xii. Dead Men Tell No Tales
After introducing the Konoha shinobi, Murata retired to his quarters and stood by the large bay window. Outside, a wall of fog sat atop the gray waves; visibility was only a few yards, but that was nothing out of the ordinary in these parts. A quick rap at the door compelled him to turn around and call out, "Come in."
The door creaked open and Murata nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Shigeru-san," he said, addressing his first mate.
The cat-eyed man in the threshold threw on a grin and saluted his captain playfully with two fingers. "Ahoy, there." He entered and shut the door behind him. "You've picked up quite an interesting bunch," he said, sauntering towards the desk.
Murata took a seat on the other side, sighing as he relaxed into his chair. "I assume you mean the Konoha shinobi?"
"Yeah, I mean if that's really the Sharingan Kakashi, you're pretty much set to deal with anything that comes our way. Even that pink-haired kid packs a mean punch." He laughed as if he were sharing a private joke with himself.
Murata nodded and placed his elbows on his table, steepling his fingers while he contemplated their escorts. "Yes, I believe their presence will be quite helpful on this voyage."
Late afternoon found Sakura in the ship's mess. It was four o'clock and she was alone at one of the tables. Dinner would not be served for another two hours, and it was quiet save the ship's creaking joints as it rocked on the waves. Her journal lay open before her on the table's splintered surface. She was supposed to be using it to keep track of her memories, but the only entry in it so far was the one she'd written almost a week before. She needed to be more consistent if she was going to make any headway on her situation. She chewed the eraser attached to back of her pencil while considering what she had written so far for today:
Things I can remember:
...and that was it, nothing else was coming to her. Sakura dragged her hands down her face, groaning in frustration; this wasn't going very well. Kakashi had suggested that she try starting at the night in the Land of Waves when her memories of time travel first began. She recalled waking up and being gripped by an overwhelming sense of fear and anger, but beyond that lay nothing more than a great void her memory couldn't fill. She recalled everything that had chronologically happened in "the past": growing up in Konoha, her first days at the academy, graduation, getting placed with Team 7. However, her memories from the "the future" skirted just beyond her reach, a shadow in the corner of her vision she couldn't see head on; it was infuriating.
Kakashi's other suggestion about Tsunade lead to a similar end as well. She clearly remembered Tsunade as her teacher, but the details had been blurred out, it was as if Sakura were peering through a lens that was permanently unfocused;the colors and shapes were all there, but she ultimately had no idea what she was looking at.
Desperate to find some sort of footing, she flipped back a page in the journal to re-read her last entry.
Things I can remember:
A dark forest
Strange, black tattoo's on Sasuke's face
A giant monster made of sand
Sasuke from the future
The phrases stirred shadows in the back of her mind, but they were insubstantial, slipping between her fingers as if she were grasping at curls of smoke. Sakura placed her head between the pages in a last ditch effort: maybe touching the words with her cranium would help jump-start her memories. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to flex her brain.
'Come on, think, Sakura, think. There's gotta be something left in that giant forehead of yours you can remember,' she told herself.
A boy with red hair and green eyes materialized in her mind, and she placed a name to his face. 'Gaara,' she thought. She had accidentally run into him a few weeks ago and had instantly recognized him and his siblings.
"The Sand Siblings. Temari...Kankuro..." she muttered, tugging at the string to see where it led. How had she remembered their names? What was their relationship? She knew Gaara had posed a threat, but how? She began beating her head against her journal, trying to shake the dust off of her memories.
"Gaara, Temari, Kankuro, Gaara, Temari, Kankuro," she mumbled their names on repeat as if it were an incantation. "Gaara, Temari, Kankuro…"
Sakura sat up and slammed the journal shut.
"Naruto!" She exclaimed an octave too high. "Hi! What's up? What're you doing here?"
"Uh, Kakashi sensei was looking for you...what're you doing?" The blonde asked, eying the book under her hand. It took all the self-control Sakura had to not take her journal and lob it out the window; the more she tried to hide it, the more suspicious it'd seem
"I'm just writing in my diary," she replied smoothly; the best lies were always mostly true.
"A diary? Oh, that's pretty cool! Can I read-"
"What?" His face fell ten stories from its happy place. "Why not?"
"It's a diary, Naruto, not the village newspaper," Sakura snipped. "It's a matter of privacy. If you wanna read something, I can give you one of the novels I brought, god knows you can afford to read a couple of those."
"But Sakura-chan!" He whined, craning his neck as if it'd offer him a peek past the diary's closed covers. What was in it? Did she talk about him? Maybe she had dreams about him and wrote them down! Now he had to know.
"No means no, Naruto." Sakura took the journal off of the table, and the blonde's gaze followed it, his blue eyes transfixed on the black cover even as she held it against her chest with both hands. Noticing his stare, Sakura inwardly groaned; maybe she would have been better off throwing the journal out the window.
"Where's Kakashi-sensei?" She asked, trying to redirect his attention.
"What? Oh, he's up on the deck."
"Thanks. And it's Seita, not Sakura, remember?" She chided, bringing her fist gently down upon his head as she passed him on her way out. "You're going to blow my cover, you doofus."
"Oh yeah, sorry 'bout, that, Sak—er—Seita-chan—er—Seita," he struggled. He then settled it by flashing a grin. "Don't worry Sakura-chan! Your disguise is impossible to see through! Like, if I saw you on the streets, I could've never guessed that you were actually a chick."
A fierce battle raged inside of Sakura: to punch the idiot, or to not punch the idiot.
Naruto put a hand to his chin and squeezed one eye shut as if he were appraising a work of art, nodding sagely and with some satisfaction as he studied her. "Yup, no worries are at all, you look more like a dude than Sasuke!" He then assured her of this with an enthusiastic thumbs up. Sakura surrendered to punching the idiot.
Above deck, heavy swathes of mist veiled the ship, and Sakura's face was already slick with condensation after just a few minutes outside. The taste of salt sat on her tongue, and beyond the railings she could hear the vessel plowing through the steel-colored waves. Around her, heavy boots thudded against the deck as the crew's men hustled by with droplets of seawater in their beards and hair, their clothes dark and soggy from the never-ending dampness.
"Oh, if it isn't Seita-kun!" A voice called out behind her.
Sakura turned around, catching sight of Shigeru striding up to her. His dark curls were plastered to his forehead like stroke of black paint, and Sakura was still unnerved by the inherent athleticism in his movements-fluid and powerful, the muscles working together in perfect concert to propel him towards her; he moved like a shinobi. He was shooting her a big grin, his cheeks lifting to expose the rows of flawless, white teeth.
"Shigeru-san," she said, returning his greeting with a slight tip of her head. And then, realizing she was supposed to be in disguise, she placed her hands on her hips and tossed her head in his direction. "What's going on?" Okay, maybe that was a little awkward.
"What're you doing out here? I thought you Konoha guys don't start watch until night, and trust me, you'll get plenty of all this fog then," he said, gesturing grandly at the mist around them. "Might as well try and stay dry for as long as you can. By the way, good job out there on The Barrel earlier; to be honest, I was a little worried myself—no offense or anything, but you don't really look like the macho type, if you catch my drift."
"Well, looks can be deceiving," she replied. If Shigeru noticed the pointed tone in her voice, he hid it well.
Instead, he chuckled good-naturedly. "Well, I can't argue with that."
"I'm actually looking for my teacher," Sakura said, replying to his earlier question.
"You mean Copycat Kakashi? Oh, I think I saw him wandering around near the main mast a while ago," he said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder. "Can't promise that he'll still be there though."
"No problem! Just let me know if you need anything else, Seita-sama," he said teasingly and gave her a quick pat on the head before continuing on past her.
Sakura turned slightly to watch him go. The other men greeted him as he passed through their midst, and he returned it with a cheerful wave of his own. She had to admit, despite being a suspicious dot on her radar, Shigeru seemed like an O.K. guy.
It turned out when Naruto had said Kakashi was "up on the deck," he had literally meant up on the deck: after scouring the ship and finding no signs of her teacher, Sakura finally chanced a gaze up and spied a tuft of silver hair peeking out from over the edge of the crow's nest on the main mast. Sensing she was hot on his trail, Sakura shimmied up the rope net to further investigate. She was rewarded for her efforts with the discovery of Kakashi lounging in the lookout with his back to the railings, and his book held open with one hand. The winds blew more strongly up here, and Sakura could feel the droplets of water clinging to her skin as the thick mist phased past her.
"Mmm, Seita," he greeted without looking up. Judging by the soggy state of his hair and clothes, Sakura guessed her teacher had been up here for a while.
"Naruto said you were looking for me?" she asked, crossing her arms tightly against the chill as her whole body swayed; the ship's rocking was more pronounced up here.
"Hold on, lemme just get through this one part…" He said distractedly, absorbed in his reading. The main character had just slipped into his lover's bed in the middle of the night only discover that there were two women beneath the covers! This was the most harrowing part of the book, and incidentally his favorite scene where—
"Sensei," Sakura cut in, her tone demanding that he perhaps reevaluate his priorities.
Kakashi sighed clapped his book shut in defeat. "Right, then," he said, finally gracing her with his full attention. "I just wanted to touch base with you."
"Well, the last time we chatted you were telling me you were using your diary to try and track down your lost memories. Any progress?" He asked while running his hand through his hair to shake out the dew.
Sakura suddenly felt very aware of the little black journal in her back pouch. "Not really," she admitted, feeling like she had just confessed to not having completed her homework, which was ridiculous because this was time travel, not algebra; it wasn't her fault that her memories somehow had been misplaced in the space-time continuum. "Actually, I kind of remembered The Sand Siblings?" Sakura offered.
"Well, I remembered knowing them from the future."
"The Sand Siblings...you mean the Kazekage's children?" Kakashi asked, trying to jog his memories. There were three of them, if he recalled, two boys and a girl. He had only seen their profiles, but even just by looking at their photographs he could tell they weren't the happiest bunch, especially the youngest, who seemed to be the personification of the whole "if looks could kill" saying.
"Yeah, I think I knew them in the future," she said, her brow furrowing as she tried chasing down ghosts in the corridors of her memories. "I think we were...friends…?"
"Really?" Well that was an unexpected twist. The last time Kakashi had checked, Suna hated Konoha, and the Kazekage was the loudest advocate of that sentiment. Perhaps his children were different? Kakashi thought back to their pissed-off faces. "I kind of find that hard to believe."
Sakura hung her head a little. "I know, right? Maybe I am actually just turning into a schizophrenic."
"Maybe," he agreed cheerfully.
"Sensei! You're not supposed to actually agree with me," she moaned. If her teacher stopped believing her she really would have to check herself into the psych ward.
"Just trying to leave all our options open," he replied with a chuckle.
She caught the teasing lilt in his voice. "Wait, you were just kidding, right? You still think I'm from the future, yes? "
"Just keep at it, Sakura, and keep me posted, especially if you figure out something big," he said, cracking his book open to where he had last left off.
"Wait, Sensei, one more thing," she said, trying to hold his attention before he descended too deeply into his erotica.
"Hmmmm?" Kakashi intoned from far away.
"What do you think about Shigeru?"
"Ah, so you've noticed too." He didn't glance up, seemingly unsurprised by her question.
"He's not your average sailor, Sensei." Of that, Sakura was close to certain.
Kakashi turned a page in his book. "No, he's certainly hiding something."
"I think we should try and figure out what his agenda is."
"The danger in that is that we might end up alerting him of our suspicions. In a confined area like this ship, he'll either tamp down on himself, making it impossible to figure anything out, or things will escalate into an ugly conflict. For now we should just watch him from a distance; I don't think he poses any immediate threat at the moment."
"For now," she echoed darkly, unsatisfied with Kakashi's casual dismissal of him. Her feelings were not lost upon him.
He looked up, and beneath his mask she could make out the form of a reassuring smile. "Sakura, relax, I'll be keeping an eye on him. I won't let anything happen to any of you, so put a little faith in your teacher. Why don't go back inside and check up on Sasuke, see if he's feeling better?"
"All right," she muttered, swinging herself over the side of the crow's nest. She disliked the idea that Shigeru was running around their midst like an unknown variable; he was one great big question mark, and she'd hate for them to get sucker punched in a blind spot.
Sakura descended below deck and opened the door to their cabin. They had been given their own sleeping quarters, separate from the crew. Kakashi had been given his own room, which was next door, while the three genin had been squeezed into a cabin of their own. It was a dark, windowless box, and the oil lamp that burned on the table directly across from the door was the only source of light, filling the space with a dim, orange glow that fought poorly against the shadows. A bunk bed was built into the walls of one side of the room, and against the opposite wall, a spare cot had been set up, which was currently occupied by Sasuke. He lay balled up beneath the scratchy gray blanket, his finger clutching his pillow in a vice-like grip and eyes clamped shut against the rocking waves as he took in the fishy air with shallow breathes. The great Uchiha Sasuke was seasick.
Sakura walked down the space between the bunks and the cot, which was so narrow that if she spread her arms she would've easily been able to touch both beds. She sat down at the edge of Sasuke's cot.
"How're you feeling?"
"M'fine," Sasuke grunted, clearly not.
Sakura reached over and placed her hand against his forehead, and he let her, his nausea momentarily scattering beneath the cool press of her palms. Sakura considered employing her medical jutsu. It would have been easy to push a little chakra into his inner ears and reset his equilibrium, but Sasuke was sharp. Naruto might have believed her if she told she had just hit a pressure point, but she doubted Sasuke would let her so easily off the hook, especially if he sensed her chakra flowing through him.
"Did you throw up again?" She asked instead, her hand slipping down from his forehead to rub his back; he'd have soldier through this this the old-fashioned way.
He shook his head no and tried to curl tighter into himself. "Just leave me alone," he groaned, begging more than anything else. He had been rendered absolutely immobile. Every time he tried standing the ceiling and floor seemed to switch places, and suddenly his stomach was doing backflips while the walls spun around him like some twisted merry-go-round. Even now the darkness behind his closed eyes seemed to be undulating.
"You know, going outside might help," she said while looking around their claustrophobic quarters. The air was stale and the gloom seemed to crowd around them; even she was beginning to feel a little caged in. "The fresh air might clear your head and I hear staring out into the horizon helps."
Her suggestion was met with silence. "Sasuke?" She peered over to try and see if he had fallen asleep.
He cracked open an eye and blearily trained it on her. "Fine," he muttered and threw off his blankets; anything to make the misery stop.
It took Sasuke a considerable amount of effort to make it out of his room, and a great deal more energy to make it up the stairs. He had broken out into a cold sweat, and every rise and fall of ship would send a new wave of nausea rolling through him. At some point (Sasuke hazily guessed it was when he was folded over clutching his stomach) Sakura had wordlessly slipped his arm over her shoulders to help him the rest of the way up. It was a testament to his suffering that he had accepted her aid with zero resistance.
When they made it to the top, Sakura led them over to the ship's side. Sasuke gripped the railing with one hand, leaning heavily into his arm, while the other held onto Sakura for dear life. He was going to hurl. He was definitely going to hurl.
"Now look out that way into the horizon," she instructed, pointing out into the swirling gray fog.
"There is no horizon," Sasuke muttered, fixing his gaze anyways in the direction she had indicated.
"Hush, don't be such a smart ass or I'll bring Naruto over here to make fun of you," she threatened.
Sasuke scowled at that. He had to admit, Sakura knew what made him tick. "If you bring that idiot here, I can't promise I won't throw you both overboard."
"Then I'd swim back to Konoha and announce to the entire village that Sasuke of the illustrious Uchiha Clan was rendered useless because he had a weak stomach."
"Were you always this obnoxious?"
"Always," she replied with a grin, and even Sasuke had to smile a little at her cheekiness.
They stood like that for a bit, Sasuke with one arm yoked over Sakura's shoulder while they both quietly looked out into that muted, colorless world. Somewhere high above them, the sun was shining, but the light would never filter past the thick screen of mist. A wind came up off the waves, throwing a fine spray of saltwater into their faces. Sakura shivered, and for a second she thought Sasuke pressed closer into her before quickly pulling away as if it had been an accident.
"How're you feeling?" She asked.
"Better," he said, and then leaned over the railings to throw up.
Night fell swiftly and without much fanfare in the eastern sea. The ever-present fog blocked out the sky; there was no sunset, no blazing red sun crashing into the horizon line, just the gray light growing dimmer and dimmer until the Shimotsuki was finally left sailing through the utter darkness.
At eighteen hours, dinner was served in the mess. The large golden bell, in front of the ship's wheelhouse clanged loudly, and the crew stamped indoors, relieved to get a reprieve from the dark and cold. Their voices filled the space while they tracked in the smell of salt and damp clothes, the odor blossoming in the warmth of the room.
One by one, they lined up in front of the galley while the cook ladled stew into their bowls and placed a chunk of bread on their trays. Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto sat in one corner eating, separate from the rest of the crew. Kakashi had volunteered to take the first of the many night shifts that were to come and had sent his students inside, telling the three to get in a hot meal before their job began.
"You know, this stuff isn't ramen or anything, but it's still pretty, good," Naruto commented while his molars ground down on a chunk of beef.
"Sasuke, you should try and eat something to settle your stomach," Sakura encouraged.
Sasuke sat across from his two teammates, his face chalk-white, paler than usual. He stared down the bowl heaped with meat and vegetable stew, the oil skimming across the soup's surface in yellow rings. His stomach squirmed in protest.
"What's wrong with you?" Naruto asked unsympathetically, tearing into the bread in his hands while he eyed his teammate.
"Shut up," Sasuke threw back a little flaccidly. He pushed the tray away from him. The sailor's clamoring voices made his head spin and the lights overhead almost seemed assaultive in their brightness.
"Sasuke—" Sakura started.
He cut her off before her words could gather enough momentum for a lecture. "I'm not hungry."
"So... it's cool if I eat this then, yeah?" Naruto asked, already reaching for Sasuke's bowl.
"Wait, no Naruto, hold on a moment. Sasuke, eat the bread at least," Sakura urged.
Instead of heeding her advice, Sasuke stood, ready to crawl back to their cabin and curl up on his cot. A few heads in the room turned at the motion, but most quickly lost interest and returned to whatever it was they were saying or doing, all except one.
"Well, it looks like our shinobi guests think they're too good for our food, ey, boys?" A voice jeered loudly. Spoons paused halfway in the air and conversations evaporated into silence; this time the entire room had turned to look at them.
Sakura immediately recognized the voice to be Abe's. The mean, little man sat towards the back of the room, his face twisted with contempt; it seemed he still hadn't gotten over being soundly whipped and thrashed by a pink-haired boy with pretty hands.
Naruto gaped like a fish as his brows pulled together in bewilderment. "Wha—? What're you talking about, I was just saying that this soup is awe—"
Abe spoke loudly over him. "Aye! I'm sure you were! Tch—look at you Konoha Shinobi, actin' all high and mighty," he spat. "Don't lie!" He rose to his feet, the chair scraping too loudly in the silence. "The real reason you lot are here is to keep us from causing any trouble! Tenkyuu my goddamn ass! Everyone knows that's just a lie the Captain made up to keep us on our toes!"
Sakura was troubled when she saw more than a few heads turn towards each other, murmuring while they nodded in agreement.
"That's ridiculous!" Sakura shot back heatedly. This man was an instigator! "We're here to protect you! The Tenkyuu are a real threat! Just last year you lost two ships to the pirates!"
"That never happened!" Another voice called out angrily.
Eyebrows plunged down into angry slants and lips curled up into resentful scowls. The air began to vibrate with the hum of heated voices.
"Quit makin' things up you brat!" Someone else joined in.
"Everyone knows the Tenkyuu only steal from the jade merchants! We're in the silk trade!"
"See?" Abe held out his arms and turned to look as crewmates: behold. "Didn't I tell you all? These shinobi are nothing but a bunch of lying, thieving snakes!" He accused, fanning the flames he'd ignited. Sakura decided they needed to shift gears; things were growing heated. She tried to remember the book she'd read on conflict resolution: stay calm, keep your voice level, and avoid using any combative language or else run the risk of escalation.
"Hey! Don't get pissed just 'cause Saku—er Seita whooped your sorry ass this morning!" Naruto yelled back. He didn't really understand what was going on, but he knew that Abe was insulting them, which was reason enough to be pissed "You're just a sore loser!"
Abe's face turned a dark shade of magenta. "You think this is still about that?" He roared and speared a finger in their direction. "Don't think I don't know about the deal you people and the captain—"
Unfortunately, Abe didn't have the opportunity to finish broadcasting whatever slanderous information he'd concocted, because Shigeru had grabbed him by the back of his neck and plowed the man's head face first into the table. The violence stunned the room into silence.
Beside her, Sakura heard Naruto mutter "holy shit" under his breath, and Sakura thought the same thing.
"Well, well, well," Shigeru said, ignoring Abe who was left moaning in pain. "I decided to pop in to see how everyone was doing, you know, say hello, shoot the breeze and what not, and what do I come across?" He grinned widely at the silent room. "A real life insurrection in the making! Wow! You boys sure are something."
There was an uncomfortable silence. Sakura found more than a few men glance away, unable to meet Shigeru's unflinching gaze.
"Shigeru-san, we weren't—nobody was thinkin' of doin something like that." A man piped up nervously.
"Yeah, yeah," another nodded furiously beside him. "We was just airin' our...our grievances a bit."
The other sailors broke out in a rumble of agreement.
"Yeah! You know how it is, Shigeru-san."
"It's cold, we're tired."
"I actually like those ninja brats!"
The men clamored over each other to get in his good graces. Shigeru had made his debut two years ago, making him a relatively new addition to the crew. However, as far as first mates went, he was friendly, good-natured, and most importantly to the men of Shimotsuki, he was fair; everyone liked Shigeru-san. However, during late night talks in the bunks when the men were sharing stories of the pretty wives they left waiting at home and spun yarns about the drowned sailors who haunted the seas, Shigeru's name would occasionally fall onto the table as a topic of conversation. After everyone put in a good word or two about his fine character, it was then agreed that he could sometimes be even more frightening than the captain; there was something unnerving about a man who grinned even when he was furious, a man who could cheerfully smash a fellow person's head into the table without batting an eye.
All eyes were on Shigeru trying and get a read on what he was thinking, but that smile didn't slip, and his inner-sanctum remained sealed away. After a long bout of bated silence, he finally spoke.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that. After all, a mutiny is some pretty serious business."
The men hurried to agree with nodding heads and scattered aye's.
"Glad we all see eye to eye, but how about the next time you decided to 'air your grievances,' you keep our guests out of it, agreed?" He caught the gaze of two especially strapping specimens and gestured them to come over with a jerk of his head. "Take him and lock him up in the brig. No food or water for a day," he said, nodding at Abe.
Abe was still reeling from the blow to his head, and when the two men grabbed him by his arms to peel him off the table, he stood slumped between them, swaying unsteadily on his legs. Instead of leading him to brig, the two sailors more or less carried him out.
"Sorry 'bout that, kids," Shigeru said, watching his men drag Abe off before turning his attention around to Team 7. All around them the men had returned to their meals and conversations, but the air remained charged, buzzing with nervous energy in the form of shifty glances and too-loud laughs; Shigeru's brutal response was still fresh in their minds. "I try not to crack the whip too hard, but I ultimately try and run a tight ship."
"We can tell," Sakura replied with little warmth.
Shigeru shrugged, still wearing that infuriating smile. "Out here, it's best to nip a bud in the head."
"You mean yank it out by the roots and set fire to it," Sasuke grimly observed, though his irritated expression was more probably the product of his seasickness than anything else.
"Yeah, that was pretty intense," Naruto agreed. "I mean, he was kind of a jerkwad, but did you really need to smash his face in like that?" He asked, clearly thinking it had been unnecessary.
"Yes, I did." Shigeru raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you all shinobi? I'm surprised by how upset you all are. Well, I suppose kids will still be kids," he mused.
Sasuke was clearly rankled. "I'm not upset."
"Just because we're shinobi doesn't mean we enjoy senseless violence," Sakura snapped.
"It's not senseless violence, it's a necessary violence," Shigeru replied smoothly. "And I'm not asking you to enjoy it, but if you are to protect this ship, I suggest you kids start getting used to it."
"I'm going to head back to the cabin," Sasuke flatly stated.
Sakura took her tray and rose stiffly in her seat. "I have the next shift for watch, so I'm going to get going, too."
Shigeru looked at Naruto. "Do you have to be somewhere too?" He asked archly, finding humor in Team 7's childlike distaste for his methods; after all, at the end of the day, it was rigid discipline that maintained order on his ship.
"You know, at first I thought you were a pretty cool guy," Naruto muttered before shuffling after his teammates.
Shigeru shrugged. "Sorry, kid. Just doing my job."
Nightwatch was to be carried out in two man shifts for two hour rotations: Kakashi-sensei and Naruto for the first watch, then Sakura and Sasuke for the next. This succession would continue until dawn broke at around five the next morning, meaning three sets of shifts for everyone.
At eight o'clock, Sakura and Sasuke took up their post. Kakashi had kindly told Sasuke he could sit out tonight's watch because of his seasickness, but Sasuke was predictably affronted by his teacher's concern. And so, here he was standing in the crow's nest with Sakura, his nausea back in full force as the ship rocked wildly beneath them; it was going to be a long night for the Sasuke and his stomach.
Sakura stood beside him, the hood of her cloak pulled over her head as she looked out into the pitched darkness. To be honest, she didn't really get the point of their vigil; it was so dark out there she doubted they'd be able to spot any sort of danger before it was too late, but a job was a job.
"How're you holding up?" Sakura asked her teammate.
Sasuke didn't answer, preoccupied with the task of trying to hypnotize himself into believing he was on land: there is grass under my feet, nothing is moving, nothing is moving. So far, it wasn't working.
"I know it'd be annoying to bring up the fact that you probably would have felt better if you had just eaten the bread like I told you to, so I'm not going to say anything."
Sasuke shot a glare her way. "How very big of you," he bit out.
"I know I am," Sakura replied smugly and then reached into her pockets, procuring a small roll of bread. "Which is why I brought you something that'll shut me up."
"Trust me," she said, holding out the bread insistently in his direction. "This'll help," and since she was practically shoving it into his hands, Sasuke finally relented and took the roll. "I know it tastes like cardboard, but you have to force it down," she said, watching him tear off a piece with his teeth. "It helps to have something in your stomach."
"You're right," Sasuke said while chewing.
Sakura perked. "You're already starting to feel better, right? Since your saliva glands were activated, it probably sent a signal down to your digestive system— "
"It does taste like cardboard." He swallowed and his face screwed up in disgust.
"Finish it," Sakura said without sympathy. Naturally averse to being told what to do, Sasuke instinctively wanted to chuck the stupid bread roll into the ocean, but he did his best to ignore this compulsion and took another bite instead, partly because he knew Sakura would probably give him an earful (when did she start getting so pushy anyways?) and partly because his stomach really was starting to settle down. So Sasuke continued to silently nibble away at the bread, while Sakura leaned against the railings and looked out.
"I can't really see anything from here," she commented.
"Neither can I," Sasuke said. "But the one thing we do have a clear view of is the deck," and it was true. It was laughable to think they'd be able spot anything coming on the water, whereas the ship's deck was ablaze with oil lamps, their orange glow chasing out the shadows and warding off the gloom. A few of the crew who were on watch were also making their rounds below them. "Makes it really easy for us to spot any strange activities going on above deck," he observed.
Sakura easily followed his train of thought. "Like a mutiny."
Sasuke shrugged: she had said it, not him.
"You still think Murata-san hired us to watch over his crew, not because of the Tenkyuu? But he seemed so..." Sakura was about to say "nice," but she stopped herself, knowing it was foolish to allow surface-impressions cloud her judgment. Then again, she hadn't detected any strange, underlying currents in him like she had in Shigeru. The only read Sakura got from Murata was that he was your average, no-nonsense businessman who liked nice tea and a peace of mind. Either that or he was absurdly good at masking his devious nature, and even then Sakura should have been able to pick up on something.
Sasuke wiped the stray breadcrumbs on his lips with the back of his hand. "You saw the atmosphere a few hours ago in the mess; everyone's really wound up. Why else would Murata have been so adamant about you dressing up as a boy? I doubt there would have been any real problems with having a girl on board, but he didn't want to take any risks. How bad do you think it has to be that he's trying to guard against the smallest of contingencies?" Sasuke crossed his arms and leaned back against the mast, clearly unhappy. "He's definitely keeping something from us—those men don't even sound like they're afraid of the Tenkyuu attacking."
"True," Sakura agreed, though she thought the bigger problem was Shigeru. There was a chance Sasuke was right; perhaps Murata really had hired them to keep an eye on the crew under false pretenses, but even if it was a little shady, it was pretty harmless in the great scheme of things, objectively speaking. Sakura couldn't see them being anything more than passive deterrents—like those wooden owls you stuck up on rooftops to keep away the birds. She figured Sasuke's ire stemmed from their recent experience in the Land of Waves, a kind of paranoia that had manifested after almost being killed because their client had failed to disclose important details about the job (e.g. the possibility of engaging with S-class nin). Considering what had transpired, she really couldn't fault him for his misgivings, however, Sakura also realized something important.
"But why would he pay a premium to guard against the Tenkyuu? Wouldn't it have been cheaper for him to say he wanted some shinobi on his ship because he was afraid of an insurrection? A protection service against civilians would be a C-class mission, whereas a B-class mission to guard against pirates would be considerably more expensive. It's all a little backwards, isn't it?"
"Who knows, maybe internal conflicts like mutinies are considered more dangerous than outside attacks since they're harder to predict and defend against," Sasuke said, but Sakura could tell he was mulling over her words; she had made a pretty sharp point, but that only plunged them deeper into confusion. For the rest of the watch they stood brooding silently in the darkness, listening to the ropes strain against the sails as the winds pressed into the canvas.
The rest of the night went by uneventfully without a single sighting of a pirate ship to speak of; but that was what Sakura had expected. The more thought she gave to Sasuke's suspicions, the more it seemed to make sense, putting aside the strange fact that Murata-san might have chosen to shell out more than he needed to for their services.
By the end of their third watch, though, Sakura couldn't care less about the dubious case of their employer. She was chilled to the bone and exhausted from her night of fitful sleep, having only been able to nap for two hour intervals. Sasuke was in a similar state of fatigue, and they both sleepily stood sentinel until the sky began to turn a dull gray with morning and the ship's bell rang out five times to officially relieve them of their duty.
Thankful that it was over, they tiredly climbed down from the crow's nest and retreated back into their cabin's welcoming darkness, the flame from the oil lamp having been blown out long ago. Naruto lay snoring in the top bunk, and the two wordlessly kicked off their shoes before flopping onto their respective beds, Sasuke on the spare cot and Sakura on the bottom bunk.
"Night," Sakura flung over her shoulder before disappearing beneath the scratchy wool blankets.
Sasuke grunted out a response.
They had five more similar nights ahead of them: two nights for the remaining voyage over, and three nights for the leg back; Sakura really didn't want to think about it. However, as painful as night watch was, this mission was turning out to be more benign than they had anticipated. If Sasuke was right about Murata-san and Sakura was lucky, the only injury she'd incur on this mission would be a massive migraine from all the sleep deprivation, and even that she'd be able to offset by getting her rest during the daytime. Her breathing slowed as she sank deeper into unconsciousness.
The next thing she knew, someone was shaking her. "Sakura. Sakura, wake-up."
She jerked awake and sat up in bed, lost and confused as the darkness pounded against her brain. She looked around blearily, but all she saw were shadows. Where was she?
"Sakura," the voice said again. There was a hand on her shoulder and she grabbed it, feeling the person freeze beneath her grip.
"What's going on," she croaked, trying to get her bearings. Strange images ghosted across her thoughts: a summer sky, cicadas screaming within the tall grass, a blade plunging towards her. Sakura shuddered and a tear slipped from her eye, but she didn't know why. "What's going on?" She repeated. Why was her heart squeezing so painfully in her chest? Why did she want to cry? She tightened her hold on the hand, but it pulled away from under her grasp. She suddenly felt left alone, helplessly adrift in the middle of a vast abyss. She had been on her way to a routine border patrol, wilting beneath the white-hot sun. She pressed her face into her hands and a sob bubbled out from her throat.
The stranger grabbed her shoulder and gave her a shake. "Sakura, you need to snap out of it," the voice ordered, though not unkindly. The pressure around her shoulders disappeared again as the hands let her go. She heard drawers being open, items being rummaged through, and then a loud rasp and then a hiss of lit match.
Sakura sniffed, rubbing the back of her arm against her eyes to clear her damp vision. When she looked up, Sasuke stood before her, encased in the yellow glow of the oil lamp in his hands.
"Sasuke?" She muttered, beginning to realize where she was: B-class mission, The Shimotsuki, night watch, cabin room.
He sat at the edge of her mattress. "You need to get up," he said. Sasuke wanted to ask her what was wrong, but the urgency of the situation above deck took precedence.
In the flickering light, Sakura caught his frown and the hard look in his eyes. She yanked away the woolen blankets and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. "What's wrong?" She asked, hurrying to get on her shoes.
1. DUH NUH NUH NUUUUUUUUUH! a wild PLOT appeared! What will READER do? Fight? PKMN? Review? Run?