The Nightmare Guard
"Kamanosuke! The sun is shining!"
A knife thumped onto the tatami matting and Kamanosuke slowly pushed himself out of a tangle of blankets. Isanami stood in the open door, morning sunlight spilling around her in a halo. "What do you want?"
"Are you sick? Why are you still sleeping?"
Kamanosuke frowned, unsure how to answer. Because it was autumn? Because he'd been on guard duty last night and that always made him think too much? Because he'd only just managed to fall asleep and was hoping for a short while of rest before the nightmares woke him?
He wouldn't voice even one of those reasons. Not to Isanami. Not to anyone.
"That's none of your business," he snarled instead and reached for the knife beside the futon. His fingers shook and the handle almost slipped from his grasp. "Is there a reason for you bothering me? Apart from your exceptional nosiness, that is?
"You're so rude!" Isanami sounded hurt, but Kamanosuke didn't care. He sighed his relief when she span on her heels and left, the screen sliding shut with a thump.
"And you're so annoying!" he said, but the words lacked their usual force. He fell back onto the futon and closed his eyes, but the darkness didn't welcome him. Instead, he saw images he wanted to forget so badly he yearned for a vat of sake to drown himself in.
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Kamanosuke rolled to his knees and shoved red tangles out of his face. "I only wanted a few hours sleep. Is that too much to ask?"
As if in mockery, Isanami's voice drifted in through the almost-closed screen. The pitch hurt his ears and the cheerfulness cut him like a knife. Why would the past not let him be?
He pushed to his feet and slid the shoji screen aside. His tired mind tried to make sense of sunshine and clouds, but the busy babble in the courtyard only served to confuse him more. Sounds rebounded in his head, amplified until bile rose in his throat to choke him and his vision blurred. He needed... quiet. Green. Summer.
Kamanosuke stumbled on the edge of the veranda, caught himself on a wooden post and staggered more than he walked across the courtyard to the gate. He wondered if he should swing past the kitchen and find something to eat, but just the thought of food made him gag and he carried on walking. Out of the gate, across the next courtyard, towards the gardens.
Sounds receded as he left the castle behind and the redhead's steps slowed. He looked around, desperate for a secluded spot. A glint of silver drew him to the fishponds and he crossed the meadow to an old, gnarled cherry tree that grew at the edge of the largest pond.
The meadow dozed in the sunshine, birdsong and insects the only sounds. Shades of green surrounded him. Lush meadow and sweet-smelling herbs reminded him of high summer. And even the cherry tree's leaves had not yet succumbed to the season.
Kamanosuke released a breath he hadn't known he was holding. Safe. This was... safe.
He stretched out under the tree and took a deep breath. Then another. And another. His shoulders relaxed, the tight muscles in his neck softened and, eventually, the clamour in his mind changed to white noise. Slowly, his eyelids slid closed and he slept.
On the far side of the fishpond, Saizō sat up amongst the tall grasses and considered the still figure under the cherry tree. He had known that something bothered the redhead, but until the previous night, he hadn't realised how troubled the younger man really was.
After their shift guarding the castle, Saizō had sat on the veranda outside Kamanosuke's room and the redhead never noticed him. Saizō had heard Kamanosuke toss and turn and mutter curses when sleep eluded him despite his exhaustion. He'd heard Kamanosuke's breathing finally slow. And he'd heard when the redhead suddenly jerked awake on a strangled cry.
Saizō was no stranger to sleepless nights. He knew how a string of them shortened even the calmest temper and bent reason and logic out of shape. He could relate to the bone-deep exhaustion that fogged the redhead's mind. So he was more than relieved when the dawn light dispelled the worst of the nightmares and allowed Kamanosuke to slip into a deeper slumber.
He'd kept to his vigil, but moved to the roof to attract less attention – which was why he was too late to stop Isanami barging into Kamanosuke's room. To his surprise, the encounter had not ended in bloodshed. And he'd been even more amazed to see the redhead on his feet only a short while later. True, he wove across the courtyard as if well and truly drunk, but he was upright.
It was only when Saizō went to close the screen door to Kamanosuke's room that he realised that the redhead was also unarmed. Kamanosuke's kusarigama lay coiled beside the futon.
Saizō couldn't explain why, but the thought of Kamanosuke without the means to defend himself bothered him. So he'd grabbed the weapon and followed the redhead out of the castle and towards the fishponds. He was perfectly happy to watch over the brat until he had regained some sense of self. Especially since Kamanosuke seemed to have found the perfect place to sleep the day away.
The leather bit into his wrists every time he moved his hands. It hurt and he could feel warm liquid slip along his palm. It tickled and he closed his fist and scraped nails over his palm. More biting pain as the leather cords shifted... and then laughter, evil in its intent and he knew what was coming next. Knew it and was unable to...
The loud cheerful voice jerked him awake and he blinked, surprised to find himself surrounded by shades of green rather than the mud and dried blood colours of his nightmare.
"Where are you?"
The voice came closer. Unable to face Isanami, Kamanosuke swung himself up into the cherry tree, hoping that the canopy would hide him from view.
"Isanami, what are you doing outside the castle?"
All of a sudden, Saizō stood next to the girl and Kamanosuke frowned. He hadn't noticed the samurai. That was bad. Did Saizō know he was here? Had he seen him climb the tree? Would he give him away?
"I'm looking for Kamanosuke," she said, beaming widely. "He slept too late and missed breakfast. He needs to eat."
"Hm," Saizō grunted and took her by the elbow. "He was sleeping late because he kept watch last night. And I'm sure he's old enough to feed himself when he's hungry. Go back inside."
Kamanosuke was beyond grateful when Saizō ignored the irritating woman's pleas and escorted her back into the castle. He let out a deep breath and realised he was shaking. Images of the dream came back to him as if he needed the reminder and his wrists burned in remembered pain.
He was so tired, he wasn't even sure if he wanted to kill Isanami for waking him or thank her on bent knee for dragging him out of the dream. And that thought scared him. He always knew what he wanted. Not knowing where you were going got you hurt.
Still, it was only the thought of Saizō coming back and finding him in such a pathetic state that got him moving. What Saizō thought of him mattered, more than what he thought of himself. Saizō never showed weakness. Saizō always had a plan.
And he needed to get further away from the castle. The river was further away. And nobody ever went there...
"Saizō... that hurts! Let me go!"
Saizō loosened his grip on Isanami's arm, frowning. He hadn't noticed that he was almost dragging her back through the gate. He was sure the brat would take off as soon as Isanami and he were out of sight – and he needed to see where Kamanosuke was going.
So that he could follow. So that he could keep an eye on the redhead. So that he... Feeling anxious for the brat was nothing new to Saizō, even though he'd rather face torture than admit it. And right now, Isanami was keeping him from something he needed to do.
He was looking around a little frantically, trying to think of a task to occupy Isanami with when Rokurō materialised by his side.
"Isanami," he said in his usual quiet way. "The Master has need of you."
Saizō stared. And Rokurō stared right back, but then he dipped his glance to the weapon in Saizō's belt and the samurai closed his eyes in relief. Sanada's shadow really didn't miss much.
Without another word, Saizō spun on his heels and left the castle. And he was just in time to see a slim, white-clad figure disappear down the trail to the river.
The trees by the rivers showed the first signs of autumn. On a normal day, Kamanosuke would have turned around and found another place to rest. But today was not a normal day, what with Isanami barging in and out of his every sleeping and waking moment.
He walked along the bank a little aimlessly, looking for a sheltered spot that was still mostly green, before he settled under a bushy hazel. His mind was still far too busy with the images from his latest dream and Kamanosuke pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. When he lowered his head, his wrists were right in his sight.
Pale, almost translucent, skin stretched taut over bone and sinew. Faint blue veins trailed gracefully, connecting inner wrist to palm. And just the faintest touch of silver scar tissue was visible along the edge of each wrist. So little physical evidence remained, yet his mind flayed itself raw over and over on painful memories.
Kamanosuke had tried drowning the dreams in sake. He had tried sleeping drugs. He had even resorted to smoking the grasses that made men see colours and hear music. Nothing had worked. The sake killed the dreams, but made him feel ill for days afterwards. The sleeping drugs sent him almost crazy with nightmares. And the grass just made him spew and eat and spew again.
So in the end, he'd given up and shied away from people when autumn grew close. He hid in caves or deep in the woods like a wild animal, suffering turns of sleep deprivation and nightmares until the first snow blanketed the ground and his mind took a break from tormenting itself.
Now, that option was no longer his to choose. By following Saizō – and Kamanosuke was honest enough to acknowledge that he followed Saizō, not Sanada – he was forced to stay in Ueda despite the changing seasons. And he had to get the nightmares under control. Because giving in would show weakness. And not showing weakness in front of Saizō was now more important than bad memories and nightmares.
As often before, thoughts of Saizō, and thoughts of his promise to fight Kamanosuke calmed and comforted the redhead. Tense shoulders relaxed and he unwound in the dapple green shadow of hazel leaves. He drifted off towards sleep when...
Saizō spat curses when he saw the redhead jump up, scream in frustration and take off running. A group of girls, Isanami in the lead, wandered along the riverbank, singing and giggling. All carried baskets over their arms, intent on picking berries or nuts – and some of Sanada's guards accompanied them.
Saizō took to the trees, intent on not being seen and accosted, but in doing so, he lost sight of Kamanosuke. He cruised through the woods, anxiety bubbling when he could find no trace of the redhead. Kamanosuke had never learned wood skills. Usually, he left a trail even a blind child could follow, but right now... Saizō wanted to curse, but instead he swallowed his pride.
Saizō's shout was lost amongst the trees. But he was sure that Sasuke had heard. He stayed where he was as the forest nin dropped to the ground behind him and didn't move a muscle when Sasuke placed a kunai to his throat.
"Did you see where the brat went?"
"Into the forest. Why?"
"He's not sleeping."
The knife disappeared and Sasuke stepped around him. "And not armed," he said with a frown, noting the kusarigama tucked into Saizō's belt. When he looked up, shadows clouded the hazel eyes. The same shadows Saizō saw in the mirror – when he felt honest enough to look.
As one, the two men turned and ran deeper into the wood, birds guiding their way. It was further than Saizō had thought. The brat really must have been frantic to make it this far in the state he was in.
"There," Sasuke pointed.
Ahead of them, the deep, gloomy green lightened a little. A break in the march of massive tree trunks. A sparkle of sunlight on leaves. Green leaves, moss-covered bark... a white coat and a dash of vermillion.
"I was going to offer to spar with him to help wear him out," Saizō said thoughtfully as he observed the shivering, huddled figure on the other side of the clearing. "But he's well past that."
Sasuke nodded. "And too stubborn to ask for help."
"Nobody likes to admit their nightmares," Saizō replied, voice soft.
"Or accept an offer of help."
"Which is why I won't ask," Saizō said with more conviction than he felt and started across the clearing. Unceremoniously, he plopped down beside the huddled form. "I smell burning. What's going on in that red head of yours?"
Kamanosuke curled himself even tighter and mumbled something unintelligible.
"Tired. Nowhere to sleep," the redhead said, a little louder. "Every time I close my eyes Isanami wakes me up again."
"Ah." The two nin locked eyes, and suddenly everything was easy.
"I'll make sure nobody disturbs you here," Sasuke stated quietly, a pink flush spreading from the bridge of his nose to his cheekbones.
Saizō bowed his head in thanks and hid his smirk. "I'll watch his back."
With a final nod, the forest nin took off and Saizō settled himself comfortably against the oak, careful not to touch the redhead or move too quickly. Kamanosuke was like a skittish foal at the best of times, especially when someone touched him unexpectedly. And Saizō wanted the redhead to relax, not rile him.
"I'll guard your dreams," he said softly when Kamanosuke's hunched shoulders finally softened.
"I won't tell you," the redhead mumbled, defiant despite his exhaustion.
Saizō wrapped his fingers around a length of silky red hair and yanked. "Don't be insulting, brat. I haven't asked," he growled good-naturedly. "Now get some sleep or you won't be in a fit state to fight me or anyone else."
Kamanosuke closed his eyes and let his muscles relax. And when Saizō reached to pull him against Saizō's chest, the redhead didn't fight. For once, he just sighed, curled closer into Saizō's warmth and drifted off to sleep. And when his breathing had deepened to the softest of snores, Saizō smiled and ran fingers through silky vermillion hair, content to stand guard over nightmares.