War and Its Art
The boy had returned. One of the Sanadas, which was why Saizo paid him any attention at all beyond the almost subconscious monitoring of a potential threat. He stretched his muscles nearly to their limits and felt the boy's gaze like a physical touch.
Unlike the previous times he'd come to watch Saizo do his exercises, however, the boy didn't disappear as soon as Saizo had finished. He stepped forward and handed Saizo a cloth to wipe his face and arms of sweat. Saizo took it politely, curious as to what the boy would do next.
"You're a very skilled ninja," Sanada said, stiff and overly proper.
"Yes," Saizo agreed. Once he might have said that he was the best in Japan, but that was before he'd met Sarutobi. Feral little bastard.
"I'd like you to teach me."
Saizo's eyes widened. The young Sanada withstood his incredulous gaze for a minute or two before his face flushed a painful red. "You do realize that that's impossible," Saizo said at last, not unkindly.
"Your family's reputation," he said delicately, and Sanada shook his head.
Saizo prepared himself to walk away; if the boy couldn't even recognize his own duty, then he could mean nothing to Saizo beyond the loyalty that Saizo owed his family.
"I didn't mean that I wanted to learn anything...inappropriate," Sanada said, however, and Saizo paused to listen.
"Your strength, your quickness, your accuracy with the weapons you handle. You can teach those to me," Sanada said, his voice deep and certain.
Saizo stared up at his serious young face for a long minute, and then he nodded. "I could do that for you."
"Tomorrow," Sanada said. His tone of voice made the word a request, rather than either a demand or a question.
"Tomorrow," Saizo said.
That Sanada was worthy of his uncle's name soon became clear. Young though he might be, he evidently had no fear of hard work; Saizo set him a high number of laps to run more as a test of his fortitude than for the physical benefit, and Sanada's face betrayed no emotion as he nodded and set off.
Eighty laps later, he still hadn't breathed a word of complaint. The only sign of his exertion was the sweat dripping down his face and a slight quickness to his breath when he approached Saizo for further instruction.
"Warmed up enough?" Saizo asked.
"Yes," Sanada said, briefly yet politely, and Saizo smiled at him.
"Good," he said, and showed him the strength exercises that were the bulk of his daily routine, demonstrating each one at half-speed until Sanada had the form correctly and then doing each exercise alongside him. It took three times as long to do them all, but Saizo was interested in testing Sanada's memory and wouldn't permit himself to dismiss the boy early.
The following day, Sanada ran through three-quarters of the exercises before his memory tripped him up. Saizo smiled to himself, more pleased than if Sanada had been a prodigy. He had a distrust for them that his acquaintance with Sarutobi had only heightened. (The fact that he himself was something of a prodigy he dismissed as inconsequential.)
Sanada was intelligent and quick and hardworking, already stronger than most men ten years older than he. All in all, he was an eminently suitable pupil.
"Stop twisting your shoulder," Saizo said. "Unless, of course, you want it to be dislocated the next time someone halfway competent fights you."
The expression of mute long-suffering that crept across Sanada's face was familiar to him by now, but Sanada also stopped twisting his shoulder, which was the main point.
"Better," Saizo said. He reached to adjust Sanada's stance minutely, and Sanada's muscles tensed under his hand for a moment before he relaxed and allowed Saizo to turn him in the correct direction.
"I won't be able to come here for the next three or four days," he said once Saizo had him placed to his satisfaction.
"That won't be good for your muscle training."
"I know," Sanada said. "I'll keep up with my exercises as best I can on my own. But my uncle wants me to join him on his journey."
"In that case, it certainly can't be helped," Saizo said, though he felt an odd twinge at the fact that Sanada Nobushige wouldn't require his own services on the planned expedition. Those few neighboring daimyos who hadn't yet declared their allegiances were unlikely to respond favorably to Saizo's brand of persuasion, though hopefully the Sanadas' diplomacy would have greater effect.
There was a stranger beside Sanada when Saizo joined him at their usual meetingplace a month or so after Sanada first approached him for instruction.
"My friend, Yanagi Renji," Sanada said. "Yanagi, this is Kirigakure Saizo."
Yanagi inclined his head, and Saizo bowed.
"Your reputation precedes you," Yanagi said. "Even in Kozuke, people tell the stories of Sanada's Ten Braves."
"People do like to tell stories," Saizo agreed, giving Yanagi a sweet smile. Yanagi's eyes sharpened upon him at the ambiguous answer.
"Yanagi would like you to teach him some of the exercises that you've taught me," Sanada interjected at this point, either unaware of the gentle undercurrent of tension running between them or simply choosing to ignore it.
"Do you want me to teach a school next?" Saizo asked, amused.
Sanada shook his head, taking the joke too seriously. "Only Yanagi, and he's just here for a few days." The implication, that Yanagi's family had chosen to back the winning side, was not lost on Saizo.
"In fact, he's only here now because it's Sanada's birthday today," Yanagi said. "Though what Sanada's told me of the exercises you've developed has made me more than willing to prolong my visit."
"I see," Saizo said. He turned to Sanada. "Congratulations on your birthday."
"Thank you," Sanada said, without even a smile to lighten his answer.
Though it was more than a bit rude to ask, something about Sanada always gave Saizo the unworthy urge to shake him up a little, so he said, "How old are you now?"
"Nineteen," Sanada answered promptly. So, he was older than Saizo by nearly two years, then. Not that Saizo had any intention of sharing that fact.
"I would have thought you older," he lied. Few young men had the gravity that Sanada possessed; that was reserved either for men with a wealth of experience behind them or for overly serious children. Apparently, however, that particular trait in Sanada was not due to his age but was rather an intrinsic part of his character.
Sanada dropped his eyes uncomfortably.
"He gets told that often," Yanagi answered for him. "Though you'd never be able to tell from his reaction."
Saizo simply nodded, tiring of the conversation. "A hundred laps to begin," he said.
Sanada raised his eyes to look at him, obviously surprised yet trying not to show it. He didn't say anything about the fact that their usual warm-up was less than half that amount, however. He simply matched his pace to Saizo's as well as he could.
As Saizo had half-expected, Yanagi joined them without a waver in his placid expression. It did at least take him an extra several minutes to complete the laps after Sanada had finished, who in turn was several minutes slower than Saizo, but the satisfaction that Saizo felt at that was minimal. He shoved his extraneous feelings aside to the best of his ability and concentrated on instructing Sanada's friend for the few days that he'd be around.
"Kirigakure," a familiar voice called from the darkness, and Saizo suppressed his body's desire to startle at the noise.
"Sarutobi," he said.
Sarutobi stepped out of the shadows. His oddly golden eyes gleamed in the moonlight. "You've been distracted lately," he said.
Saizo shrugged. "I've been occupied with my assignments."
Sanada Nobushige had publicly announced his intention to continue the fight against the shogunate only a few weeks previously. As of yet, there had been no overt conflicts, but that meant that there was all the more work for Sanada's ten ninja to perform.
"If you say so," Sarutobi said, obviously disbelieving. Saizo was more than a bit surprised at his perceptiveness; Sarutobi had little use for most people and barely troubled himself with their affairs. For him to notice a change in Saizo's behavior was nearly unprecedented.
"Try not to be stupid about whatever it is, in any case," Sarutobi advised.
Saizo raised an eyebrow at him, but Sarutobi just strolled nonchalantly into a nearby copse of trees and disappeared. Saizo could follow his movement for another few seconds, and then there was a rustle and it was impossible to tell if Sarutobi had slipped into the underbrush or clambered up a tree like a monkey. After that, silence.
Saizo stared after him with grudging admiration for Sarutobi's ability, even as he resolved to work harder on his own skills, before he turned around to return to the castle.
The "few days" that Yanagi had originally intended to stay became over two weeks, instead. Saizo didn't question his continued presence, and neither Yanagi nor Sanada chose to enlighten him. A week and a half after he'd first joined them, Yanagi stopped coming to practice with Sanada, also without explanation, though Saizo once saw him exercising at a distance when he was walking elsewhere on an errand.
Three days later, Sanada deviated from their routine again and, after thanking Saizo for his time and instruction as usual, pressed his mouth against Saizo's in a hard kiss.
Saizo permitted the caress, even as he wondered at himself. If he allowed this encounter to reach its natural conclusion, then Sanada would expect to be the aggressor; it was his right, both by age and family. And yet Saizo did not refuse him.
The hand that Sanada placed at Saizo's waist trembled slightly. Nerves, anticipation, lust...Saizo opened his eyes to gaze into Sanada's, and still he couldn't tell what motivated that excess of emotion.
When Sanada pulled away at last, Saizo let out an involuntary sigh.
"I won't demand anything of you," Sanada said, something fierce and proud in his face and voice. "I don't even want you to answer yet. But you could come to my room tonight, if you like. Only if you like."
"I understand," Saizo said, and Sanada's expression closed up before his eyes.
"Thank you for listening to my offer," he said and left without a backward glance.
The hours after Sanada had left seemed to pass slowly, though Saizo had as much to occupy him as he ever did. Sanada Nobushige had the ten of them laying booby traps in an attempt to dissuade the shogunate's supporters from filling in the moat around Osaka castle; each night they had to reset the traps sprung inadvertently by animals, as well as find ever more locations to set new traps for their human prey.
Over three hours had passed since sunset when he finally was done his night's work. He bathed and dressed in clean clothes, and then he set off towards Sanada's rooms. He kept telling himself that he hadn't yet made a decision, even as his thighs grew slick with oil as he walked; he'd never before had to prepare himself for penetration, and didn't know if he'd used too much oil, or if the act always involved this inconvenience and mess.
As he grew closer, he heard voices from inside Sanada's room, and he melted into the shadows.
"Genichirou," Yanagi said, his voice low and intimate. Saizo hadn't even known Sanada's given name until this moment.
"Not tonight, Renji," Sanada said.
"Ah?" Yanagi didn't sound surprised at the firm refusal. "It is a bit late, perhaps. It's not like you to stay awake so long."
Saizo could picture perfectly the blush that was undoubtedly spreading across Sanada's face, as well as the stoic expression he always wore when being teased.
"Goodnight, Genichirou," Yanagi said, his farewell echoed by Sanada a moment later. Yanagi closed the door partway behind him as he left the room and then walked away without a backward glance.
Saizo waited a couple of minutes before stepping out of the shadows and slipping through the gap left by the half-open door.
Though Saizo would never admit it, there was something faintly disquieting about wearing the samurai armor that he donned for fighting on a battlefield rather than the dark blue clothes that he wore during his more clandestine assignments. It made him feel like a target, when so much of his life was spent trying to melt into the background. And then he was rushing out with the rest of Hideyori's warriors, and all other considerations dissolved into a rush of heat and noise and blood.
He didn't see Sarutobi's death, but even in the midst of the siege, rumors flew across the battlefield when it occurred.
He did see Yanagi Renji, his face streaked with blood, fighting alongside the Tokugawa. Saizo didn't exert himself to avoid combat with Yanagi, but neither did he seek it out. In the end, they were each drawn into battle against a series of other opponents. All of the men that Saizo fought were strangers to him; he knew that the same was unlikely to be true for Yanagi.
The aftermath of the last battle was nearly as much a blur as the battle itself had been, though for different reasons. For a while, nearly every day involved dissuading at least one of his remaining eight ninja companions from committing suicide in the wake of Sanada Nobushige's death.
"Our first obligation is to the Sanada family," Saizo said sternly. "We can't disrupt the negotiations and risk causing them further difficulty."
Yuri nodded against Saizo's shoulder, his tears seeping into the fabric of his shirt, and Saizo suppressed a sigh and rubbed his back gently. He'd never had much patience with weeping, and increasingly it seemed as though he would drown in tears--his own included, though he at least managed to confine his to the night when everyone else was asleep.
When it finally arrived, the unexpected reprieve granted by Tokugawa Ieyasu was nearly as unsettling as any punishment their worst fears could have devised. Their efforts of the past year, Sanada Nobushige's death, all were judged inconsequential by the shogun. The remaining nine from Sanada's Ten Braves would return to Shinano.
Sanada Genichirou, along with several others, would be going to the capital, where the shogun could keep a closer eye on them.
They didn't say goodbye to each other. Yanagi came to the quarters that Saizo shared with Nezu and Mochizuki, however, and asked him for a private word.
"I'll be joining Genichirou in Kyoto. I promise to take care of him," Yanagi said, without further preamble, once they were alone.
Saizo fought down the wholly inappropriate surge of jealousy that he felt at those words. "I expected that you would," he said instead.
"Yes," Yanagi said. He looked into Saizo's eyes, and Saizo stared back, knowing himself to be at least as inscrutable as Yanagi.
Yanagi didn't appear to be disappointed by the results of his inspection. Neither was he disconcerted by Saizo's steady gaze, and Saizo's estimation of Yanagi ratcheted an unwilling notch higher. Without looking away, Yanagi stepped closer. "From Genichirou," he said, and leaned in to kiss Saizo.
Saizo opened his mouth to the kiss, and a nearly imperceptible tremor ran through Yanagi's body before he stilled himself once more. Saizo imagined that he could taste Sanada on Yanagi's tongue, though likely he was only deluding himself. Regardless, he drank the taste from Yanagi's mouth, their lips moving slowly against each other until Saizo determinedly pulled away, concealing his inner reluctance.
"Thank you," he said. He gave Yanagi a smile as devoid of bitterness as he could make it. "Please return the same gift to Sanada, with my regards."
Sympathy flashed briefly through Yanagi's eyes, but all he said was, "I will," before he bowed his head to Saizo and left the room.
Saizo took a deep breath. Then he went to the door and shouted for Nezu and Mochizuki to come back in the room and resume their packing if they didn't want to be left behind.