Chapter 8
Warmth and Comfort

27th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Near Rodrigo Basin, Neveland

Warmth. Warmth was the last thing Root expected to feel, but it was the only thing his brain could process as he came to his senses. You never appreciate warmth quite so much as when your last memory was of being halfway frozen to death.
There was something about this warmth. Yes, it was unmistakable. Only the warmth of flesh on flesh felt this way. He moved his hand and touched smooth skin that wasn't his own. As his vision adjusted to the near total darkness, he saw a pair of golden eyes looking back at him.
It was Azuki the Gandohese scout. They were together in a bivy sack, her naked body pressed against his. They weren't alone either. Several of Smitty's dogs were huddled up around the bivy sack in the cramped two-man tent. They were mutual sources of warmth, so he didn't begrudge the company.
"Good," Azuki said. "You are awake. Any pain?"
"Nothing that'll kill me," Root replied.
In truth, he ached all over and whatever didn't ache felt numb. However, there were more important things for him to worry about than himself.
"Did anyone else survive?" he asked Azuki.
She simply shook her head. It was then that it came back to him. Smitty, Crus, Tony, Clemens, Jingo, and Vincentes, all gone. And yet he was still alive and snuggled up with a naked Gandohese woman. It almost seemed like a bad joke.
"I told them not to send a rescue mission," he said. "Is there anyone else out here with you?"
"Just me," Azuki replied.
The thought of even one person putting their ass on the line for his rubbed him the wrong way. There was enough to worry about just from the elements, but there was also the matter of whoever was responsible for taking out his team. He and Azuki were completely vulnerable right now. The enemy had to know that, but maybe they were biding their time. Looking for a quick way to find the Junker Jorg, perhaps.
"Why did you come out here?" Root asked.
"Your friends were worried," Azuki said. "I am skinchanger. I can move quicker, easier. Safer for me out here than for normal human."
It was true that out of everyone onboard, she probably had the least to worry about, but it was still an unnecessary risk. She didn't seem to think so, though, because she embraced him and said, "Also, you are good man. Without you, people in danger from black-face men."
His disorientation had passed and now that Azuki was hugging on him, he started to think of her less as a simple heat source and more as a flesh and blood woman there for the taking. He had been out of action too long. He wrapped his arms around her and leaned in to kiss her, but she broke off her embrace and placed her hands on his chest to stop him.
"Save your strength," she said softly. "Perhaps another time."
He'd really been out of action too long. Embarrassed at his advances being rebuffed, all he could do was mutter, "Sorry."
Azuki, however, was being unusually charitable about the whole thing.
"Nothing to apologize for," she said. "It is nature, but there is time and place."
Root turned away from her lest he try another move on her. She successfully killed the moment, so it didn't take long for Root to get back in sorts. A little while passed in silence before Azuki decided to speak up again.
"It is time. I will get clothes."
Azuki wriggled out of the bivy sack, causing the dogs to raise their heads and take notice as she pulled off the clothes hanging from the guy line. First she gave him his long underwear and socks, then his field dress. Getting dressed in such close quarters was a real trick, especially trying to do so without getting out of the bivy sack. The dogs were getting agitated by all his squirming around and even more so when Azuki pulled out his parka and cold weather trousers from underneath them.
As he was putting on his boots, Root looked at the still naked Anju and asked her, "What about you?"
"I have my own way," Azuki replied.
The color drained from her skin and her black hair went white. Her golden eyes turned to an eerie ice-blue.
"Are you gonna be alright?" Root asked skeptically.
She picked up her sword in one hand and Martinique in the other and extended the rifle to him, saying, "I will be fine. We go."
Root took Martinique and once he had his webbing, cap and gloves on, he followed Azuki out of the tent. The cold was as unwelcome as ever, but the snow had let up for the time being and the wind wasn't blowing quite so hard. The scenery was as desolate as ever, but near the dogsled he saw three markers, which must have been for Crus and two dogs that were shot dead when he came under fire. The memory of it was still vague.
"Do you know who was attacking me?" he asked Azuki.
"Soldiers in white," she replied. "You kill two. I kill two. One more killed by own."
"Any survivors?"
"I see four run away."
"Did they take their dead?"
"Then I want to see them."
"Not far. Follow me."
Root followed Azuki about a hundred meters out. The bodies were half-buried by the snow. Root brushed one off to get an idea of who they were. It was just as he feared.
"Damn... Alpini."
"Arupini?" Azuki asked curiously.
"The Palatine's elite mountain troopers," Root explained. "Probably the best in the world for fighting out here."
Root did some quick figuring in his head. The Palatinians came in a Junker-class as well, so there were rather strict limits on how many men they could carry. Probably a platoon, but if they pushed their limits, they could've brought an entire company. Of course, that was assuming the ship the Junker Jorg encountered was the only one they sent. Root was getting a sick feeling that the worst was yet to come.
Gripping Martinique, he looked out around him. He didn't see anything, but that didn't mean no one was out there.
"We need to continue on to the objective," he said. "We've gotta be close."
"You are too injured," Azuki objected, "too weak."
"If I don't have something to report, they're just going to send another team out here to get killed."
"I will go," Anju said. "Fly over. Then we go back."
Root weighed his options. It would be difficult enough just making the trip back. They needed to know the Palatinians had Alpini out here and Tofels wouldn't be satisfied unless he heard something about the crash site as well. With Azuki's power, she could be there and back in a matter of minutes.
"Fine," he conceded. "Just be careful out there."
Azuki then transformed and took to the skies. Root decided to search the body at his feet for anything useful. He only had a couple rounds left for Martinique and about ten for his Barkley. Rifling through the dead Alpini's ammo pouches, he found a couple stripper clips, but they were 6.5s rather than the 7.7s Martinique took. He dug out the man's rifle from the snow. A Giulianini. Shouldering Martinique, he inspected the rifle. It was still in working order, it seemed. Three rounds in the chamber. Four more kilos to carry around seemed a worthwhile exchange for fifteen shots if they came under fire again. He'd save Martinique's precious few rounds for when he really needed it.
Pocketing the extra clips, he took up the Giulianini and surveyed the immediate area a little more. He scavenged another clip from a second Alpini along with a rifle grenade. You never know when something like that might come in handy.
It didn't take long for Azuki to return, swooping down and transforming as she touched down on the ground. It was still weird to see her white as the snow and completely naked like there was nothing wrong, but he wasn't going to make any comment on it.
"What did you see?" he asked her.
"Looks like airship but different," she replied. "Never seen any like it."
That jibed with what he had seen himself from the bridge. She would have had no way of knowing that, so it was proof enough that she actually went out to the site.
"Did you see any activity in the area?"
"No," she said. "Living or dead, all are in ship."
"No one else moving in?"
Root tried to read her. Would she lie to him to keep him out of another firefight? Possibly, but he didn't think that was what she was doing. He still didn't know how many Palatinians they were up against, but they apparently hadn't made their move on the objective yet.
"Well then," Root said, "the other team must've pulled out after they took out my guys."
There were a lot of factors at work here and Root was trying to sort it all out in his head, but Azuki interrupted his thoughts.
"We go back," she said.
He could appreciate the sentiment, but Root was reluctant to agree with her. He looked around him. It still felt like he was coming back empty-handed, but there was nothing to gain by getting himself killed out here. The intel he had could save lives later.
"Alright, Miss Anju," he said. "We go back."
"Call me Azuki."
It wasn't the custom of Easterners to go by their given names, or at least that was what Root had heard. It was no small gesture on Azuki's part. Root smiled appreciatively.
"Okay, Azuki, let's move."