Ranmaru stroked his horse as he rode, hoping that no one else around him saw his look of contemplation. He hated having people ask him what he was thinking about; he always had to tell them the same answer. Nothing. He thought of nothing.
The young boy hated to lie to anyone, but this was one untruth he could not change. How could you explain his thoughts to anyone? How could anyone else hope to understand them, when he did not understand them himself?
This latest assignment by Lord Nobunaga had been a classic example. Ranmaru, distrustful of the orb his master fiddled with, was more than happy to return to the camp of Lord Mitsuhide, his friend and mentor. Once he entered Mitsuhide's camp, he had become accustomed to working under him again. There was nowhere he would rather serve.
Yet, now, when he was called back, he did not feel any remorse or shame. He knew that, once under the Demon Lord's wing, he would feel exactly the same as he had in Mitsuhide's camp. Why? Why was it that he felt so at home with both but truly content with neither? Why did he feel that, every time he was serving under either of them, that they were surely destined to rule this land?
Maybe Hideyoshi was right. Maybe he was just a confused little man after all?
That thought brought a hint of a smile on his face, and he figured there was no point in denying it anymore. Perhaps he was just meant to be confused all of the time and that this was just a perfect balance of nature. One day he would know the answers, but not today it seemed.
He looked at the sun barely making it over Azuchi's walls, truly enjoying the looks of that castle at its first sight. However, he didn't keep his gaze on it for long, too afraid that he'd imagine that beautiful castle in a sea of flames. For some reason, that vision haunted him…
But for now, Azuchi castle was fine and just as beautiful as ever. He gave a small sigh, entering the gates and waving at the guards as he passed by. Now, to see Lord Nobunaga…
"Look at what the cat dragged in…"
Ranmaru was not surprised to be greeted in such a fashion, but he knew it to be friendly, and so he smiled at the man who spoke, "Greetings Keiji. Not having a very good morning?"
The white-haired warrior snorted, giving a lazy stretch before returning to his task of grooming his horse, "Not really. I hate being up this early, as you well know. Plus, it's been pretty boring around here since you left. Nobody to torment while waiting for the next battle!"
"Poor Keiji… but surely slaughtering the entire Date army single-handedly could satisfy even your bloodlust?" Ranmaru instantly regretted asking the question, when his friend's eyes glared back at him. Dismounting, he walked to the taller man's side, "You didn't do it… did you?"
Keiji shrugged, "No. It wasn't… fair, you know? All the troops were confused because their leader was missing; half of the army was out LOOKING for the little brat. I couldn't just run in and kill them like that… what kind of a fight would that be?"
"I am sure Lord Oda was not pleased… unless you came up with a pretty good excuse as to why you let them get away."
"You know me." Giving Matsutake a few strokes around his hip and rear, Keiji laughed. "I told him it was no fun, and I think he handled it okay. I mean, I'm still alive right now, eh?"
Ranmaru never understood his lord's orders sometimes, but it was for the best. Without their leader, now was the best time to remove the threat of the Date army, but Ranmaru could not blame Keiji for his actions at all. He knew that if he was in the same situation, he would have done the same. Still, Ranmaru paused, wondering if this would come back to haunt them in times to come.
"You're too quiet." Keiji pointed out, stroking his horse's muzzle when it demanded attention. "Makes me think you're thinking of bad stuff, you know what I mean?"
That snapped the boy back to reality, and he gave an apologetic smile, "No, Keiji… I never think of bad things or good things especially. I just think of things as they are, things as they were… things as they could be. I did not mean to worry you. I am glad, however, that you did not get into too much trouble for showing mercy when it was required."
The warrior scowled, "Mercy? Don't make me laugh! I only did it because the fight will be better later on; no other reason!"
It made Ranmaru laugh to hear his friend say such things, "You aren't fooling me, Keiji; I know beneath that tough exterior you have a soft heart. Still, before I stay around and talk enough to get you upset, I had best report to Lord Oda. Would you mind taking care of my horse for me?"
"Eh, sure… just leave him here." Keiji's spirit didn't uplift too much, accepting the reins and waving him off with a spat. "Don't go running around spreading rumors, you hear me? I have a reputation to keep up, you know."
All Ranmaru did was wave him off, leaving Keiji to snort. "Soft heart… heh, he knows nothing of me."
Of course, Ranmaru heard that, but he did not counter it. He was often confused, but he knew some things and he stuck to those beliefs. Giving a sigh, he entered the castle, walking down the hallways steadily. He wasn't in a hurry, though. Whatever Nobunaga called him back for was probably worth the wait…
He did not take him long to reach his destination; he had wandered these halls often enough to know where he was going well enough. As he reached the Demon Lord's chambers, he knocked on the door; even if he was expected, it was best to make sure he was not interrupting anything important.
The boy felt a jolt pass through him at the sound of his name, but he obeyed the command and entered to kneel before his lord, "I have come, as you wished. Yet, how did you know it was I outside the door?"
"You are the only one who knocks so lightly…"
Seeing his logic, Ranmaru merely nodded. "Why did you call me back, my lord?"
"I call you back to ask for your report, Ranmaru." Nobunaga's voice was oddly quiet today, at least in comparison to his usual days. Ranmaru had noticed it instantly, and he looked at his lord's gaze, seeing how it never looked at him. What was he thinking about? "Your report?"
Snapping to attention, Ranmaru began, trying to act as if it never happened. "All is well, my lord. There is suspicion from the other armies that you are planing something, and Keiji's recent attacks upon the Date clan have also aroused suspicion."
That seemed to make Nobunaga smile, but even that seemed detached from the rest of his body. "Good. Have they sent spies?"
"None reported, sir."
"I see. Perhaps it is too early, as of yet." Now those yellow eyes came to bear on him full force, "How is Mitsuhide at present?"
The sudden shift in questioning confused Ranmaru, but he answered as best he could, "Lord Mitsuhide seems well, my lord. His men are in peak condition, as is Lord Mitsuhide himself. There are no obvious weaknesses in the ranks."
"You enjoyed being under his command once more?"
"My lord, it is always nice to see old friends again, but I am just as content now as I was then," Ranmaru answered truthfully, though now his curiosity was peaked, as well as his concern. "Are you well, my lord? You seem distracted this morning…"
Nobunaga said nothing for awhile, but when he did, his hinted smile was frightful. "The boy was released today."
"Sir?! He escaped?"
The Demon Lord shook his head, his smile still so evident on his face. "No. I released him early this morning… I wonder where he is now."
Raising an eyebrow with confusion, Ranmaru asked, "Why did you release him, my lord? He wasn't fit for the tests?"
"Oh, no… he was perfect. That's why I released him."
Ranmaru gasped when he heard the last, images flashing across his mind. He rose to his feet, his hands clutched into fists at his side, "My lord, why? Why have you done this foolish thing?!"
"Calm yourself, Ranmaru…"
"No! I will not!" Fire burned in those sharp blue eyes, fire that usually was nothing more than a comforting flame, "My lord, have you ANY idea what you have done? He could rejoin his army and come after us with a new strength; he could make allies with your other enemies and do the same. He could get killed or die of natural means, and then the orb you seem to cherish so much will be lost. Even worse, the orb could fall into the hands of the enemy. This is insanity!"
He would have continued with his litany, but Nobunaga's laughter stopped him. The man was almost convulsing by the time that Ranmaru spoke up again, "I fail to see what is so humorous about this, my lord…"
Nodding, Nobunaga finally calmed down, resting his chin in one hand and laying the other on the hilt of his sword. "I can clearly see that, Ranmaru. All these points you made are true, however, it is what I want."
"The closest army that was to us was the Takeda… if Masamune can work up a good sob story, that old fool will undoubtedly send spies here to see what's going on." Nobunaga pointed out, his smile deepening slightly. "I wonder if he's made it to their camp yet…"
Now the boy shook his head, "My lord, forgive me if I am slow, but I do not understand this at all. Why would you want him to go to our enemies and ally with them? Why do you want to give him the chance to strike? I thought the purpose of this orb was to give us an advantage over the other forces… not to send us to our graves."
"Yes, but if Masamune leads the Takeda army here… then when we awaken the orb, one of our strongest opponents will be the first to be eliminated."
"And if the orb fails?"
"I have already begun preparing the men for the assault, if it comes. If the orb fails, our own men will cut down the Takeda."
That seemed a bit logical, Ranmaru thought to himself with a frown, and he nodded, to agree with his lord. Best to have a back-up plan, just in case, he always thought. However, one thought ran through his mind, as he asked, "Forgive my own curiosity, my lord, but the orb… can it be used by anyone else?"
"You mean, should the enemy find it and attempt to use it themselves?" Nobunaga asked, waiting for Ranmaru to nod before answering. "They know little or nothing, and that itself works to our advantage. Only Hideyoshi knows the secrets of the orb, and there is no chance that the information for that should… slip."
Nodding, Ranmaru bowed. "Is there anything else you need me for, my lord?"
"As a matter of fact, yes…" Nobunaga's gaze went skyward again, only worrying his minion all the more. "I want you and Keiji to take a couple of hundred men, in 'pursuit' of Masamune. That should entice Takeda Shingen's curiosity even more…"
The boy raised a hand to his temples, trying, unsuccessfully, to block the torrent of images sweeping his mind, "Oh yes, my lord, it must certainly shall…"
"You asked me earlier if I was ill, Ranmaru; it seems now I am forced to ask you the same…"
Giving a start, Ranmaru cursed mentally when he felt a slight blush color his cheeks, "I, my lord? Why would you ask such a thing?"
"You have not been acting as yourself; you would never snap at me as you did a few moments past. In addition, you keep unconsciously pressing your fingers against your forehead, as if you are trying to make some sort of pain go away…"
Ranmaru lowered his gaze, to avoid the Demon Lord's own. He didn't know exactly what was wrong, so how would he ever explain to his lord? He said nothing, and Nobunaga spoke up again. "Tell me, Ranmaru… what do you think will result in this? Give me your most honest opinion."
That was what Ranmaru feared, but nevertheless, he tried to answer. "Sir, it will definitely entice the enemy's curiosity, but I'm more concerned with Date Masamune himself. He will seek revenge for what was done to him, and yet, you don't fear that?"
"Fear is for those who don't have second options. Of course he will seek revenge, however, we won't have to worry about that for awhile." Nobunaga smiled to himself, making poor Ranmaru shiver. "I don't fear him, Ranmaru. When he is ready, he'll come."
Ranmaru spoke softly, "Some people fear too much, my lord. Some people fear too little. I wish you would fear more, my lord."
"Why? What possible use could it have?"
"Fear is not necessarily a sign of cowardice, and it always allows one to act with more caution. It is those who think themselves invincible who have their weaknesses exposed. It is ultimately their downfall… where as one who knows to utilize his fear and exert caution find themselves often in a position of triumph."
Nobunaga chuckled, "So, all of my enemies who fear me must be greater then… I cannot find it in myself to fear them. What of you, Ranmaru? Do you fear me?"
"Do you fear me, Ranmaru? You said it yourself that it's not such a bad thing. Do you fear me?"
How could Ranmaru answer? He couldn't think of anything to say, though luckily for him, he did not have to. Hideyoshi rushed into the room, causing poor Ranmaru to jump in fright as he shouted happily to his lord. "My lord! Good news! It seems that our little tyrant went down the right path and he is now in ol' Shingen's hands. Everything goes as planned!"
Forgetting about Ranmaru, Nobunaga smiled, "Good."
Seeing his chance to escape, Ranmaru took it, bowing before he exited. He felt chills course through his blood, an indicator of his apprehension, as usual. Still, at least Keiji would be happy with these new orders, even if they were not in an actual battle. The warrior was always looking for an excuse to exercise his horse.
Sighing, the young man looked at the newly risen sun, "Today… will be a long day…"
Kunoichi rather enjoyed splashing her bare feet in the small pond; she loved the feel of water, and if it were up to her, she would have done nothing but swam all day.
But instead, much to her dismay, it was SHE who had to baby-sit the brat! If there was something she hated, it was children. Stupid, whiney, smelly, a waste of time. Of all people, why she?
"Not like he's even GOING anywhere!" Kunoichi whined, bringing her feet back up to hold. Giving a sigh, she looked back at the sleeping boy, and she spat in his general direction. "How long will he sleep anyway? He might as well be doing something if I have to waste my time to watch him… stupid brat."
(Lizzie Note: Can we kill he soon? … please?)
And why did he have to MOAN so much? She'd catch snippets of protests and pleadings in his sleep, but as soon as he spoke, he would stop, whimpering and groaning as he gripped his fingers into the grass.
Finally, she felt she could have no more, so she rose and gave him a slight nudge in the ribs, "Hey, kid, wake up already! You've been sleeping too long…"
"NO! LEAVE ME ALONE!"
(Chibi Note: No, we can't.)
Even for a ninja, her reflexes could not save her from the strike, and she fell flat on her ass, wondering what had hit her. When she realized it was the boy, she was prepared to strike back, but as quick as the strike came, he fell back into sleep. She hissed, rubbing her side, "Alright! Alright! I get the hint, you need your nap!"
The boy said nothing in reply, trying to hide himself under the blankets and his own darkness. Again, she sighed, poking her tongue out at him and going back to sloshing her feet in the pond.
"You could at least be quiet… sleeping is silent!"
(Lizzie Note: Ah crappers. You just poured bleach on my rainbow.)
She heard a faint whiney, and she turned to see the same magnificent red horse that the boy had entered the camp on trotting down to the pond, "What the hell… we put you in the stables, didn't we?!"
The horse gave a snort, shaking her head as she bent down to nuzzle the hiding boy.
"Hmm… that feels good…"
(Chibi Note: LOL)
"Sure, you'll warm up to the horse before you'd warm up to a girl." Kunoichi spat, going back to her task and letting the horse nuzzle its master some more. She didn't see Shingen walking down to the pond as well, as she continued her whining. "Real mature… bet he'd turn red and have a nosebleed if a girl played with him as a kid, eh?"
"So, how's he doing?"
Kunoichi shrieked, nearly falling into the water as she spun to face the now laughing Shingen. She was surprised that she was caught off guard so bad, but she tried not to show it. "Oh, he's fine. You know… sleeping, whining, punching me in the rib for poking him… yeah, he can't be better!"
(Lizzie Note: You're mean. Just for that… extra Nobunaga molestation. w )
"You should not have touched him; it is quite obvious to me that he's been tortured, though to what extent it is hard to say," Shingen sighed, giving Masamune's horse a stroke as he walked closer. "At least he seems to be getting the rest his body needs to begin healing…"
"Yeah, you can say that again; he hasn't stirred hardly at all! He seems to be plagued by nightmares, so I guess your whole torture theory is correct." Kunoichi replied. "Where's Lord Yukimura? How did he convince me to stay with this brat?"
"I believe he gave you a direct order as your superior officer."
Grimacing, she nodded, "Oh yeah… oh well, I guess I have to obey them then."
Shingen could only laugh at her distress, and he waited for Masamune's whimper to cease for the moment before speaking up again, clearing his throat to catch her attention. "However, I am a superior officer to him, so I can dismiss you if you wish."
She perked up, "Really?! I mean, no offense, but babysitting is not my forte! I need better action then watching the boy drool, you know!"
"Then by all means, go; I am sure that Yukimura would be more than happy to see you. I will stay here with the boy," the elder man replied, taking a seat beside Masamune, making his steed ninny slightly and scoot to the side.
"Okay then… bye bye!" Kunoichi shouted, giving a whoop of triumph at finally being allowed her freedom.
"Is… she… gone?"
Shingen nodded, "Yes."
Masamune opened his one good eye, grimacing slightly as he rose, "Good… I was afraid I would have to feign sleep all day! Does she NEVER shut up?!"
That forced Shingen to laugh again, "No; Kunoichi is not know for her silence. Do you need more rest? If so, I can take you to a tent… it will soon become pretty hot. It would probably be best to get you into the shade…"
Shingen wasn't surprised to be asked, but he asked, just in case, "Why as in why I want you in a tent, or why as to why we're helping you?"
The boy's one eye narrowed, and Shingen was slightly concerned with the slight pain that rose in them. Yet, even as it was so obvious, he tried so hard to hide it. "You have no reason to help me, old man. Why do you bother with me? It's a waste of time to help your enemies."
"Are you my enemy, Date? Is that what you wish to be? It seems that, when you first wandered into our camp this morning, bruised and bloodied you wanted our help… or just anyone's. You did not want to be alone. Have you changed your mind already, after so short a time?"
Masamune hissed, "I have always been alone… I told you that! I never helped anyone, and no one ever helped me. That is the way I wanted it!"
Shingen asked a simple question, knowing that the answer would probably quite complex, "Why?"
"Because… people can't be trusted," Masamune pointed out, never really looking at the old veteran as to avoid those eyes. "I didn't need to rely on anyone before, and I don't want to have to. It's… I don't know. I don't remember saying I wanted help!"
The boy tried to sit up, but the pain was enough to bring him back down. He grimaced, as Shingen went to help him back down. It was as if the old man had selective hearing, as he showed no sign of stopping his aid. "You need to stay still, before you reopen your wounds."
Panting from the pain, Masamune ducked from his touch, "Why do you care?"
"Because I might be the only one, and one is better then no one."
The boy spat, "You are a strange one, you are."
Shingen finally succeeded in getting the boy back on the cool grass, and he laughed from behind his mask, "So I am, but I would not be any other way, even if I could somehow change myself. Whoever got his hands on you… hurt you pretty badly, eh?"
Masamune snarled, "Yes… and when I find the bastard who did this to me… there will be hell to pay!"
"Who did this to you, then?"
"I… I don't remember…" Masamune whispered, and it was obvious to see that he was ashamed of it. He scowled, looking away from Shingen again to avoid his gaze. "Look, if I didn't remember it the first time, I won't remember it the second time, or the third. I don't remember!"
"I have to keep asking you, Masamune... I have to, for your own sake. You need to remember." Shingen pointed out, his voice soft yet still firm. He knew he needed to give Masamune his room, but he had to let him know who was in control. "What's the last thing you do remember?"
"I remember riding up to Nobunaga's castle on my horse, and I remember thinking that I had to somehow reach the top, because that is where he would be. But everything after that... a total blank."
Narrowing his eyes to think to himself, Shingen nodded, "Now why on earth would you go to Azuchi castle? Why were you looking for trouble in the FIRST place?"
"He started it," the boy protested. "He was trying to take my destiny!"
He noticed Shingen's grin, but he did not get the chance to question it, as the old man spoke up, "Right, right. So, all you remember is looking up at the castle, knowing that Nobunaga was inside?"
"Yes. I mean... I'm pretty sure that I went inside and all, but everything else is pretty vague." The boy grumbled, resting a hand over his patched eye, giving a pained sigh. "You can go away now- I can take care of myself already."
"You haven't proven that you can, as of yet."
Seeing his one-eyed glare, Shingen sensed his anger rising, and he wondered if now was a good time to back off. No need to lose a hand here. "I don't care- I don't need you to clip my wings, old man. Besides, don't you have your army to attend to?"
Shingen decided to risk his anger, hoping to urge his return to strength, "I trust my army to take care of themselves. My army, unlike certain boys I might mention, do not go looking for trouble and then return with no memory of the event."
"You talk too much, old man," Masamune spat, finally removing his hand from his eye-patch to release a pained sigh. Resting his hands on his knees, he looked away. "What do you care anyway? When I get better, I'll see your hospitality as nothing but stupidity, and it won't stop me from conquering you."
"You are so young yet, Masamune... I hope that, as you grow older, you grow wiser as well."
Again, his kindness seemed to backfire, as the boy merely hissed, "Age has nothing to do with anything!"
Shingen's eyebrow rose high, "Oh no? I'll bet you think that, with age only comes aches, pains, and a tendency to preach too much to the youngsters, correct?"
"Whatever… just go already. You made your point…" Masamune gave another pained sigh, though this time, he could not help but grin as he rested his hand over his patched eye and forehead again. "I'll be fine, if it really matters that much to you."
"It does. I just ask that you find a way to heal... and remember what has happened to you so that we can help you avenge it."
As much as he did not want to, he turned to leave, giving Masamune one last glance. He saw that the boy did not react at all, until he started moving, when he heard his low whisper, "I don't need your help… to get my revenge. I can… do THAT on my own."
Shingen did not have time for any response, as a soldier came to kneel before him, "My lord Shingen, I have a message from Lord Yukimura."
Not seeing that Masamune's attention was drawn on them too, Shingen asked, feeling his heart begin to start up. "What is it?"
"He located an intruder in our borders, and he left to investigate the matter further."
He didn't even have to see Masamune's expression to know what he wanted to asked, "Is it one of Oda's forces?"
"He does not believe so, my lord, but it is uncertain at this time."
Sighing, Shingen could only wonder what chaos would happen now, but he was quick to his decisions. "Find Kunoichi and tell her to watch over the prisoner. I'll handle this matter."
"I want to go too..."
"No, Masamune. It's time for your nap."
"I... don't... NEED... a NAP!" Masamune hissed, and to Shingen's surprise, the boy leapt to his feet, as if his injuries meant nothing. However, his burst of energy did not last long, and the veteran barely caught him in time. What surprised him more was when the boy's fingers gripped around his sleeves, and he heard a soft moan, before he fell into unconsciousness, "Stop… stop it… leave me alone…"
Sighing, he handed the boy gently to the messenger, "Please, take him to a tent and then have Kunoichi come to watch over him. I will be heading after Yukimura."
"Right away sir…"
Shingen wished that there was more that he could do for the boy, but a dark feeling within him seemed to tell him that he could not. 'Nobunaga... what DID you do to him, if indeed you ever touched him?'
Somehow, he wished that it was Nobunaga that was paying them a little visit, because right now, he felt the need to demand some answers. Wasting no more time, the war veteran grabbed the closest horse to him, mounting Masamune's red horse and heading towards Yukimura's location. Who would be foolish enough to intrude on their land?
'Whomever it is... will most likely regret it...'