Disclaimer: Mirage of Blaze belongs to Kuwabara Mizuna.
A/N: Anime-based, but some information drawn from the Kagetora/Naoe summary found Names are given Japanese-style, family name first, using the spellings from the anime sub-titles. Story-title comes from the song Synchronicity, by The Police, which was running through my head for some reason while writing this.
A Star Fall, a Phone Call
by Cerise Tennyo
By the time Naoe returned to the small hotel in Matsumoto, the first stars gleamed in the night sky. He paused at the desk to pick up his messages--one from the family registry office, and one from his brother--then went up to his room. He put the messages aside and poured himself a glass of water. After the events of the day, he would have preferred something stronger, but his sense of discipline would not allow it.
He removed his suit jacket and hung it up, removing a slim leather card case from the inside pocket. It fairly bulged with all the cards inside it, names and addresses and phone numbers he might need while away from his home. He supposed it might be better to buy one of those electronic organizers, but he knew for certain spiritual energies didn't disrupt card-stock. The same couldn't always be said for electronics.
He sat down in the chair beside the phone and put the card case beside the phone messages. The registry message could be ignored...he already had the information he needed from there. The message from his brother gave him some pause. His--Yoshiaki's--siblings worried about his welfare still. If he failed to contact one of them at least once a week, he could expect a solicitous phone call, gradually increasing in urgency until the elder Tachibanas made their move and 'paid a call'.
The Tachibanas believed he was their son, their sibling, when in truth he had ousted that infant soul and claimed the body. Yet they loved him as their own. When he'd been unable to live for himself, he found himself living for them. He folded the message slip into a tent shape and set it beside the phone to remind himself to call in the morning. For the moment, he still had work to do.
He opened the card case and began to thumb through the cards. The one he wanted looked like it had gone through a washing machine twice, then sat on while still damp. A series of numbers had been written in blue ballpoint under the card owner's name. The numbers had blurred a little, but not past legibility. Picking up the phone, he entered the number, then waited.
A series of brief clicks, and the new line rang twice, then--
"Hello, this is Kudowaki Ayako," said a cheerful-sounding young woman.
He could hear an insipid, sugary pop song playing in the background. Four hundred years, and he still sounds like an excited child. "Haruie."
"Naoe?" The other Possessor's voice jumped a few notes, which would've been an impressive feat with his original body. "I haven't heard from you in so long!"
"I apologize for that," he said.
"Well, so you should! Don't you know it's rude to keep a lady waiting for your call?"
"That rule only applies to gentlemen," Naoe said, and was rewarded with another clear laugh from Haruie. He smiled.
"And you're just a workaholic monk," she teased him. "I take it you are calling me about work?"
He hesitated. The wonder of his real news felt as fragile as a soap bubble. "In...part."
Haruie turned serious. He heard movement in the background, and the music mercifully faded to almost nothing. "What is it? I read about the incident at the Takeda site...the papers wrote it off as 'desecration and vandalism.'"
He snorted. "They would. It went beyond teenage pranks, Haruie. Whoever was there had enough power to break the seal. Takeda has been freed."
"Damn! I knew there was more to it! Is he wandering?" he finished, sounding hopeful.
"They had a vessel ready, a high school student from the area," Naoe said, dashing that hope. "Adding to the problem, it appears that Lady Sanjyo has possessed the body of a descendant, and oversaw the transfer herself."
"Sanjyo?" Haruie repeated, incredulous. "She doesn't have that kind of power, or else she would have taken a body and freed Shingen long before now."
"She had help...and I think we both know who that person might be."
"Kousaka." Haruie spat out the name. "So he's skulking around as well. Things are really heating up again, aren't they?" He sighed. "I don't suppose you've heard from Nagahide, then?"
Naoe rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling an incipient headache building. "I am the last person Yasuda would contact now, unless Lord Kenshin himself ordered it."
A short, uncomfortable silence fell. The disaster of thirty years ago had strained ties among the Yashashu to the limits--and in Yasuda Nagahide's case, perhaps beyond. He was always the most detached of us, Naoe reminded himself. And Lord Kagetora had given his permission for any of us to withdraw from the battle over two hundred years ago. The idea of facing Takeda Shingen without their second-strongest member was disheartening, at best. Yet...
"I was able to get to the Narita boy and put a seal in place. Luckily, an adult possession takes time. Takeda is locked in that body for the time being, but unable to manifest himself or make use of his spiritual powers."
"Well, that's a relief. How long will it hold?"
"Not long enough," Naoe sighed. "I used the Hakkudarani talisman to ward off other spirits so Takeda cannot call them in to oust the boy's soul...but he is strong. I haven't the kind of power to seal an unwilling spirit to a place, much less an object or a person."
"So you need me to help in exorcising Takeda without damaging the original spirit. You never pick the easy ones, do you, Naoe?" Haruie sighed.
"There's more, Haruie." His heart began to speed up. "The vessel, Narita Yuzuru, had a friend with him when the initial possession took place."
Haruie groaned. "Wonderful. A witness."
"No...Haruie...it was him. I've found him at last."
"What?" The word squeezed through the phone line in a tight whisper.
Naoe found his hand was shaking. He gripped the phone with both hands, grateful no-one could actually see him like this. "I saw him, Haruie. He survived Oda's attack."
"Then why hasn't he contacted us? I expect that kind of thing from Nagahide, but not from Kagetora!" Haruie burst out. "Where is he? Is he all right? What did he do when Takeda appeared?"
Naoe waited for the flood of questions to subside. "He's here, in Matsumoto, but something is wrong. He saw Sanjyo's purifying flames, but reacted as if to an ordinary fire."
"That makes no sense," Haruie complained. "Even on his worst day, Lord Kagetora could tell a spiritual flame from a mundane fire with his eyes closed!"
Naoe hesitated, then gave voice to his fear. "I think...his memory may have been damaged by Oda's attack."
He shivered, remembering. He'd felt just the edge of it, the soul-shattering power Oda had flung at a weakened Kagetora, the cold spreading like poisoned ice through his soul. Somehow, he had survived, returning to the living world within three years. But Lord Kagetora...
Haruie did not reply, but he knew what the other Possessor must be thinking. "No, it wasn't one of his games. Lord Kagetora would not have allowed Takeda to possess anyone's body if he could in any way prevent it."
"Tell me," Haruie urged. "Tell me everything!"
He'd learned very little about his lord's present incarnation. He wanted to hoard those bits of information to himself just a little longer. To tell Haruie everything meant, in a sense, sharing all he had of Kagetora's present incarnation.
Sharing Kagetora was something he could never do.
"I have yet to speak with him. I only saw him that once," he lied, with only a twinge of guilt. The second encounter just outside Narita's house...that one he would keep to himself.
He'd followed the ambulance from the site of the girl's collapse to the hospital. Once there, he made shameless use of his religious credentials to ferret out information. Even the strictest nurse usually gave in to a monk with a charming smile.
He had the names of both boys, and possibly the first name of the girl who'd collapsed: Yuhiko. A brief check of the current Takeda family register revealed a girl of that name, of the right age. For some reason, possessing a descendant past infancy had delayed effects on the original soul. A woman like Sanjyo would view it as little more than her due. Once he had the boys' names, it was a simple matter to get their addresses and school registrations.
"His current name is Ougi Takaya. Right now, he's a high school student, younger than you."
"A schoolboy?" Haruie gave a short, girlish giggle. "Well, Irobe will need a baby-sitter... Oh, Naoe, are you sure it's him? You haven't...mis-read things?"
"I would know our lord, no matter what body he wore," Naoe said softly.
"I'm sorry," Haruie said, sounding contrite. "I know. It's just that it's been so long!"
Naoe felt a stab of guilty sympathy. Duty to Lord Kagetora had helped keep Haruie stable through the lonely centuries. He hadn't been the only one lost and floundering in the directionless years since their lord's death.
"He's alive," Naoe repeated, two words as sacred to him as a mantra. "Even if he does not remember m--us," he corrected himself hastily, "we will protect him, until he reaches his full strength once more."
In that one word, Naoe heard all the devotion and certainty a loyal vassal held for his sworn lord. Of them all, only Haruie had stood beside Kagetora from the beginning. It was a bond even he had to respect, though not without a struggle.
"I need you here, Haruie. I can't exorcise Takeda on my own, and if Lord Kagetora can't access his power, we will have to be the ones to banish Takeda."
He heard the rustle of papers in the background. "I'll be there as soon as I can...but it will take me at least two days to clear things up here and get down there. And I have a paper due," Haruie added under his breath.
The utterly mundane concern made Naoe smile. "All right. Be careful, Haruie. If the war is resuming, we can't afford to be reckless."
"I know. Will I...will I be able to see him?"
Naoe closed his eyes. He knew for whom Haruie kept his heart in trust, but the man was still a shameless flirt. If Lord Kagetora did not remember, he might-- Trust, he reminded himself. Though the hard-won bond between the Yashashu had been sorely tried, he had to believe it still held.
"It is not for me to keep you apart," he said. Then, forcing a more cheerful tone, he added, "He rides one of those motorcycles you find so fascinating, so once again, you'll have something in common."
"Wonderful!" Haruie laughed.
He found himself smiling in response. Haruie's good humor, as always, proved infectious. They made plans to meet outside of the high school in two days, then Naoe hung up. He sat with his hand resting on the receiver.
'Something in common.'
He envied Haruie his easy camaraderie with Kagetora. More, he envied him the position of trust and intimacy, the sure place Haruie had at Lord Kagetora's side. They were, after a fashion, kinsmen. Haruie had been sent to the Hojyo in Kagetora's place after Kagetora's blood-clan had broken their alliance with the Uesugi. He still wondered if, during the early years of the Yashashu, Lord Kagetora had ever turned to Haruie for comfort, taking solace in the other's devotion--
Naoe shook his head, as if to drive out those thoughts. Things were different then, he reminded himself. Then, he had still been mostly Kagekatsu's man, held at Kagetora's side only by the will of Lord Kenshin. He had hated Kagetora then, seeing him only as the upstart who sought to usurp Lord Kagekatsu and cast slurs on the honor of the Naoe. Give control of the Uesugi clan and the Echigo region to the pretty boy-whore of the Hojyo? Never!
The change of his heart, from guilt-ridden acceptance to fiery devotion, had been slow, taking two lives. Did you know, Lord Kenshin? Did you know that once I learned the kind of man he truly was, I would serve him as faithfully, as devotedly, as my father served you? Lord Kagetora had shown pity at Haruie's suffering, and released him from his oath of duty so he might live out his life with his beloved. It maddened him to see that compassion doled out to another, knowing he would never taste it himself.
"I'll never forgive you for the rest of eternity!"
It was Haruie who had told Kagetora about Minako's pregnancy, calling their lord back to what became a fatal confrontation. He'd thought he might not be able to forgive Haruie for that...until he met him in this life. Seeing the despair in the other's eyes as he realized even Naoe didn't know if Lord Kagetora's soul had survived Oda's attack forcibly reminded him of his own anguish.
Naoe realized he was rubbing his left wrist, running his thumb over the ugly scar hidden by the cuff of his shirt. Time had faded that scar, but not the pain that had driven him to the knife. He'd been little more than a child then, but with a seasoned warrior's knowledge of blades and where to use them.
Forgiving Haruie had proven simple. Forgiving himself... Well. Four hundred years, and counting.
He wanted to secure Lord Kagetora's attention before Haruie arrived. He closed his eyes, reliving that moment outside of the Narita clinic. Walking past his lord, as if he were just the high school student he appeared to be, had proven an unexpected strain. He'd felt the searing pressure, the disruption of energies that heralded the presence of another Possessor.
Ougi Takaya bore only a passing resemblance to his lord. He had the dark hair, but worn short as a peasant's. A certain sharpness in his features, a hungry lankiness, like a half-starved cat. Only the eyes remained the same...feral, arrogant tiger eyes that seared through him. They had passed right over him, as if he were unworthy of their regard.
He couldn't even call it dismissive. To dismiss someone, you first had to notice them--and Lord Kagetora had paid him no more heed than the trees lining the street. So he'd baited him, leaking a burst of images and sounds from the banishment of the samurai spirits, testing the new boundaries.
And Lord Kagetora had felt him, had responded.
No other words. No recognition. Not even a familiar derisive glare. Strange, how a dog might miss being kicked. A dog who would trek across miles of unfriendly terrain, starving, sick, in pain, to throw itself at its master's feet.
My lord Kagetora...you won't ignore me next time! he vowed. After so many empty years, he would not allow his lord to slip away from him again.