Chapter 49:

Hokutoshichisei Arc: Part Seven

A/N: When the sickle-shaped seven stars appear in the sky…

Disclaimer: See (chapter one)

Other notes: Sometimes, a subordinate's motivation could come in the form of a questionable, irritating, and unsympathetic move. Despite what canon says about Kotarou I think he had an inner malicious creature lurking somewhere waiting to be unleashed. I mean, I somewhat disagree about him being unemotional and all (because if he was then his amygdale would have been underdeveloped and thus would not have a considerable will to go on with his life as a ninja/assassin) …I think he only has perfected a certain level of control with his emotions where most humans are incapable. Never mind, I'm rambling here… on with the story:

Glistening droplets of water cascaded down Saburo's bare skin as he stepped out of the wooden tub. He turned for the rack of fabrics to dry off only to be enveloped in a big soft towel and steady warmth. Though his eyes widened, caught by surprise Saburo willed himself to be still. Kotarou dutifully and carefully patted him dry from hair tips to toes. The shinobi's actions, which were supposedly methodical and unemotional had hints of personal devotion and affection. Kotarou's touch lingered longer than necessary and though he spoke not a word, his movements were deliberately slow and unprompted.

When Saburo was almost dry save one delicate part, he caught the hand about to slide between his legs. "How dare you leave Aniue's side to attend to me, Kotarou?"

The Fuma Clan Head utters a quiet chuckle, greatly disconcerting Saburo before this reply, "Tono-sama himself instructed me to see to your needs and escort you to the stables in case you plan to desert Matsuda Hideharu-dono once again, Young Master."

"I can groom myself," Saburo ignored the derisive remark and responded coolly with a glower.

"And you have not relieved yourself, I see." Kotarou countered. With an audacity that might have boggled most retainers, he reached for Saburo's weakness with the other unrestrained hand. The lordling batted it away as well. Though Saburo knew that he was only spared from the elite shinobi's superior strength and reflexes due to the man himself, the lordling used it to his full advantage.

"It is very unlike you to be this persistent," Saburo said disapprovingly, "It shows how you have not recovered completely."

"Perhaps," The shadow calmly admitted while he continued to blatantly stare at the youth's arousal. "I also wish to divulge that I used this opportunity to get the Young Master's sole attentions."

Saburo was unnerved but he showed none of it. He now knew the significance of his training, of his inevitable fate as a strong pillar of the clan. He had more important priorities now. The time where he put his desires and wishes above his responsibility and obligations was coming to an end. Possibly, the daimyo's recent regard for him as 'a potential equal' had played a significant role.

"Kotarou, you are still my contract but your duty as Ujimasa-kou's shadow outweighs our bond. I can attend to myself and I assure you I will meet my mentor for my horsemanship exercises. So please return to my brother's side."

He anticipated more resistance on Kotarou's part but the shinobi was unexpectedly taken with Saburo's sensible words. Kotarou knelt down, closed his eyes and embraced him instead. He rested his head against Saburo's naked chest as if listening to his heartbeat. Kotarou sighed after a while and stood up more soothed than before.

"Regardless, Young Master, I will ensure your safety all throughout your training." Kotarou makes a last impudent move by gently stroking Saburo's face before vanishing in the dark corners of the room.

Saburo exited the bath like nothing happened. He toughened his exterior. He was learning not to get caught up in emotional whorls and to act formidable despite his inner conflicts. Unbeknownst to Saburo, Kotarou found this new side of his young master to be more attractive.

Wakasama has grown more beautiful of age with maturity and restraint…

Saburo donned a standard outdoor garb: a plain cerulean haori with a deep mauve hakama fastened below the knees and black tabi or split-toed socks. With barely contained excitement, he wore his polished leather sandals snugly around his lower legs while Haruhie finished his outfit by tying long raven hair in a high knot using the blue silk ribbon. "Saburo-gimi, accepting Naoe-san's gifts will signify your approval of him."

"I am merely pleased. Let Naoe think what he wants." Though the lordling's voice sounded flippant, there was a challenging glint in his dark amber eyes.

Haruhie blinked. It was as if he was speaking to a completely different person. Saburo carried himself in a more disciplined, independent demeanor. Did something happen? One moment, the lordling was in the bath and then in the next instant, he was behaving like this. If Haruhie knew better, this young man was no longer the same unsure, rebellious, and emotive brat he had seen resort to a real weapon in the midst of Kenjutsu sparring. Were these the beginnings of a reputable lord's bearings? "If I may not be so straightforward, Saburo-gimi, will you be ignoring affectionate gestures and tokens of admiration from now on? I heard you have outright rejected Naoe-san's proposal of courtship."

Saburo's stern expression instantly softened on Haruhie. "Others may have called Naoe's actions valiant but the way I see it, Naoe's declaration during the feast with the entire household present… was simply foolish. I honestly felt elated about the magnitude of Naoe's fearless determination to pursue me however I refuse to be looked upon as a weakling, an incompetent noble who could not even stand between two admirers showing aggressive displays to vie for my attention. I will not obtain respect from the Household's subjects that way. I will not be swayed nor be swept by them. Besides, those who discreetly criticize Aniue will see that as an opening to strike at a weakness." The youth remembered the skirmish, the betrayal, and the desertion of the Matsuda twins and their followers. He could not stand a repetition of such an incident.

The page's eyes were wide with surprise. "Saburo-gimi, you really have thought this through."

"I just could not endure a shadow mocking me about my duties this early morn," said Saburo cryptically and with a still puzzled Haruhie following close behind, they went to see the horses.

I will be damned if I fail to make those two respect me for who I am…

The stables master greeted them courteously upon their arrival. Saburo threw a glance at the partitions and noticed that half of the cubicles were empty. Fortunately, his favored horse: a colt with a fine mane in the shade of coal, his playful ride was idling at the corner. Karasu raised its head seemingly alert to his presence and the youth smiled. Turning to the keeper he asked, "What happened to the other horses?"

As if waiting for this particular observation, the stables master keenly informed him, "Your mentor, Matsuda-Taisho instructed me to lead you to one of the many hunting grounds on the woodland trails outside Odawara-jo. I believe there are others who would be joining the pair of you in this exercise, Saburo-sama. They are already waiting for you to arrive."

Haruhie disbelievingly pointed a finger at himself, "Me? I am participating as well?"

Saburo tried not to look too opposed to the idea. He was not advised that a hunting party was formed as a part of his training. Yet in retrospect, hunting was the most conventional method to familiarize oneself with the realm's terrain. It helps hone combat instincts, reconnaissance skills and at the same time enhances camaraderie while practicing agile horsemanship. All of a sudden, the proposed plan of activity did not seem to be very disagreeable anymore. Perhaps the unknown number of people involved in his training was the only reason that unsettled him.

"Very well, let us be on our way." Saburo nodded at Haruhie while taking a short while to bond with his colt, stroking its nose and mane while Karasu snorted softly in appreciation and swished its tail in the eagerness to set out. He always took this particular young horse for both his slumming and leisure rides outdoors. One could say that they behaved exactly alike: light-hearted but stubborn in their ventures together. Issuing one final murmur of instruction, Saburo mounted his steed while Haruhie was obligated to do the same.

As they neared a clearing, Saburo spotted his mentor, Matsuda Hideharu first. The general stood with one hand resting on his stallion as he watched the approaching company. Hideharu wore an amiable expression and dipped his head a bit as his gaze met the lordling.

Saburo pulled the reins firmly albeit with white-knuckled tension as he now recognized the other three participants paired with their respective mounts.

Hojo Ujimasa vacated the shade of the single tree and his male attendants swiftly fell in step with their revered lord. Some were making final preparations on riding and hunting equipment while a couple of others groomed two trained birds of prey for hawking.

Throat gone dry, "Aniue," Saburo addressed in greetings. His eyes however strayed on two men already borne by their stallions. While Naoe was modestly attired for the occasion, Kotarou on the other hand wore a dark fitted garb akin to a makeshift hitatare (inner clothing under the armor). Both sported leather gauntlets and straw waraji.

Saburo dismounted to properly bow before his lord brother who was yet to make use of his prized steed. "Your eyes are not deceiving you," Half-smiling, Tono-sama remarked wryly while combing his fingers over Saburo's bound hair critically inspecting the blue silk adornment. Ujimasa could have sworn that Nagashiro's eyes were instantaneously trained at the back of his head, much to his amusement.

"I was not told today's horse riding exercises constituted of a formal hunting venture." Saburo began a little assertively.

"I apologize if it surprised you, Saburo-dono. It was not my intention to mislead or deceive you. I just deduced from our last training session how much you disapproved of the mundane and repetitive horsemanship drills. Therefore, owing Ujimasa-kou some advice, we both have decided to conduct a complicated training regimen aiming to improve several abilities at once. It would put your level of competency to the test while reorienting yourself with the fiefdom's territory." Matsuda-Taisho responded in detailed articulation.

"You may have to participate in the sport several times aside from polishing your Kenjutsu skills, learning tactical strategy, studying the arts and literature, and immersion among the different military factions of the army, Saburo." Ujimasa readily enumerated while Saburo fought back a looming headache at the mention of such weighty expectations.

"I understand, Aniue." Though it came out not as confident as Saburo had intended, Ujimasa wordlessly stepped back.

Astonished, the general resisted the need to look Tono-sama in the eye. His actions would imply the depth of his personal connection with His Lordship and he did not want to call attention upon himself especially with the presence of Saburo. Yet he must endure one of Tono-sama's capricious displays, his mind games.

"Kindly allow me to elaborate today's venture, Saburo-dono."

Naoe was watching Saburo again with a concentration so intense it was almost palpable. Conversely, Kotarou was just as bad if not worse. Saburo suppressed the maddening impulse to yell at them both and instead hid the mixture of irritation and dread with a determined façade.

"There is to be a hunting competition between two parties comprising of three riders each. The rules are simple: whoever manages to capture the designated prey first and brings it back to the starting point, earns victory. The hawks will be our eyes in the skies while we track our prey on horseback—"

Saburo could not help mildly interrupting, "On horseback? But would that not create too much noise? Our target will easily scamper away."

Hideharu indulged the youth's reasoning with a nod of silent understanding before he countered, "That is where our hunting equipment should come in. We shall be using a bow and a gun to incapacitate the quarry at a distance." He was glad the lordling was taking an active part in his training for once. A good leader should pay close attention to details after all.

Saburo winced inwardly. They would be tasked to hurt a wild animal and retrieve it like a prize. He hoped against hope that they would not roast it under a spit and set it free afterwards instead. "Tracking a moving target while staying mobile and firing a gun or releasing an arrow at that circumstance is sure to be difficult."

"That is correct. Are you up to the challenge?" Hideharu asked good-naturedly.

"Of course," affirmed Saburo almost immediately then, "Is it compulsory to stay on horseback at all times?"

"Not necessarily. However, one should not take aim on foot until the hunting hawk is called back. Also, the two captains have already been pre-selected. It should not come as a surprise this time that you are one of them, Saburo-dono."

"The other being Aniue," The lordling guessed correctly and saw his lord brother incline his head in agreement.

"Right, we shall then proceed to the selection of the members on each hunting group. Please choose the participants for each unit, Saburo-dono." His mentor had unwittingly thrown him off guard yet again.

As if competing against the daimyo was not taxing enough, Saburo had to decide who shall either join him or contest him in favor of his eldest brother.

Braving to give his so-called admirers a measuring look, the lordling declared, "I prefer my mentor, Hideharu-dono and my guardian Haruhie to accompany me."

A corner of Naoe's lip sagged into an unnoticeable frown while Kotarou's face remained impassive. Ujimasa coughed a little into his hand to suppress bubbling laughter. His young brother's motivation for his choice might be emotionally-provoked but the possible outcome showed that higher intellectual instincts were in play. Needless to say, being paired with Naoe Nobutsuna and Fuma Kotarou who were rivals to begin with do not bode well for the daimyo. It would have been more beneficial to have Hideharu at his side instead. Saburo's determination to withhold favor to any of his admirers and to take the only ally that could truly aid Ujimasa effectively diminished the overlord's chances of victory.

Was it a fluke or was Saburo finally displaying signs of ingenious tactical prowess?

Ujimasa was about to find out.

Even Hideharu found Saburo's decision to be quite unexpected. He was nonetheless satisfied. "Very well, let us do the final preparations before we commence."

The hunting captains were both fitted with protective gauntlets and leather armors for the hawks to perch. In addition, they were also provided with wooden whistles. The trained birds of prey had been released earlier to seek their respective targets. The keepers ensured that the hawks would select the quarry in opposite directions as to prevent any animal-related disturbance.

Saburo bore the unpredictably heavy feathered creature on his forearm. The hawk tilted its head and curiously regarded him in return. The lordling resisted to acquaint himself with the bird. He had a soft spot for animals and for birds especially… he envied their ability to fly freely. Snapping from his reverie, he received the arrow-loaded quiver and slung the bow on his shoulder. He was once again asked for his preference to equip his hunting mates. Saburo assigned Haruhie to be his other archer while he requested his mentor to keep the gun.

Ujimasa alternatively took a gun for himself and selected Nagashiro and Kotarou to be his archers.

Naoe suddenly turned to the daimyo and spoke, "Tono-sama, may I have a word with Saburo-dono… in private?"

Ujimasa's reply was inscrutable, "You may,"

Saburo straightened his back and kept his expression blank. "What troubles you, Nagashiro?"

They were only actually permitted to seek a certain distance and not out of sight as they conversed.

"You seem more frigid, Young Lord. Is there anything on your mind that you wish to get off your chest?" Naoe asked softly.

"Do not tell me you placed me on a spot just to talk about feelings. Seriously, Nagashiro we do not have time for petty dalliances." Saburo responded dismissively and tried to end their dialogue then and there by turning away.

Naoe arrested Saburo's swift retreat with a pleading look in his eyes. "That is right. Time is indeed of the essence. This 'servant' is merely worried that Young Lord will refuse to trust those who are truly concerned about him."

"I can do away with subordinates who do not know the dividing line between official duties and personal matters. And when it comes down to it: who will follow a master that lies down beneath his servant?" Saburo growled and sought distance from Naoe's towering frame.

The daimyo's calculating stare was beginning to warp into a disapproving one. Naoe was unmoved and exhibited patient understanding, "I see." Until… "Will Young Lord come to me afterwards if we managed to defeat him in this exercise?"

"You insolent…!" The youth stopped himself before he could make an outburst. He should not let temper get the better of him. However, this small lapse allowed Naoe to take advantage. The man soothingly stroked his hand that was bunched into a fist.

"My hot-blooded Young Lord, I do understand your anxieties and that did not diminish my feelings for you even a little bit."

Saburo snatched his arm back and bestowed their audience a rebuilt, composed mask.

XxXMOBXxX

At the signal of gunfire, the captains released their hawks and galloped away as fast as they could.

Initially, the hunt required fast-paced maneuvering for they could not lose sight of the bird. It would have been easy if the location of their target did not deviate from the forest trails. Unfortunately, they seemed to be heading deeper into the woodland as the hawk nearly flew out of sight because of the thickening and widening canopy of trees.

Saburo was faced with the daunting task to keep track of their airborne ally and at the same time to direct his mount. Horse riding combined with maintaining your focus on the pathways and following a flying, agile tracker was not an easy feat.

The lordling now realized one of the overwhelming objectives he had to achieve. Taking a deep breath as he completely lost sight of the hawk, he commanded for a halt. While Haruhie quickly obeyed, Hideharu questioned, "What is the matter? Why did we stop?"

"I have lost the hawk. I am going to call it back." The lordling answered simply in a voice that was neither dejected nor ashamed of his first failure and blew the whistle.

The flapping of wings was heard before the hawk landed on a fair outstretched arm. Again, the feathered creature eyed the lordling curiously. Saburo could not resist the temptation to bond with the bird this time despite their brief encounter. The tamed hawk appeared to be very well-trained and easily warmed up to him. Alternatively, Saburo's colt did not seem to mind the 'predator' and the sounds of pre-emptive flight that would have spooked most horses.

Hideharu watched in mixed fascination and confusion as the lordling "introduced" the animals together and nodded at some sort of silent pact between them. Afterwards, Saburo urged the hawk to scout the air once more. "Everyone let this be clear that we must not lose at all costs." Saburo issued the fiery declaration before he confidently led them to a speedy trot.

If Haruhie knew better, Saburo-gimi was not in a fine mood. Something tells him that this sudden aggressiveness had something to do with Naoe-san.

This time, Saburo did not lift his head to the skies like his life depended on it and when he occasionally did the hunting hawk would be up there as an assurance that they were on the right direction. The youth had poured most of his trust on Karasu to rely on its acute hearing to detect the bird's presence. Saburo used the natural instincts of both animals as predator (hawk) and prey (horse) to be mutually aware of the other. Taking special attention on Karasu's concentration and distinct fearlessness for the bird, Saburo was able to execute this clever method to the fullest.

Having sensed the lordling's collected demeanor as they whipped past dense foliage, Hideharu-Taisho began his series of impromptu instructions. "Saburo-dono, do not just look ahead. Please pay attention to your surroundings as well. It would be helpful to keep them in your memory for future exploits."

Saburo heeded him and humbly acquiesced, "I understand." As it turned out, the advice soon proved helpful.

The line of trees soon thinned and then they were close to the bank of a shallow stream. Where else should vulnerable prey idle and stay but a free flowing body of water? Since sparse treetops did not obscure his view, Saburo glanced heavenwards and spotted the hawk flying ahead in a measured pace. It was a clear indication that the target was close by. In a low voice he commanded his party to advance more gradually. Both the page and the general verbalized agreement.

They proceeded a little more before he gestured a halt and waited. He stroked Karasu's mane soothingly with one hand to help ease the energetic colt while he peered at the skies. Matsuda Hideharu bestowed his apprentice a look of approval as they watched the hawk: circling, tracing an invisible path in the air as if to mark its range of attack.

Both mentor and apprentice had a clear view of a brown calf casually having a drink at the cool waters.

"Now is your chance, Saburo-dono. Do not let the hunting hawk do its aerial survey for longer than necessary. Other animals might spot it and alert our target of the possible danger it is in."

The young general-in-training replied, "Then I guess I have to call it back this instant… or I should have the moment I saw its unhurried, tilting flight."

"It is now or never. You should worry about the present and not of any possible scenarios later. If the prey runs faster than we can on foot then we chase it back on horseback." Said Hideharu sternly.

Haruhie gave his charge an emphatic but resolute gaze as he loaded an arrow on his bow.

The lordling mirrored Haruhie's actions and whistled. The bird landed on his arm a second time. Saburo murmured a word of appreciation and directed the hawk to rest on his shoulder instead. It preened its wings before settling down. A little nervously, his attention returned to the young deer and he expelled a breath of relief when the animal remained unperturbed, still unaware of their proximity.

After dismounting, they stalked the calf slowly behind the trees and out of immediate sight until they reached a good range to take a better aim. Saburo observed the innocent, harmless animal about to fall victim to their trap and felt his resolve wavering. Could he truly, deliberately hurt a defenseless life in the wild for personal gain and martial training? The minute quiver of his bowstring gave him away. "Saburo-dono, please. You are a child no more. Very soon you will come of age and you will be riding out more often to hunt with Ujimasa-kou. Should I dare say that you are lucky for not having your Aniue with you at this very moment?"

"Yes," Saburo said very hastily but, "No. Either way I… Damn it." He cursed as the calf froze, raised its head and its ears perked now more alert than ever.

"We need one surefire shot. If it is halfhearted, the animal will cry out for its herd or its mother. And we cannot risk that." The mentor said tightly with a voice just shy of exasperation. But no, Hideharu was not the sort to lose patience so quickly.

"Matsuda-dono is telling me to shoot it dead with an arrow?" The lordling clarified with evident disapproval.

"First defensive strike by your command, my lords," It was Haruhie who released his arrow before the calf could run away. He had taken it upon himself to interrupt any petty argument and to reinstate the pride of his lordling.

The arrowhead pierced one of the small quarry's hind legs stunting its escape but the young deer cried out in pain, bleating woundedly as it did.

It was the first time Saburo ever heard Matsuda-Taisho curse. Even more so when the calf's mother, a dark, tall deer and with all the violent hostility of motherly protection, suddenly appeared. Haruhie boldly moved forward with another arrow drawn and ready. He stepped in the way of the bleeding calf before it could reach its mother. The furious wild beast focused itself on the obstacle/threat and was about to charge towards Haruhie.

Hideharu was running and knelt into position. He steadily started firing gunshots against the angered animal at least to deter its approach.

The deer bore the wounds but though they lessened its strength, it did not slow down at all. It was determined to save its offspring and was almost upon Haruhie and Hideharu.

Saburo sprang into action, grim-faced, and as much as it hurt him shot the calf's mother dead with an arrow between the eyes. The arrowhead broke fragile cranial bones and lodged into the brain. The deer became petrified for a moment before it fell sideways with an agonized grunt, quaked once, foamed in the mouth and died.

Sickened, the youth could not bear the sight and turned away while Haruhie recovered from his trance and clasped the lithe, miserable form.

Hideharu watched the interaction between the pair of lads with a mixture of envy, frustration, failure and tolerance. The general heaved a pained sigh.

The hunt was over but Hideharu could not bring himself to instruct Saburo to collect the limping calf, bent over its mother, bleating incessantly and seemingly grieving its demise.

"I am alright, Haruhie." Saburo stiffly said an outward lie and pushed himself off him. With his back to them, he added, "My apologies if I disappointed anyone." The lordling returned to his colt. Karasu was getting along well with the hawk perched comfortably on the saddle. Silent and with mechanical movements, Saburo retrieved the net.

At first, Hideharu could not decipher what was going through his apprentice's mind when the lordling walked back to the gruesome scene and crouched on the ground. With less idea of what he was doing himself, Saburo attempted to secure the calf inside the net several times. The young deer would drag itself away from his grasp each time but the lordling did not give up. He could not give up or his failure would cause sanction upon his companions.

Being a witness to such forced, mindless sense of duty Hideharu felt sudden, overwhelming rage swell within him. He stormed towards the youth, picked him up on the ground and slapped some sense into him.

Saburo willingly allowed himself to be hit and did not retaliate. He only stared blankly at his mentor and his guardian, Haruhie who rushed to intervene if need be.

"Enough, Saburo-dono! Do not do things that are against your heart! A commander who wavers and does not conquer his fear, his uncertainties, and who fulfils obligations for merely the sake of others is a disgraceful, inept, leader!" Hideharu embraced the motionless youth in the next moment.

Saburo tiredly leaned into his warmth. He missed this warmth. He missed Ujiteru-ani terribly and he felt more ashamed when he used this man as a substitute for his loving brother.

"It is alright. You can rely on me, Saburo-dono. You can trust me. You do not need to put a tough front all the time. I am so sorry if I was very harsh on you." Hideharu whispered to him softly.

"But when you show weakness to others… would they not respect you? Would they not use that against you?" Saburo spoke quietly in a defeated tone.

Hideharu grimaced, "Who does not respect you? Who is using it against you? They dare to walk over your pride!" He exclaimed indignantly.

Saburo clamped his jaw shut before his innermost feelings could spill uncontrollably. He could not tell this man of his troubles. How else would Hideharu perceive him? He could not speak of his insecurities so much as being emotionally affected by his lovers to the point of feeling threatened that one day, Naoe and Kotarou would deem him unworthy, imperfect, pitiable, and abandon him for a stronger, more composed master. For them, his young nubile body was to be loved, cherished, and protected but never his heart, his dignity, his spirit. He was just a beautiful master, easy to be pleased with skilled touches and passionate words but in fact he was a weaker fighter, a less experienced juvenile, an impulsive mind. They were so much better than he in almost all aspects so how could they follow him, respect him, and revere him as a lord to fight for?

He bit his lip as his sobs almost escaped. Saburo held on to Hideharu for dear life while his baffled mentor could only offer the slightest of comfort but it was enough.

Upon their arrival at the clearing, pleasant cheers erupted from the awaiting company only to die down once it became apparent that the supposedly first successful party came back, empty-handed. Hideharu chose not to explain the circumstances to the lieutenants and servants. And even when the bird keepers had trouble with Sora, the hawk that shrieked and squawked and flew out of reach since it became too attached to Karasu, Saburo's colt… the lordling himself paid little attention. The playful antics of the two animals purposely meant to amuse him failed as he brooded under the shade of a willow tree. At noon, a discreetly yawning Haruhie fixed him a meal, which Saburo declined politely claiming a lack of appetite.

It was roughly an hour later when the daimyo's party returned to the camp. The attendants welcomed them with less enthusiasm than before yet the bounty in their nets: three in total, clearly indicated the victor of the hunting competition.

Hideharu was foremost to approach Ujimasa in respectful greetings but the latter immediately noticed something was off. His contract seemed in low spirits and was not his usual good-humoured self.

Tono-sama ordered for his lieutenants to prepare a decent meal out of the wild boar while the remaining two would be portioned equally between the people residing at the jo-kamachi and the kokujin. Kotarou and Naoe who both sustained minor injuries for reasons unknown flanked the daimyo and helped him dismount his stallion. Both men seemed grounded on the spot as the young lord of the household stepped towards them.

Saburo donned his sturdiest mask and graced his Aniue with a bow and a smile that did not reach his eyes.

"There is a time for everything," Ujimasa remarked enigmatically and clasped his young brother's shoulder before turning away to speak with Hideharu.

Once the pair was a good distance away, they conversed seriously about Saburo's progress and the summary of events that transpired.

Naoe and Kotarou remained motionless as they behold their most significant other, who refused to look at them and sullenly abandoned the scene.

XxXMOBXxX

"Saburo-gimi, I shall draw you a bath," Announced Haruhie as soon as they returned to the lordling's quarters.

Saburo stopped him before he could cross the threshold. "Haruhie, if there is anything you need it is sleep. If you keel over I am afraid I could not carry you back to your room."

Haruhie had been sleepless since the banquet and had even performed admirably in the hunt. There was nothing more he deserved but a bit of rest. From the doorway, the page watched his charge dumbly as Saburo prepared an extra futon on the floor and a thin blanket. "I can attend to myself from here so I order you to take a nap for a while."

The page was about to protest but Saburo interrupted with, "Busying myself will take my mind off some things."

When the water was warm to his liking, Saburo stepped away from the pile of sweaty and dirty clothing and immersed himself in the tub. The bath was quiet and no sign of a shadow lurking brought him a little peace of mind.

As he dried off and contemplated the events of the day, his thoughts wandered off to his failings. He could not complete the training despite ambitiously declaring a motion for victory. As a future war commander, he will have to ride into battle and kill men who are the oppressors of his homeland and fight for honor and glory.

There was no going around it. To emerge from war unscathed and virtuous; his youthful ideals were downright impossible. If he could not overcome the biggest obstacle, which was himself then how could he fight for and protect his people?

And then there was Naoe: a deserter of the Uesugi clan, a warrior of lordly status, a man who repeatedly declared love for him. Until this moment, Saburo could not bring himself to believe when Naoe approached Ujimasa-kou to seek permission to spend a night with him. His eldest brother passed the judgment instead, stating that Saburo's approval would mean the same for him.

Ujimasa-ani was being too lenient for comfort. Was there something else behind his benevolent manner?

Saburo was unable to ponder further when Naoe turned to Kotarou next and spoke to him. The content of the warriors' discussion simply eluded him but Naoe ended it by bowing to an equal while Kotarou returned the gesture with a quick stoic nod.

Tried as he might, Saburo could not ignore the fact that when Naoe chose to let his actions be governed by the terms of the Hojo Household, the resulting effect against the lordling's anxieties was significantly profound.

Saburo left the comfortably reclining Haruhie dozing outside his bedchambers and went to see Naoe.

XxXMOBXxX

The door slid open with his second knock. The sound of the crackling hearth and the wonderful smell of cooking food wafting across the room made Saburo hungry. His stomach growled faintly and he covered his embarrassment by coughing on his hand. Naoe stepped aside to formally welcome him in the room only to kneel a few steps before him and prostrated on the floor to greet his young lord with utmost respect.

Saburo was once again taken aback. Forgetting himself, Saburo rushed towards the man whose face remained pressed on the tatami. "Naoe, what in Buddha's name are you doing? Get up!"

Naoe slowly rose but stayed bent on one knee. "But is this not the proper way to greet one's young lord upon his visit according to your household's etiquette?"

"If you are mocking me with this excessive reverence, stop it!" Saburo fumed but a little redness dusted his cheeks.

There was no trace of insult, pretense, or malice in Naoe's eyes when he gazed upon Saburo. "I have finally pieced together Young Lord's source of distress. As appropriate, I shall conduct myself accordingly in public and will not commit any act or speak any word that will shame my beloved's pride and station. I will take it upon myself to behave as I am only if my beloved shall wish for it."

The temperamental youth still thought he was being mocked and blurted, "You sap…" More levelly he said, "Where did you get such nonsense?"

"Truthfully, and if I were in different circumstances…" Something dangerous flickered fleetingly on Naoe's eyes before he continued, "I would not humble myself or stoop so low for the sake of an esteemed lord. However, Saburo… you are my beloved and your bright, inexhaustible flame blinds me, astounds me, defeats me, and brings me to my knees. It is not only your physical beauty that has drawn me to you but also your spirit… your indomitable will."

"Have you been reading mantras, foolish poems or dubious texts before you received me this late afternoon?" Saburo countered, unwilling to be swayed by those honeyed words.

Naoe sighed and dropped the final straw. "What do you want me to do Saburo-dono? How do you wish for me to act?" He asked with affectionate patience.

"You…!" Saburo's tough act fell. "I am hungry," He said not knowing what more to say.

Naoe stood up this time and carefully and gently touched a heated cheek. He did not comment and walked towards the cooking pot of fish and vegetable broth. "Please have a seat. Supper is almost ready." Naoe scooped some, blew the steam and sampled the soup. It tasted superbly good and was well enough to eat.

They ate in companionable silence though Saburo's expression was petulant as he chewed each bite thoughtfully like considering every morsel.

The youth was comfortable with him again and Naoe could not resist a smile.

Saburo ignored him with a huff but his bowl was scraped clean as he handed it for Naoe to wash.

The youth relaxed in the domestic atmosphere and stared at the burning firewood with a faraway look.

They eventually tidied up for the night but when they headed for the bedchamber, Saburo's heart leaped up his throat. As much as he did not want to admit it being nervous seemed an understatement.

"What is the matter?" Naoe turned to the youth's stock-still form.

"Nothing," was Saburo's quick answer.

Naoe opened the sliding doors to reveal two sets of futon spread on the tatami. "The one by the window is your bed. Please make yourself comfortable while I change into my sleeping garment."

Saburo sat on the provided linen and with his back to Naoe looked up into the indigo sky where the earliest stars peaked and winked.

He heard rustles of clothing and the mild scrape of a blanket but when Saburo glanced back, Naoe was already under the covers with long hair undone as he lied on his bed. He was still awake and gazing up at the ceiling.

Saburo noticed the fresh small cuts and bruises on Naoe's skin and opened his mouth, "What happened to you?"

Naoe shrugged, "A little friendly fight between your contract and me ensued. But it was resolved so do not worry."

"Tell me the truth!" Saburo invaded Naoe's personal space and on his hands and knees loomed over him like a snarling beast.

Naoe looked up at Saburo's oblivious, enticing posture. "We had a true agreement. No more meaningless fights like children, for your sake."

"You are still not telling me everything," Saburo glared down at him.

"Your contract agreed to the terms only if I showed submission and allowed you to use me first." Naoe said calmly.

"WHAT?" Saburo sputtered. Deep shades of crimson flooded his face, ears, and neck.

Naoe was amused now. "This is the proper way." And while Saburo gazed at him, utterly speechless and wide-eyed, Naoe cautiously unseated Saburo off his perch and gently rolled him on his side.

Naoe removed the obtrusive blanket and stayed supine as he slowly undressed, baring himself before Saburo.

The youth sat up warily but he was just as entranced as he was apprehensive at the sight of Naoe's strong, naked body.

The man reached out towards one warm, beautiful hand and laid it atop his muscular chest.

"Make love to me, Saburo."

~TBC

Post A/N: Cue in: SQUEAL*! /Cliff hanger/

Sorry guys, an equal relationship meant that Naoe should not be dominating Saburo all the time. If this arrangement offends you then I advise you NOT to read the next chapter but for those who see this as a refreshing change then stay tuned!

My apologies for those who are truly knowledgeable about formal hunting and hawking/falconry: My research about this was not very extensive so if you find any mistakes then it's my fault. I just used my imagination and logic about how hunting is done to fit the plot and also for Saburo's character development. Going to war and being a general is not all that easy, is it? I believe it has more to do with mental/psychological fortitude to become a respectable war commander.

Please read and review! :)