Chapter 51:

Hokutoshichisei Arc: Part Nine

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

Disclaimer: See (chapter one)

"I will forgo training. You would not try to stop me would you?"

Haruhie happened upon this scene where his charge's former guardian was doing his supposed task. Kotarou finished diligently toweling the youth dry and was on the process of wrapping him in his azure kosode.

"Answer me, Kotarou," A cool stern command that could send chills on anyone else's spine does not phase the shadow.

"I am merely helping Wakasama dress for the day," was the elite shinobi's toneless reply.

"I have to take care of some personal matter. Matsuda-dono would surely understand if not I shall personally apologize to him later." Saburo said responsibly.

"Deserting your mentor is not what concerns me." Kotarou carefully put forth. Though he has clothed Saburo in his standard outdoor garb, the shadow was yet to step back.

"So you do intend to get in my way." Saburo with his hair untied crossed his arms before his former protector.

"Wakasama, tell this koma* of your specific plans so it knows how to make the most of its limited moves." Spidery fingers begin to brush lustrous strands of raven hair.

*gaming piece in Shogi or Japanese Chess

"Fuma Kotarou, first and foremost you are the Lord of the Realm's shadow. Thus you cannot serve two masters at once." The lordling deftly plucked the comb from the shinobi's hand.

Kotarou resisted the unusual urge to reach for his obsession's wrist. Doing so could quickly turn things ugly especially if the darker alter-ego (now more prominent) in his heavily distorted self surfaces. "Young Master is somewhat correct however, did I not tell you…?"

Saburo almost took a step back from the unexpected caress on his skin as cool as a blade's blunt edge. "Speak plainly, you fool."

When his young master did not pull away, Kotarou enclosed that slender, bite-scarred throat gently within deadly fingers. "Young Master is still too naïve,"

"Unhand me." Saburo tugged at Kotarou's wrist as rigid as steel but with no avail.

"Kotarou-dono, if you pose a threat to Saburo-gimi in any way I will be forced to expel you." Haruhie intervened, his concealed dagger already halfway out of its sheath.

Barely acknowledging Haruhie's existence, Kotarou released the youth only to hold him tightly in a possessive embrace. In their suffocating closeness, Saburo could feel the deprived state of the elite assassin's body. "A word of warning, Wakasama: do not let your guard down around Him* even for a single moment."

A tick under Saburo's eye twitched at the sudden erotic flick of sly tongue on the shell of his ear. He was adamant not to react to Kotarou but the latter managed to grasp it all the same.

Kotarou walked away into the shadows much to Haruhie's relief.

Saburo who was itching to smack the insolent shadow struck the wall instead with his fist. "He gets more deviant every day."

"Where are you going, Saburo-gimi?" The page called worriedly over Saburo's unbound hair.

His voice shook a little as the lordling answered, "I have to go to my brother."

Haruhie knew better than to ask again when Saburo hastily exited his chambers, formally dressed and with his current blade of rank held securely at his hip.

XxXMOBXxX

Why does it have to haunt him back now of all times?

His conscience nagged at him all the way to his cousin's quarters. When his Lord Brother proposed of a discussion regarding the arranged marriage what else did he do but forget? That late evening after the banquet, he was with Naoe.

And whose company had he gone for the night after?

It was with Naoe once more.

Had he turned into some obsessed halfwit who did nothing but latch himself on his… significant other?

He was no… his thoughts were becoming irrational.

Did he not vow to himself that he would act responsibly and mind his duties from now on? His lady cousin needed him. She even informed him of her dilemma only for her to learn that he was away… (Much undisclosed to her) slaking his insatiable lusts in the arms of a very skilled lover.

Even now,

His steps ceased and he found himself clawing at the fabric of his kimono in self-rebuke. His mind was still filled with images of last night. His body tingled as if reliving the luscious pleasures done to it in the most savage manner.

Naoe…

Perhaps these were the real effects of his poison.

Have you poisoned me to the point of being incapable of coherent thought? Have you cursed me so that I would not think of, would not concern myself with any other?

What have you truly done to me?

Naoe…

Your poison is so deeply entrenched in me that I have forgotten my filial obligations… You said it has been neutralized but I doubt I am ever free of its control. When will you be satisfied? I… I cannot think of you alone!

Stop it!

Saburo managed to compose himself before approaching the humble palace of his great uncle, Genan. The governor of Hakone resided at the second floor of his designated wing at the East Bastion while his daughter, Hanaiin-hime occupied the topmost floor.

He walked quickly towards the entrance guided by bushi and a handful of patrolling monks. The samurai bowed respectfully before him while an attendant escorted him inside. Saburo glanced at his guide whose thinly concealed agitation already told him that his uncle might not be in the best of moods.

"Genan-sama, His Young Lordship, Saburo-dono is here."

His great uncle barely glanced up and simply gestured for his servant to bid them privacy. Genan brooded by the window gazing at almost nothing in the distance.

Saburo quietly waited but at last, the old monk who could not resist him sighed and affectionately clasped him on the shoulders. "Saburo, I could never have been happier to see you at this time. What can this elder do for you?"

"Ojisama, I came to see Hana-san. A servant reported that she wishes to speak with me."

Genan heaved another tired sigh. "It is to my sadness that my daughter has made attempts to confide in you more than she ever could with her elderly father."

The youth willed himself not to give anything away. "What do you mean, Ojisama?"

"Ever since that evening when I enlightened my daughter about the possibility of a matrimonial union between herself and the daimyo… Hanaiin began exercising reserve towards me, her own father. But what did I expect? She expressed delight of course for it was such an honor however, I could tell that there was a part of her that remained in doubt. And now, it somewhat relieves me that she has asked you for advice." Genan's knowing eyes prevents any word of denial from leaving Saburo's lips.

Fortunately, after a moment of quick thinking, Saburo was able to gain a foothold in the conversation. "Ojisama, it would be too imprudent of me to provide opinions about matters that I myself do not completely understand. Hana-san simply voiced out her anxieties regarding the marriage, which I wasn't able to allay at all." Based on their discourse, Saburo could tell that Hanaiin had not disclosed any of her true feelings with her father especially regarding a certain loyal Uesugi Commander.

Hanaiin-hime's dilemma was treading dangerously towards treason if its exact circumstances were revealed. Saburo had to protect his cousin's secret until he could find a way to revisit the heart of the matter with her. He unknowingly fell into a pensive mood at the presence of his great uncle who had a disarming thing to say. "Perhaps my daughter is troubled because her heart already belonged to another from the very beginning?"

The youth nearly backpedaled, "Ojisama, what…"

The patriarch shook his head knowing it was hopeless. "My poor daughter… for her hand in marriage to be given away only because of a reckless wager between the daimyo and myself… I should have known better, Saburo."

The beautiful youth frowned but he kept his silence waiting for the elder to speak once more. "In the end, the fault lies in no one but me. You have to understand… my dear lad. I was so very desperate for the salvation of my daughter that I constantly pressured your reluctant aniue to do something about it! For putting little effort in search of Hanaiin's whereabouts, at one instance I justified Ujimasa's inadequacies by rubbing the fact of his unmarried, childless state!"

After the outburst, Genan sank into resignation. "Of course Ujimasa being the brilliant Shogi master that he is swiftly turned the tables on me. He downright proposed to marry my daughter to resolve the issue. I was speechless and rendered inept. If anything, it taught me that day not to provoke his near nonexistent temper."

When Saburo learned the complete scope and catalyst of Hanaiin's predicament, he wanted to act immediately. "Ojisama, I will speak to Aniue about my disposition on the subject of marriage but I have to see Hana-san first."

Belatedly comprehending the purpose of Saburo's visit, Genan blinked. "Ah, forgive this elder, Saburo. It seems petty sentiments chased my wisdom away. I failed to tell you that my daughter left a little while ago with a vague destination in mind."

But at a time like this…

Where could she have gone?

Saburo's mind raced. And then he recalled Kotarou's exact words depicting Hanaiin's determination to…

It can't be!

Saburo suddenly felt great unease.

Has Hanaiin herself gone to the daimyo to settle things once and for all?

"I can sense that something very grave is happening. Tell me Saburo, does it have anything to do with my daughter?" Despite the urgency of his question, the keen monk's tone remained soft, calm even.

Saburo locked emotions of dread and anxiety in a closed stance. "I shall search for Hana-san, Ojisama."

Genan revealed an unfathomable expression. "My daughter is very fortunate to have a compassionate cousin like you, Saburo. And she would have been even more fortunate if you had become her husband but that was not to be.

I have sent one of my spies to follow her. He would be returning any moment now to relay his progress."

As if on cue, a mild footfall at the entryway of the room indicated the bringer of news. "Genan-sama, Saburo-dono," He prostrated in absolute reverence.

"Report," The patriarch's cool commanding tone banished Saburo's recollection of a submissive Naoe whose face once pressed on the floor…

"It is terrible, Master. I could no longer secretly escort Hanaiin-hime."

Genan's features sharpened at the beginnings of anger, "EXPLAIN,"

"Hime-sama and Sagami-dono… they have ridden together on horseback far to the outskirts."

As comprehension dawned, Genan almost fell to his knees. He seemed to have lost his strength altogether. "Ujimasa and Hanaiin may have left Odawara? That is inconceivable." He shook his head helplessly. "What could they be up to? What could Ujimasa be planning to do to my daughter?"

Saburo offered to remedy the situation. "Ojisama, I know of one or two who act as a second limb to my brother. Please have faith in me."

Who else could the lordling be implying but either Kotarou or Naoe?

Was it Kotarou, the daimyo's current protector or Naoe the pledged retainer who was always oriented with Hojo Ujimasa's interests?

Yet Saburo chose to seek neither and with a curt but polite bow, he wordlessly leaves his great uncle's abode.

Matsuda Hideharu patiently waited in the stables until he eventually spotted his rather overly dressed apprentice. "You are late once again, Saburo-dono."

"Shishou,* please. I have to go to Aniue."

*Teacher

If the situation was anything less severe, Saburo's recent respectful address of him would have raised a curious brow.

"Do you wish to neglect your training for the third time, Saburo-dono?" Hideharu asked testily. It was a tone he rarely used within the castle grounds. Often times, he spoke this way only around troops of the army.

The lordling promptly realized that his wheedling tactics (which he picked up randomly from only gods know where… Hideharu had a sneaking suspicion it must be from the manipulative eldest brother) was sadly not going to work on his mentor anytime soon. "I promise to catch up on anything I have missed right after."

Saburo's adorable pleading and earnest expression casts a weakening effect on Hideharu. Perhaps this was the reason why no one could resist him for long. If Ujimasa commanded absolute fealty through schemes and intimidation then Saburo would subdue his future subjects by sincerity and determination.

"Are you willing to spend your leisure hours and train until late in the evening just to fill in your absences? And just a reminder: I am not the only instructor whom you have forgone attendance." The mentor added as deterrence to any empty assurances.

A crestfallen Saburo bowed. "Yes,"

Hideharu graced the youth with an indulgent, empathic look. Saburo had won his trust a long time ago. "Very well," He patted the forlorn head.

Saburo looked up, confused, "Shishou?"

"Today's exercise—"

"But I thought…"

Hideharu held up a hand to silence him. He repeated, "Today's exercise requires horsemanship skills by eluding aggressive pursuers until we reach the location of the daimyo. If everything is clear then please select your favored mount, Saburo-dono."

Clear? How can anything be clear about this instruction?

Did the daimyo and his mentor conspire for another dangerous venture for the sake of his progress? Furthermore, they have to include the participation of his cousin this time… Did they not think of the risks and of the possible misunderstandings that may come about as a result?

"Saburo-dono, do you now hesitate to face Tono-sama?"

The lordling did not want to be told twice.

Upon his entry he was greeted by the stables master. Saburo gave a brief nod and walked towards his colt that seemed to be preoccupied with a companion. Karasu perked up at the presence of its master while its guest that was none other than the hawk, Sora equally acknowledged him by flying to his side instead.

Without the leather pads, the talons of the bird stung a bit but it was not enough to cause injury. Saburo stroked just under the hawk's beak. "Are you coming with us or would you rather wait for our return?"

Sora leaped up and flapped its wings as an answer before settling down on Saburo once more. It appears that the bird was reluctant to be left behind. "Alright," The lordling acquiesced. Karasu bore his weight before galloping outside to meet up with Hideharu who similarly idled on his stallion.

"Are you ready, Saburo-dono?" His mentor asked as they both watched the stables master oddly scurry off from the paddock.

"Certainly,"

Hideharu whipped his mount to full speed while Saburo closely tagged behind. Sora kept a close watch on the pair from the skies above.

"I hope his punishment would not be excessive," The general in the lead threw casually over his shoulder.

Saburo guessed that his mentor referred to the stables master. The violations he committed would soon be understandable when Saburo and Hideharu were chased without fail by Odawara-jo's cavalry* as they traversed the inner baileys of the castle.

"Saburo-dono, Matsuda-Taisho, halt! I repeat: Go no further!" The leader of the kiba-tai* who to Saburo's chagrin happened to be Nagashiro harshly called them back.

Saburo struggled to match Hideharu's pace. Rubbing Karasu's mane, the lordling urged his ride to go even faster.

"Will you be swept by him, Saburo-dono?" Hideharu teased but his face remained a somber mask.

Saburo stubbornly ignored the beseeching, overprotective look on Naoe's eyes. "No, Shishou."

Hideharu soon elaborated, "They were given strict orders to prevent any member of the Hojo family to leave the castle premises at this time… for safety purposes." He added as an afterthought.

"Then what made you defy Aniue's command?" Saburo strove to overcome his erratically thundering heart. Naoe and some cavalry units were still snapping at their tails.

"Did you not want to speak with your Aniue?" Hideharu said with an enigmatic smile.

"In spite of your warnings… your darling heart is very strong-willed, Kotarou-dono." A chuckling shadow informed another.

"It is up to Wakasama to decide his fate and including those who believe in him. My intentions and opinions do not matter."

"Let us hope Tono-sama does not drive him to insanity you mean!" Kato Danzo cackled before leaping away from a thrown dagger. "Temper…" He tutted while the Fuma Clan Head vanished into an untold destination.

Saburo was unsuspectingly headed towards a place where the physical evidence of heresy, of taboo could undo the strings of his mind.

XxXMOBXxX

Kato Danzo raised his two arms above his head as he dangled upside down on the wall he had currently attached himself. A shinobi in similar position had Danzo's head in check with the sharp point of a tsuba.

"Can we not continue with the silent interrogation after we plant both of our feet on solid ground? Too much blood is rushing to my head and making me think odd things. For example, your weapon of choice reminds me of someone I really do not like!**" The master illusionist whose camouflage cloak was snatched away and was finally identified as an intruder rambled on.

(**Kotarou and Kei happen to use the same type of sword)

As a response, Fuma Kotarou slashed the 'reinforced rope' made of treated women's hair that helped secure the master illusionist in place. As both successfully managed to break their fall, Danzo oddly did not scramble away even as his blank-faced captor's sword made a shallow wound on his throat.

"State your reason loitering around Odawara-jo." The Fuma Clan Head demanded monotonously.

"Ujimasa-dono has permitted me "to observe" the affairs of this place. Did he not tell you in advance?" Danzo tried poorly at bargaining while doing his damnedest not to laugh. This abysmal specimen was very intriguing. He wondered if they shared a similar mental state.

"I do not recall such information from Tono-sama himself." Kotarou showed the intention of digging his blade deeper into the intruder that seemed exceptionally resilient to pain.

Danzo nonchalantly grabbed the middle of the tsubatto and motioned it away. "That is somewhat strange. Ujimasa-dono's shadow whose face was exactly identical to yours was much more accommodating of me." After a moment of contemplating, Danzo concluded, "You must be Fuma Akito, the younger twin brother of the Fuma Clan Head if you are 'mostly unaware' of the daimyo's secret agendas."

Kotarou's gaze narrowed minutely but he was entirely incapable of "manifesting" annoyance against this pesky creature that had the gall to prance about Tono-sama's domain like nobody's concern.

Ribald laughter abruptly rang out, interrupting the shinobi face-off (if it could be called that).

From where he stood, Hojo Ujimasa vacated the shade of a tree in the garden observing the amusing exchange. Both shinobi had been aware of his presence but shared the notion that they could act at will. "At ease, Kotarou. He means more mischief rather than any physical harm in all that he does. Danzo has told me his purpose and it does not get in the way of my plans."

"With all due respect, Tono-sama. This creature is a defector. He could betray you anytime." Fuma Kotarou objectively replied.

Danzo keenly noticed that his fellow could not even address him as a shinobi but he could hardly care.

"Betrayal is only a matter of time and circumstance. No one is safe from it. So do not lecture me about an act that you yourself have committed… to my Otouto." And just like that, Kotarou was subdued and quietly withdrew.

As Kotarou left to be by someone's side, (Ujimasa was only too familiar with) the daimyo turned to walk back inside his chambers.

"Done relaxing outdoors, O-Tono-sama?" Danzo called mock-reverently.

"Do you have something else to discuss with me that is bothering you, Danzo?" Ujimasa raised one arched brow.

"That Fuma… is he not the heir-child to the late Momochi-kyo? I am surprised that not only one but two of the last few scions of the Iga are employed in the Hojo Household. Hojo Ujiyasu-dono was surely charismatic enough to persuade 'him' to inherit the title of Fuma Kotarou." The master illusionist boldly commented.

"I am surprised you know such sensitive information about the true nature of 'Fuma Kotarou'. Only Hojo Clan Heads were supposed to realize this." Ujimasa's respect and wariness of Danzo grew. Was this the real reason why Nagao Kagetora allegedly attempted to dispose of Kato Danzo before?

"The 'Fuma Clan' has been in service to the very first Go-Hojoshi daimyo but the name of the shinobi currently leading them will always be Fuma Kotarou. Is there something significant about that name I wonder?"

Ujimasa merely shook his head, "That has been the tradition."

"Probably, the very first Fuma Kotarou had a reputation of some sort. Or is it a method to boost shinobi morale to belong to the same family name though some of the members are not actually related by blood? A name could have a unifying quality to it… I see.

Is that why since the beginning of the Go-Hojoshi reign not a single major betrayal has occurred? And that a sole shinobi clan has served the only ruling family of Kanto who has never suffered from familial disputes. The structure and house rules of the Hojo are indeed formidable."

Ujimasa was starting to become impatient. "What do you want to gain from this conversation, Danzo?"

"Your trust, Ujimasa-dono. For one, your family has the power to reign for generations… if you make haste and marry again soon. However, despite this obvious limitless potential, you only wanted to concentrate in governing Sagami and have no ambition to unify the nation? What I mean to say, Tono-sama is that you are the ideal lord to serve in the rest of my days. You are a pillar of balance except if you succumb to your madness of course."

Impatience was steadily warping into displeasure. "Danzo," The lord of the realm uttered warningly.

"What I saw in your secret shrine… if you yield to it then this will mark the end of you… of everything your ancestors have painstakingly built. I am certain 'Fuma Kotarou' has seen a glimpse of your madness but has not actively done something to remedy it. Is that how a loyal shinobi behaves towards his master? I am intrigued of his unwavering fealty to the… source of your madness."

"Pity… is it?" Ujimasa said deathly, quietly.

"I want to understand you very well, Tono-sama." If Danzo's sincerity was but a mask it was a very convincing one.

"He ruins me. If too much love and hate can bring about madness then this is the truth that embodies it."

"In the end, it is all up to the brat. He better tread carefully." Kato Danzo said to the billowing sea winds as he departs the premises as well. Who wanted to be caught up in this storm?

XxXMOBXxX

With Matsuda Hideharu's lead, both mentor and apprentice effortlessly outran their pursuers by moving past narrow pathways, leaping over short fences and even went as far as braving some of the shallow moats. Another advantage came in the form of Sora as it watched the cavalrymen's approach to intercept from specific directions. As a trained bird of prey, Sora gave Saburo the same signals in a hunting exercise and alerted them where the bulk of the kiba-tai would emerge. Thus, Hideharu and Saburo were able to find an alternate route or avoid a particular trail.

Even through the fast-paced chase, Saburo who was satisfactorily adroit on his mount kept looking over his shoulder. He could not locate Naoe among the divided teams of horsemen.

"Saburo-dono we are nearing the main castle gates. Prepare yourself because that is where they will strike the hardest." Hideharu warned as soon as the lordling was able to catch up.

"Understood," Saburo replied as they advanced carefully but without further delay.

Averse to their anticipation, not a single guard was on sight just a few yards away from the tile accentuated gates.

Then all of a sudden, the strong beat of a stallion's hooves thundered through the opposite side. A stalwart form commandeered his horse from the outside walls and went over the roofing.

Saburo could only watch speechlessly as the stark appearance of Naoe skilfully abandoned his mount and vaulted towards him.

Throwing his arms around him, Naoe safely cushioned Saburo's tumble to the ground. They rolled a few times and then came to a stop.

Saburo was already struggling. "Release me!"

Naoe helped him on his feet but would not let go of his wrists. "No, Saburo-dono. It is not safe out there."

"Fool! You do not know the slightest bit about what is going on! I said let go!" Saburo took advantage of Naoe's lenience. He swung an arm forward and used the momentum to twist his body and landed a kick against Naoe's stomach.

The former sohei master was tougher than he appears and barely flinched. Not one to give in to defeat, Saburo unlatched Naoe by firmly biting his hand.

The man withdrew more out of shock than any reaction to pain. And before he could completely recover, a feathered defender of Saburo launched a series of pecks and scratches upon him. Sora gave several piercing shrieks and continued its assault while the colt, Karasu mischievously galloped about to discourage anyone who would dare interfere. The youth unfailingly used this to his advantage and sprang away.

Hideharu briefly fought off the cavalry captains who tactically engaged him on both sides but as they were equally intimidated by him they swiftly fell back as he started brandishing his weapon.

It was the first time Saburo saw his mentor in the magnificent form of a fearless general as Hideharu rode towards him. With a strong arm, Hideharu lifted the lordling and seated him securely behind. "Hold tight,"

The youth mutely nodded.

Saburo gave Naoe a forced imperious stare and endured his significant other's anguished look before hiding his despondent face against Hideharu's back.

When the pair successfully slipped through the gates, Naoe could not forget the way Saburo looked down on him from his perch. He had thought he had gotten so close to his beloved enough to dissolve all the boundaries between them but apparently he was wrong. As the differences of their worlds stretched all around him, he hardens his resolve.

Naoe vows to pursue Saburo not per the daimyo's command but in order to avert any potential harm to his most precious one.

XxXMOBXxX

As Saburo watched the outline of Odawara's borders slowly fade in the distance, his grip on the hem of Hideharu's robes tightened. The possibility that his eldest brother and his cousin have indeed left the safety of the stronghold was unheard of. "Hideharu-dono, did my brother not order you to prevent me from going after him?"

"He did but the light in his eyes always gave me double meanings. I could tell that he was amused by the idea of my newfound ability to stand up to him."

"However…?"

The general heard the obvious puzzlement in his apprentice's voice and chuckled softly.

Hideharu explained, "I am somewhat aware of the arranged marriage before your brother's formal announcement. Genan-dono was also worried about his daughter's reaction when the hime learns of it therefore when you told me that you wanted to see your brother... I knew the decision to make."

"I did not know you that were so perceptive." Saburo said in awe.

"I could see how much you cared for your cousin and it is a rare find in these times of war. Not even Nagao Kagetora— Uesugi Kenshin loved his sister in the same depth as you love Hanaiin-hime."

The tips of Saburo's ears tinged red with the heartfelt praise.

Just before noon, they arrived at one of Sagami Bay's deserted beaches. In the remotest part of the cove, the stallion could go no further and so they embarked on foot.

Never did Saburo expect who waited for them while tending a small boat at the end of the sandy banks.

"Kotarou?"

"My apologies Hideharu-dono but Wakasama has to do this on his own… without you." The elite shinobi spoke with a foreboding air about him.

"What have I to do on my own?" Saburo demanded.

"I am forbidden to say more. That has been Tono-sama's final orders in the event that the young master disobeys the first one: to refrain from leaving the castle." Kotarou's words were like impenetrable shields.

That was right.

Fuma Kotarou was first and foremost the daimyo's loyal servant and protector. The words Saburo had thrown at Kotarou earlier now did not sit well in his gut.

Hideharu suppressed the impulsive urges that surfaced in this unforeseen circumstance. "Fuma Kotarou, was this your intention all along?"

Kotarou boldly, insolently ignored the general. "Wakasama, please take time to reconsider if you must."

"No. I have already decided. I will go to, Aniue."

Hideharu could not help but interrupt this time, "Saburo-dono, are you certain?"

"Yes,"

The short journey along the shorelines was steeped in silence until…

"Wakasama, only a few know of this path. If anything happens to you at the shrine then hardly anyone will also be able to find you."

"And why you are telling me this?"

The shinobi's first response was a lengthy quiet once more before answering, "I always want you to be safe Wakasama but that is only a fool's wishful thinking. I could not even save you at the hands of Ujiyasu-sama's murderer."

Saburo looked away; wanting to shut himself from the world. He did not want to relive the painful recollections of his late lord father and the frightful memories at Hatsushima Island. But his guilt and pride would not let him escape.

"What do you really want to say, Kotarou?"

"I am… afraid that by choosing to believe in my young master's fortitude I am also willingly putting him through the jaws of danger. I am… confounded that opposing wishes clash inside me."

"If the daimyo puts me under his blade, what will you do Kotarou? Will you repeat the mistake of last time? Will you dare harm Ujimasa-ani again?"

"Wakasama desires to know where my loyalties truly lie."

"Answer me,"

"Truthfully, I no longer knew it myself. Perhaps my body knows better and will move accordingly when the time comes."

Saburo breathed a sound of indignation. He shook his head, unsure of what to believe in anymore.

Kotarou knew he was the worst vermin alive for his and Naoe Nobutsuna's fealty lied in the same person. However, was it enough to spare Saburo from what fate has in store?

~TBC

Post A/N: A cliffy for a cliffy or should this be labelled as a filler? Sorry. RL is very hectic lately. Career crossroads and all…

Basically, Saburo has two lovers. One who is truly loyal but is overprotective (and thus stifling Saburo's growth/potential) and another who appears to have conflicting allegiances (Teetering on almost betrayal) but is willing to let Saburo decide what to do with his life. Who is a more suitable partner? I hate to be in Saburo's shoes right now.

Not to mention the ever-manipulative brother who has a dark/ darker side…?

Stay tuned, folks.