The Silent Blade: Renegade
Author: Carcinya (Isolde1 on fanfiction(dot)net)
Author E-mail: carcinya(at)aol(dot)com
Keywords: Naruto Hunter-nin Iruka Kakashi
Spoilers: Possible up to episode 145
Summary: As his lover find himself caught in a deadly whirlwind of political intrigue that leads Konoha to the brink of war, former Hunter Iruka must risk everything to protect what he holds dear. Just how far would you go to defend what is yours? (KakaIru, Book 2)
Disclaimer: This story is based on situations and characters created and owned by Masashi Kishimoto, various publishers including but not limited to TV Tokyo. No money is being made and no copyright infringement intended.
Now, now, people. If Naruto were mine, do you really think I'd be sitting at my computer, sipping bad coffee, and writing bad fanfiction? Honestly.
Author's notes: I apologize in advance for any spelling or grammar mistake there might be in this story. I am French, and still only learning the beautiful language that is English. Any comments are welcome, but obviously flames will be used to roast marshmallows. Or flamers. Yummy.
Japan ate my life. Sorry about the delay. I'm really gonna finish this, whether anybody is still reading or not, but it'll be on my own terms. :)
Chapter 5: Shackled
One day you will ask me, "Which is more important: my life or yours?"
I will say mine and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life.
-- Khalil Gibran
The warriors left the Cave some time before sunrise. Iruka shivered in the cool morning air and wrapped his cloak tighter around his slender frame, holding it closed with one hand and minding the reins with the other. He tried to look ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of Suna, but without chakra his night vision was not up to spar.
Iruka had folded his chakra upon itself so tightly it had become unnoticeable. Without the familiar energy coursing through his veins and ready to jump at his command, he felt cold and empty. It had taken him an hour's intense meditation to achieve that result -- and he wasn't totally certain he could undo it. But then, Iruka thought, dismissing the fear before it could take form, Kakashi was worth every risk.
Perhaps sensing his nervousness, his mount -- a brown mare with short muscled legs and a placid temper -- skittered to the side and reared slightly to express her displeasure. Absently, Iruka stretched out a hand to stroke her neck, and tried to quiet his restless mind. There was no sense wounding himself up for nothing.
They made their way across the rocky plateau. After a while, Full of Sun reined in his black stallion to walk beside Iruka's horse. The warrior tried, and failed, to keep his solemn composure. He offered Iruka a friendly grin, and said, in mediocre, heavily accented Japanese,
"You good, yes?"
"Ant'o ilya," Iruka replied in equally halting desert speech. "No worry."
They traded amused glances at their respective shabby linguistics skills, and Iruka sighed inwardly in relief. At first, he had been worried that Full of Sun might resent him for invoking the blood-debt -- after all, it concerned him quite personally. In truth, that decision had been quite a gamble, and one that might very well had cost him his life. That a shar'ta, a half-blood error of nature, would appeal to the Tribe's ancient, unwritten laws was infamy, a mockery of everything they stood for -- the traditions unchanged since the dawn of time, the honor of the clans and the purity of the bloodlines -- everything Iruka threatened and sullied by his very existence.
On the other hand, denying Iruka his blood-right -- shar'ta though he was -- would be a smirch on the desert clan, an insult to the sand gods who had protected his life and guided him to the Cave. To make matters even more complicated, Iruka's mother and White Stone had been kin-in-kind, hearth-sisters, a very potent bond that made them relatives of sorts and thus automatically made the ex-Hunter a honorary member of the clan. Someone who should be treated with the familiarity and warmth of kin, and more importantly, someone who should be assisted and helped in all situations, even more so when a blood-debt was involved.
And so here Iruka was, riding towards Suna in the coldest hour of the night, Full of Sun at his side. Though like most of his ilk he rarely displayed any emotion, he looked content and perhaps even happy to be a part, small if crucial, of Iruka's rescue plan. As a matter of fact, it seemed that Iruka had severely underestimated the deep, sincere affection his fateful rescue had sparked in the Tribe warrior almost two decades ago. Iruka had saved his life, shar'ta or not -- and that, as far as Full of Sun was concerned, apparently sealed the deal.
Full of Sun tapped him lightly on the shoulder, startling the ex-Hunter out of his reverie.
We'll reach the city within the hour, the warrior motioned one-handed, expression suddenly sober. Then, before Iruka could muster a reply, he kicked his horse into a gallop and resumed his place at the front.
Full of Sun hadn't lied -- the distinctive silhouette of Hidden Sand came into view some time later. As the group rode up the winding path, Iruka had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from fidgeting nervously on his horse. He forced himself into a more relaxed state, breathing steadily through his nose.
As they reached the heavily-guarded city gates, the ex-Hunter made a last-minute decision, acting on pure instinct. He pulled down the scarf part of his tagelmust and bared his face, keeping his chin up. He had to trust in his disguise. A true Tribe warrior would never bow to anyone, much less a shinobi. Showing unexpected humility would paradoxically draw dangerous attention to their small group.
Two guards stood watch by the city gates, clad in Suna's distinctive dark olive combat gear, one quite obviously a new recruit, the other in his mid-forties, with the dark, leathery skin of long time desert dwellers.
"Halt!" the younger one yelled, contempt twisting his features. "Identify yourself, strangers."
Full of Sun raised his chin and sat up straighter on his richly-decorated saddle.
"I am Full of Sun, son of Chief Blackbird, of the desert clan."
The guard cut him off, looking distinctly bored.
"I only needed your name, not your family tree, for Kazekage's sake," he snapped, with an impatient wave. "Let me see your safe-conduit."
Full of Sun handed him the papers, his face betraying neither his thoughts nor his annoyance.
"Well, well," the second watchman drawled, prickled by the Tribe warrior's impassive silence, "We haven't see you darkies around in a while. An unexpected pleasure." He glanced past Full of Sun and nodded in Iruka's general direction. "What about this one? He's not on the list." His brow furrowed in remembrance. "And I'm pretty certain I've never seen him around."
"He family, from the North," Full of Sun said, with perfect truth. Of course, the guard wasn't familiar with the Tribe concept of "kin" -- a term that encompassed more than blood relations. "Travels with me, as... honored guest. My right, yes?"
The first guard frowned.
"Normally, I wouldn't say anything..." he said, looking unsure. "But these days it's pretty tense around here, know what I mean?"
"Cut it out, we don't want to start another tribal war," the older guard snapped, directing a dark look at his colleague. "We don't need that on our hands. Let them through."
With a reluctant frown, the younger man stepped aside and waved them on.
"Go on, then, darkies! It's your lucky day, eh?"
You have no idea, Iruka thought wryly as they rode through the gate. Apparently quite familiar with the layout of the Hidden Village, Full of Sun led them to the western part of the city. Suna's red-light district not long after dawn was quiet and deserted -- a far cry from its nightly hustle and bustle. There Iruka dismounted, wincing and grimacing -- horses would be the death of him, he thought forlornly. Rubbing the small of his back with one hand, he drew the reins over the mare's neck with the other, and handed them to one of the warriors.
Full of Sun gazed at him pensively for a moment, then inclined his head.
We are leaving now, he signalled simply. The Tribe had no words for goodbyes.
Then, with a barked order in desert speech, he and his men turned their mounts around and rode away without looking back.
"Good luck to you too," Iruka muttered ruefully. He squared his shoulder, took a deep breath and set to work. There was no time to lose.
Later that day
When Old Yoshi had sought his fortune in Suna and set up a tavern in the seediest district he could find, he had remembered his father's parting words: Do not meddle in the affairs of shinobi, the old man had said, shaken his head, and spat in disgust.
Living in a Hidden village, that particular piece of advice had been difficult to heed -- but he had always managed to keep more or less out of intrigue's way. So when a young woman in scant clothing entered his inn on a fine, cool night of spring, Old Yoshi's first thought was scorn-laced pity.
The wench -- a girl, really -- looked to be about twenty, five-and-twenty at most -- not older than Yoshi's eldest, Ichiume. She was almost tall, for a woman at least, but slender and graceful. Probably a half-blood, cast out by her clan, the old man thought, taking in the girl's dark chocolate skin and large, expressive eyes. Her thick black hair was done in typical Tribe fashion, too -- though Yoshi had no special liking for the savages, he had seen enough of their ilk to know that.
When she walked up to the counter and started batting her long eyelashes at a middle-aged shinobi, Old Yoshi simply looked away. The man was high on the ninja social ladder, or so he had gathered. It made sense the girl would take advantage of that waist to put a few yens in her purse.
When the shinobi rented a room for the night and left with the half-blood girl giggling and clinging to his arm, still Old Yoshi didn't comment.
And of course, when the couple didn't come down for the rest of the night, it never occurred to Yoshi to investigate. The room had been paid in full, after all. He made a point of never prying into his customers' business -- no sir, no snooping from Old Yoshi.
But the innkeeper never saw the young half-blood girl turn back into an older, far more masculine silhouette. And when, an hour or so later, a dark-skinned, black-haired young man in shinobi uniform walked down the stairs and slapped a few thousands on the counter for a room Yoshi didn't remember having rented him, the innkeeper really -- really -- thought nothing of it, and kept the extra money for the cleaning lady.
That day, and every day of his long, long life, Old Yoshi simply remembered his father's advice.
Never, ever meddle in the affairs of shinobi.
Later that night
The cell's door slammed shut with a resounding clang. Limbs akimbo, Iruka lay where the guards had thrown him and stared at the ceiling, blinking blood out of his eyes. For a long minute, only the sound of his rapid, pained breathing broke the silence. Then he pushed himself into a sitting position, groaning as the motion jostled his numerous bruises.
The guards hadn't been tender -- clearly they had little patience for a drunk, vindictive, pathetic Tribesman, Iruka thought with a wince. Despite his discomfort, he couldn't stop the tight, rueful smile that blossom on his contused face. Phase two of his plan was well under way. Now all he needed to do was gain access to the high-security area, and then put to good use the knowledge he had stolen a few hours before at Yoshiya Inn.
Byakko or even Kurenai could have gone through the Sand Jounin's head without causing any damage, or leaving any trace, but despite his many talents the ex-Hunter had never acquired any finesse at Genjutsu. It hadn't been pleasant, but it had been necessary, and so he had done it. Maps, blueprints, patrol schedules -- Iruka had ripped everything from the man's mind, taken and taken until nothing had been left but an empty shell. He had disposed of in true Hunter fashion, dissolved in acid -- fascinating, what one could do with basic knowledge of chemistry and access to everyday, banal cleaning products.
Rarely had Iruka hated himself more than at that moment. He had killed an innocent man to save a murderer. There was no way around it, and the young man didn't try to reason with himself. Forsaking the village, becoming a missing-nin, even facing his past -- all this paled in comparison to the betrayal of a lifetime of principles. Certainly he had killed innocents before, but always when ordered and under duress.
It was then, standing pale and silent in a ray of moonlight by the remnants of his victim, that a sudden, inescapable realization had hit him like a slap in the face.
This was no mission. Iruka was here by choice. He had made that choice from the moment Sasuke had shown up on his doorstep, and every second ever since. He didn't want to die, nor did he want to see Konoha torn apart in a war they couldn't possibly win. But none of that would stop him.
There was nothing he wouldn't do to save Kakashi.
The sudden epiphany should have shaken him to core, and yet Iruka found his heart hardening along with his resolve. Gritting his teeth, he dragged himself up just enough to lean against the hard, mossy wall -- funny, he thought idly, how prisons always turned out dank and humid no matter how hot and dry the country's climate.
His eyes closed almost of their own volition, and he let himself go lax, forcing himself into a deep restoring sleep. The only thing he could picture in his mind's eye as he slowly went under, however, was the heartbreaking mix of resignation and sadness in Kakashi's mismatched eyes when he had seen him last.
I did this, he thought desperately, anguish rising in his chest like a tide. I pushed and pushed and he broke, and oh, god, Kakashi, I'm so sorry...
Then exhaustion caught up with him and sleep mercifully washed over everything.
The next morning
Iruka woke up to the dulcet tone of the guard's baton slamming against the bars of his cell. Stifling a groan as his abused muscles protested painfully, he stretched discreetly.
"Rise and shine," the Sand Chuunin drawled, his contempt evident beneath a thin veneer of indifference. "Breakfast."
He threw a small loaf of hard bread inside the cell, aiming for Iruka's head and hitting spot-on. The ex-Hunter's head snapped up, fury blazing in his gaze. Slowly, purposely, he picked up the offending item and felt its weight in his palm. Then, with unerring accuracy, flung it back at the Jounin, hard enough to split the man's lip.
"Feisty," the guard said, mildly, wiping the blood with the back of his hand. "Not for long, pet."
The guard opened the cell, twirling his baton with ominous skill. Iruka moved to a crouch and tensed, silencing his thoughts, guarding his face, and waited for the first blow to come. It was not long coming -- apparently, the ex-Hunter's defiance had struck a nerve.
Iruka rolled to the side and grabbed the man's wrist in a fluid movement, twisting the delicate bones until they snapped. The guard howled in agony, even more loudly than Iruka had hoped he would. Then Iruka pretended to lose his balance and allowed the now furious Chuunin to knee him in the stomach -- apparently a perennial favorite among Sand shinobi.
As he fell to the ground clutching his midsection and gasping for breath, Iruka allowed himself a small smile. The hard stone felt blissfully cool against the bruised skin of his face, a small comfort they would soon take away. And they did, five Jounin barging in the cell and taking it upon themselves to teach him a lesson he wouldn't forget. Iruka retreated deep into himself, acknowledging the pain and anger and dismissing them as irrelevant to the mission.
Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the Jounin stilled their blows, and the white-hot pain faded back to a dull, vague throb. Manageable, for a Hunter or an ANBU, but clearly not for a mere Tribe warrior, so Iruka let himself be manhandled out of the cell without any more resistance, apparently too weak to fight back.
They dragged him by his ankles to another cell, this time in the high-security section, where he would be guarded by higher level shinobi. There the five shinobi who had defended their colleague's honor so dutifully handed him to a... Special Jounin, Iruka decided, squinting through half-lidded eyes at the man's uniform.
Pity, the ex-Hunter thought wryly. He would thoroughly have enjoyed giving his Jounin tormentors a taste of their own medicine, but in all likelihood he would never get the chance. The new guard would do the trick, at any rate, though Iruka would not try to hurt him so much as disable him. For a while.
And indeed, when the special Jounin reached down to grab the -- apparently -- unconscious Tribesman's wrists, he found himself flat on his back in a split second, the chain wrapped around his neck tight enough to hurt but not to choke, his hands in a vice-like grip above his head. He had never even felt Iruka move -- the advantage of being a Hunter-trained shinobi with chakra levels of a civilian, nearly invisible to ninja eyes.
The man -- messy dark blond hair, scar bisecting his left eyebrow -- opened his mouth to alert his colleagues but Iruka twisted the chain and only a strangled squeak came out.
"Not a sound," Iruka growled, eyes growing flinty. "Or I'll break your jaw. Understood?"
The guard nodded, his face carefully blank. Well-trained, that one, Iruka thought. Not to be underestimated. He brought the chain back to his former position, but stayed alert, ready to strangle the man at a moment's notice.
"I'm shinobi, as you've probably guessed by now," the ex-Hunter said, calmly. "I know you won't believe me, but I'm actually trying to stop a war. Tell Gaara-sama..." He paused, still not used to the honorific. "Tell the Kazekage Konoha tried to stop me. They had nothing to do with any of this, they're clean." He took a deep breath, and stared into the guard's startlingly green eyes, willing him to understand. "They might be your only allies in what's coming."
Iruka gave a tight smile.
"Also? I'm really sorry about that," he said, shaking his head slightly. The man's eyes widened in alarm, then rolled back in their orbits when Iruka slammed the side of his hand into his temple.
Wasting no time, Iruka quickly stripped the guard down to his underwear, then proceeded to do the same. He shivered in the cool damp air, goose bumps rising on his naked flesh, as he hastily donned the Suna Jounin uniform. The man's dog-tags read, 'Arano Kazuo, Special Jounin', as well as his shinobi license number.
Then he dressed the unconscious ninja in his own dirty, grimy Tribe clothes. He couldn't bring himself to leave the ornate arm-guards Wise One had given him, so he kept them on and pulled down the long sleeves of his tan shirt over them. For paranoia's sake, he checked the senbon needles hidden between the leather and his skin once again, unaccountably relieved to find them here.
The ex-Hunter shackled the the unconscious guard and nudged him into a corner -- far enough that his features would be hard to make out in the low light, but not out of view, either.
He grabbed the few items he had hidden in the leather of his moccasins and stashed them in one of his numerous pockets. One he kept in his open palm -- a small, inch-long scroll in a transparent plastic wrapper, which Iruka quickly removed, crumpled in a ball and swallowed.
ANBU emergency scrolls could be used by anyone with a drop of chakra in them -- civilians, or wounded, energy-depleted shinobi -- and as such were illegal just about everywhere in the world... as well an integral part of any ANBU fighter's gear. Only the simplest jutsu could be imbued into the special, chakra-absorbent paper, but their limited power made them virtually undetectable.
He unrolled it and placed his thumb on the central seal. The protection spell immediately identified Iruka's chakra signature, even dimmed to civilian levels. The jutsu activated soundlessly. As Iruka felt the Henge take hold, he focused on the appearance he wanted to mimic -- paying close attention to details and taking care to conceal his more visible injuries.
A few minutes later, a near-perfect copy of the Sand guard walked out of the cell and locked it with the man's security seal. Iruka hadn't been nearly important or dangerous enough to lock up in one of the rare, chakra-consuming top-security cells -- as Kakashi undoubtedly would be -- and so instead of being keyed to the guard's essence, simply tapped into the level's general security network.
By disguising himself as the man he wanted to be mistaken for, Iruka had significantly lowered the amount of energy the Henge would need to function, and thus lengthened its duration. As an added bonus, it would imitate the faint chakra buzz every ninja gave out -- without reaching the telltale level of a jutsu laid onto a normal chakra reserve. If no one bothered to look hard enough, Iruka could hope to remain undetected for a least an hour or two.
Finding Kakashi's cell proved surprisingly easy, as it was the only one guarded by the Suna ANBU corps. The ex-Hunter strode to him, glancing behind his shoulder every so often.
"ANBU-san," he began, trying his best to sound a bit breathless. "Is everything all right on your side?"
The masked man stiffened visibly. His reaction pleased Iruka -- the other was young, clearly, and not used to mastering his emotions.
"Yes," he replied curtly, "Why?"
"Bless the Kazekage," Iruka blurted in a rush. He made a show of sighing in relief. The man was growing more agitated by the second.
"What? What's going on?"
Iruka shot him a glance of disbelief.
"You mean you haven't heard?" he said, his tone clearly questioning the ANBU's competence. "There's been an attempted break in. A single man, in all likelihood from Leaf. He was caught not ten minutes ago. We feared there might be more of them, but apparently not."
Iruka shook his head scornfully and flashed him a quick, amused smile. "That Konoha moron is in for a rough night, let me tell you. Anyway -- Kazekage-sama ordered Hatake's transfer to Interrogation Room 3 --" he fervently hoped there were IRs in Suna --" on the double."
The ANBU seemed to hesitate.
"I need a written order."
Iruka straightened and shot him his best scathing look.
"Are you deaf? Or simply stupid?" the ex-Hunter snarled. "Kazekage-sama decreed Code Red. This is martial law, man. Now open that cell, and get that filthy murderer out. Or do you need me to spell it out and hold your hand?"
Against all odds, the guard nodded dumbly, abashed, and turned away, missing Iruka's smug grin.
If you can scold thirty seven-year-olds into behaving, grown-up ANBU are a piece of cake.
The man placed his right palm on the door seal and the complex, multi-layered security jutsu released its hold on Kakashi's cell. When he turned back to Iruka, he never saw the lightening-quick senbon needle that the ex-Hunter jabbed into the tender skin of neck, and collapsed, unconscious.
"And here I thought my apprentices were gullible," Iruka said, raising an eyebrow and poking the ANBU's prone form with the tip of his sandal. "Honestly."
He flinched slightly, the more superstitious part of his mind hoping he had not jinxed himself and his reckless rescue plans too badly. Shrugging, he stepped into the cell.
Kakashi was, in all honesty, an appalling mess. His handsome face was ghastly pale, and mottled with nasty-looking bruises; his hair a tangled mess of snarls, matted with dried blood, sweat and dirt. The mask was still in place, and a stained rag had been tied over his sharingan -- apparently, they wanted him dead on their own terms -- but his other eye was staring unblinkingly into the dark. He showed no reaction when Iruka raised his chin in a precise, cautious motion, didn't even flinch when the ex-Hunter took his pulse -- thready and racing, fast, too fast -- and examined his exposed pupil -- so dilated it made the grey-blue iris look nearly black. He was barely conscious, and judging by the sweat running down his temples, running a high fever.
Fear and anger gripped Iruka's heart, and he had to restrain himself from simply jumping back to his feet, and taking apart this godforsaken prison -- until they took him down, or he ran out of enemies, whichever came first. He wrestled himself back under control, biting his lip until he drew blood. He had come too far to fall apart now. There was no time to waste, no time for personal vendettas.
That would come later.
Iruka searched his pockets, rifling through the contents and identifying items by touch until his fingers closed around a small, oblong shape. The metal felt cool and strangely heavy in his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut, thoughts racing.
Kakashi was in no shape to run, or even, realistically, to stand on his own. The memory of their last desperate escape from a building about to collapse was still particularly vivid in Iruka's mind -- he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice, especially not injured as they both were. So he needed the Jounin conscious and more or less alert, at least for a few minutes.
Administering a chakra-enhanced adrenaline boost was Iruka's only option. It would buy them some time to move on the second part of his escape plan. Alternately, it might also send Kakashi into cardiac arrest.
Before stark fear could make him hesitate, the ex-Hunter pressed the epipen against the pale skin of Kakashi's neck. The effect was almost instantaneous; between one breath and the next, the Jounin's eye widened, his pupil coming into sharp focus.
"Iruka," he murmured, a throaty whisper.
"Yes, yes," Iruka said impatiently, carefully tucking away the sudden relief that threatened to overwhelm him. Whatever had been done to his ex-lover had not managed to destroy him completely.
"Iruka," the other man repeated, fervently, his eye searching Iruka's weary, bruised face with unsettling hunger. He reached out with a shaky hand, tracing the familiar scar across Iruka's nose. Something in the ex-Hunter loosened, some knot of invisible, agonizing tension unravelling with a touch. He leaned unconsciously into Kakashi's fingers, every fiber of his body crying out for more contact, aching to pull the other man into his arms and hold on tight.
The young man flinched suddenly, remembering with a pained jolt that such familiarity would not be welcomed. Kakashi was delirious, his judgment impaired by fever and drugs, and probably desperate for some reassurance, something, anything to anchor him to reality. Iruka simply happened to be there, that was all. Reading more into it would be thoroughly unprofessional.
Not to mention pathetic.
"Come on," he said, sliding Kakashi's arm over his shoulders and helping him up. The Jounin seemed shaky on his feet, but he could walk -- as long as Iruka supported most of his weight. They stepped out of the cell, and Iruka propped his charge against the wall for a few minutes, in order to drag the guard's unconscious body into the cell and slam the lock back into place.
Kakashi breathing hard and leaning heavily against Iruka, the two Konoha ninja made their ways along the darkened corridor. The ex-Hunter navigated the maze easily, his mental map of the prison and patrol schedule within easy reach of his trained mind. Still his heart raced with sickening fear. If they stumbled upon a guard, they might very well done for. Iruka could hardly hold Kakashi, monitor his condition and fight for their lives at the same time without chakra or decent weapons.
At last they reached the center of the building. The prison was built beneath the city, inside the mountain itself. It had been thought out as a additional layer of protection from attacks and invasions from the sewer system that ran underneath it. Trying to use those tunnels to escape was tantamount to suicide, for the conduits flowed directly into deadly rapids that stretched for miles on end, filled with sharp piercing rocks and without any air.
Which was, of course, the reason Iruka had chosen it as his escape route.
Nobody in their right mind would attempt it, and the Suna shinobi knew it. Considering the number of reckless stunts Iruka had been pulling off in the past few days, the ex-Hunter himself was starting to question his mental health -- or at least his survival instinct. But more practically, it also meant security protocols would be less drastic and, realistically, that was all Iruka could ask for.
He stopped in his tracks in front of an iron sewer grate.
As carefully as time and precaution could allow, Iruka lowered Kakashi to the floor, propping him against the cold, damp stone wall. The brief effort seemed to have taken on an alarming toll on the Jounin -- beads of sweat rolled down the exposed portion of his face, his lips parted to catch a breath that clearly eluded him.
The ex-Hunter crouched in front of him, wincing slightly as his oft-broken right knee gave a jolt of pain. Worry etched onto his features, he dabbed at Kakashi's drawn, ashen face with his sleeve.
"Hang on," he murmured, wiping away the perspiration with a tenderness he hadn't thought himself capable of. "We're almost out."
"M'dreaming again," the other Jounin mumbled, gaze unfocused. "He's not..."
Iruka's hand stilled, his thoughts racing. From what little he remembered of his apprentice days, and the crash-course in psychiatry Karasu-sensei had made him take, Kakashi being aware he had been hallucinating was a good sign. Not an indication of psychosis, at any rate.
"No," he replied, willing the older man to believe him as he had rarely allowed himself to want anything. "I'm real."
A glint of something purely Kakashi -- intelligence, cunning, irony -- crossed the Jounin's blue eye, and was gone in a flash.
"S'what the others said too," he muttered ruefully. "Look where that got me." He closed his eye. "Iruka wouldn't... be here." He trailed off, apparently drained by the simple act of thinking.
Strangely stung, Iruka flinched. He deserved it, he knew that much -- but still, Kakashi's conviction that he wouldn't have come after him, when Iruka's every thoughts had been for him, for his safety, hurt more than he care to admit.
His jaw set, he turned his attention back to the grate. Time, the shuffle of feet and little care had left the grating in a frightful state of disrepair. From Iruka had gleaned from the Sand Jounin's memory the previous night, it was scheduled for maintenance and replacement the next morning. The ex-Hunter smiled slyly. Too little, too late. By the time anyone suspected a break out, Iruka and Kakashi would be long gone -- and he was willing to bet nobody would dare follow them.
Of course, the odds of the two Leaf Jounins actually surviving Iruka's daredevil escape plan were astronomically low. Still, the young man reasoned, whatever fate had in store for them, it could hardly be worse than letting Kakashi become the proverbial pawn in a high-stake political game of chess, whose ramifications extended far beyond anything Iruka had originally envisioned.
Brow furrowed in concentration, Iruka attempted to pry the lock open with one of the senbon needles concealed beneath the hard leather of his arm-guards. It took some effort, but after a few endless minutes of struggle, the mechanism snapped open with a slight metallic sound. Iruka released a pent-up breath. As an apprentice, lock-picking techniques had been of his favorite skills, but life as an Academy teacher by day, Hunter by night had given him surprisingly few opportunities to put them to good use. Iruka's plan relied quite heavily on their being able to access the sewer system, and a failure on his part to open the lock within a reasonable time frame might have cost them their head-start.
The ex-Hunter thought himself lucky to have any plan at all, not matter how hair-rising or daring, considering the limited means and ridiculously short time-frame he had for himself. And if that meant his back-up plan had more of less defaulted to 'kill anything that moves and run like hell', well, it was a prospect Iruka tried not to dwell upon.
The lock dealt with, he more or less wrestled the four iron screws out of their sockets with a kunai, a tedious, finger-nicking process which drew quite a few muttered curses out of the ex-Hunter. Clearly not his finest hour, he thought, surveying his handy-work and grimacing slightly.
At long last, the sewer grate came free. With a grunt, Iruka lowered Kakashi down the dank, dark manhole, then climbed down after him. The screws and locks he dropped into the water. Then, carefully, he replaced the grate over the opening. It was always useful to keep up appearances for as long as possible -- after all, not many shinobi looked down at their feet when they made the rounds. Who knew how long it would take for somebody to notice anything amiss?
The ex-Hunter took a deep breath, counted to five, then turned around and knelt by Kakashi's side.
"Kakashi, listen to me," Iruka started, enunciating clearly. "We're in the storm drains. We have five, maybe ten minutes before they divert the river to flush them out for the daily clean-up."
The Jounin nodded vaguely, staring off into space.
"Focus!" Iruka snapped, shaking him slightly. "I'm gonna need you to take a deep breath when I say. Can you do that?"
"Think so," came the slurred answer. "Iruka... m'not feeling so good."
The younger man squeezed his shoulders reassuringly.
"We're working on that," Iruka said firmly. "Whatever happens, don't let go. Use chakra if you can. Do you hear me? Hold on to me."
All of a sudden, the grinding noise of several rusty butterfly valves slowly rotating into place echoed ominously in the conduit.
Iruka grimaced. So perhaps he had been a tad optimistic about those five minutes.
"Now," he ordered, forcing himself to feel as calm as he sounded. "Breathe in."
He wrapped his arms around Kakashi's waist and grabbed fistfuls of his jacket.
"I'll get you out of here if that's the last thing I do," he murmured fiercely into the Jounin's neck. "I promise."
Then the rushing, ice-cold water swept everything away.
The first two minutes under water were the longest of Iruka's life. He was trapped, trapped underwater in the piercing cold and he couldn't breathe. Claustrophobia nearly overwhelmed him but by a sheer effort of will he wrestled himself back under control, forcing himself to focus on their survival.
The water gushed and whirled around them. Iruka's numb fingers clawed at the Jounin's jacket in single-minded focus, but Kakashi, by some miracle or accident of fate, was still holding on to him with what little chakra he had left.
Then suddenly the rock overhead rose sharply, allowing the two Jounins access to precious, life-saving air. Lungs burning, Iruka gasped in sweet, painful relief. Near him Kakashi coughed up water and inhaled sharply, breath wheezing and rattling disturbingly.
It took Iruka almost a full minute to realize they had stopped.
Weighed down by heavy limestone rocks, the sturdy rope net Full of Sun and his men had installed a few hours before had temporarily halted their momentum. Quite obviously, the net was an integral part of Iruka's plan; a means of survival from an otherwise lethal escape route.
More importantly, there should also be a long, strong braided rope running parallel to the net. Almost blind with exhaustion and cold, Iruka reached out behind him in the icy water, trying to get a hole of the rope.
"I...Iruka," Kakashi stuttered, teeth chattering with the cold.
"Busy here!" the ex-Hunter snapped, still searching the water frantically. Suddenly his fingers closed around rough hemp.
"Iruka," more forcefully. "S'wearing off."
"Hold on as long as you can," Iruka ordered, worry welling up inside him like a rising tide. "I'll get us out."
All the while struggling against the current, he managed to wrestle the rope behind Kakashi's back and under his arms. Tying a secure knot took much longer than it would have with chakra and a normal body temperature, his hands numb and clumsy from the pervasive, bone-deep cold of the river. The current was so strong -- neither of them could hold on much longer.
With a cry of victory muffled by the roaring of the rapids, he managed to complete the improvised, make-shift harness, and none too soon -- Kakashi had gone completely limp, obviously unconscious. This was extremely bad news, but Iruka pushed the fear to the back of his mind before it could overtake him, ruthless in his determination. Kakashi would not have time to drown, provided Iruka made haste. And that he would, not matter how exhausted he felt.
Iruka started to climb, stifling hisses of pain as the rough hemp bit and seared into his palms. He was so cold he had stopped shivering, and though he welcomed any respite from his previously chattering teeth, he knew it was a sign of hypothermia setting in. He could not die, not after all this, not without getting Kakashi to safety first. And after that...
Grunting in pain, Iruka hoisted himself up and out of the hole. He collapsed onto the ground, chest heaving, pulse thundering in his ears until the noise threatened to drown out everything else. Even during the night, the desert sand held enough warmth to revive him slightly, even though he wanted nothing more than to simply lie there and sleep. Instead, he pushed himself up, palms digging into the sand, and turned back to the hole.
Grabbing the rope net with both hands, Iruka arched his back and heaved with what little energy he had left. To no avail -- after mere minutes of effort, his muscles cramped suddenly and he lost his footing. The rope was wrenched from his bloodied hands.
With a strangled cry of horror, Iruka threw himself to the ground, snatching the length of rope before it was too late and clutched it with the unaccountable strength of sheer despair. Gritting his teeth against the white-hope pain searing across his palms, and the abiding exhaustion crawling into his very muscles and thoughts, Iruka wound the rope tightly around his wrists. This would hopefully keep Kakashi from plummeting to his death should Iruka pass out -- a prospect that was becoming more likely by the second.
This was it, Iruka thought, lying in the sand in the cold desert night. He didn't even have the energy to scream in frustration. He had to struggle to stay conscious, but he knew himself and his body's limitations well-enough to understand he would lose this particular battle before long.
His last coherent thought went to Kakashi, cold and dying and alone in the dark with the icy water rushing around him. Then, between one labored breath and the next, Iruka's eyes fluttered closed and his head dropped heavily onto the sand.
He didn't have anything left to give.
Feedback more than welcome! I wonder if anyone's still reading this..?