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Soldiers Don't Mourn[Feb. 26th, 2017|12:09 pm]

[June 16, Yondaime Year 5, following Red Seas at Dawn]

Team Six picked their way down the densely vegetated slope, halting at the treeline on Raidou’s signal. At the surf’s edge, a knot of figures clustered around the husk-like bowls of a pair of ship’s boats. One or two cigarette tips flared in the darkness. Genma threaded a slip of chakra out, then nodded. “They’re civilians. Feels like the same crew who got us out here, but it’s harder to identify individuals with such low chakra reserves.”

Kakashi lifted his head and inhaled audibly. “They smell the same,” he pronounced. “More stressed than last time.”

The tone in Raidou’s voice shaded from skepticism to alarm. “You can smell stress?”

“From here?” demanded Ryouma.

“It’s a very distinctive smell,” Kakashi said with a shrug.

Of course it was. Some time when the team was home and safe and had nothing better to do than sit around and make conversation, Genma was going to ask Kakashi if the Hatake clan shared common ancestry with the Inuzuka. He wasn’t sure he’d ask what other emotional states Kakashi could smell, though — some questions you don’t ask if you don’t want to know the answer.

Kimiko was still harnessed to Raidou’s back; Ryouma had Sango cradled in her sling.

“I’ll make contact,” Genma said. “Stay here until I give the signal.” Just to be doubly safe, he cast a quick kai. No illusion dissolved, and no rippled echo of a resisted jutsu washed back over him.

He still slid a kunai into his palm, and cast a silencing jutsu on himself, before he set off across the rock-strewn beach.

At twenty paces away, even in the moonless gloom, Genma could make out features easily enough to be confident they were the sailors the team knew. He slipped back a dozen meters, dropped the jutsu, and let his feet fall heavily on the damp stones.

All five sailors whirled at the sound. The distinctive slither of steel coming free of a sheath hissed danger, and a dull flash of moonlight revealed short swords and daggers in more than one hand.

“Hold,” Genma said. “We’re here for the cruise.”

Tense shoulders relaxed, and blades returned to their sheaths. One of the figures stepped forward. “You’re the first.” Arakida-senchou, the captain of the Look Far, said. He sounded grim. “Where are the others? We’re pulling anchor early, there’s a storm brewing.”

The clouds that had drenched the final leg of their journey were wispy remnants. Stars twinkled in a velvet sky, and a quarter moon gleamed light on the waves. “I don’t see any storm clouds,” Genma said.

“You will in a few hours,” Arakida said with certainty. “I want plenty of sea between us and the islands before the waves hit.”

Some civilians, farmers and sailors especially, could sense weather the way ninja could sense chakra. Genma glanced again at the clear sky, then nodded. “How early?”

“As soon as the tide turns, if we can,” Arakida said. He peered around Genma. “Are you the only one who made it?”

Genma flared his chakra, two sharp pulses, to give the rest of his team the all-clear. “There are five with me. We’ve got two more teams coming.”

“I count three,” Arakida said.

“Five,” Genma said. “They’re carrying a civilian and a baby.” Raidou, with Kimiko on his back, and Ryouma with Sango, arrived as he said it. Kakashi hung slightly back, still taking rear guard.

Ryouma looked the sailors up and down, then turned his gaze on the shadowy sailing ship creaking gently in the harbor. He gave a deep, appreciative sigh. “If I didn't mention it before, your ship is beautiful.”

The captain’s shoulders squared a little, and a tiny smile played at the corners of his lips. “She’s sound,” he said. “Serves her purpose.”

Genma helped Raidou unharness Kimiko, working damp-set knots free with stiff fingers. As soon as she was on her feet, Raidou gestured to Ryouma, who promptly relinquished Sango to her mother. The baby squalled briefly, then settled against her mother’s breast with Kimiko’s thin hand wrapped protectively over her head.

“She'll be even prettier when we’re aboard,” Raidou said. He started purposefully towards the nearer scow, guiding Kimiko with him with a hand on her elbow. “Can we get moving?”

Arakida nodded, gesturing to a pair of the sailors who hung back, keeping a distance from the ninja. “Row them across. We’ll wait here for the rest of them. Tell Horikiri we’re going with the ebb.”

Genma eyed the waves lapping the shore. “How long do the others have before the tide turns?”

“Three hours,” Arakida said.

Raidou scowled menacingly. “Unless a typhoon's coming through, we're not leaving our people behind. Cast-off isn't supposed to be for seven hours.”

Genma’s fingertips raked over the cold hilt of the kunai he’d pocketed. If it came to it, they could force the crew to wait.

“I won’t scuttle my ship and send my crew to their graves for your sake,” Arakida said, matching Raidou’s mettle.

Chakra pressure rose like a wave from behind him — killing intent from all three of Genma’s teammates.

“We’ll wait,” Genma said. “This isn’t your decision to make, Arakida-senchou.”

Something of their murderous intent must have gotten through to the sailors, who took several steps back, eyes showing whites. Arakida looked like he might still force the confrontation, but in the end, he backed down. “We can wait four hours. Any longer, and we risk being trapped in harbor past daylight.”

“That’s a risk we’ll take,” Genma said.

“Hound, hold a position on the coast. Signal us if you spot Thirteen, or a pursuit.” Raidou swept a long look over the forbidding cliffs. “If you engage,” he said darkly, “make sure no one leaves.”

Kakashi tapped his tattooed shoulder in wordless salute. He turned and took two steps towards the cliffs, then vanished between one blink and the next.

Ryouma’s gaze lingered on the direction Kakashi had taken a moment longer, then he turned back to the task at hand, helping Kimiko and Sango into the center of the boat. Genma climbed in after them, taking the aft seat, leaving the fore for Raidou.

The sailors held a brief, tense conference, before two of them, presumably the losers in the argument, came to man the oars.

By the time they reached the rope ladder up the side of the junk, mission tension and too little rest made every muscle stiff and every bruise acute. Kimiko insisted on carrying Sango herself, strapping the baby to herself with the dingy, salt-water stiffened sling. She scaled the swaying ladder with grim determination and just enough chakra to keep her hands and feet well anchored. Raidou climbed close behind to catch her if she slipped.

Once they were safely aboard, Genma stopped the sailor who’d been tasked with delivering the captain’s message to the ship’s first mate. “I’ll go with you.”

The sailor was young — well-muscled but with barely the beginnings of peach fuzz on his upper lip. He took a step back, wide eyed and thin lipped.

“Don’t worry,” Genma said. “I’m not going to hurt either of you. I just want to make sure she knows our plan.”

It didn’t seem to reassure the boy.

Raidou gave the frightened crewman a darkly amused look, then gestured to one of the sailors who’d helped them board. “Show me somewhere we can settle in. Tousaki, you keep watch on deck.”

Ryouma nodded and took a position at the ship’s rail, eyes sweeping the black shore for any sign of threat or their missing comrades. Genma followed the young sailor to meet the first mate.

Horikiri was a broad-shouldered woman with close cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Genma remembered seeing her on their voyage over, but they’d kept to their own spheres. She studied Genma with folded arms, but didn’t argue when he told her they’d be sailing on the ninja’s signal, not her captain’s.

The young sailor led Genma to the cabin where the others were settled, and disappeared as quickly as he could.

“The crew understands the situation,” Genma said, ducking through the low cabin door. Kimiko was tucked into a small berth with her back to the cabin, suckling Sango. Raidou sat against a wall, legs stretched out in front of him, head thrown back, in a pose of pure exhaustion. His throat was a livid red and purple mass of chain-link shaped bruises. Genma folded himself to the floor next to Raidou and said quietly, “Let me finish healing your neck, Taichou.”

Raidou lifted a hand, waving Genma off. “Looks worse than it is. Save your chakra. Thirteen might need it.”

Genma grimaced at the idea. “I hope not. But you’re probably right. I can give you some salve to take the ache out, anyway. If you start having trouble breathing or swallowing, though, tell me. Throat injuries can swell after the fact.”

Raidou dropped his head and gave Genma a crooked smile. “I promise if I start to drown on dry land, you'll be the first to know. I'll take that salve, though.”

For just a moment, the tight knot of worry under Genma’s sternum relented, replaced by something warm. He let out a slow breath and smiled wearily back, then dug in his med kit to hand Raidou a small round tin of bruise balm.

It was dangerous to relax now. Everything in him wanted to drop the vigilance and rest. They were, for the first time since they’d left the ship 46 hours earlier, nearly safe. But the mission was not over, their comrades were not back, and they were still very much in enemy waters with a pair of fugitives to guard. He watched Raidou apply the balm, watched Kimiko’s hunched back, watched the cabin door. Slung chakra feelers out, tracking Ryouma’s location on the ship’s deck, reaching for Kakashi on shore. Reaching for any sign of their missing comrades.

There was no sign.
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