I'm open to all kinks and depravities."
"But the hunter-nin…"
"Won't find us any faster than they would anyway."
Sakura felt that was a bit dismissive of a real danger, but nevertheless she tipped her chin up and leaned towards him to press her mouth to his. She thought it would be quick and chaste, more of an amusement than something to really satisfy any of the compulsive attraction she felt tugging between them. Before she could retreat, however, Kakashi caught her cheek and commandeered the kiss, taking it from soft and chaste to deep and intimate in a single heartbeat.
His tongue tapped at hers invitingly, and rather quickly Sakura found herself swept up in a rush of sudden awareness and arousal that had her trying to press into him more fully. Kakashi didn't seem to mind. His hand had left her cheek to trace her curves, stopping the squeeze her ass and encourage even more proximity. It didn't feel quite so cold anymore, and Konoha already seemed so very far away. Sakura allowed herself a small moan as a delicious shiver ran the length of her body, intensified everywhere her body made contact with his.
He finally broke his mouth from hers to press kisses to her throat, and that's when Sakura had to give up any pretence that it was 'just a kiss'. If they weren't careful, they would forget their vow to only disgrace themselves on a nice comfy bed. The forest floor wasn't that much better than a grimy shaft in a prison.
But wait – what was that?
Sakura planted her hand in Kakashi's face and pushed him away. "Did you hear that?"
He paused, but then shugged. "Just a fox," he said. "They mate this time of year."
Sakura knew what a fox's cry sounded like – somewhere between the screech of a murder victim and a dying violin – and this was not that. It had sounded like twigs snapping on the path below.
"Kakashi, there's someone on the path," she whispered.
They both still, fearing it was the hunter-nins closing in on them. Tense moments stretched by where they both strained to see through the darkness for any hint of movement as the crunch of twigs and leaves grew louder and more frequent.
Then suddenly a small shadow emerged from the trees just a few hundred yards away. Sakura squinted. Was it a man or a woman? Their gait seemed a little strange, a little too jerky, or short, or rapid… but at least they appeared to be alone.
"Just a traveler," Kakashi whispered in her ear.
Sakura agreed, but something still concerned her. It wasn't until the figure moved through a patch of moonlight that she discovered what that was.
"It's a child!" she hissed. "In the middle of the night?"
Kakashi seemed speechless when she looked at him, so decisively Sakura stood up and started down the slope towards the path. She ignored Kakashi's futile warnings to stay put.
The child heard her approach before they saw her. "Who's there?!" they demanded sharply, whirling towards the embankment.
"Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you," Sakura said quickly. She stepped out onto the path, now close enough to see that the child was actually a young girl with the longest, fairest hair she'd ever seen. She could only have been about six or seven. "But why are you out this late? Are you lost?"
The girl sighed and stomped her foot. She seemed very bratty. "No. I am not lost. I am going home. I don't need your help to get there, I don't need you to find my 'mommy', and I don't care for any sweets you may wish to offer me in order to entice me into your home."
Sakura was stumped. "Well, I…"
Kakashi stepped out onto the path behind her. "You're going to Konoha?" he asked the girl.
His appearance and the sound of his voice made the girl balk. "You?!" she said, gaping at him. Then she turned her gape on Sakura. "Wait – is that you, Sakura?"
"Excuse… me…?" Sakura murmured weakly.
"I didn't recognize you under all that black dirt." The girl planted her hands on her hips and looked between them. "What's going on here exactly? Oh, god… don't tell me. You're not eloping together, are you? Hell, that's the last thing I need. I leave you for a week and everyone falls to pieces. And where might I expect to find the other two brats? Naruto and Sasuke holidaying at the beach, perhaps?"
There was no mistaking it, but it was hard to believe. "Tsunade-shishou," Sakura gasped. "Shishou, what happened to you?"
"What do you think happened?" The girl snapped. "My jewel got damaged and now my age is stuck. There I was, just trying to quietly avoid some loan-sharks by pretending to be a little girl, and the next thing I know – crack. Do you know how hard traveling is when you're six? These tiny legs just keep getting tired and it takes three times as long to get anywhere, and it doesn't help when people keep trying to abduct you thinking you're lost and need help. I've never been so humiliated."
It was her! She may have been about three feet tall, but she was all there. Sakura's eyes swam with tears and she was unable to stop herself from giving a whimper of relief and surging forward to wrap her arms around her master's tiny figure. "Shishou! Never do that again! I was so scared! I thought something terrible had happened to you and that I would never see you again!"
Tsunade was apoplectic. "Enough! Put me down, I'm not really a child! Kakashi – do something!"
But a second later and Kakashi too had joined the group hug, wrapping his arms around both a weeping Sakura and infuriated Hokage. Tsunade had to give up and just let herself be hugged. Obviously something very traumatic had happened in her absence.
Once Sakura had calmed down enough to set her teacher down, Tsunade brushed her oversized clothes down primly and gave them both a severe fish eye. "Now can one of you please tell me what the hell is going on? I've never seen you two in such a state. Are those.. are those prison clothes?"
"Hokage-sama, we have a lot to tell you…" Kakashi began.
However, he was forced to stop, because at that moment the forest around them suddenly came alive with sound. Where before has been just empty, foresty space, there were now no less than fifty masked ANBU hunter-nin, all braced to use lethal force if someone so much as breathed wrong.
"Hatake Kakashi and Haruno Sakura!" a muffled voice from one of the masks called. "You are surrounded. Give yourselves up and you will be returned to prison where you may be evaluated for execution, or else resist now and save us the paperwork."
Sakura looked desperately at Tsunade, knowing they were utterly screwed without her. Her shishou just shook her head. "Seven days... I leave you for seven days..."