Chapter 1: Close Quarters
They had barely left Ueda, and already Saizō contemplated murder. In great detail and vivid colour, because the brat was simply too annoying. He clung like a limpet... well, not literally. Kamanosuke actually hated to be touched, but he clung just as effectively. And without Sanada or one of the others to distract the redhead, the constant attention made Saizō's head ache. It was almost as irritating as travelling with Isanami.
The woman commented on every damned thing she saw – and quite a few she didn't – and demanded food and home comforts at the most inopportune moments, while Kamanosuke....
"Saizō, I'm booooored! Let's fight!"
...Kamanosuke whined and wanted to fight. Saizō scowled and slumped in the saddle. He knew what the redhead was like, so why had he agreed to ride north to find a healer with Yuri Kamanosuke by his side?
He'd done it for the old man, of course. Or maybe Rokurō, whose life hung by a thread. Saizō respected the quiet brunet who guarded Sanada. Rokurō was loyal and Saizō understood loyalty. It pleased him, too, to see that the Lord of Ueda returned the sentiment. Since the attack on Rokurō, Yukimura had barely moved from the man's side. He had fought like a tiger to combat the effects of the poison Ana had used. And when he had asked if Saizō would ride north, the samurai had not thought twice about accepting the errand.
"Saizō, come and look!"
The eager voice set Saizō's teeth on edge. The pup hadn't stopped yapping since they left the castle, and Saizō wished for the peace of a roof, an empty road or one of Sasuke's oak trees.
Saizō sighed. Clearly, there was no peace to be had on this road. He swung down from his mount, caught the reins of the redhead's horse, which the idiot had just left to wander, and hobbled it alongside his own. No doubt, Kamanosuke wanted him to watch another demonstration of his prowess. Not for the first time Saizō wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Calling Kamanosuke's battle tactics clumsy had been a bad move.
A trail of snapped twigs and torn leaves led into the undergrowth and Saizō followed the signs of the redhead's careless passage. How Kamanosuke had survived for so long was a mystery to the Iga nin. The brat was loud, impatient and completely heedless.
When he found Yuri, the redhead stood at the edge of a clearing. Saizō stepped closer and the green eyes lit with excitement. Then the kusarigama's chain whirled, turning the sickle into a wheel of destruction.
Kamanosuke called his special wind technique, wrapping the clearing in a maelstrom of strong gusts, but barely touching the leaves on the trees. "See," he gloated, "strong and accurate. How will you attack me now?"
Without a word, Saizō spun alongside Yuri's unprotected flank and put a kunai to his throat. "Like this?" he suggested.
"Bastard," Yuri snarled. "I was demonstrating an attack!"
"Don't assume that anyone at your back is your friend."
The redhead froze at the words. The wind attack faltered and died, and the kama dropped to Yuri's side with a soft swish and a clink of chain. "I don't need you to tell me that."
The pain in the low, soft tones – so unlike Kamanosuke's usual shouts – stunned Saizō. But before he could figure out what to say or do, the redhead slid out from between Saizō's body and the knife and stalked away, spine stiff and shoulders around his ears.
Saizō ground his teeth in frustration.
For the next hours, Saizō had the silence he craved. Kamanosuke sat his mount, back straight, neck tight and eyes distant. Every now and then, one of his hands would clench around the reins until the knuckles shone white and the horse sidestepped nervously. And Saizō concluded that riding beside a silent Kamanosuke wasn't peaceful. It was uncomfortable.
The question was what he should do about it. Ignoring the incident was clearly not an option. Kamanosuke had a past, and Saizō had trespassed where he wasn't wanted.
By late afternoon, they reached a settlement almost too small to be called a village. A few houses lined the road, but one of them was an inn. Which suddenly looked very inviting.
"We'll stay here overnight," Saizō said and pulled his horse up. Kamanosuke didn't argue. He didn't comment. He merely jumped off his mount and reached for Saizō's bridle, while Saizō entered the building to find the proprietor and bespeak dinner and a room for the night.
The room was larger than Saizō had expected from such a small, out of the way place, and he began to understand why the owner demanded almost double the standard room rate. Saizō haggled, but more for appearance's sake. Sanada had handed him a generous travel allowance and told him to use it. The inn was clean and peaceful and their room all ready to be occupied.
Two thick futons were laid out on opposite walls, pillows stacked and blankets neatly folded, and Saizō gratefully dropped his pack beside one of them. The shoji screen to his right opened onto a small terrace, beyond which lay a rock garden. Miniature maple trees grew in shallow stone containers and water trickled down a carefully sculpted cascade. It was unexpectedly elaborate for an out-of-the-way inn and Saizō was grateful he had chosen to stop.
"Do we have to stay here?"
Saizō turned, surprised by the unease he heard in Kamanosuke's tone. "It's better than camping in the rain."
"It's not raining."
"It will be."
"You can't know that," Kamanosuke scowled, pointedly ignoring the line of dark clouds along the horizon and not moving from his position by the door. "We have an errant in the north and the old man told us to make haste. You're wasting half the afternoon by stopping here."
The brat was right, of course, but Saizō wasn't going to say so. Neither was he going to admit that he wanted to give Kamanosuke a chance to snap out of whatever dark mood Saizō's comment had put him in. Though judging by the scowl and the tension in the younger man's shoulders, the offer of a night of comfort and uninterrupted sleep wasn't doing it.
Well, Saizō wasn't going to give up so easily. Nobody who'd met him would fault the kid for his dedication. Yuri was a plucky fighter with enough nervous energy for three men and he trained almost constantly. A challenge should be an easy way to get his attention.
With a last wistful look at the tranquil rock garden, Saizō made sure all his weapons were to hand and turned towards the door. "Are you coming?"
"What?" The redhead looked up, green eyes suspicious.
Saizō relaxed his stance and let a grin curl his lips. "I thought you wanted to work on that new technique of yours."
"Think you could tighten it?"
"Into a blade! And then direct it where I want it?" Kamanosuke straightened, suddenly excited. "I battle your sword with a blade of air!"
"Hardly," Saizō scoffed, caught up in the younger man's enthusiasm. "You might be able to turn a spinning kama into a blade, but direct it quickly enough?"
Kamanosuke was keen to prove him wrong. Without further argument, he crossed the room, dropped his bundle beside the other futon and followed Saizō out of the inn and into the nearby woods. They faced off in a small clearing and Saizō dropped into a fighting stance.
"Now, let's see you focus that air."
Chapter 2: Uneasy Rest
Two hours later Saizō was decidedly short of breath and desperately in need of a bath. Kamanosuke wasn't in much better shape. His voice grated, scratchy from yelling and he swayed with exhaustion. The small clearing looked as if two armies had met in battle, but Kamanosuke now controlled a blade of air. Admittedly, his control was haphazard at times – wavering with the redhead's temper – but it was a much better start than Saizō had expected. And though he wouldn't say it aloud, the samurai was impressed.
"One more time," he yelled across the expanse of trampled grass, jumping high as a tightly bundled stream of air shot towards him. At the last moment, Kamanosuke yanked on the kusarigama's chain, the air stream changed direction and Saizō felt heat along his bicep instead of the blunt force he'd come to expect from the redhead's wind attack.
It cuts. Now that is ... interesting.
He somersaulted in midair and narrowly avoided the next strike while closing the distance between himself and the redhead. Now that Kamanosuke was working towards a more focussed attack technique, Saizō needed a workable defence and close-quarters seemed the best option. Get inside the other fighter's range and distract him.
Another hot slice along his arm told him he was underestimating the speed of Kamanosuke's air blade. He ducked under the whizzing chain and rolled out of the way of the slicing air coming up an arm's length away from the redhead. Heat streaked along his jaw – the kama, shit! – and then Kamanosuke yelped and the howl of the wind died around them.
"Don't drop your guard, just because you've scratched me." Saizō's voice was calm and the hand holding the kunai to Kamanosuke's throat didn't waver. "You wouldn't do that if you faced an enemy."
"You're not an enemy," Kamanosuke argued, green eyes narrowed. "The old man sent us on an errant. We can't do our job if I cut you to ribbons."
"As if, brat." The kunai disappeared and Saizō ran fingers along his jaw line. They came away wet. He wondered if praise for the developing technique would help or hinder, but Kamanosuke promptly solved that problem for him.
"I'm not the one bleeding. You're getting slow, Saizō." The redhead bounced on the balls of his feet as he fingered the tear in Saizō's sleeve. "Admit it, Saizō, you didn't think I could do it!"
Saizō made a face. "I didn't think you could do it. Are you happy now?"
"Yes!" Despite his elation, the redhead sat down rather heavily in the middle of the clearing. Saizō had the urge to point out Kamanosuke's lack of stamina, but he bit his tongue. It seemed prudent, seeing that Yuri had developed a brand new wind technique to prove to Saizō that his attacks weren't clumsy. At least this way, Saizō reasoned, he might have the chance to sleep at the end of their daily travels.
While Kamanosuke caught his breath, the Iga nin squinted through the canopy at the gathering clouds, wondering if the rain might hold off long enough for him to take a bath and enjoy the garden at the inn. The clouds were a deep grey edged in black and massing over half the sky making it really too close to call.
"Come on, lazybones. We'd best get moving if you don't want to get wet."
"I don't mind a bit of rain," the infuriating redhead yawned, not moving from his position. "Can't we stay here? It's much more relaxing than the inn."
Saizō's eyebrows hit his hairline. "How can a patch of grass in the woods be more relaxing than a proper inn, you nitwit? I want a bath and a decent dinner. And I don't mind sleeping indoors and on a futon for a change."
Kamanosuke's green eyes caught fire at the insult. "It's safer out here. Inns are traps. If you want a bath, there's a stream. If you want dinner, we can cook something. And I'd rather sleep under a tree in the fresh air."
"Are you fucking serious? How can an inn be a trap?"
"Are you fucking stupid?" Kamanosuke was on his feet now, hands on hips and yelling. "But it figures. You wouldn't see a trap, even if you walked into it."
Saizō had no idea where all of that was coming from but it was easy to see that the redhead was fired up. And damn serious. And he looked as enticing as hell.
Don't go there...
Saizō swallowed and sent a few unkind wishes winging towards Ueda. He'd known the brat would be trouble, as soon as Sanada had suggested the journey. He'd known it and yet... when had he ever listened to his instincts?
"Bend your brain to this riddle, o mighty samurai," Kamanosuke grated the words through his teeth. "How can such a smart-looking inn survive in an insignificant place like this, eh? This is not a trade route, the village is tiny and yet... "
"The innkeeper charges high prices. There's a caravan of pilgrims once a year and they pay so much, the innkeeper doesn't need customers for the rest of the time." Saizō scrabbled around frantically trying to come up with reasons. Any reasons. Anything at all that would negate the logic of Kamanosuke's words. "The inn is the daimyo's secret love nest."
The sound of Kamanosuke's laughter stopped him in his tracks. "And you tell me I'm crazy," the redhead chuckled as me made his way across the ruined clearing to Saizō's side. "It's like I said. You wouldn't see a trap even if you walked into it."
"So you'll stay at the inn with me?"
The redhead didn't pull off his nonchalant shrug. There was something in all this that really bothered him. But he found his voice after a time, along with some of his customary bravado. "I don't like it. But Sanada expects us back, so if you want to risk your life for a bath, I'm gonna look out for you."
xxX oOo Xxx
They reached the inn just as the rain was starting to turn from a drizzle to a downpour, so the chance of enjoying the peace of the gardens was gone. Then Kamanosuke insisted that they'd take turns getting cleaned up; depriving Saizō of the long soak he'd been looking forward to. At least the redhead didn't decide to turn the innkeeper's wife away when she came to serve dinner.
It bothered Saizō how quiet the usually so boisterous man had been ever since they'd returned to the place. He sat beside the open shoji, eyes on the wet garden and face in a frown and Saizō had to call him three times before he'd consent to come and at least look at what was a splendid dinner.
The miso and eggplant soup was excellent, but Kamanosuke did not touch his bowl, just as he had left the beans in plum sauce and dish of carrot and wakame with sesame dressing. He ignored the green tea, the soy sauce and selection of pickles their host offered, even though Saizō knew the his companion usually relished everything sour and salty. Kamanosuke even shook his head at bottle of sake that Saizō tilted in his direction – just when the samurai had thought he'd found a way to wipe the frown from the redhead's face. But no, Kamanosuke stuck to small bites of rice and steamed fish, eating with a deliberation Saizō had never seen him display before.
"Are you...," it actually sounded too stupid to say out loud, but Saizō couldn't stop. "... waiting to succumb to poison?"
"Not poison," came the redhead's quiet reply. "Sleeping drugs. They taste bitter, so they hide them in soy or pickles or sake."
"And for why?" Saizō was feeling more than a little irritated with the redhead now. First the snit on the road – and Saizō conveniently forgot that he'd started that one – and now this paranoia. "It's not as if we carry anything worth robbing."
Deep green eyes measured him for the longest time. "You're of great value to an innkeeper, you just don't know it."
Saizō had no answer for that and Kamanosuke clearly didn't want to discuss the matter either. So Saizō continued his meal, but ate more slowly, almost as if he was waiting and watching for the effects of a drug. Nothing happened and soon the only sound in the room was the thrumming of rain on the roof.
Saizō stretched out on his futon, relaxing with a deep sigh into the cushions. He would not readily admit it, but he much preferred the comfort of a mattress to camping under trees. Especially when the rain poured down outside like an angry river. From the far side of the room came the soft rustle of Kamanosuke getting situated and Saizō smiled. Surely now, Kamanosuke would agree that staying at an inn had its advantages.
Their sparring match might have tired the redhead, but Saizō had soon to accept that it hadn't erased Kamanosuke's unease. He fussed with the pillows and blankets for the longest time and, once he'd settled, Kamanosuke lay rigid and unmoving. His breathing was shallow and strained and the tension surrounding him was thick enough to cut.
The redhead's strange behaviour made no sense to Saizō. They were as safe as two shinobi could ever be. This was an inn, not an enemy's hideout. And yet, the usually so heedless brat acted as if he had walked into an ambush and was waiting to be attacked. It made just as little sense as the brat's continuous attempts to goad Saizō into a fight and after a while the samurai gave up trying to puzzle out his companion.
Instead, Saizō recalled the jolt of heat he'd felt on first seeing Kamanosuke's face on the bridge. The fine, porcelain skin, the impossibly red hair draped loosely over one shoulder, the delicate tracery of the tattoo had all left their mark on Saizō's mind. He recalled the lean body draped over his on the ship and suppressed a shiver. The brat had been drunk – Kamanosuke would never have been that tactile otherwise – but that hadn't stopped Saizō from enjoying the contact. He obviously had a soft spot for the redhead. Or a rather hard one, depending on how he looked at the matter.
Of course, Sanada had seen it. Seen it and played on it. The man presented himself as a buffoon, just out for amusement, but Saizō had realised early that his was a long way from the truth. Sanada was perceptive and oddly compassionate. What he gained from arranging the people around him into ever-shifting patterns was something Saizō was unable to answer. He doubted if even Rokurō knew.
They had kept a nightlight burning so they wouldn't be blinded if they needed to fight. And in that dim shine Saizō saw the redhead move. Before he had time to blink, Kamanosuke stood on his futon, knife out, wide green eyes darting around the room.
"What is it? I can't hear anything!"
"Exactly. What happened to the fountain?"
Saizō stilled and listened. The rhythmic clack of the bamboo fountain that had accompanied their evening had stopped. "Kamanosuke, it's raining outside. Heavily. Maybe the fountain's overrun." It was as likely an explanation as any, though not one the redhead could easily accept. He settled back onto the mattress, but his body stayed alert, the knife held in a tense grip.
Saizō was almost asleep again when the sound of the fountain returned. Restless now, he dozed. He heard the fountain cut out once more, heard the rhythmic clacking return. And every time he woke or moved, eyes blinked open across the room and he found himself caught in a deep green gaze.
Kamanosuke slept like a cat. Forever aware of his surroundings and alert to every sound and movement. No wonder the brat liked to stay abed until the sun was high if he measured his rest in brief snatches.
"You're paranoid," Saizō mumbled at one such meeting of gazes, caught on the edge of sleep.
"But I am still alive."
Chapter 3: Lashes and Scars
Where Saizo starts to learn a thing or two about the redhead.
Lashes and Scars
Morning couldn't come soon enough for Yuri Kamanosuke. He was so on edge it hurt, knowing that Saizō's life was under threat just as much as his own. More so, perhaps, since the stubborn bastard would never see it coming. Saizō saw the world in black and white in the mirror of his choices. He killed if he needed to, bled when it couldn't be avoided, picked himself up when he was knocked down and bowed his head to nobody. Saizō's code was a strict one, understood in the world of shinobi. Outside of it, though... Saizō wouldn't listen if he tried to explain, so Yuri had to keep an eye out for them both.
Saizō had gone back to sleep once the fountain's monotonous clacking resumed, but he didn't sleep as deeply as before. The nin was quicker to react to any sudden noises, Kamanosuke was pleased to note, and he kept his weapons closer.
"You're paranoid," Saizō accused once, voice heavy with sleep, when their eyes met across the room and Kamanosuke took it as a compliment.
"I'm still alive," he replied softly, almost awed.
He was alive. He was watchful. And if he could save the brunet's life by being paranoid, then he would. Saizō might be older, but he certainly wasn't wiser in all things.
Kamanosuke didn't change his mind once it was morning, either. The innkeeper's wife plied them with breakfast, offering far more food than the two of them wanted or needed, and tried to delay them in a myriad of small ways that set Kamanosuke's teeth on edge. He ignored all the delicacies laid out for them, sticking to plain rice and water. He would have loved to sample the broiled salted salmon and pickles, the salt and pepper octopus and sesame crusted vegetables... but he knew better. He could always wheedle Sanada's cook into making him his favourite dishes when he could enjoy them without the fear of collapsing into a drugged heap. Which reminded him...
"Saizō, can we get going? The old man told us to hurry. He wasn't planning on you stuffing your face until noon."
He'd put on his best whiny voice and all of a sudden the brunet was on his feet and Kamanosuke didn't bother hiding his grin. Riling up Saizō was sooooo much fun! And for a short while Saizō's irate glare let him forget his worries and pretend that they would ride north, find the healer and bring the man back to Ueda to help Rokurō without any adventures along the way.
Nobody followed them as they left the inn, but that didn't ease Kamanosuke's misgivings or the tightness in his neck. If his instincts served him – and they usually did – then the innkeeper would have a way of sending messages to the men who'd been spying on them the previous night. And somewhere along the road, a troop of armed men would be waiting.
Kamanosuke had expected Saizō to start quizzing him as soon as they were out of the village, but the Iga nin rode in silence. He wore his customary scowl, but the look in his eyes was one Kamanosuke didn't like. It made the brunet look older than his years. And tired.
Kamanosuke much preferred his companion riled, or scolding, or even properly angry, but he couldn't find the energy to think up a remark that would annoy Saizō. Kamanosuke hadn't slept in two days now, and he was wound too tight to even doze in the saddle. So he said nothing and tried to let the silence soothe him.
"Somebody's following us." Saizō's voice broke the silence and pulled Kamanosuke from his abstraction.
"Baka!" The redhead already had his weapon to hand and he felt his body humming with tension. "They're not following us; they're herding us into an ambush."
The road wound through a stretch of forest without villages or even a charcoal burner's settlement. Ferns spread like a living carpet between the trees and moss blanketed fallen trunks. There was nowhere to take cover, no defensible position... just trees and road and most likely a tightly surrounded clearing ahead.
"What in all creation are you talking about?"
Kamanosuke almost vibrated with impatience. "I told you already!" he hissed. "You don't have to believe me. Just be ready." A flash of light amongst the trees, like a sunbeam striking metal, caught his attention. Anticipation curled in his gut, pushing him to scream, move, do... but he kept his seat and hid the white-knuckled grip he had on the kusarigama in his lap. He called on the rage, the part of him he kept locked away, using it to sharpen his senses like he would use a fire to warm himself if he was cold. Nobody was going to surprise him, or hurt Saizō. Not while they rode together.
Another flash of light snuck through the canopy and Kamanosuke drew a deep breath. Their pursuers were becoming careless. Or else they were close to the ambush site. Whichever it was, Kamanosuke was ready for them.
xxX oOo Xxx
Saizō slowed his horse, watching Kamanosuke follow suit. The brat was quivering like a bloodhound about to be unleashed and the tension in the lithe frame bothered the brunet shinobi. Hell, the whole situation bothered him! Yuri was normally heedless, not paranoid. Admittedly, the younger man could and did complain endlessly, but his most common complaint was boredom. Saizō had never heard him moan about good food or the chance to sleep under a roof. Nor had he ever seen him approach a fight with trepidation.
He had trouble understanding how the simple decision to spend the night at an inn had changed the boisterous redhead into a tense bundle of nerves. Or had that happened earlier when he'd joked about...
He sensed the kunai before he saw it and bent low over his horse's neck to miss the flying blade, heels digging into the animal's side without conscious thought. Ambush or not, they had to move forward. Kamanosuke needed room to deploy his special wind technique and Saizō, though he didn't mind close combat, would rather see whom he was fighting.
The six men who stepped from the trees as the horses entered the clearing wore homespun and their weaponry was haphazard. They looked better fed and carried staffs and knives, but the resemblance to the men who had stood with Kamanosuke on the bridge was uncanny. Was that how Kamanosuke seemed to know the practices of robbers?
"Just look at you! You are a disgrace," Saizō heard the redhead snort in disdain. Before he could move, Kamanosuke had cleared his mount and unleashed a maelstrom of air at the men before them.
"Idiot." Saizō dismounted and sent the horses into the trees, out of the way of six men trying to subdue one crazy redhead. As usual, Kamanosuke was blind to everything but the fight, not minding that he was surrounded, not caring that men were coming up behind him.
If Sasuke had been with him they would have had a strategy. They would work together to subdue their attackers without time or effort wasted. With the redhead, the best Saizō could do was guard his back and stay out of the fight else he put himself in danger.
Screams rent the air as Kamanosuke used his brand new wind blade to decapitate one of the attackers. Hoof beats thrummed in the woods behind them and Saizō span and faced the remaining three men of the troop.
xxX oOo Xxx
"Let me see that wound."
With Saizō and Kamanosuke going back to back, the fight had been over quickly. Their opponents hadn't been combat trained and Saizō guessed that they relied on numbers, intimidation and brute force to subdue their targets. They hadn't come close to Saizō, but one of them had managed to land a lucky hit on Kamanosuke, though Saizō hadn't realised that the redhead was bleeding until they recovered the horses close to the river and the beasts had balked at the smell of fresh blood.
"Let me see that wound," he repeated, stepping closer.
The redhead turned away and pulled his coat closer around himself. "Leave me alone. I'm fine."
"You're not fine," Saizō grated through clenched teeth, instantly irritated. Kamanosuke had been stretching his patience since they left Ueda and now Saizō was in no mood for charity. "You're bleeding. While that may not bother you, it bothers me. Not to mention attract every furry creature in the woods." He reached for the younger man roughly, twisting his uninjured arm behind his back, before pushing him to his knees. "Lie. Down."
Holding the collar of Kamanosuke's coat, he pushed the redhead forward while yanking the coat towards himself. The brat howled and struggled, but Saizō was stronger and the fabric slid down the younger man's arms. Fresh blood stained the shirt underneath, spreading as Saizō watched.
"Yes, I can see you're fine," the brunet grumbled, his voice thick with sarcasm. He pulled the coat off completely and pushed Kamanosuke firmly onto his stomach. "Shut up and lie still, idiot. If we don't get the bleeding stopped you won't be going anywhere tomorrow."
"I've had worse injuries," the redhead complained and Saizō managed a snort.
"I'm sure you have, but not on my watch." He reached for bandages, keeping the younger man securely pinned with a knee in the small of his back. "Sanada is worried enough about Rokurō. Rescuing us is not in his plans."
He stripped the redhead of his shirt while talking to him, but the sight that met his eyes took his breath. Here was the reason why Yuri was so reluctant to take his clothes off and why he accepted violence as if it was an everyday occurrence. The kid had been beaten to within an inch of his life. And not just once. Thin silver scars criss-crossed the pale skin of his back like the web of a giant spider. The fresh cut from the attack, tracing from Kamanosuke's neck to the middle of his left shoulder blade, was merely one more mark amongst many.
"You're lucky, it won't need stitching," Saizō finally managed, voice rough. He covered the cut with a soft cloth and applied pressure until the bleeding stopped before winding bandages around the redhead's shoulder.
Yuri pushed upwards once Saizō tied the bandage off, clearly intent to escape the scrutiny, but the brunet stopped him. "Lie still," Saizō ordered, tracing warm, calloused fingertips softly over the many marks of violence.
Kamanosuke shivered under the gentle touch, but he no longer tried to get away. A quiet whimper escaped him and he buried his face in his arms to stifle the sound. The blush that spread over his face and neck was impossible to hide, but Saizō said nothing about it. He continued to trace the scars of old pain, slowly and carefully, as if his touch could erase the hurt.
xxX oOo Xxx
Kamanosuke woke to daylight and birdsong. His muscles felt stiff and his shoulder was sore, but the discomfort was easy to dismiss. He was alive and he'd had a lot worse. As he sat up he discovered that two thick blankets covered him and beside the saddle that served as his pillow lay a clean dark tunic and his white coat. The bloodstains were gone and the slash across the shoulder had been mended with tiny careful stitches.
Kamanosuke stared at the clothing. When had Saizō found the time to wash and mend Kamanosuke's coat? How long had he slept? He squinted at the sky. It had to be midmorning. And Saizō hadn't woken him to demand they get moving.
Warmth welled up in Kamanosuke – something more than gratitude for Saizō's thoughtfulness. It wasn't a feeling he was familiar with. It burned, made him hot and irritable as if his skin was too tight and would split at any moment. Or maybe, he just needed a bath. He was dusty, after all, and dried sweat and blood always made his skin itch. Kamanosuke rolled to his feet, reached for the tunic and coat and headed for the river.
The icy water cooled his fever-hot skin. He scrubbed himself clean and even managed to wash his hair without too much discomfort from his injured shoulder. He was drying off when warm arms suddenly wrapped around his middle and his bare back met an equally bare chest.
"You don't need to hide from me," Saizō's voice purred close to his ear when he struggled to get loose. "Not anymore."
The redhead shivered. Saizō's voice stirred strange feelings in his chest. Hot breath on his neck sent a wave of need through him and was that a tongue tracing the shell of his ear?
"Scars are a sign that you've survived. That you were stronger than your enemy. Wear them as a badge of strength and courage."
The brunet's voice was even lower now, more vibration than sound. It turned shivers of pleasure into shudders and weakened knees, so that the redhead was grateful for the arms wrapped around his waist. "You don't have that many scars," Kamanosuke said, pleased when his voice sounded almost normal.
Saizō chuckled. It wasn't a happy sound. His teeth closed around an earlobe and bit down until the redhead's body arched helplessly. "I just don't carry all my scars where you can see, brat," he rumbled. "Now get ready. We need to be on our way."
xxX TBC Xxx
Chapter 4: Education
Saizō found them a shallow cave in which to spend the next night. He'd followed a line of hazel shrub to the base of the cliff. The bushes formed a small clearing, just wide enough to protect the cave's narrow entrance from unexpected visitors. The cave was wide enough for the two of them and their horses, the ground inside and out level and dry. When he found a spring emerging from the rocks only a short walk away, Saizō was content with his choice.
Kamanosuke had been quieter than usual during the day's ride, merely complaining about being hungry until they stopped in a village they passed through for bowls of udon and platefuls of dumplings. The redhead wasn't sulking, but he didn't respond to Saizō's attempts at conversation, either. He barely looked at his companion and every now and then, a deep blush would creep from his collar to his ears. As the day wore on, Kamanosuke began to favour his left shoulder, though he vehemently denied being in pain when Saizō made the mistake of asking.
"I want to train," Kamanosuke whined after they’d settled the horses and lit a small fire to sleep beside. "You promised to teach me!"
"I will," Saizō agreed, "but we don’t need weapons." He raised both hands, palms out, to stop Kamanosuke's next tirade before it started. "Tell me who taught you to fight."
The flush that painted the redhead's cheekbones at that point didn't surprise Saizō this time. Neither did Kamanosuke's defiance.
"Nobody. I taught myself."
"Then you did well. But there's more to being a fighter than using a weapon. There are other skills you may find useful. Ninja skills." He looked up and caught Kamanosuke's gaze. "Tonight's lesson is stealth. I want you to surprise me."
"How?" The green eyes narrowed suspiciously and Saizō found the look far too enticing. Kamanosuke's glare was never just confined to his eyes. His whole body came to life when his temper flared and Saizō had to take a moment to breathe and remember what he was doing.
"I will sit here by the fire and prepare food for us." Saizō placed a senbon beside each of his hips. "I want you to remove at least one senbon without me noticing."
"That's all?" Kamanosuke squinted, still suspicious.
"It's not as easy as it looks."
And it wasn't.
While he watched over their food and Kamanosuke tried to get close enough to snatch a senbon, Saizō remembered his own lessons: the endless hours of learning to be quiet, to stay out of sight, blend into the background and move without attracting attention.
Kamanosuke's volatile temperament made it difficult for him. Being still was a challenge and he had never learned to move in silence or blend into his surroundings. Leaves rustled under his feet, twigs snapped, his coat caught on branches. He disturbed pebbles and cast shadows. For most of the time, Saizō could hear him breathing or swearing softly under his breath. But Kamanosuke was tenacious. Every time Saizō caught him, he started over. And with every attempt he came closer to his goal.
"Dinner is almost ready." Saizō moved from his position when he saw how pale Kamanosuke's face had grown. He had to be in significant pain, but of course Kamanosuke was far too stubborn to admit it. "Let me show you how it's done. That should help you cover the last few feet."
They traded places. Kamanosuke settled in front of the cave beside the fire while Saizō disappeared into the trees. He did the one thing Kamanosuke had not thought to do, even though it most resembled his usual style of attack. He approached from the front, keeping the fire between himself and his target.
The younger man stared into the flames and now and then stirred the stew with idle movements. The green eyes were hazy and Saizō was relieved he'd thought of some form of training that didn't involve more blood, mayhem and exertion. The redhead was heedless and there was always the chance that he'd be hurt worse before he agreed to take the rest he needed. Practicing stealth skills at least didn't carry the propensity for further injuries. And Kamanosuke really needed to learn how to move undetected.
Saizō didn't have Sasuke's level of skill, the Koga nin managed to all but disappear in a wood, but he used leaves and twigs to soften his outline and soil to darken the skin of his face and hands. Then he dropped to his stomach and slid towards Kamanosuke. He moved an inch at a time, all thought and distraction drowned by memories, until his fingers touched the senbon. He picked it up and retreated just as carefully until he was back under the cover of the trees. After he'd cleaned the dirt and vegetation off himself, he stepped from the trees well in Kamanosuke's line of sight and held up his trophy.
"There you go."
Kamanosuke started, looked for the two senbon beside him and then glared at Saizō. "I didn't even see you," he accused. "You moved too fast!"
"Wrong." Saizō settled himself beside the fire once more. "I moved very, very slowly. The trick with stealth isn't speed. It's concealment and patience."
"Which I don't have."
Saizō took note of the sullenness in Kamanosuke's voice, but blamed it on the pain. "You're a quick study," he said. A simple statement of fact. "You'll learn." He removed the pot with the bubbling stew from the hook over the fire and put a pot of water in its place. Kakei had handed him a small pack of herbal tea before they left. Seeing how pale Kamanosuke was and how carefully he moved, the healing brew might do him good.
"There's something I wonder about," Saizō said after they had shared a peaceful meal and he sat and watched tiny bubbles gather in the base of the pot. "How did you know we would be followed from the inn?"
It was the wrong thing to say. Kamanosuke stiffened and then turned his head away from Saizō's scrutiny. "I knew."
"Yes. But how?"
The redhead's reluctance to answer sparked a flash of irritation in Saizō, but he kept his temper on a leash. He wanted to know what he had missed. Starting an argument would be pointless when it was his aim to gather information.
An exaggerated sigh was his reply. "You're a pain," Kamanosuke groaned, resolutely staring into the trees.
"You told me I wouldn't see a trap until I walked into it," Saizō prodded. "I concede that you were right. So tell me how you spotted it."
Kamanosuke finally spun around at that. "I just knew. Isn't that enough?"
It wasn't, but Saizō couldn't find the words to explain why he needed to know. He glared at the cups as the brewed tea and thought back over everything he'd seen the younger man do and say since they met. "The men you stood on the bridge with," Saizō said slowly, trying to work things out.
"What about them?"
"They looked similar to the lot that accosted us in the woods." He speared the redhead with a hard look. "Did you use to rob inns?"
"But you robbed people. You killed for money."
"So did you."
"I wasn't judging you. I'm trying to understand how you saw a trap when I did not."
"You're judging. You always do." Kamanosuke's voice grew quiet and unusually pensive. "And yet, when I wanted you to kill me, when I begged you to finish what you started, you let a girl dissuade you."
"Isanami isn't just any girl. If she'd not been there, I would have killed you."
"No. You wouldn't."
For an endless heartbeat or two, the green glare burned with an emotion Saizō couldn't identify. Then Kamanosuke turned away from the fire and stretched out on his blankets. Soon, the shuffling and rustling of him getting comfortable died away and the crackling of twigs snapping the flames was the only sound between them.
"Were you really so desperate to die?"
Saizō's question cut the silky darkness like a well-honed blade, silently and too fast to avoid. The fire had burned to embers and Saizō lay on his side, head propped up on his hand, watching the last tiny flames dance over deep red coals. The redhead's words turned circles in his mind. He contemplated them from all angles, but nothing in his experience matched what he thought he'd heard in Kamanosuke's voice. Even when he felt like an outcast, fated to wander without aim and suffer without cause, Saizō had never thought of throwing his life away. That Kamanosuke might have seriously considered it bothered him more than he was willing to admit.
His voice was a mere breath on the wind and he didn't expect to hear Kamanosuke's voice rise in reply. When the answer came, though, it stopped his heart for a beat.
Chapter 5: Plague
Three more days of travel brought them close to where the healer was said to reside. Kakei's brew had helped Kamanosuke recover from his wound and he was as loud and heedless as Saizō had ever seen him, complaining of boredom every step of the way. They never spoke of the inn again, or the conversation they'd had by the fire. Saizō recognised pain and unease, when once he'd only seen defiance. And where once the constant noise and challenges had irritated him, now he was able to bear them with equanimity.
He found enough moments in the day when the redhead's special brand of stubborn riled him so much that he fought the urge to bash the idiot's head into new shapes. Or maybe it was the sight of long slender legs clinging to the horse's flanks and the suggestive way Kamanosuke drew his loose, red braid through his fist over and again, the green eyes half closed in pleasure. Watching Yuri Kamanosuke, it was hard to tell at times.
"Hey! What's happening?"
The shout was loud enough to make Saizō look up. He'd been so caught up in his thoughts that he'd paid little heed to the roads, not noticing that they'd grown busy with people heading the other way carrying most of their belongings.
Kamanosuke wasn't so preoccupied. He turned and rode alongside some of the wagons, questioning the occupants.
"They're running from a plague," he apprised Saizō when he returned. He didn't sound riled, but his eyes were narrowed almost to slits. Instead of his usual loose slouch, Kamanosuke's back was rigid. "Idiots. Still, they say that we'll find the healer in Aigawa, staying with the village elders.
"We won't get that far tonight," Saizō heaved an irritated sigh. He had enough of chasing the elusive healer through the hills. He wanted the man back in Ueda. Now. Every delay spelled more pain for Rokurō and lessened the chance that he would recover his sight. It irked him beyond reason that the redhead didn't seem fazed by the delay, that he was blithely planning yet another overnight stop.
"We can stay at one of the abandoned farms," Kamanosuke crowed gleefully as they moved against the stream of traffic.
"And catch the plague?"
"There is no plague."
"How would you know?" Saizō shot back irritably.
Kamanosuke gestured at the wagons. "Nobody is sick," he pointed out. "And we've seen no fresh graves."
"Maybe they didn't bury their dead."
"Yeah," the redhead drawled, smirking. "The bodies just vanished... "
For once, Kamanosuke made sense, but Saizō would die fighting rather than admit that aloud. "So why are they all running away... if it isn't a plague?" he queried instead.
"I'm not the one running," Kamanosuke shrugged, half-querulous, half-unconcerned. "I suggest you ask them."
Saizō did nothing of the sort. He stopped arguing with the redhead, kept away from the fleeing civilians as best he could and watched the shadows lengthen across their path. Saizō had lived through a plague. He had seen friend and foe fall to its silent onslaught, had watched them being left alone to suffer and die before being tossed aside like garbage. If he never saw the like again, it would be too soon.
"This looks like a good place," Kamanosuke declared as the sun reached the horizon and a smart-looking farmhouse loomed ahead of them. The grounds were well tended. Vegetables grew in neat rows beside the house and a small, fast-running stream cut through the back garden. "There's even a proper well."
"What's exciting about a well, moron?" Saizō grumbled, reluctant to stop in the abandoned farmstead despite his fatigue.
"Honestly?" Kamanosuke countered. "You're bristling with ninja skills, but they didn't teach you that deep wells provide cleaner water?"
"Wells can be poisoned," Saizō defended himself, only to see Kamanosuke roll his eyes.
"Lame, Saizō. That's just lame." He hopped off his horse, leaving the reins dangling carelessly, and made his way to the back entrance of the farmhouse. The signs of a hasty departure were anywhere and Saizō watched Kamanosuke's back grow rigid once more.
"What?" he called out, swinging down from his mount. He tethered the two horses and neared his companion, fingers hovering near his kunai.
What Saizō heard in the redhead's voice wasn't nothing. Kamanosuke's voice burned with emotion. With something so intense that Saizō recoiled from its fierce fire. By the time Saizō reached the place where Yuri had been standing, the redhead had already turned away. Saizō's eyes fell on a small ragdoll laying by the door, dropped by a child on the way out, maybe, next to a few simple geta sitting in an untidy pile... nothing that should have upset his companion.
With a sigh, Saizō turned aside. "Do you really want to stay here?"
"Yes," Kamanosuke yelled back. "But not inside."
Saizō's sigh of relief was silent, but heartfelt. He didn't want to have to admit his fears to Kamanosuke, any more than the redhead wanted to talk about the scars on his back or his knowledge of footpads' ways. They were well matched that way, each carrying secrets. Not for the first time, Saizō wondered if that was the reason Sanada had chosen Kamanosuke to go with Saizō. Or whether he'd seen... what Saizō had tried to hide even from himself.
xxX oOo Xxx
The healer was a small man of indeterminate years, with large, deep brown eyes in a delicate face. He sat cross-legged outside the village elder's house beside a fire, a chopping board across his lap. Bundles of herbs and roots lay on the ground next to him and various pots sat around the outside of the fire, the contents cooling. At first glance, the man looked young to be so powerful a healer, his brow smooth and the corners of his eyes without a line or wrinkle. His hands were a much better indication of his age. Rough and calloused, the skin was cracked from using harsh soaps and astringents, the fingertips stained from the sap of healing plants, the knuckles abraded from grating bark and digging roots.
"You're here for drugs to cure the fever?" he asked tiredly when the two nin pulled their mounts to a stop beside him.
"No." Saizō dismounted and bowed. The man might look kind and unprepossessing, but he had a reputation powerful enough to have come to the notice of the Lord of Ueda. That alone assured Saizō's respect. "Sanada Yukimura, the lord of Ueda, sent us to fetch you. One of our companions was gravely injured in an attack. He needs your help."
"I see." The healer didn't take his eyes from the mixture bubbling in a small pot sitting close to the fire. "Tell me what happened."
Saizō did so, aware of Kamanosuke dismounting beside him, of the redhead's eyes tracing everything from the small tidy houses to the healer's fire, from the pale, wan forms sitting in the sun, tended by relatives, to the sway of tall reeds in the distance and the flight of geese overhead.
"This injured companion of yours," the healer said when Saizō had fallen silent. "Is it Unno Rokurō?"
Saizō stared. "Yes," he finally admitted. "How did you know?"
"The lord of Ueda is skilled at the healing arts," the man answered. "So is Rokurō. They rarely need my help."
"Will you come with us and help him?"
"I am needed here."
"You can cure the plague?"
"It isn't the plague." The healer moved the bubbling pot from the fire and put another in its place. "It's merely a fever, common in these parts. It returns every few months."
"It's the air from the swamp," Kamanosuke said suddenly from behind Saizō. "It kills. Slowly."
Saizō spun and found the redhead leaning against a willow growing beside the elder's house, looking towards the expanse of swaying reeds. The kusarigama was in his hands, the sickle swinging idly.
"A demon or evil spirit, you mean?"
Kamanosuke shook his head. "I have killed men who were monsters. But I've never met a demon. And this is just bad air. It kills."
The healer regarded Kamanosuke curiously. "Very few of the villagers actually die from the fever," he offered.
"But it leaves the survivors weak for a long time after," Kamanosuke replied, as if this was understood. "Too weak to fend for themselves and too weak to fight. Easy targets.”
Saizō had to strain to hear the words as Kamanosuke's voice grew softer and softer. The beautiful green eyes narrowed. Their expression hardened and froze in a way Saizō had begun to recognise. The redhead was bound and determined to deal with this plague... this fever, even though Saizō could not fathom how to defeat a disease. But he recalled the feel of old scars under his fingertips and sighed. It was not part of their task here, but there was no way he could deny Kamanosuke's need. Not after having yet another glimpse in the young man's past.
As if he felt Saizō's gaze, Kamanosuke suddenly straightened. He stepped away from the willow and squared his shoulders. "The only way to stop the fever returning is to destroy the swamp," he declared, voice so sure and firm that it didn't even occur to Saizō to question his words.
"How do you destroy a swamp?" Saizō asked instead quietly, moving to stand by Kamanosuke's side. The healer and the grey-haired village elder also drew closer to listen.
"Drain it or drown it," Kamanosuke replied, staring at the expanse of reeds and open water as if it were an enemy to be vanquished.
Saizō looked expectantly at the village elder. "What would you prefer?"
Chapter 6: Revelations
Where we learn more about Kamanosuke's past and Saizo learns a few things about himself.
Saizō's patience was almost gone by the time the village elders reached a decision. Only the healer's calming presence held him back from invading the tight circle and banging heads together. That, and the strange look Kamanosuke wore. The redhead's face resembled a festival mask, the lips a tight line and eyes narrowed, unmoving whatever Kamanosuke looked at. But Yuri Kamanosuke's eyes told a different story. They blazed green fire so fierce that, though the look wasn't sensual or even directed at him, heat kindled deep in Saizō's gut. Just watching all that heated passion was intoxicating.
Saizō drew close to Kamanosuke, who bounced on the balls of his feet while he waited, the lithe body coiled tight for action.
"What do you prefer to do?" he asked softly. Kamanosuke had explained the villager's options several times, with more patience than he was usually capable of displaying. Kamanosuke could help them drain the swamp – effectively turning the area into dry land to be used as a field or meadow. Or he could return it to the clean, peaceful lake it had once been. But he was clearly keen to get moving.
"I don't care," he shrugged at Saizō's question. "It's their village."
"You've done this before?"
Yuri nodded, and a deep flush rose from his neck and swept across his face. He didn't look up or meet Saizō's eyes, but after a time his voice drifted to up to Saizō's ears. "I have to."
Saizō was debating whether to ask, but the elder of the village – a blacksmith by the name of Kenjiro – joined them then and the long wait was over.
"We'd like the swamp to be a lake once more," he said, sounding oddly unsure for such a mountain of a man. He couldn't hold a match to Isanami's brother, of course, but he stood easily as tall and wide as Kakei-san.
"Fine by me," Kamanosuke said and turned his back, done with the waiting.
Saizō followed him as the redhead paced around the swamp, stopping abruptly now and then and muttering under his breath. His boots splashed through brackish water, the white coat snagged on reeds, and the kusarigama decimated swathes of bulrushes whenever they stood in Kamanosuke's path.
"What are you doing?"
"Finding the best place to start," Kamanosuke snapped and stopped in his tracks, as if all he'd needed to decide on a starting point was Saizō's question.
The spot Kamanosuke had settled on was a little mound, barely a hillock, covered in short, firm turf. The swamp spread out before them, an arena of reeds and rushes in soft colours. An empty wheat field stretched into the distance to their left and the village's houses were just visible on their right. Saizō found nothing remarkable about the spot, but he was careful not to say so.
"Anything you want me to do?" he asked as Kamanosuke took a firmer grip on the kusarigama's chain.
"Stay out of the way," the redhead grunted.
He swung the kama in a wide arc and the world around them exploded into a maelstrom of wind and mud.
xxX oOo Xxx
Saizō had never considered the exact composition of a swamp. He avoided swamps on account of footing that was too treacherous to fight on, not because he feared the plants he couldn't name or the strange blue lights that whispered over the surface when it grew dark. If an answer had been needed, he might have opined that a swamp consisted of plants, soil and water... but just how much water there was in a swamp came as a surprise.
As much as the realisation that he had trusted Kamanosuke's words without the need to question. It was an odd thing for him to do after his tendency to question everything had got him into so much trouble over the years, but right then he didn't want to either explore or explain it. Streams of mud and rivulets of dirty water all around him gave credence to the idea of turning the swamp back into a lake, and Saizō relaxed his tight stance and kept his attention on Yuri Kamanosuke.
Before his eyes, whorls of air lifted sections of reeds and rushes, tearing them from the slushy ground and depositing them on the empty wheat field. The air grew thick with water and silt. The obnoxious, viscous mix clung to his skin and clothes and even made breathing difficult. Worst of all was the stench of decay that rose with each new section of swamp Kamanosuke's incessant storm whorls lifted and dumped. In no time at all Saizō choked on the noxious fumes, hiding his face in his collar to aid his breathing.
Yuri Kamanosuke did nothing of the sort. His lithe shape taut with tension he braced his feet on the hillock and sent air blades to cut reeds and rushes. Whirling streams of air lifted the cut plants away from the swamp, before the winds ripped out the roots and mud and reformed the lake. When the pile of dead leaves and stalks on the field grew too tall, Saizō drew his blade, called the cleansing light and burned as much of the decaying mass as he could reach.
Soon, the edge of the village looked like a battle zone. The air was thick with smoke and mud, the ground trampled and torn as if armies had moved over it during a rainstorm. Dead vegetation and debris littered every surface and small fires flickered here and there, left over from Saizō's efforts at clearing the mess. If someone had taken Saizō, shown him the area and told him this was hell, he'd have believed it. He half expected to see streams of wagons leaving the village, expected the villagers to flee from the destruction they wrought, but in the moments when the air cleared a little he saw most of the village watch Kamanosuke's battle. Many had their hands over their mouths in fear, but nobody moved as much as an inch and Saizō felt waves of determination willing the redhead on.
Destroying the swamp took hours. By the time daylight morphed into dusk Kamanosuke swayed on his feet. His eyes were glazed, his body clearly beyond exhaustion. But he refused to stop, refused to let a single corner of that swamp live, knowing all too well that it would spread again if not eradicated. After a while, Saizō gave up arguing for a break. He simply stayed close, ready to lend his support and equally ready to catch Kamanosuke when his strength gave out.
Kamanosuke held on until none of the noxious mud remained and the lake began to fill with fresh water seeping from the ground. Then he let the kama drop on its chain and stared at the destruction surrounding him from emerald eyes that were dull with fatigue.
"Slaughtered," he slurred, too tired to form recognisable words. "Dying. In a few weeks, this will be a lake again and I'll be..."
He folded where he stood, unconscious or asleep, and Saizō lifted Kamanosuke into his arms, amazed at the slight weight, but secretly thrilled to have the other so close.
Yuri Kamanosuke lay limp in his hold, his cheek resting against Saizō's shoulder. His eyes were ringed by deep shadows, but the full lips turned up at the corners in the faintest satisfied smile. Kamanosuke was exhausted, but he'd traded his strength gladly and without hesitation.
"I wonder how old you were," Saizō murmured softly as he walked towards the village, the redhead cradled close against his chest. Kamanosuke's knowledge, his determination and his ice-cold rage meshed with images of the scars on the other man's back. And the result was horrific.
"Seven," a quiet voice suddenly whispered and deep green eyes looked up at Saizō, so full of pain that Saizō could barely breathe. "They killed the men, took the women and children. Sold most of us on the way to Kyoto."
"Did you escape?"
Saizō was within sight of the healer's cottage before he heard the answer, faint and tainted with the echoes of old nightmares. "When I was twelve."
xxX oOo Xxx
The healer waited for Saizō and guided him to the bath house. The villagers stayed well out of their way and Saizō didn't blame them. Covered in mud and debris from the destroyed swamp, he and Kamanosuke looked more like shapeless monsters than men. And they smelled about as bad.
"Your companion said the mud in the swamp breeds the fever," the healer said softly, setting down towels, soap and clean clothes for them on the bench nearest the door. "You must wash it off at once. Do you need help bathing?"
Saizō thought of the scars on Kamanosuke's back, of the redhead's reluctance to shed his clothes in public and shook his head. "I can manage, thank you."
"Then I will go and prepare food and healing tea. You are both guests in my house tonight."
Before Saizō could argue, the man was gone. He stood in the quiet bath house with Yuri Kamanosuke cradled in his arms and shook his head. When had his life turned so strange?
"Are you awake, brat?"
The redhead didn't reply and Saizō sighed. Thick, viscous mud covered them from head to toe, along with leaves and twigs and a green sludge whose origins Saizō really didn't want to investigate. It squished between his toes as he walked and every time he shifted Kamanosuke's body in his arms, greyish-brown rivulets ran down his arms and flanks, tickling his skin and raising goose bumps. A bath was most necessary, but... how would Kamanosuke react if he learned that Saizō had stripped and bathed him?
"If you can overcome your fear..." the healer's voice sounded in his mind, reminding Saizō of a conversation they'd had while the village elders deliberated.
"I don't fear anyone."
"You fear to trust, shinobi. Loyalty without trust is worthless. It gets you killed or leaves you forever lonely."
There was truth in the healer's words. Saizō could acknowledge that, just as he'd acknowledged earlier that he'd trusted Kamanosuke to deal with the swamp. His attraction to the redhead was an entirely different matter. Especially given Kamanosuke's history. Could he accept that Yuri Kamanosuke drew him like a flame drew a moth and then do nothing about it? Could he look upon the redhead with equanimity, knowing that there was more between them than the trust born of a common task?
Saizō had no idea.
And since standing around wet and dirty wouldn't help him reach a decision, he did what he often did. He pushed the thoughts aside and focussed on the task at hand.
It worked for a while. Long enough at any rate, that he had them both stripped of their filthy clothes and scrubbed clean. Kamanosuke didn't really surface throughout Saizō's ministrations. He could be enticed to move when Saizō ordered him, but didn't stay aware for long enough to comment on anything Saizō did.
The network of scars on Kamanosuke's back looked even more horrific the second time Saizō saw them. If he'd needed a reminder of Kamanosuke's past, he had it right in front of his eyes. Still, Saizō enjoyed the feel of the redhead's soft skin under his hands. He took time to wash Kamanosuke's hair, lathering and rinsing until not a speck of mud remained, before running a comb through the long strands and braiding them carefully.
The healer had added herbs to the soaking tub and Saizō managed to wake Kamanosuke long enough to get him settled into the warm waters. When he relaxed beside the redhead with a grateful sigh of his own, the trouble started. Kamanosuke's head drooped until it landed on Saizō's shoulder, then an arm snuck around Saizō's waist and soon they were skin to skin from shoulder to ankle, Kamanosuke practically draped over him.
Trust the loudmouthed, contact-shy redhead to be a snuggler!
Scented steam rose softly from the water's surface, meandering towards a black velvet sky. The sounds of the village were a mere hum in the distance and Saizō had never been so grateful that they had the baths to themselves. This way, nobody would see his weakness or condemn him for his actions as, slowly and reverently, Saizō wrapped his arms around Kamanosuke, buried his face in the younger man's glorious hair and closed his eyes.
It was well past the moment to deny how he felt.
Chapter 7: Boon
Where Saizo realises that helping Rokuro might involve more than just finding a healer.
"I can walk, damn it!" The soak in the hot herbal bath had revived Kamanosuke enough that some of his contrariness raised its head again. The complaints lacked punch and acid, though, so Saizō took the redhead's grumbling in stride. Once upon a time, the fact that Kamanosuke could barely keep his feet but insisted on walking would have riled Saizō to violence. Just as he would have found the redhead's clutching at Saizō's sleeve to hold himself upright irritating, rather than oddly endearing.
But matters had changed and Saizō's patience for all Kamanosuke's idiosyncrasies had grown to the point where he felt protective rather than riled. And the gods help him if Sanada ever caught wind of that.
"Then walk," he suggested. "But come this way. The healer is expecting us."
"I don't need healing."
You have no idea what you need, brat, Saizō thought, amusement mingling with heat as Kamanosuke leaned heavily against him. The clean clothes the healer had provided were a little loose on Kamanosuke's lithe frame. Saizō had not bothered fastening all the laces, more intent to get the redhead dressed and to a safe place where he could sleep, and now the shirt was sliding off Kamanosuke's shoulder as he dragged against the larger nin.
"You may not need healing, but you do need sleep and we're guests in the healer's house. So stop your whining." Saizō tucked the shirt collar up, took a firm hold of Kamanosuke's elbow and turned him off the main road and down the smaller thoroughfare that led to the healer's cottage, glad when they arrived without incident. Taking care of an injured comrade was one thing. He didn't want to be seen carrying a loudly complaining, struggling Kamanosuke through the village. That would just be... wrong.
And far too enticing.
As soon as the healer was in sight, Kamanosuke straightened from his slouch. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin defiantly, daring the man to declare him less than hale and hearty.
Fortunately for the peace of the village, the healer did neither. He bowed instead and invited them into his home where two futons had been set up side by side and a table waited laden with food. Water bubbled in a kettle and the healer set about making tea as soon as he'd ushered his guests through the door.
"'m not hungry," Kamanosuke grumbled. He made it to the futon and pitched face down onto the blankets, not even bothering to remove his boots.
Saizō turned an apologetic look towards the healer, but the man merely shrugged and smiled gently.
"He'll be hungry later, when he has recovered some of his strength. See if you can make him more comfortable and then we can eat. Oh," the man stopped Saizō before he could turn away and held out a small cup. "He should drink this before he sleeps."
Saizō wrestled Kamanosuke's boots off and woke him enough to force the herbal concoction down the man's throat before he tugged the blankets closely around him. Kamanosuke didn't protest, barely blinked and was asleep as soon as he was horizontal.
"I've never seen him as exhausted as that," Saizō said as he came back to the centre of the room and settled himself at the table.
"It was an exhausting task, your friend undertook." The healer's manner was soothing, his movements unhurried and measured. It reminded Saizō of the way Rokurō tended to the lord of Ueda, quietly and unobtrusively. Sanada Yukimura was not an easy man to anticipate. He cultivated masks and idiosyncrasies as other men cultivate chrysanthemums and – thus far – his disguises had served him well. And yet, all Sanada had to do was stretch out his hand to be offered exactly what he had need of in that moment – and in Saizō's experience that could be anything from a cup of tea to the means to assassinate an emperor. It told much of Rokurō's skill and even more of the bond the two men shared.
He'd watched Sanada fight for Rokurō's life, seen the determination and the moments of quiet desperation Sanada fought as fiercely as he fought the poison, and he didn't like to think that, just because Ana got lucky, that bond between Sanada and Rokurō was doomed. Gratitude welled inside him for Kamanosuke, who'd taken on a disease. Saizō hadn't considered it before, but with the fever raging through the villages, convincing the healer to accompany them to Ueda might have been an impossible task. Might still be, but if new cases stopped arriving, and those afflicted recovered...
"Will you travel with us to Ueda to heal Rokurō?" he asked when the food had all but disappeared and he faced the healer over fresh cups of tea. He was grateful for the respite, the silence and the chance to think, but now he grew anxious for an answer.
"It would do little good for me to travel to Ueda," the healer said, reaching for a large mortar and a handful of sweet smelling herbs. "Tell the lord Sanada that he must ask this boon of another."
"Who?" Saizō braced, ready to saddle up and go find the man the healer named. Only Kamanosuke's still form in its nest of blankets stopped him from leaving there and then. The redhead deserved a few hours of rest before they returned to their errant.
"Unno Rokurō," the healer said calmly. "Ask yourself what he gains by sacrificing his ability to see. Or ask Sanada to ask himself that."
"I don't understand." Saizō hated admitting that, but he hated seeing pain in the face of the quiet brunet who guarded Sanada's life so diligently even more. If he could heal the man's troubles he'd do so.
"Any warrior's special ability is part of his soul," the healer replied. The stone pestle grated in the quiet between them and the air filled with a soothing scent. "You can learn to throw a kunai, you can learn to kill someone with your bare hands, you can even learn to expel poison from your body, but your magic comes from a place deep within you. The light is yours, just as your companion," he nodded towards the futon where Kamanosuke slept like the dead, "can call the wind to do his bidding. You will always be able to call on this strength, even if you're gravely hurt or have lost all other means to fight. You can never lose this skill... but you can choose to give it up."
"But Rokurō controls the water. And Ana's attack injured his eye."
"No." The healer shook his head and his face grew soft and vulnerable as he smiled. "You're only considering parts of that picture. Rokurō controls the water, but his sight is part of that ability. Yes, his care surrounds and supports those he has chosen like water surrounds and supports a swimmer, and he can fling his fury towards a foe like a storm surge and batter down the toughest defences. But, like the water it has chosen as a representation, Rokurō's soul is also a mirror. It reflects what he sees and experiences. He'll return loyalty for loyalty, faith for faith and trust for trust. Poison can kill him. But even losing his eye won't lose him the ability to see – unless he chooses to sacrifice that ability."
Cocooned in a haven of soft sounds and sweet scents, Saizō sat and thought. The healer's home was a peaceful as the roof above his quarters in Ueda and – whether Saizō had considered it before or not – many of the healer's words made sense. Rokurō was quiet and rarely involved himself in the squabbles of the rest of Sanada's braves, but he saw everything and never failed to step up when he was needed.
Why would someone who saw so much, and took pride in being on hand at need, choose to lose the ability that allowed him to be useful? Unless he had seen something... or had failed to see something...
"Not yet, shinobi." The healer's chuckle drew Saizō from his abstraction.
"You read minds?"
"You were not bothering to hide your thoughts. And you are closer to understanding than you were before."
"You know Rokurō well."
"I should," the healer smiled. "He's my brother." He scooped the paste of herbs he'd prepared into a small dish and added oil, stirring gently. "He may have served the lord of Ueda since he was twelve, but life at Sanada's court hasn't changed him so much that I've lost my ability to see right through him. Poison aside, I think he's being dramatic. Sanada Yukimura's influence, no doubt."
Saizō wanted to swear at the smirk and the indulgent chuckle that greeted his astonishment, but in the end he just gave up. Sanada had known who he was sending them to find, but the bastard entertained himself by playing games with everyone. Saizō knew that. He just hadn't accepted it yet.
The healer added a wick to the small dish of oil and herbs and set it carefully beside the sleeping Kamanosuke. "The scent will help him sleep and ease his mind," he explained. "This one is sorely troubled. And yet, he finds it in his heart to take on nature itself."
"He has the soul of a brave," Saizō said, very softly.
"He does. But his mind is in pain." The man sat back on his heels and regarded Saizō gravely. "I can sense that you have horrors in your past," he said, "but you balance them out by remembering good times. Watching this young man, I'd say that few good things have come his way. Even a simple touch startles him so much..."
Saizō knew that to be true. He remembered the redhead's astonished face when he found that Saizō had washed and mended his coat while he slept. He recalled the shivers of pleasure that had rocked the slim frame when Saizō's fingers had traced his scars. He knew the healer spoke true, but...
"Can you help him?"
The healer shook his head and smiled. "No, but you can. He needs good memories to balance the bad ones, other things than blood and war and pain. Give him those and he will heal."
xxX oOo Xxx
Reeds rustled overhead. Stone ground on stone, the soft scrapes cutting across the sounds of quiet voices close by. Yuri Kamanosuke, curled in a nest made of layers of blankets, felt as if he'd been sick for a year.
But that wasn't right.
The fever had never touched him.
His mind conjured the image of a beautiful green-eyed woman with delicate features and a skin like fine porcelain. Her inky hair hung to her waist and she loved to sing while she worked. No, the fever hadn't taken him. It had taken...
Kamanosuke's body rocked as if he'd been slapped. He ground his teeth, then forced his eyes open and stared at his surroundings, determined not to remember, not to let his mind go down that route.
Scents drifted in the air around him – fresh, spicy and green – and slowly, his mind made sense of the things his eyes saw: the reed roof, the herbs, the large stone mortar, tiny bags of twigs and other unrecognisable items tied in bunches... This was the healer's cottage. Even though he had no idea why he was here. Or how.
The quiet voices came from the doorway of the cottage, where the healer sat crushing herbs in a mortar. The stone pestle, grating against the mortar's base, was producing the soft scraping sounds that had woken Kamanosuke. The events of the previous day came back to him, then. He remembered his battle with the swamp, tearing it out and digging it up – destroying any part of it that lived and breathed, until it had lost the power to kill those who could not defend themselves.
He remembered little after that. The unfamiliar shirt and loose trousers he wore suggested he'd bathed at some point during the evening. His mind also teased him with vague memories of soft, flickering light, sweet scents and intriguing tales of Rokurō's soul.
Kamanosuke had liked the quiet brunet on sight. Even believing – deep in his heart – that the man was more dangerous than all of the other braves combined, he liked Unno Rokurō. And out of the dreamscape his mind had woven while he slept from soul-deep exhaustion, soft sounds and half-remembered phrases, Kamanosuke suddenly understood why. He even had an idea how to help ease the brunet's mind.
A small noise, like a snort, made him flinch and turn. Saizō lay on his back on the second futon in the room. He was without his tunic, on top of the blankets, and his skin gleamed softly in the pale light streaming in from the doorway. He was also deeply asleep.
Warmth tightened Kamanosuke's chest at the sight. It wasn't embarrassment this time, and Kamanosuke didn't turn away. Instead, he paid attention to every detail he could see: sleep-mussed dark hair, faint purple bruises around Saizō's closed eyes, the fan of long dark lashes against Saizō's cheekbones, a faint glimmer of sweat on his upper lip and just the hint of a shadow darkening his jaw.
Saizō had seen him fight the swamp, had lent his strength and skill to help destroy it without Kamanosuke having to ask. He'd held his blade straight out and called the light, but now the taut muscles in Saizō's shoulders were softened by sleep. He slept with his head thrown back, and his collarbones drew tantalising shadows at the base of his throat.
Thin scars showed pink on Saizō's gleaming skin: one on his bicep, where he'd not been fast enough to avoid Kamanosuke's air blade, another just over a dusky nipple, maybe a cut from a reed. Both were healing and Kamanosuke was gathering breath and courage to continue his detailed perusal, when Saizō opened his eyes.
Scant three feet separated them, and people were talking about herbs and healing just outside the door, but in the way their eyes met and held, and in the way the silence around them wavered and shifted and solidified, they could have been thousands of miles away.