Momo snorted with disgust as his only opponnent of the day so far broke and scrambled back. He let the man go, though; the signal banners were changing. Momo nodded to himself as the colors came up and yelled “Fall back!” to his squad, and waded back into the fight to make sure the very few men with determined opponents got free. One last scan of his bit of the field revealed one last warrior still engaged and Momo frowned. Echizen was good enough, he shouldn’t need any extra time…
“Echizen,” he called sharply, “fall back!”
Echizen didn’t even seem to hear him. Momo waved his squad on, with a growl, and went back for Echizen himself, keeping a wary eye out. These worthless rounin Kaga had taken on after Ginka’s fall might be jumping at their own shadows, but, as his father said, you were just as dead if they killed you with a big stick.
They would probably have been fine if Echizen’s opponent hadn’t seen himself about to be caught between the two of them and panicked. Momo reacted automatically to the man’s desperate, circling slash.
So did Echizen.
It ended with Momo’s and Echizen’s swords tangled and the unharmed opponent staring, open mouthed, at his amazing good luck. He scrambled back without questioning it, leaving Momo and Echizen glaring at each other.
“Why did you interfere?” Echizen snapped.
“We’re supposed to be falling back,” Momo growled back. “Don’t you ever pay attention?” He hauled Echizen back toward the rallying point with him, and Echizen came, scowling.
“I had him.”
Momo muttered under his breath, wondering what had possessed him to offer to keep Echizen under his wing, for his first battle with Uesugi. Just because he liked the kid’s style…
The kid’s very aggressive, really kind of familiar style…
“Fine,” Momo snorted, hiding the start of a grin. “See if I ever try to remind you about orders again.”
Echizen glanced up at him, eyes suddenly gleaming. “Whatever you say. Momo-taii-dono.” His own grin was bright and wicked.
They smirked at each other, in perfect complicity, and dove back into the fighting.
Kunimitsu suppressed a rueful sigh as he realized that Ooishi was, indeed, planning to keep close to him the entire battle. He knew his friend didn’t approve of Kunimitsu coming even this far forward.
His doctor probably wouldn’t be very pleased, either.
A nearly healed injury was no excuse for ignoring his duties, though, and he had a duty to be here, to show his standard and anchor the lines he had ordered. Even, or perhaps especially, his oldest friend knew better than to dispute that.
So Kunimitsu merely had a bodyguard.
Of course, there was an extra reason he wanted to be far enough forward to observe closely, today, and Kunimitsu’s mouth tightened a shade as Momoshiro hauled a severely limping Echizen past the last of the engaged warriors. The hasty bandage on the boy’s leg was already bleeding through.
“Looks like he got into trouble, after all,” Ooishi murmured, pulling loose a sash and waving the two in.
Kunimitsu was not surprised, any more than he’d been surprised to see Echizen fighting the strongest, and wildest, of Tachibana’s warriors.
Echizen bore with having his leg rebandaged and stood with a brisk nod. Momoshiro tossed his sword back to him, and they both looked satisfied.
Ooishi, on the other hand, did not. He shook Echizen by the shoulder, sharply. “You can’t go back out like that!”
Echizen didn’t even wince at the shaking. “I have to finish it.” His eyes were nearly blank with determination and dark with wariness, gazing up at Ooishi.
Ooishi frowned. “You’ve done well, today. Don’t push yourself foolishly. It’s more important to continue fulfilling your duty, as a samurai of Uesugi.”
On anyone else, Kunimitsu reflected, that appeal to propriety and pride would have worked. No flicker of acknowledgment marred the boundless determination of Echizen’s expression, though. Only a hint of the need Kunimitsu had seen before.
Kunimitsu nodded to himself and held up a hand, stifling a smile as Ooishi frowned at him, in turn. “Finish it,” he told Echizen. “And then you will come back behind the lines with the other wounded.”
Pure relief lit Echizen’s face with a smile that might have been soft if it weren’t sharpened by such intent focus. “Yes, Taishou.”
“Tezuka,” Ooishi remonstrated softly, as they watched Echizen drive back through the battle, straight for a slim, pale samurai with burning eyes who was clearly waiting for him.
“There’s nothing that holds him back, right now,” Kunimitsu murmured. “And nothing that drives him on. Nothing true.”
Ooishi let out a slow breath.
Kunimitsu watched Tachibana’s warrior falling back as Echizen’s stikes steadily picked up speed and strength. “He deserves better.”
He didn’t know if he could show Echizen everything the boy needed to see. But he would try.
For duty and for the brilliance of the samurai Echizen might become, he would try.