"Do you know the meaning of strength?" Nobunaga had asked him once.
On bended knee, his long hair a reassuring veil around him, Mitsuhide had shaken his head and stolen a glance up. Nobunaga hadn't been looking at him. "I am sorry, my lord?"
"Is that so," Nobunaga had drawled, voice rich with heavy irony. "It is said that strength exists to protect the weak, but the very existence of strength jeopardises the weak. In such juxtaposition, there is meaning." He'd paused and Mitsuhide had flinched from the sudden focus. "Grow stronger, Mitsuhide. I look forward to seeing what you will become."
"Warfare is cruel," Nou tells him with the cool slide of her polished fingernails against his cheek. It's a lover's caress, the affectionate touch of an older sister, of childhood friends. "Cruelty or death, it is your choice. You won't disappoint him, will you?"
The war drums beat. Crashing footsteps of a thousand charging soldiers, the ringing of blade against blade. The sounds of the dying. His pulse thunders in his ears.
She draws back, a flash of skin as her kimono parts, the flash of steel of her poison tipped claws. The fire gilds them both in gold. "He's waiting for you."
Mitsuhide has no reply but to draw his sword.
"My lord," Ranmura cries out, through the roaring of the flames around them. The flickering light casts strange shadows, the familiar turned unknown. "Why would you betray Lord Nobunaga?"
Their swords clash, the movements graceful and almost choreographed. This attack from the 12th kata, that block that Mitsuhide had so long ago helped Ranmaru perfect, the long hours spent in the dojo.
"Why?" Ranmaru repeats, the pain in his voice like the sure strike of his blade. "Couldn't we all have lived happily without fighting?"
This, the attack Ranmaru always favours and now, here, the way he hesitates in the follow through. Mitsuhide sweeps in and strikes the sword from Ranmaru's hands.
The temple walls crumble down, throwing up waves of sparks and fresh flames. There is the distant sound of clashing swords, the beat of the war drums echoing like a heartbeat through the grounds.
"What right have we to happiness when others must die for it?" Mitsuhide asks softly and presses on.
Motochika waits for him, as always. Calm and patient, he smiles even in the burning of the flames, the dark shapes of his tattoos seeming to move in the uncertain light.
There's blood on his sleeve.
"Are you ready?" Motochika asks like he already knows the answer.
"You can't stop now," Motochika tells him, unbearably kind. He moves in closer; Mitsuhide stills, breath caught painfully in his chest. The war drums beat on. "The souls that have died in your name, by your hands, won't allow it."
"You can." Motochika brushes so close that his passage stirs Mitsuhide's hair, taking long confident strides. His breath is warm against Mitsuhide's ear. "I'll be with you."
He leads and Mitsuhide follows. The blood on his hands itches as it dries.
"My lord!" Mitsuhide's hands are white-gripped around his sword, the tip of it pointing unwaveringly at Nobunaga's bare throat.
Slowly, Nobunaga tilts his head back. He laughs, rich and dark. "Will you do it, Mitsuhide?"
"My lord..." Suddenly angry, Mitsuhide's sword falters, dipping down for a short, wavering second before he snaps it up again. The firelight glimmers on the gold crests of his arm guards. "Why do you laugh? This world, it-"
"The world moves on." Nobunaga smiles, darkly amused. "And we must move with it." He lifts up his hand and with one finger, pushes the blade down and away. "Do you have the courage?"
Mitsuhide looks away.
"It is not the absence of fear." Nobunaga is almost kind, ever the gracious lord. His clothes are singed, bloodied. "But the fear one dares not succumb to. Strike, Mitsuhide."
The flames roar on. Another beam tumbles from the roof, crashing loudly. Outside this little space, guarded by dead soldiers littered on the floor, the fighting continues; the clash of sword on sword, the screams of the dying, the incessant beating of the drums.
Slowly, Mitsuhide raises his sword once more.